I am continually surprised by the way that religious people wrap their heads around the existence of other religions. It seems to me like you would have, or at least want to have, a good reason to be the religion that you are, instead of the religions you see plenty of other people being — but so often, when I ask I find that people never really thought about it, or thought about it briefly but didn’t much care.
I started mulling over this conundrum again when I read about Thabiti Anyabwile‘s recent book and his upcoming talk at the 2010 National Conference (amusingly named “Think”) for John Piper‘s ministry Desiring God. Both are, as per the title of the post I was reading, about “thinking in the context of competing religious ideas.” What are those thoughts like? Well, specifically, Anyabwile’s book is called The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence, and his talk is about “Confronting Islam with the Mind of Christ.” It’s pretty clear that from this perspective, when religious ideas compete, Christianity is obviously winning.
But why? What is the way in which Christianity is obviously true, while Islam is obviously false? Maybe some Christians will say I have to track down and read this book, or that I have to shell out the big bucks and spend a weekend in October at this conference, in order to find the answer. But my impression is that both are really all about how to present Christianity well to Muslims, suggestions on rhetoric and organization of ideas — and that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the actual reasons why one religion might be superior to another one. As far as I’ve ever heard, those reasons come in only two flavors: “we have a book” and “we have personal experiences.”
It should be obvious why the “we have a book” line of argumentation isn’t convincing. Why does the fact that someone wrote something down at some time in the past necessarily make something true? People write fiction, or propaganda, or other falsehoods. Your old book could easily be false. But, you remind me, the Bible says it is true! Okay … but the Qur’an also says that it is true. So do the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. So does L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. And the same goes for every ghost story told around a campfire. Every supernatural belief system says it is true. It would, in fact, be shocking if it did not. (Imagine — “God said unto the people, ‘Keep my commandments!’ But not really; we’re making all this up.”) The important question is not, “Are your claims in a book?” or “Do your claims assert their own truth?” but rather, “Do your claims match up with reality?”
That brings us to the second line of argumentation, in which people assert that they have personally had some sort of religious experience confirming their belief system: dreams, feelings, answers to prayers, visions, and so on. These could be the “reality” that we’re looking for. Any given personal experience is next to impossible to argue with directly — surely they really did experience what they claim, in one way or another — but the fact remains that many, many people have some sort of testimony like this, and they offer that testimony in support of a wide variety of different religious ideologies. They can’t all be true, because those ideologies are mutually exclusive.
I know that some religious people handle this fact by saying to themselves, “The personal experiences confirming my beliefs are true, and the others just must be wrong.” But that’s not enough. If you’re willing to write off, say, 80% of personal experiences as simply wrong, why do you think you can rely on the remaining 20%? None of them have to be true in the first place.
Let’s compare to another unreliable kind of evidence: eyewitness testimony. You can’t build an entire legal case on eyewitness testimony alone, because it’s notoriously bad. False memories can be created, either by someone else’s intervention or by our own mental workings after the fact. We’re not as observant as we think, so sometimes we’re mistaken. You can ask five eyewitnesses about the getaway car and get five different models in five different colors. You can get drastically different sketches of one criminal, or sketches that turn out to look almost nothing like the criminal once found. That’s not to say that eyewitnesses can never be right — just that we can’t count on them to never be wrong.
So, what do we do? Do we ask 100 bystanders for their memories, pick the one we like the best, and convict whoever matches that description? Of course not. We take eyewitness testimony for what it’s worth — and it’s worth less because of how unreliable it is. All of it is worth less. We gather physical evidence from the scene of the crime. We compare DNA samples and fingerprints. We examine alibis. Eyewitnesses may be a piece of this puzzle, but they can’t be the only piece.
It seems unthinkable, then, to allow for religion what we are not willing to allow in our legal system. Personal experiences cannot be the only piece of evidence put forward as to why we should be one religion over another. We should not simply find 100 people with religious experiences, pick the one of them offering their experience as evidence for the religion we like the most, and believe that. If personal experience is insufficient to prove Islam correct, it must also be insufficient to prove Christianity correct, and vice versa. When we discount personal experiences, we must discount each anecdote equally.
This is why, to me, the existence of different religions weakens the case for religion in the first place. They’re all making the same arguments, and each group is convinced that those arguments are bad in every other case but their own. The simplest way to resolve this is to acknowledge that those arguments are bad in all cases, and no religion is right.