On competing religious ideas

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.

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  1. Aristarchus

     /  July 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Excellent post. I think that in the real world this really is the best logical argument you can give when talking to religious people. It’s hard to explain why partial confirmation of some historical facts in the Bible isn’t very good evidence, or why atheism is the correct “default” belief, or argue about what inconsistencies are important, etc. It’s much easier just to say “Why do you believe it?” and then say “but that’s also true about the Koran” in response to everything they say. This really is a logically valid response to almost every single argument I’ve ever heard for any particular religion.

    It obviously doesn’t say anything about a vague Deist god or something of that sort, and that’s definitely the stronger logical position to argue for. That’s why it’s the alternative that gets debated in bad pseudo-intellectual philosophical arguments. In the real world, though, almost no one is a Deist.

  2. “Every supernatural belief system says it is true. It would, in fact, be shocking if it did not. ”

    A few years ago I saw a play, based on a Caribbean folk story and executed as a musical. The refrain of the theme song went, “I wouldn’t be surprised/if it was all lies/But that’s what some say.”

    I don’t know if this inbuilt honesty is truly a part of Caribbean religious tradition, but wouldn’t it be nice if all religions treated their myths this way?

  3. Ooh — Once On This Island! I love that show … haven’t thought of it in a few years. You’re right, it would be lovely if all religions were that up-front. (Not sure either if that is a narrative device in the musical, or a real part of the tradition.) I don’t suppose they’d survive very long that way, though.

  4. “As far as I’ve ever heard, those reasons come in only two flavors: ‘we have a book’ and ‘we have personal experiences.’”

    If you look into the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Catholic versions of Christianity, the claim there is that Jesus himself founded their church(es) and that lineage of their bishops to the apostles is a major part of what gives their religion its validity.

    From Catholic.com:
    “What we have is really a spiral argument. On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible insofar as it is history. From that we conclude that an infallible Church was founded. And then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. This is not a circular argument because the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired) is not simply a restatement of its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable), and its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable) is in no way based on the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired). What we have demonstrated is that without the existence of the Church, we could never know whether the Bible is inspired.”

    I don’t entirely buy that it’s not a circular argument, but I like it better than the too-common blind faith à la “THE BIBLE SAYS THE BIBLE IS TRUE SO OBVIOUSLY IT’S TRUE OMG YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.”

  5. azmarie: I suppose that’s a slightly smarter way of making the “we have a book” argument, but I’m not sure it’s so different. I mean — suppose they’re right and that a guy named Jesus founded their church. (Set aside for a moment the bizarreness of so many denominations making that same claim.) Why should we care about this Jesus fellow? Presumably because he’s supposed to be the same guy written about in the Gospels, and the Gospels are supposed to be true. Rinse and repeat.

  6. “Why should we care about this Jesus fellow?”

    The reasoning I’ve come across a few times is along the lines of this: The claim is that Jesus rose from the dead, so what are the motives behind such a far-fetched story gaining such prominence? Why would the apostles or whoever promote such a story, suffering martyrdom in the process, etc etc?

    Peter Kreeft (a Christian philosophy professor/author) has some interesting articles on his site (such as http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/resurrection-evidence.htm ), though I still feel that there’s something missing from that “defense.” I guess I’m forever a skeptic. I do tend to think that the sacramental/apostolic versions of Christianity have a better “case” than the Bible-only types. Though they tend to lessen that case with all the bizarre devotional practices (the rosary, venerating icons) and the insane amount of religious trinkets/accessories (ex: http://www.discountcatholicstore.com/ )

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