A little while ago, I looked at the argument that God is real. I ended by noting that those arguments can only take us so far in understanding God. However, there’s a plethora of sources that claim to tell us more about God. We call these sources religions. Throughout history, there have been two basic approaches to religion: all of them are true or one of them alone is true.
Isn’t there a third approach?
Sort of. I’ve seemingly left out the options that God doesn’t exist or that no religion is true. If my previous post stands, however, atheism – the position that God does not exist – can’t be true. And although it could be asserted that the Truth is beyond our grasp (either presently or for all time), validating that requires proving all existing religions wrong. In the end, there would still be one True religion; it would simply be unknown. Even if this is your hypothesis, the path of inquiry would be the same as if one believes that one of the existing religions is True. So functionally, there isn’t a third approach.
Why should there be any false religions? Can’t they all be true?
Almost every culture believed there were many gods. To these cultures, already seeing a multiplicity of ‘gods’ beyond count in the heavens, there was no harm in adding more. Every god could be true, since power was shared or perhaps even fought over between the gods. A god might be called different things in different places. There may be gods of specific peoples or lands, so that as one traveled, one might change gods. Animals might even be gods. And in this context, it made sense that if one learned of a new god, one ought to add it to the pantheon. All polytheistic religions could be simultaneously true.
If all religions were polytheistic, we could believe that all religions are true. The problem comes when we consider the claims of monotheists and atheists. If there is only one God, or there are no gods whatsoever, then there cannot be many gods. All three of these positions are exclusive of each other. Most of the documented religious conflict in history involves monotheists or atheists, whether as victims or perpetrators. This is because any two of these three categories must necessarily be false if the third is true.
Couldn’t there be elements of truth in all religions, but no one religion have the full picture?
The argument is often made that perhaps all religions truly capture pieces of the truth without capturing the full picture. The famous story of the six blind men and the elephant is often conjured up, with one laying ahold of the trunk and claiming it is a rope, another a leg and claiming he’s found a tree, another a tusk like a spear. The person using this story is often using it to avoid having to compare different views and sort out which is true and which is false. Instead, they are all partly true and all partly wrong, just as the six blind men.
The problem is that this story is utterly dependent on a seventh character, one who can see the elephant for what it is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t even know the story was about an elephant. If the narrator is including themselves among the blind man, we could have no definite conclusion, only another blind man making a contestable claim.
Instead, the storyteller is claiming that they are not one of the blind men. They are mentally sticking themselves in the place of the narrator. By doing so, they imply that they have either vague or explicit superior knowledge that allows them to know that all religions are partial truths. This claim is no humbler (despite appearances) than the boldest of prophets. Their true religion simply corresponds to their own personal views rather than an organized religion.
But don’t religions teach the same basic things? Couldn’t multiple monotheistic religions be true, for instance?
The short answer is: yes, to an extent.
Many religions have common ground or have borrowed from each other, but even these areas come with qualifiers. For example, many religions have a version of “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” One of the religion classes I was in as a teenager had a poster listing them all. But in some religions, that is extended into a rule that forbids all wars and even self defence. In some, the rule applies to only members of the religion. In some, it also applies to certain animals. In some, it applies to the unborn child. Most of these elaborations claim that it is not just a matter of personal preference but an intrinsic part of this universal rule. So “Thou Shalt Not Murder” can have different meanings, despite the common words.
The problem only magnifies when we come to more complex issues. Islam, for instance, contains some explicit repudiations of Christian beliefs in the Quran. It cannot both be true that Jesus is God and that Jesus is not God. Jesus cannot have both simply appeared to suffer on the Cross and truly suffered. Even when a religion contains a blanket approval of another, it is not always reciprocal. Judaism is true in the eyes of Christianity, but the reverse is not true. Eventually, one would come to a point where you need to make a decision between the way Christians see the situation and the way Jews do.
So… where do I start?
This question doesn’t have a right answer, but it does have a practical one. It would make sense to begin by examining claims representing sizable groups of the human race… and the largest of those would be Christianity.