In a recent post, John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity directs our attention to an argument by Austin Cline concerning why atheists don't believe in gods. My purpose here is to address the first section of that argument, which asserts that the plurality of religions (or the pluriform nature of religion) is a real problem. At some point in the future I may address Mr. Cline's broader argument, but that is not my purpose here.
Before I address the argument itself, however, I'd like to say that I am pleased to see an atheist advance an actual argument, rather than just refute the claims of others. While I know that atheism is by its very nature negative (the prefix a is a negative prefix, negating the theism, from the root theus, meaning God) it has disturbed me that many critics of the religious project have satisfied themselves picking the nits of the beliefs of others without actually advancing anything themselves.
This impression may be an error on my part - I am by no means an expert on atheism, and so cannot say definitively that advancing theories rather than just refuting them is the dominant atheist project. But I can say that it often, from my perspective, seems that way. Perhaps this is because many of the atheists with whom I interact are "deconverted" evangelical Christians. After all, many evangelicals (and I still consider myself to be an evangelical) make it their project to knock down everyone else's religion so that there will be nothing left to do but to convert to the only religion left standing. So perhaps the atheists with whom I interact retain some of the distasteful methods of their former religion while also applying those methods to even that religion. Turnabout, it is often said, is fair play. But this mode of religious discourse does little to either improve interreligious dialogue or to arrive at anything resembling the fundamental truth of the universe.
That said, here is the first section of Mr. Cline's argument:
Multiple Gods and Religious Traditions:
It is difficult to credit any one religion as being True or any one god as being True when there have been so many throughout human history. None appears to have any greater claim to being more credible or reliable than any other. Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism? Every position has had its defenders, all as ardent as those in other traditions. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong.
The second section is similar to the first, and inherits the biggest problem of the first, so I will include it, too:
Contradictory Characteristics in Gods:
Theists often claim that their gods are perfect beings; they describe gods, however, in contradictory and incoherent ways. Numerous characteristics are attributed to their gods, some of which are impossible and some combinations of which are impossible. As described, it's unlikely or impossible for these gods to exist. This doesn't mean that no god could possibly exist, just that the ones theists claim to believe in don't.
The first section of the argument sees religions as principally in competition with each other. And, of course, many religious people feed into this belief. Rather than seeing our religion as one of many valid ways to experience the sacred, we too often see our religion as the only way, a set or rational and literal statements with a literal-historical truth-value. In the face of this, Cline asks:
Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?
and in doings so he echoes the concern of many religious people. But does he ask a question which is of use to the overall project of religion (to the extent that one can say that there is such a things a "religion," and that this thing "religion" has a project)? Is it, in other words, really the case that each religion is fundamentally in competition with each other religion, and that that competition (if it exists at all) is principally concerned with the literal truth-value of the epistemic claims of each religion? And, is it also the case that religions are fundamentally in disagreement with each other on more than just certain details, such that, for instance, they have as little in common with each other as each respective one has in common with, say, atheism?
To deal with the first question, the groundwork for an answer is laid by Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, and in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. Eliade, the famous historian of religions [note: religions, as opposed to religion, as Eilade did not wish to engage too much in reductionistic thinking], argued that (again, to the extent that there is such a thing as "religion," and to the extent that this things "religion" can be said to have some purpose, role or function - see this post for my reasons for making that disclaimer) the purpose of religion is to facilitate an encounter with the sacred. The purpose of James' famous book was to study those encounters, generally lumped under the broad category "religious experience."
Whatever the details of any religion, each religion as a religion has in common that it posits a Sacred, the Other or the More. Of course the sacred is not always seen as a god or many gods, and certainly not all concepts of the sacred agree on what the sacred is. But they do all share this: they fundamentally disagree with the project of atheism, and in their disagreement with that project they have more in common with each other than any of them has with atheism.
Another thing that they all have in common - and this is important for understanding my objection to Mr. Cline's argument - is that they all speak of the sacred principally in metaphoric rather than in literal terms. While there are certainly disagreements between religions on the nature of the sacred, and while it is obviously not the case that all religions say exactly the same thing (in fact it is obviously not the case that all expressions of the same religion say the same thing); in general when religions make claims they are not making literal or exclusive claims.
This is the main point which Paul Tillich makes in the section of his Theology of Culture concerning symbolism: that the nature of religious language is symbolic. And while Tillich has a deeper understanding of the word "symbolic" than the common usage of that word (it would, for instance, make no sense to Tillich to claim that a certain use of language is "merely symbolic," as though that were something lesser than the literal) it is pretty easy to grasp that by symbolic, at the very least, he means not literal. And, quite possibly he means greater than literal.
But referring to Eliade, James and Tillich doesn't by itself make my point. After all, most religious people have probably never heard of any of them, and would certainly disagree with their presentation of the nature of religion. It could easily be the case that Eliade, James and Tillich presented some sort of "best case scenario" for the relationship between individual religions in light of the plurality of religious expressions. To answer this concern, let's engage in an honest thought experiment.
Does the average religious person (to the extent that there is such a thing) believe absolutely in a non-symbolic concept of God (by which I mean something more than just the claim that is not only a symbol - I mean, does the person believe that God is more or less accurately described by a single description which is understood purely literally)? Given how often religious people claim that God frustrates human language and human understanding, I expect not. It may be the case that some people do believe that a particular description of God is literally true, exhaustive and exclusive, but I doubt that such people can claim to represent the consensus of religious people.
So, by and large, when we are dealing with language concerning God we are dealing with symbolic rather than literal language. We are, in other words, dealing with metaphor. And it should not be a surprise to us when metaphors conflict. They are, after all, our way of rendering into language that which cannot be rationally described. They are our way of representing something which cannot be understood literally. They are our way, in other words, of wrestling with mystery.
And religion is principally concerned with mystery. Religion is a way of trying to understand and articulate that which can't be completely understood or accurately described. Religious beliefs are our rational response to the ineffable experience of the sacred. Religious language is a mingling of the transcendent with the particular; a way of expressing that which can't be expressed in the symbolic language of a particular culture.
As such, even while religions do in fact disagree with each other, and while it is important to understand that those disagreements are very real and serious and should not be carelessly glossed over as though they do not exist; it is certainly not fair or accurate to say that religions are principally in competition with each other for some literal truth-value.
Plurality does pose a problem for exclusivism, but it does not pose a problem for the essential project of religion. That is because each religion adds its voice to the others, saying that there is such a sacred, and that the sacred can be experienced. In this they are united in their rejection of modern atheism.
This is where is real debate should be: Does the fact that the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history have believed in and experienced the sacred - even though they haven't all described the sacred with the same terms or concepts - point to the existence of something beyond the realm acknowledged by modern empiricism? How do those who deny the sacred explain the epistemic intuitions of almost all humans? I am sure that they have answers, and very reasonable answers. But the argument against plurality is at best a sort of strawman argument in which the worst form of religion stands in for religion as a whole, and gets knocked down without a fight.
That said, Cline does ask a serious question for pluralists like me to consider, which I shall quote yet again:
Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?
Part of this question is a category error: the pluralist does not say one "and not" the other, if by that we mean that one is "true" and the other "false." But the religious person, pluralist or otherwise, still must choose the tradition in which they experience the sacred, the way in which they wish to be religious. If truth-value (in the absolute sense, at least) is removed from the equation, how do we choose?
If we weren't talking about religion, this wouldn't be a problem at all. How, for instance, do you choose what to eat? The absence of absolute truth-value is not a problem. That you can't say "apple is true, and not-apple (be it pizza, burrito, orange, or whatever) is false" doesn't give one pause. But is food a good metaphor for religion? Like all metaphors it isn't perfect, but perhaps it isn't bad.
When looking at both food and religion, you need to consider nourishment. With food you consider the needs of your body, with religion the needs of what we often call your spirit or your soul. Of course empirical studies have taught us what our body needs, but there can be no empirical study concerning the needs of the soul. Absent that, how do we choose a religion in terms of nourishment?
People were eating long before science told them what to eat. How did they decide what to eat? Obviously some of that had to do with what was available to them, but much of it also had to do with intuition. Our bodies communicate our needs to us. Of course this form of communication, absent perfect self-awareness, is very imperfect. Our intuitions aren't flawless. But neither are they totally bad. In the same way, I think, we have spiritual intuitions which communicate what we need in terms of spiritual nourishment. Those of you who are religious, and who have struggled with how to be religious, know what I am saying when I say that we know when our way of being religious isn't working any more. If we listen to the inner voice which tells us that this isn't working, we change important parts of our religious life.
So, intuitions inform us of how particular modes of being religious nourish us spiritually. But we don't just choose food based on the nutrients in it. We also consider aesthetics. There is also an aesthetic component to religion, though I won't go into that here.
We consult many other things in choosing how to be religious, but of the ones not yet mentioned, ethics may be the most important. At some point in the future we may consider the possibility of ethical critiques of religious expressions. But for the moment I think that I have demonstrated that removing absolute truth-value from our consideration of religion still leaves us plenty of ground to choose our way of being religious, while also allowing us to see the cooperative aspects of plurality rather than just the competitive aspects.
When we choose one religion over another, we are not saying that our way of being religious should be normative. Instead we are simply saying that it is our way of being religious, the way in which we experience the sacred. That does not discredit any much less all of the other ways.
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