Faith and diversity

Stylized eye

The diversity of the modern world seems to pose a fundamental problem for religion. No matter which religion you are, most people are a different one. As a religious person, you basically need to believe that most of humanity is wrong (as I believe that people of all faiths are wrong). You need to believe that because of the supposed validity of religious truth. Either god exists or he does not; either he wants us to behave in certain ways or he does not.

As such, you can either accept that several faiths are acceptable to god (significantly diminishing the degree to which yours can be considered ‘true’ or special) or you can assert that most people hold faiths unacceptable to god, possibly courting damnation.

The first position demotes faith from ‘truth’ to ‘one possible truth among several.’ The second position clashes fundamentally with the idea of equal human worth. It also clashes the the idea that god is benevolent: it hardly seems benevolent to damn children who are born into the wrong faith and, since most people simply adopt the faith of their parents, this situation applies to most people throughout history.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

31 thoughts on “Faith and diversity”

  1. The diversity of the modern (and ancient) world does not pose a fundamental problem for religion but simply provides the human background on which the development of religion can possibly take place in the first place, accepting that freedom is a defining aspect of the human condition.

    As a religious person I can believe that my religion is closest to the Truth with other religions, philosophies, and worldviews being in lesser proximity to Truth (with Truth ultimately being God himself). He does not condemn anyone, especially not children, but is the provider and guarantor of inalienable human dignity. This is because, as the Christian tradition holds, all men remain children of God.

    Not God condemns humans but humans condemn themselves. The farther they alienate themselves from Truth through their their thoughts, words, and actions, the worse their live becomes, and they farther away they are from God.

    God remains benevolent because he wishes humans to live a good, joyful, and truthful life.

  2. It does seem callous for a God who prefers monotheists to punish those born into a polytheistic culture. If God is happy as long as you have any faith, how can any of them claim to be especially valid?

  3. The problem described above isn’t less serious for deists (those who believe God created the world and has done nothing since). They must either believe that God doesn’t care what we believe (in which case faith is trivial) or that God actually wants us to believe certain things about himself (in which case, most people are violating God’s preferences).

    If God is “in things”, then God needn’t be worshiped, truth doesn’t take on the one-sided character you outline here, it denies the idea that God would be benevolant or non benevolent, if “God doesn’t do things” then benevolance looks like the wrong concept to associate with Love.
    Also, to say “Either god exists or he does not” ignores what is radically new in the Vicar’s words (it isn’t actually new, its at least as old as gnosticism). If God “doesn’t do things”, but is rather “the indwelling presence of things”, then he doesn’t exist as a thing.

    This is hardly the sort of God people of faith believe in. I expect that a vanishingly small minority of people might but, when it comes to religion as understood by most people, the problem of diversity is a serious one.

  4. I assume this means you didn’t watch the video I gave you the think to? Because it contradicts everything you say here. If God is “in things”, then God needn’t be worshiped, truth doesn’t take on the one-sided character you outline here, it denies the idea that God would be benevolant or non benevolent, if “God doesn’t do things” then benevolance looks like the wrong concept to associate with Love.

    Also, to say “Either god exists or he does not” ignores what is radically new in the Vicar’s words (it isn’t actually new, its at least as old as gnosticism). If God “doesn’t do things”, but is rather “the indwelling presence of things”, then he doesn’t exist as a thing. Thus, he doesn’t “exist or not exist” in the sense that an apple might exist or not exist. Saying he exists or doesn’t is tantamount to saying “either presence has some particular perspectival character or it does not”, which is obviously wrong, because the perspectival character of presence is contingent on all sorts of things – culture, time period, even social circles can influence what characteristics presence appears with.

  5. John Hick, one of the leading thinkers in this field, has proposed a “Copernican revolution” in the way we regard religions. Instead of seeing each religion as a separate belief system, he proposes that each should be seen as a response to a transcendent reality. All people in all ages have had experience of this transcendent (which he terms the Real) but they have had to interpret the experience according to the culture to which they belonged. The function of religion is to give people a belief-structure to help them understand this experience and to provide a framework within which they can respond to it.

    Experience of the transcendent is structured either by the concept of deity, which presides over the theistic traditions, or by the concept of the absolute, which presides over the nontheistic traditions. Each of these is schematised in actual human experience to produce the experienced divine personas (such as Jahweh, the heavenly Father, Allah, Vishnu, Shiva) and metaphysical impersonae (such as Brahman, the Tao, the Dharmakaya, Sunyata) to which human beings orient themselves in worship or meditation.

    Seen in this way, religions cease to be separate and rival systems, and become merely diverse ways of responding to the same Reality. Apparently contradictory truth-claims become different ways of interpreting and responding to the Real. In one sense the religions become united, all sharing the same central focus.

  6. Atheism and religious diversity

    Efforts to develop understanding and cooperation in New Zealand are concentrating on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs

  7. The Problem with Religious Moderates

    “Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of judgment, he cannot possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now. Muslims and Jews generally take the same arrogant view of their own enterprises and have spent millennia passionately reiterating the errors of other faiths. It should go without saying that these rival belief systems are all equally uncontaminated by evidence…

    Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience…

    Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is flat, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach. There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago-while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate-or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress. We will see that there is much to recommend the latter view.”

  8. “We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.”

    Non-religious people can participate in these discussions, but it is trickier to involve them in consultations & meetings since such people are rarely affiliated with hierarchical organisations that speak on their behalfs. I suspect, for instance, that most atheists do not participate in their local Humanist Society (see for the Canadian national organisation and for the British one) and are likely unaware of its existence. Unless people are mobilized and represented by such organizations, it is comparatively difficult for non-religious opinions on issues related to religion to be voiced in public life.

  9. All I remember about the UBC humanist society is that the people manning their booths on clubs days were almost invariably creepy and offensive.

    Sam Harris has a point when he argues that athiests shouldn’t group together on that basis. Aligning yourself on the basis of what you do not believe is odd, and potentially counterproductive.

    Interfaith dialogue can helpfully reduce violence between religious communities, but it cannot really deal with the incompatibility of faith and tolerance.

  10. Tristan,

    I think it is fair to say that this view is not common among religious people. There is a general sense among the faithful that their faith is more correct than others and that god cares about that.

    Look at the first commandment, or at the near-universal prohibitions against heresy in popular faiths.

  11. I see nothing odd in aligning yourself on the basis of a secular view towards the world, particularly if you add other premises such as respect for equal human worth and a belief that rationality can and should inform our actions (ie. humanist premises). Politics is a communal process: people who refuse to act in concert are unlikely to have their views represented well (if at all). The idea that secular people don’t need to organise and cooperate seems to be based on the ill-founded belief that everybody else will come around to the same viewpoint via the inevitable historical progression of the Enlightenment. Without faith in such inevitable historical progress towards greater rationality, it seems plain that refusing to collectively express humanist views is (and perhaps deserves to be) a losing strategy.

  12. Milan,

    The view I’m referrencing was held by the vicar of Oxfordshire. If you had attended a service at the Church of England while you were in Oxford, it likely would have been given by him. Hardly a fringe party.

    This God combines strong universalizability, without strong opposition to other religions. It makes strong normative claims on other religions without saying they are of no merit.

  13. This view is a serious alternative to atheism or agnosticism. And it holds the advantage that it can be argued for against a different theology, one that we find repulsive. Theologians need to show why we should believe in a God who is infinite and unknowable, and yet we can know all these things about what they want (i.e. Christian morality), and can act in the world in all sorts of particular ways (either now or by setting things to go in the first instance, both are actions of the same kind).

    Theologians do not, crucially, have to show that god is rather than is not.

  14. Tristan,

    You really should be writing a blog of your own, rather than trying to express yourself through comments here.

  15. I do have a blog of my own, but no one reads it. I’m trying to actualize the pure form of the blog as the absolute-unread.

  16. Tristan,

    Your blog hasn’t been updated for months. It is little surprise that nobody is reading it.

    Do you have any sort of visitor tracking system beyond how many comments you get?

  17. According to So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, God’s Final Message To His Creation is written in fire in letters thirty feet high on the far side of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains in the land of Sevorbeupstry on the planet of Preliumtarn, which orbits the star Zarss in Galactic Sector QQ7 ActiveJ Gamma, guarded by the Lajestic Vantrashell of Lob, which is located in the Grey Binding Fiefdoms of Saxaquine. The long path to the message is lined with souvenir stands at spaced-out intervals.

    When Marvin reads the message, it says, “We apologise for the inconvenience.”

  18. Mitt CondescendsYour religion has many fine qualities!
    By Mickey Kaus
    Updated Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007, at 2:20 PM ET

    America’s Petting Zoo of Faith! Does anyone else find the following paragraph in Mitt Romney’s big religion speech just a wee bit condescending–a quick tour of America’s religions offering each a little pat on the head:

    “I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

    He’s like a high school coach trying to maintain the self-esteem of all the children in his charge.

  19. Interesting quote:

    “Thomas Szasz

    “Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.””

  20. Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem [of moral relativism], of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

  21. “Like many great personalities, [God] had countless admirers who detested each other—and he let them do so. For one of infinite knowledge, he was strangely careless how he spread what bits of it to whom. To some he dictated the Bible; to Muhammad the Koran. He was much concerned with the diet of Jews. He let Hindus paint him as what, to others, looked like a blue-faced flute-player with an interest in dairy-farming. Each set of believers had its version of what he was like and what he had said. No wonder cynics began to hint that, if believers differed so widely, belief might be a mistake.

    The believers then made things worse. For soon it was not sets but sub-sets. Christians nationalised God, as Jews had long since, like some coal mine. He’s on our side, the English told the French. No, ours, Joan of Arc hit back. Next, the Reformers privatised him: unser Gott, fine, yet not the king’s or the church’s, but each man’s own. From this umpteen versions of what “he” might amount to, or think, were apt to spring, and did. Close kin could disagree. As late as 1829, a bishop warned Britain’s House of Lords of divine retribution if it granted civic rights to Jews; happily, their lordships, aware that stupidity thrived in God’s house as in their own, took the risk. In the 1840s American Methodism split, north against south, arguing whether his word condemned slavery or justified it.”

  22. The Economist recently published an amusing chart, showing the diversity within just Anglican Christianity:

  23. The unifying impact of religion would not be so puzzling in a country where people were pious but where there was only one dominant religion—Catholic Poland, say. Americans, by contrast, hold intense religious beliefs but belong to many different faiths and denominations. That should in theory produce an explosive combination. So why doesn’t it?

    There are the protections of the constitution, of course. But the authors put much of it down to Aunt Susan. Such is America’s churning diversity that most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths. Aunt Susan may be a Methodist, and you a Jew, but you know that Aunt Susan deserves a place in heaven anyway. In fact, Susan does not have to be your aunt, because in addition to the Aunt Susan principle the authors have invented the My Friend Al principle. In this case you befriend Al because, say, of a shared interest in beekeeping, and later learn that he is an evangelical Christian. Having an evangelical Christian in your circle of friends makes you warmer than you were before to evangelical Christians. Not only that, befriending someone from another faith makes you warmer to other religions in general.

    This is not just a hunch. Mr Putnam and Mr Campbell administered a questionnaire to a representative sample of thousands of Americans in the summer of 2006, and in the spring and summer of 2007 they went back to question the same people. Sure enough, those whose circles had became more religiously diverse in between the surveys expressed measurably more positive feelings towards other religions.

    Is this web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths the secret transmission mechanism of religious tolerance in America? One happy feature of modern America is indeed that soaring interfaith marriages over the past century mean that the average person has a good many Aunt Susans. Roughly half of all married Americans today are married to someone who grew up in a different religion from their own. So it is little wonder that when the authors asked their subjects whether a person of a different faith from theirs could find salvation and go to heaven, almost nine out of ten said yes.

  24. “My reasons for dismissing revealed religion as a source of moral guidance have been spelled out elsewhere, so I will not ride this hobbyhorse here, apart from pointing out the obvious: (1) there are many revealed religions available to us, and they offer mutually incompatible doctrines; (2) the scriptures of many religions, including the most well-subscribed (i.e. Christianity and Islam), countenance patently unethical practices like slavery; (3) the faculty we use to validate religious precepts, judging the Golden Rule to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, is something we bring to scripture; it does not, therefore, come from scripture; (4) the reasons for believing that any of the world’s religions were ‘revealed’ to our ancestors (rather than merely invented by men and women who did not have the benefit of a twenty-first-century education) are either risible or nonexistent – and the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is inerrant remains a logical impossibility. Here we can take refuge in Bertrand Russell’s famous remark that even if we could be certain that one of the world’s religions was perfectly true, given the sheer number of conflicting faiths on offer, every believer should expect damnation purely as a matter of probability.”

    Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape. p.78 (hardcover)

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