“How can you say your religion is right and everyone else has it wrong?” This is a common challenge to Christianity and to all religions that claim to have exclusive truth. All of the world religions do make exclusive truth claims.
A commitment to a set of exclusive religious principles is especially anathema in a post-modern world. It’s the cardinal sin of post-modernism. In such a world, it seems crude and out of step to believe, let alone admit that you believe, that some religious and philosophical assertions are true and others aren’t.
It’s much more acceptable to say that I can have “my belief”, and you can have “your belief”. We would quickly add, “What’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.” We believe with religious truth that people should be able to have their preferred spiritual cake and eat it too.
We do this with ethics also. People sometimes conflate religious or spiritual truth with ethics, but that’s maybe another topic for another time.
In the western, post-modern world, it’s ok for me to believe in chakras, or karma, or queer theory or a particular gender identity (even if my gender identity is unique to me), or aliens and whatever ethical construct goes with those things. It doesn’t need to be internally cohesive. It doesn’t really matter what a person believes, as long as she doesn’t claim it to be universal or exclusive. Claims of universality and exclusivity though, are not tolerated.
The problem, though, is that we can’t escape making exclusive truth claims. The very claim that no one can make exclusive truth claims is an exclusive truth claim. The person who says exclusive truth claims are not valid is making that claim against all other people who hold differently and claiming they are wrong.
I believe that people who are making the claim that religious people (especially) should not make excusive truth claims are doing so in response to the fanatical, self-righteous, judgmental and militant tendency of some people who make exclusive truth claims. Much tension and in the world, cruelties perpetrated against other people and even wars are the result of exclusive religious truth claims. We can’t deny it.
So what do we do? Following are some thoughts on the subject of truth claims, with some additional comments on the subject of tolerance and respect.
I think we have to start with truth, because truth is reality. Any view that is not aligned with reality is doomed to failure. I am talking about truth generically at this point.
Here we can take a cue from science and the scientific method. We rely on an accurate understanding of reality (truth) when we do science. We couldn’t trust science if we didn’t do that. We couldn’t land the rover, Perseverance, on Mars if we didn’t take the truth that science reveals seriously.
No one doubts gravity. We see and experience its effects. We may not like gravity, but a person wouldn’t live long who ignored the laws of gravity.
Laws like gravity are relatively black and white. The natural world operates (on the macro level at least) according to laws like gravity that we can measure, observe and sometimes even duplicate. Recognizing and respecting those laws is “easy”.
Religious truth is not like science in that sense. Some people are tempted to deny religious truth altogether because religious truth is not susceptible to being known by scientific method. Perhaps, it’s easier simply to focus on science and dismiss religious truth out of hand.
That seems to me, however, like the joke about a person searching for lost keys under a street light. A Good Samaritan across the street walks over and begins helping look for the lost keys. After they have combed every square inch of the area under the street light, the Good Samaritan asks, “Are you sure you lost them here?” In response the person with the lost keys says, “No, I lost them over there in the dark, but the light makes searching easier here!”
Religious truth deals with transcendent reality. If there is any religious truth, we shouldn’t ignore the reality of it just because it doesn’t fit neatly into our preferred method for determining truth. We have to do the hard work of trying to find it where it may be found.
As with ethical truth, most people are intuitively certain that some transcendent (religious) truth exists, but people disagree over what it is. Almost everyone, including most atheists, believe in absolute moral standards. Even hard core atheists who believe we are just dancing to our DNA and have no real agency in determining our actions, like Richard Dawkins, belie their deterministic worldviews in many ways. Dawkins, for instance, moralizes about religion, science and human existence. He even developed his own ten commandments.
All of us bristle when we are treated unfairly, even little children. We instinctively feel that people should recognize the wrong done to us. We have a near universal sense that a standard of right and wrong exists though people disagree over the precise details, especially in complex and nuanced circumstances.
We live our lives on the assumption that some things are always right and some things are always wrong. Few (if any) people would say that killing babies for fun is good or right.
Most people intuitively believe in some transcendent truth that is not reducible to scientific inquiry and natural phenomenon – at least we live that way, even if we have a worldview that denies it.
Even atheists, like Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins admit that intuition, though they deny it in favor of a rationalistic worldview that does not admit nonmaterial explanations. They could be right; or they could be like the person looking for lost keys under the street lamp where the inquiry is easier than searching in the dark.
One modern position on dealing with religious truth is tolerance. Tolerance is often invoked in response to exclusive truth claims. The basic gist of tolerance is that people should keep their exclusive religious truth claims to themselves. They should be “tolerant” of other people who do not hold those same exclusive religious truth claims.
Many people have rightly pointed out that some people who preach tolerance are particularly intolerant of those who hold exclusive religious truth claims. Tolerance sometimes appears to be a one way street, and exclusive religious truth claims are simply not tolerated on that street.
If truth is truth, however, and if all truth is exclusive of what is not true, this seems to be the wrong way to go about dealing with religious truth. It’s a particularly “unscientific” way of dealing with the possibility of religious truth. It’s even worse then searching under street lamp for keys lost in the dark. It forbids people from searching for the lost keys and talking about it.
Tolerance is an awfully low standard, though. Most of us do not want to be simply tolerated; we want to be respected and taken seriously. Tolerance is ultimately a paternalistic response that does not respect truth or take people seriously.
A much better response, it seems to me, is respect. Most of people want more than tolerance from others. They want respect from others. To that extent, I contend that we should seek to respect others the way we want to be respected.
We don’t have to agree with people to respect them. Respect takes the search for truth, wherever it may be found, seriously, and it takes people seriously.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that all theories and religious truth are the same. No one would seriously consider the Branch Davidians to be as legitimate as Buddhism or Christianity on the amount of truth to be found in the belief system.
If we are going to respect the effort and take it seriously, we need to be honest about the differences and not brush them aside. Different religious traditions, do make different claims about religious truth, and those claims can’t all be true, especially where they are mutually exclusive.
If we respect each other, though, we can have dialogue about religious truth that does not descend into self-righteous moralization, tension or (ultimately) fighting against each other. In fact, one measure of religious truth may be the extent to which the tenets of a particular belief system promote dignity and respect for other people.
Before closing, I note that religious truth and the way people behave are two different things. Dawkins’ moralizing demeanor and thrust of his communications do not (necessarily) negate the truth of what he believes – that people are simply atoms in motion dancing to the tune of their own DNA, having no moral agency in the end. Likewise, the Christian who doesn’t love his neighbor doesn’t (necessarily) negate the truth of what he believes. Truth is truth regardless of the way people live.
Many religions have similarities and overlapping principles, even while they differ on fundamental points. I think this is to be expected. If truth is truth, one would expect some overlap around the world.
At the same time, the major religions differ on key points that are mutually exclusive. Respect for religious truth that takes seriously the people who subscribe to those religious truths means being honest about those differences. As with science, those differences shouldn’t be glossed over or brushed aside if we are really going to respect (and not simply tolerate) religious truth and the people who hold to it.
It may be hard, and the light may not be as as easy to determine truth in the area of religious (transcendent) truth, as it is in determining scientific truth, but the fact that determining religious truth is harder to determine than scientific truth does not mean we should abandon the effort.