The Multiplicity of Religions
A standard atheist refutation of religious belief relies on the multiplicity of religions. The point is usually asserted against a person professing belief in a particular religion, and it comes as a rhetorical question: “How come you’re a Baha’i/Catholic/Jew/Muslim/Protestant/Zoroastrian, instead of a Zoroastrian/Protestant/Muslim/Jew/Catholic/Baha’i?”
This is a question that the inquiring person must address. I call it the problem of conflicting claims. Stated as a question, it could be phrased thus: If there is only one God, then why are there so many contradictory accounts of humanity’s interaction with him? If this is taken as a real, not a rhetorical, question, then it can be the start of a profoundly interesting inquiry. But my intention is to address the problem in the form usually encountered, namely, as evidence that no religion is true.
This argument completely fails as a refutation of religion in general. This can be illustrated by an analogy.
Suppose you are sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on the conversations of the people around you. Two people come in, talking about a car accident they just witnessed. You strike up a conversation, and they give this account: A black SUV was driving north on Main Street, approaching an intersection. The SUV swerved to avoid a dog that ran out into the street and thus hit a red hatchback that was southbound. It was really no one’s fault.
A short time later another person comes in, talking on his cell phone about an accident he just saw. You talk to him, and he says a blue pickup truck was northbound on Main Street and tried to execute a rapid left turn in front of an orange car, which caused the collision. The pickup driver was being very careless by trying to beat the car through the intersection.
A third person enters and gives this account: A sports car with tinted windows was speeding up Main Street and looked like it was involved in some kind of road rage incident with a red SUV that was following it. The sports car braked suddenly, and the SUV swerved and hit a subcompact going the other way. The sports car sped away. The SUV driver was totally at fault for following the sports car so closely.
A fourth witness comes in and tells you he saw a northbound red sedan with a driver talking on his cell phone, and he drifted across the double yellow line and hit a southbound van. A SUV behind the van swerved to avoid the collision and clipped the bumper of the van but then kept going. The driver of the sedan caused it all.
The conclusion we draw from this is not that there was no accident that morning. We conclude that there was an accident, but people differ about the facts. An event of the type generally described certainly took place.
Applying this to the multiplicity-of-religions argument shows why this argument fails as a refutation of all religions. The extraordinary persistence of religious claims requires the rational person to believe that something is going on out there. Yet the most frequently encountered atheist argument is that religious experiences are only psychological phenomena (important to emphasize the “only,” because every believer would acknowledge that these experiences have psychological dimensions). This is like believing that everyone coming into the coffee shop that morning is experiencing psychotic hallucinations. In fact, it’s an even more unpersuasive argument, because we have the testimony of far more witnesses, on a worldwide basis, from the earliest recorded history down to modern times, that spiritual events do happen and are evidence of spiritual realities.
Some people would argue that different faiths involve beliefs in totally different things. They would alter the analogy to have it happen the person 1 reports a car crash, person 2 a plane crash, person 3 a tree falling over, etc. But this is not really a defensible position. The major theistic world religions teach that there are spiritual beings, that they are involved in human affairs, that a proper respect for them is shown by liturgical observances, that these beings require certain rules of conduct in the form of moral imperatives, that devotion to or disregard of those moral imperatives will affect one’s destiny beyond one’s immediate life, and so on. The moral imperatives overlap to a high degree. What is striking about the major theistic world religions is not how different they are, but how similar. Aberrant behavior like terrorist attacks does not refute this claim. With 7 billion people to choose from, you can find people who believe almost anything. Sit in the coffee shop long enough, and you will meet crazy people.
Others might argue that the analogy fails, because accidents don’t involve the supernatural. The person making this argument has inserted a new premise, which I address elsewhere (see “Evidence for God,” Dec. 18, 2011).
To return to the point: If something is going on out there, then how are we to choose which religion comes closest to the truth? Here is where I will make a bold claim. I don’t know of any criteria outside of all particular religions from which the choice between religions can reliably be made (note that word “reliably”). I’ve been told that this means one must not choose any particular religion. One of the great (and one of the many) misunderstandings that non-believers have is that religious institutions require condemnation of all other religious institutions, that adherence to one belief system “closes the mind,” and so on. This is quite a credulous belief, given all the ecumenical activity going on in the world. The objection usually is activated by a modern instinct for “tolerance,” which in this context involves a confusion between being respectful of other people’s right to believe as their consciences dictate, and being afraid to believe anything ourselves.
You can embrace a belief, believe you are right or at least more right than others, and still believe that truth can be exhibited but not imposed. I contend that this proposition is noncontroversial, meaning that disputing its validity is not reasonable in the logical sense. That is a polite invitation to the world to attempt a refutation.
It also is a polite invitation to the hesitant, to delve. Different religions don’t cancel each other out. They cut off your retreat.
No matter which direction you turn, you will find a community of faith that’s already formed. You are suspicious of institutions and hierarchies: try the Protestants. You want a faith tradition that has clear beliefs and deep roots: try the Catholics. You think the problem is that you think yourself into corners, and you want to find a pure experience of the spiritual, unmediated by forms and systems: try Zen. Try something. If you hold back, you’re not being tolerant or open-minded. You are choosing a side, without admitting it.
A closing note: I am not saying that all religions are equal, that it hardly matters where you end up. I’m saying that, if you are an atheist, it hardly matters where you begin. But don’t stop there. I am a Catholic Christian, not because it fits into my lifestyle and just seems to suit me, but because I’ve come to the conclusion that what the Church teaches is true. One has to come to that realization oneself.