Tag Archives: epistemology

Are all religions just different expressions of the same truth?


Or so says Phillip Cary, who, in his recent lecture to the University of Georgia Christian Faculty Forum, questions our impulse “to say that all religions are in some deep sense the same.”

It’s an impulse we have about a lot of things, not just religion.  We like to talk about celebrating diversity and difference, but we often do it by trying to reassure people, “we’re really all the same underneath.”  I was struck by this in one educational programs meant to celebrate diversity.  Its message was: let’s celebrate our differences, because we’re really all the same.  I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much.  Without exaggeration, I think we could put the key idea here like this:  difference is great, so long as it doesn’t go all the way down.  So we try to protect difference by saying: we’re not all that different.  At some deep level we’re really the same.

Cary even makes such unseemly claims as “We have the right…to say [someone’s] beliefs aren’t true.” And “all truth is absolute.”

But Cary is no my-way-or-the-highway-fundamentalist. He just understands that the John Hick-style philosophy of religious pluralism, in which all religious beliefs are deemed equally true is not only illogical, but “profoundly disrespectful” to religious people.

To expect people to say that their religious beliefs are only “true for me” is to expect them not to take the truth of their own beliefs seriously.  I don’t think we ever have the right to expect that of anybody.  We have the right to disagree with people, to say their beliefs aren’t true, to give reasons trying to persuade them to change their beliefs.  But we don’t have a right to expect them simply not to believe what they believe.  And that’s what we’re expecting if we say: “you can’t really say it’s true.  It’s just true for you.”   For, on the contrary, people have a right to say “it’s true” precisely because they believe it.  For, to repeat, to believe something is precisely to believe it’s true.  So why can’t you say what you believe?  If you believe it’s true, then go ahead and say it’s true.

There’s a connection here between ethics and logic, because logic centers on the concept of truth, and ethics includes the requirement that we respect other people, which includes respect for them as truth seekers, as people who want to know the truth and believe it, rather than to be in error, and believe what’s false.

In its place Cary proposes a philosophy of religious pluralism that looks more like friendship.

If you and I don’t know each other very well, then we have to be very cautious about how we express our disagreement, very polite.  We don’t shout at each other or say things like “what a  stupid idea,” and so on.  But then think how the conversation might change if we become friends.  We might go at it hammer and tongs, gleefully shouting at each other, pulling out all the rhetorical stops, calling a stupid idea stupid when we see it that way, and none of us takes offense because we are enjoying each other’s company so much and learning so much, even though we have lots of misunderstandings of each other to work through.  We enjoy arguing with each other—that’s how it is with friends—because we can trust that our friends really do want what is good for us, really do want us to know the truth, which is also what we want for them.

You can read the entire lecture here.


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Religion, Evidence and Scientific Change

There are no mere facts.

At least that’s what New York Times opinion blogger, Stanley Fish, is arguing.

Fish got a lot of feedback after his recent post denying that science has any epistemic advantage over religion (or any other tradition of inquiry, for that matter) with respect to access to objective, unmediated evidence. 287 comments as of last count, to be exact.

So he wrote a follow up post.

This time, he takes up the problem of radical shifts in accepted scientific theory over time. Of course, advocates of scientific objectivity will say that such change “just shows that science is progressive and can correct its mistakes…because more precise and powerful techniques have given it a better purchase on the world.” Meanwhile, “religion lacks a mechanism for detecting and purging error.”

Fish rejects what he calls “this Baconian model of scientific progress” because, to quote Thomas Kelly’s article, “Evidence” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “at any given time, which theories are accepted … typically plays a crucial role in guiding the subsequent search for evidence which bears on these theories.”

Fish comments, “the very act of looking around is always and already performed within a set of fully elaborate assumptions complete with categories, definitions and rules that tell you in advance what kinds of things might be ‘discovered’ and what relationships of cause and effect, contiguity, sameness and difference, etc.”

You can read the rest here.

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