19 February 2012

The Problem of God Symposium - Religious Pluralism

On Saturday I attended two sessions of a Christian symposium on campus entitled, "The Problem of God." I described the first session I attended, on LGBTQ issues, in my previous post. The second session I choose to attend was, "The Problem of Religious Diversity: Why All Religions Can't Be True... Or Can They?" I didn't really choose the best session. I was hoping this session would be about epistemology, the religious knowledge groups have, et cetera. Instead, it was an attempt to say that only one religion could be correct and that one religion is Christianity (I know, the sponsoring organizations should have made this obvious to me right away but it didn't). I personally feel it was a weak session, but I will still discuss what I heard. Overall, I actually think the session made me ever more of a religious pluralist than I already was, because the session seemed to illustrated religious exclusivism as essentially an attempt to justify to one's self that their religion is correct over all others using only self-assuring evidence.

The session opened with a poll where we txted a number based on our understanding going in. Five options were presented, essentially being that (1) plurality in the sense that all religions are wrong, (2) plurality in the sense that all religions are right, (3) no position or not in these categories, (4) exclusivism though other religions can have aspects that are correct, and (5) exclusivism and only one religion is correct at all. I choose the first option, and pretty much all the other choices were four and five with four dominating.

The speaker presented three reasons why people like pluralism being: it doesn't seem judgemental, it affirms the goodness of people, and it avoids condemnation. When he opened the floor I added that there are multiple ways of knowing, and it was also added that if you stand on direct knowledge, others can reject what you think based on their own direct knowledge. The speaker then went on to talk about why he rejects pluralism.

He first tried to argue against what he called the "Bones Argument." The idea here is that science has shown religion to be nothing more than a survival mechanism. He brought up some study about serotonin release due to religious experience, and claimed this didn't show anything as people could be experiencing something true and spiritual. He somehow seemed to forget in the process that all religions are experiencing this and not just Christianity, so if they are experiencing something real that ALL religions are experiencing something truly spiritual. He then brought up some psuedoscience by one of the intelligent design groups, and his basis for rejecting science was that it did present one of the hypotheses as god causing the experience. He then claims that science is somehow attacking the person and not the idea. A bit of the Christian persecution complex was tossed in with all of this, and a distrust of science including how scientists handle data was present.

The next argument he dealt with was Hick's argument. He presented this argument to say that all religions essentially seek to make people better people and to experience reality, and that we just don't have the lingo-cultural ability to express this reality. In this sense all religions are the same. He used this odd argument involving blind people and an elephant to try to dispute this line of thinking. The argument involved blind people each feeling a small portion of the elephant and claiming it is one thing or the other, when in all actuality it is an elephant. To me, this only seemed to support Hick's argument, as all religions are thus getting at some aspect of reality, but don't have enough information to give the full reality. The speaker also claimed that to believing any one religious claim required the rejection of all others. I only partially agree with him here. When religions are standing firm on some ideas - Christ being the son of god, Mohammad being the last prophet of Allah, gods requiring sacrifice to quench their thirst for blood, et cetera - these ideas could be mutually exclusive. A religion that requires animal sacrifice when compared to a religion that holds killing any animal to be a sin are obviously contradicting each other. Yet large aspects of religion could easily be integrated, especially if these other aspects of religion are seen as trivial. The teachings of Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammad, John Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, et cetera don't necessarily have to contradict, especially when you start saying things are parables or metaphors. His argument that religions naturally exclude each other requires each religion to be viewed in a literalist sense. If we reject the literal interpretation of religion, then it isn't hard to see how they could all work together, at least from my perspective. I guess in this sense his talk made me more of a religious pluralist because I believe aspects of religion, when not literal, can work together to inform us about life. Buddha's teachings about the non-existence of self, Jesus' teachings about compassion, and even L. Ron Hubbard's teachings about the long lasting affects of pain and suffering, when taken in figurative senses, are useful teachings. (I just want to add a side note that these people don't actually have to have existed at all for their teachings to be useful either).

His next subject was why he likes exclusivism, or the belief that religious beliefs are either true or false. He thinks these are supported by the laws of thought. We were not really told what these laws of thought were or how exclusivism fits them, so I can't really talk much on this point. I am just going to assume that these laws of thought require a lot of assumptions, and I am not going to accept this point without evidence. His second reasoning was that exclusivism requires the serious evaluation of other religious beliefs. I don't exactly get how pluralism does not do this. He tries to say that science just discounts them, even though the point of science is to evaluate knowledge. Of course science doesn't evaluate the supernatural because of the naturalism assumption, but we don't have any reason to assume the supernatural exists that I know of. He also uses some Santa Claus illustration, though this sounded more to me like, "other people know their beliefs are wrong," which is not the case. He also claims that pluralism requires more assumptions. We didn't really get a clear illustration of how, so yet again I am not buying that. Lastly, he claims that the exclusivist viewpoint gives religions more dignity and respect. I am yet again not sure about how this works, we weren't really explained it all that clearly.

After this, he then went on to discuss Christian exclusivism in particular. He defined this as the belief that the god of the Bible is the creator of all things AND that humans are fundamentally different from all other animals. I have to say, this whole "humans aren't animals" point that keeps being made is annoying me. Humans are animals. This isn't a hard concept. We look like apes. We act like apes. Our genetics and the fossil record show over and over again that we are apes. Sure, we have language and have used cultural knowledge transmission to build up a civilization, but that doesn't mean we aren't animals. Plenty of species use tools. Some species of ants have domesticated fungi, and they herd aphids. Dolphins commit suicide. Cultural systems exist in some monkeys. Language is the sole thing I can think of that separates us from the rest of animals, and I think the jury is still out on elephants there. I also don't see any reason to think in the future or on another celestial body that species with or beyond our level of intelligence could evolve. I am thus already rejecting the second part of his statement. He tries to support this with the claim that other species aren't as adaptable and only humans can live everywhere. My first thought involved invasive species, which happen to do just fine in a habitat somewhere that they could not naturally disperse to. There are also a number of cosmopolitan species that do quite well in a wide range of habitats (some rodents, the domesticated cat, some diseases, et cetera). He just really didn't have an argument here, and I assume he is thinking people would just accept anything he said without questioning it.

He spent a while explaining what Christians believe. Yet again, if pressed I can discuss self-identification but otherwise we will avoid that topic. The point that he made that I want to jump to though is that he claims a percentage of religious diversity is rebellion against god. This is just clearly untrue. Yes, many atheists have explained why they would not worship the god of the Bible if he did exist (this was one of his examples), but they are also claiming he doesn't exist so the point is moot. He also said once that you don't need to Bible to know what is right and wrong, yet he still talked about how he was a Christian exclusivist with a definition that requires accepting Jesus Christ as the son of god who was crucified and resurrected in order to be saved. I am not sure he fully realized what he was saying there.

After this, the question and answer session came up. He was asked to clarify the rebellion against god and if he believed that applied to thought beyond atheism, to which he did. I asked how he sees the claim that Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship the same god, and in extension of that how exclusivism deals with the further subdivision of Christianity into a large number of different sects. His response, in my mind, showed a fear for Islam that I think is clear in this venue. Currently, from my perspective, the two greatest threats to Christianity are Islam and agnosticism. Islam is a giant, fast growing religion that relies on the monotheism Christianity has pushed so heavily. Agnosticism is also growing as religion just looses importance in people's lives. Obviously things like science, human rights, and such do encroach on religion, but they can liberalize to deal with this as many sects already have. I think this is why he worked hard to separate Christianity from Islam, without ever touching modern Judaism (a religion of a few dozen million people isn't a big threat when two religions with over a billion followers each are going at it). He claimed, with a few warnings that he hasn't studied Islam much, that we can see the god of Islam is different because the Christian and Jewish religious texts don't involve the killing of infidels. I am hoping I misunderstood his point here... He then went on to claim that the large majority of Christian sects have the same core beliefs, and that this unity overrides their differences. He furthermore claimed that people who don't buy that core shouldn't call themselves Christian (yet again, self-identification issues...). He did include Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant sects as being a part of that core Christianity. I got the feeling there was an implication that Mormons don't fall into that, but I may have been reading too far into what he said (as he didn't specifically mention Mormons).

He got asked about the fact that he admitted he hadn't studied other beliefs extensively, but that he choose to be exclusively Christian. He claims that he read many books with evidence for Christianity. He was asked how this wasn't just self-assuring with the beliefs he had, and he claimed that it all came down to the resurrection. From my perspective, he seemed to be saying his entire belief system is based on the resurrection. He apparently thinks there is evidence that this happened, and unless that can be refuted he will continue with the Christian exclusivity.

As I have said, his whole argument just felt really weak to me. Maybe he just didn't have enough time. Maybe he didn't expect anybody to question what he said for themselves. I am also hoping I misunderstood some of what he was saying. I really hope I misunderstood his discussion of Islam. The lecture left me viewing exclusivism as even weaker than I had previous viewed it.

One of the problems theists still have to be able to answer is the issue of religious diversity. How can one religion be right when there are so many of them? For many the answer to that has been religious exclusivity. He tried to argue, however, that Christianity was correct and that is just the end of the story. With some ways of knowing, we can have information that supports one line of thought over another. I don't see that we have that with the line of thinking he presented. He also, in the defense of Christianity, used the existence of something rather than nothing as proof of god. It is not safe to rely on a god of the gaps. Yes, there will always be gaps, but as we fill certain gaps, the reliance in the belief of god gets weaker. With the germ theory of disease we stopped using the supernatural to cause sickness. With meteorology, we stopped using the supernatural to explain the weather. With plate tectonics we stopped using the supernatural to explain earthquakes and volcanoes. With evolution we stopped using the supernatural to explain the existence of life and humanity. M Theory and the compilation of our physics understanding is now taking on the existence of something rather than nothing. The belief in god can't rely on these issues. Not that the belief in god can't exist, but staking that belief in the gaps is not a solid place to be.

I understand that this symposium represented only a small sample of Christian thought. I have had discussions and been exposed to Christians who understand LGBTQ issues. I know that not all Christians are religious exclusivitists in the sense that was presented in this symposium. Attending these two sessions was a good reminder to me of what kind of beliefs are out there. This session did not leave me with the level of concern for others that the last session gave me. I think it did help to illustrate some of why other religions (particularly Islam) are treated so poorly (such as with the Islamic Community Center). I honestly just left this session feeling like no significant argument had been made. Maybe I am just vaccinated against this kind of thinking, but I was kind of disappointed. I was really hoping for an interesting case to be made.

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