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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Evaluating Truth

1This one's going to be a doozy. But I figure, why start small? I apologize if this seems over-long, but it's not a light subject and I've been in need of some good conversation for quite some time, so this is a bit of a release for me. Questions are at the end.

2I'm in the midst of reading the book Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, by Harold A. Netland. While incredibly thorough in his writing, he makes no attempts to hide his bias towards orthodox Christianity and his belief that it is the only religious system which makes any sense. In his own words, "it is hoped that this book will serve as a kind of defense of Christian exclusivism," which, he concludes, is the only logical end one can attain if they are being, "faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture."

3My initial reaction was to chunk the book and use my time more efficiently playing video games, as he had already admitted that his argument would be contained within the circular logic of scripture. Also, anytime someone refers to the teachings in Scripture as "clear," I'm automatically a bit suspicious, both of their motive and their intellect. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that anyone writing about pluralism and world religions is going to be contained within their own bias. The question is, are they willing to look outside of that bias? Are they willing to attempt to step out of their own worldview and into the Other's? So I'm giving it a shot.

4After several lengthy chapters explaining the basic tenets of 5 major world religions (a very thorough and uncharicatured attempt, I must say), he finally gets to the chapter titled "Evaluating Religious Traditions" and I start to get really interested. Early in the chapter, he attempts to show some of the common tools of evaluation used in comparing religions. For instance, he examines different religious worldviews on the relief of suffering and the aiding of the oppressed (bringing about the Kingdom of God in his Christian vernacular), but determines that this cannot be used as an evaluative tool because the priority, the value of such actions is determined by each religious tradition itself. In other words, how can we hold Muslims to the Christian expectation of the Kingdom, when Muslims are more inclined to hold that each man is given his lot by Allah and that we are not to interfere? Each religion determines its set own set of values and priorities; you can't use one to judge the other.

5So then how can one evaluate religions? What absolutes can be given that are not derived from within one religious perspective? Fear not, for Netland will show us the way. Netland rightly asserts that "In evaluating a religious worldview we are concerned ultimately with the question of its truth." He then goes on to define truth as, "a property of propositions such that a proposition is true if and only if the state of affairs to which it refers is as the proposition asserts it to be. Otherwise it is false." We'll come back to this.

6The next ten pages were Netland trying to create 10 different working logic statements, or principles, which could be used to evaluate religions semi-objectively (he openly admits that it's not a perfect system, but better than most). First, he understands that if you're talking about religious systems, you're talking about the particular beliefs that make up that religious system. So he offers up this definition of a "Defining Belief," or the beliefs that are worth considering.

D1: p is a defining belief of religion R if an only if being an active participant in good standing within the religious community of R entails acceptance of p.

And then he tells us what it means for a religion to be true:
D2: A religion R is true if and only if all of its defining beliefs are true; if any of its defining beliefs are false, then R is false. (emphasis added)

So there're the criteria. If one defining belief is wrong, then we can toss out the whole thing. We'll come back to that as well. To spare your eyes and time, I will provide you with a list of the ten principles, sans Netland's elaboration and explanation of each. I'm pretty sure they're self-explanatory.

P1: If a defining belief p of a religion R is self-contradictory then p is false.

P2: If two or more defining beliefs of R are mutually contradictory at least one of them must be false.

P3: If a defining belief p of R is self-defeating it cannot reasonably be accepted as true.

P4: If the defining beliefs of R are not coherent in the sense of providing a unified perspective on the world, then R cannot be plausibly be regarded as true.

P5: Any religious worldview which is unable to account for fundamental phenomena associate with a religious orientation or which cannot provide adequate answers to central questions in religion should not be accepted as true.

P6: If a defining belief p of R contradicts well-established conclusions in other domains, and if R cannot justify doing so, then p should be rejected as probably false.

P7: If a defining belief p of R depends upon a belief in another domain (e.g., history) which there is good reason to reject as false, then there is good reason to reject p as probably false.

P8: If one or more defining beliefs of R are incompatible with widely accepted and well-established moral values and principles; or if R includes among its essential practices or rites activities which are incompatible with basic moral values and practices, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P9: If the defining beliefs of R entail the denial of the objectivity of basic moral values and principles; or if they entail the denial of the objective distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P10: If R is unable to provide adequate answers to basic questions about the phenomena of moral awareness this provides good reason for rejecting R as false.

7Again, Netland is very apparent and unapologetic with his bias. Immediately following his last principle statement (P10), Netland writes the following, "Although this cannot be argued here, I should state that the reason I believe one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true is because it is the only worldview that satisfies the requirements of all the above criteria. Ultimately, this means for Netland that "If indeed one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true--as I am convinced is the case-- then one is also justified in making judgments about other religious traditions on the basis of Christian teaching, and in rejecting as false those beliefs from other traditions that are incompatible with Christian faith."

So there we have it. We can now objectively evaluate and rank any and all religious systems. So now let's start with the questions! Feel free to discuss or expound upon any part of the questions, or add any of your own. I've numbered the paragraphs for easy reference. For the Principles or Definitions, simply use the references provided (P1, P2, D1, etc.).

Q1: What do we make of Netland's definition of truth provided in paragraph 5? Does the phrase "state of affairs" work for you as an attempt to define reality?

Q2: Is it right to assume, as Netland does, that if there is one "false" principle belief then the entire Religion must be false, as he asserts in D2? As a follow up, how many people do you think fully and completely believe and accept everything their religion teaches as true?

Q3: What do we make of the 10 Principles? Are they as objective as Netland would like them to be? I have serious issues with P8 and P9 because of his use of the phrase "basic moral values" and the failure to define that. Are morals developed independently from religion now to be used as the standard of comparison for those religions? And wouldn't basic moral values be completely determined by geography and cultural settings? P9 seems wrong on a philosophical level, as it requires the assumption that right and wrong exist, that good and evil are indeed factual. Seems like Buddhists are just out of luck on that one. Sorry, Mike.

Q4: I'm very curious as to how Netland thinks Christianity is the only religion that meets the standards he's created. In fact, I'm curious as to how he thinks ANY religion meets the standards he's created. So it's not in the form of a question....sue me. Does your religion hold up to these principles he's created?

Q5: What does it mean to be in "good standing" in a religious community, as provided in D1?

Q6: Just to provide a couple of questions that Netland poses but never attempts to answer, "What constitutes knowledge? Under what conditions is one justified in accepting a particular belief? Must one be able to provide sufficient grounds for, say, belief in God in order to be justified in believing in God? What would constitute such grounds? What kind of contrary evidence would falsify belief in God?"

Q7: Should I finish reading this book? The next chapters are "All Roads Lead to..." "No Other Name: the Question of Jesus," and, "Evangelism, Dialogue, and Tolerance."

I hope all are well and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one.



David said...

I think objectivity is over-rated. I'm really not sure that it is possible, especially the closer one gets to a topic that really means something to an individual.

Trying to compare religions is like comparing my wife to other women, giving a list of pros and cons. I couldn't do it objectively, and even if I could, it may not be in my better judgment to even get to the cons. Yet, I am still able to come to the point without the comparision that indeed my wife is my soul-mate.

I realize that faith is a lot of tradition and perhaps learned behavior. I think one has to branch out from that. Religion is deeply personal to me because lately it has been growing on my own experience. I feel led, and driven, with an unclear objective, but a steady path. I'm not sure these feelings can be explained away in a book.

I don't know that a path to finding truth actually lies in comparison of what is out there. Going back to objectivity, does it leave room for religions not created, or that everyone is wrong? I know a little bit about most of the so called "major religions", some more than others, and I'm sure there are vast amounts of others that I know nothing about, or even worse, know mis-information about. But back to my wife, I don't have to know every women alive, or ever was, to know that I married the right girl.

Now, I'm only playing devil's advocate here, but I wouldn't make any attempt to hide my beliefs in writing a book either. If this author genuinely believes what he is saying, he might as well spit on Christ and post the crucifixion on youtube as to write apologies for his beliefs and that he could be mistaken. Then, he is lying to us, because that's not what he believes. But I wouldn't write a book attempting this topic in the first place.

Mike said...

I agree with David that I think this author was trying to tackle this topic with a tool that just can't work here: objectivity.

One problem, which Ryan noted, is that the choice of objective measures can immediately exclude some religions (i.e. Buddhism, which does not recognize a good versus evil dichotomy). Another problem, which David noted, is that religion is a "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts"-type thing. It's this second issue I want to touch on (since the author immediately excludes my religion from consideration, there's no need to comment on that point :) ).

For an objective measure to actually work, the value of religion would have to lie purely in the individual beliefs held, regardless of any effect (cumulative or independent) they might have. In other words, to pursue an objective measure of religion immediately implies that all that matters is that you believe Jesus is God, or that looking deeply enough with the tools of mindfulness and loving-kindness can result in enlightenment (oops, there I go spouting off my non-religion again! ;) ), or that performing rituals X, Y, and Z are a necessity that cannot be neglected ... all regardless of whether you actually love Jesus, or try to treat others with the same respect you would treat him, or that the practice of mindfulness leads to increasing wisdom and compassion toward all others.

In my view, religion by its very nature is subjective. Someone can say he's a Christian. But if that person isn't affected by those beliefs (i.e. the stereotypical Sunday-morning Catholic), then my opinion is that that person is NOT a Christian. The belief itself is irrelevant. I can believe that exercise is good for me, but if I don't ever DO it, that belief is worthless. The true measure of any faith is the effect it has on the practicing individual. Through Buddhist practice, one's demeanor becomes more peaceful and loving; one begins to feel compassion and love toward all beings (yes, including those ants in your kitchen that you have to get rid of, but at least you do it with a true feeling of regret and a wish that wells up from the deepest part of your heart that you harm them as little as possible to correct the problem); one begins seeing the interconnectedness of all beings, that relationship with each other is inherent in our existence. THIS is the true measure of a religion, that the practitioner can bring these beautiful gifts to others with whom he interacts. This is something that no objective comparison can measure.

And the thing is, all faiths can have benefits like this if the adherent is actually practicing the faith. It is this fact that I think should define Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, rather than the author's impossible attempt to objectively rate religions. Does the religion transform the practitioner into a more peaceful, loving, compassionate, helpful, respectful, generous being? If so, then that religion has great value, a value that vastly exceeds any of its individual components.

- Mike

Mike Morris said...

The point that I most connect with is the objection to this fellow's criteria on morality. I think this is the area where any apologeticist's argument (including the great C.S. Lewis) totally implodes. One assumes that because they seem to feel from the depth of their being that killing, stealing, adultery, lying, etc. are inherently wrong, that these acts are part of a "moral code" which is an essential component of our consciousness. But often, it is not taken into account that these are inherited prejudices that are so infused with the way we think that we probably can no longer identify their source. C.S. Lewis and others might put forward many hypothetical situations in which our assumptions are inline with this "moral code," such as "if someone were to kill your family, would you consider it an act of evil?" or something similar. But at the same time, what person of any faith doesn't agree that in certain contexts and situations, that each of these things may be permissible? I think it's fairly easy to see, even in a broad and general evaluation of our culture and others, that morality is in a constant state of flux, is not fixed, and can only be understood in a relative sense.

For this reason, I suggest that any writer who proposes that the christian faith, or any faith, can be argued for by way of an objective morality shouldn't be taken too seriously.