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The Predicament of BeliefScience, Philosophy, and Faith$

Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199695270

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199695270.001.0001

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The plurality of religions

The plurality of religions

(p.69) 4 The plurality of religions
The Predicament of Belief

Philip Clayton

Steven Knapp

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The previous chapters have shown that “minimally personalistic theism” (MPT) is a consistent position; indeed, MPT may be rationally superior to its competitors. But such a view is too “thin” to support religious life and practice. The next stage is to ask where, if anywhere, in human history one finds signs of the presence and activity of the God described by MPT. Here, however, the problem of religious plurality arises: rational arguments alone are insufficient to select among the many competing accounts. Personal or subjective factors may incline a given person to explore and evaluate one particular religious tradition. But even if other religions are not live options for her, this does not mean that she can rationally refute them. Important consequences follow for the nature of individual religious belief and for the self-conceptions of Christians in particular.

Keywords:   theism, personal God, religious plurality, pluralism, Abrahamic faiths, relativism, apologetics, religious practice

In the foregoing chapters, we have presented a certain vision of the ultimate reality (UR), a vision in which that reality is personal—or as we would prefer to say, not less than personal—and manifests the kind of other-directed action in creation that, in the human context, one would call love. In Chapter 3, we responded to one important challenge to that vision, arising from what is traditionally known as the “problem of evil.” We defended the claim that, despite the existence of innocent suffering, the UR could still be seen as a God who responded with compassion toward finite creatures. This required us to provide a plausible explanation of the apparent absence of divine action in situations where one might expect it to occur. That explanation came at a certain cost: direct divine intervention was absent in such situations, we suggested, because God could not act, even once, in ways that would be incompatible with the regularities we call the laws of nature without becoming obligated to act in all cases where a similar good would be produced. That still left room for a kind of divine action we called “participatory” because it involved God’s acting in and through the agency of finite beings, and doing so in a way that did not negate the relative autonomy of those finite beings themselves.

The overall picture that has emerged from these earlier chapters amounts to a hypothesis—it cannot be more than that—about what is ultimately the case: what really obtains, in the last analysis, beyond all the profound and startling discoveries of natural science, and beneath the chaotic events of cosmic, biological, and cultural evolution. The hypothesis itself is a complex one; it is not of a kind that can be tested in a laboratory or proven with logical arguments that will persuade all reasonable persons who examine them. Nevertheless, we think it (p.70) makes sense to regard this picture of the UR as better than the alternatives.

Those alternatives, incidentally, are exactly four in number: first, that the universe is both eternal (it has no origin) and necessary (it could not not have existed, hence it is self-explanatory);1 second, that the ultimate and only origin of the universe was a random quantum fluctuation in the void or some other entirely mindless and impersonal process; third, that the universe was the creation of a personal being but one who happens to be either hostile or indifferent to finite persons and what matters to them; and, fourth, that there is simply no meaningful answer to the question of what is ultimately the case or why there is anything at all.

There are certainly considerations that might incline a reasonable person to choose one of these alternatives over ours. But we have tried to show why, even in the light of problems as challenging as the one addressed in Chapter 3, it makes more sense to suppose that the source and ground of all existence is an infinite reality more aptly described as personal than impersonal, and better conceived as valuing the welfare of its finite creatures than as hostile or indifferent to them. It also makes sense to suppose that this infinite being will be disposed to perform certain kinds of actions within the finite universe, insofar as such actions are compatible with the relative autonomy that, we argue, the universe must have if it is to sustain the evolutionary emergence of finite persons.

And that, we submit, is about as far as metaphysical reflection can go. Remember that metaphysics is reflection based on general scientific principles and philosophical arguments, reflection that does not appeal to the contingent facts of history. The results of such reflection remain unsatisfyingly abstract. They do not help one determine which human values, beyond a general altruism, in fact characterize the UR, or which events in the course of human history have been shaped, and to what degree, by the influence of whatever participatory communicative actions the UR may have performed.

In short, the implications of our theory—call it minimally personalistic theism or MPT—stop well shy of yielding the kinds of concrete claims about historical events and moral laws that form the intellectual framework of human religions. After all, most religious traditions make highly concrete claims about what human beings should (p.71) believe regarding the nature of the UR and what they should do in response to it.2

The hypothesis we have developed in the foregoing chapters operates at too high an altitude, then, to be of much direct religious interest or usefulness. As our use of the term “God” suggests, it clearly does point in a religious direction, by raising the question of whether any sort of worshipful or practical response ought to follow from what we can infer about the ultimate source and purpose of the universe in which human beings find themselves. In that sense, the previous chapters may be religiously suggestive, but their conclusions evaporate, so to speak, before they reach the religious ground.

At the same time, however, the kind of reflection contained in the first three chapters is not typical of what generally goes under the name “metaphysics” today, either on “metaphysics” shelves in bookstores or in textbooks in analytic philosophy.3 Recall how we were led to this type of reflection. As we thought about the metaphysical implications of contemporary science, we found ourselves confronted with the question of what kind of UR might have preceded the universe as a whole. These topics led us in turn to the central issues of philosophical theism: is this not-less-than-personal ultimate what we would call good, or is it indifferent to our moral concerns? Does suffering in the world undercut belief in such a reality? Clearly, once metaphysical reflection leads to a personal ultimate, metaphysics begins to shade over into philosophy of religion, and even to implicitly theological topics.

At that point, however, one encounters a major methodological break. Perhaps surprisingly, this break does not come with the transition to theism; it comes when one turns from theism in general to the specific historical and doctrinal beliefs of the individual religions. For the path of reflection now forces us to pose a question that seems as difficult to avoid as it appears impossible to answer: where, if anywhere, in human history does one find signs of the presence and activity of an ultimate reality one has reason to regard as more like a personal agent than an impersonal force?

The problem is that, even if one accepts the case we have been making for minimally personal theism, MPT itself seems to offer insufficient reason to choose among the many religious options that potentially claim one’s attention, and perhaps one’s allegiance, in today’s radically globalized religious environment. There are some (p.72) options, of course, that MPT rules out. Those include nontheistic religions that regard the UR as impersonal or unknowable; equally, theistic religions that proclaim a God who actively intervenes to alter what would otherwise be the natural course of physical events. But there remains a broad range of religious traditions that share enough of the core elements of MPT that they are in many ways surprisingly similar. Those very similarities prevent one from using MPT to choose among them when their claims conflict.

Consider, first, the similarities. Historically, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share a common belief in the God of the Hebrew Bible. Many core beliefs about that God are endorsed by all three of these “Abrahamic faiths.”4 The philosophical and theological development of this notion of God likewise involved frequent cross-fertilization among these traditional faiths. At the beginning of the Common Era, Philo Judaeus, also known as Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE to 50 CE), first synthesized Greek metaphysical concepts with the notion of God advanced in the Hebrew Bible, and later theologians in all three traditions built upon the conceptual foundations he laid down. Maimonides’ work played a similar role for the theologies of the medieval period, exerting a vast influence on Muslim and Christian thought (see, for instance, the frequent citations of “Rabbi Moses” in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae). In the high Middle Ages, exchanges among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers were crucial to the development of all three traditions. For example, theological conclusions from the Islamic philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Al-Ghazali had a major impact on subsequent Jewish and Christian theology.

The movement of “scriptural reasoning” in recent years has increased the sense of a common scriptural basis for these notions of God.5 In contemporary theology, moreover, one finds a variety of more specific parallels among the faith traditions. For example, the Kabbalistic understanding of creation and the God–world relation, with its notion of creation as taking place within God, has influenced recent Christian affirmations of panentheism, the view (invoked in Chapter 3) that the world exists within God, although God is also more than the world.6 The ethical turn in Jewish notions of God in the late nineteenth century (Cohen, Rosenzweig) is matched by a similar ethical shift in twentieth-century Christian thought (Rauschenbusch, the “social (p.73) gospel” movement, liberation theologies, and much contemporary liberal theology). This list of examples could be extended at will.7

Nor are the similarities limited to the Abrahamic faiths. The parallels between Western theism and Hinduism are also closer than is often recognized. The philosophy of Sankara (c. 800 CE) connects closely with the “apophatic” theologies in the Western monotheistic religions, which assert that God is beyond all predication, that is, beyond any positive assertions about God that human beings can make. The Hindu Vedantic traditions also show close parallels with Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Neoplatonic tradition in the West. Rāmānuja and the devotional (bhakti) tradition in India stand surprisingly close to various traditions of theistic worship in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here consciousness or awareness serves as the basic feature of the divine, as it does in many forms of personalistic theism in the West. Moreover, in the Hindu devotional tradition God is said to be known through worship and inner experience, as also in many Western traditions (e.g., the German liberal tradition initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher).

Despite all these parallels, it remains the case that the world’s religions provide a number of different and (it would seem) not fully compatible ways of pinning down the otherwise very general and abstract content of MPT. The very fact that there are so many conflicting religious theories, all purporting to describe the same UR, provides a powerful prima facie reason for doubting that any one of them is more likely to be true than false (see Chapter 1). Reasons for doubt intensify when one realizes that nearly all those who adhere to one religious tradition or another do so because that was the tradition in which they were raised or to which they were heavily exposed by the culture surrounding them.

Moreover, each tradition provides its adherents with compelling experiences that naturally seem to them to confirm the truth of whatever religious theories the tradition may embody. One cannot deny the joy that radiates from the faces of Hindu believers celebrating the festival of Diwali; the deep sense of meaning and purpose that permeates the life of a Jew who strives to obey the 613 mizvot of biblical law; the profound spiritual focus that Muslims experience in orienting their life around the five pillars of Islam; or the feelings of peace and confidence that flow from the compassionate ministrations of a Christian Sister of Mercy. Of course there are those who doubt the (p.74) genuineness of all such experiences, but their skepticism does not alter that fact that, for the believer, the experience tends to confirm the rightness of the religious path on which she finds herself. Yet this only makes the question of religious truth all the more difficult to answer, because an adherent of any single religion must acknowledge, if she is honest, that her experiences would have been entirely different if she had been raised in one of the other traditions.8

What conclusion should we draw from the undeniable fact of religious plurality? How serious are the doubts it raises regarding the probability that any particular religious theory is actually true? In recent years, theologians and philosophers of religion have offered a fairly broad range of mutually exclusive answers. John Hick regards every religious theory as a “myth,” by which he means a particular story that human beings have invented to depict a reality that lies utterly beyond the reach of human knowledge. (For Hick, metaphysical theories are just as problematic as religious ones, so that MPT itself would count as a myth in his sense of the word.)9 Others would argue that each religion—or at least each of the major ones—captures a portion of a single truth that, in its totality, transcends the grasp of any particular tradition.10 Still another option, associated with the work of Alvin Plantinga and other proponents of “Reformed Epistemology,” is to admit the fact of religious plurality but deny its relevance, on the grounds that everyone is entitled to hold the beliefs she finds herself holding, unless she encounters unanswerable objections or “defeaters” that properly convince her she is mistaken. On this view, the mere fact that someone holds a different view from mine doesn’t matter unless I acquire a “defeater,” that is, a positive reason to think that the other person may actually be right.11

Then there are arguments like those of Richard Swinburne, who denies our premise that there is no way to get from a general account of the UR to the choice of a particular religion. For Swinburne, there is an unbroken chain of inference from metaphysics to the assessment of conflicting religious testimonies, so that once one has established the probable nature of the UR one can continue to employ philosophical arguments in much the same way, until one is eventually able to establish the truth of complex Christian claims about divine revelation, atonement, and the resurrection of Jesus.12 A different response emerges from the work of the great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who argues that the altruism and hope embodied in (p.75) the other major religions make them implicitly or, as he says, “anonymously” Christian.13

When one steps back from this set of alternatives, they seem to boil down in the end to two basic options. Either the fact of religious plurality shows that there is no answer (or at least no humanly accessible answer) to the question of which, if any, of the available religious alternatives best reflects the nature and intentions of the UR; or else religious plurality is irrelevant to the question of whether the theories embedded in one’s own religious tradition are actually true. According to proponents of the first option, there is simply no way around the fact that each of us is trapped in, and indeed essentially blinded by, the religious and cultural milieu in which she happens to find herself. On the second option, religious truth is no more affected by the existence of multiple religions than scientific truth is affected by the fact that people in earlier times believed that the earth was flat. And, many people say, tertium non datur: there is no third choice.

But is this really true? Must one really opt for one side or the other? We suggest a somewhat more complex response. In the first place, it seems to us that the existence of other religions should reduce one’s confidence in the theories embedded in whatever religious tradition one happens to have inherited. This is not like the astronomical case, where one has a theory of error explaining why it seemed to people in former eras that the sun revolved around the earth.14 The most obvious explanation of the fact that other people believe religious theories other than one’s own is not that they are interpreting the same experiences in different (and mistaken) ways but rather that they have had experiences within their traditions to which one has not oneself had access. In other words, particular beliefs about the UR vary with the religious experiences and assumptions (or other tradition-based experiences and assumptions) of those holding those beliefs. The general considerations we canvassed in earlier chapters do not provide any help in deciding which among these sorts of beliefs are correct. In that sense, the choice among competing religious theories about the UR is underdetermined—left unresolved—by the arguments and the evidence available to the community of inquiry as a whole.

Does it follow that one should simply suspend belief in all particular religious theories, remaining agnostic about any claims that go beyond the generality of a minimally personalistic theism? Does it follow, in other words, that, when it comes to religion, there is simply no truth of (p.76) the matter, because all religious theories are merely myths or stories that human beings tell themselves about what is ultimately the case?

In our view, this does not follow. In most cases, an essential part of what makes a religion interesting to those who adhere to it is precisely its claim to embody a true account of the nature and intentions of the divine reality to which it responds. The claim that all religions are equally true amounts to the claim that they are equally false, and therefore equally irrelevant to the question of how best to engage the reality they claim to be about.15 Many, perhaps even most of those who have followed our argument to this point are likely to approach the question of ultimacy from a point of view that has been powerfully shaped by religious experiences that seem to them to support a particular way of understanding and engaging the UR. Even if they grant—as we believe they should—that there are no arguments or evidence that can or should compel others to agree with them, they are not for that reason required to abandon their belief in what their experience inclines them to believe.

To see why, consider the case of Rachel, who witnesses a crime and then discovers that someone else who also witnessed it offers a sharply conflicting account of what occurred. Rachel may well agree that the community of inquiry investigating this case—the jury, let us say—has no reason to reject the other person’s testimony in favor of hers. She may agree, in other words, that the choice between the two conflicting accounts is underdetermined by the evidence available to the jury, which was not there to experience what either witness experienced.

Should Rachel therefore stop believing what she thinks she saw? Clearly not. She may be frustrated by her inability to convince the jury of her point of view, even while acknowledging that the jury, given the evidence available to it, is right to withhold its assent. And she may or may not be sufficiently puzzled by the difference between her experience and the other witness’s account that she is led to doubt her interpretation of her own experience. She should acknowledge that her position would be stronger if she had other evidence or arguments that confirmed what she thinks she saw. But—and this point is crucial to the motivation of our next two chapters—she is not compelled to abandon her belief in what she saw, and indeed she is justified in continuing to believe it, unless and until she acquires a reason to (p.77) think that she was probably mistaken. Disagreement, simply by itself, does not constitute such a reason.

Exactly the same principles apply in the case of religious theories and their relation to the religious experience of those who hold them. If my own experience leads me to interpret the UR in a way that conflicts with the interpretations of those with different experiences, I should acknowledge that the community of religious inquirers has no reason to prefer my theory to theirs. But it doesn’t follow that I have a rational duty to stop believing in the reality I think my experience enables me to see.

How, in that case, should one proceed? Some, who stand outside the sphere of religious experience per se, will rightly respond that they will not proceed but will stop exactly at this point in our narrative—with reasons to affirm the overall preferability of MPT to its metaphysical alternatives but with no way to assess the more specific claims of any particular religion. To those readers, we can only offer thanks for accompanying us as far as they have; we have no argument that would or should persuade them to go further (unless, of course, they are curious about what may follow from certain assumptions they do not themselves share). Others, by contrast, will just as rightly proceed to explore and evaluate the content and implications of what their experience inclines them to believe. They should not expect their philosophical discussion partners to accept their religious experiences as a substitute for philosophical arguments. But it doesn’t follow from this fact that it is unreasonable for them to consider their experience when evaluating their own religious tradition. (In Chapter 7 we explore in greater detail what it is reasonable for such persons to believe.)

In the following two chapters, we will present a detailed example of an exploration of this kind. In so doing, we will necessarily focus on the interpretation of the UR to which we ourselves are drawn by the nature and content of our own experience. For those whose experience leads them to a different interpretation, our example may suggest analogous ways of proceeding as they consider the claims of their own respective traditions.

To all, we owe a warning. The argument from this point on will necessarily shift gears in a way that will increase the particularity of its claims but, at the same time, diminish the degree to which we can regard those claims as rationally compelling. Until now, our reflections (p.78) have been based on quite general features of the universe as modern science interprets it, as well as on certain general aspects of human moral experience. In the next two chapters, however, we will turn from the implications of human experience in general to a particular slice of human history; more exactly, to a particular body of testimony about a particular set of human events. Although this loss of universality may be regrettable to some, we maintain that one cannot evaluate the concrete claims of the specific religions—at least in the case of Christianity, and presumably in many of the other traditions as well—without making this shift.

In one sense, the task becomes easier as we descend from the rarefied atmosphere of broadly metaphysical arguments to specific historical claims. But in another sense, the uncertainty that invariably accompanies metaphysical inquiry is necessarily increased when one tries to apply metaphysical conclusions to the interpretation of a reported set of events. The controversies inherent in the metaphysical questions are now compounded by debates about the origin, reliability, and best way of interpreting the testimony that is our only source of access to those events, and our only basis for assessing their possible relevance to the ultimate reality.


(1.) This is the view often known as pantheism; see Michael P. Levine, Pantheism: A Non-theistic Concept of Deity (London: Routledge, 2003).


(2.) Of course, there are a variety of religions that do not involve a reference to an ultimate reality; their concern with ultimacy, if it is thematized at all, is a concern with one’s final ethical, familial, or political duties; one’s responsibilities to one’s tribe or ancestors; or one’s proper place in nature. Confucianism, Shintoism, and animistic religions are often placed in this category. Although this categorization is standard, it is not uncontroversial. For a good indication of the actual complexity, see the three volumes of published results from Boston University’s “ultimate reality research project,” each edited by Robert Cummings Neville and published by SUNY Press in 2001: Religious Truth, Ultimate Realities, and The Human Condition.

(3.) See e.g. Andrew Schoedinger, ed., Introduction to Metaphysics: The Fundamental Questions (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991); Michael J. Loux, ed., Metaphysics: Contemporary Readings (London and New York: Routledge, 2001); Michael J. Loux and Dean W. Zimmerman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Peter van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman, eds., Metaphysics: The Big Questions, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

(4.) See e.g. Pim Valkenberg, Sharing Lights on the Way to God: Muslim–Christian Dialogue and Theology in the Context of Abrahamic Partnership (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006).

(5.) See David F. Ford and C. C. Pecknold, eds., The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); Peter Ochs, ed., The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation (New York: Paulist Press, 1993); John Howard Yoder, The Jewish–Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

(6.) See Jürgen Moltmann’s creative appropriation of Kabbalistic categories such as zimzum in his influential God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1985).

(7.) As we noted in Chapter 1, relations between Judaism and Christianity have been especially fraught, given the original emergence of Christianity in first-century Judaism, Jewish rejection of the earliest Christian claims, and the subsequent history of Christian recrimination, discrimination, and outright atrocities against Jewish communities. We will take up the general question of how Christian communities might more appropriately interact with non‐Christian religious communities in Chapter 8.

(8.) Samuel Johnson famously asked, “As to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, that a Mohametan can say for himself?” (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ch. 32). The skeptically conservative point of Johnson’s question, as the context makes clear, was that the impossibility of fairly evaluating the alternatives made it irrational to leave the religion into which one had been born.

(9.) John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).


(10.) See e.g. Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).

(11.) See Alvin Plantinga, “Ad Hick,” Faith and Philosophy 14 (1997): 295–8; Plantinga, “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” in K. Meeker and Philip Quinn, eds., The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172–92; cf. David Basinger, Religious Diversity: A Philosophical Assessment (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002).

(12.) See Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994); Responsibility and Atonement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). Cf. Alan G. Padgett, ed., Reason and the Christian Religion: Essays in Honour of Richard Swinburne (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

(13.) Rahner writes, “We might therefore put it as follows: the ‘anonymous Christian’ in our sense of the term is the pagan after the beginning of the Christian mission, who lives in the state of Christ’s grace through faith, hope and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ.” (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 14 [London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976], 283.) An interesting interview with Rahner on this topic can be found at www.innerexplorations.com/chtheomortext/kr.htm (accessed May 7, 2011).

(14.) Bernard Williams has worked out the importance of a theory of error in various works: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), ch. 3, e.g. 42f.; Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (London: Routledge, 2005), 166–78; In the Beginning was the Deed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. 1, e.g. 11.

(15.) David Ray Griffin has made this point nicely in his introduction to Griffin, ed., Deep Religious Pluralism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), criticizing John Hick in particular for an ostensibly democratic position on other religions that is in fact hegemonic. At the same time, one can’t help but notice the paradoxical status of religious theories that make the impossibility of religious truth an essential part of the “truth” they claim to teach.