Keith E. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Christian Theology and Ethics) from Duke University and currently serves as the Director of Theological Education for the U.S. Campus Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ
(Editors' note: This article is an update of an article that was originally published on LeaderU in 1997.)
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "There is only one religion,though there are a hundred versions of it." In our pluralistic society an increasing number of people find Shaw's interpretation of religion appealing. Is it possible that Buddhism,Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc. represent differing, yet valid, paths to the same destination? Were this the case, there would be no need to argue about which religion is "true". Such disputes would be pointless. Perhaps viewing religion in this way would eventually lead to less religious bigotry and greater cooperation among people of differing faiths.
On the other hand, what if all paths do not lead to the same destination? Religious traditions such as Islam and Buddhism offer radically different views of the world. If all paths do not lead to the same destination then it would seem that each person must make an informed choice which may have significant consequences. In this article I will briefly examine arguments for and against the claim that all religious paths lead to the same destination.
All Paths Lead to the Same Destination
Some claim that all religions represent differing, yet equally valid, routes to the same destination. Though each religion may choose its own path, all paths converge at the top of the same mountain. Advocates of this position are aware of the diversity in belief and practice that differentiate Buddhists from Christians, Hindus from Jews, and Muslims from Shintos. Nevertheless, they typically offer the following points in support of their thesis:
First, it is intolerant and ethnocentric to assert that one religion is the true religion and others, which disagree, are false. This type of intolerance, it is pointed out, has caused much bloodshed.
Second, the contrasting claims of different religions do not prove that one religion is true and others are false. Instead it suggests that no religion possesses the entire truth, but only bits and pieces of it. Imagine, for example, that three blind men are touching an elephant. The first blind man is holding on to the elephant's leg. He explains, "I think an elephant is like the trunk of a great tree." The second blind man disagrees. "No, I believe an elephant is like a snake," he says while holding the elephant's trunk. The third blind man responds, "No, you both are wrong, an elephant is like a wall." (He is touching the elephant's side.) Each blind man thinks he is right and that the others are wrong even though all three of them are all touching the same elephant. In a similar way, is it not possible that all religions are in contact with the same ultimate reality and merely describe it in different ways?
Finally, all religions share a common ethical core. Some formulation of the Golden Rule, for example, is found in Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, Taoism, Islam, and Buddhism. In addition, each of these traditions produces a similar ethical/moral transformation in the lives of its followers. Moreover, it would be difficult to prove that one religious tradition is more effective than others in transforming the lives of its followers.
These three arguments are typically offered in support of the claim that all paths are valid means to the same destination. Perhaps the most sophisticated formulation of this position is the "pluralistic hypothesis" proposed by philosopher John Hick.1 Hick's pluralistic hypothesis attempts to explain four phenomena: the fact that people are inherently religious, that a substantial diversity exists in the actual content of religious belief, an assumption that religious belief is not an illusion, and the fact that almost every religious tradition positively changes it followers lives. Hicks claims that there is an ultimate reality (which he calls the "Real"); that each religious tradition, suffering from a Kantian blindness, does not have direct perception of this ultimate reality; and that each religious tradition represents an authentic way in which this reality is conceived and experienced.
Hick is fully aware that various religious traditions hold conflicting beliefs on a number of key points. Nevertheless, he claims that each religion brings positive moral change (what he calls "salvation/liberation") in the lives of its followers. In light of this, he believes that it does not make sense to conceive of one religion as true and others as false. Instead, all religions should be viewed as equally valid means to what Hick calls "salvation/liberation."
Pluralistic interpretations of religion like Hick possess a strong intuitive appeal. Nevertheless, they possess two deficiencies which, in the final analysis, render them unacceptable. First, they are unable adequately to account for the conflicting truth-claims among various religions. Second, in order to avoid the latter problem, they radically reinterpret the beliefs of specific traditions in ways that fundamentally distort these beliefs. It will be helpful to examine these two issues in greater detail.
The Achilles' heel of the assumption that all paths lead to the same destination is the problem of conflicting truth-claims. Every religious tradition makes truth-claims and some of these truth-claims contradict the truth-claims of other religious traditions. We will briefly examine three areas of disagreement.
(1.) The first area of contradiction regards the nature of the ultimate reality (such as God). One discovers there is a vast chasm between monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and pantheistic religions (such as Hinduism, Buddhism). Muslims claim that there is only one God, Allah, who created the universe from nothing. Some Hindus, on the other hand, believe not in a personal creator but in an impersonal absolute reality (Brahman) which permeates all things. Other Hindus believe that there are millions of deities (such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Krishna) which are manifestations of Brahman.
(2.) A second area of contradiction relates to the fate of individuals at death. According to Islam, each person will die once and then face judgment by Allah. Depending on Allah's judgment, a person will spend eternity in heaven or hell. In contrast, many Hindus assert that people will live (and have already lived) many lives. Moreover, Hindus believe that the conditions of one’s past and future existence are determined by the cosmic laws of karma. Following death each of us is reincarnated into a different form (human, animal, etc.).
(3.) Each religious tradition also identifies a universal problem that afflicts humanity. This brings us to a third area of disagreement. For example, Hindus claim that the universal problem facing humanity is samsara. Samsara is an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth (reincarnation) in which every person is trapped. Only through knowledge of one's relationship to Brahman and religious devotion can this cycle be broken and moksha (release) experienced. Christianity, on the other hand, maintains that the universal problem facing every person is separation from God. According to Christianity, each person has rebelled against God by violating his commands (what the Bible calls "sin"). Christianity insists that there is no human solution to this problem. Only through a relationship with Jesus Christ can this problem of separation from God be overcome. Christians believe that Jesus Christ paid an individual’s sin-penalty through his death on the cross in order to restore him or her into relationship with God.
These conflicting claims about the nature of the Ultimate, the fate of individuals at death, as well as the universal problem facing humanity are only a few of the conflicting assertions made by different religious traditions. These conflicts render implausible the assumption that all paths lead to the same destination. Perhaps the following will help illustrate why this is the case. Consider the following two statements:
· On January 8, 2007, the Florida Gators won the national championship in football.
· On January 8, 2007, the Florida Gators did not win the national championship in football.
It is obvious that both of these statements cannot be correct at the same time. This self-evident truth is often referred to as the principle of "non-contradiction." This principle has a significant implication for our investigation. Two contradictory assertions cannot both be correct. Thus, if two religions make truth-claims which contradict each other, they cannot both be right. For example, when Hindus claim that there are many Gods and Jews claim that there is only one God, one of them must be wrong. In addition, when Muslims claim that each person lives precisely one life and then faces judgment while Hindus claim that each person lives many lives (determined by the law of Karma), at least one of them must be wrong.2
One might agree, in principle, that religious traditions make conflicting claims yet still disagree with my conclusion regarding the significance of these conflicts. Instead, it might be argued that all this talk about conflicting "truth-claims" misunderstands the true nature of religious language. After all, religious language is highly symbolic. The Christian Bible, for example, uses many anthropomorphisms to describe God (e.g., God described as a "shepherd" who cares for his sheep in Psalm 23). Thus, would it not be better to speak of differing "metaphors" rather than conflicting truth-claims?
Interpreting all religious language symbolically does avoid the problem of conflicting truth-claims, however, only at a very high price. Claiming that all religious language is "symbolic" in order to eliminate all conflict is like sawing offones arm to stop a finger from bleeding. It stops the bleeding, but only by creating a bigger problem. In order to demonstrate why this is the case I will comment briefly on the nature of religious language.
Just as an orchestral composition utilizes a wide array of musical instruments, so religious language utilizes a rich variety of literary forms including poetry, myth, history, and straight-forward prose. Yet the reality that some religious language is highly symbolic, does not negate the fact that religions make truth-claims. Instead, it suggests that religious truths comes packaged in a variety of forms and that proper interpretation of religious language requires careful attention to the particular literary genre one is reading.
The critical question is this: Does religious language intend to describe realities which exist independent of our perception, or are statements such as God exists merely statements of apersons subjective emotional state? If religious statements (regardless of their specific genre) intend to describe extra-mental realities which objectively exist, then they are subject to contradiction. If, on the other hand, all religious language is merely symbolic in such a way that religious statements cannot contradict one another, then it would seem religious language does not refer to anything which exists independent of us. This makes religious language little more than a commentary on our subjective psychological states.3 Interestingly, this position is very similar to Sigmund Freud's view of religious language. In Future of an Illusion Freud wrote,
These [religious ideas], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life.. . .4
Freud believed that religious language was non-referential. He claimed that statements such as "God exists" do not describe an extra-mental state of affairs but merely express certain psychological needs. For the purposes of our discussion, it is important to recognize that one cannot consistently invoke the category of metaphor/symbolism to resolve the conflicting claims of different religions and maintain that Freud was wrong.
It will be helpful at this point to return to the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. Earlier we examined the possibility that religious traditions are like the three blind men who were attempting to describe the same elephant. Each of them described the same elephant differently. Are the religions of the world like the three blind men?
As appealing as this story is, it leaves one important question unanswered: How do we know the blind men were all describing the same elephant? What if the first blind man, while holding an oak tree said, "I think an elephant is like the trunk of a great tree." What if the second blind man, while holding a fire hose exclaimed, "No, you're wrong; an elephant is like a snake." What if the third blind man, while touching the side of the Sears Tower asserted, "I think you are both wrong; an elephant is like a great wall." The critical problem with this story is that it assumes the very thing it allegedly proves—namely, that all the blind men are touching the same elephant. Yet how do we know the blind men are touching an elephant? Only because the story assumes it!
To take it a step further, what if each of the blind men made assertions about an (alleged) elephant which were not merely different, but contradictory? What if the first blind man said there is only one elephant? What if the second blind man said there are four elephants? What if the third blind man said there are no elephants? Under these circumstances, would it still be plausible to believe they are all describing the same elephant? How much contradiction would be required in their accounts before it would become obvious that they were not describing the same elephant? A similar question can be asked of the claim that all paths lead to the same destination. How do we know all paths lead to the same destination? In light of the conflicting truth-claims of various religions it does not seem rational to believe that all paths lead to the same destination.
All Paths Do Not Lead to the Same Destination
This brings us to our second alternative: all paths do not lead to the same destination. At first glance, this position may seem unreasonable. Is not this type of claim incredibly intolerant? Moreover, is not the real issue the sincerity of one's belief? Finally, even if only one path is "valid," how could it ever be identified? Before discussing these questions it will be helpful to examine the arguments offered in support of this position.
One strength of this position is that it takes the truth-claims of religious traditions seriously. It attempts to understand the beliefs of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians in their proper context. This is a critical point. Option one (the assumption that all paths lead to the same destination) can be rendered plausible only by radically reinterpreting the teachings of the various religious traditions so they no longer conflict.
Yet, the founders of many religious traditions made claims which they knew contradicted the claims of other religions. The Buddha, for example, rejected Hindu belief regarding the cause of samsara (the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth). Moses, a key figure in Judaism, rejected the polytheism of the Canaanite nations that surrounded the nation of Israel and claimed that only one God, Yahweh, created the world and should be worshiped.5 Muhammad, the founder of Islam, rejected the polytheism to which he was exposed in sixth century Arabia. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, claimed, "I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but through me" (John 14:6). In other words, these religious founders knew that certain claims they made contradicted the claims of other religions.
Our second option begins with the observation that every religion makes truth-claims about the nature of an ultimate reality (whether God, Brahman, Nirvana), the origin of humanity, the fate of humanity at death, and the path to salvation or liberation. The fact that religions make such claims has a significant entailment. As we have already seen, when two religions make claims which contradict each other, they cannot both be correct. The laws of logic necessitate this.
Not everyone, however, is persuaded, that religions make truth-claims.6 To clarify this issue, it will be helpful to examine a distinction philosopher Mortimer Adler makes in his book Truth in Religion. Adler distinguishes what he calls "matters of truth" and "matters of taste."7 It will be easiest to illustrate Adler's distinction through the following statements:
· Carmen's has the best stuffed Pizza in the city of Chicago.
· I love seafood.
· The Cubs are my favorite baseball team.
Adler would categorize these statements as matters of taste. Consider, however, the following statements:
· George W. Bush is currently president of the United States.
· The Titanic sunk into the icy waters of the Atlantic on April 15, 1912 about 2:20a.m.
· Over six million Jewish men, women and children perished in the holocaust.
Adler would describe these statements as matters of truth. Adler explains that matters of truth require us to make a decision anytime the "mass of evidence or weight of reasons point in one direction rather than another . . ."8
Adler's helpful distinction raises the following question: What type of claims do religious traditions make? Are the claims of religion merely matters of taste, or, are they also matters of truth? Consider the following claims of Christianity:
· Jesus Christ was a Jew who lived in Palestine during the early part of the first century.
· Jesus was executed by Roman soldiers on a cross about A.D. 30.
· Jesus rose from the dead, three days after his death, and appeared to over five-hundred witnesses.
While one might argue over truthfulness of these assertions, one cannot deny the fact that these claims fall in the category of matters of truth (meaning that they are either true of false).
Several objections are typically raised against the claim that all paths do not lead to the same destination. First, it is argued that such a position is narrow and intolerant. Second, it is frequently suggested that truth is really not that important; what really matters is the sincerity of one's belief. Third, even if one path is valid and others are not, it is argued that there is no way to know which path is "true," that is there are no neutral criteria which can be used to evaluate religious traditions. I will examine each of these objections.
(1.) "Tolerance" is a central value in contemporary American culture. We are frequently reminded that we should be tolerant of those with whom we disagree. Who can argue with this? It is certainly preferable to the other alternatives. World history is replete with the consequences of religious bigotry--holy wars, religious crusades, inquisitions, etc. Activities like these, carried out under the banner of "religion," are morally reprehensible. Hence, it is important that we continue to work to create a world where there is greater religious freedom.
Nevertheless, it is important that "tolerance" not be confused with "truthfulness." My alma mater, the University of Michigan, won the NCAA championship in football in 1997. Imagine if someone who heard me claim that Michigan won the championship in 1997 replied, "Well that is an incredibly intolerant thing to say!" This response is, at best, confusing and blurs an important distinction. Does this statement mean that my communication style was kindness-impaired or that my assertion was false? Being a zealous Michigan fan it is possible I was obnoxious; however, the way in which I communicate my statement must be carefully distinguished from the truthfulness of my statement.
Similarly, when examining the claims of religious traditions we must be careful not to confuse tolerance and truthfulness. Claiming that it is intolerant to say that Aall paths do not lead to the same destination misses the point. The important issue is the truth or falsity of this assertion.
(2.) A second objection relates to the matter of sincerity. Someone may say, "What a person believes really is not that important. What really matters is the sincerity of their belief." Certainly sincerity is important in the realm of religious belief. Nothing turns off people more quickly than religious hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the sincerity with which one holds a particular belief must be carefully distinguished from the truthfulness of that belief. To illustrate this distinction, imagine that you are in a chemistry lab. Your professor announces that your first experiment will involve studying the properties of acids. She places a 500ml Pyrex beaker containing clear liquid on the lab table and says, "This is sulfuric acid." In response to her explanation, imagine that your lab partner, Jim, blurts out, "I don't believe that is sulfuric acid. It looks like water to me." Jim is so sincere about his belief that the Pyrex beaker contains water, that he decides to drink it.
What will happen to Jim? Obviously, he will be lucky if he lives long enough to participate in next week's lab once the sulfuric acid finishes off his digestive system. Despite his sincerity, Jim's belief that the beaker contained water did not change the nature of its contents. He may believe with all of his heart that the beaker only contains water but the acid will still kill him. One's belief about an object (or state of affairs) must be carefully distinguished from the actual object or state of affairs. One may be sincere and yet sincerely wrong.
(3.) A third objection relates to the problem of objectivity. Even if one religion is true, and others are false, it is suggested there are no neutral criteria by which one can evaluate religious traditions. If, for example, you ask a Muslim why he rejects Hinduism he will say that it does not agree with the teachings of the Koran. Similarly, if a Buddhist is asked why she rejects Christianity, she will reply that it does not square with the teachings of the Buddha.
While it is true that adherents of one tradition may reject the teachings of other religions because they fail to cohere with their own teachings, it does not follow from this that there are no criteria which can be used to evaluate religious traditions. At least five tradition independent criteria may exist.9 These potentially include (1) logical consistency, (2) adequate factual support, (3) experiential relevance, (4) consistency with other fields of knowledge, and (5) moral factors.10 These criteria are relevant to the evaluation of any theory (whether it is historical, scientific or even religious).
At the beginning of this essay I raised the question: "Do all paths lead to same destination?" In light of the conflicting truth-claims among various religions, I have argued that all paths cannot lead to the same destination. Consequently, it is our responsibility to examine the paths before us and make an informed choice.
A Postscript . . .
Some will find my conclusion unsettling. Faced with a myriad of religions, where does one begin? Perhaps I can offer my own experience. From my study of the Christian faith I am persuaded of the truthfulness of its claims. Although I grew up in a Christian family, my personal study began as a freshman at the University of Michigan. I found myself asking a lot of questions such as "How do I know God exists?" and "Can I trust the Bible?" Over the course of that year I carefully read much of the New Testament. I was surprised to discover that Christianity provides criteria by which its truth-claims can be evaluated. Permit me to explain.
A central claim of Christianity is that God entered human history 2000 years ago through a man named Jesus Christ who died on a cross between two thieves and rose from the dead three days later. The truthfulness of Christianity depends upon a critical historical event--the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In a first-century letter to a group of Christians the apostle Paul wrote the following about the significance of Christ's resurrection: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (I Corinthians 15:14). Paul explains that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false.
Thus, to disprove Christianity one would only need to show Christ was never raised from the dead. Some years ago a skeptic of Christianity named Josh McDowell set out to do precisely this. He wanted to write a book that would refute Christianity. In his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict he writes,
After more than 700 hrs of studying this subject, and thoroughly investigating its foundation, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history.11
As a skeptic of Christianity Josh McDowell not only found the evidence for Christ's resurrection from the dead compelling, but himself became a follower of Jesus Christ.
Because Christianity offers criteria by which its truth-claims can be evaluated, this makes it a great place tostart one's investigation. Perhaps the best way to begin examining Christianity would be to read the four biographical accounts ofChrist's life found in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
1 See John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale, 1989). Space considerations do not permit me to interact with Hick=s pluralistic hypothesis. For an evaluation of Hick=s hypothesis see Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 158-246.
2 Logically speaking, it is also possible they are both wrong.
3 It is also worth noting that viewing religious language in this way involves a radical reinterpretation of religious language that the adherents of most religious traditions would find unacceptable. Even if some adherents hold that religious beliefs express, in a metaphorical way, their subjective emotional states certainly not all adherents do. Many, I suspect, believe that their religious doctrines intend to describe objective realities.
4 Sigmund Freud. The Future of an Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson-Scott, rev. James Strachey (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 47-48.
5 For example, certain portions of the Pentateuch (e.g., Genesis 1) are best understood as a polemic against the religious beliefs of the surrounding Canaanite nations.
6 Oxford scholar Don Cupitt, for example, claims that the truth of religion is like the truth of art. See Don Cupitt, "The Death of Truth," New Statesman, April 5, 1991, 23-24.
7 Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (New York: MacMillan, 1990), 2-5.
8 Ibid., 3.
9 This is not to suggest the evaluation of religious truth-claims is an easy task. Many complicated epistemological issues arise when one attempts to demonstrate the truthfulness of religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I do believe it is possible to provide warrant for religious truth-claims. For a helpful discussion of issues related to providing warrant for truth-claims in religion see Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief. New York: Seabury, 1973.
10 A discussion of these criteria is outside the scope of this article, however, others have discussed them in detail as they relate to the evaluation of religious traditions. See Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 284-307.
11 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, rev. ed. (San Bernardino: Here's Life, 1979), 179.