The rationality of Christian theism in the face of religious diversity/disagreement

It’s a fact of the matter that there are multiple religions in the world, and the various religions disagree with each other. But given that there’s so much disagreement, how can the Christian be rational in believing his/her religion to be true with the awareness that there is in fact disagreement? In this paper, I want to argue that a Christian can be rational or epistemically warranted/justified in believing Christianity to be true, even with the awareness of religious disagreement. Firstly, I’m going to argue that a Christian can be rational or warranted on the basis of experience and/or argumentation. Secondly, I’m going to respond to the objections and arguments put forth against thinking that a Christian can be rational in thinking her religion to be true with the awareness of religious disagreement.

One way someone can be rational or justified in believing something as being true, is experience.[1] This isn’t to say that experience is an argument nor that someone’s own experience should obligate/give warrant to someone else to believe something as true. Rather, it’s to say that someone should take their experiences or seeming to be true, unless they have a good reason to think otherwise; this is known as the Principle of Credulity.[2]  If we just think about our sensory experiences, then I think we can start to understand what I’m saying. It seems to me that I see a computer in front of me. I’m going to accept this as true, unless I have a reason to not think this is the case. In fact, I don’t have such a reason to doubt my seeming/experience. I would have such a reason to doubt my experience if I had, for example, a reason (defeater) to think I was dreaming, hallucinating, etc.. But alas, I do not…at least not now. I think what has been said of sensory experience can also be said of religious experience.[3]

It seems to me that I’m experiencing God and I should believe so, unless I have a defeater/reason to think otherwise. Perhaps the best route, and perhaps only route, would be for someone like a non-theist to run an argument that would show (beyond all reasonable doubt) that God does exist; this would be a proposed defeater/rebuttal of my experience. But for the purpose of this paper, we are concerned with the rationality of my experience when faced with the fact of religious diversity/disagreement. But in terms of people from other religions, they can also give me reasons to doubt my experience by giving reasons or arguments to think my belief in Christianity is de facto false.

Besides experience, the Christian could also have justification for their belief by appealing to argumentation. One such argument would be the argument from the resurrection.[4] The idea is that there are a few historical facts concerning the death of Jesus, and events shortly after, that call for explanation. The widely agreed on facts are: Jesus was buried in a tomb, Jesus’ tomb was found empty, people experienced appearances of Jesus, and the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead.[5]  What is the best explanation for these facts? One such explanation would be that God raised Jesus from the dead. This wouldn’t establish with necessity that Christianity is true, but it would entail that the Christian is at least warranted in their belief. There have been many naturalistic explanations given so far in response to the argument, but most (if not all) of these explanations are insufficient. One such explanation, and perhaps the most popular and best naturalistic explanation, is that the disciples hallucinated. However, this doesn’t account for facts like the empty tomb, and it doesn’t fit well with our background knowledge of what we know about hallucinations.[6]

But I’m not sure a Christian needs argument or external evidence in order to be warranted in their belief. If one did think that they would seem to be presupposing an evidentialist epistemology.[7] The problem is that it’s not obvious that evidentialism is true. Where’s the evidence that evidentialism is true? It also seems like we have beliefs that are self-justifying and in need of no further evidence. I’m thinking of beliefs like “The universe wasn’t created last Friday”. In addition, I don’t see any reason to think that the Christian must have access to the reason that their belief is epistemically justified. Perhaps, they aren’t aware of the Principle of Incredulity or the epistemology of experience counting as justification/warrant. If one disagrees, they seem to be assuming an internalist epistemology.[8] But I don’t see much reason to think internalism is true. In fact, I can think of counter-examples. It seems to Suzie that the Moon exists, but she isn’t aware nor have access to the potential arguments/justification for why this is so. Is she not warranted/justified in her belief? Surely, it seems like she is. At the very least, the problem of religious disagreement doesn’t seem to be a problem for believers who are not aware of the problem to begin with!

One of the objections to thinking that someone can be rational in taking their religion to be true, is the problem of convincing others.[9] Aren’t other people of other religions warranted in trusting their experiences? If so, then how can we convince them? Well, I think it’s important to note that I am not advocating that the Christian belief is irrefutable or undefeatable.[10] If someone has a sound or cogent argument against Christian theism, then I should conclude that my religious experience was delusory and that my religion doesn’t match up with reality. Hence, I think the same would apply if I encountered a Muslim. I could give arguments that attempt to refute Islam. If the defeater shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Islam is false, then the Muslim should abandon their belief and conclude their experience was delusory, even if (which I think they were) they originally were warranted in their belief. Not to mention, I’m not confident that someone needs to be able to convince another person in order to be rational. I can’t convince a solipsist I exist; moreover, some people can’t convince others that they ate breakfast this morning. Should we conclude, that I or someone is thus irrational? Hence, I do not see how this isn’t at least somewhat analogous to religious experience and thinking ones’ religion is true.

It might be objected here that this might imply that the burden of proof for convincing others would be pretty high for a Christian or someone else from another religion. How high? Well I am not exactly sure or convinced given that many people change religions. For one, it is not obvious that all religions are on equal ground in terms of rationality. In fact, many religions seem downright improbable, which can be seen by people who have de-converted. These same people have said that they were persuaded that their religion was absurd or not likely to be true. Secondly, this objection might be assuming that the argument from the resurrection is not very persuasive, but this is what the very debate is about. Thirdly, there are many arguments that get you to a traditional concept of God that are really only compatible/probable with/given generic theism (i.e. monotheism). I’m thinking of the ontological argument, contingency argument, the moral argument, Aquinas’ five ways, etc. At the very least, these arguments, if sound or cogent, would rule out a lot of religions or most religions. At the very most, we are left with only three viable options: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. So there’s a burden of proof but maybe not as high as originally thought.

Therefore, a Christian can give arguments that make it to where a person of another faith is not justified in believing their religion to be true, including taking their experience to be veridical. Once someone isn’t warranted in believing something, they are obligated to give up that belief from a rational/epistemic standpoint. But of course, just because someone like a Muslim has to give up their faith, doesn’t mean they are obligated to accept Christianity. After all, Christianity could be false and another religion could be true. Certainly I think the argument from the resurrection at least makes Christianity permissible. Furthermore, if a Christian could take an inductive survey of the major religions and conclude from argument that the religions fail to match up with reality, then the fact that Christian theism is epistemically permissible becomes more important.

Coupled with arguments for God’s existence (if plausible), Christian theism becomes one of the few (if not the only) viable options left. So, perhaps Christian theism can be argued for in a way such that one is obligated to accept it as true. For instance, maybe the argument from the resurrection can go further than epistemic permissibility to epistemic obligation. The only way I can see this being done is through an inductive argument. This argument would appear to have to argue that the resurrection probably happened. In other words, it’s more likely than not that the resurrection occurred (Probability>60% , or whatever other percentage that some people would think obligates them/someone to accept a proposition). So at least theoretically, it seems that one can attempt to give arguments that obligate someone to accept the conclusion that Christian theism is true. This theoretical proposal is independent of whether people find an actual argument persuasive or whether they think such an an argument can ultimately be successful in the real world.

Similarly, I think there’s a difference between “knowing” that one’s faith is true and “showing” that one’s faith is true.[11] Surely I can know or justifiably believe things, without being able to convince others. For example, I’m warranted in believing that I exist, but how can I possibly give an argument to convince another person? In fact, the principle that, “You don’t know p or you’re not epistemically permitted to believe p, unless you can show p to be true,” might be self-defeating!  For if someone couldn’t show the principle to be true, then they don’t know it by the very principle! But suppose they say that they can show the principle to be true. But how? I for one am not convinced by it and a lot of others aren’t either. At the very least, its not obvious that the principle is true.

Another criticism is that not all religions and not all religious experiences can be veridical. This is certainly true by the law of non-contradiction. It might be supposed that it’s unjustifiable to think that only my religion is true or that my experience is veridical. But if that’s the case, why not just go one step further and conclude that all religions are false? I obviously reject the conditional premise but for the sake of argument, let us proceed. First off, I’m not sure this objection is charitable. A Christian doesn’t have to be committed to the notion that people of other religions are necessarily having delusory experiences or that other religions don’t have a lot of truth contained in them. Obviously, there are some truths in other religions that nobody really disagrees with. Truth is true no matter the source. Once again, on the Christian view, God has generally revealed Himself to mankind such that it’s not surprising that people of other religions have experiences of God.

Secondly, I am not sure this is just one small step. Do we want to say that all religious people are deluded? This might plausibly amount to some form of mass psychosis[12]. And as mentioned before, the Christian doesn’t have to be committed to thinking that all religions are wrong in everyway. Moreover, one can give arguments to think that at least God exists. If these arguments are sound, then I cannot see how every religious experience is or could be delusory.

Yet another rebuttal, is to claim things like sensory experience can be independently confirmed, but religious experiences and religious truth cannot be.[13] Firstly, there do seem to be a lot of cases where sensory experience cannot be independently checked, but would we then say that the person is irrational for taking their experience at face value? I am thinking of cases where you had an experience but there’s no longer independent evidence of that fact. This becomes more apparent when we think about incidences that happened 10 years ago or things like Cold Cases.  Secondly, one can give arguments to think their religion is true such that the experience is confirmed. Maybe not in a scientific sense, but why should science be the only method of confirmation? Are not arguments independent confirmation? After all, arguments aren’t mere opinions or mere experiences. Thirdly, would independent confirmation even be a relevant disanalogy between religious experience and sensory experience? I do not see why. But if it is a relevantly analogous, why think that?

Finally, I think it’s important that we we distinguish the psychological problem of religious diversity and the philosophical problem.[14] The latter is what I’ve been talking about. The former relates to our feelings and the natural inclination to the problem of religious diversity. Even if we feel that we can’t really be justified in thinking Christianity is true, in the face of religious disagreement, that doesn’t mean our feelings are correct or warranted. Our psychological tendencies are not necessarily rational; often times they can be irrational or arational. There are all sorts of tendencies that humans have, but feelings, habits, or tendencies are not reasons or arguments in favor of believing something.

[1]Alvin Plantinga. “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”, in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith.–181

[2]Keith Ward. “Truth and Diversity of Religions”, Religious Studies 26:1 (March 1990) pp. 12-13.

[3]Alvin Plantinga. “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”, in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith.—pp. 188-189

[4]William Lane Craig. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. Reprint ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 2000. pp. 23-44





[9]David Basinger, “Religious Diversity (Pluralism)”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta

[10]Keith Ward. “Truth and Diversity of Religions”, Religious Studies 26:1 (March 1990) pp. 12-13.

[11]William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008. 50-51.

[12]Peter Kreeft. “Twenty Arguments For The Existence Of God.” Accessed October 27, 2015.

[13] Mark Webb, “Religious Experience”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[14] William Alston., 1988, “Religious Diversity and the Perceptual Knowledge of God,” Faith and Philosophy, 5: 433–448.

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