Religion has been as part of society as far as its beginnings. All ancient human civilization had some sort of belief in a God or the transcendent. Beliefs have always been an issue within any human society. The belief of the transcendent gives humans a chance or hope for eternal happiness for people who abide their beliefs.
But through out history, different religions and beliefs emerged which gives rise to the inconsistency. There are numerous differences between religions: one versus many gods, personal versus impersonal gods, personal survival of believers versus no survival of believers, moral codes, religious life, etc. As observable in human history, though religions often offer some sort heaven it often paradoxically entails conflicts and controversies. And despite the fact that religions supposedly gives people a sense of what’s right or wrong, atrocities have been committed in the name of religion; the hundred years war, the inquisition, jihad, ethnical cleansings etc… And amidst the variety of beliefs that populate contemporary society, one cannot help to think how to take in hand the overabundance of truths that sometimes overlaps, dissent, and eventually oppose each other.
There are three stances one can take. First is to (1) treat all religions as valid and true (pluralism). Another way is to (2) view beliefs in way that some are right and some are wrong (exclusivism). Finally, one can also (3) think about all religions as false (atheism).
Let me take into consideration the third stance first. By arguing that all religious beliefs are false, it also means arguing that God or any form of the transcendent does not exist. And by arguing this, means rejecting all of the theistic theses that were formulated in the history of man. And this is the part where the catholic philosopher’s shear my head off, as countless theologians in history were also philosophers.
With atheism in hand, the question God’s Being is also raised. Paul Tillich argues that God is Being, where “Being” represented the ultimate reality that underlies all existence, whether natural or supernatural. In fact, Being doesn’t necessarily pertain to a personal God at all. Tillich wanted to make Being stand for the ultimate concern of all humans, conceived in the broadest sense. Furthermore, any attempt to define what Being is, by giving it the name of a particular God, fails to capture the true Being. Tillich thinks that all particular conceptions of Being that we are familiar with in the West constitute idolatry. When we give religious symbols too much importance, then we have fallen into mere idolatry.
It might be plausibly argued that a religion must possess religious symbols and rituals to qualify as a religion-but, if this is true, then all religions must in a way be idolatrous. This is quite a strong and ridiculous thing to claim. But on the other hand it can also be claimed that atheism is really theism because it possesses infinite concern. The unknowable “God behind God” symbols mediate our relationship with God. God is beyond existence and non-existence.
This leads us to the more theistic approach on the variety of human belief. First is the idea of pluralism which is spearheaded by John Hick. Hick’s theory holds that all religions are expressions of the same ultimate reality. However, how is it possible for all religions to be true images of the same ultimate reality? They can’t all be correct because this would be a violation of the law of non-contradiction (the thesis that something cannot possess a property and lack it at the same time and in the same way). For example, to argue that God is personal from my religion’s perspective and not personal from another religion’s perspective and thus avoid the violation of the law of non-contradiction is to say that God is not ultimately personal. Since it has just been accepted that some other religion has an equally valid view of God which contradicts my own religion’s view, this conclusion once again dents the justification for believing in the specific theories of God by my particular religion (in fact, many religions will reject this compromise for this very reason; namely, because the religion’s views are not really believed to be entirely true).
At one point, Hick argues that the ultimate reality of God has no properties or attributes by itself, but only in relation to believers. So the properties we attribute to God are relational properties, which don’t exist or pertain to God if we don’t exist to assign those properties to God. Yet, this theory still implies that each religion’s view of that ultimate reality is not completely true since there exist other, contradictory and equally correct relative views of God. And this undermines the importance of that particular religion’s beliefs. Also, a being that has no properties or attributes in itself seems incoherent, because, once again, the law of non-contradiction does not seem to apply to that being in the absence of any believers. Besides, a being that has no properties is almost identical to nothing.
On the other hand, one can also take the path of an Exclusivist. Exclusivism states that one’s own religion is true, all the other are false. Which yet again sets it in conflict with every other thought out there: Which religion is the true religion? For the exclusivist, salvation comes from faith in that one true religion. But, there are exceptions that present several problems. Examples of these are people who didn’t hear the religion’s message. Also there are those virtuous and good people who did hear the religion’s message but rejected it. One way to solve these problems is to accept a view that still accepts that there is one true religion (and all the others are false), but who is included in that religion is increased to include all of the people covered in the aforementioned examples (“Inclusivism”).
In addition, the same difficulty mentioned above, of determining which religion is the one true religion, this theory also suffers in that it seems to undermine the importance of being one of the people who essentially hears and follows the message of that one religion. Since merely being a virtuous person is enough to get into heaven, it no longer seems to be all that important to hear any religion’s message, and this weakens the motivation for following that religion.
Another way is to deal with the variety of belief is to treat them as some are more right than others. Although all beliefs may hold some truth in them as what a pluralist might say, there is also the notion of some beliefs holding more sensible, plausible, and appealing aspects than others. Treating beliefs that some are more right than others will impose some sort of hierarchy among them. Being so, there is no sense to take what is less that the optimal path or any belief other than the belief on the top of the ladder. This might be attributed to a sense of rationality or a mental faculty for deciding what people should hold is true or a sense of epistemic duty. Since belief holds such importance in a person’s personal and social life as was mentioned earlier, it cannot be helped to seek verification of what is true and what is not.
Then again, an argument can arise from here asking what basis of rightness or wrongness of a certain belief is in the aforementioned hierarchy. Certainly, we cannot take an objective perspective here due to nature of the subject as argued in numerable articles about belief (belief cannot be grounded empirically). This then leaves me with no means to measure the rightness or wrongness of a certain belief. If this is so, it can be said then that the matter of belief can be left to the personal opinions and values of the believer, or simply put, belief is completely subjective.
Just like understanding any other major term in philosophy of religion, completely understanding the existence of variety of human beliefs in this case would be as hard as pinning gelatin to a wall. Just as one thinks one has held the whole thing in one point, the rest of it slips away and falls apart. And in the end we are back to ground zero, stuck in a standstill conflict of being either an atheist, pluralist or an exclusivist; a sort of conflict between two extremes of anarchy and tyranny. Pluralism in its purest form can lead to anarchy of beliefs due to the equal treatments of all beliefs as in way true and valid. Exclusivism taken to the extreme may is tyranny in sense that only one or some beliefs are the plausible ones to take. And the supposedly safe answer of atheism which every other theistic argument rebukes.
Alluding to the idea of the other that cannot be consumed by the I in Hegelian manner of the thesis and the anti-thesis having a compromise in the form of the synthesis, religions can neither be equalized by a common denominator nor taken separately and treated with bias. Hick, Plantinga, and Tillich tried nobly to create stable grounds by creating bases for beliefs by conceptualizing the whole idea of religions and beliefs. Yet with the contradictions to every argument presented, loose or dead ends appear due to the infinitely vast reality (and paradoxically ambiguous) of religious beliefs, thus one cannot firmly hold his belief in every ground. Therefore, it can be said that there is no safe answer. A risk then of making a mistake is not avoidable just as every evil is inevitable in the world. And just as uncertain the issue of human belief is as every philosophical paradox goes, it is left in the riddle of choice.