(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 10: “Is Jesus the Only Way to God?”)
We’ve come to the end of William Lane Craig’s big arguments for God, but there’s still a few loose ends to tidy up. The first problem he tackles is pluralism, i.e. the idea that other religions might also be valid. The trouble with with most of Craig’s arguments (i.e. all but the last) is that they’re non-specific. The kalam argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral law argument, etc, all boil down to what you might call “superstition with an expanded vocabulary.” If you’re just looking at things you haven’t got a simple answer for, and are arbitrarily attributing them to whatever deity or deities suit your preferences, there’s really no reason to claim that Christianity’s superstitions are any better than anyone else’s.
That will never do, of course, so the first item on Craig’s agenda is to try and disprove pluralism, so that Christians can have a monopoly on the One True Path to God.
Before we look at Craig’s attempts to deconstruct pluralism, let’s consider first what pluralism really means. There are a number of types of pluralism, for one thing. There’s atheistic pluralism, where all religions are of equal value because they’re all equally false. And there’s agnostic pluralism, where all religions are of equal value because we can never know which of them, if any, is correct. You can also have humble pluralism, where you think one answer is correct, and may even be knowable, but you’re humble enough to admit your own fallibility, and therefore you concede to others the same right to their own sincerely-held beliefs.
And of course there’s the kind of self-contradictory pluralism that says all religions are really true even when they contradict each other, but that’s just tosh, so we don’t really need to spend any time arguing that one.
Before addressing what he calls “The Problem Posed by Religious Diversity,” Craig spends four pages rehearsing the traditional Christian claims of supremacy and monopoly regarding The Truth, without offering any particular reason why we should accept those claims as true. And in fact, in the next several pages, he’s not going to give us any. What he’s doing here is setting up Christian claims as the presumed default, so that he can then attack pluralism on his way to the conclusion that only one religion can be true. Which religion? Yeah, we’re supposed to assume that it must be Christianity, by default. Kind of unscrupulous, but that’s how you win debates, I guess.
The meme Craig wants to foster is the idea that all arguments for pluralism are fallacies.
For example, it’s frequently asserted that it’s arrogant and immoral to hold to any kind of religious particularism because you then have to regard everybody who disagrees with you as mistaken. Therefore religious particularism is false.
This seems to be a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as “argument ad hominem,” which tries to invalidate a position by attacking the character of those who hold to it. This is a fallacy because the truth of a position is independent of the moral character of those who believe it.
Interestingly, a common variant on this argument is the claim that it’s arrogant and immoral to be an atheist because then you have to regard billions of theists as mistaken, and therefore atheism is false. Atheism is just Christianity with one less God, so the resemblance is no coincidence.
Craig’s answer is a good refutation of self-contradictory pluralism, but it doesn’t really refute the other three types. If I say that the world is round because people who believe in a flat earth are stupid, that’s anad hominem argument, but the fallacious nature of my argument doesn’t mean the world really is flat.
Not only that, but why think that arrogance and immorality are necessary conditions of being a particularist? Suppose I’ve done all I can to discover the truth about God. Suppose I’ve studied various religions; I’ve sincerely sought God in prayer. Suppose as a result of my search I’m convinced that Christianity is true, and so I humbly embrace Christian faith as an undeserved gift of God. Am I arrogant and immoral for believing what I sincerely think is true?
That depends on how willing you are to acknowledge the possibility that your conclusions could be entirely wrong. If you’re willing to concede the caveat that what you say isn’t necessarily true, and that there’s a possibility you’re wrong—not just a purely hypothetical for-the-sake-of-argument proposition, but a genuine, substantial, real-world possibility that your God does not even exist—then you can claim genuine humility to the extent that you make allowances for the possible falsehood of your dogmas and apologetics. But in that case, you have to be a pluralist of some sort.
Finally, and even more fundamentally, this objection is a double-edged sword. For the pluralist also believes that his view is right and that all those adherents to particularistic religious traditions are wrong. Therefore, if holding to a view that many others disagree with means you’re arrogant and immoral, then the pluralist himself would be convicted of arrogance and immorality.
And that’s the problem with religion: there’s just no way to argue for either a liberal religion or a conservative one without somehow being guilty of arrogance and immorality. The tie-breaker here is reality itself. Why not humbly allow reality to dictate which God or gods are real, by observing which One or ones we see showing up in real life? That’s an approach that’s famous for leading to atheism, but at least it’s properly humble and reasonable.
Or to give another example, it’s frequently alleged that Christian particularism can’t be correct because religious beliefs are culturally relative. For example, if you had been born in Pakistan, you would likely have been a Muslim. Therefore your belief in Christianity is false or unjustified.
But again, this seems to be a textbook example of what’s called the “genetic fallacy.” This is trying to invalidate a position by criticizing the way a person came to hold that position. The fact that your beliefs depend upon where and when you were born has no relevance to the truth of those beliefs…
And once again, the pluralist pulls the rug from beneath his own feet: For had the pluralist been born in Pakistan, then he would likely have been a religious particularist! Thus, on his own analysis his pluralism is merely the product of his being born in late twentieth-century Western society and is therefore false or unjustified.
This one’s a bit more subtle, because the actual problem with Christianity does have to do with the evidence upon which it is based. That makes it easy for Craig to equivocate between criticizing the basis for Christian particularism and criticizing the means by which one comes to be a Christian particularist. What Craig is idly dismissing as mere genetic fallacy is the observation that both Muslim and Christian dogmas are rooted in social interactions rather than in any objectively verifiable deity whose precepts can be obtained by direct observation. You can measure the acceleration of gravity no matter where you are born, because gravity is an objective fact. Neither Christianity nor Islam have this property; traditional dogmas are acquired socially, not scientifically. And social sources of information are fallible. Humility, at least, ought to suggest pluralism (if not outright atheism) as the most reasonable response.
And that’s pretty much it for Craig’s attempt to discredit pluralism. He found two ways to describe a couple arguments for pluralism so that they sounded something like a fallacy, and therefore we’re expected to conclude that all arguments for pluralism are fallacious, and that Christianity, by presumptive default, is therefore the One True Path to God. Sounds legit, eh?
Now, in fairness to Craig, I should point out that, ultimately, there is only one real truth—objective reality. It’s the same reality for all of us, even if some of us choose to perceive it differently. In that sense, pluralism can never be a path to the truth, because pluralism necessarily encompasses contradiction, and thus disproves itself. (If there were no contradiction, it would all be the same truth, and therefore not plural, and therefore not pluralism.)
The value of pluralism lies in what it contributes to our social relationships. If we lived in a world where everyone shared the same reality-based worldview, then our religions (if we had any) would all share the same consistency with each other and with the real world that reality has with itself. In such a world there would be no need for pluralism, because we’d all be reading from the same “Bible”—reality itself—and would have the means to interrogate it scientifically and come up with objective and verifiable answers to any questions we might have about life.
Yeah, like that’ll ever happen. Meanwhile, we have to live in the world we’ve got, where some people (like Dr. Craig) are willing and able to use every trick in the book to get us to trade our liberty and freedom of thought for a sectarian and enslaving dogma that uses and abuses people, that discriminates against minorities (like gays and atheists), and that promotes superstition, self-deception, and evangelism. Our best defense against theological slave traders, in this context, is pluralism—the official policy of allowing everyone freedom of religion, and not allowing any one sect to control the rest of us.
Next week, Craig is going to give us a fine demonstration of proctotheology in his defense of the Christian doctrine of hell. Stay tuned.