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Monday, 20 October 2008

Does Pluralism Make Faith Arbitrary?

Recently I have been reading Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. (This is not like me because I don't typically read popular apologetics books, and it is even more rare that I would lead a blog entry with one.)

One thing that interested me is that when Keller examines the objections to the Christian faith he addresses first, not the problem of evil, but rather the claim that it is arbitrary, dogmatic, irrational, bigoted, etc to claim that Christianity is true in the face of pervasive religious pluralism. The fact that affirming Christianity involves adopting an epistemic stance that contradicts the stance taken by so many people, is seen as arbitrary and dogmatic.

This is particularly so if one believes, as I do, that certain Christian beliefs are properly basic, that is, one can rationally assert them independently of any proof of their veracity. Doesn't the fact that so many other people do not hold these beliefs and often hold contrary beliefs, make faith of this sort some kind of arrogant bluster? Isn't it arbitrary for me to assume that my particular faith is true and everyone else is incorrect? I do not think so and in this blog I will sketch some of my reasons why.

The first thing to note about this objection is that it is based on a claim that it is arbitrary to believe a proposition in the absence of proof if numerous other people do not hold that proposition.

Now a little reflection should demonstrate the problem with this claim; the claim itself is one many people do not hold, hence, if the claim is true it is arbitrary to believe it without proof. As none has been offered, I am inclined to take the proponent of this view's word and reject it. Moreover, as the proponent himself has not offered a proof it must be irrational for him to accept this proposition. In fact, there is an obvious incoherence in this kind of objection; the objector proposes that I reject Christian belief on the basis of the above claim, however, I can only do that if I accept the above claim. But if I accept the above claim, I am in the very epistemic situation the claim says I should avoid. It is hard to see how any coherent or sensible objection of this sort can be raised.

There is another problem with this objection. Suppose, for the sake of example, I accept the objector's advice, presumably then I should cease to believe in the Christian faith. But if I do this, aren't I adopting an epistemic stance that is contrary to that held by many people? What about the many Christians, for example, who do not reject the Christian faith? By rejecting Christianity I am taking up an epistemic stance that differs from them and hence, am taking up a stance contrary to that held by many people.

One needs to bear in mind too that the pluralist mindset, the concern so pervasive in our culture today, that all religions are equal and it is wrong to say one is incorrect and another is right is a peculiar western phenomena. Many religions reject this mindset, most religions claim that they are true. People generally don't believe things that they think are false; to believe a proposition is to affirm it. Once this is realised it is clear that pluralism itself is one religious perspective, one that is contrary to most, if not all others. Until the pluralist can provide compelling proof of his position, it would be silly and outright irrational, to become a pluralist on the grounds that one shouldn't adopt views widely rejected by others unless one can prove them.

[At a later date I hope to review Keller's book for this blog. It is a very interesting book as although it is popular, it draws on some fairly high level Christian Philosophers such as Plantinga, Alston, Swinburne, etc and for that reason alone is worth reading. It is interesting to see how a pastor can take these writings and ideas and make them accessible to a lay congregation. I am not so impressed with the second half of the book but I have not finished it yet. Reason for the Hope Within is, I think, a better introduction to apologetics, for those who have never studied it but who want to find a starting point, but this is, so far, a good second.]


  1. The objection is logically weak, but it does have emotional force. When Christianity is perceived as dogmatic, reality-denying, and complicit with Americal military and industrial expansion to the detriment of social values, then we have a problem. There's a whole lot of cultural baggage (strawmen) to dispose of rather than taking the objection at face value. I suppose the best refutation of the "bigot" accusation is not with words but with actions, demonstrating grace and love, despite whatever disagreements. Also I love the prayerful approach of Bruce Collins, which redefines evangelism away from an intellectual exercise into a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit.

  2. I cannot get enough of what you write on this blog. Your entries demonstrate possibilities that the church is lacking in.

    I am going to track down both books you mentioned. Can you recommend any more? If I want to study to get to your standard where should I study, should I enrol where you teach?


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