Chris Knight outlines a 'minimal facts' approach
'If you had been born in India, you would have been a Hindu. You're only a Christian because you were born in the West.'
'All religions are basically the same.'
'Every religion has a different, equally valid perspective on the truth.'
'It is arrogant to claim that only your own religion leads to God.'
At some point, we must all have heard comments along these lines. How do we respond effectively? Let's take a look at these comments, one by one.
1. 'If you had been born in India, you would have been a Hindu. You're only a Christian because you were born in the West.'
If we look at the statistics of religious adherence around the world, it seems fair to say that the culture into which you were born strongly determines the belief system you will adopt - probably for most of your life. But what exactly should we conclude from that? Critics will say that it shows that the religious beliefs we hold are arbitrary and that this does not seem to be something any God would want. So such beliefs cannot be held to be true.
First of all, we may make the point that if the critic had been born in India, he may well have been a Hindu - but that does not automatically invalidate the argument he is presenting to us and so we will take the time to consider it and explain why we believe it to be wrong. Perhaps he will repay the compliment by also engaging with our reasons for believing Christianity to be true? The substantive response to his argument, however, is that how we come to believe something does not automatically mean that what we believe is wrong. To assert that this is the case is to commit the 'genetic fallacy' - assuming a belief is wrong purely because of its origin. When England failed to win their bid to host the 2018 Football World Cup, I concluded that the FIFA bidding process was corrupt. This may have been unwarranted and without proper evidence (in fact it was - I had insufficient evidence at the time to support such a statement), but that does not mean that my conclusion was wrong. Subsequent events have (allegedly) shown that I was correct. People can come to true beliefs for the wrong reasons. And at times, even if a person initially came to their belief because of their cultural background, that person can start to doubt or challenge their inherited beliefs and investigate whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain their beliefs.
Beliefs that have been 'assumed' or 'inherited' rather than arrived at through investigation may well need challenging to see if the evidence for such beliefs is forthcoming, but these beliefs cannot be assumed to be wrong simply because they are common beliefs for those with a certain cultural or religious background.
Of course, being born in a Western country, even into a Christian family, no longer implies that Christianity will be adopted into adulthood. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. If my critic has the same cultural and family background as I do, I might ask them why they think we have come to different beliefs - which may lead to further questions on examining the available evidence...
2. 'All religions are basically the same.'
Unlike the previous question, someone who argues that all religions have the same core beliefs or requirements is probably sympathetic to some form of religious belief. It may be helpful to ask what exactly they do believe, and use that as a starting point for further questions. You may want to query whether their religious belief is indeed basically the same as your own - or it may be best to offer other examples of religious beliefs which are clearly inconsistent.
For example, we could mention that Buddhism does not believe in a God, whereas Judaism, Christianity, Islam and some schools of Hinduism believe in a personal, transcendent God. Other schools of Hinduism, however, believe that God is not distinct from us. Whereas Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Son of God and is fully human and fully God, Islam teaches that Jesus was a human prophet and that Allah has no son. Many other examples of contradictory beliefs in the world religions (leaving aside all the other religions) could be cited, of course.
Another problem for the view that all religions are the same comes from the teaching of Jesus who said, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). These words show that Christianity holds that Jesus is unique among all the world religions in being the way to God (the Father). It is difficult to see how Christianity can be seen as having the same core beliefs as the other world religions when its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, makes such claims for exclusivity.
Many people today seem to want to affirm the equality of all religions as this is seen as inclusive and tolerant, and allows them to embrace all religions and reject none of them. The analogy is sometimes used that the various religions are like different paths up a single mountain - they will all get you to the top in the end.
When the mountain analogy is used, a simple question needs to be asked. How does the person using the analogy know that all the paths lead to the top of the mountain? Presumably they see themselves as being on one of the paths as well. How can they then affirm that all the other paths lead to the same endpoint? The only way to know this is to have a vantage point from above the top of the mountain - being able to see that all the paths lead to the top. But this is the viewpoint we would normally only ascribe to God. How can a mere human being have this knowledge?
Although the mountain analogy is usually used to try to affirm all religions as valid, it actually assumes a level of knowledge which can be seen as being (unintentionally) very arrogant. It certainly assumes a superiority to any religion which sees its claims as exclusive.
3. 'Every religion has a different, equally valid perspective on the truth.'
This claim is slightly different to the previous one, in that all religions are seen as grasping different aspects of ultimate truth, but not necessarily all teaching the same core beliefs. A different analogy is often used here - of the blind men and the elephant. Each feels a different part of the elephant, its leg, its side or its tail, and concludes that an elephant is like a tree, or a wall or a piece of rope.
The analogy is again often used to repudiate any claim to exclusive knowledge and certainty. But the question again is how does the speaker know that this analogy is a good one? They can only know this if they are not like the blind men, but are fully sighted, observing the incomplete fumbling of the blind men. So the analogy again only works on the assumption of a degree of knowledge that we would usually only ascribe to God.
4. 'It is arrogant to claim that only your own religion leads to God.'
We have seen that the two previous statements, although at first sight appearing to show a humble attitude, can only actually be made if the speaker has a degree of knowledge that we would expect only God to have. The analogies of the mountain and of the elephant illustrate this particularly well. Therefore these sorts of statement demonstrate an unrealised claim to a level of knowledge that only God would have. In other words, they unintentionally suggest that God has revealed these things to the speaker. If this were true, then sharing these insights would be the right thing to do - it would show a true concern for others to know the truth from God. On the other hand, if it is not true that God has revealed these things to them, then such claims could themselves be seen as unwarranted and arrogant.
This fourth statement, 'It is arrogant to claim that only your own religion leads to God', is therefore only true if God has not revealed the fact that there is only one way to come to God. If God was, in fact, revealing himself fully and completely in Jesus Christ, and if salvation only comes for anyone through Jesus's death on the cross and his resurrection three days later, then when Christians repeat these truths they are not being arrogant. They are simply re-stating what God has revealed and sharing that life-changing truth with others.
When a doctor suggests a particular treatment for a disease, are they being arrogant? There may be many other treatments that have been suggested over the years or are still suggested by different people. Perhaps placing an appropriate type of crystal under one's pillow would release the appropriate vibrational energy to cure the disease? Is it arrogant to discount such an approach?
Arrogance is the appropriate term if we maintain that we are right and others are wrong, even if there is no evidence for our own belief. We can, of course, present even true statements arrogantly - but as Christians we would ensure that we defend our beliefs 'with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience' (1 Peter 3:16).
If we are accused of arrogance, it can be helpful to check what the speaker understands by 'arrogance'. One dictionary defines it as 'an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.' 1 Can we, gently and with respect, suggest that: 'It is arrogant to claim that there must be many ways which lead to God'? At the very least, perhaps we can agree with our critic that neither of us likes presumptuous claims or assumptions (let alone 'an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner') and so we need to set time aside to discuss together why we each believe what we do.
In a pluralist world with many diverse cultures and religions, claims to exclusive truth can be seen as narrow-minded, arrogant or even cruel. Tolerance no longer seems to mean accepting someone's right to believe differently to yourself, but rather it means not questioning another person's belief in case it upsets them.
It can be a difficult and delicate task to respond to accusations of intolerance and arrogance for holding to our Christian belief that God has revealed himself supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We need not deny elements of truth in other religions, but we cannot deny the claims of Jesus when he says 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). The common accusations do not stand up to scrutiny or contain assumptions of a level of knowledge which the speaker is usually not intending. In an area where emotions are often strong, we need to pray for wisdom, maintaining at all times an attitude of gentleness and respect.
- JP Moreland, How do we Know Christianity is Right Out of All the Religions?
- Timothy J Keller, Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?
- Chris Knight, The Blind Men, the Elephant and the Zoo.
- Mark Pickering, What About Those Who've Never Heard the Gospel?