Christian Belief, Arrogance, and Religious Diversity

I am absolutely against any religion that says that one faith is superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism. It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you, and that’s what leads to hatred. – Rabbi Schmuley Boteach1

The plurality of world regions, their many devout adherents and the divergence of their teachings can pose challenges to Christian belief. Accusations like this are common:

You Christians are arrogant for thinking you’re right and the millions of people in other religions are wrong.

I’m going to argue that this statement is incorrect, and that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity. Consider the law of non-contradiction (LNC):

Some proposition P cannot be both P and non – P at the same time and in the same way.

LNC states that assenting to the truth of a proposition entails rejecting the opposite. If I believe the proposition “Pluto is a planet” that necessarily implies that (if I’m being logical) I must reject the claim “Pluto is not a planet”. Hence, every time someone assents to the truth claims of Christianity, they are logically obligated to reject contrary beliefs.2 So rejecting the opposing claims of other religions is the logically consistent thing for Christians to do.

It’s worth noting that Christians are under no obligation to think other religions are false categorically. Religions are (at least) collections of truth claims, each of which has to be evaluated individually. For instance, Christians agree with Muslims that giving to the poor is an important moral principle, and that God revealed himself to Abraham, but also strongly disagree about the deity of Christ. Logic only compels disagreement when the beliefs of other religions contradict (have the opposite truth value of) one’s own.

Perhaps the arrogance charge is along these lines:

It’s arrogant to believe something that is a minority opinion and for which you don’t have arguments that would convince people who disagree.

It’s true that most Christians don’t have arguments that could persuade people in other religions. However, does believing in spite of that make them arrogant? Alvin Plantinga argues that the answer is no, and has a helpful historical example:

The eighteenth-century Quakers believed slavery was wrong. They realized, of course, that most of their contemporaries did not share that belief, and they also realized that they had no arguments that would convince their contemporaries. Given that they were thus out of step with the majority, they no doubt reflected carefully on this belief. If, on reflection, slavery still seemed to them wrong, seriously wrong, could they really be doing something immoral [or arrogant] in continuing to believe that slavery was wrong? I don’t think so.3

Most people would probably agree that the Quakers displayed no arrogance by believing ideas that their contemporaries didn’t share, and for which they had no convincing arguments.

Let’s take a more common example of the same phenomenon: political views. In his essay Non Est Hick, Peter van Inwagen analogizes religious and political beliefs to argue that if you believe religious views are arrogant, you have the same problem with political views. When it comes to believing minority ideas for which for which we lack arguments that would convince those who disagree, don’t we all do that with politics?

If you believe that the government should implement universal healthcare, or looser gun laws, or tax cuts, or tariffs, the nature of belief and basic logic imply that you think everyone who disagrees is wrong. No matter what your political views, there are multitudes of people who disagree, and most of the time, your attempts to persuade them are probably unsuccessful. Is everyone with political views arrogant just for being politically opinionated? That seems false.

Obviously, there are differences between political philosophies and religions, but is there some feature of religious belief that makes a Christian arrogant, that doesn’t apply to a Reagan conservative, a Rothbardian libertarian, or a Rawlsian liberal? I doubt it. As van Inwagen says, both religious and political views are, “Making claims to how the real world really is.”4

The critic could concede that Christian belief isn’t arrogant in itself, but that it leads to arrogance by virtue of beliefs about salvation: “We Christians are going to heaven and you non-Christians are not.” However, this attitude is patently unchristian, as van Inwagen says in his essay:

The members of the Church can… take no pride in her unique relation to God, for that relation is His doing and not theirs.5

His point brings to mind Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Salvation is a gift from God and Christians have no ground for pride.

If the critic is unconvinced by my points thus far, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong: there is something arrogant about being a Christian. There is something to the critic’s accusation: “You’re arrogant for thinking your religious beliefs are right, and those who disagree are wrong!”

Is the critic arrogant here? For surely, he thinks he’s right about Christian arrogance, and believes those who disagree are wrong. If the critic is arrogant by his own standard, his accusation looses its punch.  

Indeed, it’s hard to see who isn’t arrogant. Imagine the most inclusive universalist possible, let’s call him Joe. He thinks all religions are human attempts to respond to ultimate reality, and the doctrinal differences are just surface level or illusory. Joe (naturally) thinks that everyone who disagrees with him (like Christians) is wrong. Is Joe arrogant? Under the, it’s-arrogant-to-think-your-religious-beliefs-are right-and-those-who-disagree-are-wrong criteria, he is, and if he is, who isn’t?

I’ve argued that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity and rejecting all opposing claims. Once it is accepted, the nature of belief and basic logic imply this conclusion.6


Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, p. 203.

[2] Here a critic could object:

“What you’ve said only follows if Christianity claims to be objective truth. I believe in Christianity in a subjective sense – an edifying philosophy that teaches love and self – sacrifice.”

I do accept Christianity as a set of objective truth claims – meaning it’s true regardless of whether any human thinks it’s true. Frankly, I can’t understand Scripture and the Christian tradition as anything other than claims to objective truth. The apostle Paul spoke for me when he said, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless…” (1 Cor. 15:17).

[3] Knowledge and Christian Belief, p. 110.

See also Plantinga’s essays Pluralism: A Defense of Exclusivism and Ad Hick.

For a quick introduction to his thought on the issue of religious pluralism and arrogance, watch this interview: Can Many Religions All be True?

[4] Video: Peter van Inwagen – Do Diverse Religions Give Complementary Insights?

[5] Non Est Hick, p. 214.

See also van Inwagen’s essay A Reply to Professor Hick.

[6] Notice, I haven’t argued Christianity is true, or that Christian belief is rationally justified. I’ve focused solely on the narrow point that there is nothing arrogant about believing it’s true.

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