Diversity of belief and finding out the truth

January 31, 2009 at 7:42 pm (philosophy, science)

I have recently become aware of just how vast the breadth of human spiritual beliefs are. There is a fascinating series on BBC 2 at the moment called “Around the World in 80 Faiths” with Peter Owen-Jones, an unconventional (and I think slightly eccentric in a nice way) Anglican minister. This and loads of reading on the internet have combined with my new emphasis on objectivity to give me insight I never had before. One usually thinks of major world religions versus local or pagan traditions, but it’s not as simple as that. Even the history of Judaism may not be as monolithic or even monotheistic as we are accustomed to think. Perhaps the distribution of religious group sizes is scale-free, just as many things in the natural world are (including earthquakes)… and the major world religions are the rare extreme events – like the earthquakes that span a large fault. But it puzzles me how a religion can develop into a major one. Is it just chance? Or do the ones that last do so because they are especially equipped to last?

So many people have claimed to hear from God – from the famous prophets, to ordinary individuals, to cult leaders who conveniently hear things that allow them to commit atrocities. They cannot all be completely right. Unless, of course, in some strange way there are many truths. But are any of them real? How do we judge, other than by (1) assuming our inner sense of morality is God-given and (2) engaging it in the evaluation – or, by hearing from God ourselves.

Miracles are often used as evidence of truth. I’m not particularly impressed by miracles per se*. I’m more intrigued by the idea that these phenomena occur in such a way as to communicate something, or that they offer insight into a divine personality. Or things like prophecies that are later fulfilled, or pre-scientific explanations for things that are later proved to be scientifically correct. I don’t know how you would evaluate the significance of these, but they are at least superficially quite compelling.

But if you do become convinced that, say, a scripture reflects a divine interaction with a person, does that mean you have to accept the whole scripture as truth? Shouldn’t we remain critical; doesn’t the diversity of religious belief in the world indicate how easy it is for a person to be wrong? Why should anyone be completely right? Muslims generally maintain Muhammad was without error, yet I find this an impossible position to take, not just based on the above argument, but because there are verses in the Qur’an that actually admonish him for things he did. There are also, of course, sources of error in preservation and interpretation of scripture that many refuse to acknowledge. Why is it that people are so uncomfortable with shades of grey and insist on the black or white, the all or nothing, the heaven or hell view?

It frightens me, if I’m honest. Religions tend to insist on unfaltering belief as a condition for salvation, and I cannot find a way to justify that right now. It’s not that I don’t want to believe in anything and am looking for excuses. It’s more like the other way round. My ruminating over this issue has almost reached OCD levels. (Classic me…)

What makes me curious is that I do see some broad similarity across even very different and culturally separated traditions. What I think is common is a sense that humanity is less than it could be (we take “no-one’s perfect” for granted) and a multitude of solutions are proposed.

* I’ve always maintained that the God who wrote and sustains the laws of physics, shouldn’t need to break those laws to be believed in. Besides, science is just a description of those laws, which is updated as new discoveries are made, and when surprising phenomena are observed, it adapts to encompass these. Science is man-made and approximate and discrepancies between it and reality certainly aren’t proof of direct divine intervention. I am of the view that science describes the physical universe, while the question of why things are the way they are is outside its remit. I like the idea of spiritual meaning within what is natural, not necessarily outside it.



  1. Roger Watt said,

    Distribution of sizes for religions – compare with distributions of sizes for species. Not quite scale-free as there is a lower limit beyond which the religion/species does not replicate.

  2. Sarah said,

    OK. And an upper limit due to finite population I suppose… wonder if there’ll ever be one that spans the whole population?

  3. Achelois said,

    “I’ve always maintained that the God who wrote and sustains the laws of physics, shouldn’t need to break those laws to be believed in.”

    Do we believe in God because of the miracles or do we believe in humans as prophets because of miracles?

    In any case, I don’t believe in miracles 😀

    • Wrestling said,

      Interesting. Yes, maybe it’s meant to be a sign that God’s power is with that person. And the only way to demonstrate that is to actually perturb the laws of physics. That makes sense!

      I’m slightly surprised that you don’t believe in miracles. I don’t think I do either. Since I don’t believe in prophethood, there’d be no need for miracles!

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