7.4 Religion: true or false?
I noted earlier that differences between the truth claims made by religions has led those who practise Religious Studies to avoid premature judgements when dealing with questions relating to the truth and value of particular religions. By seeming to by-pass truth claims, you may feel that what I have been describing as Religious Studies avoids what many would regard as the purpose of religion – to deal in truths. This is a difficult area to cover briefly, but let me at least try to explain why Religious Studies takes the line that it does.
Different societies tolerate different codes of morality. Religions, which typically claim to reveal truths, often make different claims and promote different codes of behaviour. Can we just assume that these variations are due to the differences in the social and historical contexts in which these religions are found? Some people have argued that all religions contain a measure of certain universal truths, but have taken different outward forms because of the needs of different human temperaments and different social conditions. In Section 8 we shall see that some contemporary Hindus are wedded to this idea. There is even an old Indian story used to illustrate it. Wearied by the conflicting opinions of his court philosophers and their mutual intolerance, a king made them watch blind men approach an elephant from different angles and, using their sense of touch, attempt to identify what creature they were being presented with. Not surprisingly, the blind man who grabbed the tail arrived at a different conclusion from the one who embraced a leg. At one level this story serves to encourage humility when asserting one's opinions, but the story has also been used to suggest something about the relationship between religions that could guide the way we study them.
Think about the Indian story I have just related:
What appears to be its message about conflicting religious and philosophical beliefs?
Does the message of the story provide guidelines that we might adopt in our role as critical students of religion?
The story implies that nobody has a monopoly on truth. Humans are like the blind men – we have a limited perception of the universe. But the story also suggests that while the blind men did not grasp the complete picture, they all had some insight. The story invites us to understand the reasons for their failure and not to judge them intolerantly as the court philosophers had judged each other.
The plea for tolerance and respect may sound attractive, but it does not take us much further forward in deciding how to deal with questions of truth. In the terms of this story, all religions are true in their own way and are thus to be respected for meeting different needs. But this is where we do hit a problem. The story presupposes that the elephant was there and that, even when wrong in their conclusions, the blind men had grasped something of the larger picture. Put the pieces together, learn from each other and you will have the right answer. Transferring this to the study of religion would imply that students assume for the purposes of their method that all religions are true in some measure. This may make for tolerance and respect, but it is as much a judgement on the truth claims of religion as are the assumptions that one religion is true or that none are true. For this reason, I feel that the story makes us think harder about how to study religion rather than providing us with a model answer.
The problem is that, in the study of religion, there is no human arbiter comparable to that of the sighted in the story of the blind men and the elephant. Truth claims – for example, about the existence of God – are made within particular religions, and it is between religions that the differences lie. Religions start, however, from different assumptions and appeal to different authorities. Finding a way that will enable us to judge the respective merits of their truth claims is, therefore, extremely difficult. For example, religious traditions often appeal to a sacred book whose authority is not recognised either by people of other faiths or by people of no religious faith. Those who accept the authority of a sacred book are unlikely to accept the judgements of those who deny its authority.
Religious conviction, even when it appeals to reason and logic, more often than not assigns a greater importance to acts of faith, to personal experience and/or to the authority of a religious teacher or sacred book. A person whose conviction rests on foundations such as these may well turn round and argue that an outsider who attempts to judge the truth of a particular religion without such an experience simply does not understand the religion and is thus simply not qualified to judge its truth claims. I remember well talking with a Muslim who has generously given of his time over several years to answer my questions about Islam. On one occasion when we were outside the mosque talking about understanding Islam, he turned to me and said simply, ‘If you understood Islam, you would come into the mosque with me now and make your profession of faith’.
Trying to resolve the problem of how to test religious truth claims continues to vex scholars and religious devotees alike. Those who practise Religious Studies recognise the full importance of this problem, but do not believe that all study of religion should be suspended until it is solved. We continue in the meantime to learn more about religion, but refrain from making premature judgements about matters of truth. In view of the amount of biased and inaccurate reporting of religions which has taken place and continues to take place both in the media and in scholarly work, a measure of caution about premature judgements may be no bad thing. To an extent, this also offers a check when applying the assumptions, principles and methods of Religious Studies, a discipline that evolved in post-Enlightenment Europe, in a global, cross-cultural study of beliefs and practices. But does this mean we can offer only bland descriptions of religion and no evaluative comment? Doesn't religion on occasion actually do damage?