Yesterday at our After School program I asked the students the question, “Is only one religion true?” I got a lot of interesting responses. There were about four kids that chimed in at one point or another. All told, I had a good hour and fifteen minutes of solid conversation with the students with topics ranging from how to witness to your friends, to the purpose of adult baptism, to the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. All these were interesting discussions but the main focus on the discussion kept coming back to the question “Is only one religion true?” and it is to this discussion that I want to turn.
Not surprisingly, this was a hard question for the students to answer. It is, I think, actually rather ambiguous, which is part of the reason I thought it would be a good question. With the exception of one enthusiastic and articulate Catholic student, the rest basically answered, after a little prodding, “no.” My goal here was not simply to give an answer, but to use the Socratic method to help the students reason it out for themselves.
Here’s a simplified version of how the conversation went:
Me: Is only one religion true?
Students: It’s really just a matter of belief.
Me: What do you mean?
Students: Whatever you believe, it’s true for you.
Me: What if two believe things that are contradictory? Are both of them right?
Students: You could believe anything. I could believe that this Vernors can created the universe and you could believe that God created the universe.
Me: So, doesn’t that mean one of us is right and one of us is wrong? I mean, it’s crazy to think that a Vernors can created the universe right?
Students: Right (thinking). Have you seen the movie Rise of the Guardians?
Students: In the movie fairy tale characters get smaller or stop existing if people stop believing in them.
Me: But, it doesn’t work that way in the real world right? If people stop believing in that Vernors can, it won’t get smaller and smaller, will it?
At this point, the students get distracted by imagining a shrinking Vernors can. So, I tried to ask the question another way.
Me: Let’s say I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Darwin (another volunteer who had joined, not the scientist) believes that Jesus is not the Son of God. Can we both be right? Or is one of us right and one of us wrong?
Students: (thinking) It’s a matter of belief. (Implying we could both be right)
Me: Aren’t those mutually exclusive things? How could we both be right at the same time?
Students: (restating) It’s just based on what you believe. You would both think you are right.
Me: I agree, we would both think we are right, but are both of us right?
Students: Only the one who created the world would know.
Me: So only God knows everything.
Me: I agree, only God knows everything. If God knows everything, do you think he would want to tell us?
Students: Yes, that makes sense.
Me: Has he told us?
Students: Yes, he has told us in the Bible.
Me: And what does the Bible say.
Students: That Jesus is God’s Son.
At this point, I thought I had demonstrated my point but later discussions would reveal that I hadn’t really done so. I decided to approach the discussion from yet another direction.
Me: Is there anything unique about Christianity or are all religions the same?
Students: Well, all religions have a different name for God, but it’s all the same God.
Me: OK, is there anything else that makes religions unique?
Students: They each have different customs and holidays.
Me: OK, is there anything else that makes CHRISTianity unique? (At this point, the Catholic student is ready to answer but I wanted to hear from the others, so I asked him to refrain for now)
Students: Not that I can think of.
Me: (To one of the students who expressed interest in being baptized at our church) So why would anyone want to be part of one religion or another?
Students: Well, I guess you see what your friends do, if you think it’s interesting, if it works for you.
At this point, the Catholic student jumped in and said – “Christianity is unique because it’s the only one that tells us that Jesus is God’s Son, died for us, and made a way for us to be saved.” Everyone agreed… kind of.
All in all, the conversation was revealing to me about how the students think. Here are some observations:
The students had no problem making statements of Christian faith: The same students who were unwilling to say that one person was right and one person was wrong in regard to the existence of God would say, without blinking, that “God created the universe” or “the Bible is God’s word” or “Jesus is God’s Son.” All were able to express, without apology, basic tenets of Christian faith.
Basic propositional logic didn’t apply in regards to faith: The question I was ultimately asking was basic propositional logic. “Can A and not A be true at the same time?” Or, “Can God exist and not exist at the same time.” Basic logic says no, and when I applied it to something concrete (like a Vernors can) the students readily grasped my meaning. But when I applied it to God, it’s as though their minds entered another world where logic didn’t need to apply. The history of this reasoning goes back at least to Kant. The students would be unable to express the logic behind it. It’s simply ingrained in the culture.
“Real real” and “Faith real”: As I described parts of this story to another of our leaders she said that, when working with younger kids she sometimes has to say, “I mean really real not pretend real.” Subconsciously, we’ve been conditioned to think of the world in terms of what is “really real” and what is “faith real.” The “really real” world is the world of facts, figures, and science. It is measureable and knowable (Kant would call this the phenomena). The world of “faith real” is the world of morals, religion, the mind, God, doctrine, etc (Kant would call this the pneumena). Our culture doesn’t think it’s wrong or “pretend,” it just follows different rules. It’s the world of opinion. It can’t, or so the story goes, be known. It can be really real, and not at all real, at the same time. This is a false and illogical dichotomy, but as long as you don’t look at it, it’s easy to function as though it makes perfect sense.
In the world of faith, belief determines reality: You see, in the “faith real” world faith determines reality. You can say, “all religions are true because they are true for the person who believes them.” Such a thing is, of course, ridiculous. Jimmy believes God is real, therefore it is real for him. Bobby believes God is not real, which is real for him. That yields a universe where God is both real and not real at the same time. Again, if the rules of logic were to apply anyone could see the contradiction in this. But, in the “faith real” world logic doesn’t apply. The rules of reality shift from the universal to the particular. What you believe makes reality – but only for you. It’s as though we each have our own privatized reality which we create by our own faith or lack of faith.
This idea of faith and reality has nothing to do at all with the Christian, or any Theistic, notion of faith and reality. It really only ever works if “faith real” is either “not real” or “sub-real.”
This idea relegates religion to the realm of personal preference, self-actualization, socialization, and perhaps private morality but removes it from the realm of universal truth. It is not self-sustaining. It is illogical.
By way of citation, I should say that I have been heavily influenced on this point by Lesslie Newbigin in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society“