By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |
At the heart of religious belief, there is one blindingly obvious contradiction which is, if each claims that their path is the ‘true path’ then, by definition, all other paths must be ‘false’! As the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume suggests, if each religion is true, then the others must be untrue!
Following this logic, one is left with two choices; to either accept that ALL religions are essentially the same, or they are all false; both options appear problematic. This paradox is known as the problem of religious diversity. According to this paradox, there are many different religions in the world, each claiming to have the truth about the nature of ‘God’ or the ultimate reality.
However, since these claims are often contradictory and mutually exclusive, it seems impossible for all of them to be true. Followers of one religion will claim that those who are not followers are destined to ‘Hell’ or some other equivalent, implying that only those belonging to their faith are saved. Each religion has developed specific terms, mostly derogatory, to describe ‘believers’ of other faiths or none-believer. It follows that ‘Heaven’ or its equivalent will be occupied by followers of one faith, the correct faith, or it will be empty! Indeed, given the many divisions within religious traditions over which schisms have taken place, wars have been fought and genocides committed, one may speculate only members of a particular ‘correct’ tradition within a religion will be allowed into Heaven.
I know where I am presenting a somewhat polarised argument, and that in reality most people believers or non-believers find a way to accommodate and live with difference, but it is still the case that religious absolutism is a source of much conflict and misery in the world. One way to resolve this paradox and avoid the kinds of conflict we see in the name of religion is to recognize that the claims of different religions are not necessarily incompatible with each other. That is to say that the differences between religions are quite superficial and culturally determined, but the core philosophies, such as belief in one all-powerful, knowing, loving God, or in the importance of compassion, etc. Moreover, many religious traditions emphasize different aspects of the same ultimate reality or the same God, and there may be different paths to the same ultimate truth.
Another approach is to take a more agnostic or sceptical position and recognize that we may never be able to know for certain which religion, if any, is true. This does not mean that we cannot engage with religious ideas or that we cannot find value in different religious traditions, but rather that we should be open to the possibility that our knowledge of ultimate reality is limited and that we may never have a complete or definitive answer to the question of which religion is true.
Another way in which this argument may be expressed is that we can’t be sure that a new religion may not emerge that provides all the answers. I know this appears like an unlikely prospect, considering the history of the major religious traditions is about 5,000 years. Who knows what other systems may emerge in the future?
Despite the dramatic rise of science and technology, belief in a divine entity seems to be widespread; God is not going anywhere soon! But tragically, religion is also a source of much violence and hate in the world and we do need to find a solution. In the following shabad, Guru Arjan explores this very question of religious diversity and supremacy. You can judge for yourself, but I think he offers a sensible way through.
ਸਰਬ ਧਰਮ ਮਹਿ ਸ੍ਰੇਸਟ ਧਰਮੁ ॥ ਹਰਿ ਕੋ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਿ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਕਰਮੁ ॥
Of all religions, the best religion is to live one’s life according to divine command and perform noble deeds.
ਸਗਲ ਕ੍ਰਿਆ ਮਹਿ ਊਤਮ ਕਿਰਿਆ ॥ ਸਾਧਸੰਗਿ ਦੁਰਮਤਿ ਮਲੁ ਹਿਰਿਆ ॥
Of all religious rituals, the most sublime ritual is to clean the mind of destructive thoughts by keeping the company of those who have not been corrupted.
ਸਗਲ ਉਦਮ ਮਹਿ ਉਦਮੁ ਭਲਾ ॥ ਹਰਿ ਕਾ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਹੁ ਜੀਅ ਸਦਾ ॥
Of all efforts, the best effort is to nurture divine wisdom and divine consciousness forever.
ਸਗਲ ਬਾਨੀ ਮਹਿ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਬਾਨੀ ॥ ਹਰਿ ਕੋ ਜਸੁ ਸੁਨਿ ਰਸਨ ਬਖਾਨੀ ॥
Of all speech, the most ambrosial speech is to hear of and speak of the divine universal entity that transcends all existence.
ਸਗਲ ਥਾਨ ਤੇ ਓਹੁ ਊਤਮ ਥਾਨੁ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਜਿਹ ਘਟਿ ਵਸੈ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੁ ॥੮॥੩॥
Of all places, the highest place, O Nanak, is that heart and mind in which divine virtues reside ||8||3|| (SGGS, 266)
Ultimately, the resolution of this paradox may depend on our own personal beliefs and experiences, as well as our willingness to engage with and learn from different religious and non-religious traditions without necessarily accepting all of their claims as absolute truth.
Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.email@example.com
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)
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