As a culture, we continue to slide further away from participation in organized religion, satisfying our need to connect with the Almighty with vague commitments to “spirituality.” Many modern parents, thinking themselves egalitarian and having little or no religious grounding themselves, decide that the best course for raising their children is to expose them to all of the leading religious systems and let them make their own “informed” choice. I spoke with someone holding that view and was a bit surprised at how strongly this approach is taking hold. He said, in essence, that there are simply too many belief systems for any one to claim to have the truth. Whether one considers the thousands of denominations and churches of Christianity, or the variety of both old and new faith systems, one can hardly gainsay that all seem to believe that their particular approach is the right one. This, my friend felt, demonstrated both the falsity of claiming to have the “one, true” faith, but also smacked of arrogance and small-mindedness.
Most thoughtful people assessing the challenge can see the unstated reasoning which underlies it. Roughly speaking, what is at play is the notion that because some, or even most, religious people don’t instruct their children correctly about religious truth claims, i.e. they are mistaken about some aspect of their belief, that therefore no religion is true. But the very challenge recognizes that for any one of the believers to be “wrong,” there must in fact be a correct view against which it is compared. True, we may never know for certain on this side of eternity which of us “got it right,” but we seem to intuitively recognize that there must in fact be a “right answer” out there. This is, after all, consistent with our intuitive sense that reality is accessible and knowable. What we must decide is not whether “things” in general can be known, but what kind of thing it is that we are considering.
Let me explain. The non-believer says that he will expose his children to all the world’s religions and let them decide for themselves. This may work well if religion is a question of preference. For instance, you can expose your children to food from various cultures of the world and they can decide whether, for example, Italian or Indian food is best. But this same rationale would not make sense if you exposed them to good food, bad food and poison, just so they can have the full spread of possibilities. For the former, the “thing” in question is types or styles or flavors of food; for the latter, the thing in question is whether it is food at all, or something unhealthy and dangerous.
So, what kind of thing is religion? Are religions just different flavors of food, indigenous to a local area or people and largely a function of “taste”? Or do religions make specific, and oftentimes contradictory, truth claims regarding how to achieve eternal life, or at the very least, rewards in the life to come? Christianity claims to be the only way to salvation, and so does, for example, Islam. Which is correct? We may debate which religion is closer to the actual state of things – just as we can argue about which foods are most nutritious or least unhealthy – but ignoring the question doesn’t make all food safe or equally good for you. The same is true for religion.
Moreover, drawing conclusions about the validity of a religious worldview because some people get the details wrong is not a very effective way to judge the religion. The fact that people cannot rationally explain their faith or make mistakes regarding its tenets tells you something about the people who are doing the explaining and very little about the truth of the doctrine being explained. After all, if a high school freshman botches the explanation of how nuclear power is generated, I would not be wise to conclude that the theory underlying nuclear power is flawed or unworthy of belief. Knowing whether a truth claim is valid requires an assessment of the available evidence, and that takes more work than simply tallying up how many people hold a particular mistaken view about something.
So how do we make sense of the fact that sincere and intelligent people sincerely and strongly disagree with each other? By realizing that questions of certainty and the reasons for holding views are a function of people, and people make decisions on faulty knowledge or with faulty logic or as a result of biases that cloud their judgment. Deciding not to pursue answers to life’s most important questions is an example of flawed thinking.
In the end, I can’t “prove” to any particular person’s satisfaction that my particular belief system is absolutely true and correct. But each of us, as moral actors ultimately responsible for our choices, needs to answer these questions for ourselves, and the only way we can rationally do so is by first informing ourselves. We must make the effort to learn not just what someone else believes, but the reasons for it and the evidence which supports those reasons. As parents, we can’t simply leave it to our children to figure it out on their own. Part of our duty is to explain the truth to them as we have come to understand it. A proper sense of humility requires that we not pretend to be perfect or all-knowing. But leaving it up to them makes about as much sense as letting them decide what foods to eat or what medicine to take.
We owe our children more than that.
Posted by Al Serrato