Why can’t all the world’s religions be true?
The challenge of accepting the idea that all religions are true (religious pluralism) stems from the fact that the individual religions teach essential things that logically contradict one another. For example, their disagreement about the existence of God or gods is just one of many examples demonstrating how profoundly the world’s religions differ:
- Islam affirms one God.
- Popular Hinduism affirms 330 million gods.
- Philosophical Hinduism affirms all as god.
- Original Buddhism affirms no god.
So the world’s religions collectively can’t agree on whether there is a god or how many there are. Moreover, even those religions that arguably share the most in common—the Middle Eastern monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—also have great differences.
For example: Is God one being, one person (unitarianism) as traditional Judaism and Islam insist? Or is God one being, three persons (trinitarianism) as historic Christianity declares?
Also: Was Jesus a false or mistaken Messiah (traditional Judaism)? Or was he a mere human prophet (Islam)? Or was he the divine-human Messiah and Savior (Christianity)?
Again, the fact that the world’s religions make essential claims that logically contradict one another makes religious pluralism an unacceptable option.
Revelation versus Religion
However, maybe there is a major disconnect between divine revelation on one hand and the human practice of religion on the other. That’s the challenge a reader of my blog recently presented to me.
Here’s the challenge (paraphrased) followed by my response.
Respondent: Divine revelation consists of the truths that God has revealed to humankind. But religion is the practice of how human beings have understood, or more accurately, mostly misunderstood that revelation.
Holding firmly to any human interpretation of divine revelation is an almost foolproof way to remain lost. If you doubt this, just look to the Pharisees of Jesus Christ’s day.
For I would propose that those who truly understand and accept the inner essence of the Qur’an and the Bible recognize them as cohering and coming from the same divine root. It’s similar to how Christians recognize that both the New Testament and Old Testament come from the same divine fount.
My Response: Greetings, friend. You have raised an interesting challenge concerning the truth of the world’s religions. Here’s my five-point response for your consideration:
- Though I generally accept your basic distinction between revelation (divinely given) and religion (humanly received), there’s no reason to conclude that human beings can’t have a truthful understanding of the revelation even if it is limited in understanding. Orthodox Judaism, historic Christianity, and traditional Islam all believe they have been given doctrinal truth about God. However, if we give the religions the benefit of the doubt and accept the claims made by the faith’s founders or leaders, some of those doctrinal positions logically contradict one another, so they can’t all be correct.
- In the New Testament gospels, Jesus Christ never condemned the Jewish religious leaders for affirming the doctrinal truth of the Shema (Deut. 6:4) nor of the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26–28). In fact, Jesus insisted that people needed to hold firmly to those great revealed truths (Mark 12:29–31).
- The individual religions of Orthodox Judaism, historic Christianity, and traditional Islam reject the idea that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), the New Testament, and the Qur’an all cohere and teach the same thing. Traditional Judaism and theologically conservative Christianity share much, if not most, in common and yet even they differ over the identity and mission of Jesus Christ, which is at the center of the Christian faith. Thus, to claim that the three Middle Eastern monotheist religions teach the exact same message is to say that Orthodox Judaism, historic Christianity, and traditional Islam are all wrong. And yet each religion would say they alone understand the revelation (kind of sounds like the Pharisees you referenced).
- Where’s the divine revelation that says Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all misinterpreted the revelation given to their respective communities and that the Tanakh, the New Testament, and Qur’an all agree? And if we accept that there is a difference between revelation and religion how do religious adherents know that the new pluralist view is correct and the exclusive beliefs of the traditional religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are wrong?
- Orthodox Jews don’t think the New Testament is on par with the Torah. Traditional Muslims don’t think the Old and New Testaments are on par with the Qur’an. Historic Christians don’t think the Qur’an is on par with the Bible.
But saying that the revelations of the three Middle Eastern monotheistic religions (as are reasonably interpreted by their religious communities) are not in conflict on some important truths is simply incorrect.
I appreciate the issue of revelation versus religion that you raised. It is an important topic to think through carefully.
Consider that for religious pluralism to be true then the actual claims and beliefs of the world’s religions themselves must be largely false. Another way of saying it is that to get all the religions to agree we must first conclude that all the religions have—on some fundamentally important things—gotten it wrong.
Reflections: Your Turn
As a Christian, have you ever spoken with a Jew or a Muslim about where your faiths agree and disagree? Visit Reflections to comment.
- For my evaluation of religious pluralism, see my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions, chapter 13.
- For a further comparison of Islam and Christianity, see my two books God among Sages, chapter 8; and A World of Difference, chapter 15.
- On theological differences between Muslims and Christians, see my article How Does Islam Differ from Christianity?
- Concerning worship among the three major monotheistic religions, see the book Do Christians, Muslims, and Jews Worship the Same God?: Four Views.
- For an introduction to Islam by a Muslim scholar, see Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
- For an introduction to Judaism by Jewish scholars, see Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin.