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Dialogue on How to Tell if a Religion is True

8 November 2020

Dijon: How does one define “religion”?

Aaron: Why do you want to? Like most abstract terms, I think it is impossible to define precisely. At best you can find a definition that is suitable for your use.

Dijon: I want to find a systematic way of evaluating if a religion is true. To do this, I figured I would first need to know what a “religion” is.

Aaron: I see. What does it mean for a religion to be true?

Dijon: All religions make claims about the nature of reality. I want to know how to decide if these claims are in accordance with reality.

Aaron: Do all religions make such claims? Some people say that ritual, and not belief, is the essence of religion. Could there be a religion that only has rituals but no beliefs?

Dijon: I don’t think so. If a religion says you should follow a ritual, then you can ask why. What answer could be given? Any answer must make a claim about reality: “We must sacrifice a bull. Why? So Poseidon won’t sink our ship. Who is Poseidon? Poseidon is a god.” You may say there are religions that don’t require you to follow rituals. But if that’s the case, what is left? You may say there are religions where belief is optional. But if belief is optional, then the rituals must be too.

Aaron: You’ve convinced me that all religions make statements about reality. Furthermore, we could ignore any religions that didn’t, because such a religion couldn’t be true or false in the sense you care about.

Ignoring such religions also lets us avoid quibbling over definitions, although we may still need to distinguish religious claims from general ones.

Dijon: I’m glad my argument was convincing. I would be happy to ignore religions that don’t make claims about reality, and I agree we haven’t completely avoided the need to define religion.

I think religions make unique claims. Consider these examples:

Aaron: This is not a homogeneous list. The first three statements are historical. They claim that certain events occurred. If you were on Mount Sinai around 1200 BCE, you could have seen God. If you were in Jerusalem around 30 CE, you could have seen Jesus die and rise again. If you had been in Mecca or Medina in the decades after 600 CE, you could have seen Muhammad transcribe the Qur’an. The last claim is not historical, and so a different process would be needed to verify it.

Let’s focus just on the historical claims for now. How are they different from non-religious historical claims? For example, “Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city states around 2400 BCE.”

Dijon: They claim that rare supernatural events occurred, while your example does not. It is not uncommon for one ruler to conquer another city. It is rare for God to appear to a large group of people or for someone to rise from the dead.

The distinction matters. We only know about historical events because of the effects, or evidence, they produce.

If I see circular waves emanating from a point in a pond, I would suspect something was dropped there. I may even be able to tell how large the object was and how long ago it was dropped. This is possible because I understand the effects caused by dropping something into a pond.

In general, to know about the past we require physical evidence and an understanding of the process that caused the evidence to exist.

Unfortunately, there is often several causes for any given effect. In general, this makes it impossible to know about the past with certainty. An air bubble could have risen from a fish’s mouth, popping at the surface of the pond, causing the waves. More unusual causes are also possible: A pulsed laser could have momentarily disrupted the pond’s surface, causing the waves.

Faced with several possible causes, how can we decide which is more likely? We must find additional evidence, if we can, or we must use similar experiences to rule some of them out.

Both strategies are difficult to apply to supernatural events. Since they are rare, we can’t develop an intuition for their likelihood. Sometimes we may be able to gather additional evidence, but most of the religious events we are interested in occurred so long ago, this is effectively impossible.

For example, given the content of the Hebrew bible and the archaeological record, which is more likely: that God appearing to the Israelites in 1200 BCE or that the stories were written by humans in the Israelites during the intervening centuries? Likewise, how could I tell if the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad or that he made it up?

When considering a natural historical event, I use my understanding of the natural world and related experiences. Neither tool is available when evaluating rare supernatural events.

Aaron: That doesn’t mean such claims aren’t true.

Dijon: No, it doesn’t! But it does make it difficult to evaluate if they are true.

Aaron: I like how you have analyzed the problem. I think the difficulty of finding new evidence applies to natural historical events too though.

I have to go. Maybe we can continue talking about this next week?

Dijon: Sounds good. In the mean time, perhaps it would be useful to learn how historians evaluate evidence? Also, maybe we can analyze how various religions have developed. If we assume that only one of them is true, and all the others false, we would expect the true one to have different evidence than the others.

Aaron: I’ll try to read about these topics in the mean time. Talk to you later!