Religious Pluralism and the God of 31 Flavors

For my last post in my series on defeater beliefs for Christianity, I want to consider the claim that there is no one true religion. First, a little episode from my past: The little pamphlet read “Come Grill the Christian.” I was the Christian and student group I was with was inviting any students who would come to do the “grilling.” The idea, as we prepared for an afternoon meeting (a few years ago) at the University of Toronto was that everybody likes a good fight, and that Christianity, as the truth, can withstand any attack. There I was, a young philosopher, mixed with a bit of fear, excitement, and faith, waiting for the meeting to begin. As the meeting time drew close, the room began to fill. I realized I would be forced to actually open my mouth and defend Christianity to this eager looking group of students (did I see him lick his lips?). I began the meeting with a very brief description of what it means to be a Christian, and then I opened up the floor and invited anyone to ask a question. At first, the questions were fairly predictable. But, toward the end, as I began to think I was going to make it out of this meeting without my head between my tail, a student began to question the nature of God and the claim that Christianity is the one true religion. He got more and more forceful until he finally concluded (and this was, at rock bottom his reason for not believing in God): “I refuse to believe in that kind of God. God is a God of mercy and love, not a God of judgment and exclusivity.” (That is, God would never allow a good (even religious) person to go to hell just because he didn’t believe in Jesus).

What is most interesting about this student’s view is that he thinks he can pick and choose what God is like—as if God is bound to conform to our desires. And this student is not alone. In our culture, we are often guided more by emotion instead of right thinking—I often find people believing in a god that conforms to their desires, instead of the God that exists in reality. Call this view of God the God of Thirty-one Flavors[1]: “I’ll have a little love and a little mercy, but I’ll pass on all-knowing and just. After all, an all-knowing God knows about my emptiness and my lustful thoughts and my inappropriate and harmful behavior. Further, a just God would hold me accountable when I error. He might even hold me accountable for all of eternity, and I wouldn’t want that.” And so on, goes the internal rationalization.

I wonder if this internal rationalization is going on when it comes to the exclusivity of Christ in the face of all the world religions. This is because popular views such as “all religions lead to God” or “the various religions are just different paths to the same God” are hopelessly flawed and illogical. This religious pluralism is flawed since no adherent of any of the (say) axial world religions would subscribe to it (with the exception of a strand or two of Hinduism). It is a gross distortion of the actual claims of each of these religions to say that what they really endorse is that they are one path among many. And this leads to the second major problem with religious pluralism—it is self-contradictory. For example, Christianity endorses the claim “Jesus is divine,” Islam denies this claim. But the claim is either true or false—either the Christian view is correct (Jesus is divine) or the contrary is true (Jesus is not divine). So, it CAN’T be the case that all religions are equally true—at most, only one religion can be true (or all are false, that is a possibility as well). The law of non-contradiction ensures this result. And this last point moves the issue off of silly ideas like “all religions are equal” to the real issue: what is the evidence for one’s religion? I say, the evidence from nature, history, and human experience is best explained by Christianity.

A final thought. Any conception of God that we form based on our desires (that is, what we want God to be like) will ultimately lead to disappointment. As J.B. Phillips points out, “God will inevitably appear to disappoint the man who is attempting to use Him as a convenience, a prop, or a comfort, for his own plans.”[2]

[1] The slogan “31 Flavors” is from the popular ice-cream chain Baskin-Robbins.

[2] J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Touchstone, 2002), 49.

9 Responses to Religious Pluralism and the God of 31 Flavors

  1. Scott Moore says:

    Hey Paul! Great blog. I find that many people today simply turn off their brains and, like Pilate, sarcastically ask, “What is truth?” when the real issue is sin. They simply refuse to be confronted by their own sin, which has basically always been the issue.

  2. I think you’re correct that unless you’re in a religion that in fact holds all beliefs to be valid (though not sure where that would get you), a salvation-based religion is essentially required to consider itself the “one true” religion. And assuming God exists, He is what He is, regardless of our desires. When I was a believer (Baptist) and someone asked if I thought they were going to Hell, I had to honestly answer “Yes, according to my understanding of what is required on your part for salvation”.

    That said, could it be argued that the student’s question is in line with the core of Anselm’s Ontological Argument*? To this student, a God that would allow anyone to go Hell (or be exclusive) is “less perfect” than one who wouldn’t. By Aneselm’s logic, as I understand it, the student’s God “must” exist, because otherwise there could be a greater God than the one that actually seems to.


    *I happen to not think that Anselm’s argument is valid, but it does come up in apologetics as proof of God’s existence.

    • says:

      Hey Josh–good to hear from you! You ask an excellent question about Anselm and how we generate our conception of God. I think, is a sense, the student’s question *might* indeed be in line with Anselm’s perfect being theology. This is one of the tricky things about perfect being theology–you take your value intuitions and your modal intuitions about what kind of God is worthy of worship, plug them into your attribute generator “if x is a great-making property, then God has x” and out comes your ‘maximally perfect being’ that is God. Perhaps, this student simply had a different value intuition about what makes God, God. Perhaps. Still, once things like ‘hell’ justice’ and ‘truth’ are explicated–it is far from clear that a God that ‘excludes’ some from heaven is less worship worthy that a God that does. In fact, as C.S. Lewis points out in his The Problem of Pain–God is actually honoring our dignity and freewill to the extreme when we reject him (and ultimately go to hell), not to mention upholding justice. For, why would someone who denies God all of his/her life suddenly want to be in God’s presence for eternity. So, all that to say, I think that your point about Anselm and perfect being theology is a very interesting one. It shows that we can’t just rely on our value intuitions when conceiving God, we should appeal to other sources of knowledge about God–including what can be inferred from His creation and what is revealed thru (say) Scripture about his character.

      Your right that the Ontological argument sometimes comes up in apologetics–probably not the first one that I’d use if I were trying to argue for God’s existence. I do think however that Alvin Plantinga’s version (articulated in his 1974 The Nature of Necessity) is valid (and sound)–since, I think that a maximally great being is possible. But, while I do teach about Anselm and the Ontological Argument in a philosophy class, I don’t find it to be the most persuasive argumement “on the street”!

      • Josh DeWald says:

        Paul –
        Wow, thanks for the reference to Plantinga! Not sure I’ve ever seen a more thorough demonstration of the thought process involved in refining an argument to try to work out any possible holes. Every time I thought “But wait…” his next paragraph discussed that notion. Amazing stuff.

        I think his conclusion is especially intellectually honest (hopefully this formats right):
        But obviously this isn’t a proof; no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we’ve been examining isn’t just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise — that the existence of a maximally great being is possible — will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not thetruth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology.

        I guess I’m left to disagree with his premise (29), as I don’t want to be thought irrational!

        I certainly would love to spend eternity with the God being defined by that triplet of omni-qualities, I am just no longer convinced that He’s been “instantiated” in the actual world.

        I really appreciate your thoughtful articles and responses.

        • Josh DeWald says:

          Doh, From “But obviously…” to “natural theology” should have been in quotes (unless that will apply after moderation).

        • says:

          Hey Josh–wow, well done being able to wade through Plantinga’s argument–it is heavy going stuff. You are right–this last quote by Plantinga is the key–all the ontological argument seems to show is that it is rationally acceptable to be a theist—for it is hard to sit in our armchairs and judge whether the key premise is true (it depends on our modal intuitions about what is possible). I think such a being is possible, therefore I think the argument sound, others disagree. That’s as far as you can go with this one I think.

          I’d be curious about your reasons for thinking that there is no God in the actual world (to use Plantinga’s terms!). Perhaps I can address a few strands of your worries in a future blog post. warmly, Paul

          • Fundamentally it eventually comes down to the fact that it seems to me that the world operates in exactly the same way as it would be expected to without there being a “most excellent” God at the helm. It seems that everything that happens is well-explainable by natural processes and statistics. God seems to be an unnecessary hypothesis to explain things. He might exist, but I have not seen convincing arguments for how He is having any effect now or ever.

            That said, I asked a friend of mine what she thought the world would look like without God and she felt it would be a horrible place full of disfigurement and war. So opinions obviously differ… in the same way as whether that “possible world” from above is assumed to exist. So obviously much of it hinges on what one things are the “axioms” of the world.

            I used to think that God was watching over me, and that I was somehow “untouchable” because God had a plan for me. I don’t see things that way any more, as it seems that the good things are due to intentional effort and not any special intervention in my favor. There is a chance that I will get hit by a car if I don’t pay attention when I’m crossing.

            I’m not really bothered by the Problem of Evil per se because I don’t think it’s *necessary* for God to be all-powerful or all-good (despite the new formulation of what it means to be a “great” God). We could very well live in a Universe ruled by a God that isn’t very nice (one could easily conceive of such a “possible world”).

            I don’t think I can offer anything new in terms of whether or not God being “all-good” would contradict the obvious “non-good” found in the world today… as there have been more books written on that than is probably countable. Personally I do think that the world we live in is evidence toward the direction of not being ruled by an all-good, all-powerful entity. But I don’t think there is evidence one way or another toward the idea of it being ruled by an indifferent and/or malicious entity.

            Lest you think I have a dark view of the world. I actually think that today is the best day we could ever live in. Same for tomorrow. I think the “goodness” of the world shows a steady trend upward, as can be seen in constant social progress with the help of, and in spite of, (some) religion.

            Hope that helps…

          • says:

            Hey Josh–really good thoughts. Thanks so much for sharing. Quickly–have you read or heard of Plantinga’s new book: Where the conflict really lies? It is on my desk–I hope to read it soon–it deals with the issue of science and religion. The general thesis is that there is superficial discord but deep concord between theism and science and superficial concord but deep discord between science and naturalism. I think this is exactly right. I’ll make sure and post a blog on it in the near future, once I’ve had a chance to read it, but you might be interested in picking that book up.

            I think there are a lot of things that science can’t explain, and scientist would admit it–the universe (or multi-verse, if you like) itself, consciousness, objective morality, free-will, intentionality (the aboutness of mental phenomena), knowledge, rationality, and more. Perhaps I’ll pick up some of these strands on future blogs to tease out my thinking on them.

            I appreciate your honesty Josh–you seem like a thoughtful, genuine person and I wish you the best–I’m happy to continue to throw out my own thoughts on various issues, so feel free to keep throwing up issues/questions/concerns about theism/Christianity–I am convinced that Christianity can handle it–even if I don’t always do the best job communicating it! warmly, Paul

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