Does it really matter what I believe?

One of the most common and  challenging objections to Christianity is the challenge of pluralism. What is pluralism? Pluralism is the idea that there are many ways to God. Pluralism doesn’t really deny that Christianity is true, but what it does deny is the idea that only Christianity is true. So, I’m going to deal with this topic by responding to 7 very common questions that come from a pluralistic point of view.

Question 1: Is there such a thing as objective truth regarding God? Some people say “There is no such thing as objective truth”. Well, is that proposition true? If so, then there is at least one objective truth- that there is no such thing as objective truth! If that statement is not true- well, why should I believe it then? There you go- the statement refutes itself doesn’t it? What we need to understand here is that sure, it is true that no one has an exhaustive understanding of the truth. However, this does not prevent somebody from having a significant understanding of the truth.

All our understanding of truth is influenced by our upbringing, culture, and biases. However, just because our understanding of truth is influenced does not mean that it is entirely relative and socially constructed. It is undoubtedly true that we subtly alter our understanding of the truth, for example, in history to suit ourselves. For example, we may tell the story of European settlement of Australia as a glorious achievement without reference to the treatment of Aborigines who lived in Australia before Europeans. However, this does not mean that I can propose a true history of Australia that proposes that the first Europeans were a race of noble kings who arrived in splendid warships, rather than being a penal colony from England. Truth may have aspects of relativity but it is not completely subject to an individual’s uncontrolled bias and imagination. So, objective truth does exist, although we may not be able to claim to have exhaustive truth of any matter, and although our understanding may be biased through our bias, nevertheless we may have significant and objective understanding of real truth.

Question 2. Aren’t Christians intolerant and judgemental? If Christians say they disagree with another religion or viewpoint, often they are accused of being intolerant of others or judgemental. But the word tolerate means to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect others’ beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked. It doesn’t mean that agreeing that everybody is right simultaneously. Do we need to respect everybody’s point of view? No, we need to show respect for people, and for their right to have a point of view, but not necessarily for their point of view itself. Tolerance is allowing people to have a view you don’t hold- it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to pretend there is no difference between what you believe. Tolerance is not the key issue! Rather than talking about tolerance, we should talk about loving one another, and part of loving one another involves sharing and helping people find the truth. People have a right to believe whatever they wish, but we would be failing in our duty if we did not share our point of view with people. It is not intolerant or judgemental just to share that you have a different point of view.

Question 3: Is there anything wrong with proselytising? Modern society strongly discourages proselytizing. For example, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald put it this way: “It is arrogant and dangerous, however, for anyone to assume a right or duty to convert others. All the blood that has been shed, and continues to be shed, around the world in the name of religion adequately makes this point. In the multicultural, multi-god nation that modern Australia is, proselytising can only needlessly provoke community tensions. In Australia, one’s religion is largely a private matter. It should remain that way.” The assumption here is proselytization is the opposite of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But, why is it we are allowed to talk about politics, or sex, but not matters of religion? This seems to be arbitrary, and puts religion into a category of irrelevance. Why is it that people are allowed to argue for the reality of climate change, but not religion? Why can people argue for gay marriage but not the existence of God? Surely what is needed is polite and open conversation on important topics, not a silencing of conversation. In the unwritten rule against proselytisation, what really is being done is to marginalize religion and to say that it is not important.

A good way to respond is to contend for the need for people to be open-minded and to learn from one another. Express a genuine interest in other people’s beliefs, and seek to learn from them. You then earn the right to share your beliefs with them. On the appropriateness of seeking to convert somebody, again, compare it with other topics which people passionately contend for: do you think it is right to try to convince someone that climate change is real? Would it be ok for everybody just to say- oh well, everybody is allowed to have a private opinion about climate change, but let’s never try to determine what the facts about it are.

Question 4: Isn’t there truth in all religions? Well undoubtedly this is right. We have been created in the image of God, and so we all have a moral nature, and this moral nature values love and compassion and justice, and so religions all are motivated by our moral nature to create rules and patterns of life which help us to live moral lives. But just because lots of religions seek to help us to live moral lives doesn’t mean they all have been given to us by God, and they are all true. They cannot all have been given to us 100% by God, they cannot all be true because they contradict each other. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, there is only 1 God. In Hindusim, it is believed there are millions of gods. In Christianity, a core belief is that Jesus is God. In Islam, Jesus is only a prophet, and certainly is not God. In Hinduism and Buddhism, after death comes reincarnation. In Christianity, after death comes resurrection. So they cannot all come from God- they cannot all be true- unless you think God is contradicting himself and saying different things to different people.

But Question 5: Does it really matter what you believe? Isn’t it just sincerity and goodness that matter, not what you believe? One person writes “Beliefs are actually no one’s business but the believer’s. At the deepest level, what we believe surely matters a whole lot less than how we live and, in particular, how we are helping to make the world a better place. So why waste time and energy picking on each other’s religious beliefs?”

Yes, being good is very important. You don’t need religion to tell you that, even atheists want to try to be good. There is no argument there. However, the problem is that we haven’t been good, and that where religion comes in. How do we get forgiveness for the times we haven’t been good?

Is all that matters that you just try to be sincere in believing something- it doesn’t matter what- be sincere and try to be good? Well, sure, it is important that you’re sincere, but really, is it not also important that you are believing in what is true? Shouldn’t we be examining what we believe, and seeking to make sure that it is true? I mean, if Islam is true, then it is important that we all make a pilgrimage to Mecca in our lives. In Hinduism, your present suffering in life is caused by your sins you’ve committed in a previous life. In some religions, you can only receive forgiveness for your sins by punishing yourself in very degrading ways. Surely what you believe is also important, as well as being sincere in your belief. If it is true that there is a personal God who created us and desires to enter into a relationship with us, is it not important that you discover that truth and live in the light of it, rather than say- live under an atheistic view in which you have no relationship with God, but just try to be a nice citizen. Surely your sincerity is not the only thing, but also that you are seeking to follow what is true. Indeed, pursuing after truth is a moral value, so if goodness is what really matters, then you will pursue the truth about religious matters, and not just dismiss it by saying it doesn’t matter what you believe.

But Question 6: Aren’t your beliefs just a result of your culture? I mean, isn’t it the case, that if you grew up in India, you would be a Hindu, if you grew up in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim, if in America, you would be a Christian. Is this true? Well, maybe so, but maybe not. There are plenty of atheists who live in America. There are plenty of Muslims who are becoming Christians. But even if it is generally the case, should it be that way? Should you just believe what everybody around you believes? Surely you should be pursuing truth. Surely people who live in a primitive tribe who trust in a witchdoctor’s remedies for treating sickness should progress to learning from modern medicine? Surely if you grow up in a racist society, you should not remain a racist in your beliefs? If you grew up in a country which believed the earth was flat, and you were a scientist and discovered the world was round, well, surely you should change your view.

Question 7: What about those who have never heard about Jesus? It’s a good question, it’s an interesting question. Christians have different points of view about it. Some people believe that God will judge different people according to different standards- some people believe that only those who have actually responded to the message about Jesus will be in Heaven. Ultimately we can trust God to be just and wise in dealing with those who have never heard about Jesus. Nobody will stand before God on judgement day and be able to say- that’s not fair God. It’s impossible for God to be unjust.

It’s an interesting question, but unfortunately, it’s also an irrelevant question. It’s not really our business to worry about how God will judge those who haven’t heard about Jesus. What is more important to consider is what sort of response which we should make to the truth which we do know.

Question 8: But is it really possible to discover the truth when there are so many opinions? Well, we would argue that there is indeed good evidence for why it makes sense to believe that God exists and that Jesus is the Risen Messiah. I would argue that there is not any religion which can make as good a case as what there is in Christianity. What we need to remember, is that most people in the world don’t follow their religion because they have examined the alternatives and found their religion the most reasonable. Rather, they follow their religion out of tribal loyalty to their culture.

And this point brings us to the crux of the matter in dealing with pluralism. The attraction of pluralism is that we don’t have to ever disagree with anybody. But if we are to pursue truth, disagreeing with different people will be perfectly normal. Pluralism encourages us to follow the crowd. Really, we need to be following and pursuing after the truth, wherever it should lead us. Pursuing truth is the pathway which God calls us to embrace, and unfortunately that means just being sincere about believing something is not enough.