Recently, I have been thinking about a number of issues in the philosophy of religion in relation to what John Hick has called the problem of ‘religious ambiguity’. According to this thesis, roughly, our world is capable of being interpreted, coherently and rationally, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective. Hick devotes an entire section of his book “An Interpretation of Religion” to making a case for the thesis of religious ambiguity. Terence Penelhum, too, has proffered a number of considerations in favour of this thesis in his book “Reason and Religious Faith”. We can also add Stephen T. Davis, Paul Draper, and J.L. Schellenberg, among others, to the list of those who accept some version of ambiguity thesis. I myself devoted the entirety of my MA thesis in the philosophy of religion, which I finished last year, to a defense of this thesis.
Now, the concession that our world is religiously ambiguous does, I think, pose a serious problem to ‘orthodox’ Judaeo-Christian-Islamic theism. One particular component of these theistic traditions that is challenged by the ambiguity thesis is what we might call the ‘exclusivist picture’. In their traditional, or ‘orthodox’ forms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are committed to something like the exclusivist picture. The exclusivist picture is usually comprised of the following three claims:
(1) Non-belief is unreasonable (i.e. the person who does not believe is irrational)
(2) Non-belief is culpable (i.e. the person who does not believe is, in some sense, blameworthy)
(3) Non-belief deserves eternal punishment (however this is to be construed, e.g. as physical torment or ‘eternal separation from God’ or whatever)
(1) is thought to entail, or strongly suggest, (2). And then (2) is said to lead to (3). Since I am most familiar with Islam, let me explain how the exclusivist picture works in ‘orthodox’ Islam. The central belief in Islam is that there is only one God, Allah, who is worthy of worship. Traditional Muslims make it clear that anyone who does hold not this belief is an infidel. Moreover, traditional Muslims will claim that the existence of Allah is a rational belief to hold. The denial of this belief (e.g. by Hindus, Buddhists, or Christian Trinitarians) is irrational. Those who deny that there is only one God, Allah, who is worthy of worship are hence culpable. And, therefore, they will be punished eternally in Hell (in the traditional commentaries, Hell is depicted as a place of intense physical suffering).
If, indeed, our world exhibits religious ambiguity, as I am inclined to think it does, then all three claims of the ‘exclusivist picture’ can be scrutinized. Here is my first stab at constructing an argument against the exclusivist picture.
AN (INITIAL) ARGUMENT AGAINST THE EXCLUSIVIST PICTURE:
P1. Our world exhibits religious ambiguity.
P2. If our world exhibits religious ambiguity, then reasonable non-belief exists.
C1. Reasonable non-belief exists (from P1 & P2).
P3. If reasonable non-belief exists, then inculpable non-belief exists.
C2. Inculpable non-belief exists (from C1 & P3).
P4. If inculpable non-belief exists, then non-belief does not deserve eternal punishment.
C3. Non-belief does not deserve eternal punishment (from C2 & P4).
Please bear in mind that this is a first attempt, and I am still thinking about some of these issues. But I am extremely interested in possible objections to this argument.
I look forward to any comments or criticisms that people might have.