Religious Ambiguity & The ‘Exclusivist’ Picture
February 26, 2005 — 22:49

Author: Imran Aijaz  Category: Religious Belief  Comments: 24

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.
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.

  • Exclusivism also has a problem with warrant in moving from (2) to (3): a finite misdeed does not warrant eternal punishment.

    February 27, 2005 — 10:39
  • Imran, a very interesting post, which involves topics about which there has been quite a bit of publication lately. The source of interest is John Schellenberg’s book on the topic, and there is a collection of essays edited by Dan Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser.

    February 27, 2005 — 15:52
  • Matthew Mullins

    I take it that Jon’s reference is to John Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddeness and Human Reason, and the more recent examination in Howard-Snyder & Moser’s Divine Hiddenness.

    February 27, 2005 — 17:23
  • Imran–interesting post. You are also to be congratulated for putting forward a genuine attempt at reviving real discussion on this blog!! I do have a few questions. Could you spell out a bit more what “being interpreted, coherently and rationally, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective” means? Specifically, are you claiming that at bottom, at a fundamental level, both theistic and atheistic views can fit the maximal set of data? Further, I’m interested in how you go about arguing for (P1)? Finally, I’m wondering what you would think if I attempted to support (2) and (3) independant of (1). As I reflect on (1), (2), and (3), all of which I hold, I find that I don’t base my belief in (2) and (3) on my belief in (1). I think my basis for belief comes independantly for each of them from Scripture. Though, I agree that there are certain logical entailments between them, and as far as I can see right now if you show me that (1) is false, then I agree I should also give up (2) and (3).
    I haven’t read through all of papers in the Howard-Snyder volume, and haven’t looked at all at Schellenberg’s book (it’s currenly in my “to buy” pile), so forgive my ignorance if I’ve overlooked something there.
    Nice post!

    February 27, 2005 — 21:10
  • Hi
    I think (1)-Non belief is unreasonable/irrational is not quite right. I think Christians would say that atheism is not “natural” or “reasonable,” where “reasonable” is a broader sense of reason than “rational.” For instance, it’s reasonable to believe that the people who took care of me all these years are my parents, a claim I accept at their word. That sense of “reasonable” is loose and more natural than a rigorous sense of the word applied in say philosophy or other disciplines.
    Also, it is accepted that theism comes in varied forms. I can’t speak for Judaism or Islam, but with Catholicism it is accepted that different religions and philosophies capture something of divinity, but that Catholicism has the “fullness” of revelation. Even for atheist, there is sense that there is something redeemable in their core values and philosophies of life that is compatible with belief.
    With (2)-non-belief is culpable, again, Catholic thought in the past 100 years goes with the scriptural verse that says “To whom much is given, much is required,” basically, culpability is measured against one’s personal response to one’s conscience and not to an objective standard.
    In terms of Christianity, you may have in mind more fundamentalists sects who may fit your idea better. It is important to note that while they certainly plentiful, you have to remember that there are 1 billion Catholics and a few hundred million Christians of other denominations who don’t identify with the Christian fundamentalists.
    There was a document called Dignitatis Humanae promulgated during the Second Vatican Council. It is a short document on the issue of religious freed (from 1965) and it gives the Catholic position and would help in sharpening your position on “Christian excusivity”.

    February 27, 2005 — 23:12
  • Matthew Mullins

    Your argument strikes me more as for universalism than against exclusivism. I say this because I’m not sure that claims 1-3 are necessary for one to be an exclusivist, though they might be common. For example I can imagine an individual who thinks that we have a basic epistemic duty to seek out truth. So this individual might be a universalist in regards to the problem of hell, but exclusivist because they think they talk about God in the correct way. So it isn’t clear that universalism entails pluralism. The problem for the epistemic exclusivist is that non-exclusivism tends to dismiss religious difference as inconsequential, but I’m inclined to think that we still need to evaluate the various truth claims which arise from these differences. David Basinger deals with this issue in Religious Diversity: A Philosophical Assessment.
    Like David Talcott I wonder how you argue for P1. It doesn’t strike me as a truth evident by the light of reason. 🙂

    February 27, 2005 — 23:42
  • Imran Aijaz

    Dear all,
    Thanks very much for your comments. Yes, I am aware of Schellenberg’s book “Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason”. Before I came to be aware of this book, however, I was thinking about issues related to the problem of ‘religious ambiguity’. There is a close connection between the thesis of religious ambiguity and divine hiddenness. If God is, to some extent, hidden, then this seems to suggest that the evidence for the existence of God is ambiguous. However, as Schellenberg makes it clear, the converse does not necessarily hold. The ambiguity of the evidence for God’s existence can be used in a premise for an argument of natural atheology. Thus, the ambiguity of the evidence for God’s existence, according to Schllenberg, does not mean that God is hidden. Rather, the ambiguity itself provides us with evidence that God does not exist.
    In my own view, Schellenberg’s argument does not succeed *as an attempt to establish atheism*. I think this is because from *within* the theistic perspective the hiddenness of God is something to be expected (a number of individuals have maintained this, e.g. Paul Moser). I can offer some of my own arguments as to why I think Schllenberg’s argument does not establish atheism, but I think Robert McKim does a good job of critically evaluating Schellenberg’s argument in his book “Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity”. But while I think Schellenberg’s argument is not successful as an atheistic argument, I think it still has force against the *internal* coherence and plausibility of theism. That is, there seems to be something puzzling about a God who hides himself allowing reasonable non-belief to emerge. This God then holds unbelievers culpable for their non-belief and further holds them worthy of eternal punishment. I would be interested in hearing from David how the culpability of unbelief and its deserving eternal punishment can be supported *independently* of the claim that reasonable non-belief exists.
    Anyway, perhaps the hiddenness of God allows us to *revise* our understanding of God. Schellenberg himself is open to this possibility:
    “… [O]ur discussion has been restricted to the epistemic status of traditional theism. And anyone who thinks that traditional theism and naturalistic atheism are the only options worth exploring here has a woefully inadequate grasp of the range and diversity and complexity of religion. Indeed, there are intriguing religious possibilities that are only now beginning to receive the attention they deserve from Western philosophers. And as human beings contine to develop, intellectually and morally, as well as emotionally and socially, it may well be that new possibilities will come to light. The philosophy of religion is potentially far richer and far more wide-ranging in its explorations that it is at present. And so I conclude by suggesting that the hiddenness of the traditional God may ultimately only have the effect of allowing the real God – ultimate reality as it really is – to be more clearly revealed” (J.L. Schellenberg, ‘Does Divine Hiddenness Justify Atheism?’, in Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. Vanarragon, (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 41).
    So perhaps religious ambiguity/divine hiddenness allows us to explore alternatives to ‘orthodox’ theism – heterodox or ‘revisionary’ models. Some of you have already guessed where this is leading. At this stage (though I am open to considering objections), I think that the only viable sort of theism that can accomodate the thesis of religious ambiguity/divine hiddenness is one that is universalist. I am impressed by some other arguments for universalism (e.g. especially those by Thomas Talbott), but my own views have been arrived at after thinking deeply about the problem of religious ambiguity.
    But is the world religiously ambiguous? How does one prove this thesis? Certainly it is a daunting task to weigh up the evidence for and against each of the world’s great religions. If we take the core of the dispute to be between the claim that there is a God and the claim that there is not, then I think this thesis is reasonable. I am willing to offer some arguments for it, but perhaps I can offer people this quote from Stephen T. Davis and see what they think:
    “[N]one of the evidence [in relation to the religious hypothesis of God�s existence] is definitive or unambiguous: any bit of evidence that might be suggested in favor of or against the religious hypothesis can be (and no doubt has been) challenged. The problem is that the evidence looks like evidence only to those who are already committed to the view that the evidence is said to support � It seems that there is no clear preponderance of evidence in favor of theism over naturalism or vice versa �.Witness the fact that there have been truly brilliant minds on both sides of the debate in the history of thought. Witness also the fact (well known to readers of philosophical journals) that seemingly every time somebody comes up with a good argument in support of theism it is soon demolished by nontheists � and every time somebody comes up with a good argument against theism it is soon demolished by theists. Perhaps the moral to draw is that if there arguments were demolished, then they were not very good arguments in the first place � [N]one of the intellectual evidence one way or another is unambiguous: it is difficult to think of even one theistic or atheistic argument to which there are not impressive rebuttals” (Stephen T. Davis, “Faith, Skepticism, and Evidence: An Essay in Religious Epistemology”, (London: Associated University Press, 1978), pp. 181-182)
    Finally, I think Matthew is correct. The three claims of exclusivism that I discussed initially are not necessarily part of every exclusivist picture. They are, however, typically stated in the traditional literature on (theistic) religious belief (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). I think I should also make clear that the sort of exclusivism that I am specifically talking about is *salvific* exclusivism.

    February 28, 2005 — 1:10
  • One of the things at least one traditional view brings to the picture will, if it is true, explain fully why it’s irrational not to believe in God without ultimately undermining the sense we have that it’s rational not to believe. Some people interpret Paul in Romans 1 to be saying that every single human being knows that God exists. I actually think this interpretation is likely, and an article in Faith and Philosophy a few years ago defended it philosophically against the objection that it seems fairly obvious that many people don’t believe.
    One way to do so is to deny that knowledge requires belief (my favored solution). Another is to say that atheists have both the unconscious belief that there is a God and the conscious belief that there isn’t. Either way, the distinction between believing based on evidence and knowing based on an internal capacity that everyone has, though our ability to take this into conscious belief may be impaired because of the fall, seems to explain quite well why it would be irrational to disbelieve, while it seems rational not to.
    (1) doesn’t imply (2) if you isolate from the statements any content related to what is being believed. But if the content is God’s existence, and it’s morally obligatory to give credit to a creator whom you know created, then I think the implication goes through.
    Similarly, (3) only follows if the insult to God in denying his existence is great enough. It’s not as if the traditional view has absolutely no reason for thinking this to be the worst offense possible. If we owe our very existence to a morally perfect being, one who created us to live in harmony with him and each other, and we repay that by refusing to interact with him in that way, then separation from God seems to be not just a deserved punishment but a granting of the someone’s desires not to be reconciled with his or her creator. Some very conservative theologians have seen hell as an environment for people to continue in their choices to live independently of God in all its consequences without the availability of God’s common grace to reduce anyone’s willingness and ability to do that fully. Why, then, wouldn’t it simply be the logical consequences of someone’s own choices?

    February 28, 2005 — 8:26
  • Kamal

    Just a question outof curiousity for Imran Aijaz:
    Did you change your mind about the validity (or universality) of the kalam cosmological argument?
    What about your critique of the pressumption of Atheism, does that depend too on ambiguity?
    When will you update your site?

    March 8, 2005 — 10:09
  • I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what I think is the best book on these issues, Robert McKim’s _Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity_. I have a review of it on my website if you’re interested.
    Matt Davidson

    March 8, 2005 — 22:03
  • matthew w.

    As I think someone above requested, I would like to hear your defense of P3. My thoughts aren’t all that rigid on this matter, but unreflectively I think I would believe (2) and (3) with some doubt as to (1).

    March 9, 2005 — 10:01
  • Imran Aijaz

    To Kamal:
    Hi Kamal. No, I haven’t really changed my mind about the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). I still think it’s one of the best theistic arguments available. But let me try to explain why I think the KCA does not serve to “disambiguate” our world.
    Even if we suppose that the KCA is a sound deductive argument, all it does is prove the existence of a conscious first cause. This cause can be compatible with several (mutually exclusive) deities. For instance, is this first cause Plato’s Demiurge, or the Christian Trinity, or Allah? The ambiguity remains, you see. The KCA might satisfy a necessary condition for disambiguation, but not a sufficient one.
    Regarding my critique of the presumption of atheism: actually, my critique is that atheism does not get an ‘epistemic free lunch’ if it so happens that the theistic proofs do not work. Atheism, too, requires epistemic justification – by way of arguments of natural atheology, for instance. And I believe that these arguments do not work.
    Finally: thanks for the reminder about my website. I think I will update it soon enough, perhaps by putting my MA thesis (which contained a sustained defense of the ambiguity thesis) on-line.

    March 10, 2005 — 23:05
  • Kamal

    To Imran Aijaz,
    Salam and thanks for your reply.
    I thought in your kalam debates you always argued that with the soundness of your argument atheism can be dismissed. So the ambiguity you speak of is not between atheist and theist beliefs but between different theistic beliefs?
    But that is not what Stephen T. Davis says in your quote… “it is difficult to think of even one theistic or atheistic argument to which there are not impressive rebuttals” (Stephen T. Davis)

    March 11, 2005 — 3:04
  • Imran Aijaz

    To Kamal:
    Salaams Kamal, and thanks for writing. Yes, you are correct; in the past, I have argued that, if the Kalam Cosmological Argument is sound, then atheism can be ruled out a priori. Recently, however, I have come to realize that we need to clarify what exactly we mean when we say that atheism can be dismissed.
    Suppose that the Kalam argument is successful. This would then mean that the following proposition is true:
    P: There exists a personal first cause of the universe.
    Atheism has been typically committed to the following proposition:
    Q: It is not the case that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, personal Creator of the Universe (i.e. God).
    Are P and Q mutually exclusive? It is not clear to me that they are. Couldn’t one acknowledge the existence of some kind of personal cosmic force, and yet still deny the existence of *God*? It seems to me that an atheist could believe in both P and Q.
    The ambiguity that I speak of is probably more accurately described as “multiple religious ambiguity” (to use Terence Penelhum’s phrase). Thus, not only is there theist-atheist ambiguity, but it seems to me that there is ambiguity between different religions as well. For an excellent discussion of the issue, I would definitely recommend the book mentioned by Matt – McKim’s “Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity”. See also Hick’s “An Interpretation of Religion” and Terence Penelhum’s “Reason and Religious Faith”.

    March 11, 2005 — 15:02
  • Imran Aijaz

    To Matthew W:
    Hi Matthew,
    P3 in my suggested argument says:
    “If reasonable non-belief exists, then inculpable non-belief exists.”
    Here are some brief considerations in favour of this premise. If, indeed, reasonable non-belief exists, then it is possible for the non-believer to intellectually resist the claims of some given religion, say, Christianity, without being accused of intellectual irresponsibility (i.e. being ignorant or careless of the relevant evidence for Christian claims). A non-believer who carefully considered all of the relevant evidence for Christianity, and found that it leads her to conclude that there is insufficient justification for Christian claims cannot then be accused of violating doxastic obligations with respect to her (dis)belief.
    Some people have claimed that the culpability of the non-believer never rests on her ignoring the relevant evidence for, say, Christianity. Rather, the non-believer is culpable because her cognitive faculties are damaged by sin, or because she is resisting the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, or some such thing (see Alvin Plantinga’s work on this as well as William Lane Craig’s defenses of exclusivism). I do not find this response to be adequate. For, these claims will merely appear to be question-begging to the non-believer. The non-believer will point out that the plausibility of these claims can only be sustained *from within* the Christian picture. Since she is a non-believer, she doesn’t even believe in the existence of a *sensus divinitatis* or the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. And, now, here is the really interesting bit — note that *this point itself* adds to the reasonbleness of non-believer’s unbelief.

    March 11, 2005 — 15:17
  • So Mormons are atheists? They don’t believe God to be omnipotent, and it’s at least questionable whether they believe God to be omniscient. They certainly don’t believe God to have created the universe, since God was once what we are, and some previous divine being created God (ad infinitum). It seems really weird to call them atheists, however. It sounds as weird as the Roman claim that Christians were atheists because they didn’t believe in the gods. Maybe the Latin word they were using could mean that, but not the English word ‘atheist’.
    As I re-read your post, it occurred to me that you don’t give a reason for P3: If reasonable non-belief exists, then inculpable non-belief exists.
    Why would this be so? Given the premises you’re working with, I can think of beliefs you’d have to call reasonable that are culpable. For instance, if atheism is reasonable, then it should be reasonable to conclude that there is no non-naturalistic foundation of ethics. If naturalistic foundations of ethics are inadequate, as I believe (because they seem to assume something they can’t help themselves to: something’s being in someone’s best interest), then I think it’s reasonable on your account of reasonability to conclude that there’s no foundation for ethics. That view is morally culpable, however, I would say. So I’m not sure moral culpability is implied by what you’re calling reasonability.

    March 25, 2005 — 10:21
  • Basil

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. How would you rework this to meet the Christian objection:
    Everybody sins. People go to hell for sin. To avoid hell people need God’s forgivness. God’s forgiveness is given conditional on belief in Jesus. Rejection of belief in Jesus is rejection of God’s solution for sin. However the primary cause of damnation is sin, not unbelief.
    Thank you.

    May 5, 2005 — 11:24
  • Basil, presumably the primary sin for which anyone would be damned would be rejection of God, i.e. unbelief. That’s exactly how this post was framed. The assumption for this whole post is that ignorance is an excuse, and many Christians, of course, simply deny that.

    May 5, 2005 — 15:34
  • Basil

    Thanks for the reply Jeremy. No, the Christian argument I am representing does not attribute damnation to rejection of God, but to violation of moral law (irrespective of belief in God). In this view then ignorance may be real.

    May 6, 2005 — 13:31
  • So on the view you have in mind, there’s no moral law against denying God’s existence either explicitly or through one’s actions that demonstrate that one has in one’s hard declared God not to exist? That doesn’t sound much like the Christianity I’m familiar with, either in my own Reformation setting or in other ones.
    I can’t see how failing to believe wouldn’t count as a violation of the moral law, according to Reformation Christianity anyway, which is what the view you’re talking about sounds like (either that or Augustine or the Jansenists, which amounts to the same thing in terms of soteriology). Unbelief would then be sufficient for damnation, barring other factors.

    May 6, 2005 — 18:56
  • Oh, I see one thing you might be getting at. It’s not that unbelief isn’t sufficient for damnation but that belief isn’t sufficient for salvation, even for Christians. It’s not belief that saves. I think that’s technically the Reformation view, though they often uttered this highly misleading phrase that salvation is by faith, which their more careful moments will insist is not even true strictly speaking, since it’s by grace but merely accomplished through faith.
    I think the problem with this as a response to the argument given in the post is that the argument can just be rephrased. The starting claim will now be that belief is necessary for salvation (even if it’s not belief that achieves it), and the objector’s claim will be that some unbelief is non-culpable, and therefore some people are exempt from the requirement that belief is necessary for salvation.

    May 6, 2005 — 19:07
  • Basil

    This view may indeed exonerate non-belief in God or in Jesus. However it maintains culpability for other sins, such as dishonesty, greed, lust, pride, etc. For such things humans are damned, not for the possibly excusable unbelief.

    May 7, 2005 — 10:18
  • But if it’s belief that gets one out of the damnation, then the giver of this argument will also want to say that non-culpable non-belief should get someone out of it. That’s what the claim is, anyway. If that claim is true, then the rest of the post is harder to resist. So the trick would be showing why belief would lead to exoneration while non-culpable non-belief wouldn’t. I think that can be done, but I think it needs to be done to get out of this argument. That’s the key. I don’t think just stating that other sins would be the basis of damnation is quite enough.

    May 8, 2005 — 20:54
  • Kamal

    To Imran Aijaz,
    Salaam man, how are you doing? I’m still waiting curiously for your website to work again. I know you are working on it. Could you put your essay on the Pressumption of Atheism on your website?

    May 11, 2005 — 6:22