Today’s virtual colloquium paper is “How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God” by Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban. Dr. Bogardus received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pepperdine University. His papers on epistemology and the philosophy of religion have appeared in journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Ethics, Faith and Philosophy, and Philosophia. Mallorie Urban is an undergraduate philosophy major at Pepperdine.
How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God
Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban
We start the paper by laying out three recent arguments for the “Same God” thesis, and offering objections. Francis Beckwith offers an argument from monotheism: Christians and Muslims both believe there can be only one God, so they must be worshiping the same God. We doubt that inference. After all, two baseball fans might agree that only one team can be the best, without thereby thinking the same team is the best. Michael Rea argues that if Christians and Muslims aren’t worshiping the same God, then “God” for one group is “absolutely meaningless,” or refers absurdly to a mere human being, an animal or plant, an inanimate object like a rock or a star. We again doubt that inference, since there’s a third option: “God” for one group is a meaningful but empty name, like “Zeus” is for Zeus-worshipers. Finally, Dale Tuggy argues that since Christians and Muslims are engaged in genuine theological disagreements, they must be talking about the same God. We’re skeptical again, since it’s possible for a name to shift reference over time or across groups, and for two people to disagree while using the same name without thereby referring to the same entity. In the paper, we use the example of how “Santa Claus” has shifted reference over time and across groups, in a way that could allow one child to use “Santa Claus” to refer to St. Nicholas, another to use that same name to refer to a jolly Nordic creature of fiction, and for these two children to disagree vociferously about the sentence “Santa Claus is dead.” (Or, if you insist that it’s part of the meaning of “genuine disagreement” that there’s co-reference, what this case shows is that something can look and sound just like a genuine disagreement—and even involve the same name—without really being a genuine disagreement. For all Tuggy says, this could be what’s going on with apparently genuine theological disagreements between Christians and Muslims.)
The case of “Santa Claus” also makes trouble for anyone who thinks a simple Kripkean causal picture of reference supports the “Same God” conclusion. On a common interpretation/extrapolation of Kripke’s causal picture—which Kripke himself was reluctant to endorse—a name acquires its referent at a baptism ceremony, and then is passed along from speaker to speaker who form, as it were, links on a chain. And as long as each link in that chain intends to use the name in the same way as the previous links, the name preserves its reference. So, one might think, since Mohammad acquired divine names from neighboring Jews and Christians, and intended to use the names as Jews and Christians do, he therefore referred to—and directed worship toward—the same God that Jews and Christians do. And similarly with subsequent Muslims.
But that’s not the way reference works. Kripke himself was aware of the troubling case of “Santa Claus,” and he says: “There may be a causal chain from our use of the term ‘Santa Claus’ to a certain historical saint, but still the children, when they use this, by this time probably do not refer to that saint.” Inspired by Gareth Evans’ theory of reference, we suggest that our conception of Santa Claus became so corrupted and distorted by myth-makers that at some point in the past—and it’s vague when this happened—the man St. Nicholas ceased to be the dominant source of information that we associate with the name “Santa Claus,” at which point the name ceased to refer to him.
We then develop Evans’ notion of dominance, exploring a few ways we might weight information in a name’s “dossier,” different types of information that we might elevate to dominance, i.e. to a sine-qua-non position in the name’s dossier. The details are in the paper, but the upshot is this: we can tell whether a name has shifted reference by asking certain hypothetical questions about the use of the name. For example, we know that “Santa Claus” shifted reference because, when we ask “What if there were no jolly Nordic elf who’s alive and delivers presents on Christmas, but there had been an ancient bishop of Myra who did such and such noble things, but is now dead? Might “Santa Claus” still refer?” all the children shout “NO!” In that contemporary use of “Santa Claus,” certain mythical information has been elevated to dominance, so that when children find out that nobody answers to that information, they conclude there is no Santa Claus and never was, that “Santa Claus” fails to refer. It has shifted reference from fact to fiction.
And now we can answer our “Same God?” question: If Islam were false and Christianity true, might “Allah” still refer? If YES, then, from a Christian perspective, Muslims’ modified conception of “Allah” has not shifted its reference. If NO, then it has. And: if Christianity were false and Islam were true, might “God” still refer? If YES, then, from a Muslim perspective, Christians’ modified conception of “God” has not shifted its reference. If NO, then it has.
Depending on your answers to those questions, it could be that you’ll think, from the perspective of each religion, that the other’s modified use of the divine name has not shifted its reference, like how early modifications of the use of “Santa Claus” didn’t yet shift its reference. In that case, you’ll probably be sympathetic to the “Same God” conclusion. Or it could be that you’ll think, from the perspective of each religion, the other has made such radical modifications that the divine name has shifted reference, as happened at some point in the fairly recent past with “Santa Claus.” In that case, you’ll likely deny the “Same God” conclusion. Another option is that it’s unclear whether, from the perspective of each religion, the other’s modifications to the use of the divine name were radical enough to shift reference, as it was for quite some time unclear whether the gradual modifications of the use of “Santa Claus” had made it cease to refer to St. Nicholas. And then you’ll likely think there’s simply no determinate fact of the matter on the “Same God?” question, or at least none we’re in a position to affirm.
We close with some speculations about what, in addition to co-reference, might be required for co-worship, and whether, from a Christian perspective, salvation turns on this issue.
The complete paper is here. Comments welcome below!