Living up to The Truth

2: Religion: Pragmatism or Truth?

by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
The Color of HeavenArtscroll
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There are two fundamental attitudes towards religion. I believe that they are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, that is to say, that everyone adopts exactly one of these two attitudes. I call them the pragmatic and the realist. In this chapter I will describe to you these two attitudes, and argue that the realist attitude is more fundamental. Then, we will see how the realist attitude should be implemented.

The pragmatic attitude starts with the self. I am a person with goals, desires, hopes, fears, projects, scruples and so on. There are various things that I want to accomplish, and I look at the world as a set of resources to accomplish my projects. All of human history and human culture can be seen as resources to further my goals.

This attitude, the pragmatic attitude, can be applied, among other things, to religion. Religion can also be used to serve goals. It can unite society by coordinating activities and creating mutual understanding and support. It can serve personal goals by increasing sensitivity, providing a feeling of oneness with the universe, strengthening courage, and so on. (Sometimes these goals are combined. If someone convinces the rest of his citizens that he is a demi-god, then he will have both a political and a personal benefit!)

The pragmatic attitude towards religion leads to the expectation that different cultures, and different historical periods will have different forms of religious expression because their goals, needs, and values will be quite different - we expect the religions of ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and modern Los Angeles to differ from one another. Similarly, we expect the religious expression of an individual to vary through his lifetime. The goals and aspirations of a seventeen year old, a thirty-five year old and a sixty year old are usually different.

Pragmatic religious expression would likely be eclectic. There is no reason to be bound by any one particular tradition. If a Hindu prayer is inspirational on Tuesdays, and a Moslem ritual on Thursdays, and the Jewish Sabbath on Saturdays, there is no reason not to combine them. Indeed, there is no reason to be bound to tradition at all - religious creativity will be encouraged to develop new forms of expression. And of course the pragmatic attitude includes the ' null' option where no religious expression whatsoever is found relevant to any of one's goals, and therefore religion is abandoned altogether.


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The second is the realist attitude. The realist wants truth. Every religion has some story to tell. Where did the universe come from? What is its fundamental nature? What forces guide its development? What is the nature of the human being? What will the future be? The realist wants the religion whose story is true.

[I am skirting a difficult problem here: are pragmatism and realism really distinct? One might say that among my goals is to know the truth. Then pragmatism defined as seeking means to achieve my goals will include realism. But it is not obvious that we want truth as a goal. We all appreciate that truth is an indispensable means to our other goals; perhaps this is all we want from truth. In any case, if you think that truth can be a goal, then think of pragmatism as defined to exclude truth, i.e. pragmatism means the assessment of everything as a means to achieving my goals other than acquiring truth. Then the two positions will be distinct.]

Now put this way, it is obvious that everyone is a realist and everyone is a pragmatist. Everyone has goals, desires, hopes, and projects, and looks to his culture for resources to further those projects. Similarly, everyone has an interest in the truth, since truth is an indispensable means to achieve other goals. When I say that these two attitudes are mutually exclusive, what I mean is what a person will do if he is forced to choose.

So, for example, suppose that you are exploring different religions and you come across one which as a pragmatist is ideal - it inspires you, it ennobles you, it increases your sensitivities, and it furthers the social projects in which you are interested. It fits your personality like a glove. But there is no evidence whatsoever that its account of the world is true. In fact, there may be considerable evidence against it. In such a condition you would have to choose between pragmatism which is satisfied, and realism which is not.

You could have the same conflict working in the opposite direction. You could come across a religion where there is a complete misfit in pragmatic terms: it dashes your hopes, it violates your scruples, it requires a reorganization of your world view, your goals and your focus. But the evidence seems to indicate that its picture of the world is true. Under those conditions you again have to make a choice between pragmatism and realism, and there the criteria obviously will conflict. So that when it comes to crucial choices of this kind, all people adopt one or the other of these two attitudes: the pragmatist or the realist.

[Of course, even a realist who accepts a religion on the grounds of truth may not live up to all of its rules and values. Acceptance implies only the acknowledgment of its truth, and the obligation to fulfill its requirements as best one can.]


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Now, it is obvious that there are hundreds of millions of pragmatists at the very least, and hundreds of millions of realists. The world has many people of both types. The question is, are these two attitudes equally appropriate and equally valid, and people are split in terms of their personalities and preferences? Or is one of the attitudes more fundamental and more appropriate?

It seems to me that the fundamental attitude with which one must begin any investigation is the realist. As long as there is the possibility of truth in any subject, one has the responsibility to search for the truth. Only if we can conclude that there is no truth to be had is it justifiable to make our decisions on a pragmatic basis.

I will give you some examples of why this is so. Imagine that you are a teacher and that you have caught one of your students cheating. You call in the parents for a conference, and you tell the parents that their child has a problem: "Your child cheats on exams, copies homework from other children," and so on. Suppose that the parents say that you are a liar, and that you have a vendetta against their child. Furthermore, they tell you that they have an uncle who is on the school board, and that if you keep persecuting their child, they will have you fired. Why would we not respect that sort of reaction? Because the child's cheating is a matter of fact. You presumably have evidence of the cheating. A parent who disregards the evidence and believes what he thinks it is convenient for him to believe, is regarded as irresponsible and irrational for so doing.

Similarly, some people who smoke have said to me that smoking isn't really injurious to your health. All the research is phony, it is paid off by underground left-wing groups who want to discredit the big tobacco companies. Why don't we credit that type of response? Because the danger to your health is a matter of fact. If there is evidence the least a person must do is survey the evidence. If he has an objection to it, he should offer it in logical terms, and not just dismiss the research on an unfounded charge of bias or fraud.

We don't credit pragmatic responses when there is evidence available which could lead to the truth. Any investigation must begin with the realist attitude. If and when the realist attitude comes up empty - if the investigation leads to the conclusion that there is no truth to be had - then of course we fall back on pragmatism. There is no other alternative. But, the realist approach must be applied at the outset.

The considerations so far have been completely general - they apply to any possibility of finding truth. In the case of religion they apply with special force. Imagine for a moment standing at Sinai and personally hearing from the Creator of the universe: "Do not light fires on Saturdays!" Could you just ignore such an experience? Would it not play a role in your decisions for the weekend? This is an experience which obligates a response. Furthermore, the obligation does not depend upon actually having the experience. Suppose you knew that others had the experience. You would know that the Creator wants no fires on Saturdays - that alone would create the obligation. So religious truth is crucial for living rationally and responsibly.

From the philosopher's point of view, it is especially unfortunate that the vast majority of pragmatists, vis-a-vis religion, are so by default. They have never undertaken any serious investigation. They simply assume that there simply is no truth to be had, and therefore fall back on what is useful for their life projects. What we are going to do is pursue the realist attitude to see how far it can take us.

[The responsibility to seek the truth is of course only one responsibility among many, and it may be overridden when it conflicts with a more pressing responsibility. For example, suppose seeking the truth will cost my life! Also, there is considerable discussion of the foundation of the responsibility to seek the truth. As mentioned in the last [ ], it is a crucially important means to our other goals, and it may itself be a goal. This is a theoretical matter which does not touch its validity. In the case of religion, since the utility of having the truth is eternal, the responsibility to seek the truth obviously applies.]


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One immediate consequence of approaching religion as a realist and searching for the truth is to be prepared to reject falsehood. One cannot be searching for the truth unless one is prepared to reject inadequate ideas as false. In any area where we believe that there is a truth, we recognize that in the collection of contradictory opinions, if they truly are contradictory, no more than one can be true.

We do not accord equal intellectual status to people who don't believe in the reality of the Holocaust. We are not likely to give their views equal intellectual weight because we are dealing with a matter of fact, and the evidence is against them. Similarly, groups such as The Flat Earth Society believe to this day that the Earth is flat. And whereas we may not throw them in jail or recommend that they be exiled or censored, we certainly do not accord their opinion equal intellectual status. We are not likely to offer them equal time to teach their opinions in the schools, or to write their alternative textbooks, because what they believe is nonsense. To be searching for the truth means to be prepared to reject falsehood.

Now, when it comes to religions, and I am talking now about the major world religions, they contradict each other on some crucial aspect of belief. That is to say, if you take any two of the major world religions, there is some proposition about which they disagree. And that being the case, no more than one can be wholly true. For, if religion A wholly true then, each of the others is wrong at least on the proposition in which it disagrees with religion A.

For example, according to Catholicism, a certain man was G-d. According to Islam, no man ever was G-d and no man ever could be G-d. Islam believes that Mohammed was a true prophet while Catholicism denies this. They cannot both be right. At least one of them has to be wrong. Hinduism, in the mainstream of Hindu thought, believes that the world is infinitely old, that there was not a creation at a finite time in the past.4 Since Catholicism and Islam share a belief in creation, and Hinduism rejects it, that means that no more than one of the three can be wholly true. Buddhism goes further and denies the existence of a creator altogether. (Hinduism would allow a creator who has always been creating the universe from infinity.) Then, no more than one of the four can be wholly true. Since Judaism believes in creation of finite age, that no man was G-d and that Mohammed was not a prophet, Judaism is opposed to all four. That means that no more than one of these five can be wholly true.

And so it goes. Take any major world religion and it will contradict the others on some fundamental aspect of belief. Therefore no more than one can be wholly true. (Of course, as I'm sure you have picked up, it is possible for none of them to be wholly true.) So if we are looking for the truth, we cannot give equal weight to all religions (unless we find that they are all false). If one is wholly true then the others are not.

Now, a common response to this observation is to say that maybe we could look at religions in terms of what they share. Perhaps there is a certain common core to all religions, a general sense that there is a superior power, and an appreciation of the spiritual and the moral aspects of life, a sense that our material world is not self contained and that it really is the surface of something that is much deeper. Perhaps we could take this common core which all religions share, approach it realistically, see it as the truth, and then with regard to the other matters in which the religions differ, look at them as matters of style. Matters of ethnicity, which really are not crucial, do not have to be regarded as true and could be selected on the basis of pragmatism. We could have a split methodology - realists for the core and pragmatists for the trappings. Does it really matter whether you eat meat on Fridays, smoke cigarettes on Saturdays, or have one month a year in which you fast all day long? Those are surely not matters of truth, only of style.

This suggestion is attractive until you start to pin it down in detail. What exactly should go into the core (the core being beliefs shared by all religions)? Can any of the accounts of our origins go into this core? Obviously not, since, as we just pointed out, different religions have radically different views about the origins of the universe: created by a personal being a finite number of years ago, or going through infinite cycles, or existing independently without the guidance of a personal being, and so on. There will be no scriptures that can go into the core because no scriptures are agreed upon by all religions. There will be no prophets in the core because no prophets are recognized by all religions.

An account of the soul? Sometimes religions share a word without sharing a concept because it is difficult to translate from one language to another. It may be said that all religions recognize the "soul," but when you see what they think the soul is, you get so radically different a picture, that there is no common concept underlying the variety.

Is the soul a personal spirit whose personhood, whose uniqueness is essential and infinite - eternal - and never to be destroyed as you have, for example, in Judaism? Or, is personhood an illusion, something which must be stripped away so that one achieves a consciousness that does not distinguish one significantly from a rock, a praying mantis, or a sea gull as you have in some Eastern religions? Is the ultimate relationship with G-d like a drop of water falling into an ocean, which many religions have as their metaphor for mystical union with G-d, where the individuality of the drop is lost entirely? Or is it the Jewish conception - the attachment of one thing to another, like gluing a pebble onto a wall, where the pebble becomes part of the wall, while at the same time its unique contours are preserved? The mere fact that religions may share a word called "soul" doesn't mean that they share an underlying concept.

To what can one look forward in the future? Will this physical world continue to exist forever as some have it, or will it be radically transformed and exist in another form as Judaism has it? Or, will it be totally obliterated as some forms of Christianity have it? Since religions differ on this matter, nothing about it can go into the core.

As soon as you pin down religious ideas in detail, you find that the differences are radical, and that nothing can be claimed to be shared by all religions. Even the suggestion that perhaps religions share a commitment to morality turns out to be superficial in this way. All religions might agree that it is wrong to steal. But when you ask for the concept behind the rule, why one shouldn't steal, you get radically different views. For example, mainstream Hinduism sees stealing as an action which reinforces the ego. The ego is the great enemy of achieving nirvana. Every person's goal in this world is to achieve nirvana which is some sort of experiential state for himself, some sort of bliss. Therefore, stealing for a Hindu ultimately is pragmatically ruled out. It is bad for you. You are depriving yourself of achieving the greatest happiness, the greatest bliss, the greatest tranquillity of which you are capable. The ultimate justification for not stealing is pragmatic.

Now, when you take that same rule in Jewish terms, you get an entirely different underlying conception. In Jewish terms, stealing is wrong because morality is paramount. Morality is not justified because it contributes to happiness. A pragmatic reason not to steal isn't moral at all. A person who never steals because he believes that there are policemen watching him all the time, and he believes that if he steals he is going to be put in jail, hasn't begun to become moral. Any kind of self-serving justification from a Jewish point of view is to misunderstand the fundamental concept of morality altogether. A mere behavioral rule does not give the core any religious content.

So the idea that religions have a common core which could be declared true and that the rest is just trappings is a mi stake. The hearts of religions, their most fundamental beliefs contradict one another. Therefore we are thrown back on the radical position that if we are looking for truth, we must be ready to declare falsehood when we discover it.


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So then, the question is how should we look for truth? And, if we are looking for the truth and we are to be objective and open-minded, shouldn't we give equal time to all of the candidates? Shouldn't we take time to familiarize ourselves with not only Judaism, but also Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism (just to mention the major world religions)? But, to become thoroughly familiar with the inner workings of a religion, as I am sure you know, is not a trivial matter. Even with six months for each religion, which is probably too short, you are talking about a four year investigation. Most people just don't have the time. Well, I hope to show you on general grounds that we can be objective and open-minded and yet drastically reduce the scope of the investigation.

The method of searching for truth, in my view, is the scientific method. It is the only method which we have. With all its limitations and all of its weaknesses, it is the only neutral method we have in searching for the truth. The trouble is, the scientific method is very poorly understood. (That includes scientists. The mere fact that you can do something well does not mean that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it.) So, I will take the remainder of this chapter to describe to you how the scientific method works in detail, and show you how it applies to the study of religion. And we shall see, that when we apply the scientific method, the scope of the investigation can be drastically reduced.

The first element of the scientific method is that for an idea to be taken seriously as true, there must be positive evidence of its truth. Whoever offers an idea and claims that it is true, must present positive evidence of its truth. If that sounds obvious to you, consider the following.

Suppose someone believes something for which he has no positive evidence at all - unicorns, for example. His lack of evidence does not concern him: he chooses to believe. If we protest that to believe without evidence is irrational, he challenges us to prove that unicorns do not exist. Can we meet that challenge? How should we prove that there are no unicorns?! And if we cannot, why is it any more rational to reject unicorns than to accept them? (Try this on your scientist friends and see what answers you get!)

The answer is that the believer in unicorns is right: there is no better reason to reject unicorns than accept them. But there is another alternative. We can be neutral - we neither accept nor reject unicorns - we don't take a position one way or the other. Our opposition to the believer is not that we know he is wrong, but rather that one should not commit oneself without positive evidence of truth.

But why not? What is wrong with choosing to believe if there is no evidence against the belief? Two things. First, beliefs often have practical consequences. Suppose that unicorns are thought to eat cabbages in the middle of the night - will our believer put up a fence? That is at least a waste of resources. Since there is no evidence that there are unicorns, there is no evidence hat his cabbages are in danger. Far better to give the fence money to charity! Second, we are searching for the truth because we are responsible to do so. Belief and action on pragmatic grounds when truth is available is irrational and irresponsible. The believer in unicorns is making a pragmatic choice to believe. This may be OK for unicorns - for now at least there is no evidence either way. But our concern is religious belief. Until we have investigated, we cannot assume that there is no evidence of truth of (some) religion(s). Thus our first goal must be to find positive evidence of truth. We cannot adopt a belief merely because there is no evidence against it.

If I am looking for truth, if I am trying to fulfill my responsibility to find the truth, I need a reason for my selection. I need a reason for my choice. That is why we do not pay attention to ideas without positive evidence. It is correct not to credit ideas lacking positive evidence, and the reason is not because we know that they are false. I will say it again, I cannot prove that there are no unicorns. That is not the reason for rejection of belief. The reason is that I have no positive evidence to believe in them. So even without refuting them, I disregard them when they do not present positive evidence because I have no responsibility to accept them.

[This holds when we investigate each alternative and find it without positive evidence. But if we find that one alternative does have positive evidence, then that gives us reason to reject the rest: they contradict the alternative for which we have positive evidence.]

That is the reason for the first wing of the scientific method, and believe it or not, this observation, as simple as it is, already suffices to rule out some candidates. The Far Eastern religions - Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism - offer no positive evidence of truth.5 They present themselves as noble, beautiful, uplifting, and inspiring ways of life. They claim to create harmonious attitudes and feelings of oneness with nature and so on. In other words, they present themselves as pragmatically very successful, and in fact they may be pragmatically superb, but they do not offer any evidence of the truth of their stories about the world. They don't say that if you practice our rules that you will be healthy, you won't have accidents, there won't be famine, or pestilence, or war, or earthquakes in your country, or that you will win the universal respect of mankind. They do not make any predictions at all. They offer no positive evidence of truth.

Therefore, a realist who is looking for the truth need not go to the east and spend six months mastering Shintoism, because there is no positive reason to accept it. Now, I will say it again, I am not claiming that Shintoism is false. I do not know it to be false. I cannot refute it. But, it is on a par with unicorns. If they do not offer any evidence for the truth, then I, who am searching for the truth have no responsibility to take it seriously. So then, the investigation has now been reduced by three-eighths!


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The next aspect of the scientific method is that when a religion, a theory, or a hypothesis offers evidence, the evidence must be unique. It must be evidence which that religion, theory, or hypothesis can explain and no one else can explain. Otherwise, it does not distinguish the opponent from its competitors. In science this is described as a crucial experiment. Suppose I have two theories, A and B, such that both agree that if you heat up this liquid for ten minutes, it will turn red. Heating up the liquid is probably a waste of time, because it will probably turn red and I won't know any more than before I did the experiment. What I really want is a case where A says that it will turn red and B says it will turn blue. Then I have something, because no matter what happens, (at least) one of the theories is going to be in trouble. (And I say in trouble specifically. It does not mean that it will be false, but it will be in trouble because there will experimental evidence against it.) What you want is a piece of evidence which one of the competitors can explain and the other cannot. Then you have a differential between them.

Now, there are religions that offer evidence of their truth, but the evidence is not unique in this way, and therefore, not relevant for a realist who is trying to ascertain which of the alternatives is superior. So, for example, Islam.6 One of the two main pieces of evidence that Islam offers for the truth of its religion is the military success of Mohammed's followers. Within a century they had conquered all of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, as far east as India, and penetrated into Europe. Their claim is that such a rapid conquest is impossible unless Allah helped.

Now, how do non-Moslems look at that piece of evidence? A non-Moslem will ask: "Well, what about Alexander? Alexander conquered a great deal of the world and he died at age thirty-two. He did it much faster. Must you say that Alexander's gods were helping him? The Romans controlled more of the world and did so for three hundred years. Must we say that the Roman gods are also true and were helping the Roman armies?" We don't have to accept the truth of Islam to explain rapid conquest. It happens too often. There must be some other explanation. Once we know that rapid conquest can be explained without appeal to Islam, rapid conquest ceases to be evidence for Islam. Unique evidence is something which one theory can explain and other theories cannot explain.

[The other piece of evidence offered for Islam, in case you are interested, is this. They claim that if you master Arabic and read the Koran you will see that such a book could not have been written by a human being. Only G-d could have written it. The problem with this "evidence" is parallel to the problem with conquest. It is often very difficult to explain human creativity. How did Aristotle produce so many new ideas, theories, whole new disciplines? How did Beethoven compose the late quartets? How did Einstein think of relativity? Our inability to answer these questions is not evidence that they were all supernatural! They just highlight our lack of understanding of how people - especially geniuses - create.]

For another example - now this is a burlesque but it makes the point in a dramatic way - there are certain groups which offer what they call direct evidence of the truth of their religious beliefs. They will tell you: "We do not ask you to take anything on faith, you do not have to trust any scriptures or prophets. Just come and join the ashram, sit cross legged on the floor, eat mushrooms, say "om," get up at two-thirty in the morning for cold showers, and after a month you are going to feel very different. Indeed, we will tell you how you are going to feel, we will predict it for you. Now try it out, we don't even charge rent Follow our rules for a month and see if you do not feel exactly the way we describe you are going to feel."

So the searcher for truth thinks to himself: "Wow, this is terrific. No leap of faith. Nothing irrational. I am the test of my own experience, so I will have the direct evidence. I will feel it." So, he joins the ashram for thirty days and he sits cross legged, eats mushrooms, takes cold showers and so forth, and indeed, after thirty days, he feels quite different. In fact, he feels exactly the way they said he would feel. Then he concludes, "Well here it is, I have the truth in my own experience."

Is that valid? No, that is not valid at all. The fact that they could tell you how you will feel after thirty days of following their regimen means nothing more than they have some practical, psychological knowledge. Maybe they have tried it, and they themselves experienced how it feels. Maybe they had some genuine psychological insight. What does that have to do with the truth of their religious ideas? Do I as a Jew have to deny that if you sit cross legged, say "om," and take cold showers you are going to feel the way they say? I don't have to deny that. I can accept that, and so can a Christian, a Moslem, and an atheist. Therefore, it is not unique evidence. It is not evidence that only they can explain. All of us can agree to this sort of evidence, so it doesn't count for them or against anyone else. It does not help us select them as more likely true than any of the other competitors, and therefore it is irrelevant.

Now, Hinduism and Buddhism both offer evidence of the truth of their religions, but the evidence is all in terms of personal experience. If you meditate long enough on the sound of one hand clapping, something will happen to your mind. Indeed, it will. You will think and feel quite differently. So what? Does that mean that there is a transmigration of soul, or that there is a great god-head in the sky, or that you are in touch with eternal reality, or anything else? What does one thing have to do with the other? They have discovered that certain mental exercises result in certain forms of experience. Since I as a Jew do not have to deny the existence of sartori - I might not feel that it is very valuable, but I do not have to deny its existence - or nirvana, or any other stages of mystical experience, their claiming and proving that it exists has nothing to do with the truth of their religion. Only true evidence that others cannot explain counts as support for your particular idea.


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And finally, the evidence that is offered must be known to be true. This excludes both "evidence" which turns out to be false, and which cannot be verified as true.

It is fine to make predictions, even unique predictions, but if they do not come true, then, of course, you are in serious trouble. Certain Christian sources assert that the reason the Jews are in exile is because they have not accepted the Christian Messiah. They predict that the Jews will remain in exile until they convert. Now, that is the right sort of prediction, that the Jews will be in exile until they accept the Christian messiah. Here, at least the logic was right because that is a prediction that no one else would credit. No Hindu would have any reason whatsoever to expect Jews will stay in exile until they accept the Christian Messiah. He would have no reason to believe that. Nor would a Buddhist, a Moslem, a Shintoist, a Taoist, a Confucianist, or an Atheist. Certainly Jews will not credit it. So that is the right sort of prediction to make: a prediction that no one else will credit.

But, since 1948 (the formation of the state of Israel), that prediction has been wearing a bit thin. All right, in 1948 we didn't have Jerusalem. Since 1967 (Israel conquered Jerusalem in the Six Day War) it has been wearing even thinner. Still, there was always the Soviet Union holding on to its Jews making it impossible for those Jews to come. So there was a last ditch hold-out position. In the last few years even that has disappeared. There has been massive Soviet Jewry immigration into Israel since the collapse of theSoviet Union. The Jews in Russia are free to leave. This prediction has simply come out false. The fact that there are Jews who refuse to leave their penthouses in Manhattan in order to come to a smaller dwelling in Tel Aviv could not exactly be regarded as a punishment. That is not what the Christian writings predict. They say that we will be punished in exile for not accepting the Christian Messiah, and that has not happened.

In addition, the evidence must be verified as true. Otherwise it is open to the competitors to simply deny the "evidence." For example, if Islam offered Mohammed's miraculous ascent to heaven as "evidence," other religions would simply deny hat it happened. (Indeed, "evidence" means that which is evident!) For this reason the many stories of levitation, traveling at supernatural speed, personal revelations etc. found in many religions are useless as evidence - they are not known to be true.


Next: Chapter III - Belief and Action: Criteria for Responsible Decision
Previous: Chapter I - The Relevance of Religion

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