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Friday, April 24, 2009

Can Many Religions All Be True?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Someone was once asked: “How come there is only one science, but there are so many religions?” The answer that was given: Because there can be only one right answer to a question, but there can many wrong ones. This flippant reply may satisfy atheists and those who attach little importance to religions, but it cannot be taken seriously, given that religions have played such a major role in culture and civilization. It is difficult to accept, but over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of intelligent people have been persuaded by the truths of religion.
And yet, given that there are so many religions, it is legitimate to ask: “(How) can many religions all be true?” The answer to this question depends on the meaning of the word "true" in the context of religion.
Truth, as commonly understood, is an attribute one associates with facts and other elements that have tangible existence. With this meaning, it is logically impossible for different religions, adhering to different and often mutually contradicting doctrines and dogmas, to all be true. Not all the colors of the rainbow can be white.
However, it is important to realize that there are truths that touch the core of our being, that bring meaning and relevance to existence, that reveal hidden dimensions of the human condition. The truths of literature and art, in music and myths—and religion—belong to this category. These endopotent truths are not more true or less true than the facts and laws that undergird the physical universe (exopotent truths); they are truths of an altogether different category. Endopotent truths have greater value to individuals, communities, and cultures than the equations of quantum mechanics, the existence of quarks and leptons, or the big-bang origin of the physical universe.
Endopotent truths are multivalued; they can be manifest in multiple modes—as the Vedic hymns to ancient sage-poets in India, as the Commandments conveyed to Moses, as the enlightened utterances of the Buddha and Mahavira, as the sermon Jesus gave on the Mount, as the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, as the syncretic insights of Guru Nanak. Indeed, there are many religions, and they can all be true in this sense, just as every interpretation of a great poem or work of art has validity for the keen student, just as every piece of music is equally music.
But it is important to realize that all truths have both positive and negative impact potentials, depending on the actions and attitudes they enable (exopotent) and inspire (endopotent) us to.
With both religion and science, then, what is important is not so much to inquire about their truth content in the conventional sense (which will invariably lead to confrontation and mutual disrespect, if not contempt and belligerence), but to be concerned about their potential impacts. Any religion that leads to positive actions and attitudes, such as caring, compassion, and ecstatic spiritual experience, is desirable, and any religion that engenders hate, hurt, and persecution is not. Likewise, any science that leads to an improvement in human health and the human condition is preferable to one that can be used for destruction and devastation.

V.V. Raman appears with Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Arthur Hyman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Ananda Guruge in "Can Many Religions All Be True?" the 33rd episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.


Beyond Words said...

Thank you for posting. This is the most lucid description of "truth" I have ever read.

Ted Krasnicki said...

“(How) can many religions all be true?”
They cannot be all true. In point of fact, some religions possess more of the truth than others. Truth as is commonly understood is not an attribute but is the correspondence between the thing and as it is known by us. If the correspondence is accurate then we know the truth. In expressing this knowledge, it is therefore propositions that are true or false. It is either true or false that the universe exists in 4 dimensions. Some things cannot be known by natural reason, and religions fill a lot of that with what is called faith/belief, and the propositions of that faith are asserted to be true. It is either true or false that Jesus Christ is God, and the Christian asserts it by faith to be true.
This article is quite misleading, since even modern science has long ago ceased to talk about truth because scince is constantly changing its assertions. But religions assert a more unchangeable truth, a truth that holds for all time not some relativistic "endopotent" that tries to reduce the truths of religion (and science) to an altruistic ethics.

Tom Rees said...

According to Raman, an endopotent truth is any belief that people assert and act upon. Calling that a truth rather than a belief is just an exercise in obfuscation. An attempt to give face validity to the assertion (or belief, endopotent truth) that religion is 'true'.

GBM said...

"According to Raman, an endopotent truth is any belief that people assert and act upon. Calling that a truth rather than a belief is just an exercise in obfuscation. An attempt to give face validity to the assertion (or belief, endopotent truth) that religion is 'true'."

I completely agree. I also find it interesting that this version of truth seems to relegate all religious belief to a status equivalent to that of mythology.

V.V. Raman said...

Is the Virgin birth of Christ truth or fact?
Is Mose's conversation with Yahweh truth or fact?
Is Mohammed's reception of the Koran from Gabriel truth or fact?
Is the revelation of the Gita by Krishna to Arjuna truth or fact?
All these are truths to millions of (different) People.
There may not be too many scientists who will regard any of these as facts.
That said, I respect your version of truth, and your impression that what I have stated is obfuscation because those are truths for you.
I will grant that mine is only my interpretation of what truth seems to be to billions of people.
And you are welcome to reject it and accept as truth that which you find to be more fulfilling.