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The Rivalry Between Religions (2007)

Raymond D. Bradley

[This essay was originally presented at a departmental seminar for the Philosophy Department at Simon Fraser University on December 5, 1995.]


1. How Should One Choose Between Different Religions?
2. Betting on the Gods: Pascal's Wager
3. The Problem of Contrariety
4. Hume's Argument from Contrariety
5. The Contrariety Between Religions Disputed
6. John Hick's Objection to Contrariety
7. John Mackie's Objection to the Contrariety Premise
8. The Contrariety Premise Demonstrated
9. The Evidences Against Each and Every Religion: Back to the Betting Arena
10. The Contrariety of Evidential Claims for Different Religions
11. The Problem of "Snarling Logicality" Again
12. Guidelines for Prudent Betting
13. A General Argument for the Probable Falsity of All Religions

     Appendix: The Formal Structure of the Argument


The rivalry between religions is obvious on a number of fronts: in wars between Christians, Muslims, and Hindus; in sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants, or between Shia and Sunni; in the persecution of doctrinal heretics; in the splintering of new sects along doctrinal lines; in efforts to proselytize; and so on.

What drives these rivalries? Social, political, economic, and other factors may play their parts. But underlying them all is a very different and deeper sort of rivalry. It is the logical rivalry, the logical incompatibility, that exists between the doctrines that define each of these religions. This poses huge problems for any would-be spiritual pilgrim searching for religious truth.

1. How Should One Choose Between Different Religions?

Right at the outset, one is faced with a huge number of possible candidates for belief. To which religion should one pin one's faith? To which should one commit one's life here and now, and perhaps in the hereafter? Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Taoism, perhaps?

The list of options does not stop there, of course. No religion is without its schisms and its sects. Settle on a major religion--Christianity, for instance--and the question still remains: Which version? Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Protestant? Suppose you settle on Protestantism. Then the question arises: Do you accept the gospel according to the Anglicans, the Unitarians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, or the Pentecostals? Shall you embrace the "truth" as purveyed by faith healers such as Peter Popoff, whose "messages from the angels" were exposed as clandestine radio broadcasts from a trailer into the tiny hearing aid in his left ear, or the truth purveyed by White House evangelists such as Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham)? (Franklin Graham made the doctrinal source of the neoconservative war in Iraq explicit when he claimed: "We're not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the Son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Likewise, Lt. General William "Jerry" Boykin boasted about his victory over a Somali warlord, "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol.")

Nor should one ignore less well-established religion, such as Baha'i, Theosophy, Jehovah's Witness, Christian Science, or the Church of Latter-day Saints. Or newer, first-generation religions such as the Unification Church, Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, the Urantia Foundation, and the Rajneesh Foundation. Well over 500 cults are presently active in North America alone. Why should not the truth lie with one or other of them?

Or with one of the older, now-forgotten religions? H. L. Mencken's essay "Memorial Service"[1] lists 138 gods, each of whom was "of the highest standing and dignity ... worshipped and believed in by millions." All, he points out, "were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead." Yet all these gods, and all the religions established in their names, were once potent forces in the lives of their devotees, satisfying what Bertrand Russell called "the cruel thirst for worship."[2] They were gods able to command devotion and sacrifice; gods in whose names temples were built, heretics were persecuted, and wars were fought. How can we be sure that one of these gods will not come again to reveal himself as the one and only true god?

Can anyone, with justified confidence, suppose that the circumstances of his or her own birth, upbringing, or subsequent inquiries, are uniquely privileged so as to yield the correct view as to which of these gods, if any, really exists?

For those who are tradition-bound or otherwise blinkered in their beliefs, the question is easily answered: Don't get caught up in what the nineteenth century American philosopher William James called "the snarling logicality" of trying to decide between rival options. Consider only that religion which is a "live option" for you--the religion of your fathers, or that of your peers--and bet your life on the possibility that it should turn out to be true. Otherwise, James argues, one might forfeit one's sole chance in life of "getting on the winning side."[3]

But which is the winning side going to be? How can one prudently place one's bets before one has looked carefully at the credentials of the rival candidates--not just the favorite ones but the dark horses as well?[4] How, for that matter, can one be sure that all of the candidates, and the competition itself, are not phonies?

The snarling logicality cannot so easily be dismissed.

2. Betting on the Gods: Pascal's Wager

Although the idea of placing one's bets in matters of religious belief originated with Islamic thinkers, it was presented most persuasively by the founder of probability theory, the seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal. In an argument that has come to be known as "Pascal's Wager," Pascal argues thus: If we bet our lives on the hypothesis that God exists and this turns out to be true, then we win and will be rewarded with eternal bliss; while if it turns out to be false, we lose the bet but nothing else. If, on the other hand, we bet our lives on the hypothesis that there is no such God, then we stand to gain little if we are right, but will suffer eternal torment if we are wrong. In his words: "Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He is."[5] The "He" that Pascal referred to was, not surprisingly, the God of Roman Catholics, not of Protestants.

The main problem with Pascal's argument is that it assumes that only one religion is worth considering. He would have us bet on only "two" chances, two contradictory beliefs, beliefs that are mutually exclusive of one another and exhaust all of the possibilities: believing in the God of Roman Catholicism or not believing in that God.

But his reasoning (and that of James, similarly) is seriously at fault. There aren't just two possibilities--two alternatives, each of which is the contradictory of the other. There are countless many alternative religions, each of which is a contrary of each of the others. Exactly the same sort of argument could be advanced on behalf of each of these religions: not just the 240 or so that one is likely to find listed in a good book on comparative religion, but each of the other religions that undoubtedly will be dreamt up in the future.

3. The Problem of Contrariety[6]

Each religion makes its own distinctive truth-claims, claims that logically rival those of all other religions. They are contraries of one another. Yet if this is so, at most only one religion can be wholly true, and all of the others must contain beliefs that are false. Indeed, the question arises as to whether it is possible that all are false.

It is not just possible, but probable. For, when we consider their respective credentials, it appears that every religion has alleged evidence to cite in support of its truth-claims: evidence in the form of miraculous events on the public stage, of great changes wrought in the lives of believers, of answered prayers, of divine revelations, and the like. In addition, if each religion is contrary to all of the others, any evidence that might be cited in support of the truth-claims of one must thereby be taken to undermine the truth-claims of every other. But since the adherents of any given religion are outnumbered by those of all the others, the experiential evidence that undermines any given religion must then be greater than the evidence that supports it. If one "estimates the chances," as Pascal recommended, one will have to conclude--on the basis of experiential evidence--that the chance of any single religion being the one true religion is vastly outweighed by the chance of it being false. Hence, the odds of having "wagered" correctly and being "on the winning side" are poor. And the very idea of there being any winner at all begins to look far-fetched.

Moreover, if each religion is contrary to all of the others, any evidence in support of one must cast doubt on the authenticity or worth of alleged evidence for any of the others; and the others, reciprocally, must cast doubt on the authenticity or worth of alleged evidence for the one. Hence, one might come to wonder whether any of the alleged evidence for any religion is sound.

4. Hume's Argument from Contrariety

That this, or something like it, is the logic of the situation was first pointed out by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume[7]. In his essay titled "Of Miracles," he wrote:

in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and ... it is impossible [that] the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.[8]

In order to appreciate the scope and power of Hume's argument, we need first to understand what he means by "miracle." He is not using it in the loose sense in which someone might say, "It was a miracle that I survived the crash." A miracle, for him, is not just something unusual or remarkably fortunate.

In a definition that features in many dictionaries, and is widely accepted by theologians and philosophers, Hume says that a miracle is any event that is supposed to involve the violation of the laws of nature at the instigation of some divinity or other supernatural agent. He writes: "A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent." In effect, an event is to count as a genuine miracle if and only if its occurrence is not attributable to wholly natural causes. As Hume put it: "Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature."

Now consider the range of happenings that this definition covers. It covers all acts whereby a god might reveal him or her self: all supposed communications with humankind in divine scriptures or prophecies; all public displays of divine power; and all private revelations to the devout. To emphasize this point: the term "miracle" applies not only to publicly performed miracles, but also to privately experienced ones. Among the former we might list such instances as parting the Red Sea, being born of a virgin, turning water into wine, raising someone from the dead, faith healings, and events such as those reported to occur almost daily at Lourdes. Each of these events could in principle be tested by ordinary public examination. Yet some purported miracles are more private in nature. Examples would include such supposed events as: visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or Krishna; hearing the voice of a god or angel telling you what he wants you to do; vivid awareness of God in nature; mystical awareness of the ineffable; inner assurances of God's love and forgiveness; communing with God in prayer; experiencing what some describe as "the indwelling of the Holy Spirit"; feelings of being in tune with the infinite; conversion-type experiences of being "born again"; and the like. These latter examples don't lend themselves so readily to public scrutiny. The experiences themselves are subjective. But because they are attributed to the intervention in one's private life of some supernatural or divine being, or at least to interaction with some such agent, these subjective experiences are supposed to provide a window through which one can become acquainted with a "higher" objective reality, one that lies outside or beyond the natural world. As with events of the public kind, so too with events of the private kind: if a purported miracle were to admit of a naturalistic explanation, it just wouldn't count as a "real" miracle.[9]

Hume's definition of miracles, then, covers every conceivable sort of experiential evidence that might be cited in support of belief in the existence of some sort of supernatural agency, or in support of the truth-claims of some particular religion.

How good is Hume's argument? Let's start with the premise that different religions are contraries of one another: that they can't all be true but could all be false. Is this premise correct?

5. The Contrariety Between Religions Disputed

The crucial premise, as Hume stated it, is the claim that "in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary." Unless this is true, the rest of the argument falls apart. But is it true?

With appropriate qualifications on what Hume meant by "whatever is different," I think the answer is yes. For, from the context, it is clear that he is talking only about those differences that are distinctive of each religion, those that mark it out from other religions. It is these distinctive differences that he claims to be contraries of one another.

The truth of Hume's contrariety premise is taken for granted by theologians of the so-called "exclusivist" tradition. According to Swiss theologian Karl Barth, for instance, "we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion."[10] Likewise, another theologian, Karl Rahner, writes: "Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all men, which cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right."[11] The vast majority of theologians and ordinary believers in every other religion would make similar exclusivist claims for their own cherished doctrines.

Yet the contrariety premise has recently come under attack both from inside, and from outside, the citadels of faith.

6. John Hick's Objection to Contrariety

One of the most influential philosophers of religion, John Hick, is well aware of the apparent conflicts between the truth-claims of different religions. But he encourages us to think of them as complementary (rather than contrary) accounts of a single divine reality. He tries to charm us into accepting this view by telling the well-known story of the blind men and the elephant:

An elephant was brought to a group of blind men who had never encountered such an animal before. One felt a leg and reported that an elephant is a great living pillar. Another felt the trunk and reported that an elephant is a great snake. Another felt a tusk and reported that an elephant is like a great plowshare. And so on. And then they all quarreled together, each claiming that his own account was the truth and therefore all the others false. In fact of course they were all true, but each referring to one aspect of the total reality and all expressed in very imperfect analogies.[12]

Hick would have us conclude that the apparent contrariety between different religions is just that--apparent, but not real.

As an implicit plea for religious tolerance, Hick's parable is as commendable as it is needed. But as a rebuttal of the contrariety premise, it fails. He says that the rival accounts of the blind men were "all true," hence compatible. Yet, on careful thought, it becomes obvious, first, that they were in fact incompatible, as charged, and second, that they were all false. The claim that an elephant is a living pillar is inconsistent with the claim that an elephant is a great snake, and both are inconsistent with the claim that an elephant is like a plowshare. Moreover, since an elephant (as distinct from certain parts of an elephant) neither is, nor is like, any of these three things, all three claims are false. Had each blind man claimed only to discern a partial aspect of the elephant, no disagreement and no quarrel would have ensued. Likewise with religious differences. The fact of the matter is that the blind men of religion do not regard their own doctrines as "imperfect analogies," partial visions of a single transcendent reality. Rather, like Barth and Rahner, each claims that his vision alone offers the complete and absolute truth.

7. John Mackie's Objection to the Contrariety Premise

The truth of the contrariety-premise has been questioned not only by a handful of religious apologists such as Hick, but also by some religious skeptics. In an uncharacteristically soft-minded passage, the atheistic Australian philosopher John Mackie has commented on its role in Hume's argument as follows:

This argument ... has less force now than it had when it Hume was writing. Faced with influential bodies of atheist or skeptical opinion, the adherents of different religions have toned down their hostility to one another. The advocate of one religion will now often allow that a number of others have at least some elements of truth and even, perhaps, some measure of divine authorization. It is no longer "The heathen in his blindness," but rather "We worship the same god, but under different names and in different ways." Carried far enough, this modern tendency would allow Christian miracles to support, not undermine, belief in the supernatural achievements of stone-age witch doctors and medicine men, and vice versa. It is as if someone had coined the slogan, "Miracle-workers of the world, unite!"[13]

But Mackie has got it wrong here. For a start, the question at issue is whether the beliefs distinctive of one religion are logically hostile to, i.e., inconsistent with, the beliefs distinctive of the others. Yet somehow Mackie allows himself to substitute for this question the irrelevant one as to whether the believers in one religion are overtly hostile to the believers in other religions. He ventures the dubious claim that a new ecumenical spirit is abroad and that it offers promise of reconciling believers. But even if this were so, it would do nothing to show that there can be reconciliation of the central beliefs to which they adhere.[14]

Second, the question at issue has nothing to do with whether the advocates of one belief system will allow "some elements of truth" in another belief system. The fact, if it is a fact, that they do not disagree about everything does nothing to show that they do not disagree about anything. Partial consistency between different belief systems is a far cry from full consistency. What is at issue, it must be remembered, is only whether there is any belief in the one belief system whose truth demands the falsity of, because it is logically inconsistent with, any belief in the other belief system. If there is, then the belief systems are indeed contraries after all, if not contradictories.[15]

Third, we need to take a more careful look at Mackie's use of the description "same god ... under different names." This seems to lend support to Hick's inclusivist claim that any seeming contrariety between the belief systems of different religions is only verbal, not real. But is either of them right?

8. The Contrariety Premise Demonstrated

Consider the three religions that seem best to fit the description of "worshipping the same god ... under different names." These are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

All three religions can agree that there is a supreme being who is creator and sustainer of us all; that this supreme being is the god of Abraham; that the god of Abraham, known by the different names (or descriptions) "Yahweh," "God the Father," or "Allah," is a personal god; that chief among His attributes are His omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness; that He has revealed himself to mankind through such prophets as Moses, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; that the Old Testament scriptures are holy writ; and so on.

But, as we have already seen, this does not mean that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not contraries of one another. That question can only be answered by determining whether there are truth-claims, essential to the distinctive belief system of any one, which cannot without logical inconsistency[16] be accepted within the distinctive belief systems of the others.

Such truth-claims are not hard to find: truth-claims about the nature and status of Jesus of Nazareth, for instance. Jesus, the Christ, is the central figure of Christianity, claimed by Christians to be not just another prophet of God, but God-Himself-made-incarnate. Do Jews, or Muslims, accept the claim that Jesus is one and the same with God? They neither do, nor logically can. For to accept this claim would be to abandon their own religions and to become Christians. To say that this claim is "contrary" to the basic tenets of their own faiths is an understatement. According to both, it is not just false, but blasphemous.

The fact that these religions make contrary claims regarding Jesus shows how shallow the view is that they all worship the same god under different names. It may well be true that all three religions claim to believe in the same god: the so-called "God of Abraham." But they are mistaken. What they believe in is three different gods "of Abraham." For Christianity, the god of Abraham is identified with a mystical unity of beings: the Holy Trinity, God-the-Father = God-the-Son = God-the-Holy-Ghost. For Judaism and Islam, he is not. For Islam, the god of Abraham is identified with the god who revealed Himself most fully to Muhammad. For Christianity and Judaism, he is not. For Judaism, the god of Abraham is identified with the god who has yet--to this day--to send His promised Messiah. For Christianity and Islam, he is not. But the god of Abraham cannot be identical to each of these three different gods; and he cannot be simultaneously identical to and different from any one of them. To put the point another way: one and the same god cannot both possess and lack an attribute that at least one of these religions ascribes to him and which another denies he possesses. He cannot be most fully represented solely by Moses, solely by Jesus, and solely by Muhammad. Hence there is no single "god of Abraham" who is worshipped by the adherents of all three religions. Just as we can have a number of different names or descriptions for a single object, so we can use a single name or description--"god of Abraham," for instance--for quite different objects. Talk of worshipping the same god under different names conceals a logical muddle about the different identities of the gods worshipped in these three religions. It does nothing to soften the bite of the contrariety premise.

The truth of the contrariety premise is evident again when we leave the domain of the theistic religions and compare them with the nontheistic ones: Advaita Vedanta Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, for instance. Neither of the latter accepts the proposition, common to all of the theistic religions, that ultimate reality is personal.[17] And each has its own different, and contrary, accounts of what ultimate reality is.

Of course, one might claim--as John Hick does--that, whether theistic or otherwise, these religions, and all others as well, "represent diverse awarenesses of the same limitless transcendent reality."[18] But although Hick's terminological ascent into high generalities may look promising, it serves only to obscure the logical situation. We need to remember that this claim is not itself part of the belief system of any of these religions themselves. Just as his claim that each of the blind men is "referring only to one aspect of the total reality" is itself different from, and contrary to, the claims of each blind man to know what the elephant is, so his own universalist, inclusivist, religious worldview is different from, and contrary to, the worldviews of these other religions. Hick's inclusivist religion promises to reconcile rival religions but finishes by offering us a new one to rival all of the others.

9. The Evidences Against Each and Every Religion: Back to the Betting Arena

One of the implications of the contrariety between religions, as Hume points out, is that "every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so it has the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system."

The logic of Hume's argument becomes clear when we translate it into terms that Pascal and James would endorse in the betting arena. Suppose, first, that you believe that there is evidence that a horse race has been rigged such that it is 100% certain that your horse, C, will win. Then, on the basis of this evidence, you are logically obliged to conclude that all of the other horses--H, I, J, etc.--will lose. Of course, most of the time you don't have what you believe to be conclusive evidence that your favorite will win. What Hume calls the "scope" of your evidence may be less than conclusive. If so, you are restricted to making a probability estimate. Now if the evidence that you do have is strong enough to persuade you that C has a better than 50:50 chance of winning--that is, you think that it is more probable than not that C will win--then it will be rational of you to place your bet accordingly. Suppose, for example, that you believe that the evidence of C's form going into the race is strong enough to warrant a 4-to-1 bet on his winning. Then, on the basis of this evidence, you can validly infer that there is an 80% likelihood of all the other horses, H, I, J, etc., losing.

Translating this illustration back into the religious arena, let C be Christianity, H be Hinduism, I be Islam, and J be Judaism. Then, in the first case, if we believe that the stories of Christ's resurrection provide us with complete certitude of the truth of Christianity, we will be warranted in concluding that all of the other religions are losers, i.e., that the sum of their beliefs are false. If, on the other hand, you believe that stories of Christ's resurrection fall short of proof, but nevertheless probabilize the truth of the Christian religion, then by the same token you are committed to saying that the evidence for Christ's resurrection probabilizes the falsity of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and all the other religions in the religious stakes. All depends on your estimate of the scope, or power, of the evidence on which you rely: on whether you take it to provide what Hume elsewhere calls "a proof or a probability."

Hume's claim, that the evidence for each religion undermines every other religion, is thereby shown to be true. No matter where you rate the strength of the evidence on the scale from "makes religion R more probably true than not" to "makes R absolutely certain" or "proves R," you thereby rate all other religions as being shown to be probably or certainly false.

10. The Contrariety of Evidential Claims for Different Religions

Hume does not merely claim that any evidence counting for one religion must count against all other religions. He also claims that any evidence counting for one religion must count against any evidence for these other religions. To quote him again: "In destroying a rival system, [a miracle] likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other."[19]

Once more, we can illustrate what Hume is getting at by turning to the betting arena. If you claim that the evidence of C's winning the race is, say, 80%, then your claim is contrary to someone else's claim to have evidence that it is more probable than not that some other horse will win. Not only, that is, would the evidence on which you rely undermine the claim that some other horse, say J, will win--it also undermines the claim that there is better than a 50:50 probability that J will win.

Let's translate this back into the religious arena and the sorts of evidence that might be cited as establishing the truth of one religion as opposed to another. Suppose a Christian claims both that the miracle of the Resurrection occurred and that its occurrence proves or probabilizes the truth of Christianity. Suppose, further, that a Jew claims both that Old Testament stories about miracles performed by Moses before the court of Pharaoh are true, and that they establish the truth of Judaism. Suppose, still again, that a Muslim claims that the miracle of the archangel Gabriel dictating the Qur'an to Muhammad establishes the truth of Islam. Each of these "establishing claims," as I'll call them, counts against the truth of the others. At best, only one such claim about the scope of a given miracle to establish its religion can be true. And, of course, it is logically possible that all of these establishing claims are false.

With a little reflection, we can see that any establishing claim concerning a miracle takes the form "Because miracle M occurred, the truth of religion R is probable or proved." As such, an establishing claim has two elements. It rests on the assertion or presupposition that M did in fact occur. And it asserts that the occurrence of M probabilizes (or proves) the truth of R.

It follows that there are two grounds on which we might dispute the worth of such establishing claims. First, we may question whether M did in fact occur and whether the evidence cited for its occurrence is itself veridical or illusory. Second, we may question whether, even if it is veridical, it helps to establish the truth of R with probability or certainty.

You may believe that horse C is going to win based on hearing that the race has been rigged in its favor. Yet what you have been told may itself be false: the evidence may turn out to be unreliable. Again, even if the evidence is in fact reliable, it may yet be questionable that the race's being rigged provides sufficient grounds to conclude that there is no chance of horse C not winning. After all, someone may point out, it is quite possible that C will stumble or break a leg, and that your certitude about C's winning will turn out to be misplaced.

Apply this, now, to the case of Christianity. Take the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. The belief that he rose from the grave is held by many Christians to be absolutely central to Christianity. "If Christ be not risen," said St. Paul, "then our faith is in vain." The miracle of the Resurrection is taken by many Christians to establish that Jesus was divine. But are there good grounds for believing that the Resurrection did in fact occur? And would it, if it did occur, establish his divinity?

Did the Resurrection occur? Someone intent on exploring the credentials of this belief may be dismayed to find that the Gospels provide different, and inconsistent, stories of the Resurrection; that those stories were unmentioned by, and apparently unknown to, early Church Fathers until well into the second century A.D.; that there are no independent and well-authenticated records of Jesus ever having lived, let alone having died and having risen from the grave; or, again, that many of the earliest Christians of whom we do have an historical record, the so-called Docetists (whose views held sway from 70 A.D. to 170 A.D.), regarded Jesus as having always been nothing but an apparition, a spirit without any physical body that could die or therefore be resurrected.

But suppose a Christian hasn't come across these objections or chooses to brush them aside. Suppose, that is, that he or she still maintains that the Resurrection did in fact occur in something like the fashion reported in the Gospels. Even so, the evidential worth of this (supposed) miraculous event can be questioned on other grounds as well. For why, it may be asked, do Christians think that rising from the dead establishes the divinity of the person who died and came back to life? Surely they wouldn't draw this conclusion about Lazarus, for instance. Nor would they draw it about those others for whom St. Matthew (27:52-53) tells us, at the time of Jesus' death, "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many." But if not, why not?

We can ask similar questions about evidences cited in support of other religions as well. In the case of Judaism, we might ask first: Are the Old Testament stories about the miracles of Moses really true? Why does Egyptian history--remarkably detailed for the period concerned--contain no hint of the presence of the Children of Israel in their midst for 430 years, especially given that the enslaved Israelites supposedly numbered 600,000 adult males (for an estimated total of a million or two including the women and children) at the time of their deliverance? Why have archeologists and historians not found a trace of evidence of Moses' existence, or of the presence of so many Children of Israel in the Sinai desert for 40 years?

Second: Even if these stories happen to be true, despite the lack of evidence, would they have the import that is claimed for them? After all, if Exodus chapter 3 is true, then the sorcerers in Pharaoh's court were also able to duplicate most of Moses' miracles--miracles such as turning a rod into a serpent, turning all of the waters in Egypt into blood, and bringing about a plague of frogs--failing only when it came to producing lice. Would a religious Jew want to say that the miracles of these Egyptian magicians--attested to as equally veridical by the Old Testament--established the truth of the Egyptians' religion?

Similar questions arise for Islam. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur'an to Muhammad. Did this holy text really come into existence in this way? And what significance should we attach to the claim that it did? What truth, or significance, for that matter, should we attach to Mormon claims about the angel Moroni's visitations to Joseph Smith, or to claims about the divine origin of the Book of Mormon? We could, in principle, go on to ask similar questions about the truth and significance of all the miraculous revelations that are regarded as foundational for every religion across the wide spectrum of belief.

Hume, once more, has got it right. If we were to accept any one of these evidential claims as being both well-founded and as having the relevance and significance claimed for it, we would be logically obliged to reject all of the other competing evidential claims. We would be logically obliged, that is, to say of each rival religion that either its alleged evidence is spurious, or it lacks the significance claimed for it. Any such evidential claims "destroy the credit," as Hume puts it, of evidences for all other religions.

11. The Problem of "Snarling Logicality" Again

William James, you may remember, counseled his hearers to ignore what he called the "snarling logicality" of trying to decide on which religion to stake one's life in the here and now. His advice? Bet on the religion that is a live option for you. That is to say, bet on the truth of the religion that you have been brought up with.

But his strategy is misbegotten. He was addressing the Protestant believers in New England and could be confident, therefore, that they would respond by endorsing the belief system that they already had. But suppose that he, or someone else, were to urge the same sort of reasoning from believers in some other religion, such as Islam. If they were to accept this reasoning, it would again have the effect of reinforcing their already-entrenched faith. And so on, for all of the other rival religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, and the rest. His counsel, in short, does nothing whatever to avoid the snarling logicality that faces us if, in the pursuit of truth, we try to decide which of the innumerable contrary religions, if any, is true. If his reasoning counted in favor of one religion, then it would count equally in favor of every other as well. But this means that his reasoning doesn't count in favor of any of them. The snarling logicality doesn't go away.

Indeed, the logic of Hume's argument gives it a double bite. For not only are the different religions logical rivals of one another; the evidences cited in support of one religion count against each of the other religions; and the evidences for each of these other religions count against the evidences for the one. Once more, then, they are on a par. So we are left with the predicament of having to decide which of them, if any, is founded on evidence strong enough to warrant belief. The emphasized expression, "if any," is particularly troubling. For given that the purported evidences are contraries, not simple contradictories, there is a distinct possibility that none of them is true. It is possible, that is, that all of them are mere figments of man's imagination, generated by feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, or the need to worship, or a simple desire not to alienate oneself from the religious community in which one has been brought up.

12. Guidelines for Prudent Betting

How, then, should we proceed? Well, consider how a prudent person would proceed if faced with a somewhat analogous situation, albeit one involving events that no one would think of as miraculous. Suppose, for example, that you are not the only bettor who is relying on evidence that the race has been rigged in favor of his horse. You discover that the bettors on all the rival horses are also relying on the belief that the race has been rigged in favor of their horses. Since each of them claims to be in possession of evidence that you are wrong, the preponderance of the evidence is that you probably are wrong.

Now since the race cannot have been rigged so that all of the horses win, you realize that something is seriously amiss and that it is possible that all of you, yourself included, have been led astray. In such a situation, you--as a rational bettor--would turn a critical eye on the evidence for your own belief that your horse will win. Perhaps you were relying on someone else's report about the rigging of the race. In this case, you would want to examine that person's credibility more carefully and grill him about what grounds he had for his assertions. Or perhaps you weren't relying on second-hand reports. Perhaps you had first-hand evidence: you yourself were there when the trainers and/or jockeys were apparently conspiring to have your horse win. In that case, you would want to question your own gullibility. Could it all have been a grand hoax on their part? Or might your desire to "win big" have been so strong that you had misinterpreted what you had heard and so fell into the trap of self-deception? And, by parity of reasoning, might it not be the case that all of you, not just you but the other bettors as well, have likewise been deceived or deceived yourselves? On reflection, you might conclude that this is not just possible, but probable.

Now translate this reasoning into the religious realm and consider the situation facing the proponent of one particular candidate--say Christianity--in the religious stakes. Just as the bettor will need to investigate whether the apparent rigging of the race was "for real" or just a "put up job," so a rational Christian will need to investigate whether an event that is supposed to be a miracle supporting his Christian beliefs really is miraculous, or whether it can be explained in natural terms.

In order to carry out such an inquiry, the believer will need to investigate the grounds for his belief that the supposed miracle did in fact occur. Was he relying on second-hand reports, a belief passed down by his forebears, perhaps, or beliefs taken for granted by members of the religious community to which he now belongs? If so, he will need to check on the credentials of those beliefs, always mindful of the propensity of most people to believe in the extraordinary and the marvelous, of the propensity to accept the dictates of authority, and of the social and personal opprobrium risked by anyone who questions what is taken to be sacred.

A diligent inquiry along these lines may well reveal that what he accepted as true is far from certain and may even be evidently false. Even the most ardent orthodox believer may find that in all good conscience he is then compelled to concur with the demythologized beliefs of so-called modernist theologians like Rudolph Bultmann. He might even go so far as to question--with Albert Schweitzer and others--whether there is good historical evidence for the existence of a Christ Jesus, and end up embracing merely the so-called "ethics" associated with the Jesus myth.

When it comes to investigating the credentials of his own first-hand experiences of the divine, the task is going be more daunting. Our own immediate experiences always carry with them a conviction of their own veridicality, i.e., their nonillusory nature. Can he really doubt that he saw a vision of Mother Mary, for instance, or that God told him to launch a crusade in defense of the "true" faith? Difficult. But not impossible. Doubt may start to erode his certainty when he, as a Roman Catholic, say, discovers that the Virgin rarely appears in visions to Protestants, and never to Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. Again, he may begin to doubt whether God really was giving him instructions when he learns that the staunch defenders of other religions claim, with equally passionate sincerity, that God told them to launch a crusade against his sect or religion. The strongest subjective certitude, he may reflect, can drive believers of all faiths and sects to take the lives of others in a religious war, and even drive them to give their own lives "in God's name."

But such subjective conviction, he may conclude, can never afford a guarantee of the truth of the doctrines that each side is trying to defend. He may come to remark on the fact that although God, as it seems to him, frequently tells him to take the actions that he is already disposed to do, God never seems to issue counter instructions telling him that he has got God's message wrong and should stop the mayhem on which he has embarked. Is it likely, he may ask himself, that the visions or voices in his head, or in the heads of his religious opponents, are always authentic? On reflection, our seeker after religious truth may come to realize that not even a single one of his personal encounters with the divine stands up to serious critical scrutiny. He may even come to think that none of his experiences can be relied upon to tell him anything about reality outside of the workings of his own mind.

And what goes for our believer in Christianity goes equally for believers in other faiths as well. Each, after serious inquiry, may feel compelled to conclude not only that it is probable that believers in other religions are in error, but that he is too. After all, if you have good reason to think that others have been led to false beliefs by relying on evidence of a certain kind, and you have been relying on evidence of the very same kind, then you will have good reason to think that it has probably led you to false beliefs as well.

So far I have endorsed and elaborated on Hume's argument for the logical contrariety between rival religions and the consequent logical contrariety between their evidences. From this contrariety it immediately follows that the rival religions can't all be true, that at most just one can be true, and that it is possible that all are false. And I have gone further, arguing that it is not just possible that all are false--on the evidence, it is probable.

13. A General Argument for the Probable Falsity of All Religions

Hume has a rather independent argument for this stronger conclusion. It is a much more general argument, having to do with the miraculous nature of the events cited in support of religious beliefs, rather than their contrariety.

Stated succinctly, it goes like this. In order for a statement to be deemed a law of nature, the best evidence that human experience and careful scientific investigation can provide must attest its truth. In short, the truth of a law of nature must have the highest degree of probability that it is possible for any statement to have (other than a tautology, a definitional truth, a truth of logic, or a truth of mathematics). Now, by definition, an event is to be considered a miracle if and only if its occurrence is contrary to the laws of nature. If it weren't contrary to those laws, there would be nothing remarkable about it and it would have no evidential value as a support for belief in something beyond the natural world. But by virtue of being contrary to--because involving a violation of--the laws of nature, a miracle must therefore be as improbable as any event can be. Yet every bit of experiential evidence that is cited in support of any particular religion must involve some sort of miracle: either of the public kind, or of the private kind. Hence every bit of experiential evidence cited in support of any religion whatever must be as improbable as any evidence can be. And the truth of any religion in whose support it is cited must likewise be improbable.

Nothing in the argument from contrariety, or in this other more general argument, demonstrates the impossibility of any religion being true. But these arguments do demonstrate the high degree of improbability of any of them being true.

Only with the recognition of this fact will the snarling logicality of trying to choose between rival religions go away. It will go away if, and only if, we realize that all are probably false and that none of them is a remotely plausible candidate for belief.


The foregoing argument presupposes little understanding of logic. So, as Ted Drange has pointed out, readers with a taste for more formal presentations might appreciate the following analysis of the argument's overall structure:

  1. The distinctive doctrines of different religions express contrary claims.
  2. Hence, any evidence in favor of one religion is evidence that all other religions are false.
  3. If a religion is false, then the alleged evidence for it is also false (or spurious).
  4. Thus, any evidence in favor of one religion implies that all of the evidence for all other religions is false (or spurious). [from 2 and 3]
  5. Therefore, for any given evidence-claim E on part of one religion, all of the evidence-claims of all of the other religions imply that E is false. [from 4]
  6. So, for E to be true, it would probably need to be something special, different from all of the other evidence-claims, and particularly strong. [from 5]
  7. But all of the various evidence-claims for all religions are of the same sort.
  8. And none of the evidence-claims for any religion are particularly strong.
  9. It follows that any given evidence-claim on behalf of any religion is probably false. [from 6-8]
  10. Since the evidence-claims are contraries [from 4], and not contradictories, it is possible that they are all false.
  11. Hence, probably all of the evidence-claims of all religions are false. [from 9 and 10]


[1] H. L. Mencken, "Memorial Service," copyright 1922 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted in Klemke, Kline and Hollinger, eds., Philosophy: The Basic Issues, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), p. 279. Mencken's list is far from exhaustive. W. Matthews, World Religions (1991), lists dozens more gods and goddesses, some belonging to just one religion.

[2] Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship" in Mysticism and Logic (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 44.

[3] William James, "The Will to Believe" in The Will to Believe and Other Essays, 1897.

[4] William James's counsel not only begs these all-important questions; because of its calculating attitude, the ethical and religious soundness of his advice is suspect, like that of Pascal's Wager, which it resembles.

[5] Pascal, Pensées, No. 233.

[6] Contrariety is the logical relation which holds between contrary propositions, i.e., between any two propositions which cannot both be true but can both be false. Obviously, if two propositions or sets of propositions are contraries, the truth of one implies the falsity of the other (since they cannot both be true), but the falsity of one does not imply the truth of the other (since they can both be false).

[7] See Michael Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 199-202, for a different interpretation of Hume on the evidential value of miracle claims from contrary religions. For a related probabilistic argument from religious pluralism, see J. L. Schellenberg's "Pluralism and Probability" in Religious Studies Vol. 33, Issue 2 (June 1997): pp. 143-159.

[8] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University press, 2nd edition, 1902), pp. 121ff.

[9] True, Hume's own examples of miracles all belong to the public domain. Yet he does make the distinction between reports of private and public history, and the increasing difficulty of detecting falsehood in these reports the more distant they are in space or time. And he implicitly recognizes the category of private miracles when, in the last sentence of his essay "Of Miracles," he says that anyone who is moved by faith to accept the Christian religion must be "conscious of a continued miracle in his own person." His talk of miracles in this latter case is not just tongue in cheek. It is licensed by his definition of "miracle."

[10] Karl Barth, "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion," in Christianity and Other Religions, eds. John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite (Glasgow: Collins, 1980), p. 44.

[11] Karl Rahner, "Christianity and Non-Christian Religions" in Christianity and Other Religions, p. 56.

[12] John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 140. Hick is best described as a "religious apologist," rather than "Christian apologist," because of his long-argued plea for an inclusivist view of different religions: one which would see them as representing "different human perceptions of and responses to the same infinite divine reality," as he puts it in Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 3rd edition, 1983), p. 121.

[13] John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 15.

[14] Mackie's failure to distinguish between that sense of "belief" in which belief is a psychological attitude towards a proposition, and that sense in which we use the word to refer to the proposition believed, is as surprising as it is unfortunate. But perhaps it is understandable. For it seems that most philosophers become prone to it when they write on issues in the philosophy of religion.

[15] Whereas propositions are contraries if they cannot both be true but can both be false, propositions are contradictories if they cannot both be true and cannot both be false, i.e., if the truth of one requires the falsity of the other and the falsity of one requires the truth of the other. It follows that, since there are many religions whose truth-claims conflict with one another, any inconsistency between them must take the form of contrariety, not contradiction.

[16] Beliefs and belief sets are logically inconsistent if and only if the propositions believed are either contraries or contradictories of one another.

[17] See John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 3rd edition, 1983), p. 116.

[18] John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 3rd edition, 1983), p. 119.

[19] Hume's way of expressing the point is not without its faults. Strictly speaking, it is a howler to talk of "contrary facts." If by "facts" we mean, as most of us nowadays do, what is stated by true propositions, then Hume is terminologically inept here. Facts cannot be contrary to one another, even though claimed facts can. Let us therefore understand him to mean something like "contrary factual claims."

Copyright ©2007 Raymond D. Bradley. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Raymond D. Bradley. All rights reserved.