11/23/2010 01:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is My Religion Better than Your Religion?

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was the second Anglican bishop of Calcutta. He was a prolific hymn writer, including what has been described as the "greatest missionary hymn ever written," which opens with the following two verses:

"From Greenland's icy mountains, from India's coral strand;
Where Afric's sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error's chain.

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone."

For many years, these words were sung lustily all over the British Empire, and indeed when I was a child (born in 1940), although Britain was divesting itself of its overseas possessions as fast as it could, it was still standard fare in the primary school I attended.

It raises in a stark way what is known in the trade -- the philosophical trade, that is -- as the problem of "religious exclusiveness." There are many different religions in the world, and they make contradictory claims. The Christian thinks Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. The Jew denies this. The Buddhist thinks we will be reincarnated. The Christian denies this. And so on. They cannot all be true. Why therefore should we think any of them true? Is it not just a matter of chance what we believe, depending on the culture into which we are born?

The philosopher Philip Kitcher thinks that this problem is definitive in the argument against the truths of religion and as a fellow non-believer I concede he has a point. Can the believer, let us say the Christian, make a reasonable response? I think certainly we can start by declaring a number of religions (or versions of religion) as non-starters -- from the viewpoint of reason, that is. Any religion that goes against science cannot be true. American Creationism, for example, must be false because it conflicts with modern astronomy, geology, biology, you name it.

But once you have done this, there are still a lot left over. There is still lots of space for being a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or one of the others. So what can you do next? One obvious move is to water down the actual epistemological claims of your faith. You say that all religions capture something of the sacred, of the holy, and leave it at that. You deny -- or at least, you refuse to assert -- that Jesus really was the son of God, but nevertheless you think that something special did occur back then, and that this was theologically significant.

Hence, if you are, say, an Anglican or an Episcopalian, you are happy to go to church on Sunday, to enjoy the ceremony and be refreshed yet again by the beauty of the language of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, to be inspired by the scriptural stories, to see great moral meaning in the religious experience, to love the music, and to enjoy the friendship of fellow worshipers. You don't quite know what it all means, but that is okay. It is more symbolic or metaphorical but no worse for that.

This position (Kitcher calls it being "mythically self conscious") has much to commend it. In different circumstances, if for instance I had married a religious woman, I could see myself going that way, at least in part. I'm a non-believer, but I still have a great sense of awe at existence and its nature. I don't trivialize the great unknown. But it's not enough for most believers, Christians to continue with the example. They want to believe literally in the stories of the Gospel. The present Archbishop of Canterbury has said that if the tomb was not empty on the third day, then he might as well give up and become a Quaker. As one who was raised a Quaker, I am not sure that that is such a terrible fate, but I do see what he means. (Kitcher calls this group the "doctrinally entangled.")

Can one defend this position? You can say simply that your faith is superior to those of others. End of argument. I think this is the position of the important Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I am not sure that this is entirely silly. After all, we do prefer, let us say, our social arrangements to those of the Taliban. So why not our religion? But can one go a step or two further?

There are notorious difficulties about trying to confirm or verify religious claims, but it doesn't seem to me wrong to say that one religion might better capture important aspects of the human experience in a way that others do not, and hence it might commend itself (from the viewpoint of reason) in that way.

Take the matter of original sin, something I take to be an essentially Christian doctrine. (If in some respect it is to be found in other religions, my argument can be adjusted accordingly.) For me in my generation, born as I was in England, World War II was all defining, in the sense that that was the thing that hung over us and changed us and much more. (The lost of empire, mentioned above, for a start.)

Most particularly, the Nazification of Germany was a stupendous thing with which we had to come to grips and try to understand. This was not just an issue for the Germans, but for us all. Why? Well, because it could have so easily have happened to us. (And did a bit in the Channel Isles when they were occupied.) The point is that the Germans were not savages, brutes without culture. In respects, to the contrary, they stood at the pinnacle of civilization and culture -- music, literature, art, and much more. It was in Germany that the Jews found liberation from centuries of prejudice.

And yet, they fell so low. They voted in the Nazis and supported them. Not just the common folk, but the professors (think Heidegger) and jurists and civil servants and others. It was so evil and, frankly, so vulgar. Those grotesque rallies with the torches and the mass affirmations of loyalty and marching and so forth, with the monsters on the podium urging them on and spewing filth about the Jews and the Slavs and the gypsies and the homosexuals and so many more.

Of course, you can (and should) give naturalistic explanations. Historical ones like the effects of the Versailles Treaty and the inflation and the depression. Sociological ones about mass hysteria and the effects of propaganda. Philosophical ones about the fascism to be found in Hegel and other 19th-century German philosophers. But are these enough? Or rather, do they exhaust the possibilities?

If a Christian says to me that he or she wants to understand the German degradation in terms of original sin -- even the best of us are tainted -- I think that Christian has a reasonable point. I think that this is a viewpoint that can be defended. It is not a scientific explanation, but doesn't pretend to be. But it is an explanation that makes good sense.

So this is how I think a case might be made for religious exclusiveness. Although do note that I don't think you can make it unless you are prepared to do a lot of donkey work looking at other religions and showing that your religion does capture the human experience better than those alternatives. Like the professor that I am, I am insisting on a good deal of homework before I am ready to give you a passing grade.