What Does It Mean for a Religion to Be “True”? – an Excerpt from Christianity and Religious Diversity

The following is an excerpt from Christianity & Religious Diversity, by Harold Netland.


Truth or falsity applies to particular religious claims or teachings. But what does it mean for a religion to be true?

Throughout this book we have emphasized the multidimensional nature of religion, as religions include much more than simply religious teachings or beliefs. Religions are complex systems, including not only teachings or doctrines but also institutions, social patterns of behavior, ethical norms, rituals, physical objects, stories or narratives, experiences, saints or religious exemplars, and so on.

Cover ArtMoreover, the major world religions are vast systems that include within them many diverse traditions or schools, not all of which are even mutually compatible. Consider, for example, the enormous variety of traditions that fall under the general category of Hinduism or Christianity. Religions also change in important respects over time, so that in some cases it is difficult to see how a later tradition is at all in continuity with earlier ones. All of this makes it difficult or even misleading to speak of the truth or falsity of a particular religion.

Theologian and philosopher Keith Ward suggests that given the diverse and multidimensional nature of religions, we should avoid speaking about whether a religious tradition as a whole is true and focus instead on the truth or falsity of particular truth claims advanced by a religion. Use of the term “religious tradition,” with its close cultural and social affiliations, is especially problematic since it does not seem like the kind of thing that can be true or false.

Viewed as social phenomena, religious traditions are forms of life which are culturally and ethnically differentiated. Since they contain many possibilities of diverse interpretation, and many dimensions of significance, it becomes apparent that a person will usually belong to such a tradition by birth, and can find within it many resources of meaning and moral teaching. As it seems absurd to say that one culture is “true” and all others “false,” so the use of the expression “religious tradition” subtly leads one to say that one cannot compare such traditions for truth; and that therefore one is not to be preferred to the others, except as an expression of cultural imperialism.

Ward observes that we can, however, inquire about the truth of particular religious teachings or claims. Thus he urges that when we consider questions of truth in religion, we “refrain from speaking of religio-cultural traditions, with all the problems of boundary-definition that brings with it, and to insist on focusing on particular truth-claims, and on particular interpretations of them, which can be properly assessed for truth and falsity.”

Instead of asking about the truth of Hinduism or Islam, then, we should consider the truth of religious assertions such as “This life is one of a long series of past and future lives” or “Allah revealed the contents of the Qur’an to Muhammad.”

Ward is onto something significant here. Speaking of the truth of a religious tradition is problematic since the term “religious tradition” draws upon the multidimensional nature of religions and their close relationship with broader social and cultural phenomena. It is important to keep the sociocultural dimensions in mind, since religions involve more than just systems of doctrines. But to the extent that we think of religions in these multidimensional terms, it becomes difficult to speak of truth in religion since truth does not apply to social institutions or cultural patterns of behavior as such. It does not make sense to speak of the truth or falsity of a particular culture or ritual, whereas we can and do speak of the truth or falsity of religious claims.

©2015 by Harold A. Netland. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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