Many a religious person defending her own religious beliefs will argue that a given politically, morally, or intellectually unflattering interpretation of her faith is simply not a true representation of her faith. While the question of who has the right or the adequate means to decisively determine with any rational clarity which competing interpretation of any given faith is the “true” one is itself quite fraught, I can certainly understand what is going through such an apologist’s mind. She thinks her religion contains truth when understood properly and she obviously thinks that her understanding is the proper one (otherwise it wouldn’t be her understanding of the religion–no one holds an opinion consciously aware that it is wrong). Therefore, like she would with any other truth about a familiar but commonly misunderstood matter, she tries to correct what she takes to be other people’s misconceptions about this supposed truth.
The fact that most people disagree with her or that even the majority of her fellow religious adherents say things that she thinks are flat out wrong are irrelevant. The truth is the truth and the fact of confused people within her religion does not change the correctness of her own interpretation. In allegedly divinely revealed and divinely guided religious traditions, there is a serious philosophical question about why the divine guidance does such a miserable job of getting everyone to agree and to think clearly, etc. But, nonetheless, if she ignores these sorts of extra implications of her religious beliefs and just treats her perceived truths like any others, she can think that she is correct while others in her religious community are just mistaken in any of a number of ways, just as she would with any other beliefs about which she differed with others in a shared community.
But there is another kind of apologist for religions whom I find harder to understand and whose logic I want to understand. This other kind of apologist defends a “true” interpretation of a religion to which he or she does not belong. Either he is an outright irreligious person himself or he simply belongs to a different religion. In either case this apologist defends a religion to which he does not belong as having a true meaning or a range of possible true meanings or a true practice or a range of possible true practices. And this type of apologist generally thinks of all religions as having true meanings and true practices on the one hand and being threatened by corrupt interpretations and corrupt practices on the other hand.
Since these apologists are not adherents to either some or all of the religions for which they defend “correct” interpretations against “corrupt” ones, the sense of “correctness” and “corruption” they see at stake here cannot be judged by the literal truth of the propositional claims of the religions they defend or to the literal necessity of the practices which the various religions take to be non-negotiable for their adherents. The Christian or the atheist who defends “correct” interpretations of Islam from “corrupt” ones does not herself think Mohammed is God’s prophet or that she must fast during Ramadan to be faithful to God’s will. In terms of the essential particulars of belief and practice that are quintessentially and uniquely Islamic, she sees no literal truth and feels no necessity to participate as a Muslim would.
This distinction means that, at least at first glance, the notion of true religion differs dramatically from the notion of true science. There are two ways that a theory or a fact claim could be called “truly scientific” and neither appears to apply to the phrase “true religion”—at least as it is meant by liberal apologists.
A theory or lesser claim can first off be called truly scientific if it is generated by methods which are ideally conducive and proven for generating reliable empirical knowledge capable in principle of compelling the agreement of all informed, honest, and rational people. A given theory or hypothesis or fact claim may turn out to be false and yet if it had been developed, defended, and believed based on proper applications of proven scientific methodologies it could still be said to have been a scientific theory or hypothesis or fact claim that simply turned out to be false. In this way insofar as a proposition functions within a properly scientific discourse, it has the character of a scientific proposition, even if turns out to be a false proposition. The question, therefore, of what makes a proposition scientific is not simply settled by truth but by the manner of its derivation. Some scientific propositions are false and some true propositions are not scientific (in the familiar, restricted modern English sense).
Scientific truth requires more than that a proposition be derived and developed in sophisticated ways through the proper use of scientific methodologies. It requires that the proposition also be vindicated by scientific methodologies. So while we can say that various refuted, abandoned, and superseded propositions were scientific in character, they are not scientific truths and that true science no longer accepts them. If one still adheres to a once popular (or at least plausible) but since debunked scientific claim only by ignoring or rationalizing away the subsequent evidence that has decisively refuted it, one’s arguments become pseudo-scientific for deviating from strict adherence to the scientific methods that arbitrate beliefs in science.
So the same proposition can be held and advanced either genuinely scientifically or pseudo-scientifically depending on the current state of knowledge. If your belief was never developed or defended by properly applying scientific methods in the first place, it cannot even be scientific. If your belief is based on outdated science it moves from being scientific to pseud0scientific even though we can say that others in a previous era were being scientific for believing it while it was the most scientifically plausible and compelling explanation.
So retrospectively we can say that a given debunked theory, hypothesis, fact claim, or other proposition was validly scientific for being derived through proper applications of scientific methods and being a scientifically defensible, or even the most scientifically defensible, way of understanding the reality under investigation. And yet, we could say that that theory, hypothesis, fact claim, or other proposition is no longer scientific. This does not make it retroactively pseudoscience and the proposition’s earlier defenders practitioners of merely pseudoscience. But it does mean that those in the present who support an outmoded proposition without fresh evidence and without being able to debunk or at least challenge with scientific credibility the ideas which have superseded and displaced it are no longer doing science but either pseudoscience at worst or, at best, consciously shifting their focus to other related philosophical issues not solved by the superseding science but which the old scientific accounts at least took into account.
This account, if correct, makes clear that to say that a proposition is, in our present state of knowledge, “truly scientific” is also to say that the proposition is true or, at least, a plausible candidate for true which has been vindicated by proper applications of scientific methods. We can refer to certain false propositions as having been scientific at one time in the past but not presently being scientific. Some of them may even make a scientific comeback if new evidence comes to light. But what is decisive is that, speaking within the present tense, to be scientific is to be true and the better supported the belief is by scientific means the more scientific it is and the less supported the less scientific it is.
What can we learn about what is meant by “true” religion from this analogy to discussions of true science? Our pluralist apologist for religion denies the importance of literal truth for a religion to be true in her sense. This is necessary because if she believes that there is both a true Christianity and a true Islam, then she cannot believe that whether or not there really is a Trinity determines whether or not Christianity or Islam is true. God may not be a Trinity (contra-traditionally understood orthodox Christian belief) and yet there could still be a true Christianity which could be defended against a corrupt one. And God may be a Trinity making traditional Islamic beliefs about God flawed in a major way, and yet our pluralist apologist would defend a true Islam against corruptions.
So the defender of true religions must not think that correct religion is determined by the literal truth of the religion’s propositional claims. A religion’s ability to describe reality in literally correct terms cannot be what makes it true. The adherent to a specific religion who nonetheless supports the idea that other religions have correct and corrupt interpretations may think that her own religion’s truth happens to be literal but not that other religions have to be literally correct too. So, perhaps a relatively liberal and open-minded Christian thinks that true Christianity is true by virtue of being literally correct and that nonetheless true Islam is true by being nonetheless metaphorically correct (despite its literal errors) about matters that Christianity nonetheless gets literally right. Or this relatively pluralistic Christian might think that while Christianity is literally true in its metaphysical and soteriological dimensions, that true Islam is just Islam that gets some other kinds of questions right even if it is completely wrong about theological mysteries.
The irreligious apologist for religions is more interesting however since presumably she thinks that all the religions’ theologies are literally false and so none of them are true by virtue of their ability to give literal knowledge about the world. So in what sense could they be true or correct and be clearly distinguished from interpretations which are “false” or, even, outright “corruptions” if they are not about literal truths? There are several intriguing, mutually non-exclusive, hypotheses about what different irreligious apologists for “true religions” really mean when they defend certain interpretations of religions and denouncing others.
Correct Religion As Politically Correct Religion. Let me start with the least interesting and puzzling irreligious apologist for “true religions”, the political pragmatist who aims to co-opt religions to political ends. Essentially the political pragmatist means by “true religion” whatever interpretation conforms to her political ends. Whether deviously or sincerely, the proper interpretation of Christianity, of Islam, of Judaism, of Hinduism, of Buddhism, will be whatever one advances the causes, ideals, or institutional structures which she takes to be either just or in her self-interest or both (depending on what kinds of priorities motivate her politically).
For the (small d) democratic political pragmatist, true Islam, true Hinduism, true Buddhism, true Judaism, true Christianity, etc. are ones that support democratic principles. For egalitarians, true versions of these religions are whatever support egalitarian relationships. And true versions of these religions approve only of the military tactics, the wars, the economic and social relationships, and the political institutions that the political pragmatist doing the assessing of their truth does. And of course true versions of these religions condemn all the military tactics, wars, economic and social relationships, and political institutions that she herself does.
Now some people may just engage religious people in their tradition’s terms as the only way to persuade them while personally thinking that their religion is utterly false. The idea would be to figure that if the only way to persuade them is on their own terms then one does whatever one can to defend the interpretation of their beliefs that would make their beliefs the same as one’s own. Practically the same as translating one’s ideas into another’s language so they will understand, implicitly the irreligious political pragmatist apologist for “true religion” may be just translating the logic of their views of moral/social/political/economic justice into the metaphors and traditional moral/social/political/economic frameworks of the religious believer.
While it may be disingenuous, condescending, historically specious, or, to interpret her behavior more charitably, wishful, for the irreligious political pragmatist who translates her views into religious metaphors and theological frameworks to christen only those agreeable uses of that religion’s metaphors and frameworks the religion’s true meaning, she is admirably enough trying to coax people who are attached to a given set of phrases and frameworks to get closer to truth and justice in what might be the only possible way to get them there—by convincing them they can keep those phrases and frameworks and still accept these modern ideas.
Now, some irreligious apologists may be rather uncynical in this whole endeavor of translating liberal, modern ideas into religious idioms and conceptual networks. They may argue that they are not being at all careless with the truth about the religions in whose terms they couch their ideas for religious audiences. They may argue that these religions do truly support modern, liberal ideas, and they may make this case that they are not mere revisionists in one of two interesting ways.
1. They can point to histories of progressive liberalization of a given religion as evidence that the religion at hand, understood as a historical entity and not as an artificially fixed set of dogmas as fundamentalists want, actually by its own nature evolves morally, socially, politically, economically, etc. over time and in ways that develop nascent truths in their own traditions.
The political pragmatist irreligious apologist for “true religion” could say that just as true science is the science which most successfully progresses in its knowledge through time and through adherence to its best methodologies, so a “true religion” is any religion which successfully progresses in the justice of its practices and the spiritual enhancement of its adherents through its methods of preserving and developing whatever are the best parts of its culture’s shared myths, rituals, and traditions. Just as progressive Western legal traditions allow perpetual advance and refinement towards greater justice in a way that simultaneously grounds its authority in its fundamental continuity with tradition, so the most admirable and successful forms of religion might be argued are those which do the same with a culture’s received moral, ritual, and mythological heritage.
Ronald Dworkin brilliantly compared just interpretation of law to continuing to tell a story already begun by others. Say we were playing a game where one person spent five minutes telling a story and then each of the rest of us took a turn adding another 5 minutes of the story. Assuming people did not radically change the story and use the exercise in multiple narrators to emphasize the drastic ways each of our imaginations can diverge but instead tried to show how a genuinely cohesive story could be developed from our shared imagination and understanding of reality, we could tell a unified and interesting story that nonetheless reflects the creative insights of each player.
Dworkin sees legal interpretation as being like trying to continue a story with multiple other tellers and having to stay consistent with what has already been laid down while telling the best story possible. If in the story I am continuing from others I already know that the protagonist had only one sister and that she died in events discussed earlier in the story, then I cannot say that the protagonist grew up with three sisters and that they are all still alive. I have limitations on what I can add to the story. But as long as my telling of the story stays consistent with the facts and the basic narrative directions of the story I inherit, I can creatively invent other narrative turns and introduce other characters not already ruled out by the established story or inconsistent with its general themes, characterization, plot, etc.
In the case of legal interpretation, Dworkin thinks that the goal should be the most just outcome consistent with the received tradition. One cannot outright contradict the tradition, one must find the precedence for one’s novel argument for a just advance in legal interpretation from within the resources of the tradition itself and show how it is fundamentally consistent with that tradition. But one still should aim for the most just interpretation of the tradition possible, rather than necessarily the most literalistic.
And, similarly, the Judaic, Islamic, and Christian religious traditions (just to name the Western ones) have long, rich histories of developing comparable traditions of debate. Each in the past cultivated traditions in which the views of multiple scholars across multiple generations and even across multiple continents debated and evolved their traditional understandings of their morality, theology, politics, society, and economy.
These traditions were relatively vital and allowed for traditions in which there was room for numerous viewpoints, meticulous argumentation, vigorous disagreement in the context of a continuity of evolving consensus and settled agreements, and, most importantly, a situation in which there were multiple authoritative and respected voices rather than merely one autocratic arbiter of the truth—be it a prophet or a sacred text.
The rise of fundamentalism in the major monotheisms in the 19th and 20th Centuries are an ahistorical attempt to obliterate the centuries of progressive interpretation and multiplicity of interpreters and insist on a mythical pure, literal truth from God in a textual form, plainly understandable with no help from the centuries of tradition developed since.
Whereas for centuries religious people have read (and in fact, continue to read) their defining sacred texts through the mediation of an evolving tradition of interpretation, the fundamentalists blind themselves to their own acts of interpretation and create an authoritarian ideology that equates their peculiar, contemporary understandings of the texts with the texts’ true, clear, and eternally plain and authoritative message from God.
Even though in prior eras Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars always accredited special authority to the Bible or the Koran, just as they do now, unlike today’s fundamentalists they were not always revisionists who tried to efface the role that the tradition was playing in providing invaluable interpretive guidance to understanding sacred texts. Even after Martin Luther successfully started the Protestant revolution in approach to the biblical texts, Protestantism went on developing dominant interpretive frameworks, many of which function implicitly today all throughout the thinking of hypocritical fundamentalist evangelicals who think they’re just reading the plain truth of the Bible but are really just finding in it what Calvin or Luther or Wesley told their congregations was in there.
There is an eerie and unnerving parallel in the myth of what I like to call Constitutional fundamentalism whereby right wing Americans delude themselves into thinking they are simply reading the Constitution in its plain meaning when they conveniently omit as irrelevant or explain away things they don’t like and show reflexive contempt for the role of the courts in interpreting the meaning of the Constitution. Just like religious fundamentalists (which, in many cases these political fundamentalists actually are too) who seek to jettison the wisdom of centuries of debate and acknowledgement of the multiplicity of authoritative voices in their tradition, these political fundamentalists dismiss the validity of two hundred years of the American legal tradition (and centuries of the larger Anglo-American legal tradition).
The guiding arrogant assumption of these idolators of the Bible and the Constitution is that their (supposedly literal) literal interpretations of their (supposedly sacred and inviolable) texts are plainly based on the obvious meanings of the words in the authoritative documents. And these sacred unambiguously agree with their extremely peculiar 21st-Century fundamentalist ideas which actually originated in many more sources than just the Bible and the Constitution (and often in wholly different sources).
But reading precisely what they desire into the Bible and the Constitution, they treat all progressive theological and legal traditions as fallible judgment compared to the documents that they treat as as infallible (whether explicitly as in the case of the Bible or only implicitly as in the case of the Constitution). All evolutions of understanding, all the rational arguments developed by the great minds of our theological and legal traditions over the course of centuries are heretical deviations from the holy word of the inspired biblical authors and founding fathers.
Mistrusting all rational debate as inherently subjective and corruptive of the pure and unimprovable Word of the Bible and the Constitution, they reject traditions of discourse that inherently introduce complexity and uncertainty, and assert a rational authoritarianism wherein there can be no debates about the meaning of justice or virtue or law or truth, etc., but only slavish obedience to the literal words of the biblical authors and the Founding Fathers, from whom we (supposedly) learn decisively what each crucial political or moral word means. And never mind that numerous of these ideas meant to be authoritatively imposed upon us from the Founding Fathers of the Church and of America are scarcely to be found in any unambiguous way in those texts themselves.
So, this brings us back to the main point. One can argue that just as a “true” justice system is one that progressively becomes more just and functions through methods which inherently (rather than just haphazardly or coincidentally) generate that increased justice, and just as a “true” science is the one that will progressively and methodically increase knowledge of the empirical world, that “true” religion is whatever interpretation of a culture’s received mythological, ritual, moral, and spiritual practices can most aid that culture’s overall intellectual, moral, economic, social, political, and spiritual development.
And, historically, even though religious superstitions and irrationalistic deference to religious authorities in speculative matters slowed down and sometimes reversed intellectual progress, nonetheless the dominant religious traditions were not always or even usually the sort of explicitly anti-intellectual and primitivistic, literalistic idolaters of texts who we see leading fundamentalist movements in our own time.
So, the implicit way of thinking of the irreligious apologist for “true religion” combines two senses of “true religion” to defend religions against their regressive, illiberal, and intellectually refuted interpretations: On the one hand the apologist argues that religions, despite various authoritarian dogmas and claimed sources of authority, were normally functionally progressive and pluralistic in how they went about interpreting their traditions and modifying them.
While religious thinkers were always setting, and working within, overly restrictive intellectual boundaries, they were not always or even primarily fetishizing literalists who had dangerously disregarded the wisdom of traditions and thought themselves capable of direct lines from God or able to make up wildly speculative new interpretations of their sacred texts and just judge them to be “plainly there”. They had to work within what were functionally communities of numerous authorities across centuries and continents and to make their innovations consistent with those other ideas.
In the 21st Century it can be argued that any religion that is worth calling “true” must fully accept and incorporate all the secular advancements in understanding of morality, sociology, psychology, the hard sciences, politics, economics, etc. and reinterpret the myths and rituals in ways that progressively advance the goals of justice and a new philosophically and scientifically informed non-superstitious spirituality and morality.
The irreligious apologist for “true religion” can argue that if religion is an inevitable part of human life (at least for the present) that it should be called true and correct to the extent that it harmonizes with all else that we know is true and correct (morally, socially, intellectually, economically, and politically).
The irreligious apologist for true religion can argue that historically even though religion’s superstition and excessive deference towards tradition inhibited its intellectual and moral progress–and often even caused outright regresses–that, nonetheless, religions were neither always nor usually what fundamentalists claim they are, were, or should be.
Religions were often one of the many ways that humans structured debate that sought to move understanding forward while not losing sight of received wisdom. Just as the history of politics has been checkered with frequent injustice and cruelty, so has the history of religion. Just as the history of science was extraordinarily slow by contemporary standards for centuries until the scientific revolution, so the progress of religion has at times been remarkably slow. But the apologist for true religion thinks it can nonetheless itself undergo progressive revolution (with the aid of the vast improvements that recent centuries have brought in science and politics, actually).
But then the final question becomes—if we can attain to a more just politics and greater philosophical and scientific knowledge and advance morality secularly faster without religion than with it (as it appears these days during which it is religion which most arrogantly and ideologically stands in the way of moral treatment of gays and women, for example), then why would we need a “true” religion at all? What will it add that truth, justice, and morality, all developed on rational, non-superstitious foundations cannot?
Even if we concede that there is strategic political value in translating modern knowledge about science, morality, and justice into the traditional religious metaphors and rituals so as to get stubbornly religiously believing people to re-understand their religions in modern ways—isn’t this just a concession to a necessity and not an ideal scenario? In other words, why think that talk of “true religion” should be a goal in itself and not just a tactic for improving religion from within since too many people will never abandon it and psychologically must be engaged within its own terms?
I think the irreligious apologist for “true religion” must at this point either admit that the talk of true religion is still ultimately a tactic for making religious people conform their religion to other goods which will actually define their religion’s real goodness or the irreligious apologist for “true religion” must come up with an explanation of what religion ideally adds to life that our other institutions do not or cannot without, essentially, becoming religious themselves.
And here we reach a somewhat semantic debate. What makes something religion at all? If there is some good traditionally called a “religious” one, must it always be called that? People have historically benefited mightily from meditations and from feelings of mystical wonder and connection to the universe and called that religion. People have often called their feeling of dependency on something much greater than themselves, their humble recognition of their place in the universe, their heart-firing sense of an ineffable mysteriousness to existence, etc. all religious feelings.
I don’t personally mind so much, for linguistic purposes, that we still call these various modes of “spiritual” engagement with the world “religious” as long as we explicitly and thoroughly dispatch with the lie that literal understandings of traditional religious superstitions, myths, concepts, texts, and institutional authorities are necessary for ideal forms of spiritual realization.
In other words, there are a number of features of human practice, feeling, and relation to the world that are called “religious” and which are psychologically and rationally appropriate. We should delight in reverence for that which is magnificent and nothing is more magnificent for us than the very universe and mystery of existence upon which our very being depends. We should meditate for whatever psychological benefits and intrinsic pleasures this brings us. We should engage in rituals which serve any number of valuable psychological purposes, given the sorts of creatures we are. We should activate our mythical imaginations for relating to the world in richer ways, we should have holidays and feasts and festivals, and we should have cross-generational traditions which unite us to our forebears and our future descendants.
But none of this should be hinged on superstition, none of it should be tied to lies, bad philosophy, and pseudoscience. None of these good and necessary things called “religious” should be confused with a justification to give a religious priest or prophet the slightest benefit of doubt that he or she knows anything special about the mysteries of the universe or supernatural realms, etc. While religious scholars developed rich traditions of speculation and debate about theological ideas, all their good ideas either are or should be secularized in the rationalistic academy of today and all the strictly “theological” dimensions of their thought should be relegated to the history and literature textbooks because they have nothing to do with literal truth.
But, with these insistences upon a separation of religion from any right to claim truth, maybe there is room for a purified version of religion worth calling “true” and “correct”—religious feelings, rituals, traditions, and myths all strictly responsive to, and explicitly interpreted only in terms of, philosophically and scientifically grounded ideas, and always required to harmonize with the most inclusive and ennobling morality and politics.
I’d call that ideal religion and if ideal means true, then that would be “true religion”.