The End of the Happy Middle Ground?

Jerry Coyne shared this Non Sequitur cartoon from today’s paper, saying that it dispels the fallacy that religious believers all worship the same god:

The view that religious believers in different religious traditions worship the same deity is itself a particular religious viewpoint. It does not deny that many, perhaps the majority, in a large number of religious traditions, disagree with the identification. And so, since I don’t think that most people who claim that various religions worship the same God would say that all adherents of the religions in question accept that viewpoint, I am not sure that the cartoon makes the point that Coyne thinks it does – or to the extent that it does, it is not saying anything new or surprising.

Within the framework of strict monotheism, there is of course no other god for others to believe in. And so it would make no sense to say that someone worships a different god – only that they do not worship God at all, or do not think about God correctly.

Depending on whether one’s monotheism is exclusive or inclusive, one may view other religions differently within a monotheistic framework. Within the Qur’an, for instance, one finds this famous statement in Sura 2:62, illustrating a more inclusive monotheistic approach (which again, does not translate into this being the viewpoint of all Muslims):

Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.

From the perspective of many religions’ mystical traditions, God is ineffable, and so not only the religious language of others, but also of one’s own tradition, is myth, and metaphor, and symbol. And so often mystics will indeed say thing similar to what Omar Khayyam does:

Hearts with the light of love illumined well,
Whether in mosque or synagogue they dwell,
Have their names written in the book of love,
Unvexed by hopes of heaven or fears of Hell.

And so the view that there is one ultimate reality that the diverse religions of the world point to – not necessarily viewing all as pointing to it equally adequately – these are themselves specific religious viewpoints. Those who hold them advocate adopting this pluralistic approach, and do not, in my experience, assume that everyone thinks as they do.

If such pluralists carried a sign in the cartoon saying that all religious language is myth and symbol, and that all worship the same God, they might well find themselves in a streetcorner fight over the issue if they encountered one of the other sign-holders…

  • Straw Man

    “Within the framework of strict monotheism, there is of course no other
    god for others to believe in. And so it would make no sense to say that
    someone worships a different god – only that they do not worship God at
    all, or do not think about God correctly.”

    Not really. You’re suggesting that a Christian can’t say of a Hindu, “They worship a different god than ours?” Of course they can. A Christian can say, “Hindus worship the god Brahma,” just as an atheist can say, “Christians worship the god Yahweh.” I think you’re thinking that saying, “He worships that god,” somehow implies that the god in question exists. That’s not so.

    In fact if I say, “I’m a monotheist, and you are worshiping a different god than mine,” I’m making a perfectly coherent statement–AND I’m implicitly saying that your god does not exist.

    • Straw Man

      Well, to pick nits with my nitpick, that’s last statement is true only assuming you’re not using a figure of speech. “You ain’t worshipin’ the God I know,” can also mean that although we are worshipin’ the same God, you are in some way misunderstanding him.

    • arcseconds

      What’s the difference between saying “you worship Brahma, I worship Yaweh: we worship different gods” and “you worship Brahma, I worship Yaweh: we worship the same god under a different name?”

      It’s coherent as long as the object of one person’s worship really can’t be the same entity as the object of the other person’s worship. For example, someone who worships Thor (a Thor literalist, let us say, who takes the Norse corpus to be telling straightforward truths about the gods — not some kind of sophisticated neo-pagan) really can’t be worshipping the same god as a traditional Christian theist (or at least, neither would understand themselves as worshipping the same God as one another). Thor isn’t omnipotent, he came into being at some point, he has a father and a mother, he rides around in a chariot pulled by magical goats, and he’s destined to die at some point. Yahweh is omnipotent, and exists eternally.

      The problem with Hinduism is that Brahmanic Hinduism at least ascribes very similar attributes to Brahman as Christians do to Yaweh. Brahman is also eternal and omnipotent and the source of everything. Brahma, the creator, is understood as being an aspect of this one being – not so different from God the Father. The metaphysics isn’t quite the same as traditional Christianity, but I’d say it varies no more so than different Christian metaphysics deviate from one another.

      I can’t really make a lot of sense of someone denying the existence of Brahman while affirming the existence of Yaweh, unless it just means the same thing as saying the Hindu has a lot of things wrong about God.

      As an analogy, think of a socialist (a real socialist – not a Democrat) and someone from the American mainstream arguing about the government. They believe lots of different things about the government and the roles it plays in society, but it would be weird for one of them to say to the other “you believe in a different Government than I do”, unless that’s just a rhetorical way of saying “you believe lots of different things about the Government than me”.

      (whereas, a conspiracy theorist who thinks the USA is controlled by the Gnomes of Zurich could be said to believe in a different government in quite a straightforward way).

      • ngotts

        “I can’t really make a lot of sense of someone denying the existence of Brahman while affirming the existence of Yaweh”

        Brahman, unlike Yahweh, is not distinct from the physical world, but includes it.

        “it would be weird for one of them to say to the other “you believe in a different Government than I do” ”

        Yes, but that’s because unlike gods, the government is a real, identifiable entity.


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