Argument from diversity

There is a common argument against religious belief that points out the diversity of religious beliefs available. People everywhere almost invariably have supernatural beliefs, but they also believe in all sorts of different religions. Most people follow the faith they were born into. And even though such an accidental circumstance largely determines their faith, they also are very often confident that they have the One True Faith and that others are mistaken to some degree. This seems odd.

I wonder, however, how much of the plausibility of this objection to religious belief derives from liberal individualist assumptions. We would be bothered less if faith didn’t correlate so strongly with circumstances of birth—if, perhaps, faith could be more reasonably seen as a matter of choice. But why would that matter so much? Some people believe, some don’t. The believers, if they take an individualist approach, might argue that they respond to the Holy Spirit (or its functional equivalent in whatever religion they adopt). Their particular circumstances make them more receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Other ways of life, other personal circumstances, happen to set other people at a farther remove to opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. This type of account of individual choice, I think, does seem more plausible to those of us who are secular liberals, even if, on balance, we think that other considerations decisively weigh against supernatural beliefs. But circumstances are just circumstances. Why should circumstances of birth and community count against the truth of a belief more than those individual idiosyncrasies of a life that a believer interprets as making one more receptive to the True Faith?

I suspect that those of us who think of persons as primarily embedded in communities will see no difficulty in affirming their faith while recognizing that it to a significant extent depends on an accident of birth. After all, if some individual characteristics make some people more open to the Holy Spirit, some community characteristics may work the same way. God may choose peoples as easily as he chooses individuals. Maybe Jewish history and community characteristics ensure that Orthodox Jews have more reliable access to divine truths. Maybe a child born into an Orthodox Jewish community enjoys, by virtue of being socialized in the ways of the Chosen People, a closeness to God that is denied to a child of a Buddhist. This is not problematic if it is primarily the community that matters. And I suspect it is our ingrained liberal individualism that makes us more bothered by a Chosen People than by individuals chosen by a Holy Spirit.

I agree that the diversity of supernatural beliefs counts against any notion of a One True Faith. But I also think that it is diversity per se that matters—whether this is due to communities of birth or the varying biographies of individual seekers of enlightenment is less relevant than we make it out to be.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • smijer

    The argument from diversity is certainly not the most straightforward of all secularist arguments. I find the major failing of that argument is that it is difficult to construct in a way that is valid and doesn't undermine all knowledge. One could use an argument from diversity against "science" by showing diversity in scientific opinions on a range of issues – especially among a controversial subset of scientific issues, or drawing on interdisciplinary conflict. One could use an argument from diversity against almost any epistemology. It depends too much on how the epistemology is applied in practice for it to reveal much about how good the epistemology is in principle.

  • UnBeguiled

    "One could use an argument from diversity against "science" by showing diversity in scientific opinions on a range of issues"

    Sure, but the speed of light measures the same in India as it does here, and vaccines work in Saudi Arabia.

    I don't think religious diversity is necessarily a good argument against any particular religion. But when I was a kid, learning about other religions sent me down a secular road.

  • M. Tully

    The diversity of faith argument really does nothing all by itself, what it does is counter several arguments from faith and does it quite effectively.

    First, to address smijer's comment. Yes, science does have differing opinions on the edge of understanding issues, but the differences aren't culturally based. There are those pursuing advancements in string theory and the multi-verse from all cultures just as there scientists from all cultures that will pose that neither of those hypotheses will ever bear fruit. On the other hand, when it comes to the vast majority of physics, the vast majority of physicists are in agreement, from every culture. The physicists agreements are magnitudes beyond the supernaturalists' agreement that "there is something supernatural."

    Secondly, it addresses the "god of the gaps" issue. We don't have an answer for X, ergo supernatural entity Y. Well, why Y? Why not supernatural entity Q, R or S?

    Finally, it does directly address the diversity question in one important area. When a theist argues that empirical evidence should be discarded for another "way of knowing" called "spoken directly from the holy spirit to my innate god detector." If we had a supernatural, divinely created god detector, shouldn't we all detect the same one?

    So, the diversity argument isn't an all powerful answer, but it does cast significant doubt on several theistic arguments.

    If your looking for the all powerful answer, it's simply, "What's the evidence for your claims?"

    The theist is then left with arguing for why you should accept irrationality. A position no rational person would want to be in.

  • Daniel A. Wang

    I don't see any reason why a believer couldn't use the argument to his own benefit, by saying that diversity of belief is what would be expected in a fallen world, and so forth. It seems to offer no particular advantage either way.

    But it does make sense to pose the question.

  • Mark

    There are multiple ways of formulating "the" argument from diversity. The formulation you bring up – that religious diversity is somehow positive evidence against the truth of any given religion – is obviously invalid; as you note, the truth of a proposition is completely independent of its subscription. The argument is better posed as an argument against (certain believers') religious justification rather than religious truth. In this form, it goes something like:

    "You seem to think your religious experiences (broadly construed) position your religious beliefs to be justified. However, adherents of other religions have more or less identical experiences, and so unless you can provide some non-question-begging reason to think your experiences are privileged somehow, you shouldn't expect your experiences to be particularly reliable. Moreover, since one's religious experiences are so strongly correlated with upbringing and environment, there's some reason to think your religious experiences are positively unreliable since they're mostly just tracking accidental facts about your history."

    This line doesn't work against people who think they have good arguments that justify their religious beliefs, like most Christian apologists. And I understand there's some question in philosophical circles whether one really needs to rationally defend the epistemic chauvinism of "My experiences justify my religious beliefs, but yours don't justify your religious beliefs."

  • Mark

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