Comparing World Religions: Can One Be Right?

Every 8 year old child knows that our world homes a vast diversity of religions and worldviews. And in this cacophony of competing and contradicting views about ultimate reality in this life and beyond, is it possible to credibly assess who (if anyone) really has got it correct?

In this article, I’m going be laying one possible way of testing the credibility of world views and religions in a systematic and objective manner. I am going to attempt to apply these methods of analysis to the most common worldviews I come across as a student in London: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Naturalistic Atheism.

The Tests of Credibility

In his book “Can Man Live Without God?”, philosopher Dr Ravi Zacharias, laid down three criteria to which any system or statement ought to be subject, before it is considered meaningful in debate1. These criteria are:

  1. Logical Consistency: Does the worldview make sense in and of itself, or does it have internal contradictions and/or inconsistencies?
  2. Empirical Adequacy: Is there any evidence on which to base the viewpoint, and how strong is this evidence?
  3. Experiential Relevance: Does the worldview make sense of everyday life, and does it answer life’s fundamental questions?

There are many other criteria we could add, but I think most would agree that any worldview ought to fulfil at least the above three criteria in order to maintain credibility. For the rest of this article, I’m going to attempt to apply these criteria to above mentioned major worldviews. Wherever possible, I am going to try to use the precise core beliefs laid out by the majority of those who follow the particular worldviews, and also to analyse the evidence that holders of the worldviews themselves advocate. So here goes my helicopter ride through our world of worldviews!

Buddhism

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”), probably between the 5th and 4th Centuries BC. Most people believe that Gautama founded Buddhism after leaving is royal family, wife and children and received enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Here, Gautama learned the “Four Noble Truths” which became the foundation of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths can be summarised2:

  1. To be alive means you will suffer
  2. Suffering is caused by desires
  3. Suffering can end by eliminating desires
  4. Desires can cease by following the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is a structure of behaviours including behaving decently, cultivating discipline and practising mindfulness and meditation. The ultimate aim of the Eightfold Path is to break the cycle of reincarnation and karma, in order to experience Nirvana, which is the extinguishing of all passions and desires, and therefore also suffering. So how does Buddhism as summarised by the Four Noble Truths fair upon analysis by our three criteria?

1. Logical Consistency

Logical consistency is perhaps the point at which Buddhism has received the most academic criticism. At base, Buddhism teaches that extinguishing of desire leads to suffering-free Nirvana. However, this leads to a logically inconsistent doctrine, because Buddhists are commanded to desire suffering-free Nirvana3. Therefore, it would follow that the desire for Nirvana needs to be extinguished in order to carry on the trajectory to Nirvana, which leads one to wonder what keeps Buddhists on this trajectory. It thus seems from the outside that Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths involve a logically fallacious proposition.

2. Empirical Adequacy

The first and second Noble Truths describe suffering stemming from unfulfilled and unfulfillable desires. It seems to me that there is sound evidential backing for these statements. No-one can deny that human suffering is a reality in this world. Therefore most people would accept the first Noble Truth on experiential evidential grounds. I think most would also accept the second Noble Truth similarly based on evidence from experience. The idea that unfulfilled desires leads to suffering permeates a lot of our lives. For example, the primary reason why funerals are so sad settings is due to the desire that the deceased were still alive. The primary reason why rejection can be so painful is because a personal desire has not been fulfilled. Thus on evidence from experience the first two Noble truths appear valid.

The third and fourth Noble Truths speak about the extinguishing of desires leading to suffering-free Nirvana. This is where Buddhism runs into difficulty. Buddhists generally believe that Nirvana transcends the physical reality of this world, and thus when people reach Nirvana, they cease to be part of this material world. This becomes problematic because Nirvana is consequently placed outside the realm of empirical testability. Or to put it another way: no-one who has been to Nirvana can tell us what it is like! Therefore due to their lack of falsifiability, it is difficult to give empirical backing to the Third and Fourth Nobel truths.

3. Experiential Relevance

The experiential relevance of Buddhism is an area of fascinating research, and is where I believe Buddhism has substantial strength. It is widely, although not universally accepted, that people are generally searching for fulfilment and life satisfaction that material gains seem to fail to provide. The oil industry revolutionist Sir John Rockefeller, when once asked “How much money is enough money?” famously replied “Just a little bit more”.

Buddha’s response to this ostensibly bottomless human need for fulfilment was “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without”4 Buddhism accepts this common life reality, and aims to resolve it by destroying, rather than trying satisfy, this need for life fulfilment. Regardless of how satisfactory this resolution is, the fact the Buddhism tackles one of the biggest and most challenging existential questions most people experience, means that on the experiential grounds, Buddhism has understandable clout in many people’s lives.

Islam

The core doctrines of Islam come from the Muslim Holy book the Qur’an, which Muslims claim was given by Allah (Arabic for “God”) to the Prophet Mohammed via a series of revelations between the years 609-632 AD. Although there is some diversity within the Islam, the vast majority of Muslims agree that the core doctrines of Islam can be summarised in the Islamic statement of faith, and first pillar of Islam, called the Shahada. The Shahada reads: لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله which (for those who don’t read Arabic) translates to “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”. The Shahada is recited at births, funerals, conversions to Islam, prayers, and ever appears on the national flag of Saudi Arabia. Taking this statement of faith as our basis, let’s now turn to the three criteria we can use to look at the Islamic beliefs.

1. Logical Consistency

It is interesting to further unpack the phrase “There is no god but Allah”. The Muslim conceptualisation of Allah is a deity who possesses the characteristic of moral perfection. For example, Surah 59:23 (Sahih International) reads:

“He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, the Sovereign, the Pure, the Perfection, the Bestower of Faith, the Overseer, the Exalted in Might, the Compeller, the Superior. Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him.”

However, parallel to this, the Qur’an mentions, some 22 times, categories of people whom Allah does not love. These include transgressors5, the mischievous6, wrong doers7, and those who reject Islam8. This leads to a tricky logical paradox which philosopher Dr William Lane Craig articulates:

“I think the greatest conceivable being would be an all-loving being. His love would be unconditional, impartial, and universal… By contrast, the God of the Qur’an is partial, his love is conditional- you have to earn it, and it is not universal- he does not love sinners. Over and over again, the Qur’an says “God loves not the unbelievers, he loves not sinners, he loves not the hard-necked. He only loves believers.” And for that reason… I think that the concept of God in Islam is morally inadequate.”9

If Allah does not love unconditionally, and Muslims believe that Allah is the perfect moral being, there seems to me to be a logical problem. Unless one is willing to argue that unconditional love is not a morally good thing, the Qur’an seems to say that Allah is either unable or unwilling to fulfil a moral standard met by many people (a prime example would be the unconditional love many parents show towards their children), thus contradicting the claim of moral perfection. It therefore seems to me that, on the logical criterion, Islam runs into difficulty.

2. Empirical Adequacy

According to the Shahada, Allah has chosen to communicate with mankind via his messenger, the prophet Muhammed. So the question logically follows; is there any evidence that Muhammed is truly a prophet of Allah?

Muslims generally believe that the words of God were spoken to Muhammed on several occasions while Muhammad was alone; these words were then dictated to Muhammed’s followers, and eventually compiled to form the Qur’an. Within the Qur’an, a notable claim is made; Surah 2:23 (Sahih International) reads “And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful.” In other words, the Qur’an itself claims that it is so unique and incomparable that is must have been a God-given miracle, and challenges doubters to reproduce a chapter like it. There are 4 other verses in the Qur’an that repeat the same argument.

The main argument Muslims use in favour of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an is that the Qur’an exhibits such amazing literary artistry that it could not possibly have been written by just a human. However, on closer inspection, one finds that this argument is somewhat flawed. As former devout Muslim Dr Nabeel Qureshi lays out:

“It doesn’t matter how you look at that argument [that the Qur’anic style is irreproducible]; it has been answered. If you look at it methodologically, is it even an objective argument to say “this is as good as that”? It is too subjective in its methodology to be a real test. So it fails in its own methodology. It [also] fails in the sense that it is trying to show something out of excellence means that it is written by God. I’m not going to argue that if I like Kirk Cameron films, he’s God because his acting is so good. I’m not going to argue that Eminem’s rapping makes him divine. It’s good stuff- sure, but that doesn’t make him divine. And so even the end point is not necessarily true.”10

Qureshi’s argument calls into serious question the validity of the evidence of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. And notwithstanding the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, the empirical basis of Islam becomes shakey.

3. Experiential Relevance

This criterion is where I unashamedly believe that Islam is at its strongest. For many people around the world Islam makes a huge amount of sense of life on Earth. I have often been struck by the dedication and honour Muslims often give to their rituals and prayers which give permeate daily routines and special life occasions. Islam also provides a solid basis for objective morality, as given by a transcendent moral “legislator”. Interestingly, Islam also gives a meaning to human suffering and pain in, for example, Surah 2:155 “And We [Allah] will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient”. Most Muslims believe that suffering is often due to Allah testing his people, with rewards coming to those who faithfully endure it.

Therefore, I would argue that on experiential relevance, Islam is strong, defence needs to be primarily made for its logical consistency and empirical adequacy.

Naturalistic Atheism

The vast majority of people would regard naturalistic atheism as a “worldview” rather than religion. And in my experience, it is one of the most common (if not the most common) worldview I have come across. Unlike like Buddhism and Islam, there is no founder and no written set of core doctrines of naturalistic atheism. However, naturalistic atheists by definition hold to two basic beliefs:

  1. Atheism- which is from the Greek word atheos, meaning a– “without” + theos– “God”. Therefore, atheists hold to the belief that God does not exist.
  2. Naturalism- which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines as “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world”. In other words, the physical world is all that there is
1. Logical Consistency

Although seemingly simple, the naturalistic worldview has been accused by some of being logically inconsistent. If naturalism is true, then every thought and belief that forms in our brains are simply the manifestation of chemical ion transfers and reactions, triggered by environmental stimuli and programmed by our genetic code. This leads to a logical problem for the naturalist, as atheist geneticist Prof. J. B. S. Haldane articulated:

“It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”11

Therefore, if one truly holds to the naturalistic worldview, they must concede that their worldview is simply due to chemical movements determined by the interaction between their environment and their genes, independent of the truth of their beliefs. It thus seems to me that naturalism may be virtually logically self-defeating.

2. Empirical Adequacy

In my experience, naturalistic atheists are some of the most vocal people about the importance of empirical evidence in worldviews. However, from the OED definition of naturalism, it would appear that naturalistic atheism is based on fundamentally untestable claims. To claim that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical is to say that there is nothing that exists outside the realm of empirical testability. This claim however, is unfalsifiable given that it is impossible, by definition, to test the untestable.

Arguably the most powerful piece of evidence in favour of atheism is the proposition that it is more likely than not that God does not exist, given the existence of suffering in the world. This is always a challenging argument for theists who believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. Nonetheless, I try to make the case in my article Suffering: A Good God? that the existence of suffering is fully compatible with a powerful and loving God, and Christianity provides, a more satisfactory explanation to the meaning of suffering than atheism.

Thus on empirical adequacy, I see naturalistic atheism (which I used to hold as probably true) as quite weak.

3. Experiential Relevance

As I go into in more detail in Chapter 3 of Evidence for the Existence of God, throughout history, naturalists have come to a realisation that with naturalism comes the death of objective morality. Prof. Richard Dawkins eloquently writes is his 1995 book River out of Eden:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom… no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”12

In a sense, I agree whole-heartedly with Dawkins; in the naturalistic worldview, objective morality cannot exist. According to naturalism, the act of one person murdering another is as morally neutral as an avalanche killing a skier; the avalanche and the murderer are simply doing what they are programmed to do by their internal physical mechanisms.

However, most people live their lives on the presupposition that there is an objective moral code. Moral indignation at being treated unjustly, or moral outrage at cruelty to others only make sense if there is a moral code that transcends human minds. And thus I would argue that naturalistic atheism jars with our human experience of life in the world.

A Word on Hinduism

It would absurd to write a blog comparing major world religions without mentioning Hinduism- the main religion in India and Nepal. However, I have found it virtually impossible to succinctly write critically about the core doctrines of Hinduism because unlike the other worldviews in this article, Hinduism has no single known founder, no single accepted scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings and/or doctrines. The diversity of beliefs within Hindus is vast and complex, with many scholars describing Hinduism more as a “family of religions” rather than a single worldview. Beliefs within Hinduism range from the theistic to the deistic to the atheistic, from the universalist to the exclusivist, and from the moralist to the pantheist. Therefore finding a core set of beliefs to analyse is virtually impossible, and so I am unfortunately going to have to leave the topic of Hinduism for possibly a different blog post.

Christianity

So far out of the worldviews we’ve look at (Buddhism, Islam and Naturalistic Atheism) I’d argue none of them have satisfactorily met all three criteria of logical consistency, empirical adequacy and experiential relevance. I’d like to now end by assessing my own worldview- that of Christianity; I’ll try be as objective as I can!

Christianity doesn’t have a universally accepted concise statement of faith (short of the entire gospel). However, to analyse the central claims of Christianity, I think a good place to go is the most famous and reiterated verse in the bible- John 3:16. This verse reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”13 Taking the content from this verse, let us turn one last time to our three criteria for assessing the credibility of worldviews.

1. Logical Consistency

In my experience, this criterion is where Christianity comes under heaviest fire. The most common (and in my view, the strongest) argument against the logical consistency of Christianity centres on the relationship between God and Jesus. John 3:16 describes Jesus as God’s “son”. However, earlier on in the gospel, we read “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”14 This verse (John 1:1) speaks of Jesus as being God himself, rather than as separate being – God’s son. These appear to flatly contradict each other.

However, I do believe that this apparent logical inconsistency can be reconciled. The majority of Christians believe that God exists in a Trinity; meaning the single being of God exists in three persons- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The best explanation of this that I have ever read was given by C. S. Lewis who said the following:

“A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body…Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures… In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.15

Therefore if one conceptualises God transcending our three physical dimensions, I think Lewis’ reasoning fully allows for God to exist as one being in three persons, thus annulling the contradiction. Other logical arguments are sometimes made against more minor doctrines in Christianity (e.g. biblical inerrancy which I tackled in a talk in the videos section). But in my opinion, Christianity has robust logical consistency, and I am yet to find a logical discrepancy that is irreconcilable16.

2. Empirical Adequacy

Empirical adequacy is where I have become convinced that Christianity stand outs from all other worldviews I have come across. John 3:16 makes two key claims: a loving, transcendent God exists, and life after death can be obtained by believing in Jesus. The three worldviews that I mentioned above all run into considerable difficult when checked for falsifiability and testability. However, I think Christianity paints a different picture.

John 3:16 makes an notable claim of empirical testability of the existence and character of God, in the word “gave”. Christian beliefs surround the core doctrine that God became incarnate in the form of a human called Jesus, who lived in the Middle East c. 2000 years ago. This opens a wealth of possible testable and potentially falsifiable claims that history and archaeology has much to say. I have written extensively about the historical evidence for the person of Jesus in articles such as Can We Trust the Gospels?, Archaeology: Digging for Christmas, and Chapter 4 of Evidence for the Existence of God. Through my own personal research of the history that is substantially available on this blog, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus really was God in human form, and we can analyse Jesus’ character in order to shed light on God’s otherwise incomprehensible character.

Like Islam, Buddhism and many forms of Hinduism, John 3:16 asserts that there is life after death. However, unlike the other religions mentioned above, Christianity makes the unique claim that there is strong empirical evidence for this claim. Imagine you are traveling to a country that you know very little about. In preparation for your trip, you’ve done lots of internet research about the country, but you’d like to find out more about what it’s like to actually live in the country, meet the people and experience the culture. You have two friends: one who has never been to the country but knows he will go there some day, and one who has been there and come back. Who would you go to for information about the country?

The answer is obvious. And it is exactly what Christianity claims. Buddha and Muhammed spoke about the afterlife, while still living on Earth. Christians believe that Jesus lived, died and then came back to life; if this is true, His authority on matters concerning the afterlife stands above anyone else’s in history17. In chapter 5 of Evidence for the Existence of God, I investigate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Personally, I find this evidence truly compelling, and am convinced that the resurrection is the only theory that can adequately explain the evidence that history provides.

3. Experiential Relevance

Although I am clearly quite biased, I do believe that Christianity makes a lot of sense on life on this Earth. Philosophers tell us that everyone is looking for answers to four massive life questions18

  • Origin: Where am I from? What has brought me to this point?
  • Meaning: Why are I here?
  • Morality: What am I meant to be doing? Is there a right way to live?
  • Destiny: Where is life heading?

John 3:16 speaks of the man of Jesus, who, in my view, embodies the answers to all four questions.

On the question of origin, Christianity claims that Jesus was our creator God, who is and was responsible for our very existence19. On the question of meaning, John 3:16 says that Jesus loves us all, and thus wants us to have life. On the question of morality, the bible claims that Jesus lived a morally perfect life20, and thus if we want to live a moral life, we need to follow Him21. And on the question of destiny, the Christian claim is that Jesus can rescue ourselves from our inexorable deaths, and proved it by rescuing himself from His own.

Can One Worldview Be Correct?

So in my view, Christianity appears to be the only major worldview that can confidently meet the criteria of logical consistency, empirical adequacy and experiential relevance. Obviously, everyone needs to make up their own mind, and lots of people disagree with me. But hopefully I have lain out a little a bit about why I believe what I believe.

References:

  1. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God?, 2004, p. 123-124
  2. Summary by Bobby Conway, What are the four noble truths of Buddism? Talk for oneminuteapologist. Video can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-KSjtsKxpA
  3. Thanks to Chris Rauglaudre, whom I borrowed this argument from (and promised I would reference)
  4. This quote is not found in Buddhist literature, but is generally attributed to Buddha
  5. Surah 2:190
  6. Surah 2:205, 6:67, 28:77
  7. Surah 3:57, 3:140, 42:40
  8. Surah 3:32, 30:45
  9. William Lane Craig, Evidence for God lecture at Imperial College London, 2011. Video can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJK3irA_sQA
  10. Nabeel Qureshi, lecture at Georgia Tech, 2013. Video can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaYR4G7oRiw
  11. B. S Haldane, “When I am Dead” in Possible Worlds, 1972
  12. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 1995, p. 133
  13. John 3:16 (NIV)
  14. John 1:1 (NIV)
  15. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper Collins Version, 1952, p. 161-162
  16. Feel free to challenge me on this, either in the comments or via the contact page
  17. See 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
  18. See Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil, 1992, p. 219-220
  19. John 1:1-5
  20. Eg. 1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 3:5
  21. Eg. Matthew 16:24, John 10:27-28
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