"Ought implies can" destroys religious exclusivism
Typical conservative Christians, as well as many Muslims, Jews, and no doubt adherents of many other religions, hold (among their many other beliefs) the following belief. Anybody who does not follow (or believe in) the tenets of my religion is headed for eternal damnation (or the equivalent specified by my religion). I will call this position “religious exclusivism.”
Religious exclusivism comes in various sizes. So, for instance, one might claim that salvation is available to Christians only, and that all non-Christians are bound for hell. Or one might limit salvation to born-again Christians. Or perhaps only to born-again Baptists, or even to born-again Baptists who affirm the absolute truth of the Bible, etc.
Religious exclusivism is politically important for several reasons. Let me lay out just one of those. (Here I am following a discussion in Robert Paul Wolff, The Poverty of Liberalism.) One of the intellectual justifications for a liberal political order is, broadly, utilitarianism: the belief that the good (good actions, motives, people, etc.) can be distinguished from the bad by looking at the relative amount of pain and pleasure caused. The good is that which results in a state of affairs in which the greatest number of people are as happy (feeling pleasure, in some sense) as possible.
Wolff argues that both free-market and welfare-state liberalism invoke utilitarian justifications for their positions. At one point very early in the book, he notes that the alliance between utilitarianism and liberalism is very uneasy when it comes to religious issues. “Christianity … promises eternal bliss, and threatens eternal torment. Nothing could be more important to a true utilitarian.” At the same time, Christianity “claims to have the truth about God, to offer through the savior, Jesus Christ, the true path to salvation.” He goes on to say that if one sees any reason to think that Christianity might be true, then on good utilitarian grounds what is called for is intolerance toward all other religions: “…since each creed holds out the promise of infinite reward, any probability of its truth, however small,” means that I ought to hold to it dogmatically, and insist on its promotion throughout society. If heaven and hell are real, then utilitarianism is best served by coercing unbelievers into faith. “On Mill’s own principles, then, men who have no religoius beliefs should favor religious toleration, while men who have any faith at all, however tentative, should be dogmatic, illiberal, and exclusionary.” He concludes his section: “should I ever become persuaded of even the probability of religion, I shall with Mill’s On Liberty in hand become as intolerant and persecutory as ever the Inquisition was.”
Those of us who favor a political order that is neutral among religions need help at this point. We need to make the case that a religion-neutral political order is a good thing, and that this is the case not for agnostics and atheists, but also for believers.
There seem to be two ways of going about this. One might try to show, from within religious belief, that a religion-neutral political order is a good thing. I myself hold that there are very good theological reasons for Christians to reject the establishment of any religion. There may also be good reasons that can be given from the point of view of other religions. But at best, it would be difficult to convince every believer in every religion that their religion is better off not being established.
I propose a much quicker route to the same goal. I propose to show that religious exclusivism, in the sense defined above, is simply false. No morally decent religion can truthfully claim that it is the only path to salvation.
The proof is straightforward, following almost instantly from the simple truth that (as the philosophers say) “ought implies can.” This means that anything that I ought to do, I am able to do. Put otherwise, no moral obligation can possibly oblige me to do anything that I am unable to do. The inability destroys the obligation.
For instance, in many circumstances, I have an obligation to save a person who is dying. But if I obviously cannot save the person, the obligation disappears. Let us say that a man is suffocating right now for lack of oxygen on the moon, and will be dead in twenty seconds, while I sit here on earth. I have no moral obligation to jump to the moon and save him. Why? Because it is impossible.
Where there is no ability to do a thing, there is no moral obligation to do that thing. This is a contested claim in some places, and I can’t prove that it’s true. But it certainly works for most of us. Think about what you would say to someone who would claim that you were going to go to hell because you didn’t jump to the moon to save a dying man.
The claim of the religious exclusivist, again, is that I face eternal damnation (or whatever) if I do not follow the appropriate religious faith.
I take it, first, that the religious exclusivist is committed to the claim that I have done something morally wrong by not believing in or following the tenets of the right religion. That is, the issue at stake is moral, not only intellectual. If I were to believe that the world was flat and the moon made of green cheese, that would be an intellectual failing, but not a moral one. Not the sort that would get me sent to hell. If I were mistakenly to believe that the first book in the Bible is Exodus, not Genesis, that would be a religious mistake, but it would be silly to think of that as the sort of mistake that might get me sent to hell. In order for the punishment of hell or the blessings of heaven even to make sense, we have to be talking about a moral question.
So, for the religious exclusivist, belief or unbelief in the appropriate religion is a moral question, and whatever I believe I will be held morally responsible for my belief.
This, of course, is where “ought implies can” becomes relevant. I can only be held morally responsible for failing to do something if it is possible for me to do that thing. But it is clearly impossible, right now, for anyone to know which religion one ought to believe in.
There are no knock-down arguments, indeed no arguments of any sort, that tend to rationally favor one religion over all the others, or indeed over no religion. I say this, not as an easy agnostic or an atheist who thinks that all religions are obviously false, but on the contrary as someone who has spent years of his life working through the intellectual and existential arguments for various religions. Many of these arguments attain a very high level of sophistication, philosophically and theologically. But none of them convinces anybody who wasn’t already more or less convinced, or prepared to be convinced.
Even the most educated, most rational person in the world, devoting all of his or her hours to studying the arguments, will not be able to come to a clear conclusion on this matter based on reason alone. The problem is not only difficult, it is literally impossible.
Now, Christians (and adherents of many other religions) have long known this and admitted it gladly. St. Augustine formulated the classic understanding of the relation of faith and knowledge: theology, he said, should be “faith seeking understanding.” That is, one begins with faith -- faith that comes only as a supernatural gift from God -- and, once one has that, one can begin to think rationally about the faith and what it means. There is no purely rational path from unfaith to faith, or from one religion to another.
It is true that many arguments exist that try to prove God’s existence. I am probably one of the few people in the United States today who thinks that at least one of the arguments -- the ontological argument as formulated by St. Anselm and reformulated by Charles Hartshorne -- might actually work. But it is a long, long way from proving God’s existence to saying anything at all about one religion being preferable to another, let alone to the extent that people holding the wrong religious faith will go to hell. Nobody has even begun to make any rational arguments for those propositions.
I conclude, then, that the claims of religious exclusivism are false.
Let us grant that we want to believe in whichever religion is true. Let us further grant that there is only one true religion in the world. Still, if I do not believe in the correct religion already, then it is not possible for me to come to know that that religion is the true religion. I will be faced with any number of competing religions claims, only one of which is true. And this number is very large -- not just Christian vs. Muslim (etc.), but Baptist vs. Presybeterian (etc.), and Baptist pre-tribulation pre-millenialist vs. Baptist post-tribuation pre-millenialist (etc.). Among all of these, I can only guess randomly, and I am unlikely to guess correctly.
The claims of the religious exclusivist, then, violate the principle of “ought implies can.” Take even the most intelligent person in the world, doing nothing for one hundred years except studying religion, all the time with the best faith in the world that there is one true religion. Even this person could never come to know which faith is the true one.
A God who would send me to hell for not believing in the right religion is therefore every bit the moral monster as a God who would send me to hell for not jumping to the moon to save a dying man. And yes, maybe God is that moral monster. If so, I can live with myself just fine not playing God’s game.