Confronting Religious Diversity

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

A significant theological problem that has come to widespread attention over the last century is that of religious diversity. There are other religions whose devoted followers are often intelligent and pious, and take their traditions and religious experiences very seriously. If we question their religious beliefs, we inevitably end up wondering whether those questions can be equally applied to our beliefs as well.

If you accept that you cannot conclusively prove your religious beliefs and therefore rely on a certain amount of faith, then how can you criticize someone from a different religion who also believes on faith? Why is your faith right and his wrong? Or, to frame it as a problem, maybe your faith is wrong and his is right. Or maybe the conviction that he is wrong implies that you are wrong and every religion is wrong.


Good grief man! I was all set to fisk this but there really is no point. It’s a long meandering piece of … I don’t know what.

If you’re desperate for some kind of a pseudo-philosophical ‘alibi’ so that you can feel intellectually justified in continuing to believe your unbelievable faith, then yes, Plantinga and all the other religious philosophers are your friends, since they are all in the exact same boat as you are – trying desperately to believe in stuff which isn’t very believable, and which doesn’t match the evidence very well. Of course, they’re all coming from different religions than you, but hey it’s all epistemically pseudo-philosophically mumbo jumbolly justified in some hard-soft pluralistically criteria-belief complex. Or something like that.

On the other hand, you could let go of your obvious biases, admit you just don’t have any good reason to believe what you believe except for your biases, and become a skeptic.

Or at the very least, give up on that whole Avodah-Areivim arrogance of ‘We are the intellectual elite of the creme de la creme of Judaism’ nonsense and just admit (to yourself) that you have emunah peshutah, just like everyone else.

GIL STUDENT RESPONDS: Yes, it all boils down to: "I believe it and I have every right to believe it"

Did I ever say anything to the contrary like claiming to be able to prove it? No. All I said is that you can’t prove that it’s wrong. And that’s the point of this post — you can’t prove that it’s wrong and there’s nothing wrong with saying that.

Your reaction to having a bias is to say that everything is wrong. Embedded in this post is the point that this is not the only way and it certainly is not the way we react to other situations in which we do not have enough evidence to reach a proven conclusion.

…Let me state clearly: I believe all other religions to have some truths in them (e.g. discouraging murder, encouraging respect for parents) but overall to be false, but Judaism to be true and revealed by God.

ANON RESPONDS: You have every ‘right’ to do whatever you please, it’s a free world. But what you should be worried about is whether it’s likely to be actually true, not whether you have a ‘right’ to believe it.

The fact that you have shifted the conversation from ‘is it likely to be true’ to ‘I have a right to believe it’ says it all.

> All I said is that you can’t prove that it’s wrong. And that’s the point of this post — you can’t prove that it’s wrong and there’s nothing wrong with saying that.

I can’t prove that fairies don’t exist either. Or alien abductions. Or mormonism. There’s an infinite number of plainly ridiculous assertions that can’t be ‘proven wrong’. But a sensible person believes what’s likely to be true, not ‘what can’t be proven wrong’.

But don’t worry, you still have your right to believe whatever you want. And you can even quote a religious philosopher to back up that right.

‘reasonable people can reach different conclusions.’

This line is a crock. It’s not as if Gil Student, Joe Christian and Walid Islam all start out in some neutral place, survey all the evidence, and then reach different conclusions. Rather each one passionately believes in the 100% truth of his own religion.

A more truthful line would be ‘biased people can, and almost always will, reach biased conclusions’.

LAMEDZAYIN RESPONDS: As someone who does believe it, I’m not sure what the point of this all is. Most of us, if we have a shred of intellectual honesty, must ultimately accept that we believe it because we were taught to believe it. That inculcated belief may at this point be sincere, and it may have been transmitted by parents and teachers who were also sincere, but it’s ridiculous to pretend that if we were all not brought up with Orthodox Judaism that we would all come to believe it anyways. I mean, forget switching religions – what tiny fragment of the Orthodox world switches Orthodox sects? How many Chareidim become Modern Orthodox and vice versa? These are not big numbers, and that’s just for switching between two religious groups that, to a high degree, accept each other’s legitimacy and believe the same things!

Of course, some do come to believe in Orthodox Judaism on their own. And some come to disbelieve it on their own. And some come to believe every religion in the world (or disbelieve it) on their own. That’s irrelevant to you, unless they give you a reason that you can use on your own, which realistically isn’t happening.

So just accept that:
* you sincerely believe what you do
* because you were taught to
* which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false
* but also doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true, and
* asserting it’s true may, in fact, be arrogant

FKM WRITES: Once you allow Chazal [the rabbis of the Talmud] to make fundamental mistakes about basic facts about the world and Jewish history, your cultural heritage and religious institutions are sunk.

I think its safe to say that intellectually, people become Orthoprax because they really don’t trust Chazal implicitly that what they say is true.

ELPH WRITES: I would say that once you make an irrational leap of faith that Chazal were somehow superhuman and immune to normal human error, your chances of promoting Judaism as being rational are sunk.

NACHUM WRITES: At this moment, I’d be much happier with whatever plan Sarah Palin might cook up in Wassilla. But that’s me.

MEIR POSTS: Gil, do I understand your argument?

1. There is no evidence either supporting or harming the claims that OJ makes.
2. We care a lot about the truth of the claims OJ makes.
3. This forces us to take a stand on whether OJ is true or not, even though we don’t have justification for the claims OJ makes.
4. And so we make an unjustified guess. This is faith.

I think one of the problems here is premise 1. I, and others, think that there is evidence against the claims that OJ makes. So it’s not just neutral. Maybe belief in God is something that has no evidence for or against it, but I don’t know.

As far as the argument about pluralism goes, I don’t understand what’s wrong with saying (like Rabbi Sacks does) that God speaks to Jews differently then He speaks to Christians or Muslims. Well, I do understand why that’s a problem–because the concept isn’t strongly supported in our tradition. But I think that Orthodox Judaism could survive with a non-exclusive pluralism. Why not?

Y. AHARON POSTS: I fail to see the point of this post. The statement that no religious system can be proven correct is obvious. Had a real proof been available then all the more open and honest people (however many there are) would have long since flocked to it. Any honest religious person must admit that his religion is based on faith, in common with many important attitudes that people have such as faith in family, friends, and associates – or that the laws of nature won’t suddenly change. There is a difference, of course, between the bases for these various faiths, but they still remain unproveable assumptions.

What can be demanded, it seems to me, is that faith not be totally irrational. Belief in a god who lived as a man and died is logically inconsistent with belief in an omnipotent, transcendant Deity. Belief in the divine origin of the torah is not irrational – just unproveable. Belief that the sages of the talmud were always correct is irrational. We have many examples where errors were made in understanding nature or mathematics or history. Some seeming derivations from the torah appear to be arbitrary. Such deficiencies don’t invalidate the laws they derive or arrive at, however, just as deficiencies in the American Constitution don’t invalidate that document. A more rational view of Judaism, it seems to me, accepts the rule of such law despite its authorship by fallable humans. Loyalty to the long traditions of an ancient people is an important virtue in this very changeable world.

R-W POSTS: Judaism, too, relies on at least some degree of "faith." However, it is a faith that is not based “blind faith” or credulity, and certainly not on something where the basic premises would blatantly contradict reason and logic. To borrow the felicitous phrase of the late Dr. Louis Jacobs: "We Have Reason to Believe!"

This cannot be said, in principle, of e.g. Christianity, of which one of its own already conceded its foundation in terms of “credo quia absurdum, credibile quia ineptum, certum est quia impossibile est.” And we will not even go into the issue of affirming the truth of the Jewish Bible and then arguing that G-d changed His mind etc. Likewise re Islam etc.

Pluralism is a valid position in terms of social relationships, i.e., mutual respect, harmonious interaction and conduct in a multi-cultural society, but never ever on the theological level. Anyone who would consider the possibility of another religion’s theological validity or truth (where this stands in direct contradiction to one’s own) is at best an agnostic who does not really believe in what he claims to identify with. Believing in the truth of my religion of itself implies rejection of the truth of the others. Obviously you cannot suggest here any theory of “double truth.”

If one were to consider the type of pluralism suggested in the thread, just where would you draw the line? Anything (absurdum, ineptum, impossibile) – including the most outlandish and the most vile and repulsive – goes with equal validity.

XGH POSTS: How should we act? That’s an entirely different and very subujective question. Non fundamentalists would say we should use our best judgement. Conservative Jews would say Tradition gets a vote, not a veto. Orthoprax / LWMO Jews would say they are ok (for the most part) with OJ morality and ethics, but some changes (e.g. egalitarianism, homosexuality, agunot) need to be made. RW MO will say OJ is very good as is, though maybe some minor readjustments are within scope. Chareidim will say OJ is perfect, it’s the word of God, and we don’t need to ever change a thing (though behind the scenes they will of course be slowly changing over the centuries whether they want to or not).

From a moral perspective, it’s hard to justify giving ancient unreliable traditions a veto in the moral decision process, but, since OJ has a good moral standing and history, I’m personally OK with it. But I admit that’s an entirely subjective claim. Some skeptics I know think OJ is immoral. That’s their judgment call.


1. You admit that you can’t prove that Judaism is true, yet you still believe 100%.
2. Therefore you must be admitting that your belief in Judaism is not based on proofs, facts or evidence, but rather on something else.
3. That something else could be in part loyalty or tradition, but in reality it’s mostly your personal (subjective) experience of Judaism being true.
4. It’s abundantly clear that all other religious fundamentalists from other religions have the same strong subjective experiences about the truth of their own religions.
5. A sensible person would realize that the cause of your personal subjective experience is more likely external (i.e. environment, education, other biases), than anything that really indicates your beliefs are in fact true.

The counter argument to this, mentioned above a few times, is that if I for example were born in Meah Shearim, I wouldn’t believe in Science, so we are all victims of our environment, fundies and skeptics alike, and therefore all equally biased.

But this counter argument is a fallacy, and here is why.

Skeptics base their opinions on facts and evidence. Yes, facts and evidence can be looked at in a biased way, but funamentally our approach is based on facts and evidence. You however admit that your fundamental approach is NOT based on facts and evidence, but rather on your personal experience. Yet we know personal experience in these matters is extremely biased and easily controlled. Hence the charge of bias applies to your beliefs, but not to a skeptic who bases his beliefs on evidence.

Yes, everyone and anyone can be biased in all sorts of ways, but your appoach (by your own admission!) is one that is fundamentally based on your own personal bias. You claim that you are closer to the truth because you have a ‘better’ starting point, but of course claiming that your starting point is ‘better’, without being able to bring any objective evidence or arguments proving that, is itself an inherently biased position.

Skeptics also claim that we have a better starting point, i.e. the enlightenment, western civilization etc. But we have objective evidence and facts that our starting point is indeed better, than say a pygmy or Amazon Indian’s starting point, or indeed any religious fundamentalist.

Note: Don’t confuse ‘skeptic’ with ‘atheist’. They are NOT the same thing at all.

SHADES OF GREY WRITES: Here is a quote from Rabbi Yair Spolter’s Jewish Observer critique of Faranak Margolese’s book(linked below; see response to the critique of the book on a whole, as well). I think that this is a fair and fudamental topic for discussion, and is related to the one here.

By the way, critical thinking and clarity of thought necessitate categorizing emunah issues. Belief in G-d is a separate issue from the eighth ikkar. The proof of this is that religious people find it easier to publicly discuss atheistic and philosophic challenges, rather than historical ones.

From the review:

"Thirdly, creating a strong basis of emuna in young children requires teaching them to experience G-d as a reality. By doing so, we are instilling a belief that runs deeper than any intellectual understanding. Encouraging youth to challenge this reality can run contrary to the development of emuna as "second nature" (emuna peshuta). According to our mesora, it is only after a strong foundation is established that intellectual exploration of any sort is in place."

"By asserting that to believe in G-d’s existence one must take a "leap of faith," the author makes a terrible error. There are, in fact, countless authoritative sources stating that we are indeed commanded to KNOW that there is a G-d (see, for example, Rambam, Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1,1), and this is how it has been for millennia. In her flawed understanding, Margolese misrepresents a basic foundation of Yiddishkeit."…72& Type=Article

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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