Certain phrases and slogans have become increasingly popular in our culture in recent years. People thrown them around with a general idea of what they mean, but rarely are they examined in any depth. For example, and I just heard this one today, “You shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others”. On the surface something like this sounds good. Naturally, in a pluralistic culture where tolerance is considered a virtue and in a country where freedom of religion is a fundamental right, the sentiment such a phrase is trying to convey – that everyone has a right to believe what seems correct to them without coercion or threat – is a noble one. However, the statement itself is self-refuting. To tell someone “you shouldn’t” do something is in fact an example of imposing your beliefs on that person, so “you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others” becomes an example of the exact action that the phrase is intended to repudiate. The statement becomes cannibalistic, devouring itself.
There are many other examples of this floating around our culture:
On a side note, I find it ironic that Obi-Wan’s statement is in response to an almost verbatim quote from Matthew 12:30. According to George Lucas, Jesus was a Sith Lord. And so was Obi-Wan. And pretty much anyone who lives on earth. Honestly, how did that make it into the film?
When we recognize these self-refuting statements, we quickly realize how silly they are and almost immediately abandon them. However, it is not only contemporary theories of truth that can be illogical or incoherent. Religions can do this as well, and just like self-refuting statements like “You can’t tell someone what they shouldn’t do”, such religions that are contradictory, incoherent or self-refuting should also be jettisoned.
For example, Mormonism claims by necessity the existence of an infinite amount of previous gods and goddesses. This is in blatant opposition to centuries of work by philosophers showing that an actual infinite amount of anything cannot really exist, a proposition established long before Joseph Smith found his peep stone. In addition, we see that the Quran affirms the inspiration, preservation and authority of the Torah and the Gospels, but blatantly contradicts claims made within them. A few years ago I met an ex-Mormon who walked away when he learned that Brigham Young affirmed the bible. If Young was a prophet, then his claim about the bible was necessarily true. If the bible was true as Young claimed, then he failed the test of a prophet by teaching false doctrine. In short, if Mormonism was true, then it was false.
Apologist Greg Koukl gives this example:
Just like the self-refuting statements we see thrown around in the culture, we can confidently abandon any religion or worldview that is, in its most fundamental form, incoherent. Keith Yandell of the University of Wisconsin made this quite clear when he said, “If a conceptual system contains as an essential element a… set of propositions which is logically inconsistent, it is false.”2 That’s it. End of story. If a religion contradicts itself, it is false.
To be sure, we need to be careful about how we formulate the statements that are to be evaluated so we’re not setting up a straw man and civility would require that we give a religion’s adherents time and space to reconcile those statements, but if it cannot be done intellectual honesty requires that the system be thrown out.
A good example of reconciling a perceived contradiction is shown in the Christian concept of the Trinity. Shortly after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and called off the persecution, informally making it the “unofficial official religion” of the Roman Empire, the church had its first opportunity to worry about something other than avoiding being lit on fire or fed to lions. It was then that Christian thinkers began to dissect the clear statements of the scriptures and found what seemed to be a contradiction. They knew that there was only one God. They knew that Jesus was God. They knew that Jesus prayed to God. How were they to make sense of that? If there is only one God and Jesus is God, then who was he talking to in Gethsemane? If God the Father spoke audibly to anoint Jesus at his baptism and Jesus claimed to be God, how can there be only one God? I’m personally of the opinion that without the bullet-proof (or arrow-proof, I guess) historical evidence supporting the premises, the church may never have survived the first century. They knew that Jesus had claimed to be God, that God the Father had vindicated that claim by raising him from the dead, and that the bible claimed monotheism too clearly and too often to be misunderstood. It wasn’t until the distinction between “person” and “being” was made that a suitable solution could be found. God is triune or tri-personal. He is one being with three centers of consciousness, one of which took on bodily form in order to walk among us.
Very often accusations like these are still made against Christianity. How can God die? If Jesus is God, why did he say “the Father is greater than I”? I believe that these accusations are fundamentally flawed since they posit false premises or ignore other aspects of Christian doctrine (a faith system must be taken as a collective whole), but we still hear them regularly.
Personally, this is the part of comparative religion study that I find particularly fascinating: parsing out what a specific religion believes and taking it to its logical conclusion, then seeing how it stacks up against reality. Not only because it’s interesting, but because the deeper I get into it, the more convinced I become that Christianity is not just pleasant or viable, but that it is objectively true.
1. Greg Koukl, "Testing Religious Truth Claims"
2. Keith Yandell, "Religious Experience and Rational Appraisal," quoted in James W. Sire's, The Universe Next Door, Pg. 281
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.