Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.
When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.
The other kind of reason I will call purely causal reasons. A purely causal reason is one in which the reason causes the belief but it is not relevant to the belief’s truth. For example, say you mishear what your friend says. She says, “There’s a broken ruler” but you hear, “There’s a coke in the cooler.” Trusting her, you form the belief that there is a coke in the cooler. Say there actually is a coke in the cooler; so you’re belief is true. The reason you believe there is a coke in the cooler is purely causal, however. What she said had nothing to do with the coke or its being true that there is a coke in the cooler; your mishearing her words caused the belief.
The importance of the distinction between epistemic and purely causal reasons is that if we sincerely want to believe that which is true, and if we want to have confidence that we have true beliefs, then we should seek to have epistemic reasons for our beliefs, not merely purely causal reasons.
Let’s apply the above distinction to the question, “Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?” This is a different question than that of, “Why do you believe in a god?” The latter question could be answered by appealing to one or more arguments, e.g., cosmological, teleological, or ontological. Those arguments purport to provide epistemic reasons for belief in a god. But they do not provide epistemic reasons to believe in a Christian god or that of another religion. This is because, e.g., concerning the cosmological argument, all you get at the end is a necessarily existing being who’s supposed to be responsible for the creation of the universe. You don’t get any of the dogma that comes with Christianity, etc.
So why, then, is the average Christian (etc.) a Christian? I take it that the primary reason is a purely causal one, namely: she was raised in a home/culture in which she grew up practicing Christianity, praying to Jesus, etc. The important result is that if she had been raised in another culture or family she would have most likely been a Muslim, Jew, Jain, or Hindu, etc.
The problem, then, is that being raised a Christian provides no more of an epistemic reason for believing that Christianity is the one true religion than does being raised to believe that Santa Claus exists provides an epistemic reason for believing that Santa Claus exists. (In fact, it provides even less of one, since we should say that the child believes in Santa Claus based on the authority of the parents on who comes into the home on Christmas; but while it’s possible for a parent to be an authority on the existence of Santa Claus—if he were to exist—it isn’t possible for parents to be authorities on the existence of God.)
A Christian may, of course, say that through her faith and practice, she has confirmed for herself that Jesus really is the son of God, etc. So while she may have started off believing based on purely causal reasons, she found epistemic reasons to bolster her confidence that she has “chosen” the correct faith/religious tradition.
The primary problem with that line of thinking is that the Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., will say the same thing based on similar experiences. Through his worship and practice, he has come to know that Islam is the one correct faith. The Christian may reply that the Muslim is mistaken and that she is right. But the Muslim will say the same thing.
None of the above entails the falsehood of any particular religion, but it does undermine any claims to know that a person is taking part in the one true faith. The Christian could, of course, appeal to faith and say that she simply has faith that she is right. That is all well and good, but faith does not provide any epistemic reasons for the truth of that in which one has faith. And again, the Muslim, etc., will/can just make the same move.
The upshot is that for the average Christian, she is a Christian by chance alone. If she had been born elsewhere, she wouldn’t necessarily be Christian. If this is right, is there a way for a religious faithful to make her “chosen” faith a more epistemically legitimate choice? I believe there are two ways to do so.
The first way would be to study and practice, in complete earnestness, other religious traditions. Concomitant with that, the study of the ways in which religions can be evaluated, i.e., through philosophical and theological writings, would be important for learning how best to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the different religions. If, after a sincere and protracted study and practice of other religions, one still finds one’s “home” religion to be correct, then one is in a better epistemic position to do so. Nevertheless, by coming back home, so to speak, we are left to wonder if one is not doing so for psychological reasons of comfort and deeply engrained familiarity.
The second way would be to say something like the following: god exists but is in many respects incomprehensible to humans. All of the different religions are just the fumbling, well-intentioned attempts of humans to grasp that which is impossible to fully grasp. Some may do a better job than others, but I am a Christian because that is the tradition in which I feel most comfortable trying to reach and understand god. I am not a Christian because I believe it is the only legitimate religious practice and set of doctrines.
The first way undoubtedly would involve various pragmatic difficulties. The second way would involve difficulties in trying to spell out what exactly Christianity gets right and what not. Clearly it would be wrong about its claim to exclusivity. Nevertheless, on a personal note, I’m much more sympathetic to the second way.