Doodle: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe as Long as You’re Sincere”

Our world loves to trade in platitudes when it comes to questions about truth, morality, and tolerance. For example the statement, “exclusivity is intolerant” sounds gracious and diplomatic, understanding and inclusive, even if in reality it is a thoughtless and logically inconsistent statement. Another cliché, which I want to briefly tackle in this post, says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” In other words, if someone earnestly believes something then who are you to tell them that they are wrong? This statement supposedly draws the line between arrogant fundamentalism and tolerant inclusivity. But in the points below I want to challenge this platitude, which essentially claims that sincerity trumps truth.

It is inconsistent

What I mean is that no one actually thinks that you can believe anything as long as you are sincere, and that no one consistently abides by that position. To swap the words around: most of us agree that sincerity does not equal truth or validate what is false. Very few people believe that the holocaust was a good thing yet Hitler’s zealous sincerity is undeniable. Thus British philosopher John Hicks has said, “To say that whatever is sincerely believed and practised is, by definition, true, would be the end of all critical discrimination, both intellectual and moral” (McGrath, Bridge-building). No one defends defunct truth claims, such as bride burning in India or the daily human sacrifices carried out by the Aztecs. We simply do not consistently hold to the claim that people can believe whatever they want if they are sincere. When we say that we reveal intellectual laziness and logical inconsistency, which leads into the next point.

It prizes ignorance at worst, and apathy at best

What I really suspect is behind the sincere faith argument is indifference and an unwillingness to engage critically or endeavour to reach conclusions about truth. It says more than, ‘We can’t really know,’ and means something closer to, ‘I don’t care.’ When I state that people can believe whatever they want to I gain the license to give no thought to what I believe. Therefore it is an active decision to live ignorantly in the dark, though it appears enlightened and tolerant. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “Nobody except the occasional university first year believes that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good”. Believing that sincerity trumps truth is the decision to remain ignorant, a refusal to engage thoughtfully, and ultimately rests on apathy. 

It is arrogant and offensive

ApologeticsThe implication of this position is ironically intolerant. Hidden in the statement is the insinuation that everyone else has got it wrong. All those shades of truth in the world, theological statements, philosophies, world views, and belief systems are wrong, or maybe right in part. As Christian apologist Alister McGrath says, “It is not individual religions that have access to truth; it is the western liberal pluralist.” When I smugly suggest that you can believe anything granted you are sincere I am making a value judgment on what you believe: it is insufficient, inadequate, and incomplete. My position of radical tolerance supplants your position, with a condescending dismissal. Because the statement says, It does not actually matter what you believe. Whatever beliefs you hold, build your identity and meaning around, are irrelevant.

It is a dogmatic faith position

Finally, the statement has an underlying theological position, reducing any concept of God to a sort of LCD (which I have written about in the post linked above). Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Ironically, the insistence that doctrine do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view…touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of others. So the proponents of this view are guilty of the very thing they forbid in others.” This belief – contained in the statement we are discussing – undermines most of what many people believe. When someone claims that people can believe anything as long as they are sincere what you should hear is that there is no truth. You also should not miss the note of patronising dogmatism, which side-lines all other beliefs and makes sincerity more important than someone’s actual position.

Doodle: “Isn’t Exclusivity Intolerant?”

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz - GranadFew Christian doctrines are more vehemently scorned than exclusivity. Not only does it presuppose that large swathes of people are, and have been, very wrong about who God is, but the intolerance dogmatic beliefs engender damages any hope of establishing peace on earth. I will risk losing your readership at this point by saying that I agree with these two statements: many people are wrong about whom God is and the existence of religion prevents peace on earth. As a Christian, however, I believe in exclusivity because I am convinced that there is one God, who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, see my post on cause versus revelation. In this post my aim is to prove that we cannot get away from exclusivity on matters of religion and God.

It is worth saying that your mounting distaste at this point is disagreement with Jesus, and not me, for he taught that he was the only true God and the exclusive means of attaining eternal life. I always marvel at history’s love for Jesus and the appreciation of this ideal itinerant preacher because it simply ignores what he taught; either, people are unaware of Jesus’ instruction or they prefer the repackaged and domesticated Jesus, happily remaining ignorant of what he really taught. So this post will also address the view of tolerance, which sees its role as rewriting history and redefining God in order to avoid arrogant exclusivity.

Most people today think that there are only two options when it comes to religion: the first is that all religions worship the same god and the second is that all religions worship different gods.

World ReligionsThe first view, a type of radical inclusivity, is extremely dismissive of the divine for it denies him/her/it the ability to clearly reveal itself to creation, unless of course it is part of creation. It asks us to imagine a god who either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making itself known. At the same time, this view says that all religions, with their widely divergent and distinctive theologies, are in fact wrong about who god is, owing to their specificity. The way this view would have us understand god is as some sort of ‘LCD god.’ More so, the problems that arise, over and above this view’s dummied down deity, is its arrogant claim to determine what God is like, and its illogical inclusion of contradicting theologies. For the sake of tolerance, this first view ignores the diverse richness of religion and replaces diverse beliefs with an inoffensive but vague god while making the offensive claim to define what that god is like, with the controlling attribute being transcendence. The second view – that there is in fact no god – has its own set of problematic assumptions. Essentially, and similarly to the first view, it concludes that every religion is wrong and therefore assumes itself to be the only right one. Since all belief about God is misled we are to conclude that disbelief has all the answers; proper knowledge, coming threateningly close to omniscience, is afforded to this select group of people, who we are meant to see as the possessors of exclusive truth. In my opinion, both of these views model proud exclusive claims, the type of claims that they set out to deny religion.

I hope you can see from my reasoning above that in many ways exclusivity is unavoidable. While the view of tolerance might be more palatable, it is not intellectually satisfying and is at many points quite offensive to or dismissive of more nuanced theology and religions.  The irony is that those who deny exclusivity in the name of tolerance do so from an intolerant and ultimately exclusive position.