My 5-Point Criteria for an Informed Critical Evaluation of Religion

Studying religion has been beneficial, particularly because I have had (and continue to have) the privilege of interpersonal dialogue with religious persons of numerous faiths. 

Notably, I was motivated to produce these 5-point criteria based on a discussion I recently had with a Baha’i apologist. I will be using this discussion to provide examples of what I shall attempt to show readers.

My attempt here is to use the experience garnered from these interpersonal discussions with religious persons to inform a critical method one can apply to religion(s) and truth claims proffered by religious apologists. I am primarily using information provided to me by religious individuals at temples, such as during my fieldwork with the Hare Krishna sect, and, on other occasions in the most interesting of places, such as during and/or after a seminar in the department, around the communal coffee table in my frequently visited cafes, in the classroom or lecture halls, and even on Uber drives. And, if one discovers the right places on the internet and social media, fruitful digital discussions can be had there too.

Often it is said never to speak about religion and politics at the table. However, my many experiences cause me to disagree with that statement because many people, I find, are open to these discussions as long as respect and politeness are involved. But, equally, on the other hand, it is unfortunately the case that many people have not developed this skill and are easily agitated when these topics emerge and are critically discussed. Fortunately, these discussions with positive outcomes constitute a reservoir of information about what religious persons believe and have therefore provided me with valuable, rich data.

For critical thinkers, I use this data to produce a method for judging the consistency of religious worldviews (also note that this method is applicable to all philosophies, including irreligious worldviews). I do not view the 5-point criteria I offer as unique as if I discovered something new. Far from it. Much, if not all of it, is commonsensical. Arguably, the only uniqueness here is that I am drawing on information collected via my own experiences with religious persons to inform the criteria.

As apparent throughout, the term “apologist” is used. An apologist is an individual who is staunchly committed to defending his philosophy and/or religious views against other philosophies and/or worldviews he perceives pose a threat to the truth of his own philosophy and/or religious views. A definition of “apologist” straight out of a dictionary is “someone who speaks or writes in defense of someone or something that is typically controversial, unpopular, or subject to criticism”. Of course, many religious claims are both controversial and subject to criticism. And, depending on time, place, and context, the views can be unpopular leading the apologist to defend it and justify its rational warrant.

I will clarify a few points right below as I believe the positions stated therein are particularly susceptible to the 5-point criteria.

Inclusivism and Exclusivism

The 5-point criteria presented should be used to judge the claims and views of inclusivist and exclusivist religious apologetics articulating worldviews.

Inclusivism is the view that, although only one belief system is true, aspects of its truth can be found in other religions too. Examples of such religions include the Bahai belief in “manifestations”, “new age” ideologies regarding ultimate realities lying unseen behind material reality that can be putatively found in all/most religions, various paganisms, and much else. 

Inclusivism often entails the view that various major religious figures, or “religious geniuses” as the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) called them, of history, such as Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, select gurus, buddhas, etc., communicated existential truths and/or divine revelation in their respective contexts from one God, the God of them all. The inclusivist also believes that this revelation(s) is consistent as they derive from the same source in the one God.

Exclusivism, on the other hand, the opposite of inclusivism, affirms that only one particular religion or belief system is true, which implies that all other religions, although they might have some approximation of truth contained within some of their doctrines (for example, these other “false” religions also affirm the existence of some deity or other), are false. An exclusivist perspective is belief in classical monotheism, exemplified by the Abrahamic faiths, which affirms a singular transcendent God. Polytheism, on the other hand, which is the belief in many gods, is accepted by many and is obviously incompatible with monotheism. Monotheism and polytheism are mutually exclusive views. They cannot both be true.

Another example is Jesus Christ, a very religious Jewish apocalypticist of the first century CE, and the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). For innumerable reasons, these two figures affirmed mutually exclusive worldviews. Jesus was profoundly religious whereas Freud, as a lifelong atheist, affirmed entirely the opposite. For Jesus, God and the Kingdom of God are realities but for Freud these, and other “superstitious” religious beliefs, are the manifestation of repressed drives that emerge in the form of neuroses. If one decides to go with Freud’s view that belief in God is merely wishful thinking and the product of neuroses, then Jesus is mistaken. If Jesus is right, Freud is wrong because religious beliefs, although may be explained in some ways Freud did, are not merely reducible to delusions.

Further examples of exclusivism are presented at the relevant junctures below.

Religious and Worldview Consistency

The 5-point criteria presented are relevant to evaluating the truth claims of any religion or religious worldview promoted by any apologist in terms of logical consistency. A religion (and any worldview generally) that falters on matters of logical consistency can be argued to be false. By “logic” or “logical consistency” I have in mind the three Laws of Logic, with particular emphasis on the Law of Non-Contradiction. Religious and apologetic beliefs and claims that fail to be consistent and violate this law should be considered dubious.   

5-Point Criteria

Let us turn to the 5-point criteria: Revisionism, Extended Revisionism, Selectivity, Late onto the Scene, and Secular Scholarship.

1. Revisionism

When discussing religious belief with an apologist of any kind, one should begin by identifying any evidence of revisionism. In particular, notice how extensive this revisionism is and what or who exactly is being revised.  

Inclusivist apologists, usually devotees and practitioners of later and more contemporary religions or spiritualities (I touch on this again below), tend to revise the teachings of exclusivist historical religious figures. Because the apologist’s own religious worldview affirms inclusivism, he needs to reinterpret the exclusivist teachings of these religious figures. 

Using my critical discussion with the Baha’i apologist, his attempt was to make the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, two very exclusivist religious figures of two very exclusivist world religions, as inclusivist as possible. This apologist’s position is that Jesus and Muhammad (like Buddha and others) were Manifestations revealing the divine truth of the one true God and who therefore communicated consistent and authentic divine revelation from this God. This view of the Baha’i apologist is based upon his sacred figure, Baha’u’llah (1817–1892), who founded the Baha’i religion and taught this concept of Manifestations.

My Baha’i opponent provided many excellent quotations of Baha’u’llah stipulated in the figure’s Writings. My argument is that the apologist’s view and truth claim, and by implication Baha’u’llah’s, are false given the replete, obvious exclusivism in the mutually exclusive religions of Buddha, the Hindus, Jesus, and Muhammad. This was not difficult to establish and my Baha’i opponent was left having to do an enormous amount of revisionism. 

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, famously claimed to be “the way and the truth and the life” and that “No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). Evidently, to most readers, Jesus could not be more exclusivist here if he tried. As such, Jesus’ exclusivist claim rules out Baha’u’llah being a provider of any authentic revelation from God. In the Bible, the putative prophetic activity and communication communicated on behalf of prophets and men inspired by the Holy Spirit concluded in the first century CE and roughly 1800 years before Baha’u’llah and Baha’i devotees came onto the stage to revise those early Christian teachings.

Moreover, the Qur’an, believed to contain the authentic, truthful, divine revelation of God given to Muhammad, claims Muhammad to be the “Seal of the Prophets” (33:40). This is a central doctrine of Islam. Muhammad, according to orthodox Islamic belief, is the final prophet in the Abrahamic tradition (but also in the entire world) who, at the age of forty, God commissioned to spread true revelation and teachings that would later become codified in the Qur’an.

Of course, as stated already, these teachings of Jesus and Muhammad are exclusivist, and as such both Jesus and Muhammad would have considered Baha’u’llah a false prophet. At the very least, they would certainly have been frustrated at the misinterpreting and revision of their teachings committed by Baha’u’llah and contemporary Baha’i devotees. 

The same issues arise when interpreting (revising) the teachings of other figures like the Buddha. Tradition says that the Buddha affirmed the notion of anatman, or non-self. All is in flux, including what we consider to be the human being. This teaching rules out any truth to the concept of a subsistent immaterial soul which is almost always considered unified, unchanging, and subsistent. However, the belief in a soul (an immaterial tenet of the person believed to survive the physical death of the body) is fundamental in almost all religions, which was not lost on the classical anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) who theorized and studied extensively in this area. 

Further, Muhammad’s and Jesus’ conception of deity cannot be harmonized with the ultimate underlying reality called Brahman taught and affirmed by the brahmin priests of old in what we consider today to be Hinduism. The classical concept of God affirmed by Christianity and Islam is not an “underlying reality” behind material items, at least as conceived by the brahmins, but a totally transcendent Being who is not a part of the universe, as a pantheist would claim.

But how does the inclusivist apologist deal with this challenge of exclusivism? He engages in revisionism by conspicuously reinterpreting and revising the teachings of these earlier religious figures (Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, etc.) and the primary texts in which those exclusivist teachings are found. The result is the warping of historical religious figures and the distortion of their teachings. Essentially, Muhammad taught a belief that Baha’i apologist says he did not. The same can be said of Jesus.

One way my Baha’i opponent attempted to skirt around the Seal of the Prophets doctrine of Islam was to allege it to be a late development that formed over the centuries post the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. He therefore alleges that this doctrine is a late distortion of Muhammad’s true teachings as a Manifestation of this apologist’s preferred God. As I will show below, this claim of distortion of the exclusivist teachings of founders of other religions is a very common apologetic on behalf of our Baha’i apologist. 

I merely pointed out the obvious fact that the Seal of the Prophets doctrine is already stated in the Qur’an (33:40), which, with the exception of some leading scholars in the revisionist school of Islam, was completed and codified well before the end of the seventh century (some say as early as the Uthmanic Recension merely twenty or so years after Muhammad’s time of death) and therefore cannot be a “late” doctrine. 

2. Extended Revisionism

The revisionism does not die there, however. One should notice the inclusivist apologist’s revision of the teachings of other religious figures who are not the founder of their religions but are primary and authoritative figures and scholars in their religious traditions.

An example is the earliest Christians in the aftermath of Jesus’ death. These believers, notably Paul, were apocalypticists expecting the end of days to arrive within their lifetime. Why did they expect this? Because Jesus taught an apocalyptic message he derived from John the Baptist and his devout followers wished to preserve and proselytize his teachings. 

However, the inclusivist apologist needs to somehow deal with exclusivist teachings that were handed down in the early traditions. As in the case of my Baha’i friend, he appeared to have two recourses: reject the early tradition and its source materials entirely or revise the texts at the base of the tradition to fit an inclusivist paradigm. The apologist maintains that either the authoritative figures in these early traditions (such figures can include biographers, disciples, companions, theologians, exegetes, historians, etc.) are wrong or, while applying a dose of revisionism, alleging that they did not mean what they said.

This recourse is challenged particularly strongly when the authoritative figures at the earliest moment of tradition were the disciples or companions of the religious founder and figure in question, about whom they had insider knowledge, and promoted that founder’s exclusivist message. The inclusivist apologist has to try and show that these figures misinterpreted their founder’s teachings despite their familiarity with the founder.

Again returning to my Baha’i friend, when discussing Muhammad, his recourse was to reject entire swathes of the hadith tradition, including the authoritative compilations accepted by the best Muslim scholars and exegetes that Islam can offer. The hadith, written by later Muslim scholars in the tradition established by Muhammad, narrate many stories, deeds, and sayings of Muhammad not found in the Qur’an. Upon reading them, it becomes apparent that they contain the exclusivist teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an. To cite an example, Sunan Abi Dawud narrates Muhammad declaring himself to be “the seal of the Prophets after whom (me) there will be no prophet” (Book 36, Hadith 4239). Muhammad could not be more exclusivist than this if he tried.

An example from Christianity is the apologist’s rejection of the Trinitarian conception of deity presented by later church leaders and theologians who studied their sacred texts to gain a fuller understanding of what they considered were divine truths located therein. The inclusivist apologist, in the case of our Bahai apologist, has to argue that this later defining doctrine of Christianity must (also) be a distortion and an invention by later Christian scholars. He perceives the Trinitarian concept of deity to not cohere with the God concept his founder, Baha’u’llah, promoted, which is why he must reject it.

At this point, one should begin to have strong reservations about what the apologist is offering. The inclusivist apologist is revising patent exclusivist teachings of the founders of other religions as well as of the earliest authoritative figures in those traditions to make them cohere with his preferred religious figure. Essentially, the implication is that none of these figures, founders included, said what they are reported to have said or had written in texts themselves. 

3. Selectivity

We now notice the conspicuous selectivity in the arsenal of the inclusivist apologist.

Referring to my Baha’i friend, in order to make the theology contained in other sacred scriptural texts of other religions cohere with his own religious beliefs, he is compelled to select some parts of these texts he perceives cohere with his own religious views. As I showed in reference to the hadith above and the works produced by authoritative scholars in the traditions, the inevitable result is the rejection of swathes of the content found in these texts.

To the outsider evaluating this Baha’i apologist’s perspective, it is clear that he commits what one might call selectivity of convenience: what coheres and attracts, the apologist takes; what does not, he rejects. Of course, this is far from an objective evaluation of the teachings of ancient religious figures.

4. Generally Late onto the Scene 

The inclusivist apologist and the religion he affirms generally emerge chronologically much later. This apologist’s preferred religion was normally founded several centuries or thousands of years later after the significant religious figures of other religions he is attempting to revise were active.

This chronological lateness enables the inclusivist apologist to have access to the teachings and sacred texts of these ancient religious figures which he can, in the present, revise and reinterpret to the degree he wishes to do so. As stated throughout, his patent motive is to make them cohere with his own contemporary religious worldview. 

Our Baha’i apologist, whose religion was founded in the nineteenth century, reinterprets and revises the exclusivist teachings of chronologically prior religious figures like Jesus and Muhammad to render their teachings consistent with Baha’u’llah’s doctrine of Manifestations. This is evidently far from a detached and neutral evaluation of history and what ancient religions and their religious figures taught.

5. Secular Scholarship

As an insider in the academic study of religions, I maintain with emphasis the importance of taking into consideration contemporary secular scholarship when engaging with any apologist of any religion. I underscore the term secular. Good scholars have in mind the ideal of impartiality, which is accompanied by a lack of commitment to preferred religions when engaging in their work. This is not scholarship found in or produced by partial thinkers in a gurukul, madrassa, or seminary.

Obviously, despite their fallibility, scholars are the most informed in their areas of specialization. If the apologist’s truth claims and beliefs do not cohere with or are refuted by informed scholarly work, then it adds to the cumulative case against the apologist’s truth claims and, possibly, overarching religious worldview.

Should he perceive incompatibilities between scholarship and his own views, the apologist will generally respond in at least one or more of the following ways. One response is that he dismisses the scholarship entirely or great swathes of it because he realizes that the findings and theories therein conflict with his own religious views. 

The apologist, moreover, might accuse scholars and scholarship of some, often moraldefect. Accusations are often that the scholars are arrogant, which is the view of the Baha’i apologist in question, or hate the religion or worldview they study academically and specialize in. For example, many fundamentalist biblical creationists accuse scientific academia and its scholars of degeneracy for teaching the theory of evolution which, the creationists allege, renders human life meaningless and/or insignificant, which they perceive conflicts with their belief that human beings are unique, special creations of their God.

Typically, this response is expressed in ad hominem or personal character attacks on individuals, scholars, and entire fields of academia. As becomes apparent, resorting to such measures only shows the apologist is on the back foot in the critical discussion, which can be the result of an underlying fear that his religion might not be as infallible as he initially thought. 

A further way of response is allegations of conspiracy. Scholars, such an apologist claims, are in cahoots and are allegedly conspiring behind the scenes to undermine whatever “truth” the apologist believes he has privileged access to. Arguably, for the most part, this apologist is so convinced he is correct in his belief that any scholarship disagreeing with him could not possibly be justified. 

Another way the apologist deals with scholarship is more selectivity of convenience and further revisionism. He selectively utilizes isolated and decontextualized quotes by mainstream scholars putatively supporting his own religious beliefs to give those beliefs an aura of academic support. Arguably, scientific creationists are most notorious for this fallacy, although it is found in all religions (and irreligions) too. This selectivity of convenience entails taking content from a scholar’s work and revising and reinterpreting that content in a way friendly to the apologist’s own views. Egregious on the apologist’s part is when he is aware the scholar he is quoting does not agree with him and what he is asserting.

Final Thoughts

The suspicious and erroneous avenues taken by such an apologist are evidently broad: selectively of convenience, noticeably of sections of religious texts of other religions as well as teachings of authoritative historical religious figures of those religions; the obvious, extensive reinterpretation and revisionism of ancient and historical exclusivist religious figures and the earliest authoritative figures and scholars in those traditions; the dismissal of swathes of academic scholarship perceived; and, finally, the manner of that dismissal, which is often personal ad hominem attacks on persons.

My suggestion for critical thinkers and outsiders of a religion being presented to them is to scrutinize the apologist’s truth claims using the 5-point criteria provided. Do his claims falter on logical consistency? If they do and if the apologist exhibits these characteristics, especially several of them, a strong argument can be made for doubting his truth claims, arguments, and, by possible extension, the worldview he promotes.

2 comments

  1. Interesting thought exercise. I’m left wondering what criteria is necessary to apply if the discussion is between two apologists, both convinced of the truth claims of their respective exclusivist religions.

    • I believe the criteria stipulated here are usable by apologists who wish to critically evaluate each other and their religious worldviews. Much of the criteria above hinges on logical consistency, which apologists wish to demonstrate their worldviews obtain.

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