Mortimer J. Adler wrote “Truth in Religion, The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth” in 1990 near the end of his long and fruitful life. He was a teacher and writer with a broad grasp of the history of philosophy, and an advocate of living the examined life through understanding the “Great Ideas“. He identified himself as an Aristotelian, which made him something of a throwback among modern academics. He also tried to write in plain English for a general audience which was a noble effort. The books he wrote in the last couple of decades of his life tend to be short and very focussed. He sometimes basically tells people to read a different book for more arguments on a specific point. This book is about truth in religion.
He points out that people tolerate and encourage pluralism of values and ideas in a few main ways. We practice pluralism on questions of taste – is the Sopranos a better show than Deadwood? He mentions the old idea of poetic truth – that a work of fiction can communicate meaning without being literally true. We also practice pluralism on questions where we believe that there is a real truth, but we realize that we can’t be sure of the truth with the existing evidence and our tools to assess the evidence.
He believes that there is one reality and one truth about reality, and that the truth can be discovered by rational enquiry. He also believes that people can be overconfident about what they know. The truth is real, but people don’t have the information and the tools to understand the real truth. We know something about math, and we know certain scientific facts to high degree of probability, but we don’t know that much for sure.
He doesn’t spend time on the question of whether the existence of God can be proved by logic alone (he wrote another book “How to Think about God”). He addresses the question of whether it is possible that some of the fundamental beliefs of any religion can be true. He deals with the many writers who say “it’s all myth” and none of it true. He begins by distinguishing between the evidence and the facts. He notes that Joseph Campbell’s studies of mythology claim to discredit religion by showing that all religions are based on myths which were incorrectly believed to be literally true. He thinks that Campbell, and other students of religion are making an unfounded generalizations to say that all mythologies and all religions are simply stories. He says Campbell and Eliade and others were being dogmatic about something they cannot prove.
He favours the position of St. Thomas Aquinas who, in debate with followers of the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes, taught that religious truth is real, not poetic, even though religious writing is often in the form of myth and metaphor. He also notes that Aquinas (and St. Augustine) acknowledged that rational argument and factual evidence could disprove facts believed on faith in the value of revealed stories. He observes that St. Augustine himself demythologized the first chapter of Genesis by theological analysis without compromising his faith. Perhaps that’s why Catholics have not been bent out of shape by the contradictions between the facts of geology and evolutionary biology and the Creation story in Genesis.
It follows that he rejects to conventional wisdom of sociology and religions studies and implicitly rejects the post-modern perspective that religions are all equally valid narratives of meaning within cultural contexts. Religions teach truth and justice, and there are objective truth factors in play. Some religious beliefs and teachings are better because they respect the truth or present a more coherent vision of justice.
He touches on the way some modern thinkers have seized on quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to prove that Eastern religions founded on indeterminacy may be right. He has little patience for that kind of thinking. He thinks people are confusing uncertainty about scientific facts with proof that reality is indeterminate. He thinks that reality is determinate – that the world is real. He doesn’t think that religions that teach that reality is an illusion are grounded in a correct belief about reality – although he doesn’t say that they are wrong about morality and compassion.
He doesn’t conclude that any one religion has a better claim to be true in its teachings than any other. He thinks that some will be wrong about many questions, some will be closer to the truth on some issues, and a few may be getting closer to the truth. He doesn’t assess this by the numbers of believers, or by the number of religions that agree on any point. He is looking for rational proof, with a generous mind.
This book was clearly written, carefully reasoned, challenging, and thoughtful.Powered by Sidelines