Argument from diversity

There is a common argument against religious belief that points out the diversity of religious beliefs available. People everywhere almost invariably have supernatural beliefs, but they also believe in all sorts of different religions. Most people follow the faith they were born into. And even though such an accidental circumstance largely determines their faith, they also are very often confident that they have the One True Faith and that others are mistaken to some degree. This seems odd.

I wonder, however, how much of the plausibility of this objection to religious belief derives from liberal individualist assumptions. We would be bothered less if faith didn’t correlate so strongly with circumstances of birth—if, perhaps, faith could be more reasonably seen as a matter of choice. But why would that matter so much? Some people believe, some don’t. The believers, if they take an individualist approach, might argue that they respond to the Holy Spirit (or its functional equivalent in whatever religion they adopt). Their particular circumstances make them more receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Other ways of life, other personal circumstances, happen to set other people at a farther remove to opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. This type of account of individual choice, I think, does seem more plausible to those of us who are secular liberals, even if, on balance, we think that other considerations decisively weigh against supernatural beliefs. But circumstances are just circumstances. Why should circumstances of birth and community count against the truth of a belief more than those individual idiosyncrasies of a life that a believer interprets as making one more receptive to the True Faith?

I suspect that those of us who think of persons as primarily embedded in communities will see no difficulty in affirming their faith while recognizing that it to a significant extent depends on an accident of birth. After all, if some individual characteristics make some people more open to the Holy Spirit, some community characteristics may work the same way. God may choose peoples as easily as he chooses individuals. Maybe Jewish history and community characteristics ensure that Orthodox Jews have more reliable access to divine truths. Maybe a child born into an Orthodox Jewish community enjoys, by virtue of being socialized in the ways of the Chosen People, a closeness to God that is denied to a child of a Buddhist. This is not problematic if it is primarily the community that matters. And I suspect it is our ingrained liberal individualism that makes us more bothered by a Chosen People than by individuals chosen by a Holy Spirit.

I agree that the diversity of supernatural beliefs counts against any notion of a One True Faith. But I also think that it is diversity per se that matters—whether this is due to communities of birth or the varying biographies of individual seekers of enlightenment is less relevant than we make it out to be.