Who Are We to Judge? Is It Wrong to Judge the Religious Beliefs of Others?

Paul looks at the question whether it is wrong to claim that the religious beliefs of others are false.

Text Publication: January 30, 2020

Author(s): Paul Larson

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Who are we to judge? That or some variation thereof is a question common enough in our society, and its affirmative counterpart, 'you can't judge me' or 'you can't judge them' is a staple of contemporary discourse. The statement, though, is vague. Judge what? Judge the moral character of actions? Judge the truth or falsity of beliefs? If the statement were about moral actions, it would be self-contradictory if it were intended universally or as a general principle. To claim that you can't judge me is then an ethical condemnation of ethical condemnations, and so applies to itself. Let's consider, then, the statement that we can't judge others' beliefs. That is, maybe someone's beliefs are true or not, but we can't know. So we come to the question: is it wrong to judge someone else's beliefs?

Most of us don't think that it is wrong to judge someone's else beliefs as true or false on matters of normal everyday life, but that is not where the objection is usually made. The objection that we can't judge others' beliefs is more likely to be heard about religious issues. The thinking would be that we can't really know whether this religion or that religion is true, so we are wrong to say that one is true and the other false. So now our question becomes, "Is it wrong to judge the religious beliefs of others?"

In response to this question, the claim that we can't judge what others think because we can't know whether the beliefs are true seems to be intellectually humble, but it is filled with an arrogant pretense: "I know that we can not know." Or at least, "I know that we don't know." It is universal. It is not simply that I don't know, nor even simply that I know that I can't know. It is also "I know that you can't know (or at least that you don't know)". To this claim, I say, "Yes, we can know what religions are false and what one religion is true." The historical and other evidence speaks clearly in that regard: Christianity is true and those that contradict it are false. The person who made this objection had not actually studied and understood the evidence adequately. It was rather an intellectual laziness: "I have not studied the subject, so we can't make a justified conclusion about it."

But why think that? The intellectually honest and humble thing to do would be to say that if I have not studied the subject, it might be true that a thorough study of it would show that we can come to definitive conclusions about the matter. What the objector should have said, therefore, is something like the following: "Because I am ignorant and have not adequately studied and considered the evidence, I can't make a definitive statement one way or the other about whether some religious beliefs are true or false. But since someone else may have studied the evidence so thoroughly that he can determine which religious beliefs are false and which ones true, I am not justified in telling that person that he can not know or does not know which religious beliefs are true and which ones are false."

A person who makes this statement is the one whose words are intellectually humble and honest. The person who says that we can't judge, by contrast, is making a presumption without examining the evidence and then condemning someone else based on that unfounded presumption. That is arrogance of a high sort.

One way someone might try to avoid being indicted for this unfounded arrogance is to notice that the beliefs of some world religions are historical, while other beliefs of those religions are theological. Maybe we can make judgments about the historical beliefs of these religions, but we can't know whether the theological beliefs are true. Our knowledge is limited by what we can touch and see and hear and taste and smell. We can not know what God is really like, or what he plans to do with us in the future. When the authors of holy books of various religions made statements about who God is, they had no way of knowing what he is really like, and even if they did, we don't have a way of knowing that they somehow had that special knowledge of who God is. Since we can't know whether these theological statements are true, we would be wrong to say that the religious beliefs are true or false.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it is guilty of the same unfounded presumptuousness that it was trying to avoid. To say that a writer of a holy book did not have knowledge of what God is like is to assume that God does not exist, that he does exist and can not impart that special knowledge to the human writer, or that he exists and can impart that knowledge but chose not to do so. There is no adequate justification or argument for the first two options. To the contrary, on top of the scientific arguments for the existence of God, there are good philosophical and scientific arguments for God's existence, and at least one good historical argument (the resurrection) for his existence. In light of the evidence and arguments in favor of a substance dualist view of human persons and the existence of God, there is also good reason to think that God can communicate special knowledge about who He is to human authors of holy books.

This leaves the possibility that God exists but simply chose not to reveal what he is like to the human writer, which leaves us with the question whether he did in fact impart special knowledge to the human writer in the different cases where a claim to divine inspiration of a holy book is found. Here, one might make the claim that we can not know, or at least do not know, whether he has actually imparted that special knowledge about what he is like in a particular case. And since we can not know it, or at least do not know it, then it would be wrong to say that the theological beliefs of that holy book are true or false. We then repeat that process for the claims of each one of the other holy books.

But this is presumptuous on two levels. First, it simply assumes that the evidence can not show, or at least does not show, that God imparted special revelation to a human author in a particular case. But one can not know that without first looking at the evidence of a particular claim. That brings us to the second way in which this is presumptuous: it assumes that Christianity is not true. In Christianity, God himself enters the world and says that Old Testament material was spoken by God, and he says that he will speak through his disciples in the future. If one looks at the evidence of the inspiration of Biblical writers, there is much evidence in favor of believing that God inspired every one of the Old Testament authors and inspired his disciples whom he personally commissioned to speak on his behalf.

Given all of this, one might ask why the claim that we should not judge others' religious beliefs has as much currency as it does. One reason for the prevalence of the statement that we can't judge others' religious beliefs is the pervasive human reality of ignorance, and particularly the apathy towards learning in Western society. We are born knowing little or nothing, and then thrown into a culture whose members are obsessed with the pursuit of entertainment. Many people don't want to study. They don't ponder the most pressing questions of life and thoroughly research proposed solutions for them. Instead they waste their time on television, video games, movies, and one or another of a thousand trivial things. And the result is ignorance of the evidential basis or lack thereof for the proposed answers to life's important questions.

The ignorance is so culturally pervasive that an honest confession from a large portion of the populace would be that they can not judge a person's religious beliefs. That's not because they've studied the subject and decided that there is no conclusive way to tell whether the beliefs are true. It's because they have not studied it and so have very little knowledge about the evidential basis or lack thereof for those beliefs. And if they have no idea of the evidential basis for or against the beliefs, they are not in an adequate position to judge the truth or falsity of the beliefs.

This description of their inability to judge religious beliefs turns erroneous when it is used against someone else as a normative statement that the other person would be wrong to make such judgments. What if that other person had studied the subject thoroughly and the evidence pertaining to the subject did permit them to know that there is a clear right answer regarding whether the religious beliefs were true or false? In that case, it is not the person who studied the subject and concluded that the beliefs are false who is in the wrong; the person committing the wrong is the person saying that we can't judge the religious beliefs of others.

So why does the claim that we can't judge have as much popularity as it does? Some Christians might attempt to explain the popularity by saying that people do not believe in objective truth, in truth with a capital T. On one interpretation, I don't agree. Everyone knows that there is a way that things actually are. Taken in another, perhaps more charitable way, this claim might be that, even though there is a way that things actually are and a real fact about who God is, we can not know how they actually are or who He actually is. This is a different question. It is not saying that there is no truth; it is saying that we can not know what that truth is.

This second interpretation is just the objection that we are considering, which is problematic. It is saying that the claim that we can't judge the religious beliefs of others is popular because it claims that we can't judge the religious beliefs of others. That does not explain anything. It is basically saying that some statement A is popular because it is statement A. It is like Christians who say that God is God, or those in the popular culture who say that it is what it is. Apart from interpreting these latter statements as combining a de re reference with a de dicto reference for two uses of the same word, such statements don't explain anything at all.

So what would explain this objection's popularity? One possible explanation is that it quietly puts the burden of proof on the person claiming to make the judgment. Suppose for the moment that you are completely ignorant of some set of religious beliefs and that you also have a twin brother who has had all the same experiences and heard the same things as you, such that you are confident that he knows nothing more about the subject than you do. You know that your ignorance about those religious beliefs leaves you in no position to know whether someone fully knowledgeable on the subject would know whether the religious beliefs of that subject are true or false. Since your twin brother knows no more than you do, and since your complete ignorance of the subject makes you unable to know whether the religious beliefs are true or false, you can confidently say that your brother is also unjustified to say whether those religious beliefs are true or false.

Now suppose a man walks into your room. Let us call him mysterious Mike. Unbeknownst to you, mysterious Mike has read everything there is to know regarding this set of religious beliefs. Mike begins to delineate which of those religious beliefs he thinks are false, and you tell him that he can't judge those religious beliefs to be true or false. What you are in effect telling mysterious Mike is that he is like your twin brother, not knowing enough about the subject to be justified in judging what is true and what is false. Obviously, you don't know whether Mike is like your twin brother in that respect or not, but to an outside observer, the question is raised. Does this mysterious Mike know enough to be justified in saying that some of those religious beliefs are false?

Since the outside observer does not know Mike any more than you do, he also starts to wonder whether Mike is like your twin brother or is like a world-class expert who does know whether the evidence is sufficient to say what beliefs on the subject are true and which ones false. In short, Mike now has to somehow show that he has studied the subject enough to know both that one can come to a sure conclusion about whether the beliefs are true or false, and to know which of those beliefs are false.

This is not necessarily very easy to do. That is because religious beliefs, as in the case of Christiainty, can be intimately tied to history. And for history, it is much easier to assess the evidence presented to you than it is to recall that evidence and then present it in a coherent manner later on if asked to do so. Thus, someone can research a subject thoroughly, arrive at a justified conclusion that beliefs regarding that subject are true or false, and yet fail to demonstrate the extent of his studies when later pressed to justify his conclusions. This would be true to a limited extent for matters of philosophy, but it is particularly true when the subject matter deals with history. For philosophy, one can remember the train of thought that led to the conclusion; there is a logic that one can follow, which makes recall easier. But the particular and seemingly random facts of history don't pop out of thin air for the armchair philosopher. They have to be discovered in the pages of a book, and by the time one comes back from eating lunch, some of those peculiar facts of history may have already slipped the mind.

This is particularly relevant when mysterious Mike is suddenly pressed to give a reason for his conclusions about who God is when those beliefs are based in history. Many lunches may have passed since Mike formed his well-founded conclusions about what religious beliefs are and are not true, but his perfectly human brain has already leaked out so many historical details in the passing of time that he stumbles and seems like he does not know enough to adequately distinguish himself from your ignorant twin brother. That failure to set himself apart from the twin brother would leave the outside observer and the person who claims that we can't judge others' beliefs in the position of feeling that the condemnation of mysterious Mike may be deserved. Given how well mysterious Mike's conclusions were formed at the time in which he considered a sufficient amount of the evidence and saw that a judgment could indeed be made regarding whether the beliefs were true or false, this condemnation of mysterious Mike would not be justified. Still, both the accuser and the outside observer would feel that mysterious Mike, like the twin brother, was too ignorant to be able to know whether those beliefs were true.

The objection is also effective because it frequently asks our mysterious Mike to do what is difficult, if not impossible. In a conversation, even if one had an exhaustive knowledge of a subject, there usually is not time to lay out a comprehensive case, and the attempt to do so might be viewed as being aggressive or improperly dominating the conversation. Not many people want to be viewed as an intellectual bully or be seen as rude. Even if one were an expert, his being told that he does not know that certain beliefs on some subject are true is putting that person between a rock and hard place. He either states a good case for why he thinks such beliefs are false and risks being seen as a bully, too aggressive, or too domineering, or he shrinks back from stating a robust case in order to be seen as polite or considerate, which in turn makes it look more like he does not really know enough for the beliefs to be justified.

A third reason the objection seems effective is the existence of experts on the same subject who advocate conflicting viewpoints. I say that the evidence clearly shows that Christianity is true, while some other scholar might say that the evidence shows otherwise. The non-expert might be apt to look at this situation and wonder if a thorough study of the evidence does provide an adequate basis to say whether certain religious beliefs are true or false.

Much can be said here, but for now I will say just two things. First, disagreements among scholars can exist even if the evidence does show that one view is clearly true. Scholars are people who can mishandle evidence and who can have self-interested motives for refusing to acknowledge what the evidence clearly shows. This is most easily seen in the debate surrounding evolution and intelligent design, wherein the non-intellectual commitments of evolution proponents push them to oppose the indisputable evidence for design. It is not too far from the truth to say that there is no view so outlandish that one can not find a professor somewhere to justify it. It is accordingly illegitimate for someone ignorant about certain religious beliefs to say that, simply because scholars on the subject disagree in what they affirm, others can not know from examining the evidence that certain religious beliefs are false or that the evidence does not clearly favor one view over another.

Second, though Christian academics are subject to many of the same self-interested pressures that other academics are, they also profess a faith whose ethical code and philosophy is so penetrating, flesh-denying, self-killing, and self-questioning that they have strong reasons to pursue and acknowledge the truth wherever it leads, and that ethical code is also tied to their master who was resurrected and exaltated to glory, and who promised that he will return to earth and judge the living and the dead. Those two things taken together apply to no religion or worldview that is not submitted to Jesus. Thus, even though Christians can sometimes fail to live according to that ethical code and philosophy, all else being equal, one has better reason to trust a Christian who believes that God inspired Biblical writers and who seeks to live in accord with that revelation than one has to trust someone who is not a Christian. That ethical code and philosophy would also insist that the Christian admit their failure in a way that other viewpoints would not.

We thus come to the question: how should a Christian respond when someone claims that we can't judge others' religious beliefs? Two things to consider. First, the main thing to do prior to encountering this objection is to know the Bible and to know why Christianity is true. If someone knows that a set of beliefs A is true and knows why it is true, then for any statement B that contradicts that set of beliefs, he can simply make the argument that B is false because the reasons for A are stronger than the reason(s) for B. In short, A is true. B contradicts A, therefore B is false. Perfect logic.

Accordingly, if you are a Christian who does not want to be left unprepared by someone claiming that we can't judge others, the first thing to do is to know your Bible and to know why Christianity is true. If someone contradicts God's Word and Christianity, you are then prepared to argue why your belief is true, which is itself an argument that the contradictory belief is false. If the claim is not actually one that contradicts God's Word or Christianity, you may need to acquire additional knowledge or the claim may be so trivial that it may not be worth your opposing in the first place.

The second thing to do is to study. If, for example, the subject in question is Islam, and if you are wanting not to appear as the twin brother who does not know enough about the subject to make a judgment about beliefs that it espouses that don't contradict the Bible, there is really just one way to go. You have to study. And it's not just that you have to study. You have to study extensively such that the failures of memory that affect human brains generally do not leave you with so little recall that you are made to look as if you do not know enough about the subject when talking with someone else.

This is where the metaphor of the Christian church as a body really has teeth. One man simply does not have the time and adequate memory to remember all the relevant details on the spur of the moment for all the various subjects that are important to life and culture. In other words, one person can't be an expert in everything. He can be an expert in one subject, though, and for that subject he can provide a strong voice for Christianity within the limits of his knowledge. But multiple believers must take up the call to follow diligently the varying intellectual paths God gives them, such that the individual experts can be called on to provide an intelligent Christian voice for their respective subject of expertise.

This is also where unbelievers may ask too much in their refusal to heed the dictum that a philosophy is to be judged by its most able proponents rather than its less able ones. If you tell a Christian that he can't judge another's beliefs and then feel justified when he stumbles over his words, what you are doing is illegitimate. You should find the best experts on that subject who are Christians and gauge the issue by their responses. In fact, even they are human, with fallible memories, so you should go one step further. You should judge the topic by the books they produce, works for which they have had plenty of time to put forth a well-researched case for their view.

When it gets to that level, though, there will be no outside observer who would have seen all that has passed before your eyes. So you will be able to ignore the evidence if it is convenient for you to do so, and you won't lose face or feel shamed for doing so. Actually, that is only true for a time. There is one outside observer, the one who knows all, who made all things, and who will bring all to account. When the time of that reckoning comes, your choices will already have been made. Take heed what judgments you make now regarding the evidence available to you, because that judge will indeed have no shortage of knowledge or wisdom about what is or is not true, and what you chose to do with it.

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