Faith & Reason: The compatibility of incompatibles: In the final article in our series on warring religions, Dr Henry Hardy, a Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, says competing claims to the sole truth always bring conflict.

MOST religious faiths claim that their teachings alone are true, and that they are true for everyone; other faiths, it follows, are mistaken. This uniqueness and universality is affirmed, for instance, on behalf of Christianity by the Archbishop of Canterbury (the Pope is not so sure). However implausible such a claim may appear, it is at least intelligible. But it does not help to alleviate the religious conflict with which these articles are concerned.

For how can different religious traditions be reconciled if it is part of their essence to exclude one another?

An approach that is gaining ground is to suggest, against the traditionalists, that different creeds somehow have an equal claim to truth. The first two columnists in this series, Kenneth Cragg and Indarjit Singh, both attempt a solution along these lines. But they are trying to square the circle. Many of the doctrines of the different faiths are simply incompatible, and to pretend otherwise is a fudge.

One can understand the motives behind the attempt. Even someone committed to a particular religion can become aware of the sheer oddity of believing that only one faith has the answer. And the only other option - to be equally sceptical of the claims of all faiths - frustrates the liberal desire to be open-minded in as many directions as possible. But the idea that all faiths are true together still fails to make sense.

Imagine a similar proposal made in a non-religious context. If flat-earthers suggested that their central belief was compatible with that of those for whom the earth is banana-shaped, they would not get a hearing. This is doubtless a crude analogy. But even if religious truth is to some degree a special case, it must obey the usual ground rules of logic, or it does not deserve the name.

Of course, any religion may be watered down until there is nothing left to conflict with its rivals. Doctrines may be abandoned, or reinterpreted as symbolic or metaphorical - and more than one metaphor can safely be said to apply to the same reality. But this is the abdication of faith, not its adaptation, and is fatal to its ability to provide what believers seek.

Both Bishop Cragg and Mr Singh recognise, with disarming frankness, the capacity of religion to reinforce the dark tendencies in human nature. But in offering their proposed remedies they equivocate. Bishop Cragg writes: 'It is for each faith to interrogate itself as to why it is, and must remain, distinctive. What does it have which warrants its exceptionality? How far can that which it believes only it possesses interpenetrate with the crucial thing that others say they represent?' The implication is that such 'inter-penetration' (rather a foggy term) is indeed possible; and the bishop goes on to speak of a 'plural world' and 'a positive coexistence'. This might make sense if religions were jointly engaged on a sort of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, each attending to different areas of the picture. But this is not how they conceive their task. Religions are intended as solutions to the whole puzzle.

Mr Singh is clearer: 'Religions must be made to put aside exaggerated claims to omnipotence (omniscience?) and direct lines to God, and be persuaded to work co-operatively in the service, not of God as sometimes pompously claimed, but of their fellow human beings.' But this package is not an option for religions as they stand: they precisely address themselves to the supra-human realm, and to man's relations with its denizen(s).

We may think that it is absurd for us mortals to try to talk sense about the transcendent, but we have a deep-seated need to try, and religions are the upshot. Mr Singh says that 'no one religion has a monopoly on truth'; but the point of religions is to tell us the truth authoritatively, and if they abandon that role they abandon their status as religions.

What then can we hope for? If a faith cannot cease to be competitive except by abandoning its claim to have the only answer, and if it cannot remain a faith without upholding such a claim, then the potential for religious antagonism will be eliminated only by the demise of organised religion as we know it. This is not a plea for wholesale positivism or atheism, nor a denial of religion's beneficent side. It is only to insist that we should not delude ourselves by talking nonsense about the compatibility of incompatibles.

Different approaches to life can be jointly accepted without incoherence only if they can free themselves from overweaning universalism. This way lies a conception of a plural world that makes sense. I mean the view that, though there is certainly a basic stock of universal human values, these allow an indefinite variety of ways of living, none of which can be rationally preferred to the others. These different options, collectively pursued, we call cultures, and the world is enriched by their diversity.

There are many serious problems attendant on multi-culturalism, but conflict of universalist beliefs need not be among them, once the religious element, dominant in many cultures, is discounted. It may be unrealistic to hope that this element might wither away, but, so long as it remains, trouble is in the wings. You cannot build a stable pluralist order out of absolutist components.

Let a hundred flowers blossom, by all means: but they must be flowers, not the invasive weeds of ideologies that claim unique possession of truth. Naturally freedom of conscience should be respected as an essential component of civilised life. Toleration, except in the face of intolerance, is essential. But a pluralist will not encourage, as part of the diversity he celebrates, creeds that necessarily exclude alternative visions.

Of course, many believers combine unquestioning acceptance of the unique truth of their particular faith with a completely peaceable attitude to other faiths. Whole religions may be quiescent in this way at a particular time. But this does not win them pluralist support. They still contain the permanent seeds of conflict, because they cannot remain true to themselves while allowing other moralities equal status.

We know that evils such as aggressive nationalism can feed off a misplaced sense of religious superiority. This strengthens the case against an acquiescent attitude to religious dogma. But politicians who talk about conflicts fuelled by religious extremism never blame the faiths that fuel the extremism. Their silence implies an assumption that somehow, one day, faiths can all be fitted together harmoniously, without conflict or loss.

This is an evasion. Even if it is not yet a conceivable explicit aim of a democratic political programme to discourage divisive religious certainties, it is not constructive to pretend that religious conflict is to no degree the fault of religious faith as such. There are plenty of sources of strife, hatred and violence apart from religion; but the burning conviction, endemic in religious belief, that you alone know the truth is a villain worth flushing out.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power