How do theologians and apologists justify the exclusiveness of their specific belief system w/r to similar but distinct belief systems?


There are several arguments for the existence of God. Whether you agree with them or not, all of these arguments argue only for the existence of a supreme being/first cause. None of them provide further justification for one specific branch of monotheism as opposed to another. It seems to me that if you were to accept one or the other of the arguments for God's existence, then you should be in favor of a general tolerant theism which allows for all theistic belief systems to coexist peacefully.

Yet, most philosophers of religion typically adhered to one specific variant of monotheism. Aquinas was Catholic, Avicenna was Sunni Muslim, Maimonides was Jewish. More recently Arthur Balfour and Alvin Plantinga were (is) protestant. Each of these presented well know arguments for God's existence.

Having provided an argument for (mono)theism, how did they justify their adherence to one specific branch of monotheism?

Alexander S King

Posted 2015-05-05T03:01:55.640

Reputation: 25 810

1Your question is to broad. Different religions and different sects can have their own way of defining their religions. – Swami Vishwananda – 2015-05-05T04:14:24.473

There's a potentially interesting philosophical questions lurking under what you're asking but I think they are masked by a third question that isn't well-suited for The interesting epistemological question is : how do different but similar belief systems attempt to justify themselves vis-a-vis each other. But the question that pushes us away from philosophical is how these groups specifically defend themselves against each other. – virmaior – 2015-05-05T04:45:01.933

@Keelan I am thinking specifically of inter-denominational fighting: Historically Protestant vs Catholic, Shia vs Sunni, Jewish vs Muslim (which are considered separate, but are still very similar compared to Hinduism). The point is, authorities in those religions seem to go out of their way to criticize other beliefs systems which are very similar to theirs and share the same overall purpose. – Alexander S King – 2015-05-05T15:05:29.270

@virmaior I'll work on re-editing it per your recommendation. – Alexander S King – 2015-05-05T15:06:03.367

2"It seems to me that of you were to accept one or the other of the arguments for God's existence, then you should be in favor of a general tolerant theism which allows for all theistic belief systems to coexist peacefully." It seems to me, also. I wish it were so for enough other theists that we wouldn't have to be thinking about suicide bombing and the like. – robert bristow-johnson – 2015-05-06T21:03:26.500



As adminitude noted, this is not typically the way it works. Many of the anti-atheistic arguments developed within specific social and religious contexts in which the local orthodoxy could be confidently contrasted with atheism as the only two reasonably possible options. Accordingly, the rationalist arguments you reference are usually about the existence of God in general, and defend most centrally a conception of God sometimes called "God of the Philosophers," the abstract unity of all perfections, rather than a personified conception of God. There are other kinds of arguments, which are not necessarily the same (or rather, necessarily not the same) for the reasons to prefer one religion over another, first given the existence of God, and still other kinds of arguments around the specific points of doctrine that divide one sect from another.

As the world globalizes, the problem of defending a specific religion simultaneously against atheism and against other religions becomes more acute, and one might expect new arguments to emerge with this as a goal. The only one I'm personally familiar with, however, is Kierkegaard's argument for Christianity, which is actually anti-rationalist, and centers around the paradoxical concept that it is the very absurdity of the Christian narrative that certifies its validity. (I believe CS Lewis also tackles this issue head on, but I don't have any specific citations available.)

As far as why people don't just advocate a generalized non-specified theism, some do, but the historical record seems to indicate that people in general tend to find this approach considerably less compelling. Speaking personally, as a person of faith, I would say that the abstract arguments are comforting and fulfilling at an abstract and intellectual level, but that for the challenges of everyday living, you need a faith community, and all the specifics that go along with that. One might not be able to defend that second choice, however, with the same formal rigor as the first.

Chris Sunami supports Monica

Posted 2015-05-05T03:01:55.640

Reputation: 23 641

I would agree with your overall point (that modern globalization has brought more religions in daily contact with each other more of the time), but I think the statement "throughout most of human history" goes a bit too strong. Within the Muslim world for much of the first few centuries after it spread, there were large populations of Jews and Christians, and the Koran mentions explicitly dealing with them. Within Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, there were frequent heresies. For much of the time between 310-700 CE, there was competition between Arians and Nicean Christians. – James Kingsbery – 2015-05-07T01:25:41.033

@JamesKingsbery Point taken, I have edited to account for this. I still think the central point is valid that most arguments are aimed at one end or the other (promotion of theism in general, or specific doctrine). – Chris Sunami supports Monica – 2015-05-07T02:50:47.067

Re: paradoxical concept of Christianity: Chesterton describes a similar idea at length in Orthodoxy, but his take on it is not that Christianity is a paradox, but that the paradox is that people accuse it of being opposites (eg: too peaceful and too violent), and he resolves the paradox by saying that Christianity is in the middle of two extremes. – James Kingsbery – 2015-05-07T12:35:14.547


Most apologists I've seen have that try to justify their particular belief system against other theological belief systems follow a pattern like this:

1) Find where there's agreement (and, as you point out, within the set of monotheist religions there is always at least some agreement).

2) Point out where the important differences are.

3) Show that the other side's different beliefs ultimately are not logically consistent.

Of course, that process is more or less followed for any human intellectual field, and so theologians justify the idea of there being one particular notion of the truth the same way any other human intellectual pursuit would.

It is also important to note that many "arguments for God's existence" were not simply about proving God's existence - they instead served the dual purpose of explaining to those who believe in God what God is like (maybe somewhat analogous in math to proofs by construction - not only do I show that such-and-such exists, but by the proof of its existence we know certain properties about the object). Some arguments for God's existence are common across all monotheistic religions, but not all of them are. For those that are not common, they will lead to differing notions of God, leading each group to insist on their notion being the correct one.

Consider this example: For Christians, one proof of God's existence is the person of Jesus and Jesus's Resurrection. For Christians, this not only demonstrates that God exists, but says something about who God is (among other things, that he exists as the Trinity). Jews and Muslims reject that this happened, and so it is not a proof for them.

James Kingsbery

Posted 2015-05-05T03:01:55.640

Reputation: 5 868

"Some arguments for God's existence are common across all monotheistic religions, but not all of them are. For those that are not common, " Can you give me an example? All of those that I am familiar with have been used equally by both Christian and Muslim philosophers (the two faith's I am most familiar with). – Alexander S King – 2015-05-07T02:40:52.670


There are a number of approaches. For the main monotheistic religions I would probably lump the "serious" arguments into:

  1. Appeals to authority
  2. Appeals to tradition
  3. Supersession

I'd hazard a guess that the most common appeal to authority is to give primacy to a religious text. For example, saying that the Bible is written by God allows one to dismiss other sources as secondary (or heretical).

The main rationales the Catholic/Protestant split were both appeals to tradition. In the Catholic case that they had apostolic succession and that had primacy. In the Protestant case, that the Roman church had moved away from the Christian ascetic tradition and that that should take primacy.

Examples of supersession are:

  1. the New Covenant trumping the Old Testament
  2. Prophetic succession from Abraham via Christ to Mohammed


Posted 2015-05-05T03:01:55.640

Reputation: 1 687

1Makes sense, but I admit there's an unspoken assumption in my question: If these philosophers were sophisticated enough to engage with atheists in rational debate, they are also sophisticated enough to realize that arguments of the type "because the Pope/Hadith/Talmud/... said so" won't fly with their target audience. – Alexander S King – 2015-05-06T16:30:43.517

I would say, possibly controversially, that the sophisticated versions of those debates tend to be a bit thin on the ground for precisely that reason. Where I've seen more fruitful discussion between theists and atheists is when the conversation is moved in the moral/compassion direction. A particularly good exponent of that was the previous Archbishop of Canterbury: Rowan Williams. – Alex – 2015-05-06T16:47:14.647


So let's say you're a Christian. You want to have a debate about morals or whatever. If you're debating with an atheist, you must first get by the "how we got here" argument. So you use typical Creationist arguments and back it up with some logic here and there. If you wanted the person to become a believer then you must first of course explain why evolution and the Big Bang etc don't work. Telling a story about John the Baptist will get you nowhere.

If you're debating with a believer of a different religion, then you would be able to skip the creationism stuff and get straight to the "This is why my religion is true, and yours isn't" stuff.

In other words, it's like trying to butter a slice of bread that doesn't exist. The separate theologians agree that there should be a slice of bread, but then they will argue why their method of buttering the bread is better.


Posted 2015-05-05T03:01:55.640

Reputation: 31

Welcome to Philosophy.SE! Please reread the last paragraph of the question. I don't see how your answer really addresses that question. – None – 2015-05-06T11:51:02.557

@Keelan The OP wanted to know how creationists from separate religions can use the creationist argument to work with just their own religion. My answer stated that making an argument for a God in the first place is different than making it for a specific God. – adamitude – 2015-05-06T13:54:30.267

1@adamitude Creationism is a theory about how life was created on earth, not an argument for the existence of God. One might argue that it is a variant of the teleological argument, but the teleological argument is much more sophisticated than that. – Alexander S King – 2015-05-06T15:53:17.517

@AlexanderSKing Creationism: The idea that everything was created by (a) God(s). There are different branches of course. You have also just restated the OP's question. I was sure my answer was clear. At that point it is up to the Christian to explain why Christianity is the right way to go. – adamitude – 2015-05-06T16:00:38.280

1@adamitude I am the OP :-) . – Alexander S King – 2015-05-06T16:08:37.743

@AlexanderSKing ah haha :) I interpreted your question as "How can a theist use arguments about the existence of God to promote his own belief?" Is this correct? – adamitude – 2015-05-06T16:11:57.373

@adamitude close enough. I would restate it as roughly as ""How can a theist use logical/rational arguments about the existence of God to prove his own specific version/interpretation of God?" – Alexander S King – 2015-05-06T16:21:05.573

1In my opinion, this is basically correct, although perhaps it could be more clearly expressed. I have upvoted your answer, and I hope you'll forgive me echoing aspects of it in my own. – Chris Sunami supports Monica – 2015-05-06T16:37:22.937