Friday, June 08, 2007

Identifying your 'God'

Sometimes people argue about whether, say, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Islamophobes employ genetic arguments to suggest that Allah is "really" a Pagan moon god, for example. Because everyone knows the Christian religion was not at all influenced by its pagan precursors.) Anyway, there seems a remarkably simple way to settle the matter. Simply ask a Muslim whether, if it turned out that Christianity were true (the deity became incarnate as Jesus, etc.), this deity would still be 'Allah'.*

We can similarly ask a Christian whether, in the possible world described by Muslims, the deity is still 'God'. They might give a different answer, which would be curious, but given that trans-world identity is merely conventional, the disagreement doesn't really matter. The real question, in either case, is whether one's concept of 'God' is compatible with the state of affairs hypothesized by another. Different people's answers needn't be symmetrical, as different people might have different 'God'-concepts, associated with more or less restrictive identity conditions. Having said all that, unless there's some reason to prefer a more or less restricted concept here, the whole dispute seems a bit pointless and arbitrary anyway...

* = Jack similarly recommends this methodology:
"for those of you who believe in God, if it turned out that there was a deity but that he was a jokester and far from omnibenevolent, would He be the one that you believed in or not?"


  1. That's interesting: Most Christians probably think that they worship the same God as other Christians, in their different ways, and yet I imagine that while some Christians would think of such a world (in which Jesus was just a prophet) as impossible, given what they believe, others would think of it as possible (given the mysteriousness of it all), and from what you say they would be believing in different Gods.

  2. Well, they would have different God-concepts, at least. But they overlap, since both would agree that the standard Christian scenario is one that contains their 'God'. And since both take this scenario to be actual, they can take each other as worshipping the "same" God (in this sense).

  3. So, different and the same, perhaps (seems to fit with the transubstantiating trinity)?

  4. Not necessarily different and the same. As Richard notes, they could believe in the same object and yet apply different concepts to that object. It could be that, in actuality, they believe in the same God, and that one of them is simply mistaken about that object's modal properties.

    Surely, if there was actually a God who was very similar to the standard concpetion of a Christian God (omnicient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of the universe) and yet that object was not a necessary existent, most Christians would feel vinidicated not falsified.

    I suppose that why I like this posing philosophy of language questions this way is that if there were such a non-necessary deity, and there was a camp of theists who felt vinidcated and another camp of theists that felt falisfied, it would seem to me that the two camps believe in different things (one believe in an existing object, the other not).

  5. Hi Richard. First time commenting here, but an occasional reader. I found your site through my friend's blog (Andrew Bailey's). I think you are correct about some of what you say, but only half correct. It is plausible to say that Christians and Muslims refer to the same being such as when they both claim to worship the creator of the universe. But because of major differences between their concepts, the dispute shouldn't be over reference, but over predication about the referent. As far as the referential issue goes, I think I agree with you.

    Here is where I disagree: you claim the disagreement does not matter *given* that the referent is the same. If you think both religions are wrong in their respective significant claims, then obviously *for you* the disagreement doesn't matter. So let's suppose that we just keep the Muslims and Christians as the only contenders in the debate. In that case, what also matters is that there are important salvation narratives that have to be adopted or rejected, and unless one accepts the right one, the afterlife isn't supposed to be a pleasant place. All this assumes exclusivism about religious pluralism between the parties involved. So unless God, whether that's the Triune Being or Allah, is worshipped in the right way, which may involve assent to propositions like Jesus is God and was resurrected, and prayer to God goes through him, and trusting one's salvation is through him, etc. (fill in the rest of the theology yourself), then *that* may affect one's relationship to God. To that end, the debate wouldn't be pointless and arbitrary ... would it?

  6. Right, there are certainly substantive religious disagreements to be had (e.g. over how to get into heaven), but my suggestion is that disputes about identity are not among them.

  7. This doesn't just apply to questions about God but to questions of identity in general. The traditional non-theistic way of presenting the issue is to ask if we love our spouse because of who she is or because of what she is. Well clearly it isn't either but an odd tension between the two.

    I blogged about this myself in the broader sense.


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