Religion and Problems of Scope

Certain theistic stories seem to have some problems of scope. Melville, in his “Moby Dick” (ch.10) presents one of them.

“What is worship? –to do the will of God- that is worship. And what is the will of God? –to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.”

Some theistic stories seem to have this problematic principle, also known as “The Golden Rule”, according to which one should do onto others what one wants them to do upon oneself. The sheer existence of different, incompatible, theistic stories, adds another problematic element: not everyone, even among theists, share the same story. But that is not all, there’s a third problematic element: theistic stories tend to be universal in scope. They intend to be true of everything everywhere.

These three elements, golden rule, incompatible theistic stories, and universality, get theists into trouble. The latter makes it so that no other, incompatible, story can be true. This, in turn, makes it desirable (when not necessary) to evangelize the mislead believers without, of course, misleading yourself. This evangelical obligation, however, conflicts with the golden rule. It seems as if it is inherent to the evangelical purposes that believers are not created equal: some are correct and some are mistaken. How can we fix these theistic stories?

There is no (non-evangelical nor belligerent) way of getting rid of other, incompatible, theistic stories. So the options are: either to reject the golden rule, or to reject the universality of the story. Rejecting the golden rule seems inconvenient. It is, argumentatively speaking, an open door to theistic cleansing and God’s perversity. If I should not do onto others what I want them to do upon me (i.e., if we are not ‘theologically’ on the same standing) why not just impose my story upon him? If all humans do not deserve the same treatment (i.e., golden rule is off), why did God created the low-profile ones to begin with? Is she perverse? Is she weak? I she dumb? So let’s not reject the Golden Rule either.

What about the universality of the story? Suppose these theistic stories do not pretend to be true in an absolute way. Suppose they are more, say, “plural”. Perhaps they are true about just a chunk of things. Perhaps they are true about everything, but just relative to some believers (e.g., story 1 is true about everything relative to S1, story 2 is true about everything relative to S2, and so on). Would that work? This would solve Melville’s problem. There is no more need to evangelize Queequeg, since my story is not true relative to him. The golden rule still applies to everyone, within the domain of my story. I should not get rid of their stories either, because my rules don’t apply for them. This looks nice. It’s like some contemporary governmental models for multicultural societies: no one talks to each other, so they coexist happily.

There is one minor problem though: this does not look like a theistic story anymore. If the story is not universal in scope, then so is God. Her omni-powers are also relative to some believers. Even worse, her existence is relative to some believers. What kind of theistic story is that where the Creator depends on the creature for its existence?

There must be another way out for these theistic stories: the ones holding the Golden Rule and pretending to be true about everything, everywhere. Otherwise, they all turn out to be self-defeating by inviting you to stop believing them and start believing some other, incompatible, theistic story. I confess I don’t know much where one can go!


9 Responses to Religion and Problems of Scope

  1. David says:

    I think there’s a fairly unproblematic way to split the uprights of the dilemma. You claim that “There is no (non-evangelical nor belligerent) way of getting rid of other, incompatible, theistic stories.” But there’s nothing (conceptually speaking) about the evangelistic task that requires “getting rid of other theistic stories” as the objective. Of course, numerous misguided and over-zealous religious people have interpreted the evangelistic task in just this way. But there’s no good reason to think that evangelism must be coercive, demeaning, and/or disrespectful. In fact, there might even be good reason to think it ought not be.

    To illustrate: say you hold some philosophical view X. (Take your pick: modal realism, mind-body identity, libertarianism, whatever.) Suppose further that you hold the following 2 beliefs:

    1. X is universally true
    2. Everyone would be better off if they believed X.

    There’s nothing about the conjunction of 1 and 2 that requires that you compel others to believe X. Indeed, you might also believe 3:

    3. Coercion and belligerence never bring about genuine belief revision

    in which case, attempting to compel others to “believe” X would be futile and fruitless. Substitute some religious view for X and you have a plausible way to overcome the dilemma.

    Moreover, many religious views strengthen the case against coercive evangelism by claiming something like 4 and 5:

    4. Only genuine believers reap the benefits of faith
    5. Someone is a genuine believer iff they believe freely.

    Given 4 and 5, coercive evangelism would certainly be misguided, for it would be incapable of generating the results that evangelism is supposed to generate, viz., an increase in the number of genuine believers. So not only do we have no good reason to think evangelism must be coercive; we probably have good reason to think it ought not be.

  2. edu says:

    Thanks Dave,

    I still think this does not work out the problem. There is one disanalogy between your model of theories and the religious stories that I was talking about. Not only do they include 1 and 2, they also include the Golden Rule. Philosophical theories, however, do not intend to be like that. The golden rule implies that all believers deserve the same. It would be a bit silly for a philosophical theory to claim that all theorists deserve the same. It is part of defending a theory that not all theories are created equal. To illustrate, suppose that you, like Lewis, are a modal realist. So you hold 1, 2, and the golden rule.

    1 Modal realism is universally true.
    2 Everyone would be better off if they believed in modal realism.
    3 I, modal realist, am on the same theoretical standing (i.e., deserve the same theoretical benefits) as any other theorist. I shall say about his theory (do unto him) what I want to be said about my theory (do unto me).

    I think Lewis does believe in 1 and 2, but I am pretty certain that he does not believe in 3. It would be silly for him to do so. It would entail that he should change his modal realism for, say, an ersatzist view (just like Melville’s Ishmael should turn an idolator).

    Still, your idea seems to be rather that theistic stories can keep the golden rule and their universality while moving on to peacefully and argumentatively get rid of other theistic stories. Is that plausible? I would have thought that it is not within the aims of theistic stories to argue with each other. You are supposed to believe in them out of faith not out of premises.

    Implausible, however, is not impossible (somehow). If, somehow, incompatible theistic stories disappeared (perhaps all end up accepting one single view), then the dilemma here presented might be solved. Notice that this is a counterfactual conditional. It is still true, nonetheless, that so long as there are incompatible theistic stories, those that endorse univesality and the golden rule end up being silly by asking you to change your story. For it is certainly a part of evangelical efforts to convince non-believers of your story that they should buy your story, which entails that you should buy theirs because of the golden rule.

  3. Jeff says:

    Perhaps the problem for the Christian arises because of the unclarity of what the “doing” in “doing unto others” refers to. If I understand you and Melville correctly, you both take the doing to refer to “worshipping according to my form of worship.” Because Ishmael would have Queequeg worship according to his (Ishmael’s) form of worship, then, by the golden rule, Ishmael should worship according to Queequeg’s form of worship. But perhaps this bad (for the Christian) conclusion could be avoided if we fixed the “doing” to refer to, say, “worshipping how God wants us to worship” Then a Christian could say, I would have Queequeg wish that I worship how God wants us to worship, and, accordingly, I wish the same for Queequeg. How God wants us to worship is a fact about God which we could be wrong about; indeed, the Christian would say that Queequeg is wrong about this. But still, the Christian would have Queequeg wish that she worships in the true way, and not just what he thinks is the true way.

    So the Christian doesn’t wish that Queequeg would unite with her in HER form of worship (whatever that may happen to be), but rather she wishes he would unite with her in the TRUE form of worship. She would say it’s accidental that her form of worship is the true form of worship and that, even if it weren’t, she would still want Queequeg to worship how God wants us to worship; not how SHE (the Christian) worships.

    The Christian would maintain that she (the Christian) worships in the true way. Obviously the burden of saying why the Christian’s form of worship is the one true way to worship is now thrust upon the Christian, but this is familiar ground for her and I think the she would consider it a victory if the problem you raised isn’t a unique objection to Christianity, but rather it’s reducible to an old problem which she is probably better equipped in addressing.

    A problem that this analysis doesn’t address is why the Christian should want one thing (worshipping as God wants us to) for another person over some other thing (worshipping as she worships). But a Christian is probably going to have someway to say that one should prefer some things over other things for your neighbor. What exactly those are, is better left for another discussion, but the point is that, again, this Melville problem reduces to another one which the Christian would probably be better equipped in addressing.

    In summary, it seems to me that this might not be a unique objection that the Christian has to deal with. There are certainly objections that require the Christian’s attention, but they’ve heard them all before.

  4. Edú says:

    Thanks Jeff,

    This seems interesting. Before I respond, I’d like to clarify something. Your interpretation of the ‘doing’ is an interpretation of the evangelical task, not an interpretation of the Golden Rule. Is that correct? I think it should be, otherwise it seems improper. Since the Golden Rule is not about any particular action (e.g., evangelizing) but about all actions. It’s scope over the ‘doing’ is universal. That’s why it is problematic.

    That said your proposal is that the evangelical task consists not in getting non-believers of my story to believe my story, but to get all of us to believe the TRUE story. This draws an interesting distinction between worshiping the christian way and worshiping the TRUE way (as you want it to) but only if the Christian way is not the True way (as you don’t want it to). This would not force the christian to change from one to the other religion. But it would change the practice quite deeply. Unlike you, I’m skeptical that the Christian is beter equipped to sort out the resulting problem.

    First, it turns out that theistic stories do have arguments against incompatible theistic stories. I don’t think that is the case. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that believing in theistic stories is not a matter of understanding and believing some arguments, but a matter of embracing with faith some central dogmas. I might be wrong, so I leave this point open.

    Second, your formulation seems to obliterate the existence of problematic desires. These are, briefly put, the mental states of both Ishmael and Queequeg’s:

    Desire 1: Worship in the TRUE way.
    Belief 1: The TRUE way is the Christian way.
    Desire 2: Worship in the Crhistian way.

    QDesire 1: Worship in the TRUE way.
    QBelief 1: The TRUE way is the non-Christian way.
    QDesire 2: Worship in the non-Crhistian way.

    The question here is which desire is guiding the evangelical purpose: Desire 1 or Desire 2? Furthermore, are they really two different desires? If Ishmael’s has belief 1, then Desire 1 and Desire 2 have exactly the same content for Ishmael. So it does not seem to make much difference. It is still the case that Ishmael’s evangelical task is driven by Desire 2; Queequeg’s by QDesire 2. So Ishmael wants Queequeg to satisfy Ishmael’s Desire 2, and by the Golden Rule, he wants to satisfy Queequeg’s QDesire2.

    This still gets us to the same problem. I don’t see, hence, how your interpretation of the evangelical task gets Ishmael from not turning idolator. The only way out, I guess, consists in the christian story being the true one. But this is certainly different from the christian thinking that the chrisitian story is the true one. This, it seems, is difficult to prove.

  5. Jeff says:

    What’s essential for the conclusion that Melville draws (the conclusion being that Ishmael should turn idolater) is that Ishmael would have Queequeg worship in HIS (Ishmael’s) way of worship. Therefore, Ishamel should unite with Queequeg in HIS(Queequeg’s) form of worship, whether that kind of worship is what Ishmael thinks God wants or not. The possessive indexical is what allows for Melville’s conclusion to be drawn. It’s the indexical that I have issue with, as I don’t think that the evangelical’s desire necessarily includes a possessive indexical term like the one Melville needs. Let me explain.

    Surely Ishmael doesn’t want Queequeg to unite with him in worship simply because it is HIS (Ishmael’s) form of worship (say that God came down from heaven and told Ishmael that the way he (Ishmael) worships is wrong. Ishmael would, then, not want Queequeg to unite with him in Ishmael’s form of worship because it‘s wrong). Rather Ishmael wants Queequeg to unite with him in Ishmael’s form of worship because it is the way God wants us to worship. Therefore, Ishmael would actually have Queequeg worship in Ishmael’s way of worship, provided it is truly the way that God wants us to worship. Consequently, by the golden rule, Ishmael should unite with Queequeg in Queequeg’s form of worship, provided it is the way that God wants us to worship. But since Ishmael doesn’t think Queequeg’s form of worship is what God wants, Ishmael need not turn idolater. And because Ishmael’s form of worship is what God wants, Ishmael is still able to wish that Queequeg would unite with him in Ishmael’s form of worship.

    One last comment, unrelated to the above argument. I think a key is noticing the “…as you would have them…” part of the golden rule. Ishmael wouldn’t have Queequeg desire to have Ishmael worship in the non-Christian way. He would have Queequeg desire for Ishmael to worship in the Christian way, because, to Ishmael, that‘s the true way. It’s not a problem that Queequeg doesn’t actually have this desire, because all the golden rule requires is that Ishamel WOULD HAVE Queequeg have this desire.

  6. Edú says:


    Many thanks for this clarificatory remark. I think this makes a lot more sense to me. I am still dubious about something: the simple fact that “Ishmael’s form of worship” and “the true form of worship” have the same meaning and, hence, should be interchangeable salva veritate in any sentence utterd by Ishmael. The same goes for “my form of worship” when uttered by Ishmael. I think this makes it so that either Ishmael becomes idolator, or his theistic story gets him to believe in contradictions. One is a reductio ad estulto the other is a reductio ad absurdum.

    Here’s how:

    Reductio ad Estulto
    P1) God wants me to worship the True way.
    P2) By accident, the true way is my way.
    P3) Hence, God wants me to worship my way.
    P4) I shall do on to others what I would have them to do to me.
    P5) I want Queequeg to worship the true way.
    P6) From (P5) and (P3) I want Queequeg to worship in my way.
    Conclusion: So, from (P4 and P6) I should have Queequeg to get me to worship his way.

    Now, your point about “as you would have them to do” points to another argument. Suppose Ishmael’s reasoning starts that way.

    Reductio ad Absurdum
    P1) I would have Queequeg to get me to worship the true way.
    P2) I should therefore get him to worship the true way.
    P3) Accidentally, the true way is my way.
    C1) From P2) and P3), I should want Queequeg to worship my way.

    P5) Golden Rule
    P6)Queequeg’s way is not the true way.
    P7) Hence, Because of God’s desire I should not want him to get me to worship his way.
    C2) From P5) and P7), I should not have him to worship my way.

    Conclusion: From C1) and C2) I should and should not get Queequeg to worship my way.

  7. Patrick says:

    Basically, I think we’re equivocating on the Golden Rule. Is it a moral principle or an epistemic principle?

    Obviously, we don’t want to abandon it as a moral principle; here lies atrocity. We ought to treat others as we would like to be treated.

    But as an epistemic principle, it would be just as absurd NOT to abandon the Golden Rule; one does not treat the theory of “Intelligent Falling” with the same respect that one treats the theory of General Relativity.

    So it is reasonable, actually, for a theist to argue that he respects believers in other religions as persons, but believes their views to be factually incorrect and in need of revision; indeed, I dare say that this is how I as an atheist would describe my views about theists.

    The theist’s problem arises, however, if he holds that there exists some form of divine punishment for heresy—the ultimate epistemic coercion. Now he is in a bind, because IN ORDER to respect other human beings as persons, he is OBLIGATED to do anything within his power to convert them to his own religion—up to and including violating any other moral code, from deception to torture to murder. Failing to do so would be like refusing to grab a child’s hand as he is about to fall off a cliff. And then you have the problem of how one can apply the Golden Rule in any meaningful sense, because it seems we have just created a moral obligation for unending holy war.

  8. Edú says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the comment. I think you are correct. It would be mad to interpret the Golden Rule epistemologically. I explicitly agree on this in my reply to David’s comment above. I think, however, that this has little to do with the problem at hand.

    The way Melville sets up the problem simply requires the Golden Rule, the Evangelical Duty, and the theist’s claim that her story is the true one. Perhaps your point about heresy (and the divine punishment thereof) fits in with the Evangelical Duty. There is no need to go on for holy wars to show how these ingredients produce stupid results.

    Take the Golden Rule to have domain above all and only the moral attitudes of persons. Then add the Evangelical MORAL duty of spreading the seed of your story about god, which certainly presupposes that your story is the true one, by convincing others of it. And then you get it that you must convince yourself of other’s stories. This is the stupid result.

    Perhaps you are confused by the use ‘truth’ and ‘true stories’ within this argument. This plays an important role, certainly, but not an epistemic one. It plays an important moral role in filling in the gap of the story that you must go on evangelizing about.

  9. Layman Erik says:

    Just passing through and saw this post. Thought I would take a stab.

    I think Jeff’s – 6 November – post was on the right track.

    I don’t see how this is any problem particular to the Golden rule, the problem you seem to find in inherits simply by being an instruction in the form of “do as.”

    I’m right handed, my daughter is left handed. I am teaching her carpentry, so I pick up my hammer with my dominant right hand and instruct her with this sentence: “hold your hammer just like I am holding mine.”

    To be just like me she should use her right hand.
    To be just like me she should use her dominant (left) hand.

    Of course there is really no problem here at all. This doesn’t really serve as a RAA
    against my instruction.

    Is there some particular issue with the Golden rule that is any different than this (non) issue?

%d bloggers like this: