Someone was once asked: “How come there is only one science, but there are so many religions?” The answer that was given was: Because there can be only one right answer to a question, but there can many wrong ones. This flippant reply may satisfy atheists and those who attach little importance to religions, but it cannot be taken seriously, given that religions have played such a major role in culture and civilization. It is difficult to accept that over the centuries hundreds of thousands of intelligent people have been persuaded by the truths of religion.
And yet, given that there are so many religions, it is legitimate to ask: “ (How) Can Many Religions All be True?” The answer to this question will depend on the meaning of the word true in the context of religions.
Truth, as commonly understood, is an attribute one associates with facts and other elements that have tangible existence. With this meaning, it is logically impossible for different religions, adhering to different and often mutually contradicting doctrines and dogmas to all be true. Not all the colors of the rainbow can be white.
However, it is important to realize that there are truths that touch the core of our being, that bring meaning and relevance to existence, that reveal hidden dimensions of the human condition. The truths of literature and art, in music and myths and in religion belong to this category. These endopotent truths are not more true or less true than the facts and laws that undergird the physical universe (exopotent truths): they are truths of an altogether different category. Endopotent truths have greater value to individuals, communities, and cultures than the equations of quantum mechanics, the existence of quarks and leptons, or the big bang origin of the physical universe.
Endopotent truths are multi-valued: i.e. they can be manifest in multiple modes: as Vedic hymns to ancient sage-poets in India, as the Commandments conveyed to Moses, as the enlightened utterances of the Buddha and of Mahavira, as the Sermon that Jesus gave on the Mount, as the revelations to the Prophet Mohammed, as the syncretic insights of Guru Nanak, and so on. So, indeed, there are many religions, and they can all be true in this sense, just as every interpretation of a great poem or work of art has validity for the keen student, just as every piece of music is equally music.
But it is important to realize that all truths have both positive and negative impact potentials, depending on the actions and attitudes they enable (exopotent) and inspire (endopotent) us to.
With both religion and science, then, what is important is to inquire is not so much their truth-content in the conventional sense of the word (which will invariably lead to confrontation and mutual disrespect, if not contempt and belligerence), but to be concerned about what their impact potentials are. Any religion that leads to positive actions and attitudes such as caring, compassion, ecstatic spiritual experience is desirable; and any that engenders hate, hurt, and persecution is not. Likewise, any science that leads to improving human health and the human condition is preferable to one that can be used for destruction and devastation.
V. V. Raman
April 15, 2009