Missionary Thought Experiment

The following thought experiment was inspired by a Facebook post by Andre van der Merwe.

*****

One day, a scantly clad dark-skinned man named Chruth (who you later find out belongs to a tribe living in the Amazon rainforest) comes knocking at your door with a translator, claiming to bring good news (actually, the way he put it was “the Good News”).

You ask Chruth what exactly this good news is. He begins to explain the nature of all that exists and how it came to be.

In the beginning, Chruth says, there was only Wonchrugad. Wonchrugad is the one true God; there is no other beside her. Wonchrugad created everything in existence out of love.

Humans were special, the crown of her creation. Unlike other creatures, Wonchrugad had designed human beings so that they could have a relationship with her. She loved humanity dearly.

In order to help humanity live the most pleasurable lives possible, Wonchrugad gave them some guidelines for life. One day, however, humanity decided to ignore her guidelines; they thought they knew better. From that point forward, humanity was on a morally downward spiral, further straying from what their consciences told them was good and right.

During this decline, Wonchrugad had reached out to humanity by speaking through shamans and performing miracles. Things only ever improved temporarily, however, and matters only became worse overall.

Thus, Wonchrugad decided to come to earth in human form and fix things directly. She showed people her love. She performed miracles. She exposed lies and explained the truth. Some people were for her; others were against her. In the end, those who were against her, unwilling to tolerate the disruption she was causing in society, succeeded in their plan to brutally murder her.

Yet Wonchrugad had seen it coming; this was part of her plan all along! Wonchrugad raised herself from the dead, appearing to her followers before leaving earth (although only in her human form). Through her death and resurrection, she was able to redeem all of humanity, if only they would repent and accept Wonchrugad into their hearts.

Her followers were given the mission of spreading this Good News. They were also endowed with the Spirit of Wonchrugad, enabling them to perform all kinds of signs and wonders. This Good News has been passed down throughout the ages, all the way to Chruth, a follower of Wonchrugad and a messenger of the Good News.

Curious, you ask Chruth how he came to believe in this story.

Chruth replies that his parents believed in this story and taught it to him growing up. He had also personally experienced the existence of Wonchrugad in various ways, such as communicating with her, feeling her presence, being healed by her, etc.

You tell Chruth that he has an interesting set of beliefs, but that, actually, you possess the true revelation and the real Good News (which, you point out, in fact has many similarities with his beliefs). You ask if you can share it with him.

Chruth, slightly surprised by your arrogant incredulity (but not too much because his scriptures predicted that such propagators of lies would show up), replies, “I see that your heart is unbelieving. I plead with you, do not reject Wonchrugad and consign yourself to eternal separation from her. Open up your heart and change your mind. Choose life, not death.”

You see that Chruth is genuine in his call to repentance, yet you struggle to find a reply because you would have liked to say exactly the same thing to Chruth. “But Chruth, you don’t yet even know the god I believe in. How can you be so confident that you are right and I am wrong?”

Chruth laughs and replies, “Whatever god you have been taught to believe in does not really exist; I guarantee you, it’s false at best and demonic at worst. For I have both experienced first-hand the reality of Wonchrugad and witnessed undeniable reasons for why my beliefs about her are correct.”

You ask Chruth whether he has any compelling evidence as to why his beliefs must be right.

“The holy writings say that the reality of Wonchrugad is evident in nature and plain for all to see. You are only stubbornly denying that which Wonchrugad has made obvious to all humanity.” Chruth then walks you through his apologetics for the historicity and validity of his holy writings, proofs for the existence of Wonchrugad, and demonstrations of the falsity of any other belief system.

You begin to give similar reasoned arguments for your own beliefs, but Chruth cuts you off. “Listen, I’m not interested in your arguments. I’m sure some of them are quite good, but that doesn’t matter to me because I already know the truth. And truth be told, so do you. Why do you keep resisting?”

Realizing that this conversation is going nowhere, you thank Chruth, tell him you’re not interested, and close the door.

*****

Now, let’s think about this thought experiment.

Firstly, that this isn’t a true story doesn’t detract from the lesson it communicates (it’s called a thought experiment for a reason…besides, there are plenty of belief systems that in fact do make competing claims to those of christianity). The point is this: what about your belief system do you have to show that distinguishes it from all others? What can you say about yours that no one else could ever say about theirs, how does that support its validity? Why should that be reason for someone to be convinced by it and agree with you?

Of course, every belief system has things unique to it. Precisely because of this, we must recognize that merely possessing a unique characteristic doesn’t make a belief system unique (unique, that is, in the sense that it is so profound or powerful that it must be the truth). For example, christians love to tout how, in christianity, God is Trinity, three in one, and therefore only he (as compared to gods of other religions) is capable of being love itself (rather than just being loving). (Incidentally, christianity is not the only religion with a trinitarian god; in fact there were many religions before it with trinities.) Even if this were the case, so what? Possessing a unique doctrine in no way proves that christianity is true or better than any other religion.

Imagine that the story above actually happened to you. Do you think you would be convinced? Even a little? To me it seems extremely unlikely. Most people would be inclined to think the person is a little crazy. Yet religious folks do basically the same and expect to be believed (the only difference may be that they are less aggressive in their approach).

This thought experiment doesn’t show that all or any particular belief system is ridiculous or false; that isn’t the point. What it shows is that expecting other people to agree with you or become convinced once you share what you believe is utterly unrealistic, particularly in the absence of compelling evidence. Indeed, the opposite should be expected.

Despite this fact, most christians (the religion I am most familiar with) believe that unless people become convinced of certain intellectual propositions (despite the lack of any compelling evidence, at least in many people’s minds) they will eternally suffer the consequences of their choices, both now and in the afterlife.

More significantly, christians are generally exceedingly confident that what they believe is true, despite the fact that there are plenty of other people with different upbringings, experiences, logical arguments, etc. that are just as credible as those of christians yet supportive of competing claims. What if you had experienced life in their shoes, being told about a different god(s), having different religious experiences (or having the same ones but interpreting them differently because you believe differently), and hearing different logical arguments in favor of the belief system you were brought up to believe in? Do you really think you would have turned out any different from them? Would you somehow be able to escape being affected by your experience and say, “no, it’s all wrong, christianity is the one true religion!”?

But if this is the case, and whatever true god exists requires that we “get the right religion” (or else…), honestly, he’s kind of a jerk. If so much of what we come to believe in is dependent on our various experiences, many of which we cannot control or choose, how can we reasonably be expected to believe in the right things?

Such belief systems require you to conceive of people that don’t agree with your “truth” as not merely mistaken but fundamentally evil. They aren’t just intellectually convinced otherwise; they are stubbornly resisting what they actually know to be true. Because what could be wicked about not being exposed to enough experiences to become convinced, and how could that be sufficient reason to spend eternity in hell?

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