Why you shouldn’t let philosophers tell you that Muslims and Christians worship the ‘same’ God.
By now many readers have heard about Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, who wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims and whose future employment is now in doubt. Hawkins’s statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God has ignited a firestorm of debate among Christians as to whether and in what sense this statement is true or false.
What’s a bit unusual about this controversy du jour is the prominence of philosophers as self-styled specialists on the issue. Phrases like “the distinction between sense and reference” and “the causal theory of reference” are flying about, as are names like Kripke and Frege, all of which are unfamiliar to the large majority of laymen who understandably have more than a passing interest in the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Given the fundamental differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God, it would be surprising if there existed some knock-down philosophical argument that both groups worship the same God. An intelligent non-philosopher could reasonably conclude instead that any theory leading to that conclusion must be incorrect.
Jehovah Is Not Like Clark Kent
One argument goes something like this: It’s possible for two people to have radically different ideas about someone but still to be referring to the same person. Someone who talks to Superman is talking to the same person a co-worker of Clark Kent talks to, though the latter has no notion of Kent’s superhero identity. In the same way, Muslims and Christians have different ideas about God but nonetheless worship the same God.
But this argument is question-begging. The analogy assumes there is one being, the same being, with whom Muslims and Christians are both in contact, even if they don’t realize it. But isn’t that exactly what was supposed to be proved? At most, the Clark Kent/Superman analogy shows there are possible situations in which persons can have radically different ideas about someone with whom they are both in contact. In some cases, radically different ideas may still mean the two persons are referring to the same being, but in other cases they will not. It’s not a trivial thing to conclude two groups are referring to the same entity when there’s plenty of reason otherwise.
Why should we think Christians and Muslims are like the acquaintances of Superman and Clark Kent? After all, Christians presumably don’t believe most Muslims, when praying to Allah, are experiencing real contact with the one true God. And Christians definitely shouldn’t believe Mohammad had a genuine encounter with God that led him to found Islam. The Clark Kent/Superman analogy, then, doesn’t contain any special insight requiring us to believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Confusion About Worship and Monotheism
Here’s another common argument: Muslims claim to worship the God who spoke to Abraham, as told in the Bible. Christians and Jews also claim to worship the God who spoke to Abraham in the Bible stories. Therefore, they’re all worshiping the same God, since they’re all referring to the God of Abraham.
But this argument depends on such a thin notion of “worshiping the same God” that it leads to absurd conclusions. Suppose I invent a religion according to which I, Lydia McGrew, am identical to the One who made special revelations to Abraham as told in the biblical stories. My sincere followers sincerely think they are worshiping the God of Abraham when they worship me. Does that mean Lydians, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God?
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