That’s a little dismissive, isn’t it? All right, we’ll get a bit deeper. After all, a lot of people believe that religions are all the same. While there are ways that they are the same, there are a lot of ways they are different. If not, it would all just be different flavors of one religion, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Let’s figure out how they are the same and then we can figure out how they are different.
Religion is the Same
First, we think we can look at the similarities in terms of how we explain things in the world. There are certain features of the world that seem odd if the physical world is all there is. Many people have had experiences that defy mere physical explanation (in spite of the fact that many people assert there are physical explanations, but without the messiness and exhaustive task actually studying the situation in any depth). Some people even claim to get direct revelation from other entities (call them visions, prophecies, whatever seems to fit). In either case, what we have is an otherworldly source of power and information. While this does not account for all religions (we’re looking at you, Unversalist Unitarians!), it does account for most of them.
However, there is also an issue of authority. Most religions have leaders of some sort, whether it be a priest, a rabbi, an imam, or something else. These individuals usually have some sort of de factoauthority that is recognized by the religion’s followers. Sometimes the leaders can make proclamations by their own authority, but in others their role is more interpretive and people look to them as experts (kind of like when you don’t know jack about cars and you go to a mechanic to get your Dodge fixed). While they have no formal authority, they at least have experience that may be helpful to people that follow their religious tradition. There is also the issue of morality, which may come as a surprise to some. As it turns out, when it comes to moral values, almost everyone in the world agrees on the broad brush strokes. Torturing for fun is wrong, courage is a virtue and cowardice is a vice, and people ought to be good. There are plenty of disagreements on the details (is a particular act an example of bravery or foolhardiness, what are the criteria for a “good” person, etc.), but in general, almost everyone agrees on what are many moral laws and that we have some obligation or another to abide by them. (We’ll be talking more about this in another discussion, so for now, just hang in there with us.)
Now, you might disagree with us about any or all of the above, particularly that last one. If so, then it would seem you agree that all religions aren’t the same. If they aren’t the same, then I think the issue we’re trying to address, the claim that any road to heaven is just as good as another, isn’t really an issue for you. You might think they’re all nonsense and there is no heaven, but that would be a different sort of discussion, like which side of the Titanic had a better view as it was sinking. In either case, heaven simply is not accessible to just any religion a person chooses. From here on out, we’re going to assume that God (a powerful, intelligent, spiritual person that created and has a plan for universe in general and human beings in particular) is real. If you want to take issue with that, check out our conversations regarding natural revelation.
Belief is Subjective
So, we are in agreement that there are some things that are similar among religions, but is that enough to make them all, or even many of them, effective in getting one into God’s good graces? After all, there does seem to be a subjective element to religion. However, is it that subjective element that makes religion effective in getting one into heaven? It might help to figure out what that subjective element is. It might be summed up in the word belief, but that word doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.
There seems to be an idea that believing something to be true some how makes it true. In the movie Hook, Peter Pan had grown up and forgotten his adventures. It wasn’t until his own children and the Lost Boys started to believe in him that he was able to believe in himself and fly again. That seems to be the kind of belief that a lot of people attribute to religious belief. However, belief does not actually change reality. At best, it affects how we perceive reality, but reality tends to be remarkably inflexible. No matter how much people might believe in Robin Williams (may he rest in peace), he’s not going to fly about the room and defeat Captain Hook. That’s because Robin Williams can’t fly and no matter how much anyone believes otherwise, that’s just not the reality we find ourselves in. A strong belief in fiction doesn’t make it any less fictional.
The kind of belief that this seems to express would be more precisely described as trust. When we say we believe in someone who is clearly standing in front of us, we’re not really saying something about whether or not that person exists. The person’s existence isn’t really the topic, but rather a question of how much faith we have that the person will act according to how we expect them to. When Peter Pan’s kids and the Lost Boys said they believed in Peter, they were saying they had faith that he had the capability and desire to defeat Captain Hook. Such faith would have been entirely misplaced if either Peter Pan did not exist or if the person they were talking to wasn’t in fact Peter Pan (in the context of the film, mind you). This kind of belief, this trust, this faith, is entirely subjective. After all, just because Peter Pan is standing in front of you, that doesn’t mean you like him or trust him to do the right thing. That has much more to do with the relationship between the person doing the trusting and the one being trusted. And in order for such a belief to be meaningful, there must actually be something to believe in. The thing in which we place our trust has to be real for it to make any real difference.
Reality is Objective
We’re using “real” in a broader sense here. By this, we simply mean the religious claim must abide by the rules of logic. The reason I bother to bring this up is because when we are dealing with competing religious claims, it becomes important very quickly. When we die, we may go to heaven, we may go to hell, we may be reincarnated, we may be absorbed into the one, or we may simply cease to exist, but we certainly can’t do all of those. That means that if any one of them is correct, then the religions that don’t hold that view are simply wrong. That’s seems pretty straightforward, but as we get more specific, we quickly find that trying to be reasonable means admitting that you can be wrong and that many religions definitely are wrong.
If some religions are wrong, how can we figure out what’s true? If a religion has a fundamental teaching that doesn’t square with what seems to be obviously true, then that religion is suspect to say the least. For instance, some religions have at their core a rejection of logic. “Something can be true and not true at the same time.” That is what we call nonsense and cannot be true since that very statement would therefore be true and not true. How are we to take it? We take it for the nonsense it is and reject it outright.
A religion that has elements to it which do not square with obvious facts about the world is suspect as well. By this, we are not rejecting miraculous claims since science addresses regularities in the physical world and miracles are by definition exceptions to the rule. Rather, we mean that obvious historical anachronisms give reason to doubt a religion’s veracity. For example, the Book of Mormon has numerous historically inaccurate characteristics (i.e., forged metal swords in pre-Columbian South America, doctrinal disputes that did not arise until the late 18th century, etc.). These sorts of things make the other claims, however well intended they may be, questionable since they imply the source is other than God.
A little reflection and introspection is also useful. After all, religion is supposed to offer a solution to mankind’s problem. Figuring out what that problem is and a possible answer is pretty important. If religion can’t diagnose the problem correctly, then it’s unlikely that religion is going to offer the proper treatment. Those religious traditions that don’t seem to get the diagnosis right aren’t likely to have the answers we’re looking for. For example, some Eastern traditions have the law of karma in which in this life we are paying for the evil we did in a previously life, and if we fail to do right in this life we will be reincarnated into another life to pay for that evil. Keep in mind, there is no authoritative description of what those evils are or what the appropriate punishment is. How is it just that we be punished for actions which we are unaware of, and it’s highly questionable if reincarnation is true in the first place? (Ever notice that people who remember their past lives never remember being the town drunk, the village idiot, the city street sweeper, etc.?). Similarly, some in the New Age movement claim that the reason we human beings have forgotten our divinity and need to rise above our humanity. The last time I checked, “gods” don’t forget things and human beings acting like humans seems like what we should naturally be doing. However, the idea that we human beings are broken on a fundamental level seems readily apparent, especially if we take a few minutes to look at our own shortcomings. We all have things that we’ve done that we are not proud of, that we wish we could take back, but we know we have to answer for. The question is not what religions helps us to feel better about ourselves or help us see the world differently. The question is what religion helps us deal with the moral debt we owe to the universe?
All religions have not been created equal. While they do have similarities, they don’t mean much since the similarities are superficial and the differences are critical. It’s like saying arsenic and aspirin are the same because they both come in pill form. How they look or how you come to get them is irrelevant – the question is which one will help with you deal with your pain. We don’t need placebos and this is too important to get wrong. We’re not talking about choosing a flavor of ice cream. We’re talking about how to cure the cancer that is killing us.
With that in mind, belief is critical. The objective element deals with whether or not what we believe is actually true. If it’s not, how sincerely or strongly we believe is irrelevant. But when we believe something to be true and it actually is, the question turns from objective belief to subjective trust. Are we willing to demonstrate the sincerity of our belief and trust God at His word, whatever it might be, and place our faith in His plan to redeem us? That is a question we Three Guys have answered and we invite you to carefully consider.