When looking at the reasons for why we should critically examine our faith and that of others, there are several good, practical reasons that have a great deal of impact on the lives we live now, but I don’t believe that these are the most important reasons. The most important reason, I believe, is that every religion, omitting Atheism, claims that the belief system we cling to in this life has lasting consequences in the life beyond the grave. Atheism is largely alone in this because it denies the existence of an afterlife and, as a result, all you have is this life. However, all the other major world religions teach that the soul continues after death to a fate primarily determined by the life you lived. Even the smaller faiths, such as Mormonism, or the historical practices going back to ancient Greece or Egypt all understood and taught that death was not the end of the road.
I’ve previously touched on the contradictory concepts of the afterlife in various religions, but at the time I focused on the rewards that one expects or hopes to receive. In addition to those rewards, each religion teaches that there is an opposite destination reserved for those who do not measure up. In Buddhism and Hinduism, that destination is another life and death in the cycle of reincarnation and the social standing you receive is a direct result of what sort of life you lived the time before. As a side note, don’t let westernized and romanticized versions of reincarnation fool you. In the Hindu or Buddhist framework, you’re not even guaranteed to be human in the next life. You could be a sea slug or a dung beetle if you really screwed up.
We’re jumping off the idea of religious pluralism and why, since religions can’t all be true, we must not therefore be flippant or utilitarian in our approach to who or what we decide to follow.
The following quotes are from someone you’ve probably heard of. See if you can guess who it is.
Note: All bible verses are from the ESV unless specified otherwise. Emphasis in all quotes has been added.
Some listening music while we talk again.
One of the reasons people conclude that “all religions are true” or that all paths lead to God is the assertion that all religions teach basically the same thing. Be nice to each other, don’t steal or murder, etc. While there is some truth to the idea that all religions tend to instruct people to live in ways that are generally conducive to a peaceful life (though there are exceptions), this is an extremely naïve approach to the teachings and requirements laid down by each faith system.
We’ll start with Islam. In Islam, it is expected that the faithful Muslim will follow what are called the Five Pillars of Islam. These Five Pillars are speaking the Muslim confession of faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”), paying alms (charities), reciting your five daily prayers, observing the fast during the month of Ramadan, and making – at least once in your lifetime – a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Here we already have problems. The first pillar is a confession and acknowledgement of Muhammad as a true prophet of God. This creates problems for the Jew and the Christian who believe that Muhammad taught false doctrine and therefore cannot be a true prophet according to the test of a prophet as laid out in Deuteronomy 18. I will not attempt to settle the issue of true or false prophets now, it is enough for the moment to say simply that already we have tension and disagreement between these faith systems which are supposed to somehow all be true.
Most, if not all of us, have at one point or another heard the old story about the blind men and the elephant. The tale varies in the telling, but the general idea is always the same. A handful of blind men are investigating an elephant with their hands and each one feels a different part. The one feeling the elephant’s leg says that the object is a tree, the one feeling the elephant’s trunk says it is a snake, the one feeling the elephant’s side says it is a wall, etc. The point is that each of the men is getting only a part of the truth and that they’re all right in their own way. This is often then analogized toward how different faith systems all teach different aspects of the same god – that we’re all looking at a different part of the elephant.
I do feel that there is a grain of truth or two to the story. For instance, I agree that a certain level of intellectual humility is always in order when discussing points we disagree on and that we should try to respect the opinions of others (so long as they are grounded in appropriate reasoning or evidence). However, that does not mean we should all just agree to disagree, particularly when the subject is one of eternal importance. Spending your life making a case for why Strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream would be silly, but spending that same life making a case for believing in the correct God is incredibly important.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.