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.
Recently I’ve been trying to show that religious pluralism – the idea that somehow all roads lead to God – is simply incoherent. Though many faith systems teach similar concepts of morality, they contradict each other in fundamental ways and therefore cannot be equally valid or true. If that’s true, then there are two conclusions we must come to and neither one is comfortable, though I only plan to address one of them now.
The first conclusion we have to confront is this: if it’s not possible for all religions to be true, then at least one or as many as all of them must be false. We are then faced with the distinct possibility that the faith system we hold to, whether we were “born into it” or chose it later on in life, might be wrong.
But what does it matter, right? Why not just let people believe what they want and mind our own business? Live and let live and all that jazz, right? If someone wants to be a Buddhist or a Mormon or a Muslim, then who’s to say they should do otherwise? It’s their life and they have the right, the freedom and the choice to live it as they see fit.
I certainly agree that people have the right, the freedom and the choice to believe whatever they want to believe. At the same time, however, I believe that truth matters and that a rational person cannot consciously hold to a belief they know to be false. In addition, I think this is the prime cause of what is often referred to as “the angry atheist”; someone holds to a belief, comes to be convinced that the belief is not true, and then becomes embittered against the church, faith, establishment they were once a part of because they feel they’d been lied to.
In my latest posts, I’ve been looking at the concept of religious pluralism and pointing out what I feel to be significant problems. They are as follows. Pluralism fails because:
There is much more to be said about this topic, particularly because in each of my own posts I’ve only compared a handful of faiths in specific areas. There are also other issues that I haven’t addressed at all. While each of these issues can be explained or dealt with on its own, to do so requires a great deal of imagination and theological gymnastics rather than clear reasoning. Taken together, I feel that these provide ample reasons to reject the idea of religious pluralism outright. If you want to continue looking into this subject, then I recommend Contradict: They Can't All Be True by Andy Wrasman.
Of course, this will bring us to an uncomfortable conclusion: If not all religions are true, then at least one of them (or as many as all of them) is false. If at least one of them is false, then we must deal with the possibility that there are consequences for choosing the “wrong” faith.
And that is something I will be looking at in the next few posts.
There is a quote commonly attributed to G.K. Chesteron (though it is doubtful whether or not he ever actually said it) that goes something like this: “When a man ceases to worship God, he does not begin to believe in nothing. Rather, the danger is that he begins to believe in anything.”
Whether or not this is actually true can be debated, but it does bring up something that many of us will readily admit: some people believe some very strange things. These may be vague, folk superstitions like walking under ladders, breaking mirrors or rabbit’s feet that are well known in the US (and their equivalents in other countries) or they may be specific parts of recognized religions that outsiders find strange, especially when laden with degrading and condescending terminology.
Now, I don’t intend or desire to disparage anyone’s beliefs here. I’m firmly convinced that there’s a distinct difference between discussing the validity of a belief or set of beliefs (when properly understood) and simply bashing it because it seems strange. However, as this relates to religious pluralism, we must recognize that a view which holds all religions as equally true cannot – by definition – be restricted to the well-known faith systems like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Mormonism. Truth has never been decided by the quantity of people who affirm it. Instead such a view must also account for, quite literally, anything that anyone might come to believe.
The concept of rewards is an interesting one when speaking of different faith systems. Many if not all faiths promise some sort of afterlife that includes various rewards for the deeds done in mortality and a deeper look at these various promises reveals vast, even contradictory concepts.
For instance, when we look at the concept of Nirvana as taught in Buddhism, we see an enlightened and unembodied state where the person is literally one with the rest of the universe. The person does not do anything in this state, in fact the person essentially ceases to exist in any significant way. Just like a drop of water that a glass of water that is poured into the ocean, the person loses anything distinct about him or herself and is completely absorbed into the energy of the universe. The word "nirvana" itself indicates a sense of being "quenched" or "snuffed out". This is in stark contrast to the rewards promised by the faiths of the Judeo-Christian strain wherein the person continues to exist consciously and bodily in a place of unending pleasure. These two concepts are simply incompatible. One cannot be embodied and unembodied.
However, even within the Judeo-Christian concepts of paradise or heaven, we see disparate qualities. As a single point of comparison - though there are many more - I would like to look at the concept of sexual relationships in heaven.
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.
As I touched on in my last post, it has become popular in recent times to suggest that every religion is equally true and that we should just live and let live, let the Mormon and the Muslim and the Satanist believe what they want and get along, right?
I’m no sociologist, but my understanding is that, while this concept has roots in some eastern faiths, the idea has grown in popularity exponentially since the rise of global culture. When the world was largely divided into the distinct camps of the Christian West, the Muslim Middle East and the mystic East with very little interplay between them, the idea that people who do not believe as you do would be facing an eternity in judgment did not raise deep concerns. There was “us” and the far-off “them” and the “them” were always imagined to be wicked degenerates that deserved whatever fate God had in store for them. However, with increasing globalization and exposure to people unlike ourselves, many people were forced to face hard truths about their beliefs and neighbors they had come to know and love.
Can we stomach the idea that the old Buddhist couple next door is going to burn in hell for eternity? Or the old Jewish lady that comes over for drinks every week? What about the atheist family that watches your kids when you go out for the night who – it just so happens – is far more pleasant to be around than many fellow believers? Are they all doomed to an eternity of fire and judgment and torment because they don’t believe the right thing? I don’t mean to suggest that these are not hard questions, but I do believe that it is erroneous to pick and choose what we want to believe in order to avoid unpleasant conclusions.
Again, I am no sociologist or historian and I may be entirely mistaken about the origins of this idea. In the end, I don’t think it matters. The important question is not where it came from, but what we do with it now that it’s here.
I believe that the entire concept of religious pluralism fails for multiple reasons. The first of which, is that it ultimately rewards evil.
Here's something to listen to as we talk.
As I've been considering topics to write on and survey, I kept coming back to the need to lay a foundation of definitions and expectations.
Very often one of the first questions that comes up in any sort of conversation about faith systems, particularly in the last few years, is "Why bother?" Indeed, why does it matter? It has become extremely popular in recent times to espouse varying forms of religious pluralism. This concept is difficult to define because each individual person may articulate it differently depending on their own background and how deeply they've thought about it, but the general idea is that it doesn't matter what you believe, which system you adhere to or who you worship, so long as you're sincere you will end up finding your way to "god", however you define it. If that's true, then it truly doesn't matter if someone believes in Allah, Heavenly Father, or Buddha. It wouldn't make any difference at all if they follow Charles Taze Russell, Muhammed, the Dalai Lama or Oprah.
However, I believe that this concept is flawed and ultimately incoherent. It seems like a great idea when you're looking at the faithful Mormon, the peaceful Muslim or the devout Buddhist, but to stop there and only consider the pleasant examples would be arbitrary. How does it hold up when applied to the white supremacist or the Nazi? I doubt anyone would claim that a Grand Wizard of the KKK is anything but sincerely devoted to his beliefs and following them to best of his ability. The same can be said of homicidal cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh or Charles Manson. If it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're "sincere", then we can expect genocidal monsters like Pol Pot, Hitler and Joseph Stalin to have received the highest reward of their beliefs as well as the polite old Hindu woman in your neighborhood. For many people, that is (rightfully so) a horrifying and disgusting concept.
This is not the only problem with the concept of Religious Pluralism and I plan to expound on these issues in the future, but I hope - for now, at least - it is clear that simply believing something "sincerely" cannot be the only requirement.
Second, it is a matter of great controversy whether or not we (as Christians, Mormons, Jews and Muslims) all worship the same God. To answer this correctly, it will be necessary to look at what each faith system teaches about the nature of God and whether or not they can be reconciled. I admit that this brings up questions that I have wrestled with on a personal level. How "correct" must your theology be? It has been suggested that John Milton - a professing Christian - believed that Jesus was a created being. This is a heresy known as Arianism that was rejected by the church during the 4th century at the Council of Nicea. That same belief is shared by Jehovah's Witnesses who are largely considered to be a cult and outside of orthodoxy by the primary branches of Christendom. If the Witnesses are out, is Milton out as well? While I believe that truth about God can be known, I know that many (if not all) of us will err in some aspect or another in our understanding about Him. No mortal is omniscient and we're all flawed in one way or another. Because of our own finitude and God's infinitude, it has been long understood by Christian theologians that God is incomprehensible - which is to say that He can never be fully grasped and understood by anyone other than Himself (Psalm 145:3; 147:5; 1 Corinthians 2:10-12). If a perfect understanding of God is required, then we're all out of luck and I suspect that is a conclusion we all would reject. But then where is the line drawn? Again, I plan to explore these topics in the future.
Lastly, words have meaning and definitions can have a profound impact on the course of a conversation. In order to move forward with any sort of meaningful exploration of these topics it will be necessary to define what we mean by certain keywords and phrases in order for to keep from talking past each other. What does it mean to be a "Christian"? What exactly is "salvation by grace"? How do Christians, Muslims and Mormons differ in their understandings of the "Trinity"? More than one conversation between evangelical Christians (another term that begs for a clear definition) and Mormon missionaries has been derailed by misunderstandings and unclear terminology and I do not want that to be the case here.
These are all topics that I find fascinating and I hope you will stick around as I explore them.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.