What All Religions Can Do
If you are a religious believer odds are pretty good that you are pretty confident that your beliefs are correct. In fact, depending on which tradition you belong to, you may even be confident that not only are you correct, but that every other religious tradition is wrong and their adherents are doomed. You may be confident that you are among a small, select chosen few who are destined for eternal salvation while the rest of the world suffers in misery, torment and death.
But I have bad news for you. The probability that you are right is VERY low.
At most only one religious tradition can be correct, unless you happen to be something like a Unitarian Universalist who believes that all religions are different aspects of the same cosmic higher power or a member of a Protestant church that is inclusive of others. But otherwise, there is only one truth out there. It’s not a matter of opinion either. Between Sunni Muslims and Mormons, at least one of them is completely wrong, perhaps even both. This isn’t opinion or “what works for them”, it’s reality for one or both traditions. They. Are. Wrong.
Now consider how many different religious traditions there are in the world. Hindu, Judaism, Islam and Christianity top the lists of major theistic religions and there are many others. But these are further divided into various sects that are also mutually exclusive (i.e., only one can be right). Christianity has Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon and more. Protestants can be further divided into more sects like Pentecostals, Calvinists, Nazarenes, Church of Christ, Baptists and many, MANY more. Even Baptists can be further divided into a number of different sects. Depending on how you define a “denomination”, there are anywhere from about 1,000 to 33,000 different Protestant Christian denominations worldwide.
I’m going to use a conservative number of 2,000 different mutually exclusive religious traditions in the world. This means that just by these numbers alone the probability of your religious tradition being the correct one is only 0.05%. That is one half of one tenth of a percent. That is pretty small. Would you board a plane if you had only one half of one tenth of a percent chance of survival?
The number of the world’s religions that are wrong therefore ranges from 99.95% to 100%, and that lower number is being generous.
How Can This Be?
This prompts the question of how so many people could be wrong about god. Not only are they wrong about it, they are completely confident that their beliefs are the absolute truth of reality when in fact, they are wrong. For now, let’s ignore the obvious problem of the ineffectiveness of God’s methods of handing truth to humans. Whatever the reason, almost all of the world is wrong and believes in a false doctrine. What could cause such a problem?
Human flaws, perhaps? Maybe humans in their depravity, born into sin, naturally corrupt God’s message to serve themselves and thus the truth is now known only to that small few who have discovered or maintained the proper tradition.
Or maybe it’s the Devil. The Devil has used his considerable power to corrupt the world’s belief systems even more than man could have himself.
Maybe it’s less insidious and God’s true message was corrupted not as much by human sinfulness, but by adapting religious beliefs to their cultural traditions, ways of life, rituals and values. In this case it would be more of an unfortunate accident that most of the world is wrong and doomed.
Or maybe these religions are simply all wrong and the reason religions disagree with each other is because there is no good evidence on which to formulate one’s beliefs. Perhaps that’s why we see religions adapting to culture. In this case there truly is no obvious true religion because none of are supported by anything other than unreliable, unverifiable claims.
But Who is Right?
Wow, that’s a big question there. Please don’t think I’m so arrogant as to think we can iron out that issue in a blog post. After all, there are an awful lot of religious traditions to examine out there. But rather than try to answer that question, I’ll discuss how we might answer that question.
To most believers, not only are their beliefs correct, they are obviously correct. There’s simply no question about it. It’s easy to see how their beliefs are true. Conversely, it is also obvious that everyone else is wrong and they can easily demonstrate how they are incorrect.
There’s a reason I emphasized that passage. This is very important to keep it in mind throughout the rest of this post. People of other religions are just as confident in their beliefs as you are in yours.
Something must convince these folks. What is it that is so convincing to those who adopt particular religious traditions? If one religion was obviously more true than all others, shouldn’t the tendency over time be for more people to see this obvious truth and change to it? Why is it that the more time passes the more fragmented religious belief seems to become?
Perhaps we could examine the various ways individuals are convinced that they are correct, which also happen to be the ways they attempt to convince others of their truth.
Surely the biggest factor in which religious tradition you believe is correct is geography. By far, where you are born has a greater influence on which tradition you accept as truth. If you are born in Iran, then it is obvious that Islam is the truth. If you are born in Mexico, then Catholicism is the obviously correct faith. If you are born in Utah, nothing could be more apparent than the truth of the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the prophets. If you’re born in the US South, odds are good that either Southern Baptist or Pentecostal is obviously true.
Perhaps it’s not geography but family, that most effectively determines which traditions you believe are obviously true. After all, there are still Catholics in Mississippi, Mormons in Ohio and Muslims in England. So maybe family tradition is even more powerful than geography.
But this makes no sense in terms of finding truth. We can rule out geography and family as ways of discerning truth even if it may be the biggest factor. So what are some other ways the adherents to religious traditions attempt to validate their beliefs and discredit others?
Method 1 – Scripture
By far the most common method of explaining the truth of one’s beliefs is by referring to Scripture. For Jews this is the Tanakh and Talmud. For Samaritans it is only the Torah. For Hindus it is the Vedic Scriptures. For Muslims it is the Quran and the Hadith. For Orthodox Christians it is the Orthodox Bible, for Catholics it is the Catholic canon. For Coptic/Ethiopian Christians it is their own canon. For Protestants it is the Protestant canon. For some Protestants it is specifically the Kings James Bible and no other. For Mormons it is the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. For Jehovah’s Witnesses it is the New World Translation of the Bible and to a degree, Watchtower publications.
Regardless of what your Scripture is, you can use it to show exactly why your beliefs are correct. In fact, you can also use it show how other Scriptures must be wrong and heretical. You can use your Scriptures to prove themselves. You can point to specific verses and passages that explain your doctrines, rules, rituals and practices. It all makes perfect sense.
So right there it is. You’ve done it. You’ve taken your Holy Scriptures, the very Word of God and you’ve used it consistently and accurately to show how you are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s airtight, isn’t it? How can anyone possibly deny the Word of God and what it says?
Well, no. It’s not airtight. You see, I specifically kept my words very general in the last two passages. I did this because every religion can do it. It doesn’t matter if you are Mormon, Muslim, Pentecostal, Catholic or JW, every single one of those religions can use their scriptures to show how they are right and how everyone else is wrong.
But Those Other Scriptures are Wrong, Can’t You See?
Yeah, that’s right! Those other Scriptures have contradictions and anachronisms. They are obvious forgeries and human creations. They are filled with silly myths that can’t possibly be true. Golden plates and winged horses, talking donkeys and false prophets. They have been corrupted in translation or written by unreliable sources as well.
And just like you are so easily able to see these features of other Scriptures, others can very easily find the same flaws in yours.
But you can explain those alleged contradictions and anachronisms, right? They aren’t really contradictions. They aren’t reading it correctly. They’re reading it out of context. They are coming to premature conclusions. They are biased, so they can’t see how perfectly harmonious your Scriptures are.
And once again, this applies to all Scriptures and religious beliefs. They all can do it. Every religion can explain the apparent contradictions, anachronisms, human origins and supernatural events in their Scriptures. In fact, it’s very easy for them to do and as far as they are concerned their explanations are perfectly sufficient to counter any claims that they are inauthentic. Just like yours.
But My Scripture is Obviously from God
- Your Scripture was written by an illiterate man, so it could only have been from God.
- Your Scripture was written over thousands of years and by many individuals but is still perfectly harmonious and free of contradictions, so it could only be from God.
- Your Scripture was written in such beautiful poetic style that there’s no way it has a human origin.
- Your Scripture is so easy to memorize that this is evidence it was written by God so what we can retain it more effectively.
- Your Scripture’s tradition has been kept for thousands of years. This is evidence that God wanted us to have it.
- When you read your Scripture you just know that it’s true, because you get a wonderful feeling like no other and this can only be explained by the power of God.
- Your Scripture is supported by archaeological evidence and it speaks of real places, people and events that historians have proven existed.
- Your Scripture is scientifically accurate beyond its time and is therefore from God.
- Your Scripture has prophecies that have been fulfilled to high accuracy, so there’s no way it was a human creation.
- Your life is so much better when you live according to your Scripture, so this is evidence that God wrote it for you.
These, among others, are all reasons given to explain why their Scripture must be the true Word of God and could obviously not have been a human creation. In fact, some of these are used by multiple different religious traditions to claim divine origin of their Scripture. Yet once again, they cannot all be correct.
But those things can be explained
- Just because something is beautiful or easy to memorize doesn’t mean it wasn’t made by humans
- The author either wasn’t really illiterate or they simply dictated to someone else. Either way it’s not a miracle.
- Just because Scriptures are old and well preserved doesn’t mean they are divine
- Those prophecies aren’t specific enough and could be interpreted many ways. It’s just post hoc reasoning
- Those prophecies were written after the events they predict, so of course they are accurate
- Lots of people get good feelings reading their Scriptures, but those are psychological phenomena that can be explained without appealing to the divine
- They aren’t really scientifically accurate. Those verses are vague or more likely refer to something entirely different. Besides, there are many more verses that are obviously scientifically false.
- Sure, any Scripture could contain references to real places, people and events. That’s only natural. Even ancient Egyptian and Sumerian religions did this.
- Sure, they may say there are no contradictions but it’s so easy to see how that’s just poor reasoning and wish thinking
See how easy it is to dismiss the divine origin claims of other Scriptures? All religions can do it. All religions can show how their Scriptures are divine, all religions can show how all other Scriptures are human authored, all religions can explain the apparent flaws in their Scriptures and it is all very obvious to anyone who would just read it properly.
But those other people aren’t reading it correctly
It is often claimed that the reason others come to such different conclusions about the same Scriptures (such as the multitude of Christian interpretations of the Bible) is that they aren’t reading it properly. They are being led by false prophets. They don’t have the proper authority to understand the Scriptures. They aren’t being led by the Holy Spirit. They don’t have the proper education. Their translation is flawed. Satan is corrupting their minds.
Sometimes these claims are entirely unfalsifiable or use circular logic. In other words, there is no possible way to disprove it. For example, Apostolic Pentecostals will claim that you absolutely cannot truly understand the Bible unless you have been filled with the Holy Spirit. But you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit unless you have spoken in tongues like the Apostles. So unless you’ve spoken in tongues, you aren’t qualified to properly understand what the Bible says. How do Pentecostals know this? Because the Bible says so. That is circular logic. This is also known as “bootstrapping” or “begging the question” and it is a logical fallacy.
It is also circular logic to claim that only special teachers can understand what Jesus really taught in the Bible, but then to turn around and use the Bible to support their claim that they are the true teachers. It is circular because the logic looks like this:
- “How do you know what the Bible really says?”
- “Because I am a True Teacher and only True Teachers know what the Bible says”
- “How do you know you are a True Teacher?”
- “Because the Bible says so right here.”
- “How do you know what the Bible really says?”
- “Because I am a True Teacher and only True Teachers know what the Bible says”
- and so on…
The Mormons use the same circular logic to claim that the Book of Mormon is true:
- “How do you know the Book of Mormon is true?”
- “Because I read it and prayed about it and got a good feeling.”
- “How do you know that means it’s true?”
- “Because the Book of Mormon says so in Moroni 10:4-5.”
- “How do you know the Book of Mormon is true?”
- and so on…
If the Book of Mormon is not true, then Moroni 10:4-5 is also not true and your good feeling means something else. End of story.
In the same way, if you are mistaken about what the Bible says, then you are also mistaken about being a True Teacher and thus aren’t able to use the Bible to support your claim that you are a True Teacher. Oops.
In fact, if the Bible isn’t a reliable document, then even the claim that True Teachers exist is false. So unless you can determine the reliability of the Bible completely independent from the True Teachers who use the Bible to establish their authority, you have absolutely no reason to believe they are who they say they are.
So since every religion can use Scripture in the same way to support the truth of their claims, it is thus an unreliable way to discern the truth.
Method 2 – Internal Consistency
Religions can also claim that because they have an entirely consistent and logical doctrine and belief system, that this is proof that theirs is the correct one. These belief traditions are complete with creation stories, how to attain salvation, details of the afterlife, the nature of god or gods, how they interact with humankind, moral codes and punishments, rites and rituals, prayers, blessings and curses, end times prophecies, how their beliefs relate to and are supported by science, how to spread the belief, financial duties and obligations of the adherents, how to properly worship, properly dress and many other details.
In every belief tradition these details are all internally consistent and usually supported by Scripture. They can all be explained such that every single detail of their doctrine makes perfect sense with all the rest of it and even why all others are wrong. Yet again, they cannot all be correct. Therefore, internal consistency cannot be used as a measure to discern the truth.
Method 3 – Unity of Thought
Just look at all those other religions that believe those different things and how they’re wrong. Isn’t it pathetic? Not me. My belief tradition is unique. Mine is different. It stands out from the rest. All those other denominations can’t agree on things, but not us. We are united. We all believe the same thing. That makes us right.
The problem here is that it is a false dichotomy. You’re creating two groups: Us and Them. We all share the same belief. They don’t. Therefore we are correct. However, you can take any other single belief tradition and do exactly the same thing. There are Southern Baptists and there’s everyone else. Southern Baptists all agree about their doctrine. Everyone else doesn’t, so that means Southern Baptists are correct because they have Unity of Thought.
While there are some liberal faith traditions that are very tolerant of its adherents not espousing every jot and tittle of their doctrine, there are a great many that expect their adherents to follow it precisely. So this is certainly not a unique aspect of any one particular religion.
It’s even worse when certain religions excommunicate any dissenting members. I’m going to use a very silly example. Imagine I start a Christian sect that believes Jesus was actually a cyborg ice ninja from Jupiter’s moon Europa. I start gathering followers. After a while I have a large following and we have places of worship all over the world. One of the ways I show that we are the One True Faith is that we have Unity of Thought. We all believe exactly the same way and that is proof of our correctness and evidence that we are the one true religion.
But one day someone questions our doctrine. This person says they think there’s no way Jesus was a cyborg ice ninja from Jupiter’s moon Europa, and that it’s pretty obvious to him that Jesus was a human ice ninja from Europa who was being controlled by a microchip by super-intelligent cephalopods under Europa’s surface. Well, that’s heresy. So we kick him out and ignore him unless he comes to his senses and admits that he was wrong. In fact, we use him as an example for future dissenters. We’ll instruct everyone to shun dissenters and cut them off from everyone they love. When everyone sees this threat is real, they’ll stay in line and we’ll have Unity of Thought.
This isn’t real unity. This is artificial unity. My ridiculous Cyborg Ice Ninja Jesus sect only has Unit of Thought because we kick out anybody who disagrees and threaten to take away their family. In fact, there’s a good chance there are a great many in my sect who disagree about doctrine but they are too afraid to say anything about it and just try not to rock the boat. It’s not worth losing their family, friends and most of the people they know just to make their disagreements known.
Therefore this is also not a reliable method for discerning the truth of a religion.
Method 4 – Personal Experience
I know my religion is right because…
- … when I go to church everyone is so nice and the community and fellowship is everything I could hope for
- … I’ve prayed for many things that actually happened
- … I was healed of my cancer
- … when I read or listen to Scripture it brings me a peace that can only be divine
- … when I worship I get a feeling of elation and profound joy
- … I once left my religion and my life made a turn for the worse. When I came back my life was great again
- … when I pray I get a special feeling that can only come from God
- … when we do what God tells us, our family life is the best
- … it helped me overcome addiction
- … I’m a better person when I walk with God
- … I’ve had a dream where God appeared before me
- … I had a near death experience
Healing, strong emotional feelings, feelings of inner peace and calm, answered prayers, great family life, community and fellowship, dreams and visions, overcoming hardship and being motivated to be a better person are all various types of personal experiences that might make one convinced that their religious beliefs are true. These all have natural explanations but even if they didn’t, there is still a major problem.
All religions do it. These and many others are descriptions of personal experiences that have been used countless times by people of many religions to demonstrate that theirs is the true faith. Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Mormon, Islam, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many others make appeals to personal experience. Once again, they can’t all be right and once again, this cannot be used as a method to demonstrate the truth of one’s religion.
Scripture, internal consistency, unity of thought and personal experience are perhaps the four most common ways a religious person may use to support their claim that their religion is the correct one. Yet as we have seen, all religions can do it. They can all do it equally well too, as long as you talk to someone who has thorough knowledge of the doctrine.
You may think that your particular religion is special and obviously correct for the reasons listed above, but remember, all the other religions can make the same claims. And your odds of being correct are very small indeed.
Now, this isn’t to say that there could never be a true religious tradition out there. However you cannot use any of those four claims to show it, because then it’s just like all the others.
The interesting question that follows is then:
How would you adequately demonstrate that a religion is true in such a way that all other religious believers would have no choice but to accept it? Is that even possible? And if that’s not possible, what does that say about the nature of religious belief?
Would you like to see some of the explanations of why various religions are true? Have a look at these. Then as an exercise, look up pages on why they are all wrong as well. Then try the same thing with your own belief tradition and see what you find. You’ll find common elements to all explanations for and against each one, neither more or less valid than the others.