Religion and Religions
As a kind of follow-up to the last post, I’m posting a more detailed discussion of some of my views on religion, generally speaking. As I’ve said before, I studied most religions on the way to becoming Catholic. In the course of all this investigation over all these years, I have come to some conclusions about those things that are common to all religions (or at least the vast majority. I don’t doubt that there are a few here and there that might serve as exceptions to some of the things I’m about to write, but I think these will be good generalizations). Anyway:
1. All religions have essentially the same moral teachings
That is, don’t murder, steal, lie, &c. Of course, the devil’s in the details. What constitutes murder, or lying, or whatever may vary. Killing a member of a different religion or ethnic group, or making a human sacrifice, may not be considered murder, for example. Adultery may be prohibited, but the number of wives you are allowed may vary–and so on. It is true that issues like these can be thorny. Nevertheless, the similarities, I think, generally outweigh the differences.
2. All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others.
I’m not a big fan of the “mine is the One True Faith and all others are hellbound” outlook, but no honest person can say that all religions are equally good or lifegiving or whatever. In general, I do think the great faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Sikhism) are about equal overall, each better in some respects, worse in some respects. Still, religions do differ, not always in nice ways. For example, something about the ripping out of the beating hearts of sacrificial victims in ancient Aztec religion just doesn’t do it for me. Ditto some of the manifold ways that various faiths have oppressed women, some religions more than others. And Scientology is a totally goofy cult (sorry, Tom Cruise fans! Hope the Scientology death squads stay away….). The point is, one shouldn’t be so broad-minded as to ignore things that are real issues, or to claim that all faiths are equal offenders on all issues.
3. No religion is self-evidently true.
Many faiths will say something to the effect, “If you just look within/study our scriptures/follow our meditation/prayer practices/feel the burning in your heart/come and learn our teachings, you will see that our faith is true.” Test-drive our religion, in other words, and you’ll see it’s the one for you! This, it seems to me, is manifestly false, otherwise there would be only one religion. After all, you don’t see alternate forms of mathematics taught where 2+2=5! I think all religions (even the kookiest) have some truth, and some probably have more than others (think of human sacrifice again). However, on this side of eternity, none of us can ever be quite sure. If we could, there would be no conversions from one religion to another, and as I said, there would probably be only one religion, just as there is only one mathematics, one chemistry, and so on.
4. No religion meets everyone’s needs.
I almost hate to phrase it this way, since it sounds so market-like, and religion is not a market. Still, it does capture something. Religions do meet needs that people have: the need for meaning, for acceptance, for higher goals, and so on. Every religion is better at meeting some goals and worse at meeting others. Some may find that insulting, but it is not intended to be. If this world were perfect, then at least some religion or other would meet the needs of all its adherents perfectly. But then, in a perfect world, there would be no need for religion, would there? I think that the Divine must manifest itself in an imperfect world, relating to imperfect people, and thus all religions, temporally speaking, anyway, are to some extent imperfect. None meets the spiritual needs of all its adherents equally well. If this were true, there would never be apostasy.
However, we observe that there is no religion that doesn’t lose at least some members, including clergy, to other religions. I think a couple of corollaries follow from this. First, God (or the Divine or Absolute or what ever you prefer) is aware of the fact that in manifesting in the imperfect temporal world, He (or She, or It, as you prefer) will create religions that will not meet the needs of all. Even believers of good will who really try hard may not be able to make it work for themselves. I think that God, knowing this, has no problem with it. To think She damns people who in complete goodwill leave any religion after giving it their best is pernicious and sadistic. Second, we should try to emulate this example. So many believers view the one who leaves the religion as evil or at least woefully deluded. They think that it is somehow the apostate’s fault if he or she could not continue in the faith; they blame the victim, as it were. Look at the case of the Christian convert in Afghanistan for an extreme version of this.
Do people sometimes leave a religion in bad faith or for bogus reasons? Yes, but most who change faiths do so for very serious reasons, often reasons that are not their fault, but stem from ministers, fellow believers, or the religion itself in relation to the former believer. Thus, we must be serious when we speak of freedom of religion. It means the freedom of our coreligionists to leave even the religion we hold most dear, without our persecuting them or thinking less of them or even disliking them for doing so.
5. All religions change over time to some extent.
Pick any religion you care to and study its history carefully and objectively, and you’ll see what I mean.
6. Even the best religion can cause evil results.
Jihads, crusades, abortion clinic bombings, genocide, suppression of women, suttee, caste systems…well, you get the idea.
7. Even the worst religion can encourage people to good, and can sometimes produce sublime saints who do wonderful things.
Even believers of goofy faiths usually try to be good people, pay their taxes, be nice to their neighbors, and so on. Scientology may be crazy, but John Travolta did take supplies to earthquake-devastated Haiti at his own expense.
8. Therefore, we all should learn as much as we can about each others’ beliefs and try to get along with each other and work together to make this world at least a little bit better than it is.
Well, I can be Utopian at times….
Amen, svaha, and so be it!