Our world is more connected today than ever before. People and information move around with greater ease and speed than just a few years ago. With freedom of movement comes freedom of ideas. People, with their ideas, moving from one area to another introduce new ways of thinking, leading to a cross-pollination of philosophies and beliefs.
In Oxford, where I lived until very recently, there are people who believe in no God, or one God, or many God. Some even believe that they are God. It’s most likely a similar situation to where you are.
With the arrival of new ways of thinking, the incumbent philosophies are challenged and sometimes, as a result, modified. Our belief structures are tested. Now, at its core, a belief structure answers the basic questions of life. Questions like: Where have we come from? Where are we going? What in this world has value? What is my purpose?
You of course don’t need to believe in God, or gods, to have a belief structure. Atheists have a belief structure: they believe that there is no God. The way we view the world – our worldview – is shaped by the beliefs that we hold.
The many worldviews on offer, each with their own founders, holy scriptures, and traditions seek to address our world and our problems and provide us with answers. They all have different answers of course. The questions that we face are common to all but the answers are specific to the viewpoint offering them.
For example, the problem posed by the existence of pain and suffering is a universal conundrum; every worldview must address it. “Why does pain exist?” “If there’s a God, why would he/she allow it?” These questions are dealt with throughout history and across cultures.
I once spent some time in the Far East and in my time there I encountered the belief that pain is ultimately an illusion. With this as the diagnosis, is it any wonder that the solutions offered by that worldview centre around becoming aware of the reality of this illusion, and then seeking to escape from it? Likewise, a Muslim may express to you that the suffering of this world is part of the will of Allah. And Allah’s will is set. We see these religious beliefs shaping whole countries and cultures.
With time and repetition beliefs become habits and habits turn into culture. On one holiday to the Outer Hebrides I saw how the islands all but shut down on Sundays to observe the Christian Sabbath. You can’t buy petrol or pop into the supermarket and until recent changes in the last few years, planes and ferries didn’t run on Sundays either. The practices of the people in the Islands changed because of the belief system.
In this way, perhaps we could say that in some respects religion reflects culture. The way people behave – for example the way they dress – becomes a religious belief about how they ought to dress.
Thinking along this line, we might then be inclined to wonder if the differences in the major world religions are merely cultural, the result of distinct people groups forming their identity over many years?
The late Sun Myung Moon from Korea thinks so. He says this:
In 1984, I brought together forty religions scholars, instructing them to compare the teachings that appear in the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other major world religions. The book that resulted from their efforts was World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, published in 1991. What they found was that the sacred texts of religions convey the same or similar teachings more than seventy percent of the time. The remaining thiry percent are teachings that represent unique points of each religion. This means that most of the teachings of the major world religions are the same at their core. The same is true of religious practice. On the surface, some believers wear turbans, some wear prayer beads around their necks, others wear a cross, but they all seek the fundamental truths of the universe, and try to understand the will of the Divine One.
– Sun Myung Moon
Moon isn’t the only one to believe this. It’s quite a popular position today.
A Plurality of Beliefs
We live in a pluralistic society. A plurality of belief structures and moral codes can be found in our world; in your town, your workplace, your pub. Pluralism of course, as a reality, exists. But what about Pluralism as an ideal? Should we equally celebrate the many different approaches to life? Are they all equally valid?
Throughout the history of the world we observe civilisations going to war because of different belief systems. Our united history of the clash of ideas doesn’t paint a pretty picture. ‘Can’t’ we all just get along?’, we might muse, hopefully. Well, historically speaking, no. Peoples have attacked, mocked, and ridiculed others for their beliefs.
Of course, there is a degree in flexibility with all of this. Some ideas we feel happier to hold more lightly than others. But there are plenty of areas that we just won’t bend on. Even the Romans, who absorbed the Greek pantheon of gods, found themselves at odds with the early Christians. Not because the Christians worshipped one man called Jesus as God, but because they worshipped him alone and didn’t recognise Caesar as a deity. At some point every religion, every worldview, claims exclusivity.
The Buddha, for example, was rejecting Hinduism. It was upon the realisation of the amount of pain and suffering that the young Siddhartha Gautama experienced that led him to reject the views he had in search of a better truth. Islam – coming around 500 years after Jesus – claims Judaism and Christianity were useful, but are now invalid and that the Quran is the only holy scripture delivered by the prophet Muhammad.
Many religions agree on so much. They say, for example that it’s good a thing to treat your neighbour well. Showing kindness to friends, strangers – this is a noble thing. And many people from differing religious find they can work together toward common goals such as alleviating poverty. But they differ on some pretty major points. Such as the existence of God or gods, the afterlife, which sacred text is right, how to obtain salvation etc.
For all religions to be true, all paths must lead to the same destination, however, even a cursory glance at the basic tenants of the major religions reveal that they propose some very different ultimate destinations.
Yes, there are some things that multiple religions agree on. And in addition, from the outside, many religions look like the hold the same structure. They might be formed in the same way, but made up of individual distinctions.
For example, many religions operate on the system, ‘If you’re good you’ll be rewarded with eternal bliss.’ All you need to do is lead a good life and you can be assured of a good outcome. But which afterlife are we promised? An eastern extension of self? A cloud in the skies with all our friends? And what exactly are the good deeds that we need to do? Specifically? And now we come to think about it, what exactly do we mean by good?
The more we delve into the complexities of each religion the more we realise that they offer different and distinct final realities with different and distinct paths that we need to follow to reach these realities.
So, what do we do?
What To Believe: 3 Options
When dealing with the plurality of religious beliefs we have I think three options to choose from.
All Religions are true: relativism
Our fist option is to say that all religions are equally true. There are many paths to take but one is not better than the other. It’s up to each one of us to choose which path we will take
To believe this we have to say that all truth is relative. That is, each viewpoint is equally true relative to the person holding it. We would have to reject the idea that absolute truth exists – that is that there are some things that are true for all people in all places.
Of course, relative truth exists. When I visited Nepal I found, to my surprise, that I was a tall man! If I were to be hanging out with my Nepalese friends and said, ‘Hey, I’m quite a tall person’ I would be completely correct – relative to the group.
But then I get on a plane and visit Norway. Now, if I were to make the exact same statement there I would find that I would no longer be saying something that is true. Even if I used exactly the same words and I was exactly the same height.
Because relative truth exists we might be tempted to place religions into this category. After all, if religious belief is relative to the individual holding it, then we can affirm their right to believe it without the need for us to believe it. This can avert conflict and lead to harmony.
It’s a lovey idea and seeks a noble cause. But the problem is that this position is unliveable. And besides, we don’t really live like relativists even if we want to say that is true.
In Oxford there are lots of bikes and I would cycle around a lot because it’s the quickest way around town. And as I cycled around I noticed that I, and the other cyclists always look for that bus, when the cycle lanes and bus lanes converge because we are absolutely sure that if there is a bus and we were to have an accident will always end up worse off.
Think about it, you always (try to) look before you cross the street because even if you believe that you are special and built like the Incredible Hulk, the truth of reality would correct you very quickly.
If we don’t care about whether our lives correspond to reality then we can choose any story for ourselves. But when our story bumps into other stories we face problems.
What we believe defines how we live. Not what we think we believe, but how we really live. Our actions betray our core convictions.
If there was no evil in the world and nothing bad happened to people, if there were no consequences to our actions, then believing in different narratives wouldn’t be an issue. But ideas have consequences.
Furthermore, to state that all truth is relative is of course to make an absolute statement. To categorically state that all truth is relative means that there is no truth which is not relative. If all truth is relative than that very statement must be relative and therefore not necessarily true for all people and people ought not to take us seriously if we say it!
So it emerges that relativism is unliveable. Well then, can’t we just be tolerant of other beliefs? But have you noticed that even tolerant people can’t tolerate the intolerant.
No religions Are True
Our second option is to declare that no religion is true. It was Ernest Hemingway who said that, “All thinking men are atheists.” This statement suggests that when rational enquiry is held all religions fail because they ultimately are irrational. All we need is a little education, a little science, a little knowledge and we’ll see that we have no need for a God.
But is this true? Oxford University is fortunate to some of the brightest minds in their respective academic fields make their home there. People like Professor John Lennox (Mathematics) and Professor Richard Swinburne (Philosophy) have held the chief positions in their fields in a University of international renown and they are committed to belief in God.
They are not alone. Throughout the sciences, the humanities, and the arts there are men and women dually committed to excellence in their field and at the same time publicly professing belief in God.
The atheist Thomas Nagel shows greater humility when he states:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
We simply can’t write off religion because we don’t want it to be true. We need to investigate. That’s the second point.
One religion is true
The third option we have is to come to the conclusion that one religion, one worldview, is true. After investigation we can come to a belief that one of the many are true and we can put our faith in that.
We all put our faith in something. Faith is simply following the evidence where it leads. The atheist has faith that universe is rational and can be understood through enquiry. You don’t need to be particularly religious to have faith, you just demonstrate a commitment to live out your life in accordance with the views that you hold.
If we reject relativism as unliveable, and if we reject an outright rejection of belief as unfair, then we are only left with an examination of what we believe. The major religions of the world differ enough to be distinct, and require us to do more work than glibly asserting they’re all true, or they’re all false.
We believe for many reasons: cultural, intellectual, emotional … To come to a point of committed, enquired-of faith requires us to examine what we believe and why. This might lead us to reject some of our ideas if they fail to hold up to scrutiny, but that is another matter for another article.