aka Why Our Personal Beliefs Really Do Matter and Matter A Lot
aka Why We All Believe This Even if We Claim We Don’t
Overheard on the Bloggernacle, or in the office, or just about everywhere:
All religions contain overlapping ideas and in this overlap exists the real voice of God.
It is arrogant for such-and-such religion to believe they are right and everyone else that disagrees with them is wrong.
There is so much evil in the world due to people believing their doctrines are more true than anyone else’s. There are many ways to heaven and it’s different for everyone.
I want to give these ideas the due they deserves before I give them the critical analysis they require.
The idea that all religions are “true” is beautiful. From this idea we can easily jump off into our imagination and see a world where we all see other religions as our brother and sisters and where there is no contention between beliefs because all are equal. It is a world where Jihads and Crusades never take place and we can pick the best ideas from all religions and form a super belief system both tailored to our own needs as well as our neighbors.
I wish such an idea could ever be logically possible. But it’s a little like imagining a world where we have legislated that “winters should be mild or cookies more nourishing than vegetables.” It just can’t happen.
The Overlap of All Religions: Morality Alone
Where do all religions overlap? If we are talking about religions that believe in a higher power then there are exactly two areas where all religions overlap:
- There is a higher power
- We should love that higher power and our neighbor
If we include ethical atheist religions in this list then we might have to eliminate #1 in some cases, though frankly it’s pretty common for the term “atheists” to really just mean “I believe in a higher power, but not one of the ones represented by any world religion.”
But at a minimum, the intersection of all religions is that we should all love “goodness” (be that perceived as a higher power or not) and our neighbor
I can’t over state the importance of this overlap. If it didn’t exist I think we’d have a pretty definitive proof that there is no higher power at all. And I can’t overstate the value of having people believe, like from my quotes above, that this is the single most important aspect of any religion: for most religions agree that it is one of the most if not the most important aspect of their religion.
Can All Religions Be “True” In the Intersection of Their Beliefs?
What I can’t logically accept is that the idea that all religions are “true” due to this overlap. Nor can I accept that such an idea could ever be seen as a good thing by anyone belonging to any religion; for at its heart this idea isn’t so much saying that all religions are equally true as it is saying that all religions are equally false. There in lies the ugly side to this otherwise beautiful and well intended thought.
What a religious belief system offers unique to the world is a way to make sense of our lives and the universe. Each does this in different ways and those ways, I’m sorry to say, are mutually exclusive from each other. Consider the following points. How could both statements in column A and B ever both turn out to be true at the same time? And how could it not matter which is correct if one or the other were true?
|Column A||Column B|
|Jesus is the only name under heaven whereby we can be saved.||You do not have to be saved by Jesus’ grace to go to heaven.|
|After this life I never have to worry about the pains of mortality and death again because I’ll be resurrected into an immortal body never to have my spirit and body separated again.||The only way to progress spiritually is through reincarnating multiple times.|
|As the Gita teaches, one becomes one with God through enlightenment via mediation more so then virtuous works.||One cannot become one with God because there is a gap between creator and created that can never be bridged.|
|We will all be resurrected after this life and death will be done away with.||When we die, we are dead. That’s the end.|
|There is true justice in the universe, if not in mortal life. As with Lazarus and the rich man, in the life hereafter, justice will be had by all.||If you get away with it and die without getting caught, there will never be a punishment.|
|We are saved by Grace and not works. Only God can give us salvation.||It’s important to choose to be moral and ethical because we all want to live in a moral and ethical society. This is true salvation.|
|Real and permanent happiness can only be found in unity with man and God.||Real and permanent happiness can only be found in being your unique self and in enjoying the ultimate in diversity in each other.|
|When we have a truth that others do not, we have a duty to share so that people know about it and can decide for themselves if they want to act on it.||Sharing beliefs with others just makes them mad, so we should just keep our beliefs to ourselves unless specifically asked to share.|
I have to accept this reality: that there is no way column A and B can ever be fully logically reconciled. We might be able to come up with some partial reconciliations, but likely those compromises will please no one.
In saying this, I do not mean to imply that all religious beliefs are mutually exclusive from all others. Of course only some of our beliefs are mutually exclusive from others. But it’s the mutually exclusive ones that often matter the most to us.
Whatever the real truth turns out to be, someone is going to be disappointed, hurt, or at least at a disadvantage based on what they believe. There is no other possiblity.
This is why the idea of all religions being equally true via an intersection of beliefs rings equally hollow to all. It is the truth claims of the religions that make them worth believing, not the intersection of what they all have in common.
What I find interesting is that this seems to be every bit as much true for religions that specifically try to reject Triumphalism. Triumphalism is defined by Wikipedia as “..the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others”
Non-Triumphalism is a difficult concept for me to wrap my mind around because it’s a self contradiction. Now I can certainly understand how a person can have a belief system whereby there are multiple belief systems that can all lead to a good results – that is to say, multiple beliefs systems can lead to “salvation” however that is defined. But this isn’t the same thing as Non-Triumphalism per se.
In fact, Mormonism is one of the strongest examples imaginable of exactly such a belief system. There is salvation to be found in all religions in Mormonism. (There are a handful of competing religions that allow for such universal salvation for all belief systems, Mormonism being only one of them, and I will consider them later.)
But could there ever logically be a set of mutually exclusive belief systems where all are equally true? Or could there ever be one religion that is “more true” than another and yet it does not matter?
“To Each Their Own” – “Whatever Works for You”
The one situation where knowing or having the truth would not matter would be if absolute-hard-core-atheism turned out to be true. If our lives are nothing more than an accident of atoms coming together into DNA that happened to evolve a sense of consciousness and morality merely for the sake of replicating that DNA more productively, then we may indeed have a situation where what one believes does not matter at all – because the truth does not matter at all.
Its a little like taking a happy 70 year old woman, content in her memories of her perfect life long marriage to a now dead spouse, and telling her that it’s all a crock because he cheated on her during their entire marriage. It may be the truth, but it’s not a helpful truth. In this one circumstance — when the real truth is worse than the illusion –and this one circumstance only, could we truly say “whatever works for you.”  Best to just let them believe what they want because it makes them happy. Under any other circumstance, truth matters, at least to some degree.
And yet, I have to wonder at the number of atheists that actively try to rid the world of all believers to make the world a better place. It would seem that even self proclaimed hard cord atheists are usually secretly Triumphalists bringing a greater spiritual truth to the world through the spread of their doctrines. If existentialists really exists at all, they are exceedingly rare.
Let’s put it a slightly different way: if there is no ultimate spiritual truth at the center of existence then the truth of our existence does not matter. But if there is an ultimate spiritual truth at the center of our existence then that truth will matter — period. And the closer you are to it, the better off you’ll be.
I think people struggle with this concept because they confuse ‘salvation’ with ‘advantage.’ Most of us grew up surrounded by a predominately Protestant Christian culture where ‘salvation’ is the only ‘advantage.’ This is why we get so easily confused over the difference. But even if believing a “truth” does not save or damn us by itself, it may yet give us an advantage or disadvantage of some sort. Indeed, a central truth about the meaning of our existence must give us an advantage or it isn’t, by definition, a truth about the meaning of our existence, now is it?
Are There Non-Triumphalists?
I believe this is why there is no such thing as a Non- Triumphalist in practice, for there will never be a person that claims to be Non-Triumphalist in their beliefs that does not also believe some or all of their beliefs really do make the world a better place. Why else hold their beliefs at all?
Indeed, the single most common form of Non-Triumphalism is to believe in Non-Triumphalism as a “doctrine, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over [Triumphalism.]” Thus Non-Triumphalism itself is the best proof of the logical impossibility of Non-Triumphalism.
A Real Life Example
I once had a manager that used to claim that all religions were equally true… well, except for the Catholics (his former religion) because they were a crock and just wanted your money.
I once challenged him on the illogic of his belief because he and a Hindu programmer were arguing over if one can only reincarnate seven times (as the Hindu programmer believed) or an infinite number of times (as my manager believed.) I pointed out that logically it can’t be both. It can’t be that everyone can only have seven “chances to get it right” and also have an infinite number of “chances to get it right.”
He smiled at me and pointed out that they can both be right, but for themselves. I smiled back and explained that this meant his belief system was superior to the programmers because, all things being equal, who wouldn’t prefer an infinite number of chances instead of just seven? That meant the “seven chances” belief was hurtful or limiting compared to the managers infinite chances belief and should be discarded. In other words, knowing the “truth,” as the manager believed it to be, mattered significantly.
Later on, when I was explaining to a Baptist co-worker about one of my favorite movies, The Other Side of Heaven, my manager couldn’t hold back a snide remark about how ridiculous it was to send a missionary overseas to someone else and try to convert them from their religious beliefs. “Everyone should just believe what they believe and introspect based on that. We should never try to covert people to our personal beliefs.”
“Isn’t that what you are doing to me right now with that very comment?” I asked.
He was caught red handed.
His comment showed another inconsistency with his belief system. If he really believed religions are merely a preference, like flavors of ice cream, then the correct comment for him to make would have been “what an incredibly great thing for that missionary to bring additional options to the people of that island so that they had more options to choose from!” But he didn’t say that and he certainly didn’t feel that way either.
We had proof that he did not believe that religious beliefs were a mere preference after all.
Superset Religions – Mormonism and The Bahai
But let’s consider another logically possibility. What if the truth is a union rather than an intersection of all religions? What if all religions have a piece of the puzzle, so to speak? Well, obviously, that would mean that anyone that put the puzzle together (or more of the puzzle together) would have “more truth” and thus that person’s belief system would be “the truest” religion. Plus, as I mentioned above, all religions have some mutually exclusive beliefs, so something has to give. Logically this doesn’t really get us to our goal of all religions being “equally true” though it might get us to all religions “having truth.”
I personally believe this is the “best” approach to the problem and the best possible outcome we can hope for. All other alternatives we consider will always turn out to be less ideal than this one, I’m afraid.
As I mentioned previously, there are a handful of religions that believe in the superset approach; Mormonism being one of the most well know, even if most people ignore those aspects of Mormonism in popular portrayal.
Another I’m familiar with is the Bahai. I used to meet regularly with a couple of sisters that were Bahia and share my beliefs with them and they shared theirs in return. The Bahai are fond of saying that they believe all religions are true.
It only took a couple of sessions with the sisters to realize that what they really meant was “all religions have important truths” or “all religions can bring you closer to God, though not in equal measures.”
I truly found much to love in the Bahai religion and if Mormonism turns out to be false, I vote for Bahai as the next best alternative. But they do not believe all religions are equally true: “Bahá’u’lláh described a greater covenant between God and mankind. He also described a lesser covenant between each Messenger and the people of the time.” (link) It is best to believe in Bahá’u’lláh.
Superset Religions – NDE-Based Religions
Another contender to be a union or superset religion are the Near Death Experience (NDE) based religions.
NDEs do not really constitute a “religion” per say because NDEs differ as much as they are similar. But by selecting out the parts one wants to believe in, it’s possible to form a well formed religious belief system out of the tidbits from NDEs.
One of my favorite books, What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, is a fictional account of life after death based on his own research into NDEs. Thanks to Matheson’s introduction to the book, we know that the story represents the beliefs Matheson personally held. And it’s the best detailed attempt I’ve seen to create a religion whereby all religions are true via the idea of a union or superset of beliefs. In Matheson’s view of heaven, all heavens of all religions exist exactly as believers imagined them. This is because in Matheson’s Hinduish beliefs, thought forms into reality. Thus when you die you quickly find that your “spirit body” is physical so long as you think of it that way. Likewise by thinking of a house for yourself, you can create a house. Likewise, if you create a “heaven” through your thoughts then this “heaven” becomes your reality. You are limited by your own thoughts and nothing else.
I love this book and, like the Bahai, if Mormonism isn’t true, I sure hope something like this is instead. But make no mistake; it proved impossible for Matheson to come up with a logical way for all religions to be “equally true.”
(Interestingly, the ultimate goal in Matheson’s religion is to raise in your spirituality until, “the progressing soul becomes at one with God – formless, independent of time and substance though still aware of personal identity.” Sounds familiar?)
But I soon noticed that Matheson’s belief system favors the types of people he was friends with and considered his political allies. Our main character, Chris Nielsen, is an ethical atheist in life and does not believe in an afterlife. He is shocked when, at death, he is ushered into a place that he thought did not exist at all. Virtuous atheists have nothing to fear from the afterlife.
But then we come to realize that Matheson believes Christians, particularly conservative ones, have an inferior belief system compared to atheists. For example, Chris meets his Aunt Vera in heaven:
Aunt Vera had found the ‘heaven’ she desired and believed she would find – totally religious. She goes to church almost constantly. … ‘You see, Chris, we were right,’ Aunt Vera said to me. And, as long as she believes it, her Summerland [heaven] will be contained within the boundaries of that conviction. There’s nothing wrong with it. She’s happy. It’s just that she’s limited. To repeat: there is more.
At least Aunt Vera is happy, because other traditional Christians aren’t so lucky:
I looked across the hall in startlement as a man began to shout. “I am a Christian and a follower of my Savior! I demand to be taken to my Lord! You have no right to keep me here! No right! … [Chris’ guide says,] “One of the many who expect to sit at the right hand of God and believe that those who fail to share their ideas are doomed to eternal torment. In many ways, these are the most backward souls of all.
So apparently religious beliefs matter a lot after all. And people that Richard Matheson considers political allies fare better than his political adversaries. Boy, didn’t see that coming.
On the other hand, even atheists might bump into some troubles if they don’t believe “the truth.” When Chris’ wife decides to snuff herself out of existence because of her sadness over Chris’ death, she awakes in a personally created hell and must live there until the time that she was appointed to die naturally. Do you think this “truth” might be something worth knowing, even for an atheist? Again we see that knowing a truth matters and thus what you believe matters. 
My conclusion from these examples is simple: it is not possible for all belief systems to turn out to be equal unless there is no ultimate truth at all. Then it simply doesn’t matter if you have truth or not. But of course, we all sense this is not the case, even atheists, so we all Triumphally fight for what we believe that universal spiritual truth to be and claim our beliefs to be the best and truest.
Or to put it another way, logically speaking there can be only one true (or most true) religion, at most. There is no other way possible, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. But then there is an upside to this belief. It means there is a purpose and reason in seeking a greater understanding of God and we can honestly hope to benefit from discovery of truth. Perhaps it’s best that we look at the positives instead of the negatives.
Footnotes: Every time I write something like this I can, without fail, count on someone misunderstanding it and then railing against what they thought I said. So let me respond in advance to the ways I believe what I just wrote will be misunderstood.
- If you are an atheist that believes people should not be constrained by religion or religious upbringing so that they can search out what makes them the happiest, then by definition you believe in a universal spiritual truth that all must reconcile themselves against or be at a disadvantage. So I wasn’t writing about you in this section. You are, however, the perfect example of what I am writing about: someone that believes they have the one true religion.
- If you are an atheist that believes atheism makes you happy because you don’t have to answer to anyone and you think others might feel the same way if they just realized there is no God, then you also have a universal spiritual truth that you believe all must reconcile themselves against or be at a disadvantage. I wasn’t talking to you in this section and you also just proved my point because you believe you have the one true religion.
- If you are an atheist that really and truly believes people should believe what they want and it doesn’t matter because when we all die we’re dead anyhow so it’s best that people find happiness any way they can while in this miserable life, then I *was* talking specifically about you. Now please don’t prove yourself a hypocrite by arguing with me – or anyone else — ever again because the moment you do, you are no longer this type of atheist and you are now claiming to have a universal spiritual truth that all must reconcile themselves to. Arguing will also prove that you believe you have the one true religion. In fact, if you really do fit this description you will never read this because a blog like this would matter so little to you you’d not bother with it. To each their own, right? And you certainly won’t be posting a comment because you’d, at a minimum, believe what I’m writing is “as good” as anything else out there if I believe in it. So there will be nothing to discuss.