Conclusions about religion
1. Religious Questions
We recommend that you read the menu on this topic first. We normally do not draw conclusions; we prefer to merely report the full range of religious beliefs in existence. However, we are often asked to go beyond reporting and state our conclusions. This series of essays is the result.
Which Christian denomination is the true church?
There are over 1,500 organizations and denominations in North America that consider themselves Christian. There are over 35,000 faith groups in the world that describe themselves as Christian . They have different beliefs, practices, rituals, and service formats. We often are asked which one is the "true" church?
Since all of these groups teach different beliefs, rituals and practices, one might suspect that most denominations cannot qualify as the "true" church. Perhaps none can.
In many cases, individual Christians believe that the church with which they are affiliated is the true church, and that the other 35,000 faith groups in the world are, to some degree, false. Consider the following three examples who together represent about half of all Christians:
This, of course, is irrational behavior. There is only a maximum of one completely true church, in the sense of being exactly the organization that Jesus intended; perhaps none reach this standard. However, it is a very widespread belief among many Christians that theirs is the true church. Many followers of other religions and of no religion feel the same way about their spiritual path.
If we are to determine which is the true Christian church, we must select the criteria to use. We could try to find which present-day church is closest to:
Once the criteria are selected, it is relatively simple to determine which is the true church. One can find answers as diverse as the Anglicans, Fundamentalists, other Evangelicals, Mennonites, Methodists, the Metropolitan Community Church, Pentecostals, Society of Friends (Quakers), Reform Judaism, Roman Catholic church, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and Unity Church. There appears to be no clear, obvious winner. One reaches a different conclusion, depending upon one's original assumptions.
There seems to be no method by which we can determine the true church, unless someone has found a way to assess the will of God. Prayer does not seem to work reliably. If it did, then we would already have a consensus over which denomination is the true church, and the others would have faded into obscurity by now. In fact, if Christians could assess the will of God on religious matters, schisms would never have occurred in the first place.
[Author's opinion: My personal belief is that, after Jesus' execution, his disciples knew more about his thoughts, goals and intentions than anyone else. Paul never met Jesus and apparently knew little about his teachings. The gospel writers also never knew Jesus direclty; they relied on second and third hand accounts of Jesus' life; they didn't write their books until four to eight decades after Jesus' execution. I would argue that today's true church is the one that is closest to the religious organization that the disciples themselves formed after Jesus' death. That is, the Jewish Christian movement, centered in Jerusalem, and led by James, the brother of Jesus. They looked upon themselves as Jews. They regularly went to the Temple and synagogue. They observed the Jewish holy days. Pauline Christianity and Gnostic Christianity developed later; the former eventually evolved into the Catholic Church. The modern-day faith group that is closest to the primitive Jesus movement is probably Reform Judaism. Again, this is just my personal opinion. One can use other criteria and arrive at a totally different answer.]
Which is the best religion?
We must start with the precise understanding of the word "religion." There are probably more definitions of this term than there are religions in the world. None are completely satisfactory. None cover the full range of beliefs and practices that people call "religion." We suggest that the term means: "Any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, and a philosophy of life."
The "best" religion would probably have, at the very least:
The next three sections in this essay will investigate these aspects of religious codes of ethics, and correct beliefs about deity.
How should we behave as individuals?
Various religions expect their followers to follow different behavioral codes:
So which religion is the right one?
Each religion is more or less true, relative to its fundamental, core assumptions about deity, humanity, and the rest of the universe. These items are generally accepted on faith. For example:
Fundamentalist Christians, Humanists and everyone in between hold beliefs that are true and consistent with their own core assumptions. But of course, there is no way to prove which set, if any, of core assumptions is "true." At least, there is no proof satisfactory to everyone. There is no way to achieve a consensus.
So, unless God exists and decides to open up a direct, reliable channel of communication with humanity via telephone, Fax, E-mail, interactive web site, television or radio, it is probable that humanity will never agree on which, if any, religion is true and valid. Thus the world is unlikely to reach a consensus on an individual's proper behavior.
How should we treat others?
Most religions teach an "Ethic of Reciprocity." In Christianity, the religion with which 75% of North American adults identify, the Ethic of Reciprocity is commonly called the Golden Rule: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." 1 Our essay on the Ethic of Reciprocity describes similar sayings from the religious texts of all of the major religions, and from a few philosopher's writings and non-theistic ethical systems. In fact, of all the religions that we have studied, only two have a code of ethics which is not similar to the Golden Rule:
Since almost all religions promote the same Golden Rule to their membership, there appears to be no one religion that is clearly superior to the rest, as far as this one aspect of their ethical codes is concerned. As the Dalai Lama has said that "Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."
There are two problems with the Golden Rule/Ethic of Reciprocity:
In recent years, religious friction has been a major cause of many civil conflicts and wars. Some Christians slaughter Muslims with enthusiasm; some Muslims oppress and kill Christians with great fervor. We have seen recent acts of genocide, mass crimes against humanity, and religious oppression from Bosnia to Kosovo; from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. These incidences prove that the Golden Rule is too often ignored, particularly when people deal with others of a different faith. Too many people treat fellow believers with respect, and the followers of other religions as sub-human. Once that is done, the most horrendous civil rights abuses naturally flow.
All major religions teach the same ethic of reciprocity. Perhaps we can determine on which is the best religion by finding out which faith is most successful at convincing its members to treat others decently. It is not obvious which religion excels here. Judging by the body count of murdered Christians and Muslims, neither of these is the "best" religion.
[Author's note: The world will never know peace until we all learn to get along with people of different faiths. In theory, that is easy to accomplish. Everyone simply assigns the highest personal priority to assuring the religious and other human rights of all of heir neighbors. In today's world, their neighbor might live 12,000 miles away. Sometimes, they will need to ignore the teachings of their own religion and/or government which too often preaches bigotry and hatred -- even genocide. Implementing such a program would not be easy.
Governments now have the ability to extinguish all human life on earth. We must learn to get along with others, if we are to survive as a species.]
Which religion(s) have the correct beliefs about deity?
There is great variety among religions concerning the nature, personality and attributes of deity:
Only one of these sets of beliefs, at most, can be correct. Unfortunately, millennia of study and debate have not even resolved whether a deity exists. Humanity is as divided now on this matter as we always have been. Even if we could prove that God exists, we would still have to figure out what form he/she/it/they take, and what would be their attributes.
Various religious texts teach different rules concerning an individual's responsibility towards deity, in terms of animal sacrifices; types of rituals; seasonal holy days; prayer; fasting; wearing ritual tools, clothing, jewelry; body modification, etc.
As described above and in our essay on absolute truth, religions tend to be internally consistent. That is, each religion accepts certain core, fundamental assumptions from which their beliefs about deity are derived. At this time, since we cannot reach a consensus on which set of core assumptions are correct, the world has a wide diversity in beliefs about deity, and our responsibilities towards that deity. There is no way to determine which religion has the correct view of deity.
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