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Conclusions about religion

1. Religious Questions

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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.

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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:

bulletMembers of the Jehovah's Witness teach that at the War of Armageddon, those of their membership in good standing will survive, while most other Christians will be exterminated in the largest Holocaust in history.
bulletPope Benedict XVI wrote a document Dominus Iesus in the year 2000 when he was still Cardinal. It identifies the Roman Catholic Church, and those formally in league with the Church to be the church that Jesus founded. They consider the various Protestant denominations as not true churches. As pope, he reinforced his stance with a new document "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" in 2007.
bulletThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the approximately 100 other Mormon denominations in the LDS Restorationist movement believe that Christianity went horribly wrong after the death of the Apostles in the first century CE. Only after Joseph Smith established the Church of Christ in 1830 was true Christianity restored to the world

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:

  1. Following Jesus teachings, as recorded in the gospels;
  2. Following Jesus' behavior towards social outcasts;
  3. Matching those expectations that Jesus had of his disciples;
  4. Reflecting the disciples' actions and beliefs after Jesus' execution; 
  5. What the Bible text says about the properties of the true church; or
  6. Approaching a monopoly over Christianity; i.e. being the largest Christian faith group.

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.]

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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:

bulletThe best code of ethics, which regulates members' behavior:
bulletas individuals
bullettowards other people, and 
bullettowards the deity/deities (if they exist). 
bulletCorrect beliefs about deity. For example, if a personal God does not exist, then Atheists or some Buddhists might be the best religion -- or at least the most accurate. If a single, indivisible God exists, then Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and a few others are contenders.

The next three sections in this essay will investigate these aspects of religious codes of ethics, and correct beliefs about deity.

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How should we behave as individuals?

Various religions expect their followers to follow different behavioral codes:

bulletReligions differ greatly on the morality of abortions. Some say to never terminate a pregnancy:
bulletUnder any circumstances, or
bulletUnless required to prevent the death of the woman, or
bulletUnless to terminate a pregnancy caused by rape or incest, or
bulletUnless it is needed to avoid very serious, perhaps disabling, injury to the woman, or
bulletUnless it is, on balance, the least immoral choice, as decided by the woman and her physician.
bulletMany religions consider the control of sexual behavior to be of prime importance:
bulletSome teach that sexual expression is acceptable only within a proper marriage of one man and one woman. Homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals and bisexuals are to remain celibate. 
bulletOthers teach that any sexual behavior is acceptable if it is consensual, if the parties have reached a reasonable age, if it is safe, and i it is within a committed relationship, (either by a same-sex couple, or a man and a woman.)
bulletThey differ totally on masturbation
bulletSome, particularly Mormons and Roman Catholics, teach that it is an intrinsically disordered, sinful act.
bulletOther say that it is great fun, a useful learning experience, and not a religious concern.
bulletReligions teach different rules about appearance: some require men to grow a beard; others don't care. Jewelry and makeup are forbidden by some and not a religious concern to others. Special clothing, ritual tools, and devices such as a kirpan, turban, temple undergarments, yarmulke, tallith, tefillin, phylacteries, rosary, tasbih, takiyah, etc. are required of believers of various religions, but not of others.
bulletSome religions require males to be circumcised, others don't care. A very few promote female genital mutilation, (although this is generally a cultural not a religious tradition); others prohibit it.
bulletPrayer might be required, encouraged or non-existent.

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:

bulletA Typical Fundamentalist Christian's core assumptions are that:
bulletThe Bible is inerrant and inspired by God.
bulletThe Bible does not only contain the Word of God, it is the Word of God.
bulletBiblical passages are normally interpreted literally.
bulletHuman personhood begins at conception. 
bulletetc.

From these core assumptions, Fundamentalists derive their theological beliefs in the Trinity, origin of the universe, second coming of Jesus, salvation, heaven and hell, and other key dogmas. They also derive their beliefs in abortion, restricted rights for homosexuals, rules of sexual conduct, corporal punishment of children, support for the death penalty, etc.

bulletHumanists' core assumptions include:
bulletEach human has value and dignity.
bulletIndividual rights regarding freedom of expression, inquiry and action are of paramount importance.
bulletMoral values can be derived from human experience.
bulletPolicies and actions should be based on hard evidence and reason.

From these core assumptions are derived their support for democracy, freedom of choice in abortion, personal choice in physician assisted suicide, separation of church and state. These assumptions also are their source of their beliefs: the rejection of a personal deity, Satan, heaven, hell, prayer, and the survival of an individual in any form after death.

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.

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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:

bulletThe Church of Satan teaches vengeance against personal enemies.
bulletThe Creativity Movement (formerly called the World Church of the Creator teaches love of the white race and hatred of non-whites, who they refer to as the "mud races."

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:

bulletIt is too frequently ignored.
bulletSome apply it only to fellow believers, not to all humanity.

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.]

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Which religion(s) have the correct beliefs about deity?

There is great variety among religions concerning the nature, personality and attributes of deity:

bulletSome religions teach that no personal God exists; other faiths have no knowledge of God. Agnostics say that we cannot know for certain whether one exists. Still others teach the existence of a single God, or a dual divinity, or trinity, or many gods. Some believe that many Gods exist but that only one is to be worshiped as the supreme deity. 
bulletOthers teach of a God who is an impersonal force, not a living entity with a personality with whom one can develop a relationship. 
bulletSome teach about a God who is immanent; for others, God is transcendent. The Deists teach that God created the universe, left us alone, and hasn't been seen since. 
bulletSome deities are visualized as male; others as female; still others are seen as having no gender.

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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Reference:

  1. Matthew 7:12, King James Version of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) 

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Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-14
Latest update: 2007-AUG-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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