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.
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:
Members 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.
Pope 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.
The 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:
Following Jesus teachings, as recorded in the gospels;
Following Jesus' behavior towards social outcasts;
Matching those expectations that Jesus had of his disciples;
Reflecting the disciples' actions and beliefs after Jesus'
What the Bible text says about the properties of the true church; or
Approaching a monopoly over Christianity; i.e. being the largest
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
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
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
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.]
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."
religion would probably have, at the very least:
The best code of
ethics, which regulates members' behavior:
Correct 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
The next three sections in this
essay will investigate these aspects of religious codes of ethics, and
correct beliefs about deity.
Various religions expect their followers to follow different behavioral
Religions differ greatly on the morality of abortions.
Some say to never terminate a pregnancy:
Under any circumstances, or
Unless required to prevent the death of the woman, or
Unless to terminate a pregnancy caused by rape or incest, or
Unless it is needed to avoid very serious, perhaps disabling, injury
to the woman, or
Unless it is, on balance, the least immoral choice, as decided
by the woman and her physician.
Many religions consider the control of sexual behavior to be of
Some 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.
Others 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.)
Some, particularly Mormons and Roman Catholics, teach that it is an intrinsically disordered, sinful act.
Other say that it is great fun, a useful learning experience,
and not a religious concern.
Religions 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.
Some 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
others prohibit it.
Prayer 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:
A Typical Fundamentalist Christian's core assumptions are that:
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.
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."1Our 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:
It is too frequently
Some 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.
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.
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
There is great variety among religions concerning the nature,
personality and attributes of deity:
Some 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.
Others teach of a God who is an impersonal force, not a living
entity with a personality with whom one can develop a relationship.
Some 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.
Some 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
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.