The following essay is a paraphrased and lightly edited essay, used with permission from www.religioustolerance.org Readers wishing to see the expanded essay are referred to this site. Since for some readers the ideas in this essay may seem new, comments would be welcome.
According to the Apologetics and Research ministry, Christianity is the true religion because there are quotations in the Bible that support that position. As they put it
“Yes, Christianity is the one true religion. That may sound awfully dogmatic and narrow-minded, but the simple truth is that Christianity is the only true religion. Jesus said that He alone was the way to the Father (John 14:6), that He alone revealed the Father (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22).
In practice, this attitude, no matter how well intentioned, has provided the excuse for some extremely intolerant episodes throughout history including wholesale genocide, persecution, torture. Since the Apologetics and Research ministry have challenged other Christians who have attempted to defend Darwinian evolution, or those who claim there are contradictions in the Bible we should not automatically assume that they are speaking for all who call themselves Christian. But even before we consider the Apologetics and Church ministry proposition there are some practical difficulties to be faced. The first is the simple question of even assuming Christianity is the true religion, which among the multitude of versions of Christianity is agreed as the true one?
How many religions are there in the world from which to locate the “true” one?
If we follow David Barrett et al, there are 19 major world religious groupings in the world which are subdivided into approximately 10,000 distinct religions. Amongst these, by the year 2000 CE, 270 religions and para-religions could each claim over a half million adherents. Within Christianity there are apparently of the order of 34,000 separate groups (denominations, sects, individual unaffiliated churches, para-church groups, etc) in the world yet not only are many of them uninterested in linking with the major denominations, even the major denominations among themselves enjoy at best an uneasy acknowledgement of common beliefs and practices. Even considering a single religion, Christianity, within a single country, there are often thousands of individual “Christian confessions and denominations.” For example, Barrett et al. states that there are 175 in New Zealand alone and at the time of his review there were well over 4600 in the US
Differences in the beliefs and practices of various faith groups:
Substantial differences exist between the major faiths when it comes to their assertions about deity. For example not all Christian Churches agree on the significance of the Trinity or whether for example God is a distinct being with power to intervene at a personal level. The four major views on God exhibited by Christians in the US that a number of sociologists currently favour is just one way of classifying the possible attitudes to God. It is also doubtful if followers of other major religions would recognise their own deity in the descriptions asserted by the Christians, and it is more than clear that many Christian groups are deeply divided in their own interpretations of what God stands for. When it comes to the various beliefs within Christendom there is certainly no agreement about the fate of the body or soul after death even when the same Bible is used to give direction.
Simple annihilation might well be the expectation of the modern liberal Christian, but those favouring an Old Testament interpretation might opt for some form of energy-less next life existence as was taught by the ancient Hebrews. The Roman Catholic Church still puts the emphasis on purgatory, while Heaven or Paradise are seen as likely afterlife destinations for Church members according to many Church official teachings although some denominations and sects teach that these are only accessed after the end times arrive. Hell is important to many Christian groupings as a grim possibility for those who do not accept the party line while others await limbo, reincarnation, transmigration of the soul, nirvana, an alternative world much like Earth or any of a variety of afterlife possibilities with some described with certainty in great detail. At one funeral I attended, thankfully not as the celebrant, a man introducing himself as a Christian spiritualist took over the microphone for a eulogy and explained to the puzzled congregation that the man in the casket had not died, but that he had gone through the garden gate.
There is clearly a great range of beliefs and practices among different religions over other theological beliefs such as the importance of the Virgin Mary, the status of the Prophet Mohammed, the need for religious icons, rituals or proscribed patterns of worship, organization, family structure, personal sexual behaviour, and other requirements of the true believer. With Churches forced into union for convenience to deal with such matters as falling church rolls, questions of who for example is authorised to dispense communion or conduct baptisms are by no means automatically taken for granted. Whether or not Jesus would have laid down years of theological training as a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to break bread in his name, or what training John the Baptist had to undergo is rarely discussed.
Between many churches differences exist on matters such as: whether or not abortion is permitted, whether or not celibacy is required for religious leaders, requirements for animal sacrifices, and mode of killing animals for consumption, appearance factors (for example if shaving is allowed, what if any jewellery is to be worn and whether or not women’s heads must remain covered), birth control usage, agreed calendar, acceptable clergy gender, clergy organization and hierarchical control, meeting day, documentation, acceptable foods and drink, place of fasting, attitudes to war, family power sharing, family types, gender of deities, homosexual rights, the form of approved meeting place, nature of humanity, dates for New Year and Christmas, the allowed number of deities, origin and age of the universe, how prayer should be conducted, whether or not pre-marital sex is permitted, role of women, sacred texts, how suicide is to be viewed, surgical modifications to the body, special clothing, symbols, etc.
One would be hard pressed to find two faith groups within the same religion which have identical teachings and practices. If a “true religion” exists, then it would presumably have to be one or a very few faith groups within one of the 10,000 religions. All of the other religions and faith groups would be in error.
What do faith groups teach about their own status?
Most religious groups teach that their own beliefs and practices are preferred and some teach that theirs are the only true set, and that all other faith groups contain some degree of error. For example, the largest single Christian faith group in the U.S., in Canada, and in the world is the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Times News Service, a year 2000 statement by the Church titled “Dominus Iesus” implies that “Churches such as the Church of England, where the apostolic succession of bishops from the time of St. Peter is disputed by Rome, and churches without bishops, are not considered ‘proper’ churches.” Following this statement further down, only the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are “churches in the proper sense.” They suffer from “defects.” Dominus Iesus further states that religions other than Christianity are considered to be “gravely deficient.” Their rituals can constitute “an obstacle to salvation” for their followers.
Anglicans while by no means united on the issue appear to share the Catholic concerns with homosexuality amongst the clergy and do not all agree on the appointment of women bishops. The Anglicans have their own form of Church authority and do not accept ordination in related denominations as giving the automatic right to administer the Church sacraments to Anglican church members. It seems understandable then that those of other major faiths return this intolerance with their own exclusive set of beliefs. For a Muslim to convert to Christianity is to risk total social exclusion, and marriages between those from substantially different faiths remain relatively uncommon.
Which, then, is the true religion?
Because religions are so different, presumably only one could be the “true religion.” Perhaps applying the ideals espoused by Christ, none are. Within the “true religion” there may be more than one faith group that are sufficiently accurate in their beliefs and practices that all could qualify as “true.” The problem is how to find out which religion and which faith groups have this status.
Some methods of determining the “true” religion might be:
Conduct an opinion poll: Unfortunately, beliefs differ around the world:
In Saudi Arabia, the government claims that 100% of the population is Muslim. So there is probably a very high probability that a given citizen picked at random would firmly believe Islam is the true religion and that theirs is the true faith group. Given the current distrust between the Sunni and Shi’ite in Iraq we might however expect some disagreement as to which form Islam is acceptable in the Islamic world.
India is about 80% Hindu. There is a very high probability that any given citizen believes that their tradition with Hinduism is the true religion. Again there is a real range of Hindu groupings so again it is unlikely that all would agree which is preferred.
The U.S. is about 75% Christian. The population in the American “Bible belt” is significantly higher than that. There is a very high probability that any given citizen in South Carolina, for example, believes that their denomination within Christianity is the true religion.
It is obvious that one’s personal beliefs about the true religion is largely a function of the country in which one happens to have been born, the area of that country, and the beliefs of one’s parent(s):
If Jerry Falwell had been born in Saudi Arabia of Muslim parents, and obtained his religious education in that country, there is a near certainty that he would have been promoting Islam in preference to Christianity.
If the late Sheikh Mohamed Mutwali al-Sharawilittle of Egypt, who was called “The Arab world’s best known television preacher of the Holy Qur’an,” had been born and raised by Southern Baptists in Dallas, TX, that he would almost certainly have promoted Christianity.
One’s personal beliefs and the certainty with which one holds them is an unreliable measure of truth, because they are largely determined by one’s culture and the faith of one’s parents — both largely accidents of birth. So, an opinion poll might show what people’s beliefs are. But it would not be helpful in locating the “true” faith group. It also raises the incidental question about the afterlife in that if one is born into a particular faith, would there be justice in any selection process for the afterlife which is dependent on which faith the believer follows.
Pray to God and ask to be enlightened. The founder of the Mormon movement, Joseph Smith, did precisely this in starting his Church of the Latter Day Saints. Mormons as they are more popularly known, believe that God and Jesus Christ appeared to him side by side, and told him that none of the then existing Christian denominations were the true religion. He reported he was instructed to create a new denomination to restore Christianity to its first century purity before it fell into heresy. Other Christians seeing the multiple wives permitted by the founder of the Latter Day Saints and hearing that Joseph Smith claimed those not accepting the faith of the Latter Day Saints to be in error in were dismissive of Joseph Smith’s assertions.
Since many Church founders claim to have the same personal guidance from God which clearly takes them down very different paths, perhaps we might assume at best the method of praying for enlightenment appears to be unreliable. When people pray to God for enlightenment, most seem to conclude that their own religion and faith group and style of worship and belief is the true one. It might also be argued that if people could access the will of God by prayer on this matter, then a vast majority of the world’s population — the folks who pray — would presumably follow God’s guidance and realize that their faith group was not the true one. They would gradually migrate to the true religion. There would eventually be only one religion and one tradition within that religion left standing. Otherwise, people would be rejecting the will of God. All the other 11,000 religions and their tens of thousands of denominations or traditions would be phased out.
The OCRT, the group that provided the material for this essay, conducted a pilot study to determine whether a person can assess the will of God through prayer. They used a controversial topic: whether God favours same-sex marriage for homosexuals and some bisexuals. The answer that they found was that people appear to be unable to assess the will of God through prayer.
Communication from God: God could initiate a direct communication to humanity. In order to be convincing, it would have to be totally unambiguous, clear and convincing. One example might be for God to rearrange a few thousand stars to spell out in the evening sky the name of the true religion. Unfortunately, at least within the Judeo-Christian traditions, God seems to be progressively withdrawing from humanity. According to those who adopt a literalist view of the Bible He walked in person with Adam and Eve. Later, he only appeared in rare occasions as at Mount Sinai. Still later, he communicated with humans only through prophets. Most Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God and walked among humans in first century CE Palestine. However, he was seen by only a miniscule percentage of the human race. Now, access to God is apparently through prayer.
Unless God were to take the initiative, it appears that there is no way for humans to determine which religion is “true.”
Note: The following are personal musings and are perhaps biased and lacking in objectivity.
There is often great wisdom in comic strips. In 1976, Charles Schultz had Snoopy write a book on theology called: “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” In 1980, he had Linus ask his Sunday School teacher the exact same question.
Imagine the results if more people in the world realized the simple fact that there are over 11,000 religions in the world and that it is impossible with our present knowledge to find out which is the “true” one. An inevitable corollary to this belief would be that they would develop a degree of doubt that their religion is the only “true” one. People might be less inclined to oppress, discriminate against, murder or commit mass murder and genocide against people of other faiths such as has happened during the past decade in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.
Imagine the results if more people accepted their religion as the best faith for them, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which teach about other deities, other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. Yet almost all of them motivate people to lead better lives. There might be fewer people willing to defend their particular religion by oppressing or killing followers of other religions and spiritual paths.
1. David B. Barrett, et al., “World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” Oxford University Press, (2001).Read reviews or order this book
2. Ibid, “Global survey of 270 religions and parareligions with over 500,000 adherents in AD 2000, listed alphabetically by name,” Volume 2, Table 7-4, Page 5 to 7.
3. “Other churches have defects, Catholics say.” The Times News Service, London. 2000-SEP-5
4. Joseph Cardinal Retzinger, “Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church,” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. See:www.vatican.va/
5. In this essay, the author uses the term “God” to refer to whatever deity an individual believes in. In this context, God may be male or female or neither; single or multiple.
6. “Sheikh Mohamed Mutwali al-Sharawi,” at: almashriq.hiof.no/