Interactive Gospel
- Rational Choice -
by Paul Hazelden

1.   Summary

We believe there are rational grounds for examining religions and choosing between them.

Religions fall into a small number of fairly distinct categories, such as syncretistic, historical and philosophical.

Syncretistic religions teach that all religions are different routes to the same goal. They may be faster or slower, you may prefer one to another, but in the end they all come down to the same thing.

Historic religions are based on some event or events in history. You know it is true, they say, by looking at what has happened - by considering the facts.

Philosophical religions have no need for worrying about historic events: just think about it; consider the issues, and you will come to the conclusion that what we teach is true.

Since each religion puts forward a basis, a reason for following that one as opposed to any other, it follows that we can compare their varying claims, and consider how well they make the case for claiming our allegiance.

Christians do not believe that our eternal destiny is a matter of pure chance. There may be choices to make, but there are always reasons for making the right choices. Simply being born into a religion is not sufficient justification for blindly following it all your life: you have to test, to question, to probe, to examine. We believe that if you seek for God - honestly seek for Him, and keep seeking - then you will find Him.

  1. I'll go along with that
  2. Please explain further
  3. I object to what you've said
  4. What are the alternatives?


2.   Further Details

To provide a complete description, I should add another category to the list: exclusive religions. I don't plan to deal with mystery religions - another potential category - unless someone can find me a current example.

  1. Exclusive
  2. Syncretistic
  3. Philosophical
  4. Historic


2a.   Exclusive

Exclusive religions are not based on any of the above principles. In general, they do not say that you should believe or follow them - because you are not one of us. We believe this religion, because it is the religion of our people, our tribe, our region. It is part of our identity.

Technically, Hinduism falls into this category: it is, quite simply, the religion of the Hindu people. Which explains why it is so confusing to the outsider: there is no doctrine, no religious practice which all Hindus agree on, only a sort of family-likeness linking an indeterminate number of religions.

Most exclusive religions are not interested in making converts - you can't be one of us because you are not actually one of us. And even if you get interested in one, or tempted to join because the sense of belonging is so powerful, or the rituals so attractive, you have two problems. First, you cannot really join: you would only be pretending (it's the old 'the people who moved into our village 20 years ago are still outsiders' syndrome), and secondly, you cannot really believe in such a religion unless you have been brought up to believe it all your life.

Someone who has always believed such things may believe that the great creator god actually lives in the fork of the big tree at the bend in the river, or that wearing a bracelet with this pattern on it will protect you from evil spirits, but exposure to a wider world makes such beliefs ultimately impossible to sustain. You may blame the Christian missionaries for the decline in tribal religions in many places, but in reality the decline in their religion would have been much the same whichever really foreign group first made contact with them.


2b.   Syncretistic

It should be fairly obvious that choosing between syncretistic religions is a bit of a non-starter.

While there may be grounds for choosing one syncretistic religion rather than another (I enjoy the rituals more; I feel more comfortable with the culture, etc.) there cannot be any grounds for saying one is better than any of the others in any absolute sense.

And the more you look at the claims of any syncretistic religion, the less sense they make. If you push the idea, syncretism will polarise in one of two directions.

Either it really does not matter what you believe (and hence what you do), or it does matter.

If it does not matter, why bother believing or doing anything? This is a counsel of despair.

If it does matter what you believe and do, then syncretism must be wrong. All religions cannot be equally true, since they teach you to believe and do different things. Either the Buddhist is right to say that killing any animal is wrong, or he is wrong to say that. Either the Moslem is right to kill the unbeliever, or he is wrong.

I have hear many people suggest that 'deep down' all religions teach the same thing. Every time, I ask them what this 'same thing' they have in common is. They tell me, then I list a number of religions which don't share this common golden nugget, and they then either tie themselves in knots explaining why these religions don't count, or rapidly change the subject.

I recently heard about a Westerner talking about religion with a member of the indigenous population. The Westerner said he believed that all religions were basically the same. The local replied, "Don't tell me all religions are the same! If you had come here a hundred years ago, before the Christian missionaries arrived, I would have eaten you!" He knew the absolute difference between the two religions.

It is helpful to distinguish between the syncretistic belief that all religions are true, and the belief of all the other religions that all religions have truth within them. The first belief is (it seems to me) absurd; the second belief just common sense. Of course, few people from most religions will actually go so far as to say this, but they almost all believe it none the less.

I sometimes enjoy talking with members of a syncretictic religion about this topic. They often retreat quickly from the 'all religions are true' position and revert to 'all religions contain truth'. At which point I agree with them, and point out that I have yet to meet a follower of any religion who does not agree on this point. When the Jew says there is one God, I agree with him (and when I say it, he agrees with me); when the Buddhist says that actions have consequences, I agree with him; and so on. The follower of the syncretistic religion then usually tries to argue that their religion thinks that other religions contain more truth than my religion thinks, but as there is no agreed standard unit of religious truth, it's a bit difficult to follow anyone down that road. And, unless you think that doctrines become true through being voted on or believed by the greatest number of people, it is hard to see the relevance of such an argument anyway.

But, to be honest, it is hard to argue with these people. Syncretistic religions appeal to nice people who don't want to think too deeply about the issues involved, and who respond warmly to the first syncretistic option that comes along. "Ah! That's just what I have always believed!" is the common reaction. But simply believing it doesn't make it true, and ten minutes spent with any decent book on comparative religion will convince you that many of the world's religions are fundamentally different. They cannot all be true, so no syncretistic religion can be true either.

One final point. You may find, on examining a syncretistic religion in detail, that it is really an elaborate sham. Often they teach, to paraphrase George Orwell, "All religions are true, but some are more true than others." And, in the end, they teach you - of course! - that one religion is truer than all the others, and it is, of course, this one. At which point, you discover that it is not syncretistic after all, and has to be judged on the basis that it presents for claiming itself as the most true. Which, of course, takes you into one of the other categories...


2c.   Philosophical

How can we choose between the philosophical religions? It ought to be easy. It is not easy, which (in summary) is one compelling reason to reject all of them.

It is quite nice to have just one wise man who tells you: "Just listen to my words. You will believe what I tell you because I see things as they are, and I tell you the truth. It is quite an attractive thing to hear, and an attractive approach to respond to. It subtly flatters the hearer: you are wise/level headed/perceptive enough to recognise ultimate Truth when you hear it.

But we have the old problem of the watches: a man with one watch knows the time; a man with two watches is never sure. A man with one Guru may find the Truth; a man with two Gurus is in the middle of a battlefield. Unless the two Gurus say exactly the same things (it never happens!), you have to choose between them. They cannot both be right - one has to be more right than the other.

It makes no difference whether the guru is telling you to believe in a god or not to believe in a god, whether you are to believe in a creator god, a cosmic consciousness, or nothing at all. A philosophical religious leader can teach atheism as easily as anything else, and more easily than most. As a religious position, it is just one option amongst many.

But how do you choose between them? If it is not obvious that one is not telling the truth (and if it were, you would not be asking the question) then the claim they both make - accept this teaching because it is obviously true - falls to the ground. They cannot both be right, but they can both be wrong.

One important sub-branch of the philosophical religions are the revelatory religions. These feel quite different, but once you get beneath the surface, they are just the same as all philosophical religions.

In a revelatory religion, the leader does not say: believe my words because they are True. Instead, the leader (generally, but not always, called a 'prophet') says: believe my words because they are inspired by God.

It is a variation on the theme we have just looked at, and the same problem arises. You can follow one prophet, but you can't follow two. The history books tell us about thousands of such men - they are usually, though not always, men.

Unless you have some way of testing their claims, there is no way to choose between them. "God has spoken to me," one claims. "No, God has spoken to me," another replies. Perhaps He has. Who can tell? But if you have no reason for choosing between them, you have no reason for choosing any of them.


2d.   Historic

In the final category are the historic religions. Here, at last, we have a reason for choosing between the various possibilities - a reason which can be understood, and shared by most people. The religion is based on an historical event. There are essentially only two questions:

It is possible to conclude, by examining the historic evidence, that the event never actually took place, and that is sometimes my conclusion. On this level, the historic religion can be very like the revelatory religion: one says "Believe me because God has spoken to me alone," and the other says "Believe me, because God has performed a miracle for me alone."

I suppose it is also possible to conclude that the event really took place, but it does not justify the interpretation being placed upon it. I can't immediately think of any examples - perhaps someone can email a suggestion?

So, in theory, I could invite you to join me in worshipping the god of the deluge. I can point you to the facts of the floods in England in the Autumn of 2000 as proof of this god's activity. You would probably conclude that the floods really took place, but they do not prove the existence of any such god.

So most historic religions can be dismissed fairly safely. In my investigations, I have only found two religions which pass this test of plausibility: Judaism and Christianity. One rests on the Exodus, the other on the Resurrection. Again, if you can think of any other candidates, please let me know!


3.   Objections

There are two basic objections to this idea: they say we should not choose any religion because (a) they are all mistaken, or (b) religions belong to our barbaric past which we have out-grown.

  1. Mistaken
  2. Barbaric


3a.   Mistaken

"We should not choose between any of the world's religions because they are all wrong."

Of course, this objection only has weight if you have examined them all and found valid reason for rejecting each one. I have found, I believe, valid reasons for rejecting most, but not all. See the section on 'Further Details' above for more about this.


3b.   Barbaric

"All religions belong to mankind's barbaric past. We have grown past the point where we need such things."

It's a nice line. People have been teaching it for centuries. But it is no truer now that when it was first proposed.

Some religions are barbaric, when compared to today's standards. But this is certainly not true of all. To name but two, both the Buddhist and the Christian religions teach a standard of being human which is far higher than you will find in most societies and human institutions today.

And as for not needing such things any more - this idea ran out of steam long ago. Remember the two bits of graffiti found on a wall? The first read, "God is dead. Nietsche." The second, underneath it, was simply, "Nietsche is dead. God." The one is no more than wishful thinking, the other is simple fact.

At the end of the 19th century, people believed that the 20th century would see the death of religion across the world. In fact, at the start of the 21st century, religion is stonger and more dominant in world affairs than for a long while. If mankind has 'grown out of the need' to believe in God, we are certainly showing it in a very odd way.


4.   Alternatives

There is only one alternative position, but I come across it fairly regularly. The alternative is sometimes put this way.

"We should ignore all religions because they all claim to be true, and they can't all be true."

This is not an argument - it is barely even a position to adopt in an argument. It is an assumption, but an assumption which falls to pieces as soon as you look at it in detail.

You may as well state that reading a murder mystery is a waste of time, because you have a crime with many suspects. They all had the motivation or opportunity to do it, so it is obviously impossible to choose between them.

I do not want to suggest that choosing a religion is the same as solving a murder mystery story - but some sort of parallel exists. And it is a much better analogy than many of the alternatives I have heard used, such as the problem of making a winning bet on the roulette table: bet on the wrong god and you end up damned.

Christians do not believe that our eternal destiny is a matter of pure chance. There may be choices to make, but there are always reasons - good reasons! - for making the right choices.


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Copyright © 1999-2008 Paul Hazelden was last updated 4 May 2008
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