True Religion: Why There Can Be At Most One

July 4, 2008
By

aka Why Our Personal Beliefs Really Do Matter and Matter A Lot

aka Why We All Believe This Even if We Claim We Don’t

Overheard on the Bloggernacle, or in the office, or just about everywhere:

All religions contain overlapping ideas and in this overlap exists the real voice of God.

Or

It is arrogant for such-and-such religion to believe they are right and everyone else that disagrees with them is wrong.

Or

There is so much evil in the world due to people believing their doctrines are more true than anyone else’s. There are many ways to heaven and it’s different for everyone.

I want to give these ideas the due they deserves before I give them the critical analysis they require.

The idea that all religions are “true” is beautiful. From this idea we can easily jump off into our imagination and see a world where we all see other religions as our brother and sisters and where there is no contention between beliefs because all are equal. It is a world where Jihads and Crusades never take place and we can pick the best ideas from all religions and form a super belief system both tailored to our own needs as well as our neighbors.

I wish such an idea could ever be logically possible. But it’s a little like imagining a world where we have legislated that “winters should be mild or cookies more nourishing than vegetables.” It just can’t happen.

The Overlap of All Religions: Morality Alone

Where do all religions overlap? If we are talking about religions that believe in a higher power then there are exactly two areas where all religions overlap:

  1. There is a higher power
  2. We should love that higher power and our neighbor

If we include ethical atheist religions in this list then we might have to eliminate #1 in some cases, though frankly it’s pretty common for the term “atheists” to really just mean “I believe in a higher power, but not one of the ones represented by any world religion.” 

But at a minimum, the intersection of all religions is that we should all love “goodness” (be that perceived as a higher power or not) and our neighbor

I can’t over state the importance of this overlap. If it didn’t exist I think we’d have a pretty definitive proof that there is no higher power at all. And I can’t overstate the value of having people believe, like from my quotes above, that this is the single most important aspect of any religion: for most religions agree that it is one of the most if not the most important aspect of their religion.

Can All Religions Be “True” In the Intersection of Their Beliefs?

What I can’t logically accept is that the idea that all religions are “true” due to this overlap.  Nor can I accept that such an idea could ever be seen as a good thing by anyone belonging to any religion; for at its heart this idea isn’t so much saying that all religions are equally true as it is saying that all religions are equally false. There in lies the ugly side to this otherwise beautiful and well intended thought.

What a religious belief system offers unique to the world is a way to make sense of our lives and the universe. Each does this in different ways and those ways, I’m sorry to say, are mutually exclusive from each other. Consider the following points. How could both statements in column A and B ever both turn out to be true at the same time? And how could it not matter which is correct if one or the other were true?

Column A Column B
Jesus is the only name under heaven whereby we can be saved. You do not have to be saved by Jesus’ grace to go to heaven.
After this life I never have to worry about the pains of mortality and death again because I’ll be resurrected into an immortal body never to have my spirit and body separated again. The only way to progress spiritually is through reincarnating multiple times.
As the Gita teaches, one becomes one with God through enlightenment via mediation more so then virtuous works.  One cannot become one with God because there is a gap between creator and created that can never be bridged.
We will all be resurrected after this life and death will be done away with. When we die, we are dead. That’s the end.
There is true justice in the universe, if not in mortal life. As with Lazarus and the rich man, in the life hereafter, justice will be had by all. If you get away with it and die without getting caught, there will never be a punishment.
We are saved by Grace and not works. Only God can give us salvation. It’s important to choose to be moral and ethical because we all want to live in a moral and ethical society. This is true salvation.
Real and permanent happiness can only be found in unity with man and God. Real and permanent happiness can only be found in being your unique self and in enjoying the ultimate in diversity in each other.
When we have a truth that others do not, we have a duty to share so that people know about it and can decide for themselves if they want to act on it. Sharing beliefs with others just makes them mad, so we should just keep our beliefs to ourselves unless specifically asked to share.

I have to accept this reality: that there is no way column A and B can ever be fully logically reconciled. We might be able to come up with some partial reconciliations, but likely those compromises will please no one.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that all religious beliefs are mutually exclusive from all others. Of course only some of our beliefs are mutually exclusive from others. But it’s the mutually exclusive ones that often matter the most to us.

Whatever the real truth turns out to be, someone is going to be disappointed, hurt, or at least at a disadvantage based on what they believe. There is no other possiblity.

This is why the idea of all religions being equally true via an intersection of beliefs rings equally hollow to all. It is the truth claims of the religions that make them worth believing, not the intersection of what they all have in common.

Non-Triumphalism Considered

What I find interesting is that this seems to be every bit as much true for religions that specifically try to reject Triumphalism. Triumphalism is defined by Wikipedia as “..the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others”

Non-Triumphalism is a difficult concept for me to wrap my mind around because it’s a self contradiction. Now I can certainly understand how a person can have a belief system whereby there are multiple belief systems that can all lead to a good results – that is to say, multiple beliefs systems can lead to “salvation” however that is defined. But this isn’t the same thing as Non-Triumphalism per se.

In fact, Mormonism is one of the strongest examples imaginable of exactly such a belief system. There is salvation to be found in all religions in Mormonism. (There are a handful of competing religions that allow for such universal salvation for all belief systems, Mormonism being only one of them, and I will consider them later.)

But could there ever logically be a set of mutually exclusive belief systems where all are equally true? Or could there ever be one religion that is “more true” than another and yet it does not matter?

“To Each Their Own” – “Whatever Works for You”

The one situation where knowing or having the truth would not matter would be if absolute-hard-core-atheism turned out to be true. If our lives are nothing more than an accident of atoms coming together into DNA that happened to evolve a sense of consciousness and morality merely for the sake of replicating that DNA more productively, then we may indeed have a situation where what one believes does not matter at all – because the truth does not matter at all. 

Its a little like taking a happy 70 year old woman, content in her memories of her perfect life long marriage to a now dead spouse, and telling her that it’s all a crock because he cheated on her during their entire marriage. It may be the truth, but it’s not a helpful truth. In this one circumstance — when the real truth is worse than the illusion –and this one circumstance only, could we truly say “whatever works for you.” [1] Best to just let them believe what they want because it makes them happy. Under any other circumstance, truth matters, at least to some degree.

And yet, I have to wonder at the number of atheists that actively try to rid the world of all believers to make the world a better place. It would seem that even self proclaimed hard cord atheists are usually secretly Triumphalists bringing a greater spiritual truth to the world through the spread of their doctrines. If existentialists really exists at all, they are exceedingly rare.

Let’s put it a slightly different way: if there is no ultimate spiritual truth at the center of existence then the truth of our existence does not matter. But if there is an ultimate spiritual truth at the center of our existence then that truth will matter — period. And the closer you are to it, the better off you’ll be.

I think people struggle with this concept because they confuse ‘salvation’ with ‘advantage.’ Most of us grew up surrounded by a predominately Protestant Christian culture where ‘salvation’ is the only ‘advantage.’ This is why we get so easily confused over the difference. But even if believing a “truth” does not save or damn us by itself, it may yet give us an advantage or disadvantage of some sort. Indeed, a central truth about the meaning of our existence must give us an advantage or it isn’t, by definition, a truth about the meaning of our existence, now is it?

Are There Non-Triumphalists?

I believe this is why there is no such thing as a Non- Triumphalist in practice, for there will never be a person that claims to be Non-Triumphalist in their beliefs that does not also believe some or all of their beliefs really do make the world a better place. Why else hold their beliefs at all?

Indeed, the single most common form of Non-Triumphalism is to believe in Non-Triumphalism as a “doctrine, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over [Triumphalism.]” Thus Non-Triumphalism itself is the best proof of the logical impossibility of Non-Triumphalism.

A Real Life Example

I once had a manager that used to claim that all religions were equally true… well, except for the Catholics (his former religion) because they were a crock and just wanted your money.

I once challenged him on the illogic of his belief because he and a Hindu programmer were arguing over if one can only reincarnate seven times (as the Hindu programmer believed) or an infinite number of times (as my manager believed.) I pointed out that logically it can’t be both. It can’t be that everyone can only have seven “chances to get it right” and also have an infinite number of “chances to get it right.”

He smiled at me and pointed out that they can both be right, but for themselves. I smiled back and explained that this meant his belief system was superior to the programmers because, all things being equal, who wouldn’t prefer an infinite number of chances instead of just seven? That meant the “seven chances” belief was hurtful or limiting compared to the managers infinite chances belief and should be discarded. In other words, knowing the “truth,” as the manager believed it to be, mattered significantly.

Later on, when I was explaining to a Baptist co-worker about one of my favorite movies, The Other Side of Heaven, my manager couldn’t hold back a snide remark about how ridiculous it was to send a missionary overseas to someone else and try to convert them from their religious beliefs. “Everyone should just believe what they believe and introspect based on that. We should never try to covert people to our personal beliefs.”

“Isn’t that what you are doing to me right now with that very comment?” I asked.

He was caught red handed.

His comment showed another inconsistency with his belief system. If he really believed religions are merely a preference, like flavors of ice cream, then the correct comment for him to make would have been “what an incredibly great thing for that missionary to bring additional options to the people of that island so that they had more options to choose from!” But he didn’t say that and he certainly didn’t feel that way either.

We had proof that he did not believe that religious beliefs were a mere preference after all.

Superset Religions – Mormonism and The Bahai

But let’s consider another logically possibility. What if the truth is a union rather than an intersection of all religions? What if all religions have a piece of the puzzle, so to speak? Well, obviously, that would mean that anyone that put the puzzle together (or more of the puzzle together) would have “more truth” and thus that person’s belief system would be “the truest” religion. Plus, as I mentioned above, all religions have some mutually exclusive beliefs, so something has to give. Logically this doesn’t really get us to our goal of all religions being “equally true” though it might get us to all religions “having truth.”

I personally believe this is the “best” approach to the problem and the best possible outcome we can hope for. All other alternatives we consider will always turn out to be less ideal than this one, I’m afraid. 

As I mentioned previously, there are a handful of religions that believe in the superset approach; Mormonism being one of the most well know, even if most people ignore those aspects of Mormonism in popular portrayal.

Another I’m familiar with is the Bahai. I used to meet regularly with a couple of sisters that were Bahia and share my beliefs with them and they shared theirs in return. The Bahai are fond of saying that they believe all religions are true.

It only took a couple of sessions with the sisters to realize that what they really meant was “all religions have important truths” or “all religions can bring you closer to God, though not in equal measures.”

I truly found much to love in the Bahai religion and if Mormonism turns out to be false, I vote for Bahai as the next best alternative. But they do not believe all religions are equally true: “Bahá’u’lláh described a greater covenant between God and mankind. He also described a lesser covenant between each Messenger and the people of the time.” (link) It is best to believe in Bahá’u’lláh. 

Superset Religions – NDE-Based Religions

Another contender to be a union or superset religion are the Near Death Experience (NDE) based religions.

NDEs do not really constitute a “religion” per say because NDEs differ as much as they are similar. But by selecting out the parts one wants to believe in, it’s possible to form a well formed religious belief system out of the tidbits from NDEs.

One of my favorite books, What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, is a fictional account of life after death based on his own research into NDEs. Thanks to Matheson’s introduction to the book, we know that the story represents the beliefs Matheson personally held. And it’s the best detailed attempt I’ve seen to create a religion whereby all religions are true via the idea of a union or superset of beliefs. In Matheson’s view of heaven, all heavens of all religions exist exactly as believers imagined them. This is because in Matheson’s Hinduish beliefs, thought forms into reality. Thus when you die you quickly find that your “spirit body” is physical so long as you think of it that way. Likewise by thinking of a house for yourself, you can create a house. Likewise, if you create a “heaven” through your thoughts then this “heaven” becomes your reality. You are limited by your own thoughts and nothing else.

I love this book and, like the Bahai, if Mormonism isn’t true, I sure hope something like this is instead. But make no mistake; it proved impossible for Matheson to come up with a logical way for all religions to be “equally true.”

(Interestingly, the ultimate goal in Matheson’s religion is to raise in your spirituality until, “the progressing soul becomes at one with God – formless, independent of time and substance though still aware of personal identity.” Sounds familiar?)

But I soon noticed that Matheson’s belief system favors the types of people he was friends with and considered his political allies. Our main character, Chris Nielsen, is an ethical atheist in life and does not believe in an afterlife. He is shocked when, at death, he is ushered into a place that he thought did not exist at all. Virtuous atheists have nothing to fear from the afterlife.

But then we come to realize that Matheson believes Christians, particularly conservative ones, have an inferior belief system compared to atheists. For example, Chris meets his Aunt Vera in heaven:

Aunt Vera had found the ‘heaven’ she desired and believed she would find – totally religious. She goes to church almost constantly. … ‘You see, Chris, we were right,’ Aunt Vera said to me. And, as long as she believes it, her Summerland [heaven] will be contained within the boundaries of that conviction. There’s nothing wrong with it. She’s happy. It’s just that she’s limited. To repeat: there is more. 

At least Aunt Vera is happy, because other traditional Christians aren’t so lucky:

I looked across the hall in startlement as a man began to shout. “I am a Christian and a follower of my Savior! I demand to be taken to my Lord! You have no right to keep me here! No right! … [Chris' guide says,] “One of the many who expect to sit at the right hand of God and believe that those who fail to share their ideas are doomed to eternal torment. In many ways, these are the most backward souls of all. 

So apparently religious beliefs matter a lot after all. And people that Richard Matheson considers political allies fare better than his political adversaries. Boy, didn’t see that coming.

On the other hand, even atheists might bump into some troubles if they don’t believe “the truth.” When Chris’ wife decides to snuff herself out of existence because of her sadness over Chris’ death, she awakes in a personally created hell and must live there until the time that she was appointed to die naturally. Do you think this “truth” might be something worth knowing, even for an atheist? Again we see that knowing a truth matters and thus what you believe matters.  [2]

Conclusion

My conclusion from these examples is simple: it is not possible for all belief systems to turn out to be equal unless there is no ultimate truth at all. Then it simply doesn’t matter if you have truth or not. But of course, we all sense this is not the case, even atheists, so we all Triumphally fight for what we believe that universal spiritual truth to be and claim our beliefs to be the best and truest.

Or to put it another way, logically speaking there can be only one true (or most true) religion, at most. There is no other way possible, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. But then there is an upside to this belief. It means there is a purpose and reason in seeking a greater understanding of God and we can honestly hope to benefit from discovery of truth. Perhaps it’s best that we look at the positives instead of the negatives.

Footnotes: 

[1] Every time I write something like this I can, without fail, count on someone misunderstanding it and then railing against what they thought I said. So let me respond in advance to the ways I believe what I just wrote will be misunderstood.

  1. If you are an atheist that believes people should not be constrained by religion or religious upbringing so that they can search out what makes them the happiest, then by definition you believe in a universal spiritual truth that all must reconcile themselves against or be at a disadvantage. So I wasn’t writing about you in this section. You are, however, the perfect example of what I am writing about: someone that believes they have the one true religion.
  2. If you are an atheist that believes atheism makes you happy because you don’t have to answer to anyone and you think others might feel the same way if they just realized there is no God, then you also have a universal spiritual truth that you believe all must reconcile themselves against or be at a disadvantage. I wasn’t talking to you in this section and you also just proved my point because you believe you have the one true religion.
  3. If you are an atheist that really and truly believes people should believe what they want and it doesn’t matter because when we all die we’re dead anyhow so it’s best that people find happiness any way they can while in this miserable life, then I *was* talking specifically about you. Now please don’t prove yourself  a hypocrite by arguing with me – or anyone else — ever again because the moment you do, you are no longer this type of atheist and you are now claiming to have a universal spiritual truth that all must reconcile themselves to. Arguing will also prove that you believe you have the one true religion.  In fact, if you really do fit this description you will never read this because a blog like this would matter so little to you you’d not bother with it. To each their own, right? And you certainly won’t be posting a comment because you’d, at a minimum, believe what I’m writing is “as good” as anything else out there if I believe in it. So there will be nothing to discuss.

[2] For those that have only seen the movie, this is different from the book, I’m told. Apparently the “suits” thought it would be more dramatic to have an never-ending hell whereas Matheson actually believed all souls eventually, with help from those in heaven, raise out of hell. Hell had an end even if it took a thousand years.

27 Responses to True Religion: Why There Can Be At Most One

  1. Bill
    July 4, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    President Hinckley occasionally said something like ‘the church is true and vitally important or it is a fraud’. This may be appealing to many, but it is a rather simplistic view of things. In your post, there ARE ways that column A and column B can both be true.

  2. Imperfection
    July 4, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    The closest thing to a true religion I can see is nature. If there is a supernatural being then nature is the one unquestioned creation of that being. Interestingly it functions nothing like man-made religions. Natural truths are universal and can be viewed the same by all people. Its language, math, can be understood the same by any who learn it.

    Man-made religions share the common traits of requiring obedience to, and the payment of money to a few individuals who, naturally, only claim to be acting in the name of God. I see nothing ‘true’ about any of them.

  3. July 4, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    Great post Bruce. I am a first time poster to this site and I was very impressed with the ideas that you put together for this piece. It seems to me that it would be contrary to the economy of God to have anything but one Truth. Since God’s house is a house of order then it simply stands to reason. I realize that this is an oversimplification but it is milk for those who need milk where you have provided so much meat.

  4. Bruce Nielson
    July 4, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    >>> In your post, there ARE ways that column A and column B can both be true.

    By all means, share.

    I admit there might be some partial reconcilations. But the real challenge is not to say something like the above in a theoretical sense but to instead actually take two people, one believeing A and one B, and get them to reconcile without giving up things near and dear to them.

    Once we move out of the realm of theoretical possiblities and into real life, most of the arguments I’ve seen to reconcile the two columns basically die upon their first dose of reality. For better or for worse, it is more consistent to just admit that you believe you have some truths others don’t and you believe you are better off because of it. I certainly see this as the higher integrity (or at least more rational) approach to beliefs. And I don’t believe it to be mutually exclusive from belief in universal salvation or universal availability of salvation, which is what I think people are really trying to get at most of the time but just haven’t really thought it through.

    For that matter, if there really was a way to fully reconcile A and B, then wouldn’t that just mean that none of those beliefs matter at all?

    In the conversations with my manager, I found that his ideas to reconcile beliefs failed the reality test. For exmaple, he didn’t mind accepting my beliefs as true for me so long as he understood them as sub par compared to his own. For example, I might create an imaginary world where I think I’m married to my wife forever in the celestial kingdom and become a God and I really believe it, but it’s just an imagined realm created from thought energy. Meanwhile he goes on to really merge with God and find the truest possible happiness in nirvana. Under such circumstances, I’d rather know that I’m wrong and he’s right and work out (and on) the truth now.

  5. Jeff Spector
    July 5, 2008 at 7:48 am

    Very Interesting, Bruce. what drove me to the LDS Church was the desire to remove myself from a “democratic” religion where opposite beliefs could be held and everybody still be “right” to one where there was one right answer. That God was specific about certain things essential to our salvation. It needed to be logical and supported by the preponderance of scriptural evidence, not bits and pieces put together like a zigsaw puzzle that had been forced together because it could not be figured out.

    That is why i am in the LDS Church because, in the end, it makes sense to me. And that one right answer can prevail.

  6. July 5, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Hi Bruce,

    I note your reference to the Baha’i belief in the oneness of religion as signifying nothing more than “all religions have important truths” or “all religions can bring you closer to God, though not in equal measures.”

    As a Baha’i I’d say that is not precisely our position. When Baha’is speak of the oneness of religion by that we mean, in the words of the Qur’an, “that there is no people to whom a prophet has not been sent.” In other words, all religions are one because with a very few exceptions, they are all grounded in a genuine divine revelation. In speaking of the differences between religions Baha’u’llah writes:

    “The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” Every fair-minded soul will testify that these words are to be viewed as a mirror of the knowledge of God, wherein all that hath been inquired is clearly and conspicuously reflected. Blessed is he who hath been endowed with seeing eyes by God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.”

    Baha’is see religion as having too aspects, one spiritual and one social. While there is a basic unity to the spiritual basis of all religions, the social teachings change with needs of the age. It is in this social aspect only that the Baha’is would consider themselves as superior to other religions, not necessarily their ability to bring people closer to God. For instance, it was not possible in the past to fully proclaim the equality of men and women. But that is one of the central principles of the Baha’i Faith. The same would true of many other principles such as the independent investigation of truth, the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth, the elimination of prejudice and fanaticism, etc.

    warmest, Susan

  7. Bruce Nielson
    July 5, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Susan,

    Thanks for the further explanation on the Baha’i faith. As I stated, I think very highly of the Baha’i after meeting with them. What a beautiful form of religious expression.

    However, I have noted in any discourse I have with them a tendency to, at least initially, stay away from any charged issues where their beliefs would suggest the incorrectness of other religions — even though real — and and instead emphasis the commonalities (as you do) on such issues as believing most religions have a real prophet or revelation at their founding.

    There is usually little talk of, say, Baha’u’llah teachings that a true prophet is only sent after 1000 years, which (for example) eliminates the possiblity of Joseph Smith being a true prophet of God. I’d have to say this basically does away with every meaningful teaching of Mormonism. (Yes, I’m aware Baha’u’llah did think Joseph Smith was at least inspired in his religiosity. Somehow I doubt that means much to your average believing Mormon.)

    I’m not against emphasizing commonalities and I think that’a good basic principle when starting a sincere religious discussion. But for a believing Mormon that believes Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, your beliefs do not equate to Mormons being “true” in any meaningful sense. (Though does seem to allow for ‘savlation’ through the influence of true prophets such as Jesus. I’m grateful for that teaching of the Baha’i, by the way, and should note that Mormonism has a very similar belief. It teaches that all the prophets/founders of the world religions were truly inspired of God and that all religions can obtain salvation from hell.)

    But the Baha’i faith really does boil down to the Baha’i having the true faith and everyone else having an paritial version of the truth. Logically there was no other possiblity, so this doesn’t shock me in the slightest.

    This is not just the case with Mormonism and Baha’i. As far as I can tell, it’s true of every single world religion and the Baha’i. For example, to accept the Baha’i faith for a Christian is to basically give up every thing in Christianity. Jesus isn’t the only name under heaven whereby a person can be saved. There is no “grace” in the Christian sense of the word due to Jesus’ sacrifice. There is no need to bring the message to the world through missionary efforts. Jesus is not uniquely the Son of God and God the Son. There is no resurrection in the Christian sense of the term because Jesus already returned but as a moral man (Baha’u’llah) rather than a glorious being. There is no literal kingdom of heaven that Jesus will return and rule over where the world is changed forever.

    What do the Baha’i really leave Christianity that they care about? I’d suggest basically nothing.

    I do not mean to imply that I think there is anything wrong with this in the slightest. The Baha’i, in my opinion, should proclaim what they feel is the truth to the world and should do it according to how they see fit — just as all religions should. That is the real path to religious tolerance, not shutting down discourse (usually everyone else’s discourse, I might add) as many advocate.

    (I don’t mean the Baha’i here. I have seen no such tendencies there. This was actually a comment aimed at those who advocate a purely secular discourse publiclly. I think Obama did a good job of putting this myth to rest.)

    If I have misunderstood some of the Baha’i’s beliefs, which seems likely, I would appreciate further conversation on the topic so that I can understand better. But you should be warned that I will ask tough questions of the Baha’i faith just like I expect everyone to of all religions.

  8. wayfarer
    July 5, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    this is an extraordinary thread and really useful to me as a parent of adult children with properly enquiring minds and an exhausted mother!I raised them to think for themselves and am hoist on my own petard.The thing for me is how does one express these truths with the humility required to get others to listen to them-being right often doesn’t win too many friends.Whilst I guess this is not the point of the thread it does seem to me significant.

  9. Doug G.
    July 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Bruce,

    From your perspective above and things you’ve written on other posts, you obviously believe Mormonism is the ultimate truth in the universe. I’m not saying that in a derogatory way nor do I mean that statement to infer that I think there’s anything wrong with believing your particular brand of religion with accompanying “doctrines” is the most correct. If that’s not you’re going in position then please straighten me out.

    You and I have had many discussions on this board dealing with this same subject in one way or another. I’m not going to take issue with the basic premise of your essay, there can only be one truth. An even more important thought may be whether or not we as very narrow minded beings with extremely limited perspective have the ability to comprehend these ultimate truths? Man has tried for centuries to tie them up in a nice package and present their philosophy as having it all figured out. If my particular perspective is correct, then no “religion” can understand these ultimate truths and therefore all religions are foolishness to God.

    So how would a loving God deal with this problem? I guess he could just go away and let us live out our existence without his influence. I doubt this possibility, but for the agnostic, this might be reality. I lean toward God doing what he can with such primitive souls in inspiring them to live in a way that brings peace and a sense of being much more than our limited sight allows for now… Of course this is just another philosophical explanation of God and a limited mind trying to figure out the infinite.

    Without being offensive, even the most devout of any faith should be cognizant of the evolving “doctrines” of their particular creed. It’s happened in all and exemplifies my point, religion is manmade and tolerated by God for a greater purpose. With this understanding it becomes possible for most all religion to be true for God’s purposes.

  10. Ray
    July 5, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Doug,

    I agree completely with that idea, as, in my reading of it, it essentially says that we all see through a glass, darkly. Ironically, that’s one of my favorite aspects of Mormonism – that, while it encourages us to strive to “know” all we can know and makes “one true church” claims, it also allows explicitly for great truth to be contained in other religions, the possibility that we can learn from other religions, the idea that all sincere seekers of truth will be saved and can be exalted, etc.

    We natural (wo)men botch that basic ideal of the Restored Gospel regularly, but I love that it’s there.

  11. Bruce Nielson
    July 5, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    >>> An even more important thought may be whether or not we as very narrow minded beings with extremely limited perspective have the ability to comprehend these ultimate truths?

    Yes, this is a question worth pursuing.

    >>> Without being offensive, even the most devout of any faith should be cognizant of the evolving “doctrines” of their particular creed. It’s happened in all and exemplifies my point, religion is manmade and tolerated by God for a greater purpose.

    I will not attempt to argue with you on this other than to say it’s a non sequitur. (For example, that argument assumes that we’re incapable of even getting a close fit or a closer fit and that being closer provides no value.)

    But the fact that it’s not a “logical deduction” doesn’t make it wrong or “illogical.” It just means you have a certain creed and faith and it is rooted in emotion and feelings just like, well, me. (And everyone else, of course.)

    >>> With this understanding it becomes possible for most all religion to be true for God’s purposes.

    Yes, if your view is that ultimate truth is so profound that it’s impossible to actually put it together into a meaningful or more meangingful form, then yes, I see your point.

    I could also see that point if all religions are “equally false.”

    But is that really what you believe, Doug? I think your every post here proves otherwise. You do believe it’s possible to have “more truth” and that this “more truth” has value. You even believe in sharing it and encouraging others to partake.

    I can also see your implied point that salvation (how ever that is defined) may be equally accessible from multiple religious belief systems — or possibly every religious belief system that beliefs in morality. (This is one way I might read your “for God’s purposes” comment.) But I’m not sure we necessarily disagree on this.

    I think the one thing we can definitely agree upon, though, Doug, is that it makes no sense at all that a good God would damn everyone that doesn’t “believe the right thing” as some sort of punishment. It seems to me that we also agree that God allows for and work within every religion and that salvation in one form or another is available to all. It seems to me that these are the main thing you have objected to in the past, really, and that I really strongly agree with you on those objections and have never had an argument with you over them. I hope you’ll see this as a bridge between our views for I believe it is or could be.

  12. Doug G.
    July 5, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Bruce and Ray,
    If you brethren keep agreeing with me, how are we going to have any fun? :)

    “Yes, if your view is that ultimate truth is so profound that it’s impossible to actually put it together into a meaningful or more meangingful form, then yes, I see your point.
    I could also see that point if all religions are “equally false.””

    I wouldn’t dream of making this to simple… I’m just implying that God’s methods for judging us, His actual “rules of engagement” with us, His plan for what we’ll actually be doing in the next life, and the whole real meaning of life thing seem like bigger questions then we could understand from a mortal perspective.

    As for all religions being “equally false”, I would rather stay on the positive side of things and look for the good that these religions provide as opposed to the drawbacks of dealing with man-made religious dogma. Your recent long debate over SSM brings this point home. As with similar issues in the past, the church at times has been at odds with the maturing attitudes of their members. The position of the First Presidency today could be totally reversed in twenty years by the next presidency and apologist will go to great lengths to show that the earlier statements were just policy and not doctrine. My father still has little to do with the church because of a decision made in 1978. By the same token, if the church still denied people of color entrance to the temple, many of us wouldn’t be in it today.

    Please don’t take my comments as criticism directed strictly at our church. All churches have been guilty of redefining God has people become more informed. We claim these changes come by way of revelation, other churches call it inspiration, but the effect is the same, religion as a whole trying to redefine itself to stay viable to the masses. For me it’s logical evidence of their man-made origin.

    “But is that really what you believe, Doug? I think your every post here proves otherwise. You do believe it’s possible to have “more truth” and that this “more truth” has value. You even believe in sharing it and encouraging others to partake”

    Bruce, I’ve always said, “knowledge is power”. So you are right on the money with the above statement. Now if I could just get you to see the rest of the story… :)

    “I hope you’ll see this as a bridge between our views for I believe it is or could be.”

    I do Bruce, thanks for your respectful tone. Mostly I comment here for many who lurk but don’t write. I think many who read want to know there are others who understand many of the unsettling things about the church but still find a way to stay with it… My particular philosophy allows one to do that…

  13. Bruce Nielson
    July 5, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    >>> Now if I could just get you to see the rest of the story… :)

    Maybe you can have me over for dinner and let me meet two NOM missionaries. :P

  14. July 7, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I agree with you in large measure. Religious traditions make propositional claims about the nature of reality and as such, competing claims cannot, for the most part, both be true.

    I think, however, your portrayal of the position that “all religions are equally true” is either a strawman or an over-simplified picture of the actual position. When I’ve met people that make the kind of statement you’re arguing against, they often mean the following (and will usually elaborate as such when pushed on the issue):

    All religions have truths. Many of these truths have significant overlaps (areas of ethics or morality you refer to above for instance), and religions can often accommodate many of the truths they do not currently have (such as the inclusivist position you outline above). Where there are areas of disagreement it is primarily in the area of soteriology, an area that is limited in terms of our understanding of what actually goes on (in other words the Transcendent ‘transcends’ our understanding). In other words your claim is that there must be a certain ‘right’ view about reality—I cannot both be resurrected and be reincarnated. However the basis on which ‘reality’ (or the ‘Real’, to use John Hick’s term), or the right view is known, is not on knowledge in the empirical sense of the term. This is to say that all religions agree that the Real transcends our understanding of it, and our religions are inadequate depictions of it. There is no way, at least in this life, to prove who is ultimately right and so we likewise cannot prove who is ultimately wrong.

    I mention this because this seems to be the dominant view in the discourse on religious pluralism. Those that hold this view of course express it much more eloquently than I have above (for a more detailed account see Hick’s Interpretation of Religion and Mark Heim’s excellent critique in Salvations ).

    The larger issue however, I want to raise is that the discourse of ‘truth seeking’ or religion as a system of propositional claims about the nature of reality, is culturally located and representative of certain kinds of religious traditions, and not ‘religion’ in a world-wide sense. I’m not saying that there are religious traditions that do not make propositional arguments, but rather that the role of propositional claims or ‘truths’ (or ‘Truth’ with a big ‘T’) plays less of a central role in some religious traditions.

    Take the case of Mahayana Buddhism for instance. The notion of upaya, usually translated as ‘expedient means’, is a key concept. An example of the way this concept works is in the Lotus Sutra (among many others). In the second chapter a story is told about a father that realizes his house is on fire. He loves his children, but they don’t believe him and insist on staying in the house. After several failed attempts to get them out, the father finally results in telling them that there are three carts outside the house filled with the treasures they love. All of the children run out to find that there are in fact no carts with treasure, but they then turn around and realize that the house is on fire.

    The usage of ‘carts’ in this story is purposeful. “Mahayana” of course means “great vehicle” or “great cart”. The three carts represent the three kinds of Buddhisms. The point is that, according to Buddhists, ‘Buddhism’ as a religious tradition is not ‘real’ in the propositional sense. Anyone taking Buddhism as a series of propositional claims about the reality of life is misunderstanding the role of Buddhism. Instead the tradition acts performatively—it’s meant to produce a particular result (the realization that the house is on fire), and not meant to describe ‘truth’ per se.

    Now, one can certainly respond by saying that a propositional claim is still being made. Namely that the house is on fire (which is to say that we live in a world of suffering). Buddhism internally has a response to that, which I’m not going to go into here (although I can if you’re interested). Instead, the point I want to raise by reciting all of this is that a religious tradition, not meant to make a propositional claim about the nature of reality, has better internal resources to tolerate contradictions, seeming paradoxes, and claims such as “all religious traditions are the same”. For an interesting historical account of this situation see Gernet’s China and the Christian Impact .

  15. Just for Quix
    July 7, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    I wish more (self-described) seekers of God, especially Christians, would find a different solution to defining religion than treating it like it equals denomination. Denomination to me says culture, community, differing holiness standards, political allegiances, geographical orientation. I don’t dismiss the value of denomination, though I don’t regard the value of all equally. But “denomination” is not a particularly effective way to get down to foundation of exploring what is “religion”. What really does it mean to be “liberal” or “conservative”? What does it really mean to be more or less “universalist?” Etc.

  16. Bruce Nielson
    July 7, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    >>> I think, however, your portrayal of the position that “all religions are equally true” is either a strawman or an over-simplified picture of the actual position

    I normally think of a strawman as attacking a position by stating it falsely so that it’s easy to attack. In other words, a strawman, to me, is a non-existent position.

    But we have positive proof with Bill’s post in #1 that the position I was criticizing is real and not a strawman because he asserts he can come up with ways to reconcile the mutually exclusive propositional claims.

    So I believe you are advocating a similar but different position.

    However, I believe I’ve already addressed your position too in my post, though perhaps not as clearly as I should have: those that believe all religions are equally false in propositional claims and that their real purpose is to help us be happy here and now. I believe I already acquiesced on that point.

    If all religions have no truth about our current reality (that is to say, they are all equally false in their truth claims), then it really and truely does not matter what religion you believe in as the sole purpose is to make you happy. This what I was trying to get at when I spoke of the possibility of all religions being ‘equally false’ and is exactly the same as my example of the atheist position of reality where religions sole purpose is to comfort because the truth is too horrible to be of any value.

    However, your excellent example does help clarify this a lot and hopefully makes my position clearer. If there really is someone out there (of which I have certainly never met) that really does believe that religions purpose is purely to comfort, then clearly, to them, all religions would be the same.

    The concern I have with people in my life that have tried to make this argument (“all religions are equally true”) is that they don’t believe it in practice but only as a club against those they disagree with. They seem to want to have it both ways. What they really mean is that all religions, other then their personal views, are equally wrong except in so far as they agree with them. The examples of my boss, for example, show this quite clearly, though I could cite numerous other examples.

    SmallAxe, I am not suggesting that you fall into that category or not. But I believe I’m covering both arguments: If a person honestly believes multiple mutually exclusive claims can be true, they are wrong. If they believe that all propositional claims are equally wrong, then it doesn’t matter and there is no basis for debate.

    >>> Instead, the point I want to raise by reciting all of this is that a religious tradition, not meant to make a propositional claim about the nature of reality, has better internal resources to tolerate contradictions, seeming paradoxes, and claims such as “all religious traditions are the same”

    I do find it interesting that you just made a propositional claim here about the nature of reality, and it wasn’t that the house was on fire.

    Incidently, I am not necessarily disagreeing with you. I suspect that you are right.

    But I guess that does bring up a point. Is there REALLY such a thing as a religion with no propositional claims? I admit to the logical possiblity of it, but I am not sure it could exist in practice.

  17. July 7, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    But I guess that does bring up a point. Is there REALLY such a thing as a religion with no propositional claims? I admit to the logical possiblity of it, but I am not sure it could exist in practice.

    I think you may be missing my point (albeit a slight, but significant point). My claim is that differing religious traditions ascribe differing levels of significance to ‘truth’ or propositional claims about the nature of reality. Your notion of religion puts them at the forefront, and while that may hold true for certain religious traditions, it does not hold universally. The implication is that religious traditions which do not ascribe a central role to propositional truth claims have a higher tolerance for conflicting propositions (such as the possibility that “all religions are the same” or that “all religions are valid”); and this higher tolerance is not a superficial ignorance of the illogicality of their position, but rather a different perception of the role of religion.

    Continuing the example of Mahayana Buddhism, there are several ways in which they devalue truth claims as propositional knowledge. The Vimalakirti Sutra is a text built around the story of several monks, lay people, and Bodhisattvas attempting to describe non-duality (the ultimate stage of breaking the cycle of birth and rebirth). The descriptions get more and more elaborate (and propositionally complex) until the culminating chapter where the main character, Vimalakirti, is asked for his description and he remains silent as if he never heard the question. The best answer, this sutra reveals, is no answer at all.

    Now, you can respond that this story is built on a contradiction because Vimalakirti’s silence must be related (you reading the words or me telling you the story), and as such has propositional claims. That’s fine, but the Buddhist response would be that if you think you’ve really understood the story by reading it or listening to it, then you’ve missed the point. You can respond to say that the Buddhist is still furthering his contradiction by telling you that you missed the point, at which point the only recourse would be silence on the Buddhist’s part. Zen Koans, FWIW, are meant to function to this end (“Someone asked, ‘The patriarch Lu sat facing the wall. What was he trying to show?’ The master covered his ears with his hands.”). They are meant to deny the value we sometimes give to propositional truth claims.

    I suppose you could respond in regards to our conversation here by saying that I am contradicting myself by explaining these things in such a way that I am making propositional claims (you certainly imply that such is the case). But that doesn’t bother me. I am not asserting that I am not making a propositional claim; neither am I claiming that Buddhism doesn’t, just that the value assigned to them is significantly different.

  18. Bruce Nielson
    July 7, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    >>> I am not asserting that I am not making a propositional claim; neither am I claiming that Buddhism doesn’t, just that the value assigned to them is significantly different.

    I see your point. I think your issue is that I “asserted” that there is possibly no such thing as a religion with no truth claims and did so in a way that might imply you believed this and I am debunking it. But what you are really saying is that the value assigned to them is not the same and thus there can be a difference. I admit this is not contradictory.

    Furthermore, you are saying that this makes a religion such as Buddhism superior to another type of religion in some circumstances, such as dealing with certain types of truth claims like “all religions are equal.” I believe you are right.

    But the fact that you are right is consistent with my position entirely. In fact it compliments my point.

    I also believe a contradiction can teach truth without being true. I view the traditional Trinity doctrine that way.

  19. Bruce Nielson
    July 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    >>> My claim is that differing religious traditions ascribe differing levels of significance to ‘truth’ or propositional claims about the nature of reality

    I should address this too, which I didn’t.

    I have non argument with you here at all. (Not that we’re arguing.) That is to say, I agree with you.

    However, please don’t miss my point. I have no real life examples of it, just a lot of people that claim and and then immediately contradict it with their actions.

    But I live in America which has a very Protestant culture and not a very Buddhist culture, so this makes sense that this would be my experience.

    If I were to actually encounter someone that believed “all religions are equal” in the sense that you are suggesting, they’d certainly not act the way anyone I’ve had this discussion with so far for exactly the reasons you have so skillfully outlined.

    Update: okay, let me try to say this another way. I believe I could use this as an example. If I don’t believe my religion is based on logical reasoning then the fact that I have something that isn’t logical in my religion doesn’t matter much.

    This makes sense.

    Buddhism, in your example, has a teaching, as you outlined it, that isn’t logical and is a contradiction. But who cares when having a contradiction doesn’t matter to that religion, right?

    My point is does not contradict yours. It is “if you claim logic and reason don’t matter, then you don’t get to pretend to disprove me through logic and reason while ignoring the contradictions in your own religion.”

  20. hawkgrrrl
    July 7, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    SmallAxe – I really like your point, and this is one of the key facets of Buddhism that fascinates me – the concept of eschewing propositional claims that is generally absent in most western spiritual movements. The idea that the beginning of wisdom is letting go of knowing strikes me as either true or at least very very useful.

  21. Just for Quix
    July 8, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Hawkgrrrl (20): I like what you chose to highlight in SmallAxe’s contribution. I do think we see glimmers of complement of this Buddhist proposition in Jesus’ numerous turn-your-assumptions-on-their-head statements like “the greatest is the least,” “small is the gate and narrow is the way” and etc. He invited us, it seems, into a Kingdom of God where we have to let go of that which we thought was individualistically certain to pursue that which is collectively unknown, albeit hopeful and promising.

    Yet I like that Buddhist axiom’s directness and confidence in certainty being a hindrance to wisdom. As various Bible translations have tried to render the Greek of Hebrews 11:1 it becomes evident how English translators have grappled with certainty, seeming to struggle to express whether hope and confidence is enough to encompass what faith in Christ is. Why is this? It makes me think of LDS people who would feel uncomfortable to bear a testimony saying they believe, have faith or hope rather than know “with every fiber of their being.” Then, again, I’m one of those people suspicious of certainty. That doesn’t mean it can’t be possible.

    Hebrews 11:1

    International Standard Version
    Now faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists.

    New American Standard Bible
    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

    New International Version
    Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

    GOD’S WORD® Translation
    Faith assures us of things we expect and convinces us of the existence of things we cannot see.

    King James Bible
    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    American King James Version
    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    American Standard Version
    Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

    Bible in Basic English
    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the sign that the things not seen are true.

    Douay-Rheims Bible
    Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.

    Darby Bible Translation
    Now faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

    English Revised Version
    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen.

    Weymouth New Testament
    Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see.

    World English Bible
    Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.

    Young’s Literal Translation
    And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,

    New English Bible
    Faith… makes us certain of realities we do not see.

    James Moffatt Translation
    Now faith means that we are confident of what we hope for, convinced of what we do not see.

    Amplified Bible
    NOW FAITH is the assurance (the confirmation, [a]the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the sense

    New Living Translation
    Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

  22. Ray
    July 8, 2008 at 11:59 am

    #21 – Kind of argues against a “straight-from-the-mouth-of-God-to-the-pen-of-the-prophet” view of scriptures.

    Also, fwiw, there is a new, first-time bishop in our stake (33-years-old) who conducted on Sunday (his second week as bishop) and in his testimony stated several times, “I know . . .” and several times, “I believe . . .” It was neat to hear.

  23. Just for Quix
    July 8, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Ray (22) — Agreed. That view of what is prophethood is impractical. It’s one reason I regularly study from a parallel Bible, am adamantly against single translation orthodoxy, and try to consult Greek and Hebrew lexicons and historical and cultural commentaries. Also, it’s a reason I like your parsing nature. Cheers!

  24. September 20, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I like to watch Supernatural and also Lost, becous the sexy cast lol. BTW found this site on google, searched for some TV Show Plot.

  25. sxark
    September 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    “I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light – which of all the sects was right – and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong;…” Joseph Smith – 1st Vision

    Is this not the end of discussion for LDS members concerning other religions? – And should an LDS member come into contact with other ‘writings’, such as the Apocrypha etc. – then the advice is to use D&C 91, when studying such material.

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