How you choose religion

I have always been curious as to the method people use to choose their religious convictions. For some, they are born into a family and remain in the tradition. This is probably the case for most people. Some — albeit relatively few — will weigh the claims of competing faith traditions and conclude which is most likely true then place their trust in what they believe to be the truth. On the other hand, some choose based on how the system or individual tenets make them feel. They may even adopt views from competing religions, taking what seems to be the best they have to offer.

For example, they may hold to a form of universalism where no one is punished for their crimes against a deity. Or perhaps there is a finite punishment after which an eternal heavenly place awaits. They might also hold to pluralism where any religion leads to God.

For these people it is generally the case that they are unwilling to believe others are wrong in their convictions is so far as their views differ. Whatever makes you happy, so to speak.

It is this kind of religious believer that I find the most puzzling. Why believe what you do if you don’t think you’re correct? Logically this doesn’t make sense. If something is true, then its opposite cannot also be true. For example, Christianity holds that Jesus is God incarnate, the Messiah. Neither Judaism or Islam agree. They can’t both be right about Jesus’ status.

If one holds their religious convictions based on how they make you feel, their emotional and psychological appeal, and not because you believe they’re true and competing views are false, what good does it do? Why not invent your own religion if you aren’t taking one particular religion’s claims in totality? How is this different from choosing a favorite football team?

Comments

  1. Yes. Most people’s religion is best defined by ‘whatever’ or ‘whatever my parents believe’. Religious people often chide atheists for excessive skepticism, but exactly what you have said – refusal to accept contradictions and and injustices – is why people are atheist.

    “weigh the claims of competing faith traditions and conclude which is most likely true then place their trust in what they believe to be the truth” – this seems to be your approach. It assumes that one of them is right and has the poison pill of ‘place their trust in what they believe’.

    Option A: The Bible is rife with contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities, and it seems to be the most true relative to the others, so I’ll have faith that it’s right. (intellectual suicide)

    Option B: The Bible is rife with contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities, and it seems to be the most true relative to the others, but I’m not going to trust something full of contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities. (unenlightened skepticism)

    See the difference? to be fair, that is the atheist/none position. The person still actually has some foundation of values. If someone stops at Option B, then they know what they disbelieve but haven’t necessarily fleshed out what they do believe.

    Option C: Option B + Therefore I have to do what I can to understand the world (science) and live a good life (ethics and values) so I can be fulfilled (meaning). (enlightened skepticism) The answer to that is certainly different, but an intentional approach to answering those questions – without fudging reality – is the nontheistic approach. No easy answers but no willful ignorance or intellectual suicide either.

  2. Jason, may I offer some thoughts/questions regarding your options? Would it not be fair to preface your options with something like:

    All value/belief systems are human and, as such, imperfect and prone to error and inconsistencies. Christianity is one belief system and it, taken in whole and understood as, say, progressive anabaptists understand it, makes a great deal of practical, real world sense as a model for ethics. On the other hand, not every flavor of Christianity makes a great deal of ethical or logical sense and one need not accept every flavor of Christianity to find rational, moral support for one particular flavor…

    And wouldn’t this be true for whatever value/belief system you’re speaking of, including paganism, intellectualism or a-theism?

    That is to say, is the apparent lack of perfect clarity, consistency and moral logic a reason to reject a belief/value system? Further, given that we, as humans, will have an infallible sense of judging a system’s clarity, consistency and moral logic, isn’t it reasonable to conclude to take our conclusions with a grain of rational salt?

    John, to your premise:

    Why believe what you do if you don’t think you’re correct? Logically this doesn’t make sense.

    For I suspect nearly ALL of us, we hold to our belief system exactly because we think we’re correct. Otherwise, why WOULD we hold to that belief system?

    One of the premises of Christian belief (and rational observation supports this, I’d suggest) is that humanity is imperfect in our understanding, assumptions and moral reasoning. If someone embraces that very real and observable fallibility and acknowledges it’s true for them as well as others, then that would suggest that one should be a bit cautious when saying others are mistaken about unprovable premises, would it not? If not, why not?

    How is that humble and rational starting point a problem for you? Or is it?

    We are taught (clearly, interestingly enough) that NOW (in this world, here and now, in our current human condition), we understand things less than clearly, less than perfectly. Is it not a Christian belief to accept this teaching humbly? If not, where am I off in thinking that we should be wary about where and how we insist others are mistaken on topics we have no way of verifying/demonstrating/proving?

  3. Raviz Zacharias (rzim.org) says it best that a coherent worldview must answer the following questions: Where did I come from?, What is my purpose?, What is right and wrong ? and Where am I going? Only Christianity answers these questions coherently and consistently. -Zan

  4. Dan, That’s a very thoughtful and wise rundown. Really.

    But your real question is the difference between a traditional Christian world view and the nontheistic approach that I follow. The difference is that I don’t claim to have absolute truth. When Christianity claims to reveal the absolute truth and absolute morality set out by a divine creator, that causes people to think they have answers. Using reason and logic to live a good life from a Christian world view (which many Christians pursue) is a great step in the right direction toward coherence and away from blind faith. The best approach is to take truth in whatever form and to improve human flourishing without special exceptions or privileging of any tradition or authority. Removing obstacles (scripture/clergy/organizations/money) from the path of truth and morality is the most logical path to success.

    Zan provides a perfect example of someone seeking Christian answers at any cost. Truth is certainly no concern. Any answer will do even if it’s obviously wrong. Ethics is obviously no concern to a charlatan and con man of Ravi Z’s stature. Much more reliable to set up a system that seeks truth from any source even if the answer is 1) not found or 2) if found, always up for scrutiny, revision, and review. That is a reality-based approach to truth and goodness.

  5. Jason…

    The difference is that I don’t claim to have absolute truth. When Christianity claims to reveal the absolute truth and absolute morality set out by a divine creator, that causes people to think they have answers.

    Well, I know it’s not a popular point amongst some good number of Christians, but there are many of us Christians who do not claim to “have” absolute truth or pretend to speak for God on that point. Again, a very basic tenet of Christianity is humanity’s fallen nature and that we only “see as through a glass, darkly” here and now.

    We BELIEVE in an absolute Truth and that this Truth is found in God and God’s Ways (as best represented by the man, Jesus, we believe), but we don’t believe we “have” it. Truth is out there, as they said on the X-files and we find it when and where we do, but being fallible human beings, we won’t know perfectly that we “have” it, right?

    So, your argument would be with that subset of Christians who claim to “have” absolute Truth absolutely and that they can’t be mistaken about it, right?

    Fortunately, even for folk like John, when pressed on the point, they will usually gladly admit that they are fallible and prone to be mistaken and, in that sense, they don’t “have” absolute Truth any more than I or you do. (Is that fair, John?)

    I’d wager that the extremists who would claim to have the entirety of “absolute Truth” in their possession are an extreme minority, probably no larger amongst Christians than other faith (or non-faith) traditions, but that’s just a hunch on my part.

  6. Jason…

    Removing obstacles (scripture/clergy/organizations/money) from the path of truth and morality is the most logical path to success.

    But clergy, Scripture and organizations (which required some money) have helped me – and many, many others – on this path to Truth-seeking, they weren’t an obstacle to me (even the ones I disagree with – any disagreement I may have with you or Pat Robertson is not an obstacle to me in seeking Truth; if nothing else, it might help me see, “Wow! That really doesn’t seem rational or moral!,” right?).

    Can we find Truth without formal religious groups? I’m sure we can. But I think there’s something to say for some structure and tradition – the Amish, for instance, living out their faith as a (somewhat) organized community helps them to pull together and rebuild homes for those in need following tornadoes, for instance. Missionary-type societies help by organizing and pulling resources to meet needs, for another example. Did you know that many of the social advances of the 18th and 19th Centuries happened as a result of the “Great Awakening” religious revivals?

    Can some of these groups have an overall MORE negative affect than positive in the search for Truth? Sadly, I would have to say yes (If nothing else, look at the Westboro Baptist folk).

    But this is true for non-faith-based groups, as well, so I’m not sure why we’d single out all religious groups for needing to be “removed” in our search for Truth. Is there any rational reason you can offer to suggest that, or are you even suggesting that?

  7. I think a lot of people are unsure about the whole concept of belief, how can they truly know if they should or should not believe in God? I think a lot of people retain the stance that there must be some form of higher being, but it is beyond our abilities to understand it, let alone know what it actually is. Therefore, when it comes to choosing a religion, they’re not exactly choosing the faith- because its in a sense irrelevant if they don’t think you can know what or who God might be. So instead they chose a religion which has certain social, or cultural aspects which interest them, or suit their life style. In a sense they have chosen to believe, and separately they have identified themselves with a group, through which they may practice faith, but their practice is more centered on the social and cultural aspects of their chosen group of people.

  8. Dan said “there are many of us Christians who do not claim to “have” absolute truth”
    I continued to say “Christianity claims to reveal the absolute truth” which is just as dangerous because it creates the same kinds of cultural prejudice and adherence to unsupported conclusions as does claiming to actually have the truth. People don’t have to convince you of truth – only of Christianity, which, in your mind, you equate with truth. That’s the fundamental difference between traditional religious viewpoints and progressive, humanistic approaches to truth. Again, at the very least, you are unscientifically, illogically preferring things labelled Christian (scriptures, clergy, feelings, etc). Your response that you personally don’ have all the answers does not address that issue that you think you have a special path to the answer through Christianity.

    “Scripture and organizations (which required some money) have helped me – and many, many others – on this path to Truth-seeking”
    That makes sense. But they are bystanders handing you water on the marathon, so to speak. Not the official workers in the tent, wearing uniforms and paid by the people running the race. There aren’t any of them because everyone is just out on there own running the marathon, as far as anyone knows. At the very least, we can see that lots of people have tents up saying ‘official marathon water’ or ‘quit running and sit in our tent until you die’. So you have to treat all of them as just some random dudes handing you indeterminate substances for your intake. You have to drink something, but be very careful because you might be sorry.
    — or maybe giving directions, but I’m not re-writing the analogy, and the purpose is to enjoy the race not to get somewhere in particular… anyway, I digress. The point is that everyone is a source and they all deserve healthy skepticism.

  9. John,

    “On the other hand, some choose based on how the system or individual tenets make them feel.”

    How does it feel to be confident in being saved?

    • Isu

      Honestly, I don’t have a feeling about it. In fact I have found my lack of emotion as it relates to my religious convictions unsettling. I don’t feel happy, elated, spiritual, or other emotions many religious people feel. I’ve often wondered why.

  10. Nice blog. I have thought about the same issue. I consider myself a spiritual humanist so I can give answering your question a shot.

    I think that all religions are wrong about some arrogant certainties. Jesus is the son of God, Allah is the one true God and Muhammad is his only prophet for all mankind, Krishna is the Supreme Godhead…. you get my drift. These are unfalsifiable.

    However, I do think that religions got the golden rule right. I also think that, at least the major Eastern philosophies got the spirituality right, meaning that they realized one could control oneself and be humanistic without having to scare people with eternal hell and so forth. The issue is that the monotheistic religions intentionally sweep the golden rule morality under the rug and keep parroting ‘obey and love God’ like some mantra. And the Eastern philosophies have their own unfalsifiable claims like karma and reincarnation.

    At the end of it, being a spiritual humanist doesn’t mean one should become a Muslim AND a Christian AND a something else. Neither does it mean accepting that they are all right. It means that there is something numinous about existence and that we are all in search of it. Giving it a supernatural touch is discouraging, because the numinous is very much here and natural. This isn’t some new-age crap. It is very practical. Studies on Buddhist monks is making us come closer to understanding how to be more compassionate, happy and less self-indulgent. This in essence is what spirituality is all about. This is what even theists are looking for. The only difference is that they put a name and a face to this and they then let the killing begin.

  11. John,

    No feeling? Sure?
    Imagine you loose you confidence in being saved. Would you feel the same?
    There are more feelings apart from hapiness.

  12. John, I hope you have a chance to return to these questions of mine…

    If someone embraces that very real and observable fallibility and acknowledges it’s true for them as well as others, then that would suggest that one should be a bit cautious when saying others are mistaken about unprovable premises, would it not? If not, why not?

    How is that humble and rational starting point a problem for you? Or is it?

  13. Dan said “If someone embraces that very real and observable fallibility and acknowledges it’s true for them as well as others, then that would suggest that one should be a bit cautious when saying others are mistaken about unprovable premises, would it not? If not, why not?”

    This line of reasoning is often used to try to wriggle out of perfectly good logic in support of a certain hypothesis or to add weight to a weak position. What seems to be strong reasoning might be incorrect, but the reaction should be to check again not to throw up our hands and declare ‘who knows’.

    If you haven’t check your work, then say so. That would be lazy, not fallible. Of course there are lots of situations where I may not have looked up a certain piece of evidence, but call it that. Be specific.

    You’ve rigged the results by referencing ‘unprovable premises’ as well, and I think having that attitude is a recipe for failure. Maybe there’s no practical experiment to prove or disprove a certain hypothesis with current understanding and technology, but there should be some conceivable experiment to test any honest hypothesis. ‘Unprovable premises’ indicate a desire to protect an comfortable but unproven conclusion. Best to declare a certain hypothesis/premise weakly or strongly supported or maybe weakly or strongly disproven by certain contradictory evidence.

    If you’re just being polite, fine, but it’s not really any way to have a substantive discussion.

  14. I’m sorry, Jason, I’m not really following your objection.

    John holds a position, say, about what God thinks about drinking alcohol, or cursing.

    I hold a position on these two topics that differs from John’s.

    In either case, it is unprovable. Further, in Christian doctrine, we are taught (and it is just common sense and observable, as well) that we have imperfect knowledge and understanding here and now.

    All I’m saying is that, in this case – in a situation with unprovable opinions – we should be a bit humble in how we proclaim our positions.

    Saying, “I see no reason to think that it is a good idea to say ALL cursing is ALWAYS a moral wrong,” is a reasonable way to state your opinion. Saying, “I’ve read the Bible and God DOES condemn all cursing,” that is not a reasonable way to state your opinion.

    What exactly are you protesting in what I’ve said?

  15. (and to be clear, I was just using cursing as an example. I don’t know John’s position, I was just making a point…)

    • God opinion on drinking alcohol and cursing is not unprovable. The bible speaks on these issues… unless you hold that the bible is open to be interpreted based on ones own intentions and not the intention of the writer.

  16. If your point was, Jason, that I’m saying “We can’t know so all our opinions are equally valid,” that was not my point. Obviously, those I disagree with, I generally find their positions to be less than valid – even if not demonstrably wrong. Otherwise, why would I care what their hunches are or why would I hold to my hunches? My point was specifically NOT that “all hunches/premises are equally valid.” My point was, “On unprovable premises, we do well to be a bit humble in how we state our opinions.”

  17. What does God think, then John, about saying “poop,” “doody,” “crap,” “darn it,” and other harsher versions of these words? God has staked out a “provable” position on these English words and their use in all times and contexts?

    I think this gets to the heart of many of the differences between more progressive and more conservative folk. I take the Bible’s teachings LITERALLY. But that does not mean that I treat each word and line as a literal command from God. The Bible isn’t – never claims to be – a rule book for all people and all times and all we have to do is rightly understand the rules therein.

    The more conservative amongst us might tend to disagree. If the Bible has a line that says, “Don’t use unwholesome language,” then that becomes a prohibition against all curse words in the English language, rather than a general truth – but not a hard and fast rule, as more progressive types believe.

    And the difference there is that the more conservative folk then feel fine to speak for God – “God said it (and here is what I think God is saying), I believe it and that settles it!” They believe they have “the Rule from God” and therefore, it is incumbent upon them to state clearly on God’s behalf what God has decreed as a rule for others.

    And that is why I fear that the more conservative types tend to fall into the very same trap warned of repeatedly in the Bible of treating “scripture” as the Pharisees did, and in so doing, miss the exact and specific point of the Bible.

    John, any chance you might offer some response to my questions above?

    Thanks.

  18. John…

    God opinion on drinking alcohol and cursing is not unprovable. The bible speaks on these issues

    The problem with this thinking, John, is your understanding of “unprovable” appears to be flawed.

    It is EASILY provable to say, “Does the Bible contain a line in any translation that says, ‘Don’t cuss…'” or something like it.

    What is NOT provable is the premise, “Therefore, this is demonstrably what God’s opinion is on using the word, ‘poop…'” or, “Therefore, this is demonstrably why using the word, ‘poop’ is a moral mistake…”

    It is NOT “provable,” John. There are a multitude of factors to weigh in.

    Is the Bible a literal rule book literally from God who literally wants all humans to hold to this line?

    Is this interpretation a valid understanding?

    Is there even a God who can be demonstrably proven and thus, we can then demonstrably know that this God has a demonstrable opinion on the word, “poop…”?

    etc, etc.

    That word does not mean what you think it means. I fear…

  19. “in a situation with unprovable opinions – we should be a bit humble in how we proclaim our positions.”

    Someone else’s unprovable opinions have nothing to do with how we claim our opinions.
    Hold the positions you hold based on the evidence. If you are challenged, be clear and honest about the weight of the evidence, which in many cases may be slim. There’s nothing wrong with believing aliens have visited earth so long as you admit your evidence is purely circumstantial and you wouldn’t expect anyone else to accept it. This applies equally when you argue from your worldview (Christian) to someone who doesn’t share your world view (non-Christians).

  20. Jason,

    I think you are quite clear in what you are saying to Dan. It is part and parcel of his manner to assert that the opposition is less than humble for stating what is clearly presented in Scripture, and he does this every time the opposition presents what renders his own position incorrect. He has a real issue with those who are convicted in their beliefs, when those beliefs differ or contradict his, and believes they lack grace when they refuse to equivocate or, in my opinion, far worse, pretend that they might be wrong, when there is no possible way. Just sayin’. I’ve dealt with this guy for years.

  21. In this specific post, John asked the question…

    Why believe what you do if you don’t think you’re correct? Logically this doesn’t make sense.

    I responded with the quite rational and quite correct response: It does not make sense because most of the time, it does not happen in the real world.

    Where specifically am I mistaken?

    I responded that people (that is, people who have thought through their positions – I’m not speaking of dabblers in theology, but people founded in what they believe) generally DO believe what they hold to and they do so because it makes the most sense to them.

    Where specifically am I mistaken?

    I responded that there is a difference between saying, “I’m not willing to say that this is God’s Word and Will for you, but I’m quite certain my position makes sense nonetheless…” and “I don’t really believe what I say I believe.”

    Where specifically am I mistaken?

    I responded saying that it is a rational and biblical position to believe that NOW, in this world, we will not/do not understand things fully, therefore it behooves us rationally to be a bit humble in our proclamations of what is and isn’t when we can’t demonstrate we are correct.

    Where specifically am I mistaken?

    Out of time…

  22. Additionally, and by way of example to help illustrate the point of John’s post, I mentioned something “unprovable,” such as God’s opinion on various English curse words. John responded by saying…

    God opinion on drinking alcohol and cursing is not unprovable. The bible speaks on these issues

    One problem, I noted, was the way that some folk (religious and otherwise) at least seem to fail to understand the concept of “provable” or “demonstrable” – fact vs opinion. John’s response points to this.

    We do not and can not know, demonstrably, what God thinks of someone using the term, for instance, “BS” (I’ll abbreviate since I’m not sure how John feels about using actual cuss words, even in demonstrating a point). Does God think that referring to cow excrement as BS is morally wrong? Does God think that referring to a false statement as BS is morally wrong? Or does God even care if we say BS?

    We can not demonstrably prove any of these assertions. They are demonstrably NOT provable. How would one go about proving such an assertion?

    But John appears to be saying that we can provably know God’s opinion on the term BS.

    I would say we can’t PROVE it and that this is obvious.

    We CAN say “The Bible speaks disapprovingly of ‘curses’ and of ‘unwholesome language,'” – that is easily demonstrated. But taking that demonstrable point and extrapolating out of it, “…and therefore, we can know and ‘prove’ that God disapproves of people saying BS to refer to excrement or a lie, either one…” in doing THAT, we have moved from something that is demonstrable and provable (ie, either the Bible does condemn ‘unwholesome language’ or it doesn’t) to something that is neither demonstrable or provable (because it requires human interpretation – “‘unwholesome language’ in the Bible would include modern terms such as ‘BS…'” – and because it requires accepting the Bible as a sort of rule book from God; neither of which is provable.)

    Where specifically am I mistaken?

    • Dan

      Of course we can know. The bible tells us to not let profane things… What is profane in regards to language (save for blasphemy) is determined by the culture. So in America, “bullshit” is a profanity, in some other cultures it might not be. Likewise, in America, calling someone a dog may be rude or in poor taste, but not profane. In Islamic nations its is a severe insult.

      Jesus drank alcohol, and Paul advised to drink alcohol. What is admonished is being drunk. Jesus turned water into wine, and not just any wine. If you remember, the party goers said ‘oh you saved the good wine for later’. Making wine because it ran out, it was obviously meant to be consumed.

      See, it’s not hard.

  23. John…

    Of course we can know. The bible tells us to not let profane things… What is profane in regards to language (save for blasphemy) is determined by the culture. So in America, “bullshit” is a profanity,

    Well, isn’t that a matter of opinion, not “proof…”? I don’t personally consider “Bullshit” to be profane at all. On the other hand, telling Christian folk who are more liberal than you that they are not Christians, THAT is profane, in my understanding.

    Who gets to decide what is and isn’t “profane…”?

    Profane: to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt : desecrate. 2. : to debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use…

    I think to say about someone’s lie (and a lie is not in any way sacred) “that’s bullshit” is NOT in the least bit profane. It is treating something despicable with contempt, but that is as it should be.

    Additionally, the NASV translates your verse thusly…

    But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness,

    But what is it speaking of there? What is “worldly”? Who can objectively decide and have stand as “proof” of God’s opinion on the matter?

    I would suggest that calling a lie “bullshit” is not profane or worldly. It is apt and holy and just.

    And, are you suggesting calling actual bullshit “bullshit” is profane? How so? It is what it is, right? Actual bullshit, I would consider to be holy, part of God’s created order and demeaning actual bullshit, I would come closer to calling that profane.

    And to protest calling a lie “bullshit,” is that not similar to defending the lie itself? And wouldn’t THAT be the worldly thing, not the calling it “bullshit…”?

    Regardless, you are speaking of human interpretations, not demonstrable, observable proof.

    Where SPECIFICALLY am I mistaken?

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