By Maria Runde, September 30, 2012
Published in the La Crosse Tribune.
One of the many difficulties with the world’s religions is that each believes itself to be correct — and all the others to be wrong.
Each religion holds critical beliefs that are utterly incompatible with the others. How do we know which we should believe? If having the wrong ideas leads to eternal suffering, we need to know which ones are right.
There are about 2.2 billion Christians on this planet. In order to be identified as a Christian, one must believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he was raised from the dead and that his death offers eternal salvation to all of mankind.
If people don’t accept these basic ideas, they really cannot call themselves Christians.
Most Christians believe the biblical stories about Jesus to be literal, historical truth. However, Earth contains more than 7 billion people, meaning that a large majority do not believe these ideas about Jesus.
How can it be that so few have this vital knowledge? Does it make sense that a majority of the world’s people could be condemned to eternal despair simply due to geography?
There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. They believe that Jesus was a lesser prophet than Mohammed, and that God’s true word is revealed only through Mohammed. Though they believe in essentially the same God, they have very different ideas about how he wants us to live in order to be accepted into heaven.
There are about 13 million Jews in the world, and none of them believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God or that his death gives us eternal salvation. They believe he was a false messiah and that the true messiah has not yet come.
Islam, Judaism and Christianity therefore have irreconcilable, non-negotiable ideas about the divinity of Jesus Christ. They cannot all be right.
There are about 1 billion Hindus on this planet, and they do not believe Jesus was a divine being. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions on the planet, predating all the monotheistic religions by centuries. Its followers believe we are reincarnated to live on Earth over and over again. Hindu belief spans monotheism, polytheism and atheism, clearly an irresolvable conflict with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world, and none of them believes in a personal God. They are, therefore, atheist by definition. They do not believe that humans possess an eternal soul. They believe in reincarnation, which is irreconcilable with the beliefs of the monotheistic majority. Buddhism predates those religions by centuries.
There are about 500 million Taoists and Confucianists in the world, and none of them believes in a personal God or the central ideas of Christianity. They identify with multiple gods, but they believe death is final and irrevocable. Consequently, the idea of salvation has no meaning for them.
There are innumerable other religions, each with their own ideas about our origins and our fate. Does it make sense that something as important as the knowledge of the fate of mankind would be revealed to only a minority, and that the knowledge is not verifiable, but available only through word of mouth?
Any sufficiently advanced society in the world could verify the speed of light and the basic laws of planetary motion. Anthropologists of any culture could discover the fact of evolution in the fossil record. Anyone could derive the Pythagorean theorem from simpler mathematics. Such concepts, independently verifiable by anyone of any culture or age, are very likely to be true.
The world’s religions, on the other hand, are mutually incompatible with one another. Therefore, they cannot all be correct. However, they can all be wrong.
From the dawn of human consciousness, we have sought answers to the big questions of why we are here and where we are going. However, we must remain humble enough to say that we simply do not know. No other answer is supported by evidence, and any claim to specific knowledge will be opposed by a majority of the world’s people. It then comes down to faith.
Where faith is concerned, I agree with the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dan Barker, when he said, “Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits.”