All Religions Can’t Be True

Have you heard the story of the three blind men and the elephant? The story says that the three men encountered an elephant for the first time. Each man reached out and touched a different part of the elephant. One man touched the trunk and thought it must be a snake. Another felt its tail, and so he assumed it must be a rope. The other man touched one of the elephants wide, sturdy legs, and concluded that he was feeling a tree trunk.

In a sense, this analogy has some truth to it. On a deep level, whether we are willing to admit it or not, all human beings know there is something transcendent about the reality in which we live. Despite the numbness, pain, and distractions of this life, most of us still hold onto faith, however small, that deep realities about life such as love, beauty, meaning, morality, and truth really matter. Things like our passions, our empathy toward loved ones, and our righteous anger toward cruel injustices point us toward the deeper meanings and realities of this world.

The elephant analogy is helpful in this sense because it shows us how human beings can take the same experiences of reality and view them in radically different ways. This way of viewing religion can be helpful when considering the similarities of the main religions of the world such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Each of these religions value moral living, justice, and spirituality, but each have different explanations for how these important realities are obtained by humans.

However, although the blind men and elephant analogy explains some of the similarities and different perspectives of various religions, I do not believe this popular elephant analogy proves all religions are true. One reason is because a religion is significantly different than a philosophy (of course, Buddhism could be considered a philosophy depending on how the person is practicing it, but here I am referring to Buddhists who follow it in a religious form).

A philosophy is a way of viewing reality. For example, a person could have a philosophy that the world would be a better place if people treated each other with kindness and respect, that money and material possessions do not lead to ultimate fulfilment in life, and that nature should be preserved and protected. This is a way of looking at life, and the way a person lives is typically shaped by his or her personal philosophy. Here I am referring to people’s individual philosophies- the way they view life. Philosophies, generally speaking, are flexible. People’s personal philosophies on life change and adapt as they go through life and gain knowledge and experience; it involves questioning, refinement, and change. A person’s personal philosophy can be true for them in the sense that it is the way they think, not necessarily an explanation for why things are the way that they are. I believe philosophies are important and can be beneficial for people, but they are different from religions.

A religion, in contrast, is a way of explaining reality. A religion does not merely prescribe how people should live and what morality looks like (although it certainly does that as well); it offers an explanation of why the world and individuals are in their current state, the identity or nature of God (or gods), and shows the way humans can be redeemed (this redemption looks significantly different depending on the religion, but most religions explain how humans can reach some sort of higher spiritual truth, whether it be enlightenment or heaven).

Since each religion explains reality in fundamentally different ways, they cannot all be true at the same time. They contradict each other far too much in ways that are essential to their core meanings. For example, Christianity holds that Jesus is God in human form, and that His sacrifice on the cross saved those who would believe in Him from their sins. Islam maintains that Jesus was a prophet, and that it is blasphemous to say that God became a human. Judaism holds that Jesus was not the Messiah or a prophet. Only one of these views can be correct. They cannot all be true at the same time; it does not hold up to basic logic.

Some might argue that the true identity of Jesus is not an indispensable fact to these religions. However, if Jesus is not truly God, this changes everything about Christianity. The religion itself is founded on the belief that Christ reconciles people to God through their faith in Him. If Jesus was not really divine, then he did not really die for the sins of mankind or rise from the dead. Without this, there is no Christianity, and the faith of Christians would be meaningless and purposeless.

However, if Jesus truly is God, died for the sins of broken human beings, and rose from the dead, this changes everything about Islam and Judaism. Islam holds that people who follow Allah must follow the Quran and the five pillars of Islam, and that there is no way to know for sure whether or not one is going to heaven except for living a good life. Judaism is similar in its view of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. According to these religions, the way to reconciliation with God is through abiding by the Law. But if Jesus truly was Who He said He was, then people cannot earn their way to God through simply doing enough good works. If Jesus truly was God in human form and died to save us from our sin, then the only way to be reconciled to God is through His grace and putting our faith in Him. (I am using Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as examples because they are the most similar to each other and the most commonly discussed).

In Christianity, people are redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ and living for Him. In Islam, people are reconciled to God through the five pillars of Islam and through following the Quran. In Judaism, people obtain righteousness through keeping the laws in the Torah. All three cannot be true at once. Once again, they contradict each other. It is certainly logically possible for them all to be wrong, but they cannot all be right at the same time.

Now, some people argue that when they say all religions are true, what they mean is that all religions can be true for the individual people who practice them. For example, someone may say to a Christian- “Well, I believe that’s true for you. But I personally do not believe in it.” The individual in this hypothetical scenario likely means well, and he or she is trying to say that if religion works for this person’s personal sense of happiness, then it is true for them in that sense. However, the well-meaning people who make claims such as this one are missing what the essence of religion is for its followers. For a practicing Muslim, for example, his or her religion is not just a set of beliefs and practices that make them feel “warm and fuzzy”; it is the way they view the story of reality and how their individual life fits into that larger story. It is not merely a personal “feel good” philosophy.

I think that when most people say something like “religion is true for you,” they really do  mean well. They are trying to be open-minded and tolerant. However, for followers of a religion who put their hope and identity into what they believe, who hold that the meaning of existence and reality itself is explained by their religion, telling them that their religion is “just true for them” is condescending and patronizing. Either a religion is true, or it is not. It cannot be true for just one person, but not true for other people.

One of the reasons this way of thinking has become so popular in recent times is due to hyper-individualized Western culture, in which people are in a constant search for their own personal truth and meaning. Don’t get me wrong- I think Western culture has many positive aspects to it- but I think this is something that can be negative when applied in certain ways of thinking.

As you probably have already assumed by now, I believe that Christianity is the true way of explaining reality. I can explain why I believe that in a different post. But I want to emphasize this: believing that one religion is true and that the others are not true does not make someone a bigot, as some may claim. For example, I do not believe Islam is the true explanation of reality, and Muslims do not believe that Christianity is true. It is not bigoted for either Muslims or Christians to believe that another religion is not true. In fact, they would not truly believe in their own religion if they did not disagree with the teachings of other religions.

However, a person is a bigot if they believe that people who follow another religion are inferior to them, or that people who follow other religions are bad, stupid people. That way of thinking is bigoted (and obviously I don’t believe either of those things about people who follow other religions). As a society, we need to be careful not to water down words such as “bigot” or “xenophobic” because these words lose their meaning when applied to situations that do not warrant such accusatory and character-denouncing language.

Yes, certain aspects of religion such as morality, love, and justice overlap. Again, I think this is due to the fact that all humans know on a deep, fundamental level that the world is not the way it should be. I think all religions can contain some truths in them in that sense. For example, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all value helping the poor and showing compassion to them. This is a truth contained in each religion- that showing mercy to those in need is an act of morality. However, when taken as a whole, each religion cannot be true at once. The fundamental, core beliefs of each religion contradict each other in significant ways.

 

 

 

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