Mahatma Gandhi said, “All religions are true.” If you think about it, they all serve the same purpose: comfort the afflicted, explain the unexplainable, provide moral guidelines for living a good life. The differences are primarily cultural — language, place of origin, traditional elements — not spiritual.
What does it matter if one person prays to Allah, another believes in multiple deities, and another doesn’t believe in any God, if all three are fundamentally good people who treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves?
—The Honest Doubter, October 20, 2005
I am fully aware that there are many people who think religion is too private a subject to discuss in such a fashion as this blog does – that the decision of what to believe is an intensely personal one for each individual to make for themselves and should not be interfered with. Others have said that religion is a mere preference, a matter of taste, and that criticizing others’ religious beliefs is as pointless and mean-spirited a gesture as criticizing someone else for their preference in flavors of ice cream. I have heard sentiments like this even from some people who are atheists.
My response is this: Some beliefs need to be criticized. All throughout the world, at this very moment, people are killing and dying, fighting and oppressing others, all because of religion. It was religion that persuaded nineteen Muslim men to hijack four jetliners and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. It is religion that teaches desperately overcrowded Third World countries that it is evil for women to control their own reproductive systems through the use of contraception. It is religion that would deny people who are terminally ill and suffering, or incurably brain-dead, the right to die with dignity in a time and place of their choosing. It is religion that demands women remain silent in church, submit to their husbands, and cover themselves with suffocating black shrouds in public. It is religion that would put a stop to stem-cell research that holds out the promise of curing a hundred dreaded ailments. It is religion, coupled with a deep and irrational phobia of healthy sexuality, that is fighting to cut off people’s access to abortion, sex education, and birth control. It is religion, all over the planet, that is being invoked in support of war, militarism, oppression of the downtrodden, terrorism, hatred, intolerance, inequality, and countless other sins. These evils can only be ended with a forthright confrontation of the root causes that give rise to them. We will never put a stop to any of these things by proclaiming that religion is too private a matter to discuss in public, nor by saying it is just a matter of taste and that it is acceptable to believe whatever works for you.
However, most religious people are not terrorists or theocrats, a statement whose truth I gladly acknowledge. The question then becomes, why criticize the good believers along with the evil ones? Why not focus my criticism on the theists who are using their beliefs to justify causing harm to the innocent, and grant a pass to those who are not making any trouble?
My response to this modified position is that, if religion was purely a matter of preference or opinion, I would be happy to refrain from criticizing those who did not do wrong – in fact, I would have no grounds to do so. But religion is not just a matter of opinion. Religious beliefs are assertions about the world that are either true or false; they are not mere expressions of personal preference, like favorite flavors of ice cream.
For example, it is a true statement that either Jesus Christ was the son of God, or he was not. Those two options exhaust all possibilities. If it is not true that Jesus was the son of God, one of the most deep and fundamental tenets of Christianity is wrong; if is true that Jesus was the son of God, one of the most deep and fundamental tenets of both Judaism and Islam is wrong. Similar truth conflicts can be adduced between any pair of religions. They cannot all be right (although I note that they could all be wrong).
These truth conflicts are not minor differences, but go to the heart of what makes each religion unique. There is no sense in trying to mince words: Someone must be wrong here, and it does no one any favors for us to agree not to try to find out who. It is not kindness to allow someone to persist in error without offering correction, and it is not magnanimity to grant that others’ differing beliefs are just as valid as your own. In both cases, what is being described is nothing more than intellectual cowardice.
The correct course of action is to test, debate, and criticize all beliefs, exempting none. The ones that are true, and that are worth being held, will survive. And if we hold beliefs that are not true, it is better that we discover that sooner, rather than later, so that we can replace them with something better. I know that if I believed something that was not true, I would want people to inform me of that so that I could correct my mistake. I suspect, more than a little bit, that the real reason some people plead for their beliefs not to be criticized is because they fear those beliefs are false and cannot withstand criticism. But this is like trying to live in a sandcastle when the tide is coming in: any refuge it seems to offer is purely illusory.
We should first figure out what is true and then build our happiness around that, rather than deciding what would make us happy and adjusting our view of the truth to fit. If our happiness is firmly anchored in the truth, we have nothing to fear in what the future will bring. On the other hand, if we try to believe something that is comforting but false, we will inevitably have to suffer the consequences of it in the end. The religious warfare and oppression cited earlier, stemming from comforting but dangerous beliefs about religious exclusivism, is but one example of this.
And finally, why should we not want to know what is true? The happiness of knowledge is always greater and more profound than the happiness of delusion. As many former religious believers will testify, the realization that one’s illusions have fallen away, and that one is now viewing the world as it truly is, is a sublime and powerful joy, far surpassing the superficially comforting but fragile belief in fantasy. To those who would say that religion is a personal matter that should be left alone, I say thus: Believers of the world, rise up and investigate! You stand to gain the truth, and you have nothing to lose but your illusions.