In the debate between religion and atheism, accusations of bias, prejudice and closed-mindedness regularly fly back and forth between the opposing sides. Theists argue that atheists have shut their eyes, have hearts hopelessly darkened by sin, are too proud to admit the possibility of a being greater than themselves, are too attached to their hedonistic lifestyles to follow godly rules, and so on. Atheists retort that theists follow belief systems which encourage blind faith, discourage questioning and rational examination, lack supporting evidence, and rely on the myths of an ancient tribe of primitive desert nomads as a guide for daily life.
It might seem as if this is the kind of argument that could go on forever – but both sides’ positions are not equal. There is a point of asymmetry, and that point is this:
Take an atheist and a theist. Ask each one what it would take to convince them that they were mistaken and the other side was correct. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll only get an answer from one, and it won’t be the theist.
I have been a non-believer for years, and I have never encountered an atheist who has said anything like, “Nothing could convince me that there is a god. I have faith in my atheism; I believe in my heart that there is no higher power.” No atheist I have ever known has ever said anything even remotely resembling this, and it is just as well – one can easily imagine how the theists would respond if they did. But now reverse that statement. “Nothing could convince me that there is no god. I have faith in his existence; I believe in my heart that there is a higher power.” Does that sound a little more commonplace?
Simply put, as detailed in “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists“, the difference between the two sides is that, in most cases, atheists are willing to be convinced if the proper evidence is supplied. Theists, in most cases, are not, and it is precisely this that proves beyond a doubt that they, and not we, are the ones whose minds are closed.
In this spirit, detailed below is what I would expect any true religion, any belief system that had it right, to be like. These criteria are, I feel, eminently reasonable, and we would have every right to expect them of at least one religion in a world where God really did exist. Needless to say, no currently existing religion meets all of them. As you read this list, if you belong to a religion that does not meet one or more of these criteria, I invite you to consider why not.
The one true religion would be:
Universal. This is one of the most important ones. Any true religion, any faith that was inspired by an all-powerful, benevolent cosmic deity, would transcend barriers of culture, language, national origin, race, ethnicity, and so on. Given what we have learned from modern science – that all humans are fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels – it only makes sense that, if God wanted to send a message to us, he would send it to all of us. It defies all logic and common sense that the ruler of the universe, an entity so immense and powerful as to be beyond human comprehension, an all-knowing consciousness as vast as the cosmos, a being in whose sight the Earth is an infinitesimal blue and green dust speck, a single glimmer in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars and a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, and we merely microscopic atoms of life crawling across the face of that speck – it makes no sense whatsoever that such a being would choose an even tinier portion of this unimaginably tiny and fragile dot to be its chosen messengers, elevated above all the rest of the bacteria in whose midst they swim. It makes no sense that the all-powerful sight which takes in the entire universe in a glance would stop at the color of a person’s skin.
Many currently existing religions disqualify themselves by this standard: they are clearly the product of a particular culture, people, or period in human history. Judaism, for instance, teaches that the Jews are a spiritually superior race, chosen by God to be the standard-bearers of his message and elevated above all the rest of humanity. Islam is similar, with its insistence that only in the Arabic language can the words of God be truly understood. This is plainly ridiculous; no universal deity would do such a thing. Jehovah is a Jewish god. Allah is an Arabic god. That is not a coincidence.
Morally and ethically blameless. This is another standard that immediately disqualifies a large majority of all the religions humans have ever invented. Many of the bloodiest massacres and most terrible atrocities in history were carried out by people who claimed to believe in a loving and merciful god. The holy books themselves bear witness to this: peruse, for example, the violent slaughters that fill the Judeo-Christian Old Testament, where supposedly great prophets order the wholesale extermination of entire cities of defenseless men, women and children. Even within recent history, the bloody fruits of religious belief have been all too evident, and I will not waste time enumerating them once again. Suffice it to say that even the religions which claim to be morally upright and virtuous fall far short of any reasonable code of conduct for those who truly were guided by a just deity. In fact, religions themselves evolve morally in time. Throughout human history, the pattern repeats: most religions start out as advocates of peace and tolerance when they are initially small and weak. Once they gain numbers and secular power, they become repressive, absolutist movements, dominated by fundamentalists who impose their wills on the minds of their followers, with severe penalties for disobedience. Over time, however, reformers arise and most churches slowly grow more liberal and accepting, though, again, the extremists always remain. Christianity has largely followed this pattern; Islam, for the most part, has not yet moved beyond the second stage.
But this defies common sense for a genuine religion. One that truly was guided by a loving God should start out gentle and peaceful and remain that way. Even pleading that the responsibility lies only on a few misguided fanatics misses the point: if God founded a religion, he would not allow its name and his to be dragged through the mud by letting radicals commit atrocities in his name. The true religion would have a set of consistent ethical guidelines and a history free of such bloodshed.
- Relevant to today. A true religion would also possess holy books or teachings which apply to modern situations. While many Christians, for example, are strongly pro-life, their position finds no explicit support in scripture: although it goes into great detail about other sex-related sins, the Bible never even mentions abortion. Likewise, the churches that oppose cloning and genetic engineering cannot find scriptural support for their beliefs except by taking a few vague verses and pulling them out of context, or by making general arguments about what man was and was not supposedly meant to do. On the other side of the coin, the Bible and other holy books contain very detailed rules about issues that are no longer relevant today. The Old Testament contains specific instructions on how to buy and sell slaves, how we should slaughter animals and burn their carcasses in a way that is pleasing to God, and why empires that ceased to exist millennia ago are evil and should be overthrown. What religions’ holy books discuss problems of the modern world like international terrorism, global warming or ecological destruction, much less warn us about problems we have yet to face? A religion authored by an omniscient God would never stop giving useful advice and applicable rules of morality; a religion authored by primitive, pre-scientific peoples would contain much discussion of the problems they faced and little or nothing of the problems to come, which they could not possibly have foreseen.
- Not opposed to science. Over the past several hundred years, science has vastly changed our understanding of the cosmos. The planet Earth has changed from a flat plane, supported by stone pillars and surrounded by crystalline shells, into a blue, green and white sphere orbiting a yellow star many thousands of times larger than it is, along with its fellow planets which are also worlds as well. The cosmos has metamorphosed from a small solid dome with pinprick holes in it looking out onto primeval fires, to a glittering network of galaxies, incomprehensibly vast, containing countless stars. It has grown older as well, from a paltry six thousand to a grand fifteen billion years. Life has gone from being the direct and special one-time creation of God to being the result of five billion years of evolutionary history, an ever-widening interconnected web of adaptation, diversity and marvelous complexity. And yet, how many religions have gone gladly along with this? How many hailed these discoveries as proof that God is far vaster, grander and more subtle than anyone had ever imagined? On the contrary, most initially denounced these discoveries as direct attacks on God’s sovereignty, only coming to accept them reluctantly long after the evidence was too overwhelming to deny. A case in point is the Roman Catholic church’s official apology to Galileo three hundred years after his death. Indeed, many fundamentalist groups are still fighting a rear-guard action against science today, especially when it comes to the evolution of life on Earth. In short, religion prefers its gods to be small and manageable. The possibility of a much greater God as revealed by science is wholly neglected. A true religion would not strike such an uneasy truce with science, but would gladly join in to further the pace of scientific discovery and would accept new knowledge wholeheartedly, strong in its faith that learning how God creates can only ennoble him/her/it.
Continually updated. If you believe Christian dogma, Jesus has come and gone, and has been gone these past two thousand years. Nor does he ever intend to return to Earth, except, according to some Christian sects, to preside over the apocalypse which is due to occur very soon. The Jews have it even worse: they have had no prophets on this planet for millennia. Muslims, too, have persisted in their faith essentially unchanged since Mohammed allegedly dictated the Qur’an well over a thousand years ago. The pattern is always the same: the great prophets and deities are always in the past, always retreating further away into history. (See “One More Burning Bush” for more on this.) All the miraculous events like the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the resurrection of Jesus or the ascension of Mohammed occurred in the past, beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny; the miracles claimed to occur today, even if true, are invariably tiny, trivial things compared to the miracles of much greater scale that were said to occur regularly in antiquity.
Why don’t we have miracles and prophets anymore? Why don’t men of God walk the Earth performing extraordinary feats to astonish skeptics and confound scientists? Why aren’t any new holy books being written, any new prophecies being pronounced? It only makes sense that a true religion, if such a thing existed, would not be a static thing established and set in stone for all time; it would be a dynamic, constantly evolving way of life, continually being revised and modified to stay alive and relevant. As well, the appearance of new prophets, miracles and the like would go to show believers that their faith is not in vain. And yet, we have none of this. Could it really be a coincidence that, even though no miracles happen today, most religions ask us to accept the inherently unverifiable proposition that they happened in the misty past?
Logical. If any religion asks us to accept a given claim, that claim should make good sense and be backed up by real reasons other than that it is the inscrutable will of God. For such a simple criterion, an astonishing number of religions fail this one. Judaism, for example, asks us to accept that there are foods that are “unclean” for no apparent reason other than the whim of God. What about pork makes it essentially different than, say, beef or chicken? Why did God create some animals and then arbitrarily decree them to be forbidden?
Christianity, too, fails this test on multiple counts. Christians believe that, rather than simply granting forgiveness to those who sincerely ask, God was unable to absolve humanity without violently killing an innocent man who happened to be part of him as a sacrifice to another part of him, except that he didn’t really die anyway. The absurdities of this doctrine are too numerous to list.
The one true religion, by contrast, would not contain such bizarre and illogical ideas, but rather a coherent and sensible set of rules. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, nothing can happen without his full knowledge and consent. If he is omnibenevolent, he will never allow pointless suffering. If he is an all-wise entity, he has real purposes for everything he does. A true religion would not ignore these simple facts.
Resounding in everyone’s heart. And the final criterion, claimed by many religions, but actually achieved by none: the one true religion would bring with it a sense of genuine inner peace and contentment – you would really be able to feel that you had done something right when you accepted it. Of course, practically every religion on this planet does claim that it possesses such a trait, but I am in a relatively good position to say that they are all incorrect. They are all the same; they all use tricks of psychological manipulation to cause these feelings in their followers.
In short, none stand out from the pack; none is obviously different from any of the others. This quality of uniqueness is, I feel, the ultimate defining characteristic that the one true religion would possess. And yet, none of the religions in existence today possess it. They are all the same: they are laced with outdated or outright barbaric rules of morality, their histories are steeped in blood and violence, their leaders use the same fallacious appeals to faith and popularity to control their flocks, and they all put forward dubious miracles or unverifiable historical accounts as corroboration of their claims. True empirical evidence is invariably absent. It is this lack of supporting evidence for the claims of every religion that I have studied that is the ultimate reason why I reject all of them equally, and this is why I am proud to consider myself an atheist.