March 31, 2007

How Can You Know if Your Religion is Right?

I've been playing around on Yahoo! Answers and I thought my answer to the following question might be worth posting here.


How are you sure that your religion is right? There are many religions that all teach different things, and some people do not practice any religion at all. How can you be sure?

My Answer:

One of the most important criteria is that a religion has to make sense out of the world; it has to fit our observations and deepest intuitions about it. So, if it tells a historical tale, like the Book of Mormon does about the Americas, that had absolutely no archaeological, genetic, or documentary verification, then that would be a big strike against it. Or if it claims that the world is an illusion, like Buddhism, in spite of everything in your experience (and the actual behavior of Buddhists) indicating the contrary, then you'd have a big rational barrier to deal with. Or if, like Christian Science teaches, it insists that there is really no such thing as evil, in spite of all the horrors to be witnessed in the world, then you might conclude that the religion's founder was out of touch with the truth.

Important themes that any belief system must wrestle with are things like origins, purpose, morality, and destiny. A worldview needs to be able to answer questions like, "Where did it all come from?", "What are we?", "Why is there evil and suffering in the world?", "How should I live my life?", "Is there any meaning to life?", and "What should we be striving for?"

Many belief systems either fail to give much of an answer to all of these or they give unsatisfactory ones. For instance, paganism deals quite a bit with the world itself, but isn't much good with explaining where the whole cosmos came from in the first place. Eastern religions don't give much traction for asking the "what are we" question, since there's supposedly not really any individuals to ask it ("we" are part of the One). Many systems cannot make much sense of why humans would find themselves in such a sorry state (i.e., there's no "fall of man" type of doctrine). And the issue of morality is a vague or even meaningless concept for others.

Atheists don't get off the hook simply by rejecting religion. They've also got to answer these questions. Unfortunately, most of their answers are "don't know," some form of raw speculation, or some kind of subjective construction. For instance, what caused the Big Bang and why the laws of physics are so finely tuned for life is just an invitation to a science fiction discussion for an atheist. And trying to ground an objective ethical system without any transcendent source for moral principles is something that most astute atheistic philosophers have abandoned. And, while not really a logical strike against atheism, answering the question, "What is the meaning of life?", with something like, "There isn't really one; we make up our own meaning," is very unsatisfactory to those who believe that the universal human drive to ask the question suggests that a real answer must exist. You might just as well tell a hungry man that food is a figment of his imagination and that he go satisfy his odd craving with whatever he sees lying around that looks interesting.

The bottom line is that I think Christianity is the best historic, philosophical, scientific, and intuitive fit for the world I find myself to inhabit. The fact that some of what it teaches does not fit my preferences is no strike against it, since I also understand that truth can sometimes be inconvenient and painful, but it generally works out for the best in the long run.

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At 3/31/2007 2:51 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

So, what kind of rating did you get for this answer?

At 3/31/2007 3:09 PM, Blogger Paul said...

It's still an "open" question. There was another Christian in there that went an evidentialist route. I just tried to put a stone in the shoe.

I did manage to earn a "best answer" from an anti-religious type who asked a question about cults. I figured that was an accomplishment.

At 4/03/2007 2:13 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Hi, Paul,

One of the most important criteria is that a religion has to make sense out of the world; it has to fit our observations and deepest intuitions about it.

From this perspective, I'm curious about your view on science and religion, e.g. regarding origin of the cosmos, evolution, etc.? It would be interesting to know your thoughts on this. Cheers. John.

At 4/03/2007 4:00 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I get the strong impression that any good apologist for any of the world religions would be able to make a post like this which shows their own religion in the best light.
As an agnostic atheist I think there are counters to the points you raise but we have rehearsed these before.

At 4/03/2007 2:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Contrary to what skeptics like Richard Dawkins would say, Christians have no quarrel with science -- good science that is. The problem is that we take issue with some of the conclusions of science, and so they image we've got problems with science in general. For my part, I've always had a love affair with science. In fact, I'm presently listening through this set of lectures on biology from MIT.

The two chief areas of conflict are probably the age of the earth and evolution. As an old earth creationist I've got no problem with the commonly accepted cosmological timeline. In fact, I think that Big Bang cosmology is awfully friendly to theism and puts atheism on the defensive. As a new Christian I was a theistic evolutionist, but then I began to learn more about science, evolution, and the counter-arguments to evolution and discarded the theory. I first rejected it on scientific grounds and only later came to realize that it was not a good fit with Christian theism.

Incidentally, I will be posting something on evolution shortly. And I will probably do something on the cosmological and teleological arguments in the near future. These issues are particular favorites of mine, but they can be quite exhaustive to unpack and debate, since there is no end of depth that can be explored.

At 4/03/2007 2:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I appreciate what you're saying; most religions have their apologists, though many do not have the same view of truth and reason that Christianity does and so they do not bother with such things. However, I have heard plenty of bright non-Christians admit that Christianity has the best philosophical and evidential support. I remember Antony Flew saying that he didn't find the kind of knock down arguments against Christian that he did for other religions. But he still doesn't believe in it for what seem to me to be psychological reasons.

At 4/04/2007 3:12 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, your view on science seems fair enough to me.

Re the cosmological argument, have you looked into Avicenna's version?

"Avicenna’s methods anticipate by a thousand years the development of the modern logic of relations.... Avicenna’s successors (e.g., Maimonides, Aquinus, Leibniz) either did not understand or did not appreciate the subtlety of Avicenna’s method..."
-- William Hatcher, mathematician

Avicenna, of course, was a Muslim... Curious that his reasoning powers were so good...

At 4/04/2007 11:35 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Yes, I'm aware of him. His legacy has been resurrected in modern times by fellows like William Lane Craig, who has repackaged Avicenna's thinking on this into the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

However, Avicenna did not dream this up in a vacuum or specifically from his Islamic faith (his apparent intelligence was the product of birth, not necessarily his religion). He was a product of the neoplatonic influences of his time brought on by his own exposure to Aristotle (the originator of the argument) and other Greek-savvy scholars before him, like Al Kindi and Al Farabi. Remember that the expansion of Islam brought with it possession of the Greek, Christian, Persian, and Hindi libraries, scholarship, and cultural legacies.

The interesting thing is that Islam eventually took a turn away from its "golden age" of intellectual pursuit with the help of the great Al-Ghazzali, who rejected the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas and epistemologies embraced by those like Avicenna and Al Farabi.

At 4/04/2007 7:03 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

However, I have heard plenty of bright non-Christians admit that Christianity has the best philosophical and evidential support.
Similarly I have heard bright non Buddhists say the same thing of Buddhism. I think that the philosophical and evidential support for all of the world religions is minimal so it is a question of how good the advocate is and how partial to the message the audience is.

At 4/05/2007 4:07 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul... too weary from a busy period at work, to engage intellectually today.

So I confine myself to offering sincere best wishes for the holy season of Easter.


At 4/05/2007 3:43 PM, Blogger Paul said...

He is risen, John! The tomb is empty and more than 500 have seen and touched.

Have a great weekend.

At 4/05/2007 8:32 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Good on you, Paul, for testifying to the strength and fervour of your faith.

He is risen indeed! May His Spirit be with you.


At 4/07/2007 12:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Resolving this would be a very long conversation that would go in a lot of directions. I would toss out one item for your consideration: historical content. I think the Bible has everything else beat where it comes to people, places, events, and other historical details of the times that it records (and it records a lot of history). The material of the O.T. was once thought to be largely mythical (e.g., no one believed in the Hittites), but archaeologists actually came to the point of using the Bible to guide them in unearthing and identifying ancient cities. And Luke's documentation of Paul's travels across the Mediterranean have been found to be accurate down to an incidental level of detail.

Of course, historical accuracy does not vindicate the spiritual claims that go along with it, but it is the beginning of a case to be made that the authors are concerned to record actual, historical events and not just myth and allegory.


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