Choice of religion? What choice?

For most people in the World, religion is not really a matter of choice. People tend to follow the religion of their parents and/or of the overwhelming majority of their countrymen. Those who choose to choose, find there are often unpleasant consequences, as their community often sees such a choice as a betrayal.

The right to choose your religion.

In more tolerant societies, on the other hand, not only do people take freedom of choice for granted, but they regard inclusiveness as a common value to which we all subscribe, or at least aspire.

One of the objections many people have to religion is that it tends to be divisive. Religious intolerance is one of the major causes of civil wars and terrorism. (Does Communism count?)

What’s so different anyway? Religions are all the same.

People who have been curious enough to study more than one religion have often commented on the similarities, which you can so easily overlook if you obsess about the differences.  Surely, all religions involve these things?

  • a belief in a supreme being
  • a holy book
  • a priesthood
  • concern for the poor
  • repudiation of materialism
  • miracles
  • mystical experiences
What right do you have to judge?

Are you not being highly arrogant if you claim one religion is all-good and all the rest are bad? Should you not be open to all of them and draw on the elements of each religion that you personally relate to? Why limit yourself? At least be generous enough to admit that, even if you find one religion satisfies you, other people may find their needs being met by another?

So do I agree?

I really do see the strength of all the above arguments and I certainly reject intolerance and agree that nothing justifies treating people badly in any way merely because of their religion. All human beings should be entitled to being treated as well… human, whoever they are. Even Republicans.

Other hand? What other hand?

There are, however, two things to be said on the other side. Things which people often overlook these days.

Vive la difference?

Perhaps the similarities mentioned above are only superficial. Some people have found the real differences to run deeper. If you were to describe a holiday in New York and a holiday in Moscow, both starting from Warrington, the stories might sound the same at first: the trip to Manchester Airport, going through Customs and Security, boarding the plane, the in-flight movie, the meal, landing etc. But those two cities are very different when you get there.

An example of differences between religions in a potentially real situation.

Think about the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus held him up as a good example of how to behave. He helped a stranger in real need. Now think how  followers of certain other religions might have reacted.

  • If you help someone, beyond any existing obligation, it puts them under an obligation to you. That is not a thing to do too readily.(Shinto).
  • It was his fate to be attacked and robbed, who are you to challenge it? (Hinduism).
  • The man needs to learn spirituality through suffering. (Buddhism).

I apologise for any caricaturing, but I am trying to illustrate a point. You have to choose between those attitudes. You cannot hold them all at once.

Finally, the Big Issue! Is any religion the right one?

All the above, is based on the supposition that there is no objective truth about religions. They are products of Man’s attempts at making sense of the World. Religious beliefs are socially determined. This means you must believe that there is no actual god, merely an extension and expression of ourselves, or that there is one, but we cannot know him. All religions are thus equally valid and equally limited.

What if there is a God and he has made himself known once and for all. That is the assertion of Christianity. You do not have to believe that all other religions are totally wrong. Judaism is not a false religion, in the eyes of Christians. It is based on everything God revealed about himself in the Old Testament. Christians regard it as incomplete, as it fails to recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah. Similarly, Christians do not deny that a lot of the teachings of other religions are good, just that there is something essential missing from them.

You must decide for yourself if the claims of Christianity are true. I hope anyway that you will understand why some of us can go only so far with inter-faith dialogue. BUT please remember:

  • There is plenty of scope for sharing, listening, learning.
  • We need to treat all religions and all people with respect.
  • There is plenty of scope for celebrating those things we do have in common.

Christians must, however, ask everyone to make a choice.