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Jul 25 2008

The puzzle of one god but many religions

There is a puzzle that arises from the idea of there being just one god and many religions for which religious people might be able to give an answer: Why do the people of one monotheistic religion fight with or try to convert people of another monotheistic religion?

We know that there have always been conflicts between the followers of the different religions, each calling the other heathens or heretics or infidels or apostates and the like. A vast amount of blood has been shed by people in the service of their own particular god. Why is this?

If you think about it for a minute this just does not make sense. If you are a devout Christian, you presumably believe there is just one god and you pray to that god. If there is only one god, then there can be no possibility of worshipping a ‘false’ god. So logically, any other person who also believes in one god and prays to it (whatever they may call their own god) must be praying to the same god that you are praying to, since you are both sure that there is no other god. Since Christians and Muslims and Jews all believe that there is only one god, they must all be praying and worshiping the same, identical god. In other words, all religious people who believe in a single god must be effectively members of the same religion, though they give different names to their gods.

So why would religious people fight wars over religion? Why would they discriminate against people of other religions and proselytize and convert members of other faiths? Why care at all what the names of the other gods are? Why not treat people of other religions the same way that (say) Christians treat Christians in other countries who worship in other languages. They might have a different name for god in their own language but it is still considered to be the same god. Those people are not treated as if they belong to a different religion.

It is true that the forms and rituals are different for different religions. It is also true that people use different religious texts and thus, in addition to giving different names, also give their god different properties and believe that their god seeks different things. But if there is only one god, then all revelations of that one god must be equivalent at some deep level, and the differences merely superficial.

The Baha’i religion is one of the very few major ones that takes this truly inclusive attitude, and teaches that all major religions come from the one god and thus there cannot be a ‘false’ god or religion. They believe that Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others are all messengers of the same god, and that their own founder Bahá’u’lláh (who was born in what is now Iran in 1817 and died in 1892) was the latest in that line.

I can understand religious people thinking that god must be annoyed at us atheists because we find the whole idea of god to be ridiculous. But religious people want to believe in god. Assuming that god wants to be worshipped (which is a really odd idea when you think about it), then all these people are worshipping that one and only god, since there is no other god. If he wanted them to worship him in a specific way using a specific name (which seems a little petty, if you ask me, like some people who get offended if you do not address them by their titles) based on a specific book, why would he allow people to be led astray by providing them with charismatic prophets and religious books that make them worship in a different way? It seems like a cruel trick to play on people, no? Surely god cannot care what name people use when they pray or worship him or what properties they ascribe to him or what books they use?

All the different trappings of the various religion are due to the so-called prophets of the various religions (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.), who claimed to speak on god’s behalf and say they know how god wanted people to concretely show their devotion. If only one religion can be the true religion, then at least all but one of these people must have been delusional. Otherwise one would have to think that the one god deliberately told the different prophets different things to tell people. But surely god cannot want to blame ordinary people because of the prophets’ divergent messages. If Muslims (or Christians or Jews or Hindus) worship the “wrong” way to the “wrong” god, then it must be the one god’s fault for creating this confusion.

Salman Rushdie reads a terrific passage from his book The Satanic Verses that describes how ‘holy books’ get written and how it might be possible for the prophet’s message to get distorted. For this blasphemy, Rushdie received a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini that, fortunately, was not carried out.

The hostility between religions, or the widespread idea that one religion is right and the others wrong, makes sense only if you accept the idea that there are many gods in competition with each other to maximize the number of their believers.

Or perhaps people think that there is one god but that he deliberately creates rival religions and prophets as a kind of IQ test, to see which people are smart enough to select the ‘right’ god to see who gets admitted into heaven. This seems unbelievably cruel to people the world over who have a simple faith in the god they learned about as children from their families.

I must admit that this question never occurred to me while I was a believer. One of the disconcerting things that I discovered after shifting from belief to atheism is how so many questions that should have been obvious for me to ask never even occurred to me until I stopped believing. It is as if religious belief shuts down that part of your brain that thinks logically and would ask the kinds of questions that expose the contradictions.

In that sense, religion is antithetical to a scientific approach. This does not mean that religious people can’t be good scientists. It is just that they have to keep separate that part of the brain they use for religion from that part they use for science, and use different standards of reason and evidence for the two spheres.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist?

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts the Good Samaritan story in a different light.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    But if there is only one god, then all revelations of that one god must be equivalent at some deep level, and the differences merely superficial.

    Yes. but it does not follow that all purported revelations are true revelations. You briefly mention this possibility:

    If only one religion can be the true religion, then at least all but one of these people must have been delusional.

    Exactly so. Our Way is divinely inspired, while Their Way is simply bunk. You might say that Their Way consists of false statements about God, or you might say it consists of complete fiction about a nonexistent character who has some attributes in common with God. Either way, it is dangerous – their attempts at proselytizing threaten the souls of those they convert. So we must be better proselytizers (or, if our leaders assure us it is necessary, better fighters) than they are.

  2. 2
    Paul Jarc

    Whoops, that anonymous comment was from me.

  3. 3
    Sadanand Tattvgayn Parishad - Lucknnow

    Sadanand Tattvgayn Parishad – Lucknnow

    Param Pujya Sant Gyaneshwar Swami Sadanand Ji Paramhans is currently bestowing the same Tattvagyan as was imparted by Lord Vishnuji-Ramji-Krishnaji to GODly Devoted and Surrendered Individuals. Under His Tattvagyan, one sees the Self, the Soul and the GOD separately and distinctly with conversations and with visual perception of Immortality.

  4. 4
    Matt

    I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ““The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions.” by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
    This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. “If you have the time please check the book out

  5. 5
    Mano

    Matt,

    If I have the time I will check the book out, but in the meantime can you elaborate a little? I am not sure what that story has to do with atheism.

    After all, belief in an all-seeing god does not seem to be much of a deterrent to bad actions. It seems like this kind of god could be replaced with simply a better police force.

  6. 6
    Anonymous

    Well, I guess it is like Marxists and false consciousness. People who don’t worship my ‘real’ God, are belaboring under false consciousness and it is my duty to disabuse them of it and in that context, it is my responsibility to other human beings that forces me to convert them….

    And Hindu religion explicitly says that all all religions are valid, “Sarva Dharma Sambhava”. If it is a fundamental tenet, then how can we account for Hindu-Muslim clashes? Just like how in a country like US, patriotism and jingoism are merely separated by what one could call only fundamentalism….

  7. 7
    kural

    Matt,

    To the extent that it is worth setting the record straight, David Berlinski is a notorious pseudoscientific crank who shills for different creationist/ID groups. He is not a mathematician, has published nothing of significance, either in mathematics or philosophy, and has been shown up to be a crank by people who practice mathematicians or biologists for a living. Berlinski is either poorly read or deliberately clueless about the fact that numberless Nazis were devout Christians.

    Mano,

    Adherents of certain religions have a way of dismissing others’ gods – by calling them manifestations of the devil or simply Satan. The messy rationalisation of others’ beliefs is a well critiqued aspect of religion. Some religions also decry harmonious belief systems, such as the Bahai’s. A system that holds everything in reverence or manifestations of the one is deemed lesser than a system that holds only one to be supreme.

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