Peel away the colourful ritualistic outer layers, bypass the guidebooks, skip over the oral traditions and dive through the charismatic mind-sets to the core within and anyone curious enough to look will find that there are but two ostensible, universal truths pervading all religions:
1) They all claim to be true
2) Not one has ever emerged twice on the planet
That’s it. There is nothing lurking any deeper than these two truisms, and as the second maxim annihilates the first claim there’s really no need to even litigate the petitions forwarded by any single religion as it’s already perfectly clear that any allusion to authenticity is entirely groundless. If this were not the case, if any single religion were indeed true, we would have seen that religion emerge unsupervised at least twice on the planet. Its truth would in fact be demonstrable in this supernatural event. Such an event has, of course, never happened but a theist will simply ignore this and insist that their particular belief is undeniably correct. The claim is predictable, but considering all religious belief is inconsistent it raises a powerful and profoundly important question: how do they know theirs is true?
Deism, pantheism, polytheism, paganism, totemism, animism and ancestor cults differ radically from one another in practice and observance, and even though there are some fifty-seven monotheistic religions presently active the contrasts between even these single-minded belief systems is at times positively mesmerizing. Zoroastrianism, for example, is first divided into Iranian and Indian schools, then further subdivided into Parsees, Gabars, and Iranis (according to secondary migration patterns) inside of which are theological wings including the Zurvanites, Mazdakites, Khurramites and Behafaridites. There are seventy-three distinct chapters in Islam starting with the main tributaries of Sunni and Shia down to distant subgroups from the Hanafiyah (who believe Allah might have had a beginning) to the unfathomably specific Amriyah’s (who reject the legal testimony of anyone who’s ancestors took part in the Battle of Camel, Basra, 656 CE). Judaism is split predominantly into nine competing and entirely antagonistic branches, and Christianity has no less than 42,000 sects ranging from the liberal anti-Trinitarian churches to the violent right-wing fundamentalism of the Reconstructionists.
Each of these sacerdotal beliefs are, quite obviously, logically exclusive. If one is correct, the others can’t also be true, and in a theists mind this leaves an awful lot of people being wrong. On what then does a person select their version of the “truth”? Parentage and birthplace is the conspicuous answer; a correlation perhaps best demonstrated in a 1998 study, Counting Flocks and Lost Sheep, conducted by the University of Chicago which looked at the percent of people raised in a particular religion and who’ve since remained in that faith (Protestants 90.4%, Catholics 82.3% and Jewish 86.6%). Being born into a religion doesn’t however mean that particular strain of belief is any closer to the “truth” than someone else’s strain, so genealogical and geographic history cannot be considered valid selection criteria. So, while it’s claimed that one branch of a religion is in fact true and all the others aren’t, how would a person born into another religion (or even a differing chapter of the same religion) know that theirs is wrong? And conversely, if theirs is right, what measure can/does one use to determine its validity? That is to say, are there any credible (confirmed) criteria for differentiating one’s religion as “true” and another’s as “false”?
*Post inspired by existential atheism