By Robert Nolly
The diversity of religions, each claiming to represent the Ultimate Truth, never ceases to amaze me. But, I have to say, this diversity also confuses me—often, to the point of terrific distress. Surely, if there is one Ultimate Truth (or what believers in a personal deity call God), ‘true’ religion can only be one. Supposing that indeed is the case, there are two logical possibilities with regard to the question of ‘true’ religion: Firstly, that of all the many religions that exist in the world, one alone is absolutely true, and the rest are completely, or at least partially, false. Or, secondly, that none of the religions are true in the ultimate sense, all of them being limited in some way or the other.
In this article, I wish to explore the claims of religions that are premised on the notion of a god and that claim to represent the ‘only true’ way to this god. Such religions are adhered to by hundreds of millions of followers, and, taken together, might account for the majority of humankind. Typically, such religions are based on the notion that human beings were created by God, and that they come into this world just once, after which, upon death or on the ‘Day of Judgment’, they will be transported to everlasting bliss in heaven or dispatched to eternal torment in hell—it all depends on whether or not they truly believed in and followed the ‘one true’ religion while on earth.
Religious traditions that are framed on these lines are intrinsically supremacist and intolerant. They instill in their followers the belief that their faith alone is correct and in accordance with the divine will, and that those who do not accept their religion will be doomed to painful torment in hell, which will last forever. This leads to an irrepressible urge to convert ‘unbelievers’ to their fold through missionary activism or else to combat them, through persuasion or force, if necessary. A great deal of bloodshed throughout human history since these religions came into being is a direct result of this supremacism that these religious traditions encourage. It is difficult, if not impossible, for many adherents of these religions to accept people of other faiths as equals and to genuinely love them as they are, for they are trained to view them as ‘followers of falsehood’, ‘disbelievers’, ‘infidels’, ‘enemies of God’, ‘people of lesser worth’, ‘impure’, ‘evil’, and so on.
But it isn’t just the frightful consequences of such supremacism that these religions almost inevitably promote that worries me. What is equally troubling is the terrifying concept of God that they operate with, which has nothing in common with the notion of a just and loving omnipotent being that God is often made out to be—including, and ironically, by many of these ‘believers’ themselves.
I’ve often asked believers in these religions how, if at all, they reconcile their notion of a just, loving, omnipotent deity with their fervent belief that those who do not follow their supposed ‘one true’ religion would inevitably be thrown into hell by such a god. I have yet to receive any satisfactory reply to this paradox—and I guess I never will.
It doesn’t require much theological expertise to understand what this insoluble dilemma is all about. Suppose a religion named X is considered by its adherents to be the only true religion. Faithful followers of religion X alone, its followers believe, qualify to go to heaven, while all others will be consigned to everlasting doom in hell. No matter how good and kind a person who follows a religion other than religion X may be, it is believed that she will merit everlasting punishment in hell simply because she did not accept and believe in religion X while on earth. God, so it is argued, will never accept such a person, no matter how loving and kind or how devoted he or she was to his or her own understanding of the divine simply because it did not correspond exactly with the teachings of religion X.
The utter injustice of this belief is obvious. Believers in religion X will argue that God is the creator of all of humankind and that He decides in which family a person will be born. Now, this obviously means that if I am born into a family that does not follow religion X, it is because God willed it to be so. It was no fault of my own that I was born into such a ‘disbelieving’ family, the decision being entirely God’s. This basic argument, which believers in religion X will have no problem with, poses major questions for the concept of a truly loving and just God.
The vast majority of people follow the religion they were born into. From an early age onwards, they are reared into believing it to be true by their parents, and many of them faithfully follow it, honestly thinking that in this way they can win the favour of God. Surely, then, you will agree, they can hardly be ‘blamed’ for adhering to the religion of their birth. To think that God will punish them—to the extent of torturing them in hell forever—simply because they followed a religion other than X makes this God out to be an unjust tyrant, who punishes innocent people for His own ‘fault’. After all, it was God’s ‘fault’ for making such people be born into a family that followed a religion other than X, because of which they grew up to believe that their parent’s religion, and not religion X, was the true one! What this absurd belief means is that God first makes the ‘mistake’ of making someone be born and, therefore, reared into a ‘wrong’ religion and into fervently believing it and then compels that innocent person to suffer for eternity for this ‘mistake’ which God made! This is what the supremacist claim of religion X really boils down to. Does this not mean that such a God, at least as religion X imagines him to be, is utterly unjust, cruel, brutal and unloving?
There is another aspect of this God, as adherents of religion X imagine him, that goes completely against the claim that he is just and fair. If He is truly fair, he should have given an equal chance to everyone to believe in and have access to religion X, the supposed one true religion. But He does nothing of the sort at all. Instead, he forces the whole of humankind into a grossly unfair race that is heavily loaded, from their very birth itself, against all who are born into families that do not follow religion X. He causes—for which adherents of religion X have no satisfactory explanation—some people to be born into families that adhere to religion X and many others to be born into families that don’t accept religion X or may not have even heard of it at all! Given that, as noted above, almost all people are socialized into believing that the religion of their parents is true, the former have an infinitely better chance of being ‘saved’ and transported into heaven than the latter—not because they are better or more ‘pious’ human beings but simply because of their birth into families that follow the supposedly ‘only true’ religion. In contrast, the latter have an infinitely remoter chance of entering heaven and, conversely, a much greater chance of going to hell, only because God willed them to be born into a family that follows a ‘wrong’ religion. Is this at all just or fair? Does this not make God, as religion X conceives Him, to be utterly unfair, whimsical, cruel, arbitrary and partial?
The claims that adherents of religion X make about their religion being the only true one also fail to square with their claims of believing in a God who is omnipotent while also being fair and just, loving and kind. If He is truly omnipotent, surely, if he were also fair and just, loving and kind, He could have given every human being the same chance or possibility of accessing X, the supposedly ‘only true’ religion. This could only happen if all human beings were born into families that follow religion X, and an omnipotent God could easily have done that. In such a case, everyone would enjoy an equal and fair chance to be ‘tested’ by God for their sincerity, devotion, love, kindness and faith. They would have all started from the same starting point and only then the test would be said to be fair. But God does nothing of the sort. Instead, He causes only some people to be born into families that follow religion X and most others into ‘disbelieving’ ones. In this way, He makes it infinitely easier for the former, for no reason at all, to believe in the supposedly ‘one true’ religion than the latter, who have, for no ‘fault’ of their own, a very remote chance of believing in this religion. What this suggests is that God, at least as followers of X make him out to be, is either not omnipotent or that He is unfair and unjust. Either way, it casts great doubts about the notion of God as being omnipotent as well as fair and just that religion X claims to be premised on.
Let me clarify this important point with the help of an analogy. Suppose you and I are classmates at school and we are asked by our headmistress to run in a race. The intention of the race is, of course, to discern who is a faster runner, and the winner gets a fabulous trophy. If the headmistress is fair, she should have both you and I starting the race from the same line. Only then can she be said to be fair, just and impartial, and only then can we be tested to find out who of us is the faster runner. But, instead of doing that, suppose she makes you stand almost near the finishing line and me a long mile behind and then asks us to begin running. It doesn’t need much intelligence to know that she is being absolutely unfair and unreasonably partial to you and grossly unjust to me, because, inevitably, you will land up at the finishing line much before I will. And that would be not because you are a better runner than I am but simply because the headmistress has unduly favoured you. If you were to said to have won the race and I were told that I had miserably failed in my performance, you will agree that this would be absolutely unfair on her part. Such a race would certainly be no fair test of our respective running abilities. In such a case, if you win the trophy I would be amply justified in claiming that the race was rigged at the very outset itself and that the head-mistress was absolutely unjust.
Apply the same logic to the arguments of adherents of religion X. They claim that God has sent us into the world in order to test how faithfully we adhere to the supposedly ‘one true religion’. In the face of the fact that God causes only some people to be born into families that adhere to religion X and many others to be born into other families, it is obvious that the former have a much greater chance of believing in and following religion X than the latter simply because of the families into which they were born, which was decided by God. They have a much better chance of winning the ‘test’ of believing in the ‘one true religion’ not because they are better or more sincere and righteous people than the rest of humankind but simply because they were born into families that adhere to religion X. In such a case, those who are born into the ‘wrong’ religion can justifiably complain that the ‘test’ that they were made to appear for by God had been rigged and heavily loaded against from the very beginning, from birth itself, and if they have failed the ‘test’ it is God’s fault and not their own. Surely, they would argue, if God were truly just, he should have made everyone start the test of faith from the same line, causing them all to be born in families that follow the one supposedly true religion. They can justifiably complain that causing them to be born into the ‘wrong’ religion and others to be born into the supposedly one true religion, He is behaving just like the unfair headmistress described in the analogy above. They would not be wrong in contending that such a God is not the fair and just being that adherents of religion X claim him to be.
What does all this mean, then, for the notion of Ultimate Truth? At the very least, it indicates clearly that the idea of an omnipotent, loving and just God simply cannot gel with the belief of adherents of religion X that He consigns people into everlasting Hell simply because they do not follow the supposed ‘one true’ religion. Were God to do so, he would definitely be neither loving nor just. And that is a god I don’t think any sensible person can ever be tempted to accept.
The notion of God as consigning all non-adherents of the supposed ‘one true religion’ to punishment in hell simply because they do not believe in its doctrines indicates, as far as I am concerned, that the claims of adherents of this theory are both immoral as well as illogical. Supposing that God, in the form in which the divine is commonly imagined, does indeed exist, I would imagine that such claims about Him would be tantamount to nothing less than casting aspersions on Him, attributing to him a character wholly opposed to the notion of him as a loving and kind force or being. And that adequately convinces me that the supremacist claims of adherents of religious traditions such as X are wholly suspect and man-made and that their belief is fundamentally opposed to what the Ultimate Reality, or God, if you like, truly must be.