“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours”
So goes one of the arguments against christianity, or any other religion (quote attributed to Stephen Roberts). There is no more reason to believe in christianity than to believe in any other faith, it is said, so if christians disbelieve other faiths, why shouldn’t atheists disbelieve them all?
So is there no real difference between the different religions? And is there equally little evidence for them all?
Are all religions the same?
It is easy to talk generally about “all the other possible gods” and the many world religions, but let’s get specific. There are thousands of beliefs, but almost all of them pagan, polytheistic, tribal religions, believed by very few people today. Most educated people are not talking about these religions when they talk about God.
Twelve religions together account for more than 80% of the world’s population, and most of the remainder are non-believers or follow a religion with few adherents. These twelve are listed and described in A summary of world religions.
When these religions are examined (see Are all religions the same?), some very significant differences are apparent between the following 3 main groups:
- The monotheistic religions (Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism) which generally originated in the Middle East, and are based on belief in a single powerful God who revealed himself through a prophet or teacher at a time in history.
- The ‘dharmic’ religions (Buddhism, Jainsim, Hinduism and Sikhism) which generally originated in India, are based on belief that humans are trapped in a cycle of rebirth, and have much vaguer and varied beliefs (if any) about the gods.
- The ‘taoic’ religions (Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto) which originated in China and Japan, teach little about the gods and often more about spirits, and are as much philosophies of life as religions.
Do the differences matter?
Each of these 12 religions offer different answers to some basic questions about God and life (see Where in the world is God?):
- The purpose of life
- How can we know the truth (about God)?
- How can we know what God is like?
- How can we please God and earn his favour?
- How do we get the strength of character to live as God wants?
After examining the differences, I came to the conclusion that, with two exceptions, each of the religions in the three groups (monotheistic, dharmic and taoic religions) shares many similar attributes with the others in that group, but the groups differ greatly. The two “exceptions” are:
- Sikhism, which shares some characteristics with the monotheistic religions (belief in one God and the importance of practical ethical behaviour) and some with the dharmic religions (the ultimate aim of attaining nirvana and release from the cycle of re-birth); and
- Christianity, which is unlike the other monotheistic religions (and the dharmic and taoic religions for that matter) in its belief that its founder was divine and not just human, its emphases on salvation through God’s grace and forgivness (rather than moral effort) and its belief in the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer.
So it is clear that the beliefs of Christians and Sikhs, at least, cannot be dismissed even if one dismisses the other 10 major religions, because they are different enough to merit independent assessment.
Is there any evidence for any of them?
Believers will give many different reasons for their belief. Most would claim to have experienced God and would appeal to the life and teachings of their prophet or teacher, and some would also claim that philosophy and science confirm their belief:
- Some religions were commenced by prophets or teachers who were historical figures (e.g. Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism), while there is little or no historical evidence for others (e.g. Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto). However the historical existence of a teacher is no guarantee that his teachings were truthful, although to some extent one may judge the teacher by his teachings. Christians consider that the historical evidence points to Jesus being more than human, which they see as evidence for the truth of their beliefs – certainly if someone believes in Jesus they have good reason to think their belief cannot be dismissed as other beliefs may.
- Many people from various religions believe God has communicated with them through dreams, visions, comfort, healing or guidance (some stories can be found in Heart-starting action, I still keep to Jesus this night and Ten healings). I don’t know if these stories are more common in any religion more than the others, though I have found more stories from christianity than any other beliefs. Many stories of healing have been verified medically, and it is difficult to believe that every one of these stories is a mistake or a fake. So the stories provide evidence of the supernatural, but because they can be found in different religions, we may be less confident of what they tell us about God.
- The arguments from the origin and design of the universe, and the origin of ethical values, attempt to show that a good and powerful God exists (see Philosophical arguments). Since most of the eastern religions don’t have a belief in such a God or gods, these arguments don’t work for them, but, if one is convinced by them, they do confirm the monotheistic religions.
- For believers, their scriptures are seen as evidence of God. However some non-believers judge religions, negatively, by what they see as the unethical teachings in their scriptures. The New Testament, and the Sikh, Buddhist and Baha’i scriptures seem to be less of a problem here, though this is subjective.
I am left thinking that there are differing levels of evidence for the different religions. I believe that the evidence for Christianity is significantly better than for the other religions (see Choosing my religion), but again, this is subjective.
The above evidence shows me that there are many differences between the major world religions, and it isn’t reasonable to dismiss them all on the same grounds. Most of them are different to the others in significant ways and each merits separate consideration. however I believe some can be more easily dismissed than others. As a christian, I feel the evidence for christianity is much stronger than for the others.