28 November 2008

Leave Reality Out of This

Per a friend's recommendation, I recently watched director Luc Besson's latest effort, Angel-A (pictured). I liked his other movie, The Fifth Element, which I watched during a time of spiritual wandering (an extended outback expedition for sure). That film stirred up inklings of sehnsucht, most probably due to the aesthetic produced by Besson's heroine (played by Milla Jovovich), which was, for this man, at that time, a beguiling synergism of strength, beauty, eroticism, and otherworldly innocence.

I found myself enjoying this unique aesthetic of Besson's in Angel-A...which was just about the only thing enjoyable in the film, and even that barely, due to less innocence and more vulgarity. The plot, about a leggy, chain-smoking blond angel who comes to rescue a down and out loser named André, charming though it could be, didn't work that well. But what sealed my disappointment in the film was the final scene [SPOILER ALERT] where André tries to keep Angela from returning to the other world and to, instead, stay and make a life with him on earth. Angela is torn. She cries out, "What do I do? My God! . . . What should I do?" To which André replies, "Angela, leave him out of it for once." She smiles and kisses him.

Ugh. This is a pet peeve of mine, this narrow, anthropomorphic view of God. If God is God and not some god, then He is the author of reality, the metaphysical ultimate, the cause and sustainer of all that is. This means that whatever is, derives its being from Him...and not just material things, but "things" of value also. Something is true, good, or beautiful precisely because it mediates Him who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. (Evil, then, is merely a subtraction or privation from what is. It is, therefore, no-thing in itself, and so a kind of un-reality. See C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce for more along this line of thought.)

So when Angela calls on God to help her find a good and meaningful conclusion to her dilemma, and André tells her to leave God out of it, he, in effect, tells her to seek for the real outside of reality; to seek something good outside of Goodness...to seek meaning in what is, by definition, meaningless. This is absurd. If one thinks he has found something real outside of reality or something good outside of Goodness, then he is making one of two errors. (i) He has indeed found something real or good. But if that's the case, it always was real and good, because God is eternal perfection. He doesn't change the boundaries or the playbook. (ii) He has not found something real or good, he just thinks that he has.

The only time it makes sense to leave God "out of it" is when one seeks to turn away from reality, from truth, goodness, and beauty...true Joy. That is the way of Hell and God respects our choices if we choose that. (Again, see The Great Divorce.) But if one is seeking reality and real meaning found in real things, it only makes sense to call on God; for, if God is God and not some god, His solution is the best of all possibilities. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "God displays not only his kindness, goodness, grace, and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness, and truth... He is Truth, for 'God is light and in him there is no darkness'; 'God is love,' as the apostle John teaches. (1 John 1:5; 4:8)...this is why God’s promises always come true. God is Truth itself, whose words cannot deceive. This is why one can abandon oneself in full trust to the truth and faithfulness of his word in all things" (214-215).

That there is an all perfect being means that all the beauty, the love, the goodness that lift the heart of a man out of himself are but the shadows of the infinite on the pool of life, vague hints of the ineffable that lies at the beginning and end of life. . . . The conclusion that all reality is godlike is quite true. What we see in the world of existence, of beauty, of goodness, of grace and all the rest is had from God Who is overflowing with perfection. These creatures share, participate in the perfection of God. This was a truth close to the heart of Francis of Assisi and Martin de Porres, a truth that made all irrational creation and the whole world of men a lover's note to be read slowly, tenderly, repeatedly, to be treasured caressingly until the writer in person made plain all the beauties that could not be squeezed between the lines. It is right that the strength of a storm at sea, the innocence of a child, the calm of a country twilight should stir us to the depths of our being for these are shadows of divinity passing by... The notion of goodness adds nothing to being but the smack of desirability, that is, a thing can be good, desirable, only insofar as it is possible or thought to be possible; it can be pursued and enjoyed only insofar as it has being.... Bluff, defect, incapacity have nothing desirable about them because there is nothing real about them. But He Who is, the cause of all reality, the perfect Being, is the highest goodness for He is the most real Being. Not that He has goodness; rather He is goodness, as He is reality. On His goodness all other goodness is modeled, from His goodness all other goodness proceeds; all other goodness is a similitude, a participation, a limited miniature of the limitless goodness of God. Because of the smack of desirability which goodness adds to being, God is most desirable, most lovable. So true is this that everything in the universe hustles eagerly to this goal of goodness, each in its own way: man with alert steps along the dangerous road of knowledge and love, brutes with the unerring aim of instinct, the inanimate world with the blind, plodding step of physical necessity devoid of all knowledge. For each creature in the universe is spurred on to action by the goal of its own perfection, a goal which is nothing but a similitude, an image, a mirroring of the goodness of God... In a very real sense, this utterly limitless God overflows the limits of the universe. He is everywhere within it, yet not contained by it. Everything in the universe comes from God; existence is His proper effect. Where anything exists, there is God. Understand, now, this is not merely a matter of God first giving existence and then abandoning the universe to its fate; He does not give us a pat on the back as we leave the corner of nothingness to jump into the ring of life, leaving us to take the blows while He shouts advice that takes none of the sting out of the blows. Existence belongs to God; as long as existence endures, there is the hand of God sustaining it as a mother supports her infant or the throat of a singer sustains his song. God is everywhere, and only God; for only God is the infinite, the first cause explaining every existent thing. The ubiquity of God, in common with all the divine perfections, is not a cold, abstract thing meaningless to men. Its significance for human living is inexhaustible. In the concrete, it means, for instance, that God is in the surge of the sea, the quiet peace of hills and valleys, the cool refreshment of rain, the hard drive of wind-driven snow. In the cities He is in the bustling of crowds, the roar of traffic, the struggle for pleasure, for life, for happiness, in the majesty of towering buildings. In homes He is not to be excluded from the tired, drowsy hours of night, the hurried activity of morning, from the love and quarrels, the secret worries and unquestioning devotion, the sacrifice and peace that saturate a home. In every individual one of us God is more intimately present than we are to ourselves. Every existing thing within us demands not only the existence of God but also His constant presence, from every rush of blood from our hearts to every wish, every thought, every act. In other words, everything that is real must have God there as the explanation, the foundation, the cause of every moment of its reality.
--Walter Farrell, OP, The Companion to the Summa, Vol. I

16 October 2008

Atheism: Philosophically Incompatible with Intrinsic Value

In a recent blog post titled "Those Mysterious Atheists", Maclin Horton wrote about the incompatibility of morality and atheism:

Anyone who wants to take a serious look at atheism and morality must ask this question: on what grounds can one say that even physical survival, much less co-operation, altruism, or any other mode of behavior, is good in any definite and permanent way?
. . .

Evolution simply has no logical means for speaking of right and wrong, only of what works, and that only with reference to the production and survival of offspring. It can’t, as the saying goes, move from is to ought.That we should concern ourselves with building a better world is either an abstract principle independent of our wishes or it is a mere subjective preference. And if it’s a subjective preference there is no reason why it should be binding on anyone other than the person doing the preferring. Atheists tend to say that moral questions are indeed a matter of personal preference until you come up with an example that they don’t prefer.
. . .

The fact is that most people including atheists experience the sense that some things are simply right because they’re right and other things are wrong because they’re wrong. Of course there are many differences about the specifics, but almost everyone knows the sensation I’m describing, and the rare exception would be considered sick or evil in any society.

Evolution can offer an explanation of these feelings by asserting that they were conducive to survival, and insist that “right” and “wrong” are simply names for feelings of attraction or aversion to behavior that either does or doesn’t facilitate survival. It can’t say that anything is in fact right or wrong, and it must deny that the sense of right and wrong is what we all experience it to be: a reference to some standard outside our selves and our species. In short, the atheist must deny his own direct experience in order to maintain his intellectual consistency.
This dovetails nicely with an essay by Chesterton (which I just happened to be reading) called "Is Change Improvement?" where he addresses the idea of an evolving morality.
If everything changes, including the mind of man, how can we tell whether any change is an improvement or no?
. . .

Now, nobody can possibly say which of those two evolutionary changes is the better, unless he keeps some standard that cannot be changed. He cannot tell...unless he has some principle...that does not evolve at all.
. . .

What I want to know is, how is the evolutionist to tell whether this is a forward step or a retrograde step, if his ethics are always changing with his evolution?...But how is the unhappy doubter to decide which of these two version of true progress is really true? He can only do it if he has the test of some truth that remains true. The mind is fluid and changing, as the body is fluid and changing. On this principle we may be able to say of the future that it will be a change. But we cannot say it will be an improvement: for that implies that there will always be something in common between us and our descendants; something that we are all trying to improve. Why should that something not change like everything? Is that outside the laws of evolution? Is that a special creation? Is that a miracle? Is that common standard of conscience a thing of divine origin? Dreadful thought!
I would put it in terms of intrinsic value. As Maclin states, evolution cannot account for anything being good, as in, possessing intrinsic value--objective transcendent value in itself. And realizing this was the major impetus which moved me from unbelief back to belief: I could not deny my experience that some things really are beautiful, that some things are good (and conversely that some things are evil). Some answer that that's just my subjective experience/preference...but that's not what I experience. The whole reason I experience something as good or beautiful or evil is because I experience it as objectively so. I don't experience the wrongfulness of Aushwitz as a preference, but as an objective fact. . . it is the experience of its objective evil that gives me my preference for hating it. Atheism cannot account for objective values of this sort, because, as Maclin and Chesterton points out, it requires something to exist outside the universe of change And so the atheist can only account for morality as preference and, in doing so, as Maclin says, he "must deny his own direct experience in order to maintain his intellectual consistency."

05 October 2008

There are only 5 ways anyone can respond to an argument.

This is a good reminder with all the political discussions going on these days.

The Five Ways to Respond to an Argument

  • The first three are based on the three essential checkpoints in the structure of any logical argument
    • Terms: Are the terms accurate or ambiguous?
    • Premises: Are the premises true or false?
    • Reasoning process: Does the conclusion logically follow from the premises?
  • All the check points have been passed and the conclusion cannot be denied, so you admit it.
  • All the check points have been passed and the conclusion cannot be denied, but you refuse to admit it. You disagree without really knowing why. Although this is stupid it makes you feel safe against an argument you don't like.
From Peter Kreeft's lecture series, Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion

10 September 2008

A response to a friend about abortion...

Dear -----------,
Because I haven't seen the video in question, I can't speak to that; but I'd like to respond to some of your thoughts on abortion.
I'm pleased to know that you consider yourself pro-life, and that you "clearly feel that abortion is immoral;" but, I have to disagree with your assertion that abortion is not more of a pro-life issue than war or political policies that would provide basic needs to children and their families. I don't want to downplay those other issues. They are very important. But as important as they are, abortion is more important. It really is more of a pro-life issue because it is foundational. Yes, there are many other important issues, just as there is much more to a house than its foundation. But as the foundation goes, so goes the rest. It is an absurd society which advocates for its children's rights to food, water, or health care, yet denies these very same children the right to even be born. How can human life be deemed sacred enough to afford it the right to basic needs if it is not deemed sacred enough to afford it the right to life itself? The basic right to life is fundamental; it is ontologically prior to all other rights...and the very condition of all other rights. Hence, denying the basic right to life undermines and erodes all other rights. It is a danger to everyone whenever a society allows itself to declare an entire class of human beings—be it blacks, Jews, or the unborn—outside the protection of the law.
Secondly, abortion is the greater pro-life issue because it involves a more grievous injustice—the deliberate killing of an innocent life. I agree that we are guilty of injustice if we don't assist the impoverished in their quality of life. But aren't we guilty of a greater injustice if kill them?
You assert that education—in lieu of legislation—is the way to end abortion. You also assert that abortion is immoral. But, why is it immoral? It is immoral because it is the deliberate taking of an innocent life. It is the lethal discrimination against an entire class of human beings—because of their age, size, and place of residence. If that doesn't warrant legislation, then what does? I agree that education is essential to ending abortion, and that legislation alone is not enough. But this also applies to other injustices such as abuse, assault, murder, discrimination, etc. However, no one seeks to redress these injustices by education alone, in lieu of legislation.
Furthermore, education assumes a worldview. If we are going to end abortion through education, who is going to be doing the educating? Moral relativists? Philosophical materialists? Those that do believe that the fetus is a person, or those that don't? Different worldviews educate completely differently on any given topic. The popular notion of a generic education about abortion is naïve. As a case in point, Planned Parenthood—whose very name suggests that it exists primarily for the purpose of reproductive education—is the largest abortion provider in the U.S. Here, we see education and abortion complimenting one another.
In regards to your reference to war and abortion, making abortion tantamount to war is a false analogy. Abortion, by its very nature, is intrinsically evil because its purpose or "final cause" is the deliberate killing of an innocent life. War, however, is not intrinsically evil. A given war can either be just or unjust. America's part in WWII is an example of a just war because its purpose was, ultimately, the defense and protection of life. Germany's involvement in that same war is an example of an unjust one. It is not at all inconsistent to believe a given war to be just, and to believe that abortion is always unjust.
Finally, you say, that "pro-lifers are being manipulated into voting in ways that are causing more death and suffering in children than if all abortions halted overnight." I would like to see the evidence which demonstrates that: (i) conservative politicians are directly responsible for policies which cause anything remotely comparable to the 1,250,000 deaths caused by legalized abortion every single year (in just the U.S. alone); (ii) liberal politicians will annually save 1,250,000 lives that would otherwise have perished under the leadership of conservative politicians.
Again, I agree that there are many things that need to be changed in our society, but among them, the deliberate killing of our own children needs to be highest on the list; for if the basic right to life is denied, then the dignity of the human person is significantly undermined, placing all other human rights on shaking ground. As Pope John Paul II said, "If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person."

06 July 2008

Why are there so many denominations?

I'm the kind of person who thinks he can 'carry his own' in casual debates about philosophy, theology, and Catholic apologetics. But it seems that every now and then I am reduced to silence by an innocent question from someone seeking a real answer. This happened the other day when a friend who is trying to find a church to attend asked me why there are so many Christian denominations. Oh, I could answer that question easily enough...for someone initiated to all the terms. In other words, for someone who probably already had an answer to the question! But this guy didn't have an answer. And I wanted to give him one. And how could I possibly do that without making his head spin? Well, I thought I'd give it a shot.

The quick 'n' dirty answer for the reason why there are so many denominations centers on the revolution that took place at the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517. That revolution was the change in the "rule of faith" from the Church to the Bible. "Rule of faith" is a term which is used to denote the the standard or measure for knowing what is true or false in matters of faith. Up until the Protestant Reformation, the Church was the rule of faith. What was the Church? It was the Catholic Church--the only one that had been around since the time of Jesus. Jesus gave His Apostles a share in His very own authority, and they passed this authority on, and those guys passed it on, etc. And everyone was united under the pope, who is the Successor to the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus said he would build His Church upon, as on a rock. "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:18-19). So the Church was governed by guys who got their authority passed down to them--ultimately--from Jesus Himself, who promised to protect them from error so that people could rely on the Church to teach the truth. Is God three persons in one divine nature? Did Jesus have two natures (human and divine) united in one divine person? What books were supposed to be in the Bible? Are these books really the infallible and inspired Word of God? These questions--which are beyond the capacity of the human mind to answer with reason alone--where answered by the Church because it was given Christ's authority and ability to do so.

Then Luther turned everything on its head in 1517. He said to forget the Church as the rule of faith. Instead, he declared the Bible as the sole rule of faith. Furthermore he declared that each man must interpret the Bible for himself. Instead of looking to the Church, many people began making up their own rules according to their own interpretation of the Bible. One problem with that is that when people followed the Church (as Christ intended) the Church could tell them when they were wrong. The Bible couldn't. So more and more people had their own ideas of what the Bible was really saying. There were lots of disagreements and lots of people starting their own "churches". That pebble in the pond produced a ripple effect that, 500 years later, gave us over 30,000 Protestant denominations. Most of them claim to follow the Bible...and they all find something different there.

So basically, the reason we have so many denominations today is because 500 years ago a huge portion of people quit obeying the Church which Jesus put in charge and promised to protect from error; and, instead, started making up their own rules according to their own interpretation of the Bible.

So what's wrong with making the Bible your rule of faith instead of the Church started by Jesus?

  • First of all, the biggest problem is that it goes against what Jesus established.
    • Jesus didn't write anything down (except in the sand). What He did do was start a Church and give the apostles His very authority to govern it.
    • He didn't even command the apostles to write anything. Instead, he told them to preach the truth and administer the sacraments (baptism, communion, confession, etc.) to the ends of the earth, until the end of time.
  • The Church gave us the Bible.
    • It's illogical to put the Bible over the Church:
      • The Church wrote the Bible
      • The Church compiled the Bible (several books were left out)
      • The only way I can know that Bible is the inspired Word of God is to take it on the authority of the Church. You have these letters written by human beings...how do I know that they are the Word of God? God didn't tell me! There's no way I can possibly tell on my own! But the Church, who is vested with the very authority of Christ could know something like that.
      • An effect cannot be greater than it's cause. The cause: The Church. Her effect: The Bible. How can an Church capable of error tell you with certainty that the Bible is comprised of exactly the right books and that they are a divinely inspired and infallible?
    • It's anachronistic to put the Bible over the Church: People think that we should look to the Bible and build the right kind of Church from what they find there. But it was the Church which gave birth to the Bible, not vice versa
  • It's not very smart: We don't pass out the Constitution to every American citizen and tell them to govern themselves according to what they find there with their own Private Judgment. No, we have the Supreme Court to tell us what the Constitution says. Without that, we'd have chaos. And that's exactly what we've gotten from doing away with the Church and following the Bible on our own.

28 April 2008

My thoughts on Expelled

I saw Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed last weekend with my daughter. It's Ben Stein's documentary about the discrimination by the scientific community against proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design. The film is engaging and funny, easy to watch and enjoyable, and it effectively tackles the subject matter. Overall, the film exceeded my expectations; however, I think it is guilty of the serious and unfortunate error of pitting evolutionary theory against theism, ironically causing the film to miss a significant key to understanding its subject matter.

I've read and heard criticisms which declare the film a colossal failure based on the fact that it didn't prove the truth of ID. The movie I watched wasn't even trying to do that. Instead, it was documenting a case for the allegation that there is a wall surrounding the scientific community out of which are cast those who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. This part of the film is a slam dunk. Several scientists are interviewed, all of which were ousted for, in some cases, merely admitting ID theory to the table for discussion and debate. Every one of them came across as honest, articulate, intelligent, and sane. It's pretty clear that these folks weren't bad teachers, bad scientists, or bad employees; but merely guilty of allowing their honest use of the scientific method to lead them into areas found unacceptable by the powers that be. Personally, I'm not all that convinced by ID, but I was convinced that these men and women were genuine scientists--pursuing the evidence where it led them. Perhaps they were mistaken in their conclusions. Even if that's the case, the film's main point remains loud and clear: Among the scientific community today, Darwinism is not regarded as a scientific theory or fact to be exonerated by the evidence, but a dogma to be defended by priestly authority.

Where the film missteps is when it asserts that Darwinism is not only incompatible with religious belief but inherently dangerous. This is an unfortunate blunder and unfruitful diversion in the current debate over religion and science. As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.
Why couldn't God, in His omniscient wisdom, have programmed the evolution of the material universe and subsequent origin of life into the Big Bang; and then, at the proper time, breathed into man's evolved frame His very image? As Chesterton said, this proposes no difficulty to either the scientist or the theist.

The problem is not Darwinism, but atheism. Failing to recognize this, the film misses an opportunity to strike at the heart of the matter. The sufficient condition necessary for the Nazi atrocities done in the name of Darwinism was atheism. Under the philosophical premises inherent in atheism, there is no ground for any kind of transcendent purpose or meaning, not to mention man's unique position within nature. Everything, including man, is a product of random, mindless, cause and effect. This leaves no philosophical ground for any kind of objective morality. And when you take metaphysics such as these and put them together with social Darwinism, you have the sufficient conditions for the Nazi ethic of exterminating "life unworthy of life".

And is it too far fetched to posit that atheism might be the cause of the wall in the scientific community which practically forbids discussion of all non-Darwinian theories? Could it be that it's not really Darwinism that's being defended, but the worldview which depends upon Darwinism? The whole idea behind science is that it is a servant of evidence. In that regard it is always open-ended. As was pointed out in the film, when Einstein challenged Newtonian physics, the scientific community responded by revisiting the evidence. Where is that openness when it comes to Darwinism? Has it come to be above the evidence? Could it be that Darwinism is being protected as a doctrine (a doctrine that is essential to the atheist worldview)? Today's atheists are constantly chiding us simple-minded believers with being too afraid or lazy to doubt. Where is the skepticism which is touted as the defining virtue of science? There's one scene where atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins declares that Darwinism is a fact! with all the conviction of a True Believer. But every theory has its weak spots. The humble servant of truth honestly accesses the holes in his own view as well as the opposition's; but those whose motive for belief is antecedent to the facts cannot imagine any holes in his own view. Moreover, he makes the biggest case out of the smallest holes in the opposition view. And, as we see from the atheist scientists in the film, he dismisses the intellect of his opponents as inferior. Is this the modus operandi of science? I think it betrays a worldview which is has become more important than the evidence, a worldview which has been made to act as the test for truth instead of the evidence. As Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:

He forgets that it is a deduction at all and treats it as a first principle. He might discover that the whole calculation is a mis-calculation… But he has forgotten that it is a calculation, and is almost ready to contradict the sun if it does not fit into the Solar System.

Expelled successfully demonstrates that this is how Darwinism is being defended today. Merely branding an opposing view as unscientific--even if it is--is not good science. (That goes for considering the criticism of this film, too.) Good science is done in an atmosphere of open and free discourse and debate where evidence is held to be the standard. And the main point of Expelled is to show that that's not the case in the scientific community today; and it does this very well. I just wish that it would have explored some of the reasons why this is the case.

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If you enjoyed the film, you might also enjoy:

16 April 2008

Wrong Religion?

This is my reply to a person from a Pentecostal background who asked, on a secular discussion forum, how one would know if she was in the wrong religion.

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I commend you for asking these types of questions. It's tough, and even scary, if you've been raised in a tradition that doesn't encourage them. Be at peace. I don't think you can ever displease God if you are honestly seeking the truth (for He *is* the truth).

I know many people have switched religions or denominations after some train of thought and I'd really like to know what that process was.

I can empathize with you on a few levels. I was raised in a non-denominational mish-mash which was heavily influenced by Pentecostalism. I had a profound, life-changing encounter with God during adolescence; after which I became very legalistic, trying earnestly to be faithful to God. In my early twenties, I began asking questions like those you're asking now. It was scary; I thought I was rebelling. Because I had no foundation, I went into a serious tail-spin. I didn't want to believe anything that wasn't true, and knowing my bias toward theism in general and Christianity in particular, I fought hard to compensate for it. I pretty much didn't believe anything for a few years and came close to atheism. Then, one thing led to another (by God's grace, I believe)--a philosophy class, a few good books, some serious, honest soul-searching--and I could no longer deny God's existence. After a lot of prayer and study, I became convinced of the Catholic faith and have been a Catholic for six years now.

I'm not asking which religion I should be in; just trying to figure out what would be a clear indicator that the religion I am in is not the way I should go... I never went through a process of finding a belief so now that I have lost my foundation for why I believed in this denomination (basically because it was all I knew), I don't know how to figure out if it's right.

You're essentially asking, "How do I know that what I've been told to believe is true?" Instead of answering that question, many respondents here are just telling you something *else* to believe. But I think that's the problem: You have, for too long, been believing things merely because others tell you to. That is not all wrong; we all start out that way; but as we mature we should test our beliefs to find if they stand on their own. You're overdue for that; and that's what you're feeling now.

In philosophy, the argument from authority is proving/accepting something as true because a seemingly reliable authority/guide tells you it is true. Although this is the weakest reason to accept something as true, it is still valid if you have reasons to believe that the authority really is reliable. But you first have to prove that. Now, I think that what you're going through is, first of all, due to the fact that you have accepted such a huge amount on authority--your whole worldview is reeling because it is so top-heavy--so much has been built on such a small foundation (the argument from authority offers the least amount of proof that something is true). And to boot, that already small foundation itself is beginning to crack--you're questioning whether or no the authority by which you accept so much is reliable after all. I think that the normal time to go through this is in adolescence, under the guidance of parents who teach you how not to believe things just because they tell you they are true, but because you have determined them to be true for other reasons--historical accuracy, logical correctness, etc.

Now, if you're overdue for learning how to think like this, you have to be patient and stay the course. I find that too many people in your position see the weakness in their foundation and, instead of repairing it, simply exchange it for another weak foundation. They discard the Christian religion which they believed on weak authority and start believing in an Eastern religion or in atheism on the very same kind of weak authority, and not because they have proved those beliefs to be true (or proved their old beliefs to be false). They no longer want to be spoon-fed by Jimmy Swaggart or T.D. Jakes, so they go off to be spoon-fed by Deepak Chopra or Richard Dawkins...and believe they are thinking for themselves. As G.K Chesterton wrote:

    "The modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with 'they say' or 'don’t you know that?' or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say."

And as E. F. Schumacher wrote:
    "The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man’s higher faculties. But it is not at all skeptical about skepticism, which demands hardly anything."

The thing is not to just believe what others say, but to listen to and weigh their arguments--the reasoning and evidence they offer in support of their positions. This is hard work--it takes time, it can be uncomfortable, and most people shrink from it...but it's the only way to true knowledge.

But to try and answer your question about clear indicators that your religion might be the wrong one:

General Reason/Logic:
Non-Catholic Christians since the reformation have tended to take a rather dim view of reason, believing that we lost our reason at the Fall. (Luther called reason, "the Devil's whore".) But that's a conclusion not shared by many Christians since, and almost all Christians prior to, the Reformation. Whatever your view of reason, it's simply a matter of common sense that the law of non-contradiction is true. So, a clear indicator that a religion contains error would be clear internal inconsistencies or self-contradictions. Now, sometimes belief systems will seem to have internal inconsistencies on the surface, but once you dig in and find the explanation, those inconsistencies will resolve. However, there are some that won't resolve, some that perhaps you wish you *could* resolve; but if you are really honest and humble, you can't resolve--not even after humbly hearing everyone's explanations, looking at it honestly from all sides, sitting on it for a considerable amount of time, and even praying about it. (Here's a good article to read on this subject. The second half or so is from a Catholic perspective, but the first part can be applied to any kind of religious inquiry.)

Any religion based on a set of historical facts, should withstand honest scrutiny of the historical record. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, "...if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ..." Read the best books on all sides of the issue; but be prepared--it's hard not to to lose the forest for the trees when going through the historical record, because many writers downplay the case that can be made from history against their beliefs and inflate the case that can be made in favor of them. Personally, I think that honest prayer and common sense go a long way in helping one to sift through this kind if stuff. Always compare any detailed argument with the big picture. Keep at it; and eventually, the truth will begin to emerge. (On the Christian side, I highly recommend the popular [yet difficult] book, The Everlasting Man. Mere Christian Apologetics, by Dave Armstrong is good, too.)

(i) If you've narrowed things down to a revealed religion, then tradition is important. In a revealed religion, the whole point is to be true to the original revelation; so once you've become satisfied that the original revelation is a historically verifiable fact, you should move on in the historical record to see what the earliest adherents to that revelation believed. The stream is purest closest to its source. Again, just as with the study of history, it's easy to lose the forest for the trees. Most every different Christian religion claims that it is modeled after the Early Church. Study the best resources from all perspectives. For what it's worth, here's one from my tradition. It would be ideal to read the primary sources. Also, check out Eusebius.
(ii) Even if you haven't narrowed things down to a revealed religion, you should take tradition into consideration. For instance, in order to be an atheist you have to believe that 99% of all the people who have ever lived have based their lives around a delusion. Why should just a few people from the Western world in the last century be right and everyone else wrong? That should be taken into consideration when deciding for or against atheism.

Psychological Arguments / Your Conscience
The inner-world of human experience offers valid data. I think this is what folks are hitting on when they say to pick a religion that you are most comfortable with. Though, I don't like the word "comfortable". Sometimes your heart tells you that reality is different from what is most comfortable. The folks I find most credible are those whose journey to truth was marked by struggle and pain (even if it ultimately ended in joy). The point is to take stock of what your heart/conscience is telling you. It's part of being human. You are not a calculator. There are folks (usually atheists) who discount the heart as an indicator of truth, but they do this by an a priori assumption that there is no spiritual element in the human person. If you don't want to preemptively rule that out before you even start your search for truth, you need to be open to the possibility that if God might be real, people might therefore have a spiritual element which senses spiritual realities. The "scientist" who preemptively discounts that as delusional is a materialist before he is a scientist (and is no more scientific than the person who is a theist before he is a scientist.) Don't preemptively dismiss anything. Listen to your heart. Just be sure to check what you find there in the inner-world of human experience against reason and the outer-world of fact and evidence. Some good books and essays about the search for God within the human heart are: Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing, "The Weight of Glory", A Severe Mercy, Surprised by Joy, and "Meditation in a Toolshed"

we were taught at church that our denomination was the only right one and pretty much everyone else was going to hell. That's all I knew and it never really occurred to me that I was wrong.

It's fine to think that your denomination is the only right one...as long as that's true. But how do you find out that's true? You open the matter up for investigation. But the moment you do that, you have opened up the possibility that you could be wrong. And you must do this in order to have true knowledge. True Knowledge is knowing that what you believe corresponds with reality, and the only way to have that is to test/measure your beliefs against reality. As Saint Augustine wrote in his debate with the Manichean heretics:
    "Let neither of us assert that he has found truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For truth can be sought with zeal and unanimity if by no rash presumption it is believed to have been already found and ascertained." (Contra Epistolam Manichaei Quam Vacant Fundamenti)

That is huge. It's so simple, but it's so hard for us to live by. Doesn't it make sense though? Say that someone is in error; how else can he see that he is wrong is except by considering that possibility? If he says, "Oh, but I don't need to be open to the possibility of being wrong, because I just know I'm right", then in error he stays. So, what if you, or I have that same attitude? Well, if we're in error, we'll stay there, too! Only by considering that we might be wrong, can we come to the true knowledge that we are right. We are finite. Reality is massively complex. So, there's always the *possibility* that we're wrong in our judgments.

We must make the subtle but very important distinction between the actual truth (whatever it is) and our conclusions about what we believe it to be. Our goal should be to conform our conclusions to reality--to the actual truth--and not vice versa. But, if we never recheck our conclusions about the truth, then our conclusions usurp the actual truth as the measure of all things. If we want reality--the actual truth--to be the standard and measure of our conclusion about it, then we need to reopen our conclusions when they are challenged. It's just a matter of keeping our eyes open instead of putting our head in the sand.

Being open to the possibility of being wrong does not lead to dogmatic skepticism, because, if our conclusions about the truth are right, each time we recheck them honestly against reality they will be re-confirmed and strengthened; and we will see, once again, that they are indeed true. As G. K. Chesterton said, we should keep an open mind like we keep an open mouth...in order to shut it again on something solid. Peter Kreeft says we should be skeptical skeptics, not dogmatic skeptics. We should be be skeptical of everything--even skepticism--and keep an open mind about everything--even about keeping an open mind. Elsewhere, Chesterton said that skepticism should be a spur that prevents a man from stopping, not a nail in his boot that prevents him from going on.

The point in being open to the possibility of being wrong is take a judge's approach to seeking truth and not a lawyer's. A lawyer just gathers evidence in support of the position he wants to prove. A judge weighs all the evidence so as to make an impartial decision. It's important to mention, though, that we are finite; we can't possibly weigh every single option in the area of religious truth...and each one exhaustively. I think the best approach is to be open to being challenged, and to re-weigh things when we are. And be conscious of the lens we wear. Many folks weigh all sides like a judge, but they are like a prejudiced judge because they judge other views through the lens of what they already believe. Thus, an atheist will preemptively dismiss religious experience as a psychological desire for the comfort of a father; and a religious person will preemptively dismiss atheism as, fundamentally, a hatred of God or love of some sin. You can "prove" anything you want if you go about it this way. The trick is to try to take off whatever lens you wear and try to imagine how the other side *could* be true. Have a hunger for reality as it really is (or might be), not for some sort of reality you want.

I've been researching the particulars of doctrine and it's hard to be sure. I have read many times on the site about how people say you should pick a religion that works for you, but to me that's not really an option... What people seem to be saying, though, is that religion isn't so black or white and nobody is necessarily wrong. That's the concept I'm struggling with in this thread. I have a black/white mentality on life in general, though I'm understanding more that there are lots of gray areas. Still, I would think religion wouldn't be one of them, considering what's at stake (your soul in eternity).

I think you're instincts are right here. A religion is like a map...a map of reality. It tells you the way things are. And just like you wouldn't pick the map that "feels right to you" when you're visiting England, you don't want to pick a religion because if feels right to you. You pick a religion, like you pick a map: because it is correct and accurate, i.e. true. And to all of those who say that religion is merely about love, meaning that doctrine and theology are superfluous and bothersome, refer them to Chesterton's essay, "The Usual Article".

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul. Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God, for example, that doesn't mean there isn't and the fact that I believed the wrong thing, no matter how sincerely, won't save me from going to hell. So this is serious to me.

I agree with the high value you place on truth. It is serious. I agree that God places a high value on truth too; but in my seeking, I have concluded that God is merciful to the sincere seeker. He doesn't say "Seek and find", but "Seek and you will find" as if it's a promise that if we seek sincerely, He'll make sure we find. Plus, God knows we're finite. How can you possibly look at all the possible options to be *sure* you are right on every single point of doctrine? (I think this belief is what causes people to stick their head in the sand out of fear and pretend that their beliefs are right.) The Bible also says that He wants everybody to be saved. (1 Tm 2:4). Now if God really desires all to be saved, and that depends on them believing everything perfectly, what about all those people all over the world who haven't even heard of the Gospel? God wants them to be saved, too. I have found the Catholic Church's teaching on this matter to be most in harmony with the data from Scripture and tradition:
    "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation. Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 847-848).

I'm not offering proof of that view...just putting it out there in hopes that you'll consider looking into it. Consider also that Scripture (and Jesus) refer to God primarily as Father and not Judge. Father's *do* judge, but what father would condemn a child's honest mistake? If a child is trying with all his heart and might, but still gets his sums wrong, would a good father beat his child for that? Would *the* Father? If you are seeking painfully for right belief, but are honestly mistaken, I don't think God will condemn you for that. That view of God doesn't correspond with the data I find in Scripture, tradition, the lives of the saints, or in my own heart. As Thomas Flemming wrote, God is the kind of God who found men and women so worthy of salvation that He took on their weakness and became one of them. And as St. Josemaria Escriva wrote:
    "He has become so small—you see: an infant!—so that you can come close to him with confidence."

I'm not saying that God doesn't care about truth. He does. But what he wants most of all is our hearts. If we are honestly seeking Him (Who is Truth), He is pleased.
    "God is a lover, not a manager, businessman, accountant, owner, or puppet-master. What he wants from us first of all is not a technically correct performance but our heart." (Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You).

He wants our hearts. That's the seeking part. Our part. The finding, I think, is up to Him.
    "We just have to plunge in an look ourselves, honestly and carefully at all the arguments and all the answers and all the evidence. And above all we have to search honestly, for if modern psychology has taught us anything it has taught us that we are very good at decieving ourselves. And I think we even have to search passionately, because the more important an issue is, the less easy it is to solve. The most important truths are like deer, they hide in the bushes; they don't come out into the easy, sunny public places; so if you want them you have to hunt them down. There's not much in the philosophy of religion that atheists and theists can agree on, but I think they would both strongly agree with the following teaching of religious sages like Jesus and Buddha and Socrates: Seek and you shall find. In other words, if you don't seek the truth, or don't seek it well or don't seek it enough, you probably won't find it. The best way to find the truth is to seek it passionately and honestly, both objectively and subjectively with all your mind and all your heart. In fact that sounds like what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment. If Jesus is right about God, then someone who becomes an atheist because he has sought the truth with all his heart and mind and soul and strength--has really sought God...if God is the ultimate truth. And again if Jesus is right, all who seek find. So, perhaps the passionately honest atheist is far more pleasing to God that the less honest, less passionate theist." (Peter Kreeft, Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion, disc 1)

Be open--pray about and investigate the traditions who view God as the kind of God who would be pleased by a child who seeks honesty and passionately for the ultimate truth--Him. Is there any other choice? If you hold your beliefs out of fear of being wrong, are you "seeking" as Christ commanded? If you've been programmed not to question, then it's going to feel like rebellion. When you feel that way, just reflect on how honest you are being and how much God must be pleased with that. Reflect on how you could recoil from seeking out of fear and pretend that you have true knowledge that your beliefs are true. Would that please God? Reflect also on the parable of the talents. The servant who was condemned, buried his talents out of *fear* of the master. The servants who were rewarded by the master felt secure enough to take risks and earn more talents. The lesson, there, I think, is that God is not pleased by an unrealistic fear of him; but he is pleased if we trust Him and honestly and passionately use what he's give us--our minds and hearts--to please Him to the best of our ability.

Finally, here are some excellent resources for opening up the question of seeking religious truth: