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:


kel said...

Rock on brother!

jasoncpetty said...

I'll say it again: fantastic post. I hope it's done some good for the lass.