Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | March 9, 2009

The problem of religious exclusivity

In my last post I ended with the question, is it possible for people to decouple the beneficial teachings and practices of religion in general, from the apparent need that people feel to accept one particular revelation as sole truth?  In other words, can a religion meet the emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of its followers, without requiring them to believe that it is the only one that is universally True?  Well, clearly the answer to this is yes, since many religions like that do exist.  But since the vast majority of the world belong to the two religions that do insist upon exclusivity, it is a significant problem. 

Why is exclusivity a problem?  It prevents people from seeing any value at all in any religion but their own.  It leads people to focus so heavily on the differences between their religion and others’ (which are mainly only cultural anyway), that they cannot see the predominant similarities at all – what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.  Without the need to believe that one’s own religion is in sole possession of absolute truth, these differences would instead become completely unimportant.  Or, if not completely unimportant, at least they would certainly not be considered reason enough for killing people.

So, what makes it so important in Christianity and Islam for followers to think that their own religion has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?  I think the answer to this is these religions’ belief in an eternal afterlife.  Talk about betting the farm, putting all your eggs in one basket, going all-in – we’re talking eternity here.  When the consequence of being wrong is consciously experiencing torment forever, there is no room for error.  It is the deepest and saddest irony, that fear of eternal torment is the root cause of so much earthly torment. 

While we all know the danger of making assumptions, I think it can be safely assumed that people who have a strong belief in heaven and hell, also have a strong belief in a God who is not only aware of individual human beings, but also casts judgement upon them.  (Anyway, I am going to base the following discussion on that assumption, so it needed to be stated…)  I think what is overlooked, in placing all importance on what happens after you die, is that if God is that involved in what humans do and think, then life must also be important, in and of itself, not just as a prelude to we-know-not-what.  Also, if God is God, (infinitely just and infinitely compassionate and all that) why would God play mind games with us?  I would submit that it is actually an insult to the ideal of “God” to think that the eternal fate of our soul rests on a pop quiz that has no provable correct answer. 

Instead of focusing on the differences on “how to get into heaven” that make up the smaller part of each religion, why not focus on the larger part about “how to act while you’re here”?  If you get the latter part right, the former will surely take care of itself.  Think about how vastly superior God is believed to be — so superior to us as to be utterly incomprehensible.  Revelatory religions make the simultaneous claim that humans existed who did comprehend God, and yet, God told each of them slightly contradictory things.  Can the differences really have come from this infinitely perfect, unitary being?  Or from the difference in comprehension between the humans?  It makes far more sense to consider that which is the same among all religions, rather than the differences, as actually having divine origin — and therefore, as what is actually important. 

When people study each other’s religions for the purpose of finding commonalities, we will discover more of the truth, and come closer to a world where we treat all people according to that truth, rather than just the ones who share our particular differences.

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