Chapter Nineteen: A Few Comments on the Great Faiths
The world's largest religions have had a profound impact on human history. In the larger picture they have all functioned and continue to function in providing a cultural foundation for humanity's relationship to that eternal reality that religions have decided to call God. Having a theologically structured worldview with the backing of a community of believers seems to be the preferred method for understanding that elephant in the dark room. Most believers feel they are more happy and moral because of their religious belief. Most also seem to find their questions about the world answered within these great faiths.
At the same time, religions have sometimes been a force opposing the advancement of human rights and scientific discovery. But the immoral teachings that can be found in some of the ancient world texts of those religions were typically a part of the worldview of the cultures that created them, not something the founders of the religions invented. While excesses and abuses certainly abound in the history of religion, I think the harm some religious ideas have done is probably exceeded by the benefit that religious institutions have played in the lives of billions of human beings.
I've attempted to explain my conviction that there are some beliefs about that eternal reality that we simply cannot know for sure. We've seen from our study of the world's major religions that their theological views of God are mutually exclusive. Each of them also contains enough mistaken beliefs from their ancient writings to prevent the fundamentalists of any one from demanding belief that their religion is the inerrant Word of God. Scientific studies of supernatural claims associated with these religions have failed to produce compelling evidence that would force an unbiased reader to accept one particular faith over the others.
I have proposed in this book that there are several transcendental realities about our world that can be combined into a larger concept that is the basis for what religions call God. These aspects are what I call a secular view of God. What distinguishes these more simple ideas from higher theology is that their discovery is intrinsically rooted in the universal human experience, not in a supernatural doctrine. Each idea has been a common and independent discovery from cultures the world over.
One could almost imagine an isolated culture with no knowledge of religion discovering each aspect without access to any traditional religious teaching. Theological beliefs, on the other hand, are very much a particular culture's discovery. A specific prophet or great religious leader in a specific culture and time emerged to add each religion's distinct beliefs to their understanding of that eternal reality. While believers accept that this information was a divine revelation from God, those who believe in rival religions obviously can't and don't.
But can this more simple, natural view fully explain the ultimate truth about God? In my opinion the answer would have to be an unqualified "No." I think these basic aspects of that eternal reality -- by whatever name you choose to call it -- are probably not enough to fully describe such an ultimate question. If you want to feel that you "know" with certainty the ultimate truth about such an awesome concept, I for one can only point you to the theologies of the established religions and wish you luck. I would also add that you had best develop a mountain of unconditional faith, for that might well be the only way a human being can really come to know the ultimate truth about God if it does match one of the world's major religions. I for one don't believe it does.
So be clear that the underlying aspects of this secular view of God probably can't completely describe what God actually is. It might be insightful to briefly show the type of ideas that this simple but more universal view of that eternal reality doesn't include when compared to each of the major religions.
Christianity maintains that God is a supernatural person with human-like traits who created the world by an act of will. He became incarnate in a man called Jesus to teach humanity that the key to salvation was belief in him and his teachings. Jesus died and was raised from the dead to demonstrate God's power over life and death, promising everlasting life to all who believed. Jesus will come again to judge humanity and create a permanent heaven on a recreated earth for true believing Christians and a hell in a supernatural underworld for nonbelievers.
Islam also maintains that God is a supernatural person with human-like traits who created the world by an act of will. He has sent prophets throughout time such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus to teach humanity about his true nature. Mohammed was the last and greatest of these prophets, teaching the world that God is one without division and emphasizing the primary importance of absolute surrender to God's will. God will one day judge the world and all true believing Muslims will be blessed with everlasting life in a paradise, while disbeliever will be forever tortured in a hell.
Hinduism maintains that the world exists in great cycles of mystical cosmic events. From the Great Reality a personal godhead forms so that humanity can know and worship its creator. From its great Whole this godhead supernaturally creates the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and the lesser gods and beings to form and control the world. By moral living and earnest worship of the Divine human beings can eventually ascend into a purely spiritual form, merging with the Great Reality itself that transcends the cycles of existence.
Buddhism maintains that human life is dominated by endless cycles of suffering. To escape this fate the believer must live a life of the middle path, disentangling themselves from the impermanent and illusionary desires of the physical world. By following the teachings of the Buddha, a believer can achieve spiritual enlightenment and attain the state of nirvana: complete union with the Greater Reality.
While these are deliberately very simplistic sketches of each view, they do I think present the essential ways in which they fundamentally disagree about the idea of God. Each is based on a supernatural idea that has so far proven impossible to prove or disprove. Any one of them might potentially be true and it is ultimately up to each person to decide for his or her self which to accept.
There is an eternal reality behind existence that is the foundation for what religions call God. Exactly what aspects this eternal reality does or doesn't have will probably be debated for as long as there are sentient beings to debate. Given the fact that the six billion people on our planet hold drastically differing views of this idea, it is fair to say that God is greatly misunderstood -- at least by the majority of us. Perhaps one religion holds the keys to this eternal reality's true nature over all others, and perhaps one day they will be able to demonstrate this truth to the whole world.
But if we view past history as a guide, this is extremely unlikely. It is more likely that people the world over will continue to believe in God in differing ways year after year, generation after generation. There has been an enormous increase in religious toleration worldwide. Hopefully this trend will continue and expand. But at least one thing is clear: that transcendent something that we call God will continue to exist long after all of our physical bodies have passed away.