By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
The more you think about some questions in the hope of solving them, the more insoluble they seem to become. One such question, which you must certainly have agonised about if you really seek a compelling answer to it, is: Is there at all any rational way in which one can decide which, if any, of the many competitors in the global religious market represents the Absolute Truth? This question does not stop here, though, for each of these religions comes in the form of numerous brands—competing sects, each of which claims to be the sole authentic embodiment of the religion in question. So, you’ve hardly finished asking the first question when you’re confronted with another, equally perplexing, one: Supposing it is possible to rationally decide that one among the numerous religions in the world indeed represents the Absolute Truth, which of the numerous brands of this religion is its authentic embodiment, its true representative?
From the time when particularistic religions, specific to small tribes and confined to certain geographical areas, evolved into religions with universalistic claims, these questions have continued to be aggressively debated. Before the rise of religions that claimed to be for all peoples—for the whole world—tribal groups had their own respective religions. To be a member of a certain tribe, one had to follow the religion specific to it. There was no one religion that saw itself as universal, which all human beings were expected to follow. And so, it was rare for wars to be waged between different tribes over the truth claims of one or the other religion, although, of course, this did not preclude religious beliefs being marshalled in order to legitimise wars between different tribes.
But, things drastically changed as human societies became more complex and religions emerged that claimed universality, transcending particular tribes to encompass the whole of humankind. These universal religions made universal truth claims. Inevitably, the presence of two or more different universal truth claims led to ceaseless conflict between their respective proponents, each claiming to represent the Absolute Truth. That conflict took the form of bloody wars, as well as non-violent, but equally deadly, polemics, in which rival sets of actors ardently believed that they were engaged in the sacred cause of defending and promoting the Absolute Truth against its supposed enemies—adherents of rival religions as well as rival sects within each religious tradition. Such conflicts continue to rage even today.
As I see it, there is simply no rational way in which one can decide between the respective truth claims of rival religions, and, within them, of rival sects, that purport to embody and represent the Absolute Truth. This is because all religions make at least some claims that are not amenable to human reason. Now, this does not mean that all these claims must, therefore, be necessarily termed as ‘irrational’, as some critics are tempted to do. Almost all religions refer to phenomena (such as the law of karma in Hinduism or kamma in Buddhism), forces, beings and entities (such as God and angels in monotheistic religions, and gods in Hinduism), and states of being and places (heaven and hell in many religions, for instance), the truth of which we cannot prove or disprove on the basis of reason. Belief in such phenomena, entities and so on is just that—sheer belief, faith in claims the truth or otherwise of which you cannot know through reason, these being believed to be beyond the perception of ‘ordinary’ mortals.
Given all this, how is a reasonable person to decide between the conflicting truth claims of the different religions/sects—especially with regard to matters they they talk of that are not amenable to reason—in order to judge which among the various religions and sects represents the Absolute Truth? Now, what most people seem to do when confronted with this enormously perplexing question is to avoid it altogether. They adopt what they see as the most convenient way out—of not asking this question at all! Some are just too lazy to think about this question and torment themselves over it. Others take the question to be ultimately unanswerable, considering the quest for knowing the Absolute Truth to be an impossible and meaningless one. If the question simply cannot be answered on the basis of reason, they think, why bother about it? For others, the quest for Absolute Truth is just too daunting, too taxing and simply too bothersome to be even contemplated. They have ‘better’ things to do in life, they think. And so, they leave such ‘esoteric’ matters to professional priests, with their ready answers, or to mystics who’ve devoted themselves to the ardent path of searching for the Truth, and simply accept what these people say.
The vast majority of folks simply follow the religion/sect that they happen to be born into. It’s not really a choice that they make, one informed by reasoned analysis and contemplation. Nor is it for them the outcome of a desperate search for the Truth. Rather, they see it as just the easiest, most convenient, and, indeed, most natural, thing to do. It certainly spares them the agony of comparing and evaluating different religious truth claims, of trying out this path or the other. It saves them the opprobrium experimenting with various religions might win from their families for ‘betraying’ the ways of their ancestors, which are seen by them as the ‘best’. And so, it’s safest, they feel, to think and believe just as their parents, siblings, relatives and other members of the religious/sectarian communities they’ve been born into do. To refuse to do this, to question or dissent from the religious beliefs of their families, is simply too irksome for such people. In some cases, it might even cost them their lives.
But it isn’t that most folks choose to believe—as a matter of choice—in the religion of the family or community which they are born into. The fact of the matter is that they don’t think that they need to make a choice in doing so at all. Being carefully socialised from infancy into believing that the religion/sect that their family is associated with perfectly embodies and represents the Absolute Truth, and that other religions/sects are false, or, at least, faulty, they simply don’t feel any need to engage in the arduous task of sifting between the claims of rival religions/sects, dispassionately evaluating their doctrines and truth-claims, and then somehow deciding, on the basis of this evaluation, to choose the religion/sect that their families are associated with. They don’t need to do all of this simply because they have been carefully programmed, from almost the very beginning of their lives, to firmly believe that the religion/sect their families are linked to is the one that truly represents the Absolute Truth. And that is why the overwhelming majority of ‘believers’ are not ‘seekers’ in any sense of the term. They have not engaged in any process of seeking, of searching, for the Truth at all. They’ve simply accepted what they’ve been socialised into believing is the Truth.
If one wants to be a seeker and refuses to be bound by the religion that one inherits at birth, one could, of course, choose one or the other of the many other religions that abound—that is, if one is looking for a conventional religious answer to questions of Absolute Truth. But, given that every religion makes certain claims that can be neither proven nor disproven by human reason, such a choice cannot be said to be, strictly speaking, ‘rational’. And so that leaves us still grappling with the problem that we started with—of there being no way one can decide which of the many religions/sects, if any, represents the Absolute Truth on the basis of reason alone. Whatever choice you make in this regard—ardently believing in the faith you’ve inherited from your parents or deciding to accept another religion—is, ultimately, a subjective choice, based, at least partly, on subjective considerations, and one which entails at least some beliefs that cannot be verified by human reason. This being the case, people can go on wrangling about their rival religious beliefs that exceed human reason till eternity, but there’s simply no way to prove them or to really know if they really are the Absolute Truth. Perhaps one can only be really sure of them when one dies and is, presumably, then confronted with the truth, or otherwise, of these beliefs.
So, then, what is the way out for one to decide on the basis of reason between the rival truth claims of different religions that deal with matters that are not amenable to human reason? Frankly, I don’t see any such way at all! And so, after having pondered on these issues for a long, long time, I’ve decided that the really important question one must ask in this regard relates not so much to what religious beliefs one should adhere to (although these are not unimportant), but, rather, to the ways in which one’s religious beliefs actually impact on one’s life, the ways in which they transform those who adhere to them, the ways in which they shape their ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. This is because—and here sincere religionists of all hues would, hopefully, heartily agree—ultimately, religious beliefs should be seen not as an end in themselves, but, rather, as a means to the higher end of leading a life in accordance with the Truth, by whatever name it is called. In other words, as far as I know, the really crucial question is not so much about the contents of one’s religious beliefs as about the consequences these beliefs have in one’s life.
And so, if your religious beliefs help you to become a better, more gentle, positive, just, compassionate, loving, friendly, cheerful and helpful person, more useful to the entire cosmos (which includes non-humans and inanimate things too), if they help you to no longer be concerned about the welfare of only yourself, ‘your’ family, ‘your’ religious community, ‘your’ gender’, ‘your’ class and caste and nation and so on but, transcending all these, make you much more universal, they are fine by me. And this itself would show that your beliefs are ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ for you—in the sense that they work to make you a ‘truer’ and more ‘authentic’ human being—definitely a better human being than you would have been without these beliefs.
On the other hand, if your religious beliefs only make you more bitter, vicious, hateful, negative, angry, violent, unjust, fearful and intolerant than you would have been without them, and if they make you more concerned about the welfare of only yourself and those who share your beliefs and background than you would have been if you didn't hold these beliefs, they are definitely ‘false’, for they clearly make you a more ‘false’ person.
In this sense, then, the only reasonable way I can think of deciding between the rival truth claims of different religions/sects is to see what consequences these claims have in the lives of those who supposedly live by them.