Comparing Religions I: Introduction

A while back, a reader named "Martin B" once asked me this question about other religions:

May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

In my previous response, I came up with a list of questions to ask to compare religions.  Here they are again:

  1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
  2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?
  3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?
  4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?
  5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?
  6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
  7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?
  8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
  9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
  10. What is the general moral character of the religious teaching?
  11. Do people who are serious about this religion generally feel that they are put into an actual relationship with the divine?

I will now attempt to answer these questions, both for Christianity and its competitors.

Some disclaimers are probably appropriate.  Obviously there are some religions I know more about than others, and I apologize in advance to any member of another religion if I've gotten anything factually wrong.  Corrections are welcome in the comments.

Obviously, in order to say why I think Christianity is more plausible than other religions, I will have to be honest about what I think the shortcomings of other religions are.  In doing this, I do not intend to communicate any disrespect to the adherents of these religions.  I would like to believe as well of everyone as I can, but I am constrained by the truth to give my honest opinion.  I will try to do my best to highlight the good aspects of other religions as well as the problematic aspects.

I do not aim to write from a "neutral" viewpoint (nor do I think there is any such thing on this subject), but I do think I'm fair-minded enough to explore things from other perspectives, yet also—and this is equally important—interested in identifying actual evidence and truth, unlike supposedly "objective" scholars of comparative religion.

Not being interested in the truth of the underlying claims (or at least, interested in imagining what it would be like to care about the truth claims) is actually one of the most subjective ways to study a religion, in my opinion.  Because it sidesteps or brackets the thing most essential to most actual religious believers, it has a tendency to end up comparing superficial cultural similarities and differences, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

And I am certainly not trying to evangelize my own culture.  I do not want everyone to share my own culture, but Christ.  Christian missionary work is not about the Imperial impulse, getting other people to give up their own culture, in order to learn Greek or English and become Europeans or Americans; no, it is about bringing Christ into every culture, to transform it into what God created it to be.  Certain specific cultural traditions may need to be changed because they are unjust or idolatrous—but that applies to Western culture as well!  The point of missionary work is to introduce other cultures to Jesus and let him show them what needs to change so that they can truly be themselves, not to make them over into the image of another group of people.

Some Christian missionaries have made the Imperial mistake in the past, but I think they've mostly figured it out by now.  I have seen many missionaries give presentations at churches about their foreign work, and almost down to the last man and woman, they have all seemed far more excited to share what they've learned about foreign cultures with Americans, then to spread American culture anywhere.  It is Jesus and the Gospel which they want to share, not Western culture in general.  (The one major exception is Western medicine, another type of "good news" which is beneficial to everyone, and which most missionaries are also very interested in sharing with other cultures.)

Please bear in mind that I'm trying to paint in really broad strokes here, because otherwise each of these questions would have to be a book in its own right.  So if I say that a religion is "primarily based" on something or other, or I summarize its teachings very briefly, I expect that there are plenty of nuances which I'm glossing over; due to my misperceptions as an outsider, different sects adopting different interpretations, and so on.  There is certainly potential for bias in my descriptions, but I still think these comparisons are worth doing.  Even near-sighted people can usually tell the difference between an elephant, a dog, and a rat.

While I may occasionally mention them, I will not be too concerned with the theological differences between different Christian denominations in this series.  I believe that what Christians share in common is far more important than what separates us.  (Here I am referring to geoups that actually believe in the supernatural claims of the New Testament, and have the mainstream Christian view about the basic nature of God and Jesus.  Fringe groups like Mormonism are probably better thought of as separate religions.)

In some ways, the internal differences within non-Christian religions are actually more significant for this project, because when a dispute between Christians is important, if need be I can simply defend the viewpoint I find most plausible.  But if there is a division inside of a non-Christian religion, in priciple one would need to investigate every possible permutation of the other religion to find the most plausible version.  This task is particularly vexatious in the case of Hinduism, which I am not sure should even be regarded as a single religion!  (Since you can find Hindu sects with basically all possible positions on the nature of divinity and its relation to the world.)  In other cases, I am going to try to keep things simple by focussing on the religious founder and trying to identify what form of the religion he (or she) taught, even though it's conceivable that the version that is most "authentic" to the founders intentions might not always be the version that is most true or beneficial.

Note that I will be discussing a fairly large number of criteria in the blog posts that follow, and it is not necessarily obvious which criteria are the most important.  Hence, even if I seem to "eliminate" a religion from consideration in one blog post, I may nevertheless continue to discuss that religion in future blog posts.

I am particularly grateful to my friend and fellow physicist Ahmed (of firewalls fame) for several conversations on Islam which have significantly benefitted my understanding.  I consider myself to have much more important things in common with him, than with any of the run-of-the-mill irreligious physicists I know.  Of course the views I express are my own, and so are any mistakes!

When irreligious skeptics in America bring up other religions as an objection to Christianity, it seems to me that they are quite frequently arguing in obvious bad faith.  When they look for parallels to the claims of Christ in some other religion, it is really to argue against Christ, and not because they actually take seriously, for one minute, the idea that some exotic foreign cult leader might actually turn out to be the true prophet sent by God.  If they did take these other religions seriously as rivals to Christianity, I think they would approach the question with far more caution, and would inevitably find themselves making distinctions between the plausibility of different ideas.

(Surely it is horrendously unlikely that all religions would have exactly equal plausibility.  Even if they were all fake, some fakes are a lot more convincing than others!  And you can't possibly know they're all fake, until you've investigated them carefully.)

At this point I should also mention another "skeptical" approach to evaluating religions which I think has very little merit, just to get it out of the way.  And that is to read the scriptures of a religion solely for the purpose of compiling a long list of "contradictions" that supposely disprove the books in question.  The main problem with this approach is that, generally speaking, the "worse" of a reader you are (i.e. superficial, hostile, and literal-minded) the more seeming contradictions you will find.  In other words, this is an approach which rewards poor reading.  And as St. Lewis remarked in one of his Narnia books, "the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."  (Of course, this approach is even sillier when done by followers of another religion, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own holy book might be subjected to the same treatment.)

You have to give a text an chance, "suspending your disbelief" and savoring its taste on your tongue, even in order to find out what it is really saying.  Only then can you judge whether the ideas in it are sound or not.  This goes doubly for texts that were written a long time ago, where the authors lived in a completely different cultural milieu from our own.  Any historian worth his salt knows that even very accurate historical texts can contain puzzling statements, which may be difficult for us to reconcile with the rest of our knowledge about the period (but the resolution might have been transparently obvious to those who lived through the events, perhaps so obvious that they didn't bother explaining it).

And when it comes to the more intangible spiritual or ethical truths, only a fool would automatically reject any hint of paradox or tension between opposing ideas.  That's like saying that because your left eye and your right eye show slightly different images, you have to disbelieve either the one or the other, or both.  The better option is to combine both images, and then you can see in 3D!

This does not imply that all religious ideas are equally valid, either historically or philosophically.  At the end of the day, there might be irresolvable contradictions in a putative religious system.  But you should always make sure to criticize the essence of what is being said, rather than sniping at superficial "gotchas".

For these reasons, I find it's usually far more interesting and productive to have conversations about religious disagreements with an actual believer of another religion.  In this case, neither participant can "win" simply by retreating into a bottomless pit of endless skepticism, since each person also has something they wish to defend!

Next: World Evangelism

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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11 Responses to Comparing Religions I: Introduction

  1. Joseph Cook says:

    Slaughter between religions continues as it has for 1000s of Years - no end seems to be in sight to this depravity of the spirit

  2. Spencer Andreasen says:

    I’m very interested to read this series - any idea how often / how many you’ll post?

    Your question #3 seems to be where Christ stands separate from other religious founders - he leaves no room for ambiguity!

  3. Jonathan S says:

    I've been lurking on your site for awhile and look forward to your upcoming posts on comparative religions!

  4. Jozef says:

    Super interesting, thanks!

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Joseph Cook,
    The issue of religious violence will come up in the next installment. However, I beg you to remember that the majority of religious people have never killed anyone.

    Spenser Andreasen,
    Probably about a dozen posts, about twice a week maybe?
    Regarding #3, there are non-Christian mythological figures which are clearly described as divine or supernatural, but who never existed historically. So historicity is another important point to establish...

    Jozef, Jonathan S,
    Thanks for your interest!

  6. Jim says:

    3 Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher.

    No offence intended, but may I suggest that you generally avoid using the words “only,“ “just,“ and “simply“? They tend to be interpreted as a deprecating personal comment on what follows their use.

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Sorry, I'm not going to abstain from using basic logical words that make my argument clearer, simply because somebody somewhere might feel slighted.

    (Though I'm not sure why someone like Confucius---who made no pretense to be either a prophet or a divinity---should feel insulted by being called "only a wise philosopher" in this context. He would be the first to say so. Would you feel insulted if someone said that you were "One of the kindest and most wonderful people you will ever meet, but simply a mortal and not to be worshipped as God himself?" Yes, that would deprecate you in favor of the maximally perfect being, but you'd have to be pretty arrogant to be insulted at not being given divine honors.)

    It is far better to be "only" a wise philosopher, than a false prophet who leads people astray with lies.

  8. Matt says:

    @Joseph Cook
    It's a new-atheist distortion it seems, and just blindly accepted by many, that the world would be some peaceful place, without so much violence, if we could just get rid of "religion". A simple Google on "what percentage of war was caused by religion" would put your comment into perspective.
    Historians, poring over The Encyclopedia of War, have determined that "religion" is the cause of about 7% of wars in history, and a much lower percentage than that of people killed in war, were religious wars. A few of the biggest examples from the last century, 1) Communist revolutions and atrocities approx. 100 million people killed. 2) WW1 approximately 20 million people killed 3) WW2 approx 60 million people killed.
    They are almost all secular or purely atheistic.
    That's not to categorically excuse religions, or violence they have done, but to put the argument into it's proper perspective.

  9. Matt says:

    And when I said "They are almost all secular or purely atheistic.", I meant wars in general. Not WWI, WW2 or Communism that I was just discussing. In those particular cases, it wasn't "almost all", but "all of them".

  10. Aron Wall says:

    It sounds like you might be alluding to a specific book. It might be helpful if you could provide a link so we know which specific resource you have in mind, and maybe a direct quote from the part of the book that discusses this?

  11. Matt says:

    @Aron Wall
    It's a 3 volume set by Charles Phillips (Author, Editor), Alan Axelrod PH.D. (Author, Editor)
    There is no section of the volume that covers the issue. The authors of the Encyclopedia apparently index the wars by causes (or at least partial causes I'd assume). I guess others could agree or disagree with their categorization.
    This is apparently from a PHD historian, who states that the intent of the encyclopedia is not to "categorize" wars, but in the index, the authors do in fact categorize them by "religious" or other causes.

    I guess historians have been trying to label "causes" for wars for a very long time. However, I think this puts things into perspective for those who think there would be almost no war, if not for religion, or that religion is responsible for the vast majority of the wars in history.

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