Which Is The True Religion?
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. ...
There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. ... They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. ...
Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. ... In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open. [H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, March, 1930]
The costliest of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind. [H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949]
Every religious person believes their religion is the "true" one, and that anyone who accepts another is a heretic. The question is, which religion is truly the right one?
Adherents.com lists over "4,200 religions, churches, denominations, religious bodies, faith groups, tribes, cultures, movements, etc." on their site. They list the 22 major religions with the number of adherents, and give the percentages for the eight largest groups as follows: Christianity, 33%; Islam, 22%; Hinduism, 15%; nonreligious, 14%; Buddhism, 6%; Chinese traditional, 4%; Primal indigenous, 3%, other, 3%.
The category of Christianity is further subdivided as follows: Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, Jehovah's Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Orthodox, and Pentecostal, which means no group probably has more than 10% of religious adherents. Islam, the second largest religion, is also divided into several sects: Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufi being the mains ones, which further dilutes their percentages as well.
Since every religion contradicts every other religion, if any religion happens to be right, all of the other religions must be wrong. That means what the majority of mankind believes, with regard to religion, is untrue.
About All Religion
If most religions are wrong and are yet believed by most people, what most people believe simply cannot be true. One might expect the ignorant or uneducated to believe what cannot possibly be true, but most religions are not simple or easy to believe and yet are unquestionably accepted by even the best minds, once educated.
Most children do not believe anything their parent's religion teaches, until they are, "educated." Although most children will say they believe whatever their parents have told them to say, they otherwise never even think about those things and really have no idea what those religious formulas and teachings they recite mean. If you could actually make them understand what the word "trinity" means, for example, or "transubstantiation," or "transmigration," or "eschatology," they would believe their parents had gone mad.
Two Kinds of Religion
Generally religions can be divided into two categories, one category is easy-going, the other is strict.
The easy-going religions generally are less demanding about what is believed. While they usually have a general formula, or at least some written texts, the meaning of the formulas and the interpretation of texts are very loose and undemanding. The easy-going religions are more interested in attaining a degree of moral or religious purity, and the more pure one is, the more their religions reward them. Since the interpretation of what constitutes moral and religious purity is quite flexible, the actual "practice" of these religions varies widely. These religions are obviously very popular.
The strict religions are quite demanding with regard to what is believed. In most cases, in fact, it is getting the formula exactly right that is the whole show. In these religions, it is believing every detail of the teaching, called dogma, completely and exactly that distinguishes between those who are and those who are not rewarded. While the strict religions also make much of religious and moral purity, it is kind of tacked on at the end, so to speak. One ought to live a holy life, but, so long as you get the formula right and believe it, almost any behavior is acceptable, or at least, forgivable.
An example of an easy-going religion would be Hinduism. Islam, on the other hand, is a very strict religion, although not as strict as some flavors of Christianity.
Some Hindu Beliefs
One generally expects knowledge in any field to increase over time. Older understandings based on the best observations at the time (the world is flat) are replaced with better understanding based on better information (the world is a sphere) as more is learned and discovered. In religion, this is seldom true. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions and today there are over 700 million Hindus, and it is one of the fastest growing religions.
One of the arguments for Hinduism is its very antiquity. It is so old, no one really knows who wrote the sacred Scriptures, called Vedas, upon which it is based. This is a great advantage to Hinduism. Other religions either know who wrote their Scriptures, as in Islam, or think they do, as in Christianity. Actually, it is only non-Hindus who are uncertain about who actually wrote the Hindu Scriptures, but, the Hindus know it was the team of writers, Manu, Maya, Twastha, Shilpi, and Vishwajna.
You may not have heard of these writers if you are not a Hindu, or know where they came from. They came from VishwaKarma, who had five faces. Each face bore a Brahma, which is what babies born of faces are called, and these were the five writers, which each wrote one of the five Vedas, which are: Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva, and Pranava.
It may also interest you to know there were female versions of the five Brahmas, which are called Shaktis. They were Adi Shakti, Para Shakti, Ichcha Shakti, Jnana Shakti, and Buddhi Shakti.
Other religions attribute the authority of their Scriptures to God in some way. Either God wrote them, or dictated them, or had an angel deliver them, or some such thing. The writers of the Vedas, that is, the five Brahmas were not Gods, neither was their "mother" face, VishwaKarma, or even what preceded VishwaKarma, Brahman. In fact, the Hindu religion has no prescribed belief in God.
God, in the Hindu religion, is thought of by some as an ineffable absolute, maybe the Brahman, maybe not, but God may also be thought of as one's Lord, in a personal sense, and the Creator of all things. While the belief in one god is paramount, the existence and belief in other gods is accepted. While specifically denying pantheism, they believe God is in every natural thing. Hindus believe God gives existence and life to everything, yet is separate from them. One can see the Hindu God is easy to believe in, because you can believe almost whatever you like.
Three important Hindu beliefs are reinCarnation, Karma, Cows and Casts. (The alliteration will help you remember these important concepts.)
The soul is a very important concept in most religions, except Buddhism, which doesn't exactly believe in the soul, at least the way other religions do. What the soul is, in most religions, is you without a body. What you are without a body is difficult to say, so most religions do not say. Sometimes they say the soul is the spirit, which clears it up right away. Whatever is meant by the soul, most people think of it as an invisible version of one's self, that, while there is a body, lives in the body, but when the body dies, the invisible version becomes free to do things it could not do while in the body.
Hindus believe one's soul is immortal, and when the body dies, the soul enters a different kind of body called an astral body. Astral bodies live someplace else, which is nowhere in this universe. While there, souls try to learn from their experiences in their most recent natural body, and when they have learned all they can from that experience, they are ready for another go.
The first thing they have to do is find a nice family they would like to be born into. Evidently Astral embodied souls are not able to learn as much as they ought to from their previous experiences, because most souls pick lousy families to be born into. They never actually explain whether, once they have picked a family, they have to wait for the woman to become pregnant, or whether their decision to enter a family somehow causes the pregnancy to occur. They also never explain what happens when more than one Astral soul opts for the same family, although this could be an alternate explanation of twins and other multiple births.
There must also be a short period of time when the astral soul has an opportunity to change its mind. This would explain abortions, still-births, and early childhood deaths.
(There are more questions about reincarnation that we cannot ask here in order to avoid offending Hindus. We will ask those questions when we get to Buddhism. It's alright to offend them.)
Karma, is like fate, except that each person is the cause of their own karma. Karma is a kind of supernatural law that says, if you do something bad, especially to a Hindu, something bad is going to happen to you, sometime, somewhere, when you least expect it. When bad things happen to you, it's your own fault, even though there is very little hope you will remember what you did, because it may have been in a previous incarnation, and no one remembers what they did in previous incarnations.
To question how anyone learns anything from experiences they remember nothing of is a sin in Hinduism. It is also a sin to harm cows.
It is a mistake to think Hindus worship cows, however. Hindus do not worship cows, they revere them. (In other religions, except Catholicism, to revere something is to worship it.) Hindus revere all life, but the cow is the symbol of all life, because it is entirely giving, supplying every human need, without which human life would not be possible. It provides milk, cream, meat, leather, and gelatin, and many more things, while being very gentle, and requiring nothing but grass to sustain it. No doubt, those to whom the true wisdom has been revealed know the goal of reincarnation is to become a cow, and not just any cow, but a cow in a Hindu land, like India. I know, in spite of their generosity, most cows would give half their udders to live in India.
Modern Hindus repudiate the Hindu Cast system, but still practice it. Casts are a system of five classes to which individuals are assigned at birth. The classes are, from highest to lowest, the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (also called Rajanyas, rulers and politicians), the Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and tradesmen), Shudras (laborers) and Untouchables (who might as well be dead). The advantage of the caste system is that eliminates identity problems and worrying over one's career. The little mark on one's forehead lets one know exactly who they are and what they are good for. There is the highest caste of all which no human can be, only cows, which everyone hopes to be reincarnated as.
Some Buddhist Beliefs
Buddhism is another easy-going religion. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhists know exactly who the founder of their religion is, at least they think they do. It may have been Gautama Buddha (Buddha means enlightened one), but at least he was Buddha (the enlightened one). They even know how he became enlightened. He suffered, like everyone else. He was rich, unlike everyone else, but, because he was rich, he apparently suffered his suffering more than those not rich suffer theirs.
He suffered so much, he went on a hunger strike against suffering. In fact, he went on a total self-deprivation strike, but soon learned, far from alleviating suffering, he suffered more than ever.
So here is the great enlightenment. The rich, full of food and pleasures suffer, the poor, empty of food and pleasures suffer. Eureka, enlightenment is, the "middle way," which, possibly was discovered originally by Goldilocks: not too much, not too little, not to big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, or as another has put it, "moderation in all things." This is simple, this is wonderful, this is earth-shaking, but, unfortunately, not true. Who wants a moderately honest banker, a moderately faithful wife, moderate health, or even moderate wealth, even with all of wealth's suffering.
The Buddha was not God. Buddha was merely a teacher (which should make you skeptical right away) and his teaching is called Dhamma. The core teaching of Dhamma is that human suffering can be completely overcome, because all suffering is caused by self-centered desires. One immediately sees this is the truth. All suffering is the result of getting what we don't want (like bad colds) and not getting what we do want (like the girl we love.) Now, one way to get rid of suffering, it seems, would be to not get any of the things you don't want and to get all the things you do want. Is this the Buddhist way? Definitely not!
The other way, and essentially the Buddhist way, though it is never stated explicitly, is to get rid of the desires. If you don't want anything, you'll never be disappointed and always have everything you want, that is, nothing. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to die, but this short-cut is not acceptable to Buddhism.
The next best thing to dying, as the means of getting rid of all desires, and therefore, all suffering, is to get as near death as possible without actually dying. The method of doing this is called the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is described as follows:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thoughts
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation
There is no heaven in Buddhism, instead, there is Nirvana, and the Eightfold Path is the only path to Nirvana. Nirvana is not a place, but a state, the state of no-suffering. If we did not know better, we might say it was death, but we do know better because the Buddha Dhamma says so.
Since, at this time, we are only interested in how this works, and not actually experiencing Nirvana, we only need to examine two of the eight elements of the Eight-Fold Path, the first (Right Understanding) and the last (Right Meditation).
Right Understanding consists of the Four Noble Truths, which are:
- Life is suffering. Birth, aging and dying are suffering. Everyone suffers.
- Our desire to fulfill what cannot be fulfilled causes our suffering.
- Our desires are illusions we must destroy to end our suffering.
- The Eight-Fold Path cures our habits of suffering.
This is obviously going to take a lot of work for some people. Some people just don't know they are suffering. They are mistakenly convinced that life is meant to be enjoyed and that they are enjoying it. But of course, that is not right thinking. They probably think their desires are worth pursuing, so they pursue them, gaining and achieving the things they desire. Furthermore, they mistakenly think the resulting enjoyment of those things is happiness, when they are suffering all the time. But it is all an illusion caused by their desires, and as soon as they can get rid of their desires they will see how really miserable they are. The Eight-Fold Path will help them to achieve that miserableness so they can end their cycle of suffering, even though they are not aware they are suffering. That's what Right Understanding is all about.
The next six elements of the Eightfold Path are variations on a theme, but the last is the key, the secret to unlocking the door to that death which is not death, that is, Nirvana.
Right Meditation. Just the sound of it is uplifting. Quiet peaceful serenity, like a stagnate pond, not a ripple of thought, or life, or interest to disturb the placid pliability of a consciousness gone defunct. This is the transcendent state that smashes the illusion of desire and happiness, to learn to make the mind blank, zero, nothing—to become, for a while, a zombie by choice.
Do not suppose that you will be successful in reaching Nirvana just because your life has traveled the Eight-fold Path. When you finally break the cycle of suffering which is life, (die), you will probably have to start the cycle all over again. Unlike the Hindu, you have no say about how you will come back. It is all determined, according to Dhamma, to Kamma.
Kamma is not the same as Hindu Karma, although there are similarities. Both are the result of choices we make and things we do while incarnated, the consequences of which have their effect on future incarnations. For the Buddhist, it even determines how one is reincarnated. In Buddhism, individuals do not really have souls, and what is reincarnated is not the actual individual, but their "influence" or "essence."
Now in your ignorance, not having mastered "Right Understanding," you might think, "well who cares if they are reincarnated if they can't remember anything in their past life? What difference would there be if I had never lived before?" But, if you had "Right Understanding," you would know all those bad things in your life, like believing you ought to enjoy it, and hitting your thumb with a hammer, which you have attributed to Murphy all this time, were really because you were bad last time.
At this point you may have a question. If everyone has a former life, and everyone is reincarnated, where did everyone come from in the first place? This is the kind of question that also shows you have not yet mastered "Right Understanding."
If, on the other hand you have mastered, "Right Understanding," you may be ready to learn that in Buddhism, though no specific deity is worshiped, almost everything is a kind of demi-deity, and not only everything there is, but many things which are not, are demi-deities as well. Some Buddhists, of course, do not believe in any deities, but some Buddhists believe even the trees and insects are spirits which can influence their lives. So long as you have, "Right Understanding," it does not matter much what you believe.
You may also have noticed that belly buttons are a very important feature in Buddhism. At another time, this aspect will be addressed in detail. One thing is certain, however, Buddhism has never been plagued by the kind of theological problem that has been the bane of Christianity. While Christian theologians have wrestled with the yet unanswered question, "did Adam have a belly button?" Buddhism has no such question. In Buddhism, everyone has a belly button, prominent and praiseworthy.
The earthly founder of the Muslim religion was Mohammad, or Mahomet, or Muhammad. Mohammad was not God, not a God, not even a son of God, but a man and a prophet, one of a whole string of prophets, beginning with Adam, then Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and finally Mohammad who is the last of the prophets and the one to whom God entrusted His last revelation to man, the Koran, or Qur'an. There is some confusion about how Mohammad came into possession of the Qur'an, but it was one of the following: he was inspired by God and wrote it himself, the message was brought to him by an Angel and he wrote it, or it was written by Allah and an Angel delivered the finished product to him, as each chapter was completed.
Also, the Qur'an is not quite the last revelation, because there is also the Sunnah of the Prophet, which is God's revelation through the Prophet's life.
Allah is the name of the Muslim God, which, unlike the Hindus, they believe is the only God. They also believe Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus worshipped Allah, even though Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, all Jews, and all Christians believe they worship Jehovah; but what would they know?
Islam is a strict religion. Unlike Buddhism with its Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths, which are more like aphorisms and general hints and instructions for how to believe and act, the Muslims have the Five Pillars, which tell you exactly what you must believe and exactly what you must do.
The Five Pillars of Islam are the following:
- The Testimony of Faith
- Giving Zakat
- Fasting during the month of Ramadan
- A Pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) (if able)
The Testimony of Faith is saying these words: "La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah." The words mean: There is no true god but Allah and Mohammad is Allah's Messenger (Prophet).
If you cannot say these words, you can forget the other four pillars. You cannot be a Muslim.
Prayer does not mean praying when you feel like it, saying your prayers before you go to bed, or saying your rosary. Prayer means praying five times a day, not when you feel like it, but precisely at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night, always facing Mecca. (It may be useful to know that if you are exactly half way around the world from Mecca, you may face in any direction you like when praying.)
If you cannot pray five times a day, or do not know in which direction Mecca is, you can forget the other three pillars. You cannot be a Muslim.
Giving Zakat means giving support to the needy. How much do you have to give to the needy? Write it down and give it to your accountant, give 2.5% of all funds (gold, silver, or cash) if you have them for one "lunar" year. For most people, this means you do not have to give anything, because all your money is gone by the end of the week.
You can give more if you want, but no one does. Obviously, the needy are all non-Muslims who can't give Zakat, but if they get enough Zakat, they can become Muslims and give Zakat themselves.
If your out of Zakat, or won't give it away, you cannot be a Muslim. Forget the last two pillars.
Fasting the Month of Ramadan is probably the most useful of the five pillars, for purposes of religion, that is. It is very practical. During the Month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat, drink, or have sexual relations while it's light, that is, from dawn to sundown. Once the sun's down, the party's on. This has the advantage of making one feel very religious and holy while hungry, while offering the immediate reward of surfeit and orgy the moment the sun sets. That's religion with effect.
If you cannot fast during the day or cannot tolerate the evening crapulence you cannot be a Muslim. Call your tourist agent and cancel your Hajj bus-tour of Mecca.
A Pilgrimage to Makkah is your once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) called a Hajj. Hajjes are held the twelfth month of the year (Islamic calendar), at the Haram Mosque, where you'll find the Kaaba, a large Black Box which Abraham and Ishmael built, probably.
The Hajj includes the pilgrims circling the Kaaba seven times and other rituals. The pilgrims all wear the same simple clothes to strip away distinctions of class and culture, so Allah will not be fooled into blessing some more than others.
Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, the present life, if you have one, is the only one you are going to have, and everything hinges on what you do with this one, because there is not going to be another. If you have strictly followed the five pillars you can look forward to heaven, but if somewhere along the way, like indigestion during Ramadan, you fail, the five pillars will fall on you and you will go to hell.
In the strict religions there is usually a heaven and hell. Except for the fact that Heaven is supposed to be a lovely place you could not possibly be displeased with and Hell is a terrible place you could not possibly be pleased with, there is not as much information about these possible destinations available as will generally be found about destinations described in most tourist agency brochures. Nevertheless, most of the faithful of the strict religions are certain heaven is the desirable destination.
According to the Qur'an, heaven has gardens and rivers and is larger than the present heaven and earth combined. The inhabitants, (there are no visitors or tourists) will have 10 times whatever they want (even if one would be enough, and two would be too much. It's ten times, or nothing.)
There are things in the Muslim heaven no one has ever seen or heard or even imagined. Now, it is difficult to evaluate what you have never seen, heard of, or even imagined, but they are purported to be good things, and we, at least, will take Allah's word for it, since we have no other opinion to compare it with.
Since Muslims are not all in agreement with the specific virtues of heaven, there is some question about its appeal.
Take, for example, what a Muslim child must think when he is taught that it is better to die killing infidels than it is to live, because, if one dies as a martyr for Allah, you are immediately in paradise surrounded by bevies of beautiful women to satisfy your every whim. Besides the fact that he will certainly be unconvinced dying is better for any reason (he has seen dead people, they don't go anywhere, they don't enjoy anything, they don't do anything, they only rot and stink) why would he be interested in being surrounded by women. He doesn't even like girls. And, what if "he" is a girl, what does she get?
If you do go to the Muslim heaven, we hope you are satisfied with it. You will be there a long time. At least there is no sickness, pain, sadness, or death there. As for what you can do in this paradise, there is not a lot said about that. In that light, let us consider the alternative destination.
It is not in the Middle East, as some have suggested, and it is not Afghanistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. (We had to get these myths resolved.)
Unlike Christianity, there is more we don't know about Muslim hell than there is we know. For one thing, there are no pictures of hell, as there are in Christianity. In fact there are not many pictures or art related to Islam at all, except for architecture and calligraphy.
This much is described: hell is painful punishment, and there is fire. Beyond that, there is not a great deal of detail, yet the authorities assure us we do not want tickets to that destination.
For a really rich and elaborate description of the exquisite torments of hell, we now turn to Christianity
Some Christian Beliefs
Christians believe religious truth is contained in a book called the Bible. They also believe that book describes Jesus Christ. Beyond that, there is not much agreement among Christians.
Most Christians believe the Bible teaches Jesus Christ is God, but some believe He was only "a god," which is not the same thing, and others say they believe Jesus Christ is God but they also say everyone has God in them, and that someday everybody will be God. So there is some disagreement there, and discussions among various Christians about these disagreements are seldom very "Christian."
But the greatest controversies in Christianity concern their Book. Some, for example, not only believe it contains religious truth but that it contains all truth, and outside the Bible, there is no religious truth. Others believe that, in addition to the Bible itself, interpretations and pronouncements of certain religious authorities, even additional writings, are also authoritative. While some Christians believe the Bible is the only Book, and some believe it is only the main Book, none of them agree about what the Book says.
Take this passage for example, "And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him [Jesus], they have no wine.... When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now." (John 2:3-10)
There are many Christians who believe this passage teaches that Jesus changed water into wine. After all, that's what it says. Other Christians believe Jesus did not change the water into wine, but into grape juice. When other Christians protest, "but it says "the water that was made wine," the grape-juice crowd answers, "yes, yes, that's what it says, but that's not what it means."
This is the heart of all Biblical interpretation. Once you have decided what a Book says and what a Book means are not the same thing, the field of possible interpretations becomes fairly wide. It can mean, well, just about anything, and a brief look at Christianity shows that it evidently does.
There are probably as many varieties of Christianity as there are all other religions combined. The most important of these, which is determined either by how many adherents they have or how much trouble they cause, are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Traditional Protestant and Evangelical Protestant.
Not all, but most Christians believe in one God, however their one God is three Persons. This leads many to believe their God is actually a committee or mini-pantheon, but Christians solve that problem by calling the three Persons by one name, Trinity. That does not mean each one is called Trinity, like Trinity1, Trinity2, and Trinity3, because they already have individual names, Jehovah, aka God the Father; Jesus, aka God the Son; and Holy Spirit (no known alias). Together, as one God, when in session, He/they is/are called the Trinity.
Yes, the Christian God is a "He", although there is a movement afoot to force Him to have a sex-change.
God created everything by Himself for Himself, and He created it out of nothing. This is called ex nihilo (out of nothing). Some of the world's problems may be attributable to the quality of the material from which it was created. Although few Christians believe this, some Hindus do.
God also created man. It was originally believed the God created man out of the same material from which He created everything else, that is, nothing. Some now believe He created the animals out of nothing and then created man out of them.
The Bible itself says God created man from the dust of the earth and created women from a piece of the man. Personally I would have started with the woman, it's the way it's worked ever since.
Christians believe, like the Hindus and Muslims, that human beings have an eternal soul, but unlike the Hindus and Buddhists, but like the Muslims, Christians believe that when they leave this life, that's it. Wherever they go next, that is where they will be staying, and where they go is determined by what they do in this life.
Like the Muslims, most Christians believe there are only two destinations, Heaven and Hell. Details about the Christian Hell abound, but there is less detail about the Christian Heaven than there is about Muslim Hell, which is not much.
One reason there is more detail about hell then there is about heaven is probably based on the belief that since no one intends to go to hell, all they are ever going to learn about it is from travel brochures and public broadcast travelogues. Heaven is the intended destination and knowing everything about it before arriving would spoil the surprise, as well as, the pleasure of exploring it on one's own. Nevertheless, wherever one ends up, the novelty is likely to wear a little thin after a few billion years. Heaven is as inescapable as hell.
We shall have a little more to say about the most likely destination of most people after discussing how one's final destination is determined, because, in Christianity, everything takes a back seat to that.
Where Are You Going?
Just as the Buddhists have their The Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths and the Muslims have The Five Pillars of Islam, Christians have The Ten Commandments, and Sacraments or Ordinances (about which they cannot agree what to call them or how many there are?)
Even about the Ten Commandments, there is some disagreement among Christians. For the sake of brevity we list the most inclusive version (the one that forbids the most specific things) in an abbreviated form: (In the original they all begin, "You shall," or "You shall not.")
- Do not have other Gods.
- Do not make any graven images.
- Do not take the Lord's name in vain.
- Keep the "sabbath" day holy.
- Honor your father and mother.
- Do not kill.
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal.
- Do not lie.
- Do not covet other's property.
There is little agreement on what the Christine Sacraments or Ordinances are, or what their efficacy is. While the Roman Catholics observe a bunch more than most, and hold them in the highest position, we will consider only two, which most Christians observe, Baptism, and the Eucharist (Catholic) or Lord's Supper (most other denominations.)
(The Catholic Sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation [confession], Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders.)
You might think that observing the Ten Commandments and Sacraments/Ordinances (once Christians agree on what they are) would be the thing that determined one's final destination, but, if you thought that, you would be wrong.
Few Christians could tell you, off the cuff, so to speak, what all the ten commandments are, anyway. It is not surprising, therefore, that few Christians observe the ten commandments, except when applying them to other people. The interesting thing is, even though they do not actually do what the commandments require, they are not "breaking" the commandments, because, (don't be shocked), they do not really mean what they say.
Consider the following: Having a bumper sticker on your car that says, "God is my co-pilot" is not taking the Lord's name in vain. Instead of the Sabbath (Saturday), you may pick another day, like the exact opposite (first day instead of the last), and may do anything you like on that day (to keep it holy). Of course, it's a bit difficult for orphans who never knew their parents to honor them. Do not kill means do not kill unless you can supply any of a number of good reasons for killing. War is the most popular of these reasons. Stealing only means armed robbery and things like that. Any method of getting what you have not earned from those who have earned it is not stealing if the government does it for you.
Oh, yes. We almost forgot adultery, which is understandable, since everyone else has too. If you are very ugly, and no one of the opposite sex is interested in you, or, if you are very old, and are no longer interested in the opposite sex, then the commandment definitely means, do not commit adultery. For everyone else, well, we are all tempted, and we all fail sometimes, but what we really need to do is understand and forgive.
The sacraments or ordinances we are considering are Baptism and Eating Jesus (Eucharist or Lord's Supper).
Baptism is a ritual of wetness, and the two major aspects of baptism over which Christians disagree are how much wetness is required and what baptism actually does. The wetness views are, 1. Very little, 2. Moderate, and 3. Soaking. The two views of what it does are, 1. Nothing, and 2. Necessary for salvation. The Roman Catholic view, for example is 1,2, that is, very little water is required, but it is necessary for Salvation. The other views are generally associated with Protestant denominations, for example 3, 1, that is Soaking but not required for salvation is usually associated with Baptists, 1,1 and 2,1 Very little or Moderate wetness and not required for salvation are associated with Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, for example. It is important to note, that except for Baptists, it really doesn't matter what you believe about Baptism because they are going to do it to you before you are old enough to have any say in the matter. Baptists, however, actually have to do it by choice, and on their own. If you have hydrophobia, you cannot be a Baptist.
Some people object to the Eating Jesus ritual because they say it is tantamount to cannibalism. This, of course, is absurd, not because actually eating someone would not be cannibalism, but because this ritual is not actually eating someone, that is, unless you are Catholic. Except for Catholics, other Christians believe this ritual is commemorative, though very important and a time of great spiritual significance.
The Ritual is based on the Words of Jesus, when, "... as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, 'take, eat, this is my body.' And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it, and he said unto them, 'this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.' (Mark 14:22-24) Today, most Christians, except for Lutherans, Orthodox, and Catholics, do not use wine, but grape juice. This is based, of course on the fact that when the Bible says wine, though it says that, it means something else, as you will recall.
To their credit, the Roman Catholics interpret these passages literally. They believe the disciples were really eating Jesus body, and drinking Jesus blood, even though He was sitting right there with them without a sign of any kind of trauma. To explain this it would be necessary to explain miracles and faith, which is not possible in this report, or possibly, any report.
Catholics believe they must literally follow the teaching of Jesus words in John 6:53-56. Here is the amazing passage: "Then Jesus said unto them, 'verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.'"
Now this literalism is a wonderful thing. As amazing as it is, one has to admire the kinds of consistency that says, "if Jesus said I have to eat his flesh, and eating bread is eating His flesh, than it is eating His flesh." And one would admire it too, if it were true. Now, this is difficult to believe, but you may ask your Catholic friends, they do not eat bread and drink wine, at all. Even though they "all," drank the wine when Jesus instituted the sacrament, when Catholics observe it, only the priest (the stand-in for Jesus) drinks it, and drinks a good deal of it too. They also do not use bread, but a thin cracker (wafer), which, though not the prescribed bread, they still believe actually is Jesus body. Catholics are, nevertheless, firmly opposed to cannibalism.
"Salvation," is very important in Christianity, in fact, it is what Christianity is all about for most Christians. To go to Christian Heaven, one must be saved. It is the one thing every Christian wants to be absolutely sure of, yet, there is almost no agreement about how one actually gets it.
Christians are not only concerned about salvation for themselves, but many Christians believe they have been personally selected to make sure everyone else, or at least as many as possible, are also saved. These Christians ask everyone, "are you saved?"
The typical response to this question is, "from what?" and the Christians are ready with the answer, "HELL!"
Here is where Christianity really shines. They may not be able to tell you a great deal about heaven, but about Hell and its minions they can preach for hours, although one does not hear quite so much about it these days as they used to.
Some of the things we know about Hell are that all visits are long-term, that is, forever. The one positive thing that might be said about it, is it will always be interesting. Something is always happening. The main thing that is always happening is torment, the degree and exquisiteness of which cannot be imagined. There is torment in flames, of thirst, of anguish, and gnashing of teeth.
Some are surprised to learn there are miracles in hell, but in fact, it is almost one continuous miracle. While everything is in constant flame, nothing is burned up, not even people. But flame is not all there is. It is also described as a dank, dark, misty place. One must assume that the moment one begins to be the least bit enured to the flames (people can get used to anything) they are suddenly yanked out of their tropic slumber and thrown into an arctic cave, without a shred of clothing, heat or light, although no one freezes to death. This constant switching no doubt continues for a few millenia, or until the citizens begin to get used to even this, by which time the management will no doubt have developed new and more imaginative programs of torment.
Once one understands that is what one needs to be saved from, you can understand why they are in a big sweat to be saved and just as quickly as they can be. So, just how does one get saved?
Travel Brochures of Hell
Travel Brochures of Heaven
How To Be Saved
While there is no shortage of Christians ready to press on you their particular formula for salvation, there are almost as many different formulas as there are Christians. And, here is the most important thing, if you don't pick the right formula, or even if you pick the right one, but don't get it exactly right, you better pack light clothing for your final vacation. (If the brochures are correct it may not be necessary to pack anything, actually, since most pictures of hell, as well as heaven, look an awful lot like naturist camps. This, no doubt, will have a certain appeal to some people.)
Theological descriptions of salvation are complicated so this description will be more of an illustration of how the various schemes work. Most Christians believe in something called the judgment or 'the last judgment.' Descriptions of the last judgment vary but the essential principle is it occurs sometime after one dies but before one takes their final journey and it is how one's final destination is determined. It's like when your plane ticket is checked at the airport and you are directed to the correct plane determined by what is printed on your ticket.
In the case of the last judgment, there are only two destinations (heaven or hell), and only two categories of tickets, those marked, "innocent," which is found only on tickets to heaven, and those marked, "guilty," which is found only on tickets to hell.
This small digression is necessary to explain what it is one's ticket indicates they are innocent or guilty of, which is sin. What sin is could hardly be explained in a single report of its own, much less as a part of this one. It will be necessary to settle for this definition: "sin is whatever God dislikes one to think or do and anything that is done that one's religion forbids or that is not done that one's religion requires."
There is one other oddity about sin in Christianity. One can be guilty of sin without ever having done, or even thought, anything that is sin. Furthermore, sin is very often a thing. I'm sorry I cannot explain either of these things. I'm only reporting, not explaining.
The important thing is, if you have a preference about your final destination, make sure you have the right ticket when you die. Otherwise you can say, "surprise me!"
Various Salvation Formulas
The following are some of the most common formulas for ensuring one has a ticket for heaven. Except for Universalists, it is assumed the default destination for everyone is hell.
Most Christians believe everyone is born guilty of sin. They believe when Adam sinned it made everyone ever born after him a sinner. Again, I make no attempt to explain that, or why everyone seemed to be immune to Eve's sin. I'm only reporting.
According to Christians, everyone's final ticket is marked, "guilty," from the day they are born, unless something is done about it. Except for Catholics, most Christians believe there is nothing that can be done about it, but that God has already done it for them. More precisely, Jesus has already done it for them. Christians believe Jesus took the guilty tickets people are born with and made the trip for them, that is, to hell. This essentially cancels the original "guilty" tickets and allows God to replace them with "innocent" tickets to Heaven. There is only one catch. One must "repent" from their sin (stop doing what God does not like) and accept the ticket God offers, (which is called being "born again," meaning, just as one was originally born with a "guilty" ticket, they are now born again with an "innocent" ticket.)
This salvation formula is a generality, and there are a number of variations. There is, for example, the Universalist view in which everyone gets a new, "innocent," ticket, no matter what. Then there is the Reformed or Calvinistic view in which Jesus actually only took the trip for some people, and has already given them their "innocent," ticket
Calvinists emphasize something called predestination. For the Calvinist, the ticket you are born with is permanent. A few are born with an innocent ticket. The selection of who will get what ticket is decided by God and the process is called predestination, and those who get an innocent ticket are called elect and those who get the other tickets are called SOL. A discussion of this interesting doctrine would require a discussion of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism and other obscenities, which would not be appropriate in a report that might be read by children or mature adults.
We may sum up the Calvinist view with these two observations: They believe God predestines everyone either to eternal torment or eternal boredom (since there will only be Calvinists there). No one believes in predestination who does not also believe they are one of the elect.
Of course Universalists have it best. They can't miss, that is, unless they are wrong, in which case they need to pack light. Except for Universalists, who think everyone makes it to heaven, all the others think very few do. The Evangelical formula, and the Reformed formula are both pretty much cut-and-dry. In both cases, it is a simple matter of choosing right or having been chosen right, and once you set out on your final journey your destination is fixed. Here is where the Catholics have the advantage. Its that additional feature of their formula.
The Catholic formula is the most difficult, because unlike most other formulas, there is not something you can do once and be done with it, because there are so many things you have to keep doing right up to the day of departure. But even if you have not kept up with all the requirements, in the Catholic religion only, there is still hope. You will not have any additional opportunities here in this world, the way Hindus and Buddhists do, but, unless you have refused the new ticket altogether (that is, you are not Catholic) you do not go to eternal Hell when you die, but a kind of temporary Hell, a layover, so to speak, in Purgatory.
Here is how it works. The tickets that Catholics get at birth are unique. On one edge are little blocks marked sins. On the other edge are little blocks marked payments. Now every time a Catholic commits a sin, forgets to go to confession, misses Mass, has sex with his boss's wife, and so on, one of the little sin blocks is punched. Whenever a Catholic goes to confession, says some prayers, kisses St Christopher and so on, one of the little payment blocks is punched. Now, the ticket is not a valid innocent ticket until the number of payment blocks punched is equal to or greater than the number of sin blocks that are punched. When a Catholic dies and their ticket has more sin blocks than payment blocks punched, they do not go to heaven, but to Purgatory.
The wonderful thing about purgatory is, even though your ticket is not valid when you arrive, it can still be made valid. Purgatory is the place you pay off all those sin blocks for which corresponding payments have not yet been made. Purgatory is like permanent penance, painful and persistent. Now here is the best part. In addition to the payments your personal suffering in purgatory is purchasing, those you left behind who are still getting ready for their final vacation, and, if they wish to, can make additional payments for you, with prayers, burning of candles, and making novenas, for example, and those payments can be applied to your account, accelerating the validation of your ticket and shortening your stay in purgatory.
From our short overview of these four world's religions, there is something for everyone, whatever their temperament, tastes, or ambitions. If these four do not fit one's taste, some religion somewhere certainly offers just the right balance of demand and promise to reassure anyone they really are a good person, and everything will ultimately work out alright. There are Hinduism, Sikhism, Juche, Jainism, Shinto, Cao Dai, Zoroastrianism, Tenrikyo, Rastafarianism, and Scientology to consider. If none of those appeal there is always some synchretistic form of religion, like Baha'i to try.
Synchretistic religions deny they are synchretistic, but then describe themselves as borrowing parts of other religions to make the new religion. Baha'i, for example, borrows primarily from Islam, Christianity, and sociology.
Final Note About Religion
While all religions have something to say about how people should live in this world, for the most part, the important part of religion is the next world. Yet, throughout history, and continuing today, wars have been fought and murders committed for the sake of religion. This is very strange. In the total scheme of things, human beings do not live very long. Whatever one does not like about someone else's religion, how can it be worth killing, dying, or fighting a war over. In a few years everyone will be in heaven or Nirvana, getting ready for their next life, or wishing they had done some things differently. Why not cool it a few years. What's a few years out of eternity? If one didn't know better, one might think religious zealots don't really believe what they claim to believe and take the present life much more seriously than they ought to.
There are some who would like to stamp religion out altogether, but the problems they think they would solve by doing that would only wear a different face and be a lot less easy to identify. Religion will never be "stamped out." Mankind is hopelessly gullible and always ready to believe anything that promises a short-cut to success and happiness, if not in this world, then in the next. The promoters of all religions prefer the promises of the next world, because no one can examine them. [This is the advantage religionists have over all other self-help and personal development scams.]