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October 9, 2015 / BTM

How Do You Decide Which Religion to Follow?



Suppose you were thinking of going on a spiritual quest.  How would you decide which religion to pick?  Would you pick a religion based on:

a) how familiar it is to you?

b) how well it fits your lifestyle or beliefs?

c) how well it provides something meaningful or convenient to you?

d) how simple and intuitive it is?

e) how factually accurate it is based on our human experience and our current understanding of science?

f) all of the above?

g) something else (please specify)?

This is really a classic question, and for many it can be a very difficult one to navigate.

In this post I am going to attempt to lay out three ‘first rung’ ideas about how you might consider evaluating the various religious options available to you before you even delve into the details about each religion.  There are more factors that you might consider, but I think these three help to establish the most promising religious candidates.  I’d be interested in your feedback on them.

#1 What is the authoritative scripture that the religion is based on – and how authoritative is it?

All religions are based on some form of authoritative teaching or belief system. But before you even dig in to reading the authoritative scripture, you’d likely want to know how authoritative it really is. I mean, why should you believe it? Consider:

  1. Who created the authoritative teachings and on what basis was he/she authoritative enough to do so?  In the examples below, note that many religious movements are initiated by humans grappling with issues of importance to them.  A key question I would ask is whether or not a fallible and finite human could perfectly understand the breadth of human experience and spiritual reality in order to instruct others.
    • Buddhism stems from a man named Siddhartha Gautama who came from a privileged but sheltered background and grappled with how people could avoid suffering;
    • Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus who claimed to be equal to God and sent as the Messiah to pay the penalty for our sins that separate us from God;
    • Confucianism was based on the efforts of political leader K’ung Fu-Tzu to create a harmonious culture in a region of modern day China;
    • Islam is based on the teachings of Mohammad who originally thought he was having demonic attacks until his wife helped him to understand that these ‘attacks’ were actually revelations from the angel Gabriel and were meant to be preached to others;
    • Judaism is based on instructions given to Moses from God;
    • New Age does not have any one authoritative figure and adherents can pick and choose from among a variety of teachings by a variety of people;
    • Mormonism is based on teachings four in buried writings discovered by Joseph Smith.
  2. Were the authoritative teachings written down within a reasonable timeframe from the lifetime of the religion’s authoritative spokesperson? Knowing the answer to this question ensures that we can have confidence we have the original words of the spokesperson. Here are some examples:
    • Christianity – No ancient manuscript – whether sacred or secular – can come close to the historical reliability of the Christian New Testament.  The Christian scriptures (New Testament) were all written within 70 years of Jesus’ death, while eyewitnesses were still alive, and exist in sufficient numbers to establish any changes over time.
    • Islam – The text that became the Qur’an was privately revealed to Mohammad by an angel and relayed to his followers who then wrote it down or memorized it. Some changes were made to this text after Mohammad’s death and the resultant text became the codex for the present day Qur’an.
    • Buddhism – The Buddhist scriptures were written 450 years after the Buddha lived, some consider them closed (no additions can be made), others do not;
    • Hinduism – the origin of the Vedas is unknown, but some are estimated to be as old as 3,000 B.C., while the majority were written by Brahmin priests between 1500 and 1200 B.C.
  3. Can we determine if the authoritative figure reliably spoke on behalf of God? This is the kind of difficult question that causes many people to give up on their religious quest! Some ideas to consider:
    • Were there any eyewitnesses to the divine revelations given to the authoritative spokesperson, or were they done in private such as is the case with Islam or Mormonism?
    • Were there any clear and public miracles performed by the authoritative person to establish his/her credibility, such as the miracles performed by Jesus and his resurrection from the dead? I’m not aware of any other religious figures that conducted miraculous signs, and certainly none have risen from the dead, which is likely one of the reasons that the majority of religions include Jesus into their belief system.

#2 Is there anything about the religion that completely rules it out ?

If a religion sets itself out to be testable, then it sets itself up to be found false as well.  This is not a major feature in most religions, but Christianity does include a test factor.  The New Testament claims that if Jesus did not exist, was not crucified for people’s sins, and especially if he did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is completely false (if you have a Bible, look up 1 Corinthians 15:12-18).  Craig Hazen pointed out the significance of this verse to me.  Here is some information to help you determine if there is sufficient information to suggest that a historical Jesus did rise from the dead.

#3 Does the religion’s understanding of reality match what we experience or know?

This might seem like a strange question for some people, but if religions make factual claims – and all of them do – then those claims should match what we experience or see in reality or they likely aren’t worth pursuing.  Here are some examples:

  1. Origin of the universe: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity teach that the universe had a definite beginning, which agrees with our current scientific understanding.  Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the universe is eternal, which is not in step with what we know from science.
  2. Evil and suffering: Buddhism denies the existence of suffering (concluding that it is an illusion), where as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism acknowledge suffering and pain and provide a framework for understanding it.
  3. Day to day realities: Buddhism and Hinduism ultimately deny the existence of all physical matter and desire as illusions to be escaped. Ultimately one cannot live in the real world where food is required to survive, debts really need to be paid with your paycheque that actually exists, and dangers such as big Mac trucks need to be avoided in order to survive. Religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity enable you to live a non-compartmentalized life; you can live out your religious convictions every day without having to slip between ‘religious mode’ and ‘reality mode’.

Clearly a thoughtful person would have more questions than the ones I’ve mentioned above in order to make a decision about which religion to follow, but I consider these at least a starting point to answering the question.

What do you think – did I miss something important in this list? 

What is your answer to the question at the beginning of this post?





Leave a Comment
  1. joewrght / Oct 10 2015 12:30 am

    Found a typo 🙂

    Buddhism – The Buddhist scriptures were written 450 years after the Buddha lived, some consider them closed (no additions ban be made), others do not;

    • BTM / Oct 13 2015 10:52 am

      Thanks Joe! I fixed it in the post.

  2. Vance / Oct 17 2015 9:35 am

    Reblogged this on Ronin's Journey and commented:
    Another good one from Beyond Teachable Moments

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