Exclusivity

Chasing the Impossible Harmony

There is a point that has been made many times, and I am not convinced that its critics are to be taken seriously. Yet in everyday conversations, people still deny this point, and my incredulity compels me to rehash it in my own words, though I add nothing to the conversation. The point is this—that religions are not the same, and that no matter what the truth about God, life and death turns out to be, the majority of people on this planet are wrong about it.

Outlining the similarities between religions is a common tactic. It’s usually done for one of two reasons. The first is an attempt at tolerance and political correctness by ambiguously “spiritual” people. If everyone’s religion is equally valid, there’s no need to fight. We can all learn to be one big happy family. Interestingly, many such people become hostile and venomous when they encounter someone who belongs to one of these religions, and who disagrees. You’d think they’d see the irony. The second is an attempt by atheists to show that, since religious people think most other religions are bogus, their religion is also bogus, since all religions are similar. The latter point is quite sensible, and does not deserve to be slandered outright—its meaning is entirely different from the former. The former point is foolish, but it lives on in the depths of our minds and emotions.

World religions have several things in common. Discussing these things is unnecessary, however, because there is one thing that none of them can have in common—the truth. A religion always defines a specific conception of the truth, which differs from that of another religion. Any attempt to unify two or more religions within this framework necessarily denies the exclusive claims of the religions in question. This is why converting to Bahá’í is not a valid solution to the problem. I once went into the Bahá’í centre on Bloor street and talked to the woman at the desk there. She hadn’t read much of the Bible, but it was surely inspired by God, she said. So was everything else. She then proceeded to use the analogy of several people feeling different parts of an elephant, and discovering that they were all, in fact, part of the same elephant. This idea made her happy. It was all very cute, but there is nothing about an elephant’s ear that precludes it from being part of an elephant. There are definitely things about Islam, Christianity and Judaism that preclude them from being part of Bahá’í. This does not mean that Bahá’í cannot be true, just that it is no less exclusive. It demands that the exclusive claims of other religions be rejected, which makes them all—in the sense that they are defined by their adherents—false. The only sense in which they are valid is from the perspective of a believer in Bahá’í, who alone understands their true, hidden purpose. Belief systems like this still proclaim that everyone else is wrong. Their only achievement is to deny that all these wrong people are going to hell.

Questioning people about their thoughts on the truth produces intriguing results. A surprising number of them crumble under the pressure of chasing the impossible harmony. They often run out of things to say. Something is true, and to their horror, most people don’t believe it! An agnostic position does not solve the problem, because a committed agnostic claims that indecision and ambiguity are the correct approaches. It still claims an exclusive meta-truth: that the truth is unknowable, or even irrelevant.

It bothers some people when I attempt to explain away strange or seemingly paranormal events in terms of my own religious worldview, even though these events might appear in the context of another religion (or simply another spiritual perspective). Staunch naturalists won’t raise this issue, of course. But if you grant the possibility that an unseen reality exists, you should grant that my God is not playing chess with your God in between miraculous events. Either we are both misinterpreting what’s really going on, or one of our conceptions of the truth can be explained in terms of the other.

The moral of this story is that the chances of knowing the truth do not go up with vague spirituality, indecision, or religions that are friendly to other religions. If anything, they decrease. The best approach–and I think most reasonable people would agree–is to make an effort. You cannot let it upset you that the majority of people will disagree. They do right now, and until a religion on this planet surpasses 50% of the world population, they always will.

I am sometimes asked: “How can you believe that you have the truth, and that everyone else is wrong?” When the question is asked of me honestly, I answer it honestly: I simply know that there must be a truth, and I’m doing my best to find it. There is no way to reconcile everyone else’s contradictory beliefs. When the question is asked of me confrontationally, I answer sharply: “The same way you do.”

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