Why a diversity of faiths cannot be true

Long before I committed to the study of religion in graduate school, I began learning about the stories of the Bible in Sunday school at my local parish outside of Cleveland, Ohio. As I was introduced to the concept of God and his interaction with humans I remember being confused by two contradictory ideas: 1) God has provided his Word, both in the person of Jesus and in the Bible, and 2) there is tremendous religious diversity throughout the world, even within Christianity itself. It just didn’t seem to make much sense to me, if God created such a perfectly clear message to humanity shouldn’t it be clear to everyone? Furthermore, wouldn’t those outside of God’s revelation be unjustly damned for eternity?

This confusion led me to want to know more about the nature of faith, revelation, and religions outside of my own. I trusted that the Word of God was correct, I just needed to understand why others weren’t sold on it. In high school, I became very intrigued by a course in apologetics, the defense of the faith through rational discourse. I become an apologetic bookworm throughout college, fascinated by the modern writings of Peter Kreeft and C.S. Lewis and the historical writings of Aquinas and Augustine. While working toward my M.A. in Theology at Boston College, I thought I had discovered a plausible response to all of my confused queries. Karl Rahner S.J. in his Foundations of Christian Faith explains that people outside of the Church, outside of the revelation of Jesus, and even those who lived before Jesus’ time on Earth could still be saved if they acted with the love the Jesus instructed. This concept is known as Anonymous Christianity. One may not call themselves a Christian or even know anything about Christ, but may still act with charity toward his fellow man and woman. This theological perspective would seem to get God off the hook for unjustly damning the vast majority of humans who have ever lived. Years later, as a teacher in high school, I taught this concept to my students, and felt that it was generally well received and understood. In retrospect, I probably just confused a lot of poor young minds.

One of the problems with Anonymous Christianity, aside from being offensive to many non-Christians (would you want to be called an Anonymous Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, or Rastafarian?), is that it still doesn’t get God off the hook. If Jesus and the Bible are so critically important, why was it not needed before his time or in all parts of the world? Why isn’t God’s revelation presented to all souls equally?

Christianity was not the first and only major world religion to claim some way to live after death. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Persians, Hindus, Muslims (the list goes on) all believe they have a way to overcome death in the next life. They absolutely do not agree on how to do it though. In fact, that could be considered the most basic disagreement between any faith believing in an afterlife. There is a sort of a lazy, politically correct, insouciance which amounts to people believing that we all go to a heaven or, at very least, “good” people do. The problem is that you won’t find this idea in any religions’ theological revelations. There is demarcation, frequently quite clear, between those who achieve a blissful afterlife and those who do not.

If you think that your faith is correct, that you have been provided with the special key to heaven, and that a just God has provided this same key equally to all people throughout history, I politely request you investigate religious teachings outside of your own. How credible do you find the claims of other religions? Do you doubt that others believe these claims with an honest and full heart of faith? Could a just God damn them to eternity for their innocent false belief?

The diversity of faiths in the world should certainly make one question why God has evidently not provided equal accessibility to Heaven. The answer, clear to me now after years of study, is that neither God nor the afterlife is real. Take that out of the equation and it becomes perfectly clear why there is a multiplicity of religions each within their own internal confusion of paths to eternity: humanity has created this diversity itself. We have created it in different languages, in different locations, at different times all in response to the particular circumstances of the individual or individuals which produce a particular theological dictum on salvation from eternal death. This explanation erases the muddied water of theological revelation and omnibenevolent justice, allowing us to see the diversity of faith in our world as a reflection of the great multitude of human experiences throughout time and space.

While the assortment of faiths calls into question the validity of their claims, it is ironic that there may actually be an assortment of technological advances to free us from the inevitability of death. For example, it seems quite likely that within the next 10-20 years, scientists will be able to genetically alter the human genome to create radically longer lifespans. It will soon also be possible to replace nearly every part of our body with an artificial replacement, allowing our consciousness to survive without the less desirable effects of aging. We may soon also have the ability to perfectly scan our brains and resurrect our consciousness in a computer, allowing us many new experiences and opportunities without a certain death.

The abundance of technological possibilities to extend human lives does not invalidate any of them. In fact, it makes it all the more likely that radically longer lifespans are possible sooner than many expect. So if you find yourself worried that faith or charitable works might not get you to the other side of death, you may want to stay healthy long enough to survive until science and technology can save you.

What does Hope without Faith look like?

Among the most popular passages of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13:13 famously states that love is greater than both hope and faith. Whether one is religious or not, spiritual or not, it is hard not to agree with the belief that love is primary. But which comes next? What is greater between hope and faith? If you are a person of faith, it may be difficult to separate the two. Faith in God’s existence or plan seems to go hand in hand with hope for a better existence in this life or the next. Wouldn’t it be odd for someone to have faith in God, but no hope for themselves?

If you are not a person of faith, then the answer should be quite clear; hope for a brighter future trumps faith in the supernatural. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, argues that faith is not a good thing at all. In fact, it is a very bad thing. He, and many other prominent non-believers, have no trouble citing examples of atrocities, both current and historical, committed by people of “great” faith. While many atheists, skeptics, humanists, and free-thinkers, denounce the confusion faith, I rarely see any message of hope coupled with it. This, I believe, makes it harder for many people of faith to understand why anyone would want to live without faith in God. Can there be meaning or purpose to one’s life without faith in God?

My answer to this is a resounding YES! There can not only be meaning and purpose without faith, but there can be a great deal of hope as well. This blog is my effort to explore  the many different ways hope without faith can function within the modern world. In order to do so, I must first be clear on how I use these two terms.

I enjoy asking both people of faith and those without faith if they agree with the statement, “faith is being satisfied with not understanding.” I rarely see anyone object to this definition until I tell them that it was world famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, who said it. The fact that so many people are willing to accept this definition of faith implies that believers adopt a submissive attitude toward the complexity of the universe. This is exactly why I agree with authors like Dawkins and Harris that faith is not a good thing because by this definition faith is the antithesis of science. Science is the endeavor to understand more about the universe and our place within it. While much can be said about how science and religion can co-exist, science and faith are truly opposites.

I “hope” that someday, science will offer us much of what religions have long promised; life without death, a peaceful existence among all others, and a deeper understanding of the once unknown. Speaking with many theists, I am puzzled by a common response, “oh, I wouldn’t want to live forever,” when that is exactly what is said to be the reward for a life lived in faith. If you don’t want eternal life, then I would suggest you avoid religion’s promoting faith in eternal life. It is a bit taboo in some circles to say that science could offer us “eternal” life, when it would be more accurate to say that science may someday offer us emancipation from the inevitability of death. And so I think that it is important for people to clarify their own desires. Would you prefer to die and have faith that you will later be raised from the dead to eternal life? Or would one prefer to live a much longer, healthier, happier existence in this world alone? Because I respect the tragic finality of death it only makes sense that we seek to opt for the latter. But hoping that science may someday provide radical life extension does not necessarily mean that everyone will be around to benefit from it or that this would create our own heaven on earth.

While I was raised lovingly within the Catholic tradition, I could be called an atheist, a skeptic, a humanist, a free-thinker, a singularitarian, or all of these things. I strongly believe that religious education is absolutely essential in this discourse. Whether one chooses to engage these topics as a person of faith or not, we do no justice to the subject from a position of ignorance. I began studying religion because I believed that it was important to truly understand the great claims of all religions. My journey toward a Ph.D. in Religion ultimately made me realize how vacant the credibility of faith is, and how admirable science is for its dissatisfaction with not understanding and its endeavor to learn more. I hope this blog leads others to a similar place.