What would I say to someone, you ask, who was “clueless” but “open” and who needed simple answers to start with? This is a question not unlike the one I tried to address in my last post (“Advice for the Masses”).
By way of answer, I’ve copied below my recent message to Katie, a tenth grade high school student from Arizona, who had written to me as part of her research in an honors language class. She’d decided to prepare a term paper on the question of whether there is one (and only one) true religion, and she’d developed, she told me, four “criteria” a true religion should have:
1. It must explain the misery of man; in other words, why its deity or deities have allowed for the harshness of reality if they are considered all-powerful.
2. It must have some form of consistency with scientifically proven facts (such as the facts we already know about life, like the age of the world and evolution).
3. It must explain why the deity or deities—as well as its holy, beyond-life places—cannot be physically seen by the average person.
4. It must have some degree of universal equality because, if it is true, everyone should be able to follow it, so there should be no discrimination against particular groups.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? to see how many unexamined assumptions an obviously intelligent young girl has accepted without the slightest suspicion they could be wrong. The misdeeds of modern education are numberless! In any case, Katie then posed three questions she wanted me to answer:
1. Do you believe there is one true religion?
2. Do you agree with the criteria I am using in my paper? Why or why not?
3. Are there any criteria you would add that you think a true religion must possess?
Here was my response:
1. No. I think there is more than one true religion and more than one way to be “saved”, that is, to reach total union with and participation in What Is Supremely Real. It’s important to add, however, that not ever religion is true. There are false and dangerous religions too. While there is more than one “path up the mountain” of the Real, there are also paths that merely circle the base, as well as others that lead the unwary into the desert.
2. No, I think several of your criteria are significantly flawed.
The first I agree with: every authentic religion includes a theodicy, an explanation of evil. But insisting, secondly, that a true religion must accept the claims of modern science makes no sense, since this science is by its very nature limited to what we can experience “empirically”, that is, with one or more of our physical senses.
This leads to a comment on your third criterion. Every true and saving religion will tell you that the reason God can’t be “physically seen” by the “average person”—or by any person for that matter!—is that He isn’t physical. But not being physical is not the same as not being real any more than not being empirical is the same as not being knowable. Think about it: the very claim that “the only things we can know are physical facts” isn’t itself based on any physical fact. See the problem?
You should be very careful in any case in assuming that the “facts” of modern science are beyond any doubt. This science is, or at least it can be, quite “political” and is by no means the “objective” enterprise unreflective people think. I recommend reading the short article I have attached to this email. (I sent her a copy of my “Requiring Religion”). Darwinian evolution and the age of the world, two “facts” you mention, are slipperier issues than you’ve imagined!
Be careful too when it comes to “equality”, one of the great shibboleths of our time and place. Of course, religions should be open to everyone regardless of race, gender, etc. since their purpose is to save as many people as possible. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t pronounced inequalities among people when it comes to how well, or how deeply, they’ve progressed in the spiritual life. There is always a hierarchy of holiness as there is of intelligence.
3. I wouldn’t so much “add” to as replace your criteria. I’d say there are two keys to every true religion: first, such a religion will teach its followers that there is only one ultimate “Deity” (even if there are subordinate “deities”) and that this Deity is necessarily absolute, infinite, and eternal; and second, it will give those followers the means and methods they need, not only to directly experience that Deity—by activating their non-physical senses—but to enter into It and to become themselves fully like It.
So what do you say: would that be simple enough?
By the way, I agree with the premise behind your question: some metaphysical writers do indeed make things more syntactically and terminologically difficult than is absolutely essential. But I wouldn’t conclude from this fact that their syntax or diction is necessarily inappropriate. Forcing a reader to work for his knowledge is an excellent way of sorting out those who are able and ready to benefit from those who aren’t. One gives milk to the Katies in order that, in time, they might be ready for meat.