Religion’s grains of truth


I recommend reading Truth, love, beauty before reading this article.

Religion is attractive to many people because it answers important questions like “why are we here,” but it also resonates with people because it feels like the Truth. At the heart of most religions, you will find bits of philosophy.

I found it to be an interesting and insightful exercise to distill these bits from the various religions. In doing so, you may find that religions have more in common than you originally thought, and this may be especially heartening if stumbling blocks prevent you from becoming a follower to any one religion.

Think of this exercise as if you are making a mandala, a painstaking process that produces fragilely beautiful images. The insights you glean may imperfect, but the feelings of harmony and connection with your fellow man will stay with you long after the sands are swept away.

The Golden Rule– Do onto others as you would have them do to you

Consequences/Karma – There are consequences for your every action, even if it takes awhile to materialize – what goes around will eventually comes around.

Reoccurring cycles – Death and rebirth, creation and destruction

Complementing pairs – Ying and Yang, male and female, light and dark, order and chaos

Desire causes much of the suffering in the world

The Middle Way – Neither having too much nor too little is good

Intuition – There are things we intuitively understand about Reality (ie. woman’s intuition). Zen Buddhism is famous for “teaching without teaching” by asking questions like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “what is a stick if you cannot call it a stick?”

Oneness with all living things – The Native Americans had a deep respect for life, big and small. Buddhists and Hindus believe in reincarnation, so the animals might very well be their friends and relatives from previous lifetimes!

Special nature of mankind – Virtually all religions believe that human life is special. Christianity believes that man was created in God’s image, and we also have the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Suicide is also a sin (to different degrees). Buddhism believes that man occupies one of the better worlds in the reincarnation cycle. Since we are intelligent and self-aware, we are in a better position to reach higher realms than the animals below us.

On a somewhat related note, here is a great video by Alain de Botton which succinctly explains some of the positive aspects of organized religion–aspects that are very attractive to nonbelievers as well.

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7 thoughts on “Religion’s grains of truth

  1. Rather than talking generally of Christian faith, or Judeo-Christian tradition as we do in the U.S., I’m thinking that Albert Einstein had a good idea when he filled in a form that asked his religion by entering “Mosaic”. Although it doesn’t take us as far back as the Abrahamic roots that we share with Islam, it could be a good way to speak of widely shared values/beliefs, or grains of truth. ByTheWay, “Karma” is a bit like the “spiritual power” mentioned in commentary of the Spiritual science article; (I like to use as objective terminology as possible.)

  2. Much as physics describes conservation of real energy, a I think we’re describing conservation of “spiritual energy” when we talk of Karma. (Spiritual Energy, as I refer to it in the Spiritual Science article can be quantified by imaginary numbers. Mathematicians talk of the square root of negative numbers–something real in a different way.)

  3. You wrote that Christianity holds that “we … have the Knowledge of Good and Evil”. To write that we are driven by our DNA to seek the Knowledge of Good and Evil strikes me as being more precise. The Garden of Eden story in book 1 (Genesis) of the Mosaic library indicates that acquisition of the K-of-G|E-affinity trait is inexorably associated with the final mutation that defines our Species. We may need to evaluate our actions to survive. (With the possible exception of Forrest Gump.) We need to evaluate the actions of others to cooperate. (Somebody’s taking the lead). But when we attempt to evaluate them–to pass judgment on their inherent value as organisms, then we… (ahem) then we… (I can’t say). If I finished that sentence it could be harmful to my health and to that of anyone else (such as yourself) who evaluates (or simply passes judgment on) it.

  4. To comment further on “Special nature of mankind – … Christianity believes that man is at least half-god.” When Adam (our ancient ancestor) ate from the figurative “fruit of the knowledge of the tree of Good and evil”, he then acquired a God-like perspective. When we realize that such a perspective may put us on the road to thinking too highly of our own opinions, and that in our arrogance we may lose a point of reference, then we can humbly retreat as if to say “oops, I didn’t mean to pry into Your privacy”. We thereby appreciate “otherness” and everyone benefits. A student recently asked me about “ego death”–an interesting concept which got me back to thinking in these terms.

  5. Thank you for your insightful comments, David. The insatiable quest for knowledge is mankind’s defining trait, and it has driven us to the unfathomed heights. I’d like to extend your second point to all of humanity. As a species, we often think too highly of ourselves and our abilities, and we try to dominate everything. Yet despite all our technology, we find ourselves routinely humbled by nature’s ingenuity and power. When we take a step back and respect nature, we both benefit. We can learn a great deal from nature, and nature can benefit from our good stewardship and planning (vs. haphazard chance).

  6. I was reading through this article and felt I had to comment on some of the concepts of that you propose. I used to approach religion from the perspective that you promote in this article – grains of truth can be found in all religions. Distilling those bits into what you find relevant is interesting because you draw on a variety of faiths to give us a sense of what you find to be important. On the one hand, you draw on an increasingly common ideology/belief that all religions share important truths. Those truths can be placed together to show us that religions have a great deal in common and that no one religion has the cornerstone on wisdom. If we are open to learning about religions, we can take a great deal from what they have to offer us. On the other hand, I have to take issue with the methodological premise of the article. I can appreciate the underlying notion of what you are promoting here – don’t let the Truth value of the religion to which you adhere prevent you from appreciating what other religions have to offer. Yet, this proof-texting approach to religion presents certain fallacies.

    For instance, the golden rule in Christianity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matt. 7:12). This statement sounds good, but simply extracting it without contemplating the entire context of the statement in which it is presented is misleading. This can have a variety of different interpretations based on the context. In the Muslim faith, there is an emphasis on the notion that a person should be willing to do defend and die for the Muslim faith if another member is under attack. This attack can be physical, ideological or political. There is an expectation in Islam that if I were to act in any way to hurt Islam that you would punish me for my insubordination. Likewise, I would punish you for your insubordination. The end result of this interpretation of do unto others is the mess that we presently see with Islamic extremists in Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.

    In Christianity, the context of this statement is completely pacifistic because the golden rule is stated during Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he also says that if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn and give the other one to strike as well. We can also take this statement out of context and extract it. Victims of spousal abuse have often looked at Jesus’ statement of turn the cheek and seen this as a reason to never speak out against their oppressors because they must be silent and passive. This too is wrong. Take either of these statements by themselves and they result in a variety of improper interpretations. Take these statements in context, together, and we see a cohesiveness that narrows the ability to relativize the interpretation.

    The same is true of many of the other quotations that you present. Without the full context behind those quotations, the interpretation becomes too broad from the original interpretation of the people who wrote it. For instance, the quotation on desire. Now I know the original context for this quote and I find the wisdom contained within to be striking. It may seem silly, but someone could look at this quote and take it too an extreme – I desire food and water so I must reduce my intake of food and water from my life. This is the psychology of one who is anorexic. The end result can be death. Now that is not what the quote is talking about. You and I both know that the quote is not trying to infer self-harm, but taken by itself, without further context, people can come whatever conclusion they desire.

    Hence my point: be careful when trying to show the unity of religions. Religions are extremely complex animals that do not deconstruct into singularities as easily as we would presuppose. Something I had to come to terms with was the fact that religions are mutually exclusive of one another. Believe me, I really wanted them to fit together, but they do not combine easily and one is presented with major contradictions of philosophy and theology when trying to make them coherent. The only real way to join religions is through proof-texting, but my point above is that proof-texting allows the individual to interpret the quote in any way they want as opposed to in it’s original context.

    Also, on a side note, you may wish to amend the last part of your article on the special nature of mankind. Neither Judaism nor Christianity purport that humans are half-god. We are like God in that we are made in God’s image and know the difference between good and evil, but this very different from being part divine. Being like God is not the same as being God. You would never say that a sculpture of a human is human, but you would say that a sculpture of a human has likeness to the original human. The sculpture is of a completely different substance than the human. Thus, we have likeness to God in form and introspective ability. One could perhaps make the argument that we have he spirit of God in us because God breathed life into Adam, but this is very different from our being (ousia in the Greek) being part divine.

    One last thing, you may wish to differentiate between is how Catholics and Protestants approach suicide. Catholics place emphasis on the sin of suicide. They say that suicide prevents you from going to heaven. Protestants have no doctrine defining suicide as a mortal sin. I think most protestants would say murder of self is a sin, but they do not see it as something that will bar you from heaven. Protestants believe suicide is like every other sin – forgivable.

    Look forward to hearing your response. Sorry this was more criticism than constructive conversation. I just don’t want you falling into the many semantic pits I fell into when contemplating religious philosophy. I came to find over the past 8 years of my religious education that semantics and context are everything in religion. Good work. I look forward to commenting on more articles in the coming months.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to write such a well-reasoned comment. I agree with everything that you said, and I have modified the article to reflect this, to the extent possible.

    My goal was simply to get people to think openly about religion. I feel that people focus on the differences too often. As you discussed, differences are important, but something is lost when one focuses mostly or solely on them. I conceptualized religions as containers, each with different properties, designs, etc. All these qualities can make it seem that each container contains radically different substances when they all could be the same. Here, I was more concerned with the idea content rather than the actual differences between the containers themselves (which could be a whole book in its own right).

    Proof-texting is useful to glean valuable insights, but as you pointed out, it has its flaws. But any sort of general analysis will invariably leave field specialists dissatisfied. Also, readers will view insights through the lenses of their own religions, experiences, cultures, etc. How they choose to act upon this knowledge is up to them. Perhaps some may go to extremes (though I doubt this site’s readership falls in this category), yet others will use it as an impetus to learn more about the religions from which these principles were taken. Such is the double-edged nature of free will.

    Incidentally, I no longer write articles of this nature for all the reasons discussed above. I am not adverse to criticism (in fact, I enjoy a vigorous discussion), but I found that the time and effort it takes to ‘cover your bases’ could be better spent creating new works. I had worlds of time in 2007; sadly, this is no longer the case.

Comments welcome!