What is religion? According to some people religion is merely a preference, the expression of man’s attempts to know God or a supernatural realm of some sort. Various cultural influences within the multicultural world we live in allow for various expressions or manifestations of religion. A Hindu living in India may have his own expression of religion. The Christian living in the United States may have his own expression, and Buddhists in Thailand have their own expression. While there certainly are various expressions of religion in different countries across the world, we still must ask whether religion is merely a cultural expression, and therefore a relative understanding of the inscrutable realm beyond nature, or whether it is something else.
No one would question whether cultural influences dictate, or at the very least highly influence specific beliefs within the individuals of that culture. Children born and brought up in a culture with a specific set of beliefs are far more likely to ascribe to the same set of beliefs. This is a normal outworking of the process of enculturation. What’s important to note, however, is that the specific beliefs that groups of people ascent to are typically maintained through upbringing and tradition. And traditions do not of necessity contribute anything noteworthy to knowledge. In other words, if what people of this generation believe is based solely on what those of past generation(s) believed, at the bare minimum we have to understand that this does not necessarily mean that we’re accurate in our description of reality. It is legitimate and worthwhile to question the merits of the beliefs held by those who came before us. This is not to question simply for the sake of skepticism, but to determine whether the beliefs of the past in whichever part of the world we’re speaking about should be believed.
God and Epistemology
If God made humanity, then at the outset it would seem somewhat odd that He would spread certain expressions of Himself throughout the world in various cultures that would seem to contradict one another. Perhaps then, man’s attempt to know God is something that crosses cultural boundaries instead of being dictated by them? Perhaps it is more rational to see religion as a broad canopy over which there is a specific Deity who has revealed himself only once, one way, to all of humanity. And perhaps this revelation has been tarnished by cultural influences vying for some specific preference, instead of embracing it for what it is. So is it merely something one ascribes to because of his or her taste or cultural influences? If so, does it correspond with reality? In other words is it something objectively true outside of the subjective, esoteric, existential inner pursuits of man? If God is revealing one set of truths about Himself to one group of people and a completely different contradictory set of claims about himself to another group, then this God is a logically inconsistent liar, who’s not really revealing the truth, but vying instead to satisfy the mere cultural preferences of man at the expense of logic and reason, or far worse His own moral degradation. This sort of god cannot truly be God for the simple reason that God, by definition is the greatest conceivable Being, and a moment’s reflection should show us that we can easily conceive of a being who is greater than one who is a liar.
Now, some hold that religion is merely an internal exercise of spirituality, an esoteric personal experience that can vary from person to person. There is undoubtedly that aspect of communion with God that is very personal and happens on the subjective level. And what happens on a subjective personal level for one person is difficult to apply to another. Therefore, testing personal experiences is quite difficult, and it happens to be an incomplete picture anyway. After all, religions also make truth claims abut the nature of objective reality, and these can often be tested. Religions make philosophical claims, scientific claims, metaphysical claims, psychological claims, and more. We can bring a certain level of examination into the picture in order to see which of the claims are logically possible, internally consistent, scientifically tenable, historically supported, archaeologically consistent, etc. At the end of the day, no one has a reasonable right to posit a belief system in a cocoon that they have the full right to imbue with their own reality.
God and Pluralism
The world contains people of various persuasions, various influences, various beliefs. But while these cultural differences are a wonderful testament to the beauty of diversity, the reflection of this diversity can often cause fallacious thinking. If reality is formed by the outworking of the immaterial Being known as God, then reality should be at least in part indicative of the nature of that Being. A God of any religion, for example, must transcend that which he creates, and thus cannot Himself be created. So, any higher power worth discussing intelligently must exist outside the realm of the physical universe (or any totality of the physical space-time world). As such, how would rational people be expected to respond to the notion that some cultures hold to the notion that their god or gods were created within space-time? It is clearly evident that such a position is untenable. So if logical necessity dictates that God must be outside the physical reality, can the preference of such a god, cultural or otherwise, be held without any logical tension? Absolutely not! Regardless of the kinds of claims being promoted within my culture, if those claims do not stand up to logical testing, they are worthless as worldviews, and despite the sincerity of those who hold those views or any explicit benefits arrived at through those beliefs, it is not the best of positions to hold.
If one set of claims about reality are true, by logical implication all other mutually exclusive claims inconsistent with that view, must be automatically false. And however much respect we’d offer any specific culture for its richness, if we maintain that all beliefs are equally valid, we are doing a great disservice to logic and reason at the expense of what some would call tolerance. But there is nothing tolerant about holding unreasonable positions about the nature of reality. Is it intolerant to say that my position is true and yours is false? Not only is it not intolerant, but it is a demand for reasonable thinking people. Of course, the sad case is that many people simply do not want the truth, and are easily appeased by the celebrations of their fallacious belief systems. So is religion merely a matter of preference? Only if you do not care about what’s real!