Assessing The Value Of Religion

When should we grant or relinquish trust in the various religious statements, leaders and organizations?

Religious statements can address the here-and-now or the forever-after. Part of our answer to the question of which religious beliefs to accept depends on whether our primary concerns are the here-and-now, the forever-after, or both.

If self-betterment in the here-and-now is our primary reason for believing a religious statement, then many religious statements will suffice because many share the same core values: love for others, detachment from material possessions, right speech, honesty, compassion, kindness, etc. On these the majority of religious statements generally agree. Many seem to disagree in their histories, creation stories, and their beliefs about the afterlife. The terms nirvana or salvation refer to the forever-after scope of religion, and if the concept of eternal life and the ‘where am I going…?’ question plagues you, take a very close look at all of the religious statements because this is the area in which many seem to irreconcilably conflict.

Given the weight of their claims, our criteria for evaluating religions should be somewhat exhaustive. Also keep in mind that logical approaches to religion are not the only means of evaluation. Many, arguably most people take their religion on faith or by the conviction of their hearts, and the intuitive approach is equally valid worthwhile. However, if as a person of faith you’ve accepted your religion by heart, you most certainly should apply the following logical tests. There’s a lot of religious statements out there, and a lot of them are bogus. Regardless, everybody should formulate his or her own set of well-thought-out criteria to assess the value of religion. Below are some general guidelines that might serve as helpful starting points.

Perhaps most importantly, does the religion answer who we are, how we got here, where we came from or where we’re going? Does it promote tolerance, cooperation and love between the peoples of the earth, and does it encourage fair relations amongst humans regardless of their beliefs? Is it available to all regardless or race, nationality or creed? Does it offer a practical means to improving life on a daily level, or is it composed of futile, pie-in-the-sky philosophy? Does it present the truth regarding history, medicine, science or psychology? Does it contain any discernible errors of fact or logic? Can it be traced to the personal agenda of another human being? Is it based on fact? Does it bear the test of experience, yielding observable benefits to those who practice its tenets and the remainder of creation as well? Finally, can we believe in our hearts that its precepts are true?

Just as all religious statements should be analyzed and contrasted against known facts, all religious organizations are equally deserving of scrutiny, especially the ones where everything appears to be just fine. Although in general it is respectable to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, man’s irreparable tendencies towards corruption and deception also demand that we be wise and scrutinize. The point of what I am saying here is that crooks, charlatans and plain misguided people lurk behind the scenes of every institution, and no human institution is safe from those who would benefit themselves at the expense of the group.

Encouraged by entrepreneurial ambitions and federal tax breaks provided to religious institutions, the American business standards of marketing, capitalism, brand specificity and advertising have sadly corroded our approach towards truth and religion. The arena of religion is quite a fertile playground for charlatans because they can leverage people with the afterlife and use guilt either directly or indirectly to induce submissive behavior or subordination to the institution. Perhaps Christ forewarned people with foresight of the many who would come preaching love outwardly, yet inwardly be ferocious wolves? The lion perishes for lack of prey.

Deceivers can only prey on those who know no better, and when analyzing anything, it is important to get the entire picture and to understand causality. In any phenomena there are a series of causes and effects. In making an initial judgment on any religious idea, we should deal specifically with the idea to avoid the influence of stereotypes and prejudgment in our logic. We also ought to look closely at the institutions surrounding a certain religious statement, and apply their claims and actions to our list of personal criteria. Seekers of truth deserve to know all the pertinent facts surrounding various religious statements and their institutions, especially those who first subscribe to them without knowing all the facts.

Cults are good to look out for, and the inverse of each previously mentioned principle can also serve as a criterion for false religion. Does the particular church, person or institution claim exclusivity or group membership as the only way? Do they have a track record of being correct or incorrect regarding prophecies? Do any of their leaders or figureheads engage in questionable behavior? Are their sacred scriptures reliable or can they be shown errant? Furthermore, even when a supposedly religious individual or leader is exposed, that should reflect on them personally and not the idea they may verbally proclaim. Mark Gator Rogowski was a vocal born-again Christian and professional skateboarder who killed a woman and hid the body in a surfboard bag. Is Christianity or skateboarding at fault? Of course not; the man is, and it is bad logic to form our judgments of an idea on account of its alleged representatives.

To revisit our original question, at what point should we grant or relinquish trust in the various religious statements, leaders and organizations?

Our dealings with ordinary people serve as a powerful methodological template. If an acquaintance tells you something that later turns out to be untrue, two possibilities are present: Either they sincerely believed it was true at the time they said it, and were honestly wrong; or they were fully aware that it was not true when they said it, and were blatantly dishonest. How much weight do we give to those certain friends of ours that always seem to be lying or passing questionable information? Once a person has been wronged or lied to a few times, they rightly begin to raise an eyebrow of suspicion at the person passing the questionable information.

With these and other criteria in mind, anyone can take a close look at the various religions and explore their historicity, their contributions to society, and their similarities as well as their differences.

4 Comments

  1. Brad says:

    Two things to add.
    First, I don’t think your initial questions could be called “logical tests,” as they were value-based. (Tolerance, cooperation, love, fairness, openness & universality.) Someone in a cult, exclusive or “darker” religion might object to these questions as unfair in assessing the value of their religion. If the religion happens to be true, what then? That’s the intrinsic difficulty in arguing values; people can disagree without a rational basis. For example, a person could without logical error say it’s most moral to go for what makes me and me alone most happy (Objectivism), or by some measure or other makes everyone most happy (Utilitarianism), or by what makes this single person (Dictator) or group of people (Men > Women) or a god (Allah) most happy.
    Second, I think charlatans (and actually most religious authorities, inadvertently) gain control by more than just promises/threats of afterlife and the spiral of sin/salvation. With the inherent herd instinct in all of us, we are prone to form tribal mindsets and mesh into culture structures. This means that dogma and tradition have their own power over our minds, independent of the head officials that promulgate them. We also tend not to think critically about things we see in a positive frame of reference. So in effect, religion can be propelled along smoothly in society without any person needing to emotionalize it – it just has a tight cultural grip.

  2. cl says:

    Good points. I’m writing from the POV of someone who esteems said values (tolerance, cooperation, love, fairness, openness, etc.) as ‘more correct’ than, say, killing, lying, greed, exploitation, or any other thing that seems to lay on the opposite end of the value spectrum. So in that respect my criteria are somewhat biased.
    I agree that ideas themselves can equally imprison minds. And charlatans do gain control with more than post-mortem promises – retreats and healing services taking place in the here and now can serve just fine for frauds.

  3. Brad says:

    Hmm…, another point I just noticed. You said, “the intuitive approach is equally valid” as the logical approach. As far as I know, the word “valid” is used only on what is logical. Any “valid” approach based on the correct assumptions will necessarily reach the correct conclusions. Are you saying that when intuition is based on correct assumptions, it will necessarily reach the correct conclusions? In that case, I would call it valid, else I would rather call it worthwhile.
    Lacking perfect intelligence, purely logical tests won’t be enough to fully and completely evaluate religion(s) because we don’t have the time, effort, motivation, or conscious ability to do so. So, just like in chess, where we can’t see every possible game and future moves and states, we rely on strategies, tricks, and whatever degree of logic and reasoning we’re capable of in order to evaluate things like religion.
    If my definitions are right, intuition is based on non-conscious memory, instinct, prompting, in other words, past or inherent thoughts that we don’t remember ever cognizing. My intuitions about, say, mathematical equations generally help me work with them faster and see them in a broader sense – something I can’t do easily with reductionistic and step-by-step logic – but my intuitions have been erroneous at times because I pieced the puzzle together blindly. Sometimes it takes quite awhile for me to figure out that I’ve gone wrong or where I have. For this problem, I use logic to check my intuitions. In other words, my epistemology works basically on a system of checks and balances, with feelings, logic, intuition, and so on all cooperating. Where some faculties are limited, others pick up the slack, but where those others pick up the slack, they are limited where the first had domain.
    Also, my first blog post will be related to this one. I’ll publish it soon.

  4. cl says:

    Let’s take a look at the relevant paragraph:

    Given the weight typical of their claims, our criteria for evaluating religions should be exhaustive. Also keep in mind that logical approaches to religion are not the only means of evaluation. Many, arguably most people take their religion on faith or by the conviction of their hearts, and the intuitive approach is equally valid. However, if as a person of faith you’ve accepted your religion by heart, you most certainly should apply the following logical tests, because there’s a lot of religion out there, and a lot of it is bogus. (cl)

    Perhaps the problem stems from my looseness of language here. When I say the intuitive approach is equally valid, valid in this sense means acceptable, or worthwhile. Good catch.
    I agree with your second and third paragraphs entirely.

    Also, my first blog post will be related to this one. I’ll publish it soon.

    On the one hand I’m quite honored, but on the other, Rats! Don’t skewer me too hard! ;)

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