The Diversity of Religion

بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Human beings follow many, many religions, and each one claims to be the truth. Obviously, these claims to absolute truth are, for the most part, irreconcilable. Christianity and Hinduism can’t be true at the same time. Same for Islam and Zoroastrianism. Either there is one God, or many deities, or none. The mutual exclusivity of the world’s religions (and for the purposes of this post I’ll count atheism/agnosticism as a “religion” even though they’re technically not) should be quite clear to most people, hopefully.

So how do we explain this diversity? The obvious answer is that there are false religions out there. Indeed, just based on mutual exclusivity, we could conclude that the vast majority of religions practiced in the world today are false. It could be that all of them are false. It could also be that one of them is true and the others are false. And it could also be that there are elements of truth in many religions, though overall they are all false except maybe one.

To answer this question, we should look at the evidence available from human psychology, history and sociology and try to come up with the best possible explanation for the diversity of religion.

Some people, most notably figures associated with the “New Atheist” movement (which is neither new nor atheism, but more on that in a later post perhaps), have proposed that the diversity of religion is proof that they are all false. They claim that all religion is completely made-up by human beings – that it’s basically mass delusion. Richard Dawkins is (in)famous for making these kinds of comparisons.

I would argue that the New Atheists’ approach to this subject severely belittles the human being and its mental capabilities. We’re capable of being deluded, but not on that scale, and certainly not for that period of time. If what Richard Dawkins says is true, then the human mind is so weak and stupid that nothing a human ever says should be trusted. Which means that Richard Dawkins shouldn’t be trusted. Which means… yeah, you get the point.

Also, if religion is harmful as the New Atheists say, then clearly it serves no evolutionary purpose. I’m saying this because some people try to bring up evolution as an explanation for religion (Daniel Dennett is one example), but this makes no sense: we wouldn’t have “evolved” religion if it was harmful. Whether religion can even come about as a result of a process of random mutation and natural selection is a different story all together.

As for religious people: most if not all of the time, they try to argue that their religion is the correct one, based on whatever “proofs” and “evidence” they can muster. For Christians, this includes the reports of the Resurrection of Jesus as proof of his alleged divine nature. For Muslims, this includes the miracles of the Qur’an, whether literary or “scientific” or otherwise. Of course, there are more – I’m just giving a cursory glance at the apologetics genre.

Some of these proofs can seem quite compelling. But I would say that in the end of the day, many human beings are unable to make the leap outside of their own circumstance. People who grew up in a Christian household are more likely to accept the “proofs” for their religion, and put the other religions’ proofs under intense scrutiny. Same goes for Muslims or Hindus or atheists. For Muslim arguments about the Qur’an, this is especially the case because non-Muslims who don’t understand Arabic will not be able to grasp its miraculous nature.

A few Muslim da’ees (callers to Islam) have tried an interesting approach here, one based on the central creed of Islam: monotheism. They’ll use all the classic arguments to prove the Existence of God – cosmology, design, etc – and then build on that by proving that two (or more) omnipotent deities can’t exist at the same time. So we know there is a God, and we know that He is One God. This eliminates all religions except for Judaism and Islam, and since you can’t really convert to Judaism it leaves Islam as the correct religion. [EDIT: apparently the claim that you can’t convert to Judaism is false – see the comments. My apologies.]

This is a good approach to the diversity of religions, but it still doesn’t answer one question: as for the false religions, are they completely made up? Like, out of thin air? This goes back to the point I made earlier about the human mind: we know better than to completely make a religion up.

The best answer to this question lies in history. When human beings first made their journey out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago, they must have had some beliefs about the world. Either they didn’t follow any religion, or they believed in a particular ancient religion, or maybe they were just as diverse as us.

As far back as historical and archaeological records go, human beings have been following religions. Suggesting that the ancient human beings didn’t follow any religion and then they decided to make religions up is nonsense. The only way this would have been possible is if there was some global conspiracy to make up a religion and make people believe in it, which would have been, well, impossible.

The best explanation is that the ancient human beings, tens of thousands of years ago, did follow a religion. The exact tenets and commandments of this religion are extremely difficult to ascertain, obviously. But we know one thing for sure: for the first fifty thousand years or so of human existence (assuming an out-of-Africa origins 60,000 years ago), the pace of change was very, very slow. Basically, nothing changed, until maybe the Neolithic Revolution. So we could look as far back into the past as we can and then extrapolate that back further without making too many risky assumptions.

The historical record indicates that most cultures, including many that are atheistic or polytheistic today, believed in monotheism in ancient times. A classic example of this is China: up to about 3,000 years ago, the Chinese believed in and worshiped a non-anthropomorphic creator god called “Shangdi” (“Supreme Lord”). Worship of Shangdi was replaced with worship of Heaven itself in the Zhou dynasty, where we get the famous “Mandate of Heaven” from. (Information from Wikipedia and this website).

We can conclude that the ancient Chinese were monotheists. There are similar historical data from Indian and Native American civilizations (see: “The Great Spirit”). So whatever the original religion that the first humans followed was, it was almost certainly monotheistic in its theology.

From there, it’s likely that this religion had changes introduced into it over the millennia (because it was passed down orally). God was removed from the picture, or partners were set up with Him. Different civilizations made different-looking changes, and you get the result you see today.

What’s fascinating about this is how similar it is to what’s described in the Qur’an:

Mankind was of one religion (before their deviation); then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. [2.213]

And mankind was not but one community (united in religion), but then they differed. And if not for a word that preceded from your Lord, it would have been judged between them (immediately) concerning that over which they differ. [10.19]

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?



17 March 2015

2 thoughts on “The Diversity of Religion

  1. Please check your facts, simply google “conversion judaism”. Where did you get the idea that you cannot convert to judaism?

    Otherwise like your articles!


    1. Hi Sebastian,

      Sorry for the mistake. I was actually representing an argument made by other people, and not one endorsed by myself. In any case, I’ve edited the article.

      Thanks for the feedback!


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