But which religion?

John Hunt
10 min readJan 2, 2023

Religion relies on personal experience for its validity: “I know it’s true, because this happened to me.” But that’s entirely subjective. At any moment, around the world, you could eavesdrop on millions of worshippers praying to God/gods/spirits. But you’ll never hear Him/Her/them talking back. As Shakespeare puts it in Henry IV, Part 1:


I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


Why, so can I, or so can any man,

But will they come when you do call for them?

And why should our experience be equally valid for others who experience differently? What if they lead to contradictory beliefs? There are at least 100,000 distinct pictures of the divine world that we’ve developed in our history. And the pattern is really far more diverse, by factors of ten. There are for instance over 30,000 denominations in Christianity alone, about one for each verse in the Bible, and that’s in a comparatively centralized and creedal religion (reflecting the difficulty of extracting a single message from the Bible — comparable numbers of sects in Islam and Judaism are around a hundred).

Many religions might appeal to sacred scriptures as the source of their authority, as divinely given, but that only shifts the problem along. Why follow one rather than another when they all claim to be true (actually, more often than not, they don’t, that’s a label some of the new religions like Christianity have claimed as they became formalized into authoritarian structures)? In the library of sacred scripture for instance the Bible is a single book (think of a large room with shelves all around the walls, floor to ceiling, curated on the basis of merit — and the Bible is one — or a fuzzy collection of some — amongst thousands). It’s not the oldest, or the newest. Its authorship is less certain than most. It’s not the best written, or the most coherent. It’s far from the most inspired, or original, or moral. Only those whose knowledge of the rest of the library is limited or non-existent claim otherwise.

Their arguments are tedious. For instance, Jesus must be the Son of God because he told me so, or the Bible says he was/is, or because he fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament, or because it’s the only explanation of the commitment of the followers, the power of the Gospels, the rapid spread of the faith, the coherence of the text, etc., all circular arguments, none of which stand up to a few minutes serious examination. Muslims use exactly the same arguments for Muhammad. They’re of equal merit. Or perhaps Muslims have the better of it. Take the last point for instance. The Qur’an is vastly more coherent than the Bible, with a clearer message (though it was written to be recited, as poetry — it comes across in English translations as both repetitive and random), dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad in the most extraordinarily beautiful Arabic, in a white-hot heat over 20 years, rather than, as with the Bible, by dozens of authors from different cultures, in different languages, even from different faiths, spread over a thousand miles and a thousand years, with another thousand years of debate about which of them should be included (which has never been agreed around all the Churches). If you wanted to make a rational choice on which monotheistic religion to follow, Islam makes more sense than Christianity, which split God into different entities when it was adopted by the pagan Roman Empire as the official religion, to accommodate its own polytheism. And it generates a level of sustained prayer and devotion across the whole community that puts Christianity in the shade.

There’s nothing “sacred” or “true” about religions themselves. They’re as much human constructions as schools, governments and ideologies. You can judge them, vote for them, like you do for political parties (or not). There are many options. If the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) with their harsh desert God don’t work for you, and you’re looking for an intelligently conceived monotheistic religion that makes few demands on credulity and focuses on good practice in this life, then Sikhism is a good bet. The youngest and fifth largest of the major religions, it rejects religious monopoly, puts practice above creed, and focuses on truthfulness, honesty, self-control and purity. Sounds good.

And of course monotheism is a recent development, followed by some just in the most recent fraction of 1% of our time on earth. We might describe Hinduism as being the most successful religion on our planet today in terms of being followed by the largest proportion of the world’s population over the last few thousand years. Some scholars say that it’s the cradle of many of the others, including the monotheistic religions, much as our Western languages have developed from Sanskrit. Those inclined to mysticism might claim that the central Hindu teaching of advaita, of all things being one, is at the root of all good religion. Others claim that in its exploration of consciousness it developed sophisticated views of the unity of matter and mind millennia ago that science is only just beginning to appreciate. The most revered of their classics, the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Beloved”), written around the fifth century BC, is one of the earliest attempt we have to arrive at a fully comprehensive view of existence. The setting is a battlefield that symbolizes life itself. As the dialogue ripples out into deeper subjects a whole philosophy of life unfolds. It’s a work of deep wisdom and tolerance. As Krishna says, “Whoever with true devotion worships any deity, in him I deepen that devotion; and through it he fulfills his desire” (7:21).

But this doesn’t necessarily mean Hinduism can work for everyone. It’s hard for Westerners to embrace the idea of 350 million or so gods (oddly enough very similar to the number of angels that medieval monks believed existed) rather than one, of duty rather than love at the top of the moral equation. And whereas organized Christianity was corrupted by empire and power, Hinduism’s rich philosophical heritage was corrupted by the organized caste system. It is pluralist on a broad scale, but separation is locked in socially. We’re conditioned by our past, our present, and they are rare individuals who can determine for themselves quite different futures.

But of course good religion does not need “God,” or “gods,” at all — and the ultimate divine in Hinduism, Brahman-Atman, is not really a God, in the sense being individual or personal. Buddhism is increasingly the religion of choice for many in the West (reincarnation is making a comeback) and does not see the divine as a “being” in any sense of the word. It prefers terms like the void, or non-being, or nothingness. Originally an offshoot of Hinduism, it developed different forms as it spread; first into Theravada (Sri Lanka) and Mahayana (Tibet), then with further offshoots like Madhyamika, Tantric, Vajrayana and Zen. It then got a further boost when the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 scattered Buddhist teachers around the world in much the same way as the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 scattered Jews and Christians. Historically, it’s generally been the most peaceable and contemplative of the major religions. It seems the most intellectually rigorous, being based on reason rather than revelation, in some respects closer to philosophy. From the Buddha onwards, its leaders have stressed the need to test teaching against your own experience, rather than taking sacred scriptures literally, on trust, like the more primitive religions do. It focuses on the processes of the mind rather than what the mind thinks it sees. Through meditation, we gradually reduce the sense of self, clearing the mind of its junk. I struggle with it, but practices like raja yoga or vipassana meditation have been shown to lower blood pressure, slow metabolism and produce increasingly coherent brainwave patterns. Buddhism floats free of dependence on history and miracle much as Christianity freed Roman religion (or tried to, initially) from dependence on deities in the sky and statues representing them on earth. As in Christianity, after the Buddha’s death his followers did introduce gods, saints, hell, etc., with rituals and complex theologies to lock believers into a particular system, trying to turn it into yet another organized religion. But Buddhism at its best is always about escaping such mental constraints and containers.

Still, it’s difficult for most of us, after centuries of competitive individualism in the West, to take on board the insignificance, or nonexistence, of the self. With the ingrained perception that sins are something you can repent of, and get wiped from the record, the idea that they come back, through karma, to determine your status in your next incarnation is a tough one. In some respects it’s a wonderful idea, based on older beliefs about the endless recycling of birth and death, a vista of renewal and many lives rather than the burden of a single one, and indeed was part of the official teaching of the Early Church (after all, Jesus rose from the dead in a different form), till it was denounced as heretical at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553. But if people are more enlightened than dogs why are so many of them nastier? And how does a dog, or a bug, make a choice to do good or evil? Or a tiger show compassion? The fact that meditation helps well-being doesn’t mean that reincarnation is “true,” any more than praying to Jesus and believing that he’s answering somehow “proves” the Resurrection. The idea of time as circular rather than a line, the endless recycling of life, where there is no real progress, no leading up to a dramatic Judgment Day, or no acceptance that we could actually make the world better (or worse), is perhaps the hardest of all, though it seems a highly moral one; much more so than that of a moment’s repentance bringing eternal salvation. After all, if we knew we were going to be reborn into this world, we might think twice about spoiling it. If we’re one of the lucky few earning thousands or even a million dollars a day, we might bear in mind the millions on zero-hour contracts, or with no employment at all, when our positions might be reversed in the next life.

But hell, there are so many great religions out there. Of course, they all have their dark sides, none more so than Christianity, with its vision of Heaven for the few and Hell for the many. But for instance Taoism at times seems closer to the teaching of Jesus than does Christianity itself; a good Taoist has few demands and doesn’t exercise power over others. Its vision of the world as determined by principles of balance and order offers an attractive alternative to one ruled by gods. The Tao Te Ching is perhaps the wisest book ever written. Its opening sentence is, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” Words cannot define the Tao, or God, you can only come to it through the silent stillness inside you. You are not your thoughts, that’s mostly mind-clutter, you are the one thinking them, being aware of them. It’s not easy understanding that. Imagine the struggle a chimp would have if it tried to think of itself as “me.” Now imagine yourself as not being “you.” Try thinking for a moment of your name, the letters, as a label you’ve been given, and go deeper. It’s a foundational way of thinking in many of the major religious traditions.

Then there’s Confucianism, which demonstrates a stronger commitment to the wider social unit and the principle of good government than most other religions have started to get their heads around (indeed, Christianity, starting with its shift in the fifth century AD to forbidding marriages between cousins in favor of marriages between comparative strangers has led to atomized family units and weak clans). Maybe the success of the Chinese Empire over thousands of years, as a relatively peaceful, nonaggressive, inventive, well-functioning social unit, has something to do with their religion. (And I’m well aware that these are very relative terms; but, broadly speaking, the Chinese still live in China; they haven’t, for instance, colonized North America, which they had the capacity to do; a century earlier than Columbus, Admiral Zheng He from China was roaming the oceans with a fleet of 300, and men numbering tens of thousands, in ships 30 times the size of Columbus’ largest three boats, with his 90 sailors). More broadly, perhaps the communitarian, more equal and mutually supportive societies of the East are better placed to cope with pandemics, hence the huge discrepancies in the infection and death rates related to COVID between East and West.

Another is Shinto; the most ancient, beautiful, and simple of all the major religions practiced today, close to paganism and just as diverse. And you have the still older tribal religions, like that of the Aborigines, which have an imaginative power, fusing the soul and the landscape, past, present, and future, that for some dwarfs our own tinkering with the world of spirit.

And if you were to give religions a “moral score” — Jainism would surely come out on top. It’s one of the oldest organized religions, with Parsha, the twenty-third leader (the first we know of as a historical person), living around the eighth century BC, way before Buddha, Confucius etc., let alone latecomers like Jesus and Muhammad. It’s the most demanding one on earth, the Mount Everest of them all in terms of disciplined lifestyle and moral awareness, and has still less room for any idea of God. Its first principle is that the highest duty is not to harm anything living, including through thought and speech — it makes “wokeism,” the left-wing attempt to purify the world of wrong thought and action, look tame. Never mind the brutalities of factory farming, they’ll do their best to avoid stepping on an ant (serious adepts wear face masks to avoid swallowing insects, anticipating COVID precautions by many millennia). Its second principle, “many-sidedness,” is that truth and reality are complex; reality can be experienced, but never fully expressed through language. And so on. If the world could somehow convert overnight to Jainism, most of our problems would be over. The coming climate crisis would be resolved. We would stop eating meat, protect Nature, cut harmful emissions and bring the world back into balance again. Politicians would be judged on how truthful they are. It sounds impossible… particularly today… many Western politicians wouldn’t pass the first hurdle… but there are around five million Jainists in the world.

God has no religion

Gandhi (twentieth century AD)