Why so many religions?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many religions? Locating an estimate for the number of religions that have existed throughout human history is nearly impossible. Today, according to Adherents, an organization unaffiliated with any particular religious group, there are 4,300 recognized religions, sects, denominations, faiths and the like. An obvious question arises: “How should the plurality and diversity of religions and faiths be viewed?” After all, these religions and faiths differ in their views and postulations about God to the point that more often than not they oppose each other—better said, they often diametrically oppose one another. How should we view such religious beliefs? I will offer four general explanations about why so many faiths exist.

The academic view
First let’s consider the view of sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the like. We might refer to this perspective as an academic or scholarly view. To understand this view let’s turn yet again to Glazier and Ember where we find two words that help us appreciate the large number of religions. Consider the sentence cited by the two authors:

“[religion is]...any set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power, whether that power be forces, gods, spirits, ghosts, or demons” (Glazier and Ember, p. 3).

In just two words we find the undercurrent of the explanation: “any set of...” In other words, religion is any set of beliefs about God.

Tom Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, says this:

Religion, as I am using the word, is a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent. This description has four essential elements: first, religion is systematic; second, it is practical; third, it is an attempt to find meaning; and fourth, it appeals to the transcendent (p. 6).

Of course, sociologists and anthropologists, including all who reject religion as anything more than the “opiate of the masses” (e.g. Karl Marx), consider the sheer number of religions to be one of the most evident reasons why religion cannot be true—that God does not exist anywhere except in the minds of people. In fact, it is this large number of religions, at least in part, that lead such people to believe that religion is simply a mechanism concocted by humanity to satisfy an inner need, and nothing more. Therefore, so goes the conclusion, no one religion is better or more true than any other—religion is simply a utilitarian aspect of human existence that is primarily the result of cultural and anthropomorphic expression. Those who take this view conclude that if the human population needs religion to cope with everyday life, then so be it.

The spiritualized view
Across the world people now refer to themselves as “spiritual” while rejecting religion—all religion. Such people consider the dogmatic nature of religion to be something to be avoided. On the other hand, the idea of being a spiritually-minded person is often considered admirable and noble. Such people often reject any dogmatic or doctrinal positions on God and believe that everyone’s spiritual journey is unique and based upon what an individual believes about God. Such beliefs are thought to free an individual to live his spiritual life according to his or her own dictates. Linda Mercadante provides an unambiguous explanation for matter.

Spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), also known as "Spiritual but not affiliated" (SBNA), is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that does not regard organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion, but in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the "mind-body-spirit", while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions (Mercadante, Belief without borders: Inside the minds of the spiritual but not religious).

The former Beatle, John Lennon, provides a good example of how such a spiritual view leads to just another form of religion when he says, “I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong.” Lennon, by his own words, was a spiritual person who considered all religions to be equal. To Lennon, the particular religion a person chooses makes no difference.

The atheist view
For some people the diversity of religion is sufficient evidence of the foolishness of religion. The benefits of the secularization of society touted by some as freedom and progress towards an unshackled life, leads some into the belief that no God exists at all. Such atheists range from what is termed as “militant atheists” to publicly open atheists to closet atheist. In fact, in some circles it has become a badge of courage of sorts to publicly denounce God. Interestingly, the number of people who claim to be atheists is a small percentage of the population.

The point here is that atheists not only reject belief in God but are increasingly aggressive towards all religion. Here are a few quotes that make the point.

“All religions, with their gods, demigods, prophets, messiahs and saints, are the product of the fancy and credulity of men who have not yet reached the full development and complete possession of their intellectual powers.”--Michael A. Bakunin

“So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake... Religion is all bunk.”--Thomas Edison

“Religion deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage.”--Henry Louis Mencken

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion”--Robert M. Pirsig

The biblical view
1. First, the biblical view holds that God is the creator of all the universe and that He upholds all things by the power of his own might. Without him nothing would exist that does exist.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5 ESV).

2. Secondly, as already mentioned, the biblical view maintains that God has placed within mankind an intrinsic need to pursue God. Mankind cannot ignore that inner drive—it will either be expressed through an active belief and practice or suppressed and beaten into submission cognitively (often with accompanying angry or aggressive views and outward expressions as is so often found with atheists). Even when someone appears to have successfully put the belief of God away from their life, the thoughts of him continue to occupy their thinking and this cannot be escaped. There is no escaping what God has placed within human beings.

3. Third, the biblical view considers the single source of information for belief and practical worship and life to be the biblical Scriptures—the Hebrew Scriptures: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV). God chose the nation of Israel as the conduit through which he delivered the Scriptures to humanity. “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1 ESV).

Thus, here is the explanation for the enormous number of religions mankind has produced.

Simply put, these religions are the result of humanity seeking to know, understand, and relate to God (as pressured within because of the drive God placed within mankind). The varying religions differ in their beliefs and practices because they attempt to understand and relate to God outside of the biblical Scriptures. Throughout the history of man, differing individuals, groups, and entire cultures have produced varying religious writings, religious practices, and religious beliefs of many types, all in the attempt to understand God. When these efforts are made outside of the Bible, new and varying religions and practices are established. This causes confusion and is often cited as evidence against the existence of God.

Take for example the following quote. “Reagan (Y)” recognizes the problem of various religions but draws an incorrect conclusion for the cause. “All religion is manmade. If one God made it all by himself, then there would be no diversity in religion because all religious texts would have come from the same source”--Reagan Y [sic]

Reagan’s point is well made. If mankind pursued God through the one correct text, the problem would not exist. The differing sources of information is the underlying cause for the large number of religions. God gave mankind the biblical Scriptures, delivered through the nation of Israel, as the authoritative source of information about the creator. When anyone attempts to approach God through any other source of information other than that single authorized source, the results is a new religion or branch of religion.

How can this be the case? The reason is that human beings try to understand God, know God, and appease God through human reasoning and understanding alone, as we have already mentioned at some length. Throughout the course of human history, there have been people, well-intentioned men and women, who are particularly sensitive to their own spiritual inclinations and lead others into their particular view of God and eventually establish the four elements of religion as described earlier by Tim Crane. In doing so, they formulate a systematic belief in their views of God. The result is a branch of religious belief that gains varying degrees of acceptance among people, whether confined to local areas or more widespread acceptance. These various religious views all have core components but differ in their foundational beliefs.

Where Christianity differs fundamentally, is that Christianity’s views and doctrines and beliefs are based squarely on the Scriptures provided in the Hebrew texts—that is, the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is the explicit claims of the biblical text:

“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15-16 KJV).

Now the big question: "Is religion a stone in the road causing people to stumble?"

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