If there’s one God, why are there more than 4,000 religions?

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If there’s one God, why are there more than 4,000 religions?

The merest acquaintance with the humans on planet Earth and their religions immediately raises two questions: (1) Why are there so many religions?, and (2) Why are religious people so immune to data that concern their religion? In this blog, we will address the first question.

Well, how many religions are there? First, we should restrict this question to religions that exist today, and exclude all the religions that came and went (and are now lost) during first 190,000 years of Homo sapiens. And, of course, we acknowledge that estimates vary. But none of the estimates are small. So now: There are dozens of major religions (varying between a couple dozen and four or five dozen). By “major” I mean religions with at least half a million adherents or so. These religions differ significantly from each other in doctrine, in the deities or sacred beings they worship or acknowledge, and in how anything supernatural is perceived. (Many of us learned in school that there were five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. This seriously understates anything like the correct number.)

The dozens number is not the interesting number, however. The interesting number is the number of sub-religions under each major religion. Often, these sub-religions, or sects, or groups, differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ among themselves. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity. Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated. There is also considerable mixing and matching. All of what I’m calling the major religions break up into at least several and often thousands of different sects or groups.

Let’s sum this up by saying that there are tens of thousands of religions on planet Earth today. This number is conservative.

Okay, now why are there so many religions? Here’s where things get interesting.

Perhaps the most popular religious answer to this question is that we are each seeking our own path to God, and our own paths vary because we vary. (Though I capitalize the word “God”, it is important for this explanation that I do not mean any specific deity of any specific religion. And I don’t.) But this explanation is flatly denied by many of the largest religions in the world today (religions with the most adherents). Most Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians do not subscribe to this explanation. They think their religion is the correct one and the others are not. But the crucial fact to note here is that this explanation turns the existence of the tens of thousands of religions into merely a side-effect of the fact that there are billions of religious humans. On this explanation, therefore, the existence of thousands and thousands of religions is rendered not interesting.

A much better explanation can be derived by taking seriously the existence of the thousands and thousands of religions. It is not a side-effect; it is the key. Taking this fact seriously means looking for an explanation of religion that has as a consequence the fact that there should be thousands and thousands of religions. We need look only as far as evolutionary theory. There are thousands and thousands of religions because being religious is an evolutionary adaptation. Evolution produces lots of variation within the parameters of a given type of adaptation (there is a huge variety of feathers, for example). If religions were or are doing something positive for human well-being and psychology (even if religions cause many serious problems) then religiosity will be preserved. But if the religious details don’t matter, then evolutionary theory predicts that there will be thousands of religions. Which is in fact what we see.

Consider an apt analogy—language. All people speak a language—no matter how isolated. Language evolved from animal communication. All living things communicate. But only humans use language. At least that is the current view. Note that there are and have been thousands of languages on planet Earth. Why the vast number of languages? The answer is that the details of the language spoken are not relevant to communication. All that matters are that the sounds have meanings and follow a grammar of some sort. These are very loose constraints. Since the constraints on languages are so loose, languages vary wildly in their sounds, structures, and compositional meanings. This explains the large variation in languages. The same is true of religion. Religions are like languages. Religions are an evolutionary adaptation primarily for keeping groups and tribes together. This job can be accomplished in a huge variety of ways. And that’s why there are so many religions.

If there’s one God, why are there more than 4,000 religions?

Of the answers so far, the main ideas, as far as I understand, are:

  • Everyone is worshipping Satan except [insert religion here];
  • Different cultures made up different stories, or had different understandings, so created a new religion to follow such rules.

Regarding the monotheistic religions, my belief is this: They were all once upon a time right.
My father told me to see it as a tree. God, or rather the ‘True’ religion is the trunk.

This is not a perfect picture, as some religions (Buddhism, Islam) are on the trunk. But the idea is the same. All religions started off at the trunk.

Judaism was right originally, and then ‘branched’ off, by changing things to suit their selves, and started practicing usury.
Jesus came along and told the Jews they were ‘doing it wrong’, or had forgotten the right ways. The people who listened became Christians, who were right.
And then they went wrong, and worshipped Jesus as well, or rather instead, as/of God.
And then came Mohammed, to bring us back on track. No more after that.
However, Islam has also swayed away from ‘the trunk’, God. This is harder to pinpoint, as no-one told us we were wrong. Possible ways:

  • Over adoration of Mohammed. The Koran says to love all apostles the same, and yet Charlie Hebdou wouldn’t have been attacked had the drawing been of Jesus, I suspect.
  • I have watched one of those BBC ‘worse things to say to a []’. This time, it was Islam. And the ‘Muslims’ were astonished that people thought they didn’t get drunk.

There are lots of other examples. But what I’m saying is all branches in this tree come from the trunk, but are not the trunk entire. The religion of Abraham is, as far as I understand, the trunk, but i may be incorrect.

The Bible directly explains the origin of false religions through human sinfulness and rejection of God and God’s subsequent giving man over to his own sinful desires. One of the clearest and most concise passages on this is in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen,” (Romans 1:21-25).

Paul states just before this that we “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” (Romans 1:18) and goes on to explain:

“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,” (Romans 1:28).

So, men turned from God and desired instead to create a view of the world that justified their evil desires and often gave them a sense of control through the idea of gods and spiritual powers that they could influence through rites and rituals to get what they wanted without having to submit to the law and will of God Almighty. God gave us over to these desires and allowed us to suffer the consequences. Men invented false religions and truly believed them. In their sinful hearts and their rebellion against God, they wanted to believe such things and God gave them over to it. The many false religions that oppress the souls of men are a prison of our own making, and the gospel is the way to freedom and a restored fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. But so long as we continue to want a religion that is focused on us and what we can get out of it and not on submitting to our maker and taking our rightful place before Him, we will continue to invent and believe lies that suit our sinful, selfish purposes.

What’s more, the Bible teaches that we have a spiritual adversary in the devil and his demons, or fallen spirits. The Bible calls false religious teachings that lead people away from the truth “doctrines of demons,” (1 Timothy 4:1) and says that those who worship false gods are actually worshiping demons, (1 Corinthians 10:20). As Jesus said to one crowd:

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies,” (John 8:44).

So, just as we actively deceive ourselves and deceive one another to justify our own self-deception, there are also spiritual forces in this world actively trying to deceive us; to turn us from God and keep us in darkness. Here, too, the gospel is the answer. It is the power of God unto salvation and, through the redeeming work of Christ and the regenerating power of the Spirit to make us new in heart and soul, it is the message of freedom from the Devil’s wiles.

Why are there so many religions? Isn’t there only one God? Why didn’t God say the same thing to everyone? How do I know which religion is right?

Perhaps God does speak the same truth to people all around the world. The question is, when God speaks, what do people hear?

Two people can listen to the same story and come away with very different meanings. We hear what we need to hear in order to face our own particular challenges. People of different times and cultures hear God differently, according to their own cultural and spiritual conditions.

It’s not that God is different for different people. God is eternally the same. It’s that we humans are different from one another, and we each see God in our own way. God gives every person and every culture what’s needed to know and love God, and to love and serve their fellow human beings.

It is common for people think their religion is the right one. Many Christians say you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven. Yet the Bible does not focus as much on what we believe as it does on how we live. People who live good, conscientious lives of service to others are living in the spirit of Christ no matter what name they may use for God.

Does God have a multiple personality disorder?
At last count, there were . . . well . . . I won’t even try to count all the different religions in the world! Besides the large, well-known world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, there are countless smaller religions, including many varieties of traditional, cultural, and nature-based religions, throughout the world. There are also a billion or so people who don’t belong to any particular religion, either because they are atheist or agnostic or because they follow their own personal spiritual beliefs.

All of the religions have some concept of God—although some do not talk much about God. However, if we ask adherents of the various religions what God is like, we will get many different descriptions. Within the different religions God has been pictured as a male or female human being, as various kinds of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects, as a being with a human body and the head of an animal, as a tree or a plant, as lightning and thunder, as the sun, moon, or stars, and in many other ways.

When we start talking about the different mental and emotional characteristics of God, things get even more interesting. God loves and hates, is wrathful and merciful, is omniscient and forgetful, is unchanging yet relents from punishments that were planned, is all-forgiving but condemns everyone who doesn’t believe or do certain things.

Does God have a multiple personality disorder? How could one God be so many different things all at once? How could God be so many contradictory things at the same time? After all, if we ask people of the various religions how they know what God is like, most them will say that their beliefs originally came from God.

Are all religions except mine wrong?
Okay, there’s another possibility. Maybe all of those religions got it wrong.

Or maybe there is one that got it right. The religion I believe in! It may be Christianity or Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, but if it’s my religion, it must be the right one. Otherwise why would I believe it?

It’s funny, isn’t it? No matter what religion we look at, the people who believe in it think they are the ones who have the real truth about God—and that all the other religions are a little bit off . . . or a lot off.

Of course, there are many religious people who take a broader view. But what about all the people who say that if you don’t believe in my religion, God will condemn you? What about all those Christians who say that you can’t be saved and go to heaven unless you believe in Jesus Christ?

If people in every religion claim that theirs is the right one and everyone else’s is wrong, how can we believe any of them? And why didn’t God make it a lot clearer to us humans on earth exactly what we’re supposed to believe about God and heaven?

Who’s confused, anyway? God or humans?
Let’s tackle some of these questions. The first thing to recognize is that God didn’t make all those religions, people did.

“What?” you say, “Didn’t God talk to all those prophets and write all those books for all those religions?” Yes, God has spoken to many prophets, priests, and ordinary people over the ages. Some of them have written down what God said to them, and those books have become the sacred texts of the various religions.

But have you ever had the experience of saying one thing, and having the person you were talking to hear something different? Just because God said something to a priest or prophet, that doesn’t mean the listener heard exactly what God said. In fact, psychologists tell us that we humans always interpret what we hear according to what we have experienced, and according to how we understand the world around us.

Let’s take a simple example: the words “I love you.” We might think these would have the same meaning no matter who we say them to. But think about the different ways this simple, common phrase will be heard by a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend. Now think of how it would be heard by someone who has just screamed in your face, “I hate your guts!” How would it be heard by a child you have just disciplined? How would it be heard by an elderly parent whom you have just moved into a nursing home against her will?

In exactly the same way, although God says the same thing to all people everywhere, each one of us hears it differently according to our own particular culture, experiences, and beliefs. The difference is not in God, but in the listeners. God says “I love you” to people in all times, places, and cultures. Each one hears that message in a unique way. The many and varied sacred texts of humanity are the result.

So which is the best religion?
Mine is, of course!

But seriously, if God is infinitely loving and infinitely wise, as the theologians and mystics of all the major world religions say, don’t you think God would do a good job of providing religion for the people on earth? Don’t you think God would provide a way for all people to experience God’s love and wisdom?

We could argue until the cows come home about which religion is the best or truest, and it would be a monumental waste of breath. God is not concerned about which religion is better than other religions. God is concerned with how well each religion brings its people closer to God, and how well each religion moves its believers to love and serve their fellow human beings.

So the short answer is: Each religion is best for the people who believe in it. If God truly is loving and wise, wouldn’t God provide every person and every culture with the religion that works best for them? Would a loving God really leave vast segments of the world’s population out in the cold? We humans come in all different varieties. And we need a variety of religions to help us find God, faith, and compassion for our fellow human beings, each in our own unique way.

Don’t you have to believe in Jesus to be saved?
Perhaps you really want to believe that God is present in all religions.

But what about all those Christian preachers who say that if you don’t believe in Jesus you’ll go to hell? And what about all the Bible passages they quote? Is it possible to believe the Bible and still think that non-Christians can go to heaven?

First of all, the Bible itself is full of people from different religions. Before Christ came, there was not a single Christian on earth. Everything in the Old Testament was originally about how people could be saved before Christianity even existed. In the New Testament John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ Apostles preached their message to Jews and non-Jews alike. And though traditional Christian preachers have selected the passages that command us to believe in Jesus, they have pushed aside a far greater number of passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that command us to love God, love the neighbor, and obey God’s commandments if we wish to be saved.

The Apostle Paul clearly stated what non-Christians must do to be saved, before he made his famous statements about being saved by faith in Jesus Christ:

God will repay everyone according to what they have done. To those who by patiently doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:6–11)

He then goes on to talk about related issues of law and conscience, concluding that all of this will take place “through Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16).

Paul’s later statements in the same letter about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ are intended for Christians. His letters are addressed to the groups of Christian believers in various towns and cities. And of course, if you say you’re a Christian but you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you’re in trouble, because you are rejecting your God.

Is God prejudiced?
It all boils down to this: Is God narrow-minded or broad-minded? Does God provide salvation only for one part of the world’s people who believe the “right” way? Or does God provide salvation for all of the world’s people?

Both the Bible and common sense say that God will accept into heaven those who live good lives according to their own conscience and their own religious laws, while those who selfishly reject the truth and live evil and destructive lives will suffer the consequences.

For Christians, this means believing in Jesus Christ and living according to his teachings in the Gospels. For Jews it means believing in God and living according to the Torah. For Muslims it means believing in Allah and living according to the Qur’an. Those who believe in God, and live a good life according to their beliefs, are showing their faith in God by their actions. And even those who say they don’t believe in God but live a good life according to their conscience are following God’s law.

Jesus taught that action trumps words in this brief tale:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28–31)

And even more directly:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

In short, salvation is based, not on mere words, but on action. And those who do the will of God by living good lives according to their beliefs and their conscience are showing their faith in God, whether they call it faith or not.

Then why do we need Jesus Christ?
If people of all religions can be saved, why do we need Jesus Christ? Good question! In fact, it’s such a good question that it needs its own article. See “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?” But for now, consider this: If Jesus Christ really is God as Christians say he is, doesn’t that mean he is God for all people, and not just for those who call themselves Christians?

It doesn’t matter what name we call God (as long as it’s nice!). No matter what name we use, it is the same God we’re calling on. There’s only one of ’em, you know!

And no matter how many different ways we may hear God’s voice, it is the same message being given through all the religions of the earth: Love God and love your fellow human beings. Live by the truth, live with compassion. Do not do what is evil and say what is false, but follow God’s commandments and engage in good deeds of useful service for others.

All who do these things, no matter what their religion, are part of the spiritual community that is God’s universal church on earth, and will be part of God’s heaven when they pass into the spiritual world.

If there’s one God, why are there more than 4,000 religions?