Six Arguments Against Religion VI: The Illusion of Truth

This is the final post in the series of six arguments against religion, and it is subtle and very counterintuitive to most people. I’m going to use a couple of analogies to introduce it, which I hope will help me explain it.

The Foreigner

appalachiantrailA few years ago, my fictional friend Bob left England, where he’d lived his whole life, and came to the United States. Of course, here in the US we speak a different dialect of English. He could understand everyone ok, but he began to wonder whether he’d been speaking incorrectly all this time. He worked hard and eventually managed to change his speech, so that he sounded just like an American. But when he talked to his parents back home, they were sad that he’d abandoned his native dialect. They entreated him to talk properly again. He was torn! How could he decide which way to speak?…

The Artist

I have another fictional friend, Terry, who is a pianist, a master of European classical music. He lived in the early 18th century. When he was well established in his career and famous throughout Europe, he heard a Turkish military band and was amazed to hear, for the first time, rhythms and chords unknown in the west. He began incorporating Turkish patterns into his compositions. Some called his music barbaric, or not music at all. He himself wondered if it was really music, or just noise; but he could not deny its compelling power, and the way, as he composed and played, it transported him out of his body into regions of light he had never felt before.

Language, Art, and Spirit

In both of these analogies, you might be wondering what the big deal is for Bob and Terry. Why is it so difficult for Bob and his family to handle the realities of a single language with multiple dialects, and for Bob to change his speech to match the people around him? And why is Terry’s musical community so committed to one style of music, and so dismissive of his need to draw from more than one artistic tradition?

Well, why is it so hard for people to get a grip on the idea that more than one religion has value? That more than one religion might be a True Path? That multiple religious traditions might serve as inspiration for a life’s journey?

Some messages depend crucially on their medium. Haiku, or Hamlet, cannot be translated without losing an essential part of their message. You cannot play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on bagpipes without losing something (and, perhaps, gaining something else).

This applies to religions and cultures as much as to language and music. Handel’s Messiah is music that sings most powerfully within the context of a messianic religion; its exultation simply cannot be translated into Zen Buddhism. And Zen’s simple koans, which open the doors of perception and enlightenment, are nothing but nonsense in Catholicism. Should Catholicism be abandoned because it doesn’t have koans? Should Zen be abandoned because it doesn’t have the Messiah? Is there a way to learn both, live both, embody both?


A religion is a lot more than a set of beliefs. A religion — especially an old religion — carries with it a wealth of culture and feeling that should not be lightly cast aside. At the same time, remaining in just one religion, subscribing to it alone and refusing to open your mind and heart to others, is incredibly limiting. This applies not just to the appreciation of beauty, but to the perception of universal truths.

And universal truths are not just simple statements like “love thy neighbor” or “life is suffering”; there is weight behind these words. The development of the concept of “love” in European culture over the past 2000 years is a cultural achievement that is worth learning, as is the Buddhist concept of dukkha and the Chinese concept of the Tao.

The argument here is not against religion in general, nor against any particular religion, or even against any particular belief system like atheism or agnosticism. It is against having just one religion, or just one belief system.

Synthesis and Genesis

Among my circle of friends, there are a lot of folks who have synthesized their own religions. This applies not only to my pagan friends, but also my Christian ones. After all, in modern America, there are at least a dozen popular competing versions of Christianity, and individual Christians synthesize new versions all the time — piecing together their own spiritualities from things they’ve heard here and there, their own experiences, and Spirit whispering in their ears.

Nevertheless, most of my friends have not given up the idea that there is One Truth out there, One Reality, and even One Path to salvation or enlightenment.

Bah! How can there be One Truth when I know people who have seen fairies, played with the animal spirits of the land, danced the Lakota Sun Dance with their ancestors, traveled the astral plane, felt the presence of One God, Two Gods, and Many, spoken in tongues, and followed glowing crosses out of the woods at night?

When you release your need to know the One Truth, you are free to view your religious calling as a work in progress. You need not ever reach a final state. You can look on it as an artistic endeavor — or as a set of artistic works, with multiple unrelated religious projects in progress at once. Your religion becomes a set of dialogues between yourself and Spirit.

There is no call to blindly accept the religion your parents gave you. And there is no call to find the perfect religion, the one better than all the others, and place it forever under glass and defend it unto death. It is not even necessary to retreat to your garage and build the perfect religion from scratch, one which will stand the test of time and be Eternal Truth.

Go out into the meadows of the world, and gather religions like wildflowers.



  1. Bob Patrick says:

    Jeff, I find this installment quite helpful. In Unitarian-Universalism, we often refer to what you are describing as “the tapestry” of wisdom. It’s funny to me. In letting go of a “One Truth” and allowing oneself to engage, explore and enjoy multiple traditions and multiple kinds of religious experience, a new sense of “unified” truth emerges, for me. This unified truth is the tapestry of wisdom, clearly made up of many threads, colors, textures, weaves and portraying an engaging set of stories. We also talk about the “interconnected web of all being” That is my favorite way of talking about this plurality of religious wisdom and experience. It is a web of interconnected things, so there is this plurality. And, once the plurality is embraced, the oneness of the web becomes more apparent.

  2. How does one prevent the “gathering of religions like wildflowers” from sooner or later turning into a “Religion-of-the-Month Club” whose participants pick and choose and patch together various fragments of equally various faiths purely to serve themselves: to please their whim, or to follow the current fashion or to ensure their own convenience while persuading themselves that they thereby have the approval of whatever gods they have conveniently selected and trimmed to gratify their own picky palates?

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    Bob — I like what you’re saying — the implication that there are different kinds of “truth”. There are other senses than the five or six canonical ones, and other kinds of truth than the one we find with our senses and our logic.

  4. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate — that’s a real problem, no doubt about it. I think the way around it is actually exposure to more religions, not fewer. Just as your aesthetic sensibilities will be improved by visiting art galleries, your religious sensibilities will be improved by exposure to multiple belief systems.

  5. Re:
    “the way around it is actually exposure to more religions, not fewer. … religious sensibilities will be improved by exposure to multiple belief systems.”

    That doesn’t always work. All too often, intentionally dabbling in more and more religions, changing them more and more often, just turns the dabbler into ever more and more of a dabbler: “Oooh, I was doing Religion X these past few hours, but right now there’s something a little inconvenient about it, so for the next few hours I’m doing Religion Y” — maybe Religion X is more opposed to shady business-deals but less opposed to an active sex-life than Religion Y, and the practitioner wants to conduct a shady business-deal over lunch and have a one-night stand after dinner, so right around lunch s/he decides to be in Religion Y for a while, and then right around dinner it’s back to Religion X … I have actually seen this sort of thing, and had to pull out of a business-relationship with someone who was pretty frank about the fact that this was how she led her life, “and what could possibly be the problem with it, except that some people are just TOO narrow-minded?”


  6. Kate,
    I would observe that “exposure” is not the same as “dabbling”; I have been exposed to many religions over the years, but have only actively participated in a select few, and never in the pointless manner you describe… although I’m sure I’ve known some people who have done. :/

    It’s one of the problems I have with Huston Smith, actually, after watching a documentary about him and noting that he mixed practices from a number of widely different religions, apparently in the cafeteria fashion which pagans and syncretists are so often accused of using (and which I consider to be diametrically opposed to true syncretism).

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    I absolutely agree that discipline and focus are essential parts of religious practice. On the other hand, in today’s world, it seems to me that the voices calling for Religious Discipline, and his ugly brothers Intolerance and Punishment, are a lot louder and shriller than the voices calling for religious experimentation, exposure, and tolerance. And it’s understandable: if your religion (or moral / ethical code) lays down a set of rules that are supposed to represent Eternal Truth, the natural conclusion to draw is that other systems of belief are just wrong. I think it’s extremely important to balance that with a measure of open-mindedness.

  8. Erik — how can one distinguish “true syncretism” (which you advocate) from the pick-and-mix “cafeteria” kind (which revolts us both)?

  9. Kate, It’s a fair question, and a complex one… I touched on it briefly in the post that Jeff linked to, but obviously there is much more to be said on the subject.

    A lot of it has to do with the coherence of one’s base religion, the starting point, and how open it is to incorporating other influences. For instance, as a Hindu friend pointed out recently, there is an existing structure in Hindu philosophy that allows some to accept Jesus as an avatar of one of their Gods, and legitimately (from their perspective, anyway! 🙂 include Him in their worship. As someone coming from a Christian background, with its presumption of sole command of the Truth, I could not in good conscience include Him in my religious life; even though as a polytheist I feel I have to allow for the possibility that He is, in fact, a God… just not the only one, and not mine.

    Syncretism when done well harmonizes elements of the different traditions, rather than just sticking them together; and it is respectful of the integrity of both traditions in the process… and, I believe, is generally only appropriate as a response to a deep personal calling, rather than simply an interest.

    As an example, I have been fascinated by Shinto for years – I have studied about it, written about it, and some Shinto ideas have influenced my thinking about the nature of the spiritual world. However, I don’t do any kind of Shinto practice. Even though I do honor spirits of Nature and my Ancestors, which is done in Shinto as well, I don’t try to do it in a Shinto way because it is so tied to Japanese culture that it would be a violation of the integrity of the tradition. (Although there is a guardian kami for America, enshrined at Tsubaki Shrine in Washington… it might be acceptable to include Him, but I haven’t and probably won’t.)

    On the other hand, as part of my journey I spent some time practicing Buddhism in college; and while I don’t take refuge or cultivate with the goal of achieving Nirvana now, Buddhism’s deep compassion has altered my worldview, and I still maintain a shrine to Guanyin Bodhisattva. I do this in parallel to my Hellenic worship, never in conjunction with it, because there is no harmony there; but it does harmonize with my background and life experience, and She is such a universalizing Presence (and so considered by all the cultures where She (or He) is known) that the question of cultural appropriateness doesn’t arise.

    As a final example, consider an online group I belong to, Neos Alexandria. NA is an explicitly syncretist group, centered around reviving Greco-Egyptian syncretist religion as practiced in Hellenistic Alexandria. There is a great deal of harmony between these two traditions – not only were they thrown together and mutually influential in Alexandria, but the influence of Egypt on Greek culture, philosophy and religion stretches back centuries before. This strikes me as a natural fit. Personally, I don’t worship the Egyptian Netjeru (I’m in that group mostly for the conversation and because I like the way the group is actively working to spread the revival of traditional pagan worship through their publishing arm), but I see that the two traditions can blend together with no violence being done to either side.

  10. Kate, one additional thought in answer to your original question (“How does one prevent the ‘gathering of religions like wildflowers’ from sooner or later turning into a ‘Religion-of-the-Month Club'”).

    I see three levels of learning when it comes to other religions – “learning about”, “learning from”, and “internalizing”. The first level, “learning about”, is the realm of facts, of history and explanations of theology and belief. This is (at best!) what most people do.

    The second level, “learning from”, comes only after more extended study – reading not just what is said about the tradition by outsiders, or insiders writing for a general audience, but what insiders are saying to each other about the tradition, and in cases where there are scriptures, reading those and seeing what they say to you. At this level your worldview can actually be changed in some respects by the encounter with the tradition (as mine has been by my studies of Shinto and Buddhism), but not your core religious identity.

    The third level, the level of internalization, comes only with time and immersion into the actual tradition itself, its community and practices and ways of thinking. I have been permanently changed by the years I spent immersed in the Jewish community and my deep study and practice, even though I did not end up converting; and likewise changed again by my current life and study as a practicing Hellenic polytheist. I do not syncretize these two traditions, but you could say that in a sense they have syncretized me.

    It has been my observation that “Religion-of-the-Month Club” types are almost always operating at the first level; syncretism when done well operates at the second level and can (very occasionally) reach down into the third. Therefore, I propose that the remedy to the problem you pose is serious study. 🙂

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Erik, thanks for all your thoughts on this! You’ve obviously given this a great deal of thought and attention, and it’s great to get your insight — which goes far beyond mine here. You’ve got me thinking a lot about the extent to which I’ve hit different levels in my own studies of religion. I guess I’d count myself as a Third Level American Zen (which is definitely different from classical Japanese Zen — I’m probably only First Level on that), and probably Third Level Baptist Christian (from years of exposure to my father’s family), and between Second and Third Level Revivalist Druid. 🙂 /|\

  12. Of course, there are quite a few people who act (in the domains of language or art) *exactly* like the people in your “Foreigner” and “Artist” analogies … your analogies wouldn’t clarify the situation for them. (I know because I tried out those analogies on a few such people. They regarded the actions of the people in the analogies as entirely normal and sensible behavior: e.g., I have known people to disinherit or estrange their teen/adult children because the children had learned somewhere how to speak English differently from the way the parents spoke it.)

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate — true enough! For those folks… well, I have nothing to say. They have their own truths, for now at least. 🙂


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