Before I can move on, I have to address a couple of the things
preventing people from applying a strategy to the choice of religion.
Religious moderation is probably the most prevalent religion in
the world today. This belief holds that religion in moderation is
safe, while strong religious belief is harmful. The irony is that
such people believe very strongly about it and are disturbed by
religious "extremism," "fanaticism," or "fundamentalism."
They don't believe that any particular religion is harmful in itself,
but they do believe that closely following the tenants of any one
religion is harmful. They believe that there is a god, or with agnostics,
may be a god, but that god himself would rather you didn't pay too
close of attention to the Bible or the Qur'an, but rather that you
cherry-pick from religion for the parts that you personally like.
They believe that all religions only teach love and compassion,
but that adhering too closely to these principles, or becoming too
attached to them is the cause of war, hatred and violence. In other
words, it's a dishonest philosophy, and it doesn't make sense theoretically.
But how can we teach compassion while teaching religious intolerance?
It's very simple really. You love a person. Do we ever love a person
because of the religion they practice? Love is something inside
of us that can be honed. It sounds egotistical, but the truth is
that unconditional love has nothing to do with the other person.
It's all about us. It's about our ability to give love, to have
the courage to care about another person even if they reject us
and don't love us back. Our ability to truly love says more about
who we are than who the other person is. When we can muster love
for another person, we want them to become happy in spite of themselves.
Think of caring about a person who is a beggar by choice, or who
is an alcoholic. You may not like what they do, but you don't have
to love them any less. If you truly care about them, you wouldn't
try to get them to change because of some moral code you insist
that they abide by, like you believe people should work for a living.
That's about you, not about them. But if they're suffering due to
their choices, you will want them to change for the sake of their
own happiness. The fact that you care about them makes you want
to help them overcome their difficulties and make better choices
all the more.
It's our job to figure out how to convince people to honestly seek
out ways to become happy, wise and compassionate people. It's our
job to listen to them to find out where they're coming from and
learn from them as well. This is our job, and it rests entirely
with us. If we cannot convince a person, it's not the fault of the
person not being convinced. There are religions that encourage violence
and killing. (Sorry moderates, but what's true is true.) People
don't kill over merely disagreeing with each other. They kill because
they are told to kill by the religious texts they adhere to.
The power of religion over our lives and it's potential to cause
us to do harm is the reason we need a compass to navigate the treacherous
and stormy waters of religion.
What about atheism? What if we simply do away with all religion?
One problem with that idea is that once you remove god from a person's
beliefs, it leaves them feeling empty, like they have a hole inside
that can never be filled. There's a better reason than that, though.
A good religion is a tool that can be used to help us in our day-to-day
lives. We can use it to help us develop our sense of self, our sense
of others, our compassion, our emotional well-being. We can use
it to lower our stress levels, change our attitudes about life,
refocus ourselves, and channel our energy in positive ways. There
are a number of ways that religion can be used for the betterment
of the individual and of society. We need not discard religion as
a concept but discard religions that cause us harm. It's the same
with medicine. When we find out that one medicine has needlessly
killed people, do we discard all medicines? Some medicines save
lives. Let's keep the good medicines and eliminate the bad medicines.
Now to the real question. How do we decide which religions are
the good religions and which are the bad religions? We need to begin
with the realization that human beings create religions. When we
find the perfect human being, maybe then we will find the perfect
religion. Until then, we are left to continually seek out and even
help develop better and better religions. We must understand that
religions can be compared and held up against each other. As we
compare religions to each other, we keep the best religion and discard
the others. This is how we should approach the seeking out of a
Religions should be compared to each other on two levels: 1.
the philosophy and 2. the Practice. The practice of a religion
always enhances the ideas of the philosophy. For instance, praying
to a god (the practice), strengthens a belief in god, because that
is the philosophy upon which it is based. A similar kind of meditation,
wherein you sit and think quietly for a moment, would not strengthen
an atheist's belief in god. On the other hand, a religion with a
lot of great ideas doesn't really help at all unless it gives the
practitioner a means by which to carry out its ideas. For instance,
the desire to eliminate the suffering of another person, no matter
how noble, doesn't really help unless one has a means by which to
The priest Nichiren, who founded this sect of Buddhism, used something
we call the Three Proofs to compare and contrast various
religions. The three proofs are theoretical proof, documentary proof,
and actual proof.
Theoretical proof is simply asking oneself if the theory
makes sense. Is it cohesive? Does it have holes? Does it make sense
considering other things we know to be true about life? Can it withstand
the test of reason?
Documentary proof means that the theory follows the documented
ideology of the religion. For instance, how can you call yourself
a "Christian" without following the documented teachings
of Christ? The reason this proof is important has a lot to do with
experimentation. Say that you are one of the people who calls themselves
a Christian but doesn't follow the documented teachings. If your
religion has benefit to you, it doesn't mean that Christianity works.
But it could mean that your own religion works. If you find a religion
on your own that is more beneficial than any other religion, then
you should write it down and make it available to others. If something
works for you but doesn't work for others, then it doesn't truly
work. All experiments should have reproducible effects. Otherwise,
it could be something else, not your religion, that is working for
you. With documentary proof, we can reproduce the experiments and
attempt to repeat results. It also allows us to critique the theoretical
proof of a religion, and spread the best, most valuable, religions
for the sake of others.
Then there is actual proof. How well does the religion work
and on how many levels?
Buddhism works in many ways. It works to lower stress, make people
more aware of the feelings of others, and so on. This is what we
mean by the actual proof of a religion.
When looking outside of Buddhism, in the general world of religion,
what does "work" mean? It could mean almost anything.
Remember that this is not a true/false question. We're not looking
for one religion that works whereas all other religions don't. To
begin with, different religions are sometimes trying to accomplish
different ends, at least in a superficial sense. For instance a
goal of some religions is to get people into Heaven, whereas other
religions don't believe in Heaven.
Even harmful religions "work." Some of the ways in which
they work may be in the sense that people kill on behalf of the
religion, or in the sense that they cause people to feel personally
The other thing to consider is that the meaning of effectiveness,
of something considered to work, is comparative rather than right
or wrong. Do people use ball-point pens today because quills don't
work? No. Quills work. They aren't wrong. It's just that ball-point
pens work better. Where the goals of different religions overlap,
we're looking for the religion that works the best or is in some
way better than others. For instance, if we're comparing two religions,
both of which teach loving kindness and encourage the adherents
to open soup kitchens, but one also teaches adherents to kill unbelievers,
the more violent of the two can be summarily discarded. Should there
be any question about this?
The positive effects of some religions can be compared directly
to the same positive effects of other religions. For instance, if
two religions both lead people to behave more compassionately toward
others, the one that has the most powerful impact on compassionate
behavior, if there is one, is superior in this instance.
Like I said, there are two aspects of a religion that need to be
judged: the philosophy and the practice. We can and should apply
all of the proofs to both of them. Does the philosophy make sense,
and does the practice make sense in light of the philosophy? Does
any of it defy logic? Are both the philosophy and the practice documented
and made available for reproduction and outside criticism? Do the
philosophy and the practice both lead to the most positive ends
when comparing them to other religions? The practice of Buddhism
is an ever-evolving use of these proofs to continue to develop a
religion that works better and better to help people develop themselves
and eliminate their suffering.