Wrong religion?
April 8, 2008 11:34 AM   Subscribe

How do you know you're in the wrong religion?

I'm not asking which religion I should be in; just trying to figure out what would be a clear indicator that the religion I am in is not the way I should go.
(That's my basic question so you can skip the details if you wish.)

My entire life I have been in a certain Christian denomination (Apostolic/Pentecostal/Oneness). My entire family, for generations, on one of my parents' side is this same denomination. For all I can remember, we were taught at church that our denomination was the only right one and pretty much everyone else was going to hell. That's all I knew and it never really occurred to me that I was wrong. I mean, everyone in my family was in this same denomination, my entire social circle was comprised of people from church, etc.

The past few years, though, it dawned on me that maybe that's not true. I know this may seem obvious to more open-minded people but it just never really occurred to me that I could be wrong. We are the right denomination, right??!!

But, typically, when I went to college I finally met people who were just as sure of their beliefs as I was of mine. This threw me. Also, reading many of the discussions on MeFi with perspectives from people from the full scope of religious belief to no belief changed my view.

So now I'm not sure what to think or why I believe what I believe. I thought I was right because:
-my entire family had been in this denomination forever. They couldn't all be wrong could they?
-people change so much, or testify to such, when they change to Christianity and many who had come from other denominations to mine talked about how mine was so much better and true than their previous ones
-I felt like it was right
-how could so many Christians be wrong? (this relates more to the concept of there being a God at all)

I'm not explaining this very well. I never went through a process of finding a belief so now that I have lost my foundation for why I believed in this denomination (basically because it was all I knew), I don't know how to figure out if it's right.

I realized the driving force behind me following the rules of my denomination was a lot of emotion and fear. So I've been trying to separate the emotion and fear from my thinking and I was left without any real drive to do things. This kind of let me know that emotion doesn't mean something is true. Plus, I thought of all of the so-called wrong denominations/cults and I'm sure all of those followers were very emotional about that too. That doesn't make their belief true.

I've been researching the particulars of doctrine and it's hard to be sure. I have read many times on the site about how people say you should pick a religion that works for you, but to me that's not really an option. At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul. Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God, for example, that doesn't mean there isn't and the fact that I believed the wrong thing, no matter how sincerely, won't save me from going to hell. So this is serious to me.

I know many people have switched religions or denominations after some train of thought and I'd really like to know what that process was.

I'd really appreciate any advice on how to figure this out and stories from others about what let them know they were in the wrong thing. This has been pretty stressful for me and unsettling because, honestly, everything I thought I knew is not so sure anymore and I feel...a little lost.

posted by PinkButterfly to Religion & Philosophy (97 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: my entire family had been in this denomination forever. They couldn't all be wrong could they?

The entire civilizations of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt believed for thousands of years in pantheons of gods that are now dead.

So, yeah, they could all be wrong.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:40 AM on April 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

This is the belief you should examine. Where does it come from, and why do you believe it? Why would it be true? If there is a God, and he created humanity, and you do your best to serve him and be a good person, why would he condemn you for choosing the wrong denomination? And how could a person possibly know which religion or denomination is the "correct" one? There is no one true religion. Get over your fear of being mistaken and pick the belief system that makes you feel the best.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:43 AM on April 8, 2008 [8 favorites]

i think if you feel a large degree of contradiction/conflict between what you feel expected and/or obligated to do/think/feel and what you feel is right to do/think/feel, that might be a good indicator.

i am an atheist, but a former seeker of religious truth.
posted by gcat at 11:46 AM on April 8, 2008

Also, I commend you for examining your beliefs and would recommend that even if you have no intention or desire to give up on religion as a whole, you might find a lot of valuable food for thought in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which addresses some of your questions and many like them in depth.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:46 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think you have to figure out what is true. I'm sure you are going "yeah, that's exactly what I want to know" but I don't mean truth in doctrine. I mean truth beyond doctrine. Being kind. Speaking well of people. Finding ways to make the world a better place. Standing behind an infant in line and letting her hold your hand. Hugging a crying child because you are an adult and she needs you even though you don't know each other. Behaving as if God is in all things, and all things are in God; whoever or whatever God is. Being faithful to the things that every religion - Christianity, Judism, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever can agree on.

Practicing modesty, humility, honesty, kindness to as many people and creatures and plants as you can.

Once you know what is true, you'll be able to look at different sects/doctrines more clearly and see which ones have truth at their core and which ones are misguided.
posted by zia at 11:46 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Religion is a tool, a means to an end. Maybe you should ask yourself to what end you want your religion to take you. If it is your goal to find the objectively stated “one right belief,” then you will surely be disappointed, because so many religions state that they are that one.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 11:48 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

.At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul. Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God, for example, that doesn't mean there isn't and the fact that I believed the wrong thing, no matter how sincerely, won't save me from going to hell. So this is serious to me.

As you explore these questions further, your underlying beliefs will likely change. If you come to a decision that there really is no god, you won't worry anymore that you're believing the wrong thing and going to hell for it. Your new belief will eliminate the need for that concern. (Incidentally, you can read up on Pascal's Wager for some oft-cited philosophy that relates to this decision.)

Does your current religion say that it is bad to question your beliefs? Bad to explore what other people believe? Bad to doubt? If not, then you can explore without any fear, even with your spiritual basis resting firmly in the tradition of your youth. Many people come to much stronger faith through this process, because they've examined the tenets of their religion enough to really claim them as their own. Others come to realize that they disagree with much of the doctrine given by the church they were raised in, and they go on to find new spiritual practices that fit with their own beliefs.

You might find some interesting ideas by taking the Belief-O-Matic quiz at beliefnet.com. It was recommended to me by a professor of world religions in college. You answer based on what you personally feel is true, and it gives you a list of organized religions whose doctrine most closely matches your beliefs. Whether or not you decide to explore those other traditions, you'll probably learn a lot about the various options out there, just by reading the possible answers for each question.
posted by vytae at 11:51 AM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Assuming that you want to stay Christian, here is a online denomination test. It is very basic and a tad cheesy but might give you some guidence as to what other denominations you'd like to explore. After that, study and visit other churches and groups, keeping an open mind and remembering that one's religious life is meant to be a journey and you don't have to hurry.
posted by pearlybob at 11:52 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know this isn't what you want to hear, but the question of "who is right" as far as religion goes is pretty much unanswerable. Think about it, what possible information could you find that could prove beyond a doubt that your Pentecostal denomination is right and some other denomination is wrong? As far as rational logic thought goes, there's no way to prove if your religion is "right".

I have read many times on the site about how people say you should pick a religion that works for you, but to me that's not really an option. At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

You're entitled to this belief, but realize that you could be wrong about it. Many religious and non-religious people around the world do not think that there is one right set of religious beliefs that you need to believe in order to avoid damnation.

No matter what you decide about your faith, I would suggest that you should try to learn as much as you can about different religions around the world and different theological ideas. If you're still in college, take a "Intro to World Religions" course if you can. As you've said, a lot of the problems you're facing now about your faith are due to the fact that you've been relatively sheltered from different ideas and haven't been exposed to different ways of thinking. Don't be afraid to explore all of the different ideas and theories that the world has to offer!
posted by burnmp3s at 11:52 AM on April 8, 2008

I had a religious crisis when I was much much younger... somewhere around fourth grade or thereabouts. I can go into details if you like, but long story short I ended up spending the summer learning about all the religions that I could. (I know, it must have been pretty cursory for someone so young).

Anyways, what I got out of that experience is that almost without exception, all religions are basically saying the same thing: 1) recognize something greater than yourself, and 2) do not bug thy neighbor. Or if it helps, 2 could be 'treat others as you would have them treat you'.

What I took away from that knowledge was that we're all trying to get to pretty much the same place, there's just different paths to get there. And you should choose the one you're most comfortable with. As a result, I ended up not switching to anything else, because if they're "all good" than the one I was born with was the path of least resistance.

To paraphrase Egg Shen from Big Trouble in Little China, I treat religion like the Chinese Buffet: I take what I like and leave the rest behind. As a result, I'm pretty OK with things, religion-wise, in a very overarching kind of way. This has been my experience, FW that's W.
posted by indiebass at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Mod note: a few comments removed - please don't play this question for lulz, it's super duper lame
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:54 AM on April 8, 2008

I agree with ludwig_van in that you should examine the very idea that there is one right belief. That is where your greatest challenge lies. There is no way to find out which currently practiced religion, if any, might be true. The proof would lie in the afterlife, and we can't really report back from there. There's no evidence of afterlife. Without afterlife, religion can be about how to live this life. If you focus on living the life you have now, rather than fearing an afterlife that may not even exist, you can look at many religions and gauge your own reactions to them. If you feel that some form of Christianity is true within your personal framework, then by all means find a church that suits you. If different religions appeal to you, investigate them. Talk to people. Look at how they live their lives. Look at how their beliefs and practices affect their lives and the lives of people around them. Try to appreciate that every religion has something to offer its practitioners. Since none of us can know what religion might be true, we can only act according to what we feel is right.
posted by bassjump at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2008

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul. Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God, for example, that doesn't mean there isn't and the fact that I believed the wrong thing, no matter how sincerely, won't save me from going to hell. So this is serious to me.

You are going to have to get very comfortable with that self doubt. It's what the religious types call faith, I guess.

I'm not sure precisely how to help you - but when I went through a similar process, I ultimately decided that what I believed had to be less important than what I did. The alternative just did not make any sense to me.

To that end, I struggle to be the best human that I can be - devout as I am in my belief that I am a terrible person (and in many ways, I really am). I don't do this to guarantee my entrance to heaven or whatever - I do this because it seems like it's the proper thing to do. It makes sense.

Now, I'm not suggesting that this will work for you. I'm not sure there are any easy answers to a question of faith such as this. I had to try on a few different religions, and think long and hard about it. Ultimately, I became atheist/agnostic, much to my family's dismay. But, I got to where I am and it works for me - and I have no questions about my place in the universe and how things work. I hope the same for you no matter what way of thinking you find gives you peace.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:58 AM on April 8, 2008

When I was in your same boat, I found the best thing to do was research what was out there. Particularly, talk with people who were open and had no agenda behind our discussions.
I was raised Catholic and still am, and I agree- it is hard to be sure sometimes (or a lot of times depending). If I were you, I wouldn't be afraid of what you're going through. Rather, look at is an opportunity to explore other thought processes and what is best for you.

If you're going to delve into the Richard Dawkins realm, I'd suggest tempering it with some books that are meant to build religious faith.

And how could a person possibly know which religion or denomination is the "correct" one? There is no one true religion. Get over your fear of being mistaken and pick the belief system that makes you feel the best.

That's one of the problems, though. You say one thing. A lot of theists will say otherwise and quote some scripture on you. Part of the whole process of discovery is determine whether your opinions is true or not.

You are going to have to get very comfortable with that self doubt. It's what the religious types call faith, I guess.

Kind of. I consider faith that which fills that gap between the knowable and unknowable, which in my world view, is why I cannot expect others to believe in the same religion I do.
But, yea, self doubt doesn't quite go away.
posted by jmd82 at 12:00 PM on April 8, 2008

(Disclosure: I'm an ex-Catholic, now a strong agnostic with vaguely nontheist buddhist leanings.)

I think what ludwig_van says is definitely part of it: examine your fear of being mistaken. Examine your assumptions about an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-punishing god. Just the fact that you are even asking questions is good. Yes, it's unsettling -- it fundamentally tilts your worldview, in ways both subtle and significant. But questioning is also the first step on a lifelong path to meaningful knowledge, rather than conformity driven by fear.

As you search for a new faith (which, I have to put it out there, may even lead you to a life in which you find meaning and contentment without religious faith -- because yes, it's absolutely possible) I think it's useful to consider the qualities you, in your heart of hearts, truly seek and value. Compassion? Service to others? Social justice? You don't have to answer these questions now, but I think starting to ponder them is a useful way to explore the bigger picture of what you care about in a faith community, beyond the more ridid, rule-based model of faith you've begun to question.

Good luck.
posted by scody at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God

Expanding on ludwig_van's comment above, there's a huge difference in my opinion between believing in the existence of God, and deciding how to best worship God.
posted by cabingirl at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2008

guh. ridid = rigid.
posted by scody at 12:03 PM on April 8, 2008

My short answer is this: Study all religion intensely, approach it with an open mind and a willingness to understand that you might be wrong. Approach it logically, scholarly, and emotionlessly. At the end of the day, though, trust your inutition/gut feelings to steer you. Because if you deny that you'll never resolve this crisis.

The long answer: I've found that trying to objectively look at all the doctrines of various religions and try to divine (pardon the pun) which one is true doesn't help me any, and I just feel more lost than I was before. The key to me was to reintroduce emotion and go with my gut. Don't use emotion to decide everything, for sure. Be critical, open, and ready to listen to other viewpoints, or else you might miss out on something. But nothing is going to be able to tell you definitively what's right and what's wrong. The best thing I've found that works for me is my emotion -- not a knee-jerk reaction to something, but the feeling that emerges when you've thoroughly explored a subject (and if you're of the opinion that there's only one true religion, be prepared to search or else you'll deal with this kind of panic your whole life).

I was faced by this kind of panic my freshman and sophomore years in college. After all my searching, and all my logic leading towards atheism, I couldn't accept it; there remained a part of me that insisted I was wrong and there was one, despite evidence to the contrary. I'm still nagged by it all, but it's lessened because I've learned to trust myself and accept the fact that a certain amount of uncertainty is inherent in all religion. You won't be able to know for sure which religion is right or wrong. If you don't make that "leap of faith" and pick one, you won't ever be able to wholly commit to one and you won't be able to live life without having some kind of deep moral crisis every few hours.
posted by lilac girl at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2008

Let me just say that I would recommend that you not read anything by Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion is ok if you read it as an argument against intelligent design, but it doesn't really address serious issues or arguments that religious people are making about the existence of god, the right path, etc. Basically it is the (occasionally mildly amusing) rantings of an old man that hates the fact that some people don't believe in science.

I'd say that you should try to accept the fact that there is no way to know what the one true path is. Perhaps it doesn't exist. People seem to want such certainty in their lives, but really there is no way to be certain about something like God. You may have felt completely certain about it before, but clearly you've been having some doubts. If you seriously believe that God exists, then I suggest trying to find a religion or denomination that you feel comfortable with.

It is not necessarily the case that there is a right path. Try to accept that there are many different paths, that reasonable people can disagree on which one is right, and that it doesn't matter in the end if somebody else believes something different than you do.
posted by number9dream at 12:06 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a similar experience. After I answered the the "religion" question it grew into the way I saw the world. You will be just as amazed how much of your personal philosophy you inherited for the same reasons. I strongly suggest you brush up on philosophy. Read Sophie's World, then if your really into it, read The Passion of the Western Mind.

Also, you are the only one who can answer these questions.
posted by itsamonkeytree at 12:07 PM on April 8, 2008

I've been in nearly the same boat as you. Raised in a pretty conservatively fundamentalist Christian who one day had a thought: "Is this really what I believe?" Seemed, at the time, to be the best thing to believe: faith in scriptural literal accuracy seemed to be the way to know that I was in the right one. However, at some point in my youth, it just didn't feel right. One aspect that haunted me was my becoming close friends with GLBT kids. While the pastor had been preaching that it was a choice to be gay, I could see no way that any of these kids would have chosen the path they were on: constant harrassment, hate and, well, more hate. And, if it wasn't a choice, why had this God created GLBT people, only to curse them? It just didn't flush with my concept of justice. This first little question just opened a massive avenue of other questions: questions that nobody in my congregation had intention of answering, or needing to answer.

So, by studying and studying, reading scriptures and other world religion's texts, praying and meditating, I realized that I really didn't believe what I had been taught. I discovered a number of glaring issues with my former beliefs, and plenty that wasn't even scriptural. I discovered modern biblical scholarship and different (and more plausible) ways of interpreting scripture. And I discovered that a lot of the problems I had with Christianity didn't even really matter to my faith. So what if we came about through evolution and not creation? Does it matter? Does it mean that I shouldn't still be a good person? Does it change any of the true message of Jesus: live meekly, practice justice, and love your neighbor? Does it mean that I can't experience God?

A minister of mine once said in a sermon, "Basing a religion on a literal interpretation of the words of a guy that spoke in parables and metaphors is counterproductive." I'm pretty apt to agree with that. I ended up with the UCC, one of the most liberal denominations, mostly because I related to the way they practiced most, not because I necessarily think they're the only ones that are right. I think we'll all be surprised at what the right and final answer is, or who ends up being judged worthy in the end (assuming some kind of final judgment).

Of course, this is a journey that you'll have to take on your own. I wish you the best of luck. I highly recommend seeing ministers of different faiths and discussing with them: One of the best resources I had was a rabbi. You'll be surprised how little most of them will try to convert you, and how many will just want to assure you that it's your decision to make, if you even want to make it.
posted by General Malaise at 12:09 PM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Anyone who claims straight-faced to have All the Answers is lying, selling something, or both.

If God is perfect and people are flawed, any community of worshippers will get some of God's instructions wrong. The message of the New Testament is: that's okay. Your question here is: what am I doing wrong? You will continue to find new answers to this question your entire life. That's okay.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

Why can't you just keep believing the first part of this sentence but drop everything after the "and"? I don't understand why you think you're going to go to hell if you don't believe the correct thing. I mean, do you think people in non-Christian cultures who aren't even exposed to Christianity are all going to hell? What an extremely depressing view of the world! I don't see how that could possibly offer anyone any comfort.

my entire family had been in this denomination forever. They couldn't all be wrong could they? ... how could so many Christians be wrong?

Why is it any less likely that your whole family is wrong than that someone else's family is wrong? Most people don't believe in your denomination or even Christianity. A Muslim could just as well argue: "How could so many Muslims be wrong?" Or instead of "Muslim" -- "Hindu" (there are many radically different types of Hinduism), "Buddhist," etc. (Note that as many people believe in Islam as Christianity.) They can't all be right; in fact, almost all (if not all) of them must be wrong. It's unwarranted to have a bias in favor of what your own family happens to have believed.

people change so much, or testify to such, when they change to Christianity

Just because there are positive consequences from believing in a doctrine doesn't mean the doctrine is correct. If I were to believe that people get the death penalty for drunk driving, that might have a positive effect on my behavior (I'd make extra sure not to drive drunk) -- that wouldn't make the belief true.

many who had come from other denominations to mine talked about how mine was so much better and true than their previous ones

What did you expect them to say? Face it: there's social pressure to say that whatever your current situation is, is the best. If you ask someone if they're happy now that they've moved to a new city, they might be very likely to say "yes" just to show a positive attitude. It'd be a completely separate question whether it's objectively a better city to live in than their previous residence.

Beyond these specific responses to what you've said, I would just recommend having a good, long conversation with a non-religious friend. Have a back-and-forth discussion where you're both free to express your conflicting beliefs, and give them permission to challenge your assumptions.

One last thing: There's been a recent spate of anti-religion bestsellers, so you should have no problem finding reading material along those lines. I've read Sam Harris's The End of Faith (he's mainly against Christianity and Islam, but opts for an Eastern/spiritual solution) and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (he says all religions, Eastern and Western, are harmful). Those books both have their strengths and weaknesses, so I'm not saying you should be convinced by the arguments. Go ahead and read them with a huge dose of skepticism, and vehemently disagree if you feel like it. But ... apply that same skeptical attitude to religion itself, including the one you happened, by the fluke of your birth, to be raised in.
posted by jejune at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

As has been pointed out, not all religions believe this. Christianity often stresses belief, but other religions stress practice, actions, and traditions as much or more than belief.

Also, not all Christians believe that a choosing the "wrong" belief condemns your soul for eternity, on the grounds that this denigrates Jesus' sacrifice and love. That might be a minority view, but Christians have told me that before; I guess some theologian came up with it. (Personally, I find it a bit hard to square with the winnowing stuff, but hey, just throwing it out there).

There are Buddhists and Muslims and Zoroastrians and Catholics out there who believe in their faith not because they intend to cast their souls into Hell but because we can't and don't know what happens after we die. A little humility, rather than an unfalsifiable claim to know the mind of God, might be called for on that kind of thing.

Thanks for asking your thoughtful question and starting this great thread. Good luck as you go forward.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:14 PM on April 8, 2008

Have you visited other churches to experience their services and get a sense for their creeds in action? I was raised hard-core Roman Catholic and, like you, had a great deal of guilt and fear wrapped up around my experience of God and church. It took me a very long time even to visit another denomination's worship, at least until people my age were starting to marry. Most of the services were interesting anthropological exercises for me, but when I made my first visit to the church I eventually joined, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort.

Questions of doctrine are, and are not, important. Many people belong to particular denominations without agreeing to all the points of the catechism: ordination of women, abortion, predestination, homosexuality, the virgin birth, what happens on the altar during the consecration of the host...and those are just a few Christian ones off the top of my head. While these things are certainly important, know that individual churches or groups in a particular denomination may emphasize or de-emphasize certain issues over others. Clear indicators are pretty hard to find, beyond the stray burning bush or angelic voice, because there are so many elements beyond doctrine that braid together to make up a worship community - the music, the preaching, whether you can or don't have to wear jeans, evangelism, service to community, mission, children's involvement, adult education, social activities, etc.

To answer your specific question, it's certainly healthy to question your religion of origin. You might find that it is indeed not the right church for you, but you may also find that you want to build an adult relationship with your church that is different than the relationship you had as a child. I realized that, as an adult, I couldn't find the same grace and joy that I found in the Masses of my childhood and adolescence, so I found a new home after some searching and a lot of prayer.
posted by catlet at 12:14 PM on April 8, 2008

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

Christianity's only been around for a little more than 2000 years, and your denomination has certainly been in existence for less time than that. If there's only one right belief, what happened to the souls of people who lived before that sect came into being?
posted by yohko at 12:15 PM on April 8, 2008

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul.

Every person I've talked to who has found a new religious belief, or even those who have the beliefs that I respect the most, have one thing in common: doubt. It might be my own bias, but I think those beliefs that are unexamined, untested, are those that are the most important.

Religious beliefs can really only be examined at the personal level. It's about the relationship between you and your creator. Or lack of creator. The way that you relate to the world at large and find meaning. When it comes down to it, you can only be confident in your faith -- you can not assign a "right" or "wrong" to anyone else's beliefs no more than you can be them, or know exactly how they define this relationship to the world.

Really, all you can do in the end is examine what you believe, and why, and if you're comfortable in your belief. You don't need complete confidence, only your faith.
posted by mikeh at 12:15 PM on April 8, 2008

There's a line from Hindu scripture: "There is one truth, though the sages know it by many names." Out of multiplicity springs singularity. I believe there's a similar sentiment in other Eastern religions. When I was growing up and had questions about differing religions, my Hindu parents really stressed to me that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. are just as capable of reaching God through their beliefs as Hindus were through theirs. What matters is how you live your life. I think that's a pretty gentle and reasonable approach to religion. I'd say you should read up on various beliefs - education is never a bad thing. Maybe you'll find one that feels right for you, and maybe you won't. Maybe you'll realize the faith you grew up with feels right. But as others have said, I think it starts with re-examining the widely-held assumption that there are "wrong" and "right" religions.
posted by naju at 12:17 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I’d also like to point out that the question of “true” religion dates back much earlier even than the genesis of Christianity. The first line of the Tao Te Ching states, “The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way,” implying that the truth lies in one’s own ineffable experience of the Way.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 12:18 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read philosophy. It's like shredded wheat for the soul: not particularily fun, but good for you. Plato's Allegory of the Cave is a good place to start thinking about reality and perceptions.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:26 PM on April 8, 2008

What first came to mind on reading your question was Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" because it sounds like you're describing a very similar situation.

And, I must say I think number9dream is very wrong in characterizing Dawkins' "The God Delusion" as "rantings of an old man that hates the fact that some people don't believe in science." The book isn't a rant at all, and in fact it does have sections that take up several of your questions. Such as the "Pascal's Wager" concept - (what if you don't believe in God but he does exist, or vice versa, etc.) He also talks about whether its fair to indoctrinate children with religious beliefs - particularly harmful ones, like the recent case of a child who died of diabetes because her parents tried to heal her with prayer, not medicine. Dawkins' book isn't raving or ranting, it's actually very logical and methodical. (If you want actual ranting, then Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" is your man.)

And I'm not suggesting that becoming an actual atheist is the right answer for you - I'm only suggesting that as you consider the assorted arguments for one version of faith or another, you should also consider the arguments for and against organized religion itself. There are certainly "middle ways" of maintaining some degree of faith, while jettisoning many of the dogmatic and superstitious trappings of religion. Mostly I cheer that your questioning things at all, because so many never do.
posted by dnash at 12:27 PM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

An interesting question, and one as old as religion - which probably started when the first caveman-type thought "Oh god(s), please don't let this mastadon kill me!"

Questioning your beliefs does not have to mean abandoning your faith - although some (manY?) who have, do. Some (many?) say that the only road to true faith is through doubt.

Much has been written on this. You might start with some of Karen Armstrong's books; she's a scholar and an excellent writer who writes about the history of religion (the Big Three, in particular) and religious tradition.

You might also seek the counsel of a spirituality advisor. I can't recommend how to find one, really - I only know one, a close friend who was raised Catholic, was nearly ordained as a Unitarian minister only to screech to a halt because of a crisis of faith (and denomination, sort of), and is now an advisor. She has formal, secular counseling experience, and helps people sort out their religious/denominational confusions. But there may be someone like that in your area.

Good luck.
posted by rtha at 12:27 PM on April 8, 2008

Response by poster: OP here:

Thank you all so much for your responses so far. To respond to a few questions:

Generally: Why do I believe that there is only one right belief?
In the Apostolic doctrine, the teaching is that in order to be saved you have to be baptized in the name of Jesus (not in the name of the father, son and Holy Ghost) and you have to speak in tongues as a sign that you have the Holy Ghost. If you do not do either part, you are not saved. It doesn't matter how much good you do, how well you live the rest of your life, you will still go to hell.

jejune: do you think people in non-Christian cultures who aren't even exposed to Christianity are all going to hell?
The teaching is that, most likely yes. That God chooses who He wants to have know about the way to be saved and so anyone who does know has been given grace. The rest weren't given that grace and that was at God's discretion. When asked directly this, I've heard ministers go back and forth from a full yes to an "only God knows for sure."

Greg Nog: I'd kinda like to hear more about why selective salvation makes more sense to you.
There is a scripture that says (paraphrase) The path to destruction is large and there are only a few people who will be on the path to salvation. So the idea that most of the people in the world will not be saved stems from that.
posted by PinkButterfly at 12:30 PM on April 8, 2008

My entire family, for generations, on one of my parents' side is this same denomination. For all I can remember, we were taught at church that our denomination was the only right one and pretty much everyone else was going to hell. That's all I knew and it never really occurred to me that I was wrong. I mean, everyone in my family was in this same denomination, my entire social circle was comprised of people from church, etc. [...] I know many people have switched religions or denominations after some train of thought and I'd really like to know what that process was.

While I don't have a conversion story for you, I'd really suggest you read Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy, or at least a summary of it. It's sociological religious theory. The bits that apply to you the most are all about how religions tend to seem sure in periods of socio-economic prosperity and continuity, and that religions (the 'sacred canopy' that defines how we view the world) are easier to maintain in small communities of like-minded believers than in large, multicultural cities. Hopefully it will comfort you in knowing that this process you're going through is so common that it was the basis of a huge text in the sociology of religion, and that it will help address some of the underlying problems. It's rather impersonal, but it might help.

Good luck with your questioning. I hope this all works out for you.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:31 PM on April 8, 2008

But, typically, when I went to college I finally met people who were just as sure of their beliefs as I was of mine. This threw me. Also, reading many of the discussions on MeFi with perspectives from people from the full scope of religious belief to no belief changed my view.

This is pretty much par for the course when it comes to what happens when you step out of your bubble and are suddenely confronted with other points of view. The vast majority of people, when placed in this situation, has the feelings you do. They start questioning the things you question. All of the suddened, the parts of their life that were foundational lose their strength because, as they discover, those foundations were made of sand. Matthew 7:24-7:27 has something to say about that.

Many people will recommend comparative studies but I don't think you should; at least, not yet. Throwing yourself into comparing and contrasting religion won't necessarily help you right now. How can you develop or critically approach different religions when you yourself are not in an objective place?

What you are discovering, I think, is that you have questions that you have no had answered yet. And the answers you've been given are for questions you don't really have. You've started the process already - keep studying the doctrines and figuring out what your denomination says. And, after looking at them, if you don't agree with their answers, you'll at least start knowing the questions you want answered. And that's a great place to start when you want to figure out what you believe. And there is an amazing amount of information in theology that exists to answer your questions. Keep an open mind, listen to yourself, and don't limit your current definitions of such things as faith, religion, knowledge, or truth in black and whites. You're starting your faith experience - you're not at the point where you can define those things yet.

I'm an ex-catholic, long-time agnostic/atheist, now lutheran who went through his major faith change after college. Since metafilter is primarily atheist/agnostic, a lot of the responses you're going to get are going to be along that vain but don't limit yourself to just that approach to your faith. Instead, realize that many many people are going through what you did and that you aren't alone and that you will figure it out. Feel free to mail me if you want more details.
posted by Stynxno at 12:34 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." James 1:5 KJV
posted by weston at 12:38 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

do you think people in non-Christian cultures who aren't even exposed to Christianity are all going to hell?
The teaching is that, most likely yes.

Interesting. So God is more deeply discriminatory than most human beings. Remember, most countries aren't predominantly Christian. Most or all people who happen to be born in one of those countries pretty much has a one-way ticket to hell from the moment they're born. (Of course, some people are well-traveled enough to move around to different countries/communities/cultures, but that's just not going to happen if you're born in, say, an impoverished African nation.)

If a human being were this judgmental of people based on their culture/nationality, we'd simply call him a terrible bigot. If that's what God is like, then I'm not sure how God could be a source of moral behavior.
posted by jejune at 12:43 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

jejune: do you think people in non-Christian cultures who aren't even exposed to Christianity are all going to hell?
The teaching is that, most likely yes.
Yes, but the question isn’t what were you taught, the question is what do you think.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 12:45 PM on April 8, 2008

Best answer: "How do you know you're in the wrong religion?"

When you find yourself with a God Hates Fags placard?

Four anecdotes:

My father was raised Catholic, his mother remained a staunch Catholic until she died. When my father was in the Boy Scouts, their den met in a Presbyterian church basement. My father's priest warned him in dire terms that his soul was in mortal peril by the very act of entering another house of worship. My father continued to go to Boy Scouts, and also, out of curiosity, went and visited a mosque that had been recently built. His priest saw this as not just a sin, but a SIN, and threatened my father with ex-communication.

That was how my father knew the Catholic church wasn't for him, and he never went back.

My parents, when I was a kid, embraced the Baha'i faith. They liked the local congregation, a bunch of semi-rural hippies who preached universal love and temperance, who believed in social equality and non-violent activism. They had youth camps, they had a respectful and friendly mien, were non-judgmental and had one of the most amazing buildings in Chicago, where my parents had been married (before they were Baha'i). Then we moved from Capac, a tiny little blip in Michigan's thumb, to Ann Arbor. The Baha'i community there was more in line with the Iranian orthodoxy. There was more dogma, more emphasis on proscription, and more emphasis on traditional gender roles. Instead of hippies, there were more immigrants with Old Country attitudes, augmented by university students with the zeal of the newly converted. My parents didn't make many friends there.

That was how they knew the Baha'i church wasn't for them.

My old roommate was raised as a Lutheran, and had gotten an undergrad in Ancient Greek and Hebrew at a Concordia college. He loved the Bible, loved studying the Bible, loved the study of theology, and loved his congregation. He enrolled in seminary in St. Louis, and realized that the things that the Missouri synod held as indisputable, such as the ordination of women or their attitudes towards homosexuality, did not correspond with how he felt after deeply studying the Bible. In his old congregation in Ann Arbor, most of those dogmatic concerns were ignored in favor of social service, but within the bureaucracy of the Church proper, fundamentalists reigned. He simply could not believe what they believed, and so he dropped out and had a pretty serious crisis of faith. He began attending services at a local multi-denominational church, the Canterbury House. He found that his beliefs were both respected and challenged for the better by an Episcopalian pastor there, and the jazz mass didn't hurt. He continued to read all the theology he could get his hands on, while working outreach and giving social aid. He was able to abide the higher level of pomp within the Episcopalian church because he agreed with the core missions of the church and felt that it agreed with his reading of the Bible and theological texts. He's going to be attending seminary in the fall, on his way to a doctorate of theology.

And that's how he knew they were the right church for him.

Aside from the stint with the Baha'is, and a brief stand with the Unitarian Universalists, I've never been a member of an organized religion. I believe in God, sort of, but in a kinda panenthiest manner (and I'm a rather hard agnostic). My mother, now a hippy pseudo-buddhist, feels that without some form of supernatural justice, the world doesn't make sense. We've gotten into arguments over it, but I don't think that the world necessarily has to make sense or have a narrative or even justice. With every religion I've encountered, especially upon deeper examination, there are too many things that don't fit my experience for me to believe in them. I don't believe in Jesus. I don't believe in Buddha. I don't believe in the Bible. There are too many tales that either strain credulity or are inconsistent with what I see around me and what I'd like to believe about other people. I don't begrudge folks finding churches that they can place their faith in, and sometimes I wish that I had a congregation to share things with, but my beliefs have the side effect of being incompatible with religion. I tend to believe things are, and that immaterial explanations of physical phenomena are only stories—I enjoy them as stories, and can even benefit from them, but I simply don't believe them.

And that's how I know that no religions are right for me.
posted by klangklangston at 12:45 PM on April 8, 2008 [6 favorites]

PinkButterfly, you wrote that your beliefs come from the Apostolic doctrine.

Well, what's that based on? The New Testament, presumably.

Well, how did we get that? It's a pretty involved story.

I'm not arguing that Christianity isn't true. But like I said above, it seems to me that we need to come at this with spades of humility.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:49 PM on April 8, 2008

There's also the good old stand by...something called the "guess and check method" which is what a lot of life boils down to. I stopped going to mass. I felt better. That's how I knew being Catholic wasn't for me.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:56 PM on April 8, 2008

I think some or all of these questions might be helpful:

1. Does this faith make me treat others better?
2. Does this faith make me treat myself better?
3. Does it logically make sense to me?
4. Does it resonate with me?
5. Does it make me feel like a good person or a bad person?
6. Do I feel closer to others or more apart from them?
7. How does this faith make you feel about the future of the world?
posted by desjardins at 12:59 PM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

no one knows (or can truly know) which is the right religion.
doubt is more central to the human condition than is faith.

knowing these things, i conclude (1) i choose* my religion based on what resonates with my perception of truth, and (2) doubting that choice is natural, and part of the process of belief.

for me, the religion that resonates most is christianity, due to its broad theme of god loving us unconditionally. this sort of "sinners ransomed from the fall" idea is very beautiful and important to me and central to the way i define "truth."

whoever god is, no one will ever understand him/her. the same god that loved jacob hated esau. as far as i'm concerned, god can't fit inside any religion, because he/she is far truer than any of them.


*i say "choose" because i don't understand, or can't to understand, predestination as it relates to my choice in the matter.
posted by ncc1701d at 1:07 PM on April 8, 2008

You could go to other people's churches and ask for their wisdom. Since you're still a student you could ask some people in your school's divinity or religious studies program for assistance in getting started.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:07 PM on April 8, 2008

An idea that I love to keep in mind when considering my own faith or others' is Ann Lamott's point (from her essay collection "Plan B") that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

I think something like desjardins checklist, or other assessments of the effects of your faith (or an alternative to it) would lead to a more meaningful conclusion than polling people about what is "true." Jesus spent a whole lot more time talking about what you do on earth than about what happens after you die, so while the salvation question is obviously a huge issue for many Christians, it doesn't hurt to consider other aspects of your faith and its impact on your life in the present.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:14 PM on April 8, 2008

First of all, you are brave to
a. bring this to the metafilter table
b. question your family's traditions
c. want to look to other functions of religion and/or spirituality.

I commend you for questioning, thinking, and critically analyzing. And then I would like to second desjardins: those questions are general questions relating to the human condition, and I think to really ponder these might not yield a precise answer, but might make you more comfortable within a particular framework of belief, or might help you realize what is really important to you. And the answers may not be straightforward and they may change as you grow and change.

That being said, do some more homework. Quakers? Catholics? Muslims? Zorastrians? Buddhists? What are these groups about?

And then it will help to realize what it took me a LONG time to realize: no one religion will accommodate all of you and your soul and your belief system. It's kind of like how you can please some people all of the time, all people all of the time, but never all people all of the time. BUT THAT'S OK! You can make your own terms about your relationship with god, G-d, God, or gods. Remember that as you keep searching, and know that this might take a while, and that people might try to convince you or bully you or plead you into one area or another. Just be aware of what clicks or doesn't click for you because this is about YOU and YOUR spirituality.

This is a tough one. Good luck.
posted by cachondeo45 at 1:15 PM on April 8, 2008

Look at the answers you gave above. The questions were: "Why do [you] believe that...", "do you think...", and "why [X belief] makes more sense to you". Your answers began with "In the Apostolic doctrine...", "The teaching is that...", and "There is a scripture that says...". In other words, to questions about what you believe, you provided the answers of what others told you to believe. But what do you think? That's what is key here.

As for the opinions of others joining your current religion, well of course they're going to say your current one is better than their previous one. If their old belief was better, they'd have stuck with it. You're overlooking the people who have left your religion and found greener grass elsewhere, of course. Obviously they've found something better elsewhere.

You need to read up on other belief systems. Right now, you have nothing to compare your current beliefs to, so there's really no point in going further with this. You need to examine and understand other beliefs before you can figure out what it is you think a belief system should entail.

That's where the train of thought starts... what are the other ways people understand the universe. Examine them, and just as importantly, examine your reactions to them. Some you'll find ridiculous, but ask yourself why you think they're ridiculous. If you can, imagine what you would be like if you were born and raised in that other system and how you would view your current religion from that other perspective. Understand that, no matter what you believe, somebody thinks that belief is totally ridiculous. But it's the why that's important. If you can answer with something internal rather than pointing to scripture or other authority, then you're likely on to something. But if your best reason is no better than their best reason, you have to question both reasons equally. Look for something better.

Good luck. Oh, and take your time. You're dealing with a big question that will affect just about everything in your life, so best go easy on the decisions.

If you have any questions about atheism, I'm more than happy to answer as best I can. Not that I'm pushing the idea. Whatever works best for you is what's important. You know there are plenty of people here of all stripes to talk with; I'm just saying I'm available to talk about my particular stripe, if you can't find anyone better.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:20 PM on April 8, 2008

"At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul."

Has it occurred to you that in order for this to be correct, you would have to postulate a God who is very, very far from benevolent - a capricious, arbitrary God who enjoys inflicting suffering? Just about every religion and denomination out there has some sacred text they can cite as support for their beliefs. Almost every religion has individuals who will testify that they have received some direct relevation which shows that their path is the correct one. Every religion out there has some adherents who exemplify the very best of human nature in their compassion, their humbleness, and their search for understanding. If your premise is true, then you must believe in a God who has decided to hold a lottery* and condemn to eternal suffering 99.999% of the people who have tried their best to understand him and follow his ordained path, just because they didn't stumble on the correct doctrine. *(Some denominations would claim this is predestination rather than chance - if that's so, then God has already decided whether you will find the correct religion or not, so worrying about it is useless anyway.)

Even if you have a sufficently pessimistic worldview as to believe in such a supreme being, you might question whether such an entity deserves your worship.

"This has been pretty stressful for me and unsettling because, honestly, everything I thought I knew is not so sure anymore and I feel...a little lost."

Most religions teach the value of humility. Claiming to know for certain the nature of God and the one true way for humanity seems ... rather arrogant. Maintaining a certain level of doubt may not always be comfortable, but it does help keep you humble.
posted by tdismukes at 1:22 PM on April 8, 2008

Best answer: I understand where you are coming from. I was also raised in a denomination that tended to believe that it was that One True Church and that everyone else was condemned, and I changed perspectives gradually.

This is a big question, and I think it will best be dealt with over coffee with close friends. I'd invite you over for coffee and talk about my story, but we seem to be on opposite coasts. Here's what I recommend:

1. Get really deep into the teachings of Jesus. Read the gospels slowly and carefully, especially Matthew and John. (Matthew, because it is so clear what Jesus' core priorities are, and picky doctrinal correctness isn't on the list, and John because he is so interested in the nature of belief and eternal life.) The more you know what Jesus said, the better you'll be able to evaluate the competing claims of others.

2. Read some books that have gracious, appreciative looks at various Christian traditions. So much of what we get exposed to are distorted, bitter rants against other believers, we need some kind-heart appreciations of the best in other fellowships. I'd especially read McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Foster's Streams of Living Water. My Christian heroes and role models are found all over the place--my own denomination, Quaker Thomas Kelly, Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila, Episcopalian Barbara Brown Taylor.

What I realized is that no one denomination can faithfully represent Christ. He is too multifacted for us to contain. We all get some things right and a lot wrong. And we do nothing perfectly. The whole point of the cross is that we can't really get it right, so we rely on grace. And if we want grace for our own failings, we should freely offer it when others fail.

And what good would it do me if God forgave my sins but not my erroneous beliefs? I can no more believe perfectly than I can act perfectly. Grace that doesn't cover doctrinal errors does me no good at all--it would still come down to me having to get something exactly right to earn my salvation, which is completely counter to the story of Christ. If it depends on my perfection regarding anything--speaking in tongues, baptism, Trinitarian doctrine--then I'm damned already, because I just can't get it right.

His grace is broad and deep. It isn't the case that we have to be in the "right" denomination. There isn't one. That doesn't mean that some aren't healthier than others, or that you shouldn't move to one that is less sectarian. But that move won't save or damn you. God's love is bigger than that.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:27 PM on April 8, 2008 [12 favorites]

First, when you speak of generations of your family following this one denomination of Christianity, you have to understand that you only need to go back so far and the denomination ceases to exist. In fact, some believe the Oneness Pentecostalism really began in the first part of the 20th century. So one thing you shouldn't let burden you is how long your family has followed this form of Christian faith.

Most importantly, at least in the West, from the moment that Protestantism emerged, the uniformity of Christian belief and worship was forever going to be splintered. On top of that, even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity had divided in several major and minor instances, like the Schism between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches.

From my own perspective, to follow Christ, there are basic tenants of the Bible that are important to keep close to heart. Beyond that, God has left it to us to decide how best to worship, for us to find the way and manner that brings the fullest contentment in our hearts when doing so. If you feel closer to God speaking in tongues, then that might be the best for you. If you feel that the worshiping God is best for you through a Catholic service, then that might be best.

Pretty much, go to different services in different denominations and see what speaks to your soul and heart. Because in the end, the path to Heaven is essentially the same, with the differences between the denominations born almost entirely of custom and tradition.

I find it incredibly illogical of an all knowing God to decide that people who all believe in the values that his son taught should go to Heaven or Hell based on how they worship alone.
posted by Atreides at 1:33 PM on April 8, 2008

I went through similar thoughts when I was younger and there has not yet been anything that removed doubt from my mind since. So it is entirely possible that even if you were to decide religion is bunk that you'll doubt that and remain fearful that you will burn in hell for being wrong. I suffer from that every night before sleep. Here are some of the things keeping me from losing doubt.

I refrain from going back to religion because of the same questions you are facing. I mean, say that since the dawn of time there have been W religions on earth and of those X religions say that there is eternal punishment for being wrong. Let's include different denominations of that same religion too. Further, there is no possible way to know for certain which of those religions is correct because if there were a way to know then everyone would believe the same thing. So that gives you a 1 in X chance of not going to hell. I think this is basically Pascal's Wager or a varient of it.

Beyond I mean, I've even wondered what if there was a religion Y that no one has ever practiced on Earth (let's say it's an alien religion and they are god's chosen people like the old testament god says the jews are his chosen ones). What if that is the correct religion and I can't practice it myself because there's no way to find out about it?

I finally decided at one point that rather than pick one out of 1000 religions as my own I'd follow none. Not because I think they're all wrong, but because I didn't want to lie to myself to believe I was making the right choice. I can't stand lies, you see. Instead I follow my heart and hope that if there is a God out there that my actions will be understood and I will not need to suffer for having doubt.

I hope that whatever you do you don't end up like me. It's not really fun to, every night, be moments away from sleep only to snap wide awake nearly in tears that I might die and suffer for all eternity because I'm not capable of blindly following a religion.
posted by Green With You at 1:46 PM on April 8, 2008

i think it's rare to have clear indicators about whether or not a religion suits you. i think the vast majority of people who believe in god live with some measure of doubt about the way they engage with him (or her).

i think ultimately your problem may be social more than religious. you aren't surrounded by people reaffirming your religion the way you used to be, and into that big vacuum rushes all your doubts and questions. that doesn't mean your religion is wrong, it just means that, for the moment, you're alone in it. and that's okay. it gives you the opportunity to wrestle with ideas that maybe you would never have had to reflect on when you were comfortably ensconced in your home church. the struggle will be enlightening.

in the meantime, it is hard to know how to relate to people of other faiths, if you believe that your faith is the only valid one. i can't counsel you on that, except to say this: faith is like a language--you usually speak what your parents spoke, what your townspeople spoke. but sometimes we travel, or even emigrate, and become exposed to new languages. learning a new language doesn't devalue your native language, but it may make you think differently about it. don't be afraid of that. just because someone has a different native language than you doesn't mean you can't find a way to communicate.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:48 PM on April 8, 2008

In the Apostolic doctrine, the teaching is...

You seem to have made the leap to "How do I know that my particular flavor of Apostolic doctrine is the correct one?" but haven't made the leap to "How do I know that Apostolic doctrine is correct at all?.

The simple truth is that there is absolutely no way for you to know that your faith is the correct one. You seem to be searching for certainty that you are checking off the correct belief boxes on some cosmic checklist that God will look at before deciding whether to let you in to Heaven or send you to Hell, and if you miss one of the checkboxes you're going to burn in hell forever

Either you're correct about that or you aren't. If you aren't correct, you don't have anything to worry about because being wrong on some small details won't matter. If you are correct you have absolutely no way to figure out which denomination has all the minutiae perfectly right so there is no point worrying about it.

I, however, suggest you go back and make the leap from "how do I know that my particular flavor of Apostolic doctrine is correct" to "how do I know that apostolic or christian doctrine is correct in the first place?. Because you almost seem to have made it there.
posted by Justinian at 1:51 PM on April 8, 2008

I knew I was in the wrong religion after I started working in religion journalism. Suddenly, I realized that I had been taught my whole life that "there were too many religions in the world". When, in reality, I think there should be as many religions as there are people, places, loves and emotions. Let me worship false idols, let me hug a tree and call out to its makers, let me be. When there was a protest at the local Scientology center here in Washington last weekend, I reminded the protesters they had the right to protest, but that Scientologists have the right of religious freedom equal to all other Americans. It has always been groups that have been seen as different that have so much extended our rights as Americans to eat, pray and love as we think best. Certainly, I think there are crazy people out there, but I am reminded that many ideas that have few adherents and many oppressors now are on the same pathways once walked by what are now the most powerful faiths in the world.

I knew I could not be Christian when I saw, for the first time, the reality of imperialism that is represented by today's "Christians". When Constantine took up the Christian mantle, it's not as though Roman paganism went out the window; but Christianity lost its revolutionary zeal, it went from a sect within the Jewish faith who saw Jesus as the Messiah to a group that broke away from their Jewish roots to expand to gentiles across a foreign, once-evil empire. It was the ultimate deception of Jesus' message and yet it has been totally ignored.

I am without faith now, after too many battles. I still love religion and find it fascinating and may one day return to religion journalism on radio and in print. I think the world is ready for something deeply different, but I don't think a singularity will bring it.
posted by parmanparman at 1:52 PM on April 8, 2008

Response by poster: OP

Ghostinthemachine:Look at the answers you gave above. The questions were: "Why do [you] believe that...", "do you think...", and "why [X belief] makes more sense to you". Your answers began with "In the Apostolic doctrine...", "The teaching is that...", and "There is a scripture that says...". In other words, to questions about what you believe, you provided the answers of what others told you to believe. But what do you think? That's what is key here.

That's a really good point. Until recently I never really took the time to think for myself. What led me to post this question was my dissatisfaction with my church/religion was getting to be too much. I was finally fed up with the rules and pressure that seemed arbitrary or unfounded. Though, I will say, I don't believe that because I don't like something that doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it.

For example, on Easter I was thinking about going to church with my Mom (she and my dad go to a different church than I do, but same denomination) but my pastor doesn't like for members to go to different churches without essentially asking him first. He said it's to protect them, like if he knows something about the church they want to visit that might be harmful.

And other rules or notions at the church that wearing certain colors of nail polish is sinful or too "worldly" or how women shouldn't really wear pants, etc. I just felt really constrained and perhaps I'm just having a fit of rebellion, but I'm tired of all of that type of stuff.
posted by PinkButterfly at 1:52 PM on April 8, 2008

Response by poster: Also, I'm not in college anymore. I graduated last year. I'm back in the same city as all my family.
posted by PinkButterfly at 1:54 PM on April 8, 2008

I'd really appreciate any advice on how to figure this out and stories from others about what let them know they were in the wrong thing.

There is no method to get from A to B, nor does an endpoint "B" even exist, nor are there any answers unless you choose to have faith that there are. There is nothing wrong with having that faith, by the way.

I grew up in a standard Christian home. When I went off to college, like you, I was exposed to significantly different views for the first time. I took theater 101 my freshman year. When the professor openly referred to the bible as a neat collection of philosophy, history, and metaphor, I lost my religion instantly. It took me eight years, however, to cast off my fear of hell and openly declare myself an atheist. During that period I convinced myself that I was a Christian more than once. None of this was easy, nor was there any advice that anyone could have given me that would have made it easier.

Creating a world view is a lifelong process. It is something that grows and changes with you. I may be an atheist but I still fear the dissolution of myself upon death, for example. My world view will continue to change in both intentional and unintentional ways. You need to explore and find what works for you.

If religion is what makes you happy and helps you enjoy life, absolutely pursue it. If you do stay with Christianity, there is one problematic aspect of it that I suggest you work to avoid. To paraphrase Alan Watts, our society is filled with people too afraid to live and too afraid to die. Looking back I see exactly this in my parents, church, community, even country, and it is a horrifying way to live, and it was my own experience for many years. I've learned to enjoy life, and while enjoying the rest of my life, I'll be working on my fear of death.

The previous paragraph is subjective - if my parents read it, they would say the purpose of life is not happiness, it is glorifying god, and in the Lutheran tradition, this involves hard work and suffering. I am not interested in either of these. What I've done is taken these cultural mores I grew up with and understood them as subjective rather than absolute truths by studying mores from other cultures along with observing friends living lives I found appealing, and then casting these mores off and replacing them with what works for me. I believe you can and will do the same for yourself.
posted by MillMan at 1:57 PM on April 8, 2008

I left my faith a few years ago. I don't think you necessarily need to leave it, but it can be difficult to start thinking about, especially when your pastor doesn't even allow you to make a choice about where to go to church on Easter. Look at some threads here about abusive or controlling relationships for insight into the relationship between your pastor and his congregation and how to recover from that. Some resources that helped me as I began questioning and continue to question:
  • Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold: A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion: You can read Chapters 1 and 2 on her site
  • Internet Infidels Discussion Board: Many posters are atheists and may be very upset about being "lied" to about God, and that may not be your cup of tea, but there are some great discussions here about how it feels to start questioning these things. It's nice to know that you're not the only one who has felt a little lost. There are also people of faith there, but they're in the minority like here at MetaFilter.
  • Killing the Buddha: "a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches" which will give you some great insight into other ways to look at Christianity and other religions, while not necessarily leaving them
  • Geez Magazine: "A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable." Like KtB, but Christian.
  • Annie Dillard's books, particularly Holy the Firm and For the Time Being. Meditations on faith and doubt and human nature, springing from but not limited to a Christian context.
As for hell... God is supposed to be our heavenly father, right? Treat yourself the way you would treat a child who is discovering the world. Allow yourself to learn through mistakes. Don't let anyone punish you for asking honest questions. Don't accept intimidation.

Keep doing what you're doing. Observe the world. Pursue that which helps you to love. Go with your gut. Trust yourself.
posted by heatherann at 2:16 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

my pastor doesn't like for members to go to different churches without essentially asking him first. He said it's to protect them...

Might I humbly suggest that you consider the possibility that it isn't to protect them, it is to control them? Restriction of ties to outsiders is a classic technique - perhaps the classic technique - of cult leaders.

Note: I'm not saying your pastor is a cult leader. Really! I'm saying that restricting access to other people and beliefs is, however, how to maintain dominance and control over others.
posted by Justinian at 2:17 PM on April 8, 2008

First of all, you have my utmost respect for beginning to question your faith. It's a difficult thing to do and can be very hard on you and your family.

That said, I went through the same thing in my late teens. I was raised Primitive Southern Baptist and after a time, the restrictions and controls seemed to be just that...restrictive and controlling. I started to examine my faith and realized that a number of tenets of my faith and of Christianity as a whole didn't really fit with my personal view of the world. Over the years I experimented with a number of faiths and settled into a Pagan faith for a number of years, only to end up mostly agnostic by my mid-thirties.

I still go to church with my parents when they ask. I still bow my head at family gatherings for prayer. While those things are not part of my life away from my family, I respect their beliefs enough to not flout them in their presence. Fortunately, my family, after a great deal of time, has come to respect my views as well. But that took time and a great deal of disappointment. I'm sure my aunt still is convinced I'm going to hell and that saddens her, but she also understands that if God chose to speak to me, I'd listen.

This is a long path, and from what you've described I don't think its just youthful rebellion. I agree with the others that faith should give you pleasure and comfort, not fear and pain. But I'll also mention that decades after I left the church, I can hear certain hymns and that joy is still there. Even though the words don't mean the same, I still sing along for the pure pleasure of it.

Good luck on your path.
posted by teleri025 at 2:17 PM on April 8, 2008

Best answer: I sympathize with where you're coming from, as I grew up in a fundamentalist religion which preached that the Bible is literally, 100% true, and they are the chosen few who will make it to heaven (Seventh-Day Adventist to be exact).
"Choosing the right religion" based solely on how it will benefit you is pretty much a foreign concept to a fundamentalist, and I still don't quite get it. Fundamentalist Christianity presents a set of specific beliefs about the universe that are either true or false. How can someone "choose to believe" something regardless of whether they think it's true? Furthermore, the central purpose of religion, in fundamentalist Christianity, is to save you from going to hell, based on whether or not you believe these specific tenets. Any warm fuzzies or social justice or whatever are just side benefits.
My recommendation to you would be to simply tell yourself the stories that the church teaches, and ask yourself if you would accept them as true if you hadn't been born in the church.
The Almighty God makes people out of mud and tells them not to eat from a tree with magic fruit. A talking snake convinces them to do so, which surprises and angers God so much, that He makes a fiery pit in the center of the Earth, where every person who ever lives will be tortured for eternity as punishment. Thousands of years pass with no chance at salvation for billions of people. Then God picks a small tribe in the Middle East and decides that they alone, of all people, are worthy of His attention. He gives them long lists of elaborate and arcane rules to follow, which are the only way to get into Heaven. Thousands of years pass, billions more non-Israelites go to hell, and then one day, God changes the rules. Now Gentiles can go to heaven. Why? Because God turned part of Himself into a man, walked around for 33 years, and then "died." Somehow, this is the greatest sacrifice in history, even though every person ever born has to do the same thing. Well, actually, most people have to stay dead a bit longer than 3 days. Regardless, this is all very inspiring, and somehow by doing this God convinces Himself that He can allow Himself to stop sending people to hell. Not everyone is saved, though: only those who are lucky enough to hear an exactly correct version of the story, fully believe all the key points, and say the correct magic words, are rewarded with eternal life in heaven. The covenant with Israel is more or less forgotten. Of course, due to the arbitrary rules which God Himself has set up, the vast, vast majority of everyone ever born will still be tortured for eternity, sometimes for getting minor details wrong (for instance, getting baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than just the name of Jesus). Eventually (any day now), Jesus will fly down from the sky and destroy the Earth, and everyone who picked the wrong religion is going to feel very silly.
I would have agreed with every word of this for years and years. Once I stepped back and started looking at it from an outsider's perspective, though, it didn't take long for threads to unravel.
I also suggest studying how the Bible was written. If you don't know what you're reading, how you can you decide whether or not to believe it? Who Wrote The Bible? is just about the Old Testament, but it's a great start, without an atheist axe to grind.
posted by designbot at 2:34 PM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Respectfully, I think many of the answers here miss the point. Answers that say some variant of "All religions have some truth" or "Religions are a means to an end" miss the point for someone who is already, probably, a believer.

For example, someone noted that the particular denomination's doctrine that all or nearly all nonchristians suffer eternal torment after death is depressing. But, depressing isn't the opposite of true. If this is true, it doesn't mean that God doesn't exist exactly as described by the denomination. It only means that if they're right, you don't like God very much, or that if they're right, you might wish that we had a different God than we do.

Lots of other replies fit something like that as well -- they don't mean that PinkButterfly's denomination is factually wrong, only that you hope that they're wrong. It doesn't particularly matter if a denomination's doctrines depress you or make you happy and help you enjoy life. What matters is whether you believe that they are true, that they are correct. If the truth depresses you, then it does.

From that end, what can you do? How do you know if you don't believe it?

First, read the Bible and any commentaries you like. Pray about it. Do you still not believe your church's doctrines? Are you still struggling with it? Do you find that the more you pray about it, the more problems you have with your original denomination and the more you want to go visit the Lutherans or Quakers or whoever? Or do you get a quiet voice urging you back to their fold?

Second, by their fruits you will know them.

Third, what Pater Aletheias said.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:34 PM on April 8, 2008

I'd like to chime in and acknowledge your courage in examining your beliefs.

I also second the recommendations to read, especially books by authors who have gone through similar periods of questioning.

My suggestions:

* take your time. You're reconsidering information you've relied on for decades. You don't have to find a definitive answer today. I understand that you're afraid of making a mistake. If you believe in God and that God has purposes for you, try to have faith that God wants you to come out on the right side of this question, and that God knows where that is.

* see if you can find some people to talk to. Are there discussion groups at any other churches in your area, especially the open kinds of churches that actively welcome all kinds of people?

* do a little reading about fundamental psychology. There are some really interesting psychological explanations for some of the things you've experienced, like people talking about how much better your faith is after they've converted. (Note that I'm not saying they were lying or mistaken, only that there are psychological and social influences that make us all feel good if we're agreeing with our community. Imagine yourself with a group of people you like but aren't completely sure of their respect for you, and they're all talking about a movie they loved but you thought was just so-so. Are you going to pipe right up and have a vigorous debate with them? Some folks would and do, but there can be strong influences that make us nod and go along. Being aware of these things can help you see them, notice them, in yourself and others, and can help you take a moment when you notice yourself under these influences to be a little more mindful about your own responses.)

* see if you can find writings about questioning periods by people whose faith is completely different from yours. For example, I have some Scientology-debunking sites, and as a result, I occasionally have interesting exchanges with people who are questioning their participation in Scientology. It can be a lengthy, complicated process, and there are a lot of fears along the way aside from the huge fear of losing your soul (something that Scientologists also fear). You confront the prospect of a huge difference from your family, possibly the loss of some of your friendships - it can be scary stuff, and again, those are psychological influences that can make it hard to really ask yourself what makes sense to you. You might find this exchange between me and a former Scientologist interesting (sort of a self-link, although it's not on my site). I just think being aware of how other people deal with these issues even from the perspective of a completely different belief system may help you get some perspective on your own.

* if prayer feels like a way to have a conversation with God, pray. Maybe keep a journal of the things you pray about and your questions and the new thoughts you encounter.

* go easy on yourself. You may have noticed that a lot of folks on AskMeFi who do believe in God believe in a loving, forgiving, understanding God. I mean, if anyone understands how imperfect we are, it's gotta be God, right? So don't be any harder on yourself than God would be.

I wish you the best. I know this can be a hard thing to do, but I think you'll probably be a happier person, with a better relationship to God, once you've let yourself really think about these things.
posted by kristi at 2:46 PM on April 8, 2008

You design your own life, and what sort of spiritual or philosophical path you choose can be a significant part of that. If you follow the tradition of your family because it is comfortable, near to you, essentially because it is familiar, there is a certain benefit you get from that, but it has downsides as well. You are restricted in your growth and exploration, you aren't free to discover a system which truly speaks to you personally - in a way it is like having an arranged marriage (again, if your belief system is important to your life). This doesn't mean you would never choose to marry the boy next door, but it is usually a good thing to take seriously the various possibilities open to you, and consider why you want a certain relationship.

You may feel like you are already "committed" to the church you're in, and that questioning the teachings is unfaithful. But you never even had the chance to willfully choose the faith to begin with. Anyway, belonging to a church is not the same kind of relationship as a partnership between two people. Many religions support the questioning and philosophizing of its members - they think you should be thinking about these questions, better trying to understand how it all works. For a lot of religious people, that's the point of religion - having a context for these questions and struggles, having a place to go once a week to think philosophical thoughts.

I think you should feel free to visit other churches and explore the field. At least try reading some books - if you want to stay in the Christian realm, I'd recommend Augustine & CS Lewis as decent starting points. If you are interested in religious broadly speaking but not necessarily christian, you might enjoy the jewish thinker Martin Buber. Beyond that I might end up recommending philosophy of every sort, and you probably don't have time or inclination for that, so I will just say, listen to some other pastors, talk to some other followers, think about what matters to you and what it all means to you, and try to find a way that suits that.

But as people have said above, if there were a way to give an easy answer to this question, then there would only be one belief system in the world and no one would question it. As it is, I'm afraid "what the truth is" is the Big Question of academics and theologians of thousands of years across the entire world, and nothing much of a really answerish answer has been reached yet.
posted by mdn at 3:00 PM on April 8, 2008

Best answer: There are a few online support groups I'm aware of, especially for ex-Pentecostals. Due to some of the unique qualities of that particular denomination, 'breaking away' can be very tough.

http://www.ex-pentecostals.org/ (Try the 'resources' page.)
There are also some suggestions that pop up from time to time in the anti-Dominionist LJ group, such as in this thread.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:08 PM on April 8, 2008

Wow, sounds like you've got a lot of thinking, reading, and chatting ahead of you. I'd like to add a book to your reading list. You should go borrow Misquoting Jesus from the library and at least plow through the first few chapters. It's a bit on the dry side but it gives you some idea how our modern Bible came to be. If you're going to use it as a basis for your beliefs, you should have some idea how our modern one came to be.

Ultimately you'll need to make up your own mind about religion. I hope you have an interesting journey!
posted by chairface at 3:26 PM on April 8, 2008

There's no such thing as right and wrong, because religion is about faith and beleif, not about anything you can prove. There is no objective 'right' or best religion; the purpose of religion is to provide you with comfort and community and structure, and you should therefore just choose whatever feels right to you.
posted by Kololo at 3:44 PM on April 8, 2008

*hugs* to PinkButterfly for raising and sharing such a brave, challenging and profound question.

I think the discussion about right/wrong doctrines is missing the point. The few comments above about "thinking for yourself" are better advice for the journey you have in front of you. Dont be discouraged or scared of feeling alone during this journey. Many times during your life you will have to explore different things on your own. Thats the only way to figure out EXACTLY what works for you.

Here is my story:
When I was born I was baptized Baptist. While growing up (before high school) my family moved A LOT and seems like every town we moved to we joined a different church. Lutheran, Evangelical, Protestant, Pentacostal,etc,etc. It struck me (even at an early age) the hypocrisy that each church seems to say: "we are right and all others are wrong". That always seemed to me to be a very narrow minded approach to understand the more profound questions of human experience. At the point in high school when I was old enough to decide for myself, I stopped going to church and was glad that I no longer had religious people TELLING ME what to think, and was free to figure things out for myself.

However, I was very lost for a while. Probably from the time I was 18-ish to my late 20's. I read alot of philosophy. I took a lot of time off (mentally) and worked hard at many jobs. Basically I just tried to be a nice person and live my life the way I thought was best. I didnt worry about going to hell or committing sins. I just followed my heart and tried to be a good person.

In my early 30's, through a variety of circumstances we dont have time to get into here, I found myself at a very stressful job. Stressful to the point of suicidal breakdown. (no, I didnt physically harm myself, but the thoughts were definitely there). On a particularly stressful monday afternoon, I was visited by a vision of Buddha. No, seriously. Some may argue it was a stress induced hallucination, and I would be open to that possibility. However I know the experience I had was profoundly intense and life changing. (if you'd like to hear the full story in detail, my email is in my Mefi profile). The experience didnt blindly force me into being a devout Buddhist. I call myself a buddhist (little "b") because everything I've learned about Buddhism pleases me. The concept of enlightenment and the belief that "god" exists in all things, I think is very true. I think a lot of people live on the belief that something OUTSIDE of themselves will "save" them, when in reality everything you need is already within you. (meaning = you ARE smart and strong enough to overcome anything life throws at you, up to and possibly including death).

Relating this experience may not help you, because its probably rare for people to have an insight like I did, and its not something you can easily (ever?) reproduce. However, my advice to you would be to : 1.) Be strong, believe in yourself. 2.) Question everything, and 3.) Follow your gut/heart instinct about what it means to be a good person. DONT let others tell you what to think or how to act. Figure it out for yourself.

Self-actualization is the highest form of human experience.
(with the possible exception of hot pop tarts and cold milk on sunday mornings watching cartoons :P )
posted by jmnugent at 4:26 PM on April 8, 2008

There are instances where something that happens to you within the church can jade you, especially when it comes down to protecting your family. I was raised Lutheran, my brother is a Lutheran minister, the whole shebang. One Sunday, the sermon was about homosexuality. My daughter, age 9 at that time, was sitting next to me. We went home, all the while I'm dumfounded about what I had heard in this sermon. We walked in the door and my son was there and my daughter promptly said, "Pastor Dommer says you're going to hell".

To hear my daughter say that to her brother (who is gay), pretty much made me a little more pragmatic and "what are these people thinking" about the whole ritual of Holy Communion" and fellowship and whatever they call it.

So, yeah, there are many reasons why people change religious beliefs, but it's not always through study or experimenting. Sometimes you just get outraged.
posted by wafaa at 4:33 PM on April 8, 2008

just trying to figure out what would be a clear indicator that the religion I am in is not the way I should go.

They way you should go?? The wind bloweth where it listeth.
posted by proj08 at 5:55 PM on April 8, 2008

I'd really appreciate any advice on how to figure this out and stories from others about what let them know they were in the wrong thing. This has been pretty stressful for me and unsettling because, honestly, everything I thought I knew is not so sure anymore and I feel...a little lost.

This is clearly between you and God.. so ask Him for help, not us..
posted by Laugh_track at 6:38 PM on April 8, 2008

Firstly, I'd just like to say how impressed I am with the way this discussion has gone. Outside of the comments Jess has culled, it's the first time ever I've seen AskMeFi / MeFi handle a religious subject in such a respectful and adult fashion. There's hope yet ...
tdismukes: Has it occurred to you that in order for this to be correct, you would have to postulate a God who is very, very far from benevolent - a capricious, arbitrary God who enjoys inflicting suffering?
I don't know about the "enjoys inflicting suffering" bit. If you believe in a loving, caring God who also has a "my way or the highway" attitude, then it perhaps makes more sense to see denying salvation to nonbelievers as a dirty job that nevertheless needs to be done - not pleasant or enjoyable, just necessary.
PinkButterfly: ... my pastor ... said it's to protect them, like if he knows something about the church they want to visit that might be harmful.
As others have said, this sounds almost like his attitude is not "God's word is the Truth, the Way, and the Light", but "My word is the Truth, the Way, and the Light". Arrogant, at the very least - is he so sure his connection to God is stronger than his fellow ministers that he is invariably correct in his judgement/determination? I seem to recall Jesus had a whole lot to say about humility and tolerance and respect for others...
posted by Pinback at 7:58 PM on April 8, 2008

For you I recommend reading 'Infidel' by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Questioning the beliefs she was indoctrinated into as a child really did change her life and I admire her courage, as I admire yours.

I'm an athiest so all I can say is that.... life is beautiful.
posted by Tixylix at 8:09 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I grew up pretty hardcore Roman Catholic (and I realize, now, that hardcore RC is tra-la-la compared to a lot of other Christian sects). Altar boy (no, none of that), prayer groups, etc. Late in high school, I took a job that had me working on Sunday mornings, so I stopped going to church, but picked up Sunday night Mass in college.

Then the pastor of the college church ignored my should-have-been-obvious cries for help (I had the knife out, pressed to my wrists) to hang out with some donors, and I lost all faith in the heirarchy. Around that time, when the internet was young, I discovered a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
which completely knocked the doctrinal faith out of me. Finally, I started reading Plato's "Republic" in an attempt to be more well-read; the sole purpose of religion in Plato's ideal city-state is to promise life after death specifically so the warrior class is unafraid to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the city-state.

At any rate, that's how I lost my faith in the institution, the dogma, and the very idea of religion itself.

As for your either-or proposition that those who do not believe in the exactly correct way are condemned to hell: My boilerplate response is that a God who acts in that manner is something of a prick. A slightly more nuanced version goes: if that Hell is defined as a state of complete lack of Grace, i.e. God's presence, that doesn't sound nearly as bad as an eternity of sycophancy to all-powerful caprice.
posted by notsnot at 8:36 PM on April 8, 2008

Styxno and Pater Aletheias pretty much covered what I was going to say. As someone who's still a Christian after all these years, I can say that there's no such thing as airtight certainty. People who think there are such things are desperate people trying to cram the world into their small box and ignoring their box ripping and tearing as they do that.

Let me drop in a Flannery O'Connor quote to think about:
What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.
Good luck, and God be with you no matter where you end up. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
posted by dw at 9:29 PM on April 8, 2008

Response by poster: I just want to say thank you so much to every single person who took the time to post and a special thank you for such thoughtful and detailed advice. Thank you for challenging my assumptions and pointing me in the direction of many books and sites and just general trains of thought.

I truly appreciate it :)
posted by PinkButterfly at 10:06 PM on April 8, 2008

Lots of other replies fit something like that as well -- they don't mean that PinkButterfly's denomination is factually wrong, only that you hope that they're wrong. It doesn't particularly matter if a denomination's doctrines depress you or make you happy and help you enjoy life. What matters is whether you believe that they are true, that they are correct. If the truth depresses you, then it does.

You're correct in a sense, but I think you're missing the point. I mean, I think it's pretty clear that PinkButterfly's denomination is factually wrong, but obviously some would disagree. But the heart of the question is: how can you tell how true a religion is? And I'd say the answer is that you can't. Religion is not like science; religions aren't falsifiable. I think that's the necessary realization here. Religions are human creations, and in many senses no religion is more "true" than any other, so you pick the one that you're most comfortable with.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:18 PM on April 8, 2008

Sorry, that isn't exactly what I meant -- religions have said a lot of things that are falsifiable, and many of those things have turned out to be false. But statements about God, the afterlife, what is necessary for salvation, etc., are by their nature unfalsifiable. Choosing a belief system based on fear that you're going to pick the wrong one and go to hell seems like missing the point.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:22 PM on April 8, 2008

Best answer: I agree with ludwig_van's comments, and I second the suggestion to read The God Delusion even if you have no intention of becoming atheist. Dawkins talks about situations like yours quite a bit.

I have to admit I'm somewhat puzzled by your post; the question is a little muddy to me. It seems to me that you're saying: there is one true belief, and if you don't believe it you're worried you're going to hell. You're concerned that the one true belief might not be the denomination you've believed in your whole life, and this is causing you a lot of anguish. You think you might need to switch denominations.

If I've interpreted that correctly... I guess what I don't understand is how you intend to find the "right" denomination. Are you thinking you might just research them a lot until you find one that seems true? Or until you find one that "feels right?" Or one whose beliefs most closely match your own? Just speaking honestly here, and hoping I'm not contributing to your anguish, but... how would you ever know you're not just believing what you want to believe? When it comes down to it you're picking what you're going to believe, no matter how well-informed a decision you make.

It just doesn't seem possible to me to reach a state where you know something is the truth and your personal feelings and preferences couldn't have possibly played into your decision. Even if you end up deciding on a denomination with a lot of ideas that you don't like because you think it's the "one true belief," you can't really point to the stuff you don't like as evidence that you picked it because it's actually true; part of you could have picked it just so you could point to those things to reassure yourself that it wasn't about what you want to believe. You can't ever prove or disprove these things, or eliminate the source of those questions. That's where faith comes in, and you just tell yourself you can't doubt what you believe in. If you can do that successfully, you won't be upset anymore. Of course, right, what if you have faith in the wrong thing after all? And that's the question that's giving you problems. I just don't see any way out of that in particular.

Basically, it seems like this "one true belief" idea is what's causing you the most anguish, when in reality you might not even be punished for believing the "wrong" thing. I think a good place to start might be by remembering that not all denominations, or even all religions say you're going to hell (or some place like it) if you don't believe in it. Some religions and denominations don't even have anything like hell. The idea of there being "one true belief" is something your denomination believes in. If you were brought up in another denomination, you wouldn't necessarily accept that idea without question.

Of course, that can't keep you from thinking, "If the right belief does say that you're going to hell if you don't believe in it, it doesn't matter if I think that's wrong or not."

The way I look at it you have a couple options...

1. You can believe something that makes you quit feeling so much anguish: at the very least, believe that you won't go to hell if you don't believe exactly the right thing. Then you don't let yourself think about how you don't know that for certain.

2. You can pick a denomination, tell yourself it's the right one and everyone else is going to hell. Then you don't let yourself think about how you don't know that for certain.

Either way, you're going to have to willfully ignore your doubts. That's faith. If you can't ignore your doubts, or you're uncomfortable with being the kind of person who does not question their beliefs, research atheism.
posted by Nattie at 3:02 AM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

When I first read your post, I thought to myself, I hope Pater Aletheias comments because he will say something wise, and of course, he did.

I agree that reading more of what Jesus said and did may be a good way to go, and also accounts of other people of other faiths - or of no relgious faith - doing good works, living good lives, and making the earth a better place.

I go to church (Episcopal) because it suits me and I feel comfortable there (and I am lucky in a way - it is also the demonination of my family) but I don't believe, nor does my faith community, that this is the *right* way or the only way - I can't believe there would be a Supreme Being who made such a diverse world of people and expect all of them to follow the same narrow path.

Frankly, I think the biggest charge Jesus gives his followers is to "love your neighbor" and I haven't mastered that one yet and considering all the peopel in this world I think are jerks, I don't know that I will anytime soon. I figure once I manage, then I can start worrying about everything else.
posted by pointystick at 6:36 AM on April 9, 2008

Response by poster: Nattie: You interpreted my question the right way. I think the struggle here is that I feel somebody has to be wrong, with regard to religion, and I don't want it to be me. I'm figuring that since there is a right way, IMO, I should be able to figure it out somehow and I came here to see if anyone knew how.

What people seem to be saying, though, is that religion isn't so black or white and nobody is necessarily wrong. That's the concept I'm struggling with in this thread. I have a black/white mentality on life in general, though I'm understanding more that there are lots of gray areas. Still, I would think religion wouldn't be one of them, considering what's at stake (your soul in eternity).

Perhaps I'm wrong, and as you and many others have pointed out, it seems there really isn't any way to know for sure. That's driving my black/white mind crazy.
posted by PinkButterfly at 10:03 AM on April 9, 2008

What people seem to be saying, though, is that religion isn't so black or white and nobody is necessarily wrong.

Well, I think it'd be more accurate to say that nobody is necessarily right. When you have multiple mutually exclusive faiths that say they are the one true path, many of them must necessarily be wrong, which is what brought you here in the first place. And of course there's a possibility (a very likely one in my estimation) that they're all wrong, in the sense of "wrong" that you've been using. But trying to pick a religion based on that kind of right/wrong thinking does seem like missing the forest for the trees, so it's good if you think you're starting to come around on that.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:08 AM on April 9, 2008


I'd like to contribute a lot more to this discussion, but I'd just be telling my boring story and rehashing what others have said.

You say that you don't want to be wrong, but what you need to understand is that either everyone is wrong or everyone is right. Religion is man-made and self-serving. It took me a long time to come to those terms as well.

Long-story-short: I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school for all of my life, from Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. After I realized that Catholicism wasn't for me (about grade 10, in a religion class called "Philosophy" no less). I set about trying to find something I agreed with. I agreed highly with the principles of Buddhism. But I couldn't be a practicing Buddhist while still attending Catholic school and living in a Christian family. I also believed what I've heard old Native Indians believe(d) which is that the soul only exists as energy, and when you die it is that energy the returns to the earth from which it came.

This book that I read while in college gave me the final perspective I needed. It is called Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. It comes off as far-fetched, but it really is quite brilliant and thought-provoking. I read it probably 5 times my Sophmore year in college alone. And I'll just leave it at that.

Good luck to you.
posted by mrzer0 at 10:18 AM on April 9, 2008

I would think religion wouldn't be one of them, considering what's at stake (your soul in eternity).

Not trying to be a jerk, but you don't know that your soul in eternity is at stake!

You've been told all your life that religion is 95 percent about the need to profess belief in x to receive y after death. But some religions are about doing things, instead. And maybe we're all saved anyway, because God loves us that much. Or maybe we're all predestined, or maybe Norse mythology was right and we're all screwed. None can be proved.

Nattie wrote, "you're going to have to willfully ignore your doubts. That's faith." I disagree. Faith can accommodate doubt. Meg_Murry's Anne Lamott quote bears repeating: "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty."

This site seems to explore Christianity from a doubt-friendly perspective. I don't know anything about it and don't vouch for it, but I'm pretty sure that Marcus Borg, who's on the board of this organization, is a prominent liberal Christian thinker.

On preview, weird, I just finished Ishmael a couple days ago. Its treatment of the value and formation of myths is quite thought-provoking. It wouldn't have occurred to me to recommend it in this thread.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:58 AM on April 9, 2008

"..considering what's at stake (your soul in eternity)." - PinkButterfly

Unless you're one of those pesky religions that believes in reincarnation. :)

On the issue of habitually trying to understand things in "black/white" terms, my advice to you would be: stop trying so hard. There are some things in life that dont have an exact black/white answer.

You know how the common dating advice is: Stop chasing so desperately for that "perfect date" and just relax and let it happen.

The same is true of religion: Stop chasing so hard for that "perfect revelation" and just relax.

There is profound truth and beauty in even the smallest events that happen in your life. Relax and practice opening your awareness to the rich tapestry of information that surrounds you everyday. (There's a reason Buddhists believe so strongly that "living in the moment" brings you closer to "enlightenment". ) In other words, stop living your life obsessed with being "right" because it will save you after death.

Be. Here. Now.
posted by jmnugent at 11:15 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

If there were only "one true religion", and a guaranteed way to determine what it was, don't you think most people would have found it by now?

I hate to tell you this, as you're only just realizing there are shades of grey, but the universe is in colour. And while that may be frightening to your concept of (or need for) a black-and-white universe, trust us that many others have gone on this path before, and it is possible to live contentedly with the belief that nothing around you is stable and definite in any way. So go, explore, and see what's out there. You'll survive. Who knows? You may very well end up right back at the start, in the same denomination you are in now. There's nothing to say that's not where you'll ultimately feel suits you best.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: First, allow me to send you a virtual hug - I went through a very similar experience to yours when I was in college, and it was difficult and frightening and challenging in very many ways. But I also want to encourage you; if your experience is similar to mine, you will very likely find that when you come through this journey (which, of course, isn't the end, but the beginning of your lifelong spiritual journey) you will be more at peace, more confident, and stronger in your faith than you were before.

My grandparents on both sides raised their families in a fundamentalist Christian denomination very similar to yours (Pentecostal Holiness.) Besides the more "standard" fundamentalist beliefs (one right way to heaven and all else to hell, literal scriptural inerrancy, etc.) there were also a plethora of other very strict rules to follow regarding appearance and conduct. Women were never supposed to cut their hair, or wear makeup, jewelry (even wedding rings), pants, short sleeves, revealing clothing, etc. A "real Christian" wouldn't watch television or movies, listen to any radio but Christian radio... you get the idea (and probably have grown up with similar teachings.)

My parents eventually came to the conclusion that as long as you behaved to a Christian standard, God really didn't care if you wore jeans or got your ears pierced or watched Star Wars. They did maintain most of the theological aspects of fundamentalism, though, and this was the way I was raised. However, having been through their own period of questioning, my father in particular was always insistent that God gave us brains so that we could use them, and that God would never be displeased by honest and sincere spiritual questioning. (Remember Job? He questioned God quite bitterly but was never repremanded for his questions.)

As I said, I was raised as a preacher's kid, and I also attended Christian school. A great deal of my education consisted of learning all about various other worldviews/religions and how they would try to steal my faith in the evil, secular free-for-all of College. But then I actually got to college and met people who were different- from different religions, or from different cultures, or who were (gasp!) gay... and I made friends with them! and I learned about them! And I started to really think about some of my beliefs. And when I really poked at them, I found out that some of them... weren't actually my beliefs.

If your upbringing was anything like mine, you have probably been warned against trying to pick your beliefs based on what makes you feel good rather than what is true (read: what they say is true.) Now, obviously, things like loving your neighbor are hard to do but you're still supposed to do them- that's kind of the point. But taking a hard look at your denomination's teachings and trying to decide if you actually believe them isn't taking the easy way out- it's difficult, it shakes your world, it can cause you social and family problems. But it is the brave thing to do and the honest thing to do, and I personally believe that God wants us to do that.

As for who is "right" and who is "wrong"... God is so much bigger than we are, and so far outside our understanding, that I don't think any human religion CAN be 100% right. It's like in the book Flatland where the inhabitants of the two-dimensional world might be able to believe in the existence of a three-dimensional world but can never fully understand it. But I do believe that God gives partial credit, as it were- if you are sincerely and honestly doing your best to serve God, I don't think God will count it against you if you get some parts of it wrong.
posted by oblique red at 2:01 PM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

tdismukes: Has it occurred to you that in order for this to be correct, you would have to postulate a God who is very, very far from benevolent - a capricious, arbitrary God who enjoys inflicting suffering?

Pinback: I don't know about the "enjoys inflicting suffering" bit. If you believe in a loving, caring God who also has a "my way or the highway" attitude, then it perhaps makes more sense to see denying salvation to nonbelievers as a dirty job that nevertheless needs to be done - not pleasant or enjoyable, just necessary.

I think you might have missed part of my point. A diety with a "my way or the highway" attitude would be one thing - if there was any clear way to know what said diety's "my way" was in the first place. However, there is no such way. You can't say "just read the holy scripture", because different religions have different scriptures and different denominations have different interpretations of those scriptures. If there is only one correct denomination and all others are damned, then it means God is choosing to condemn the vast majority of those who are doing their absolute honest best to follow "his" way. I don't see any possible way of describing such a deity as benevolent or deserving of worship.
posted by tdismukes at 2:08 PM on April 9, 2008

I think you can find the "true" Christian religion. Christians believe in what the Bible says. So, compare each denomination with what is in the Bible. If the Bible disagrees with the denomination, or the denomination gives reasons why they don't believe in part of the Bible, that denomination is not the truth. The Bible says there is "one faith", so if you examine and compare what the Bible says, you can find the truth.
posted by Robert Wallis at 5:15 PM on April 9, 2008

First thank you so much for opening up and bringing this to the table and for being so honest and open. I would like to encourage you step out and ask yourself what do you believe?

Not what the church teaches or your family told you but what do you deep down inside believe?
it is ok to say I don't know or I doubt or I have questions or I am confused

Go out and find and seek out your own answers but before you do that ask yourself what are you afraid of?

to me it seems as if you are afraid of picking the wrong one. But if God is God and God is real and God is infinite and eternal and God is a God of love then how could that God ever lead you astray and how could you wind up on the wrong path?

What is essential is that you seek to find out why you are afraid and what you believe then begin your search.

What was helpful to me was to get away from the world, the internet, the family and spend three days just by yourself in a place that you feel is a spiritual places in nature and begin to seek out these answers and to do so in the silence of your soul in a place where you can be spoken to away from the distractions of the world.

So it is with this in mind that I suggest and want to show a different side to Christianity and maybe to open some doors for you but ultimately it is your spiritual journey and your family and MiFi cannot go for you.

I think you ask a very good and valid question that is important to ask and should not be passed over lightly but instead should be addressed with a sense of awe and wonder and respect.

First I would say go and unfold your own path and seek your own answers regardless of what your family and religious tradition say or even what MiFi suggests.

Something I noticed from my reading of Karen Armstrong (who I mention b/c of her reference earlier in the post) and may others is that many(most ?) religions are exclusive in their nature and orientation and this is in and of itself not a bad thing but the very nature of it. There are many reasons which one could get into about why religions are exclusive and how did that evolve but that is out side the ramifications of this post. some examples of exclusivism in religion:
  • Apostolic Christianity - you must believe and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and then speak in tongues (as you so well explained)
  • Judaism - essentially you must be Jewish
  • Islam - Say and believe the Shadda
  • Buddhism- Come back in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth until one attains Nirvana and this is best achieved through Buddhism
  • Hinduism- Endless cycle of birth and rebirth until one achieves enlightenment and this is best done by being Hindu
The above list is of course a hyper-distillation of the whole concept of religion and does not begin to do justice to those religious systems.

I do not say this to in any way denigrate or besmirch the honor and integrity of these religions but just to point out that to a majority of religious adherents world wide their religious system is in and of itself exclusive. I do know some religious adherents in each of these systems who are much more about inclusivism (with the exception being Apostolic Christians).

The only religion that I have encountered that did not have exclusivist elements with its religious text was the Bahá'í Faith, which I have heard some suggest is in essence a system of thought, but I would believe it to be a religion. I would encourage you regardless of where you stand to go out and do your own research and find your own answers and ask your own questions. Still this raises the question if so many religions are exclusive is God exclusive? and How do you reconcile monotheistic religion with polytheism? These are not easy questions to ask and to try and reconcile in one's mind and frankly, I struggle with them as well.

Since you come form a Christian background I will pose and frame the rest of this post contextually in a way that I hope is respectfully to your tradition and to cause you perhaps to reconsider Christianity and look at it in a different light.
Approaches to heaven in Christianity
  • Universalism - Everyone goes to heaven or their idea of it save perhaps really, really bad people who cease to exist
  • Pluralism - All religions are equally true and valuable. "All religions are valuable, true, and efficient, all faith leads to ultimate truth." Different religions are paths to the top of the same mountain. No religion can claim monopoly. Jesus is efficient to lead to the final salvation of the Christian. The purpose of mission in pluralism is to make others better at their own spirituality. Learn from other faiths complementing each other. Doesn't attempt conversion. Not christocentric but theocentric. Also soteriocentric through any path people can be unified by their desire for salvation.
  • Exclusivism - Only those who confess and believe in Jesus Christ go to heaven
  • Exclusive body of Believers - Only the Christians who are apart of our church and or denomination that think and act like we do go to heaven
  • Inclusivism - Everyone is responsible to their own level of knowledge and to the extent and degree. This is belief states that Jesus is the only way but there is more than one way to Jesus and allows for God fearers and seekers in other religions to gain entrance to heaven.
The Inclusive Claims of Christ and the Bible
Many would argue and suggest that the Bible in and of itself is an inclusive document and allows for those who do not believe in the God in the same was as the Jewish believers of the Old Testament and then the Christian church of the New Testament. There are several ways that people seek to reconcile this but I would suggest looking at the stories of Ruth, Naomi, Rahab, and Esther. All of these women are in the bloodline of Jesus and are not really inside the realm of Judaism. Still looking further we see Simon who carries the cross of Jesus and people consider him a Christian but there is not mention of his faith. Going further Jesus tells a Roman Centurion that his faith was the greatest in Israel yet his allegiance was to Rome and to Caesar as Lord. Still there is the Ethopian eunch, and many more examples of people who would be considered by many to be "righteous pagans" who have their faith credited to them and gain entrance to heaven. In addition when Jesus speaks of salvation in the gospels it is to all people and all places and that is often over looked. Many of the claims of Jesus were inclusive and the debate is often over how inclusive are these claims is it to the extent of Unviersalism or Pluarlism or just to the point of inclusivism?

Inclusivism is not universalism:
1. does not teach that all will ultimately be saved.
2. teaches that the only basis of salvation is the death of Christ

Its important to note that Inclusivism is not universalism because it does not teach that all will ultimately be saved. Instead it teaches that Jesus is the only way to heaven but there is more than one way to Jesus and that salvation is predicated upon the death of Christ.

Inclusivism isn’t necessarily the heresy that people make it out to be and even in traditional thought it is used for example typically people believe that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were credited salvation because of faith in the coming Messiah, however this is not explicit in the Old Testament but may be seen in the New Testament in Hebrews 11 in the hall of fame of faith. Romans 4:3 tells us that Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. As John Calvin states in the Institutes of the Christian Religion: “It was not mere faith and trust in God but faith in the promised redeemer that is necessary for redemption.” So we see unfolding this idea that people are granted entrance to heaven for belief in God. So as we understand the outworking and development of the progressive revelation of God in side of Christian thought we common state that we believe that those in the old testament who went to heaven went without a conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ but were saved on the basis of the Death of Christ (Ryrie, Scofield, and others reinforce this idea).
When you study the story of Abraham in the Old Testament his faith included nothing about a messiah or Jesus but was based on what God has revealed to him and later after the coming of Christ Abraham’s faith response is reconciled to Christ. The content in saving faith must be God and revelation and participation the covenant but as revelation grows the content of faith grows.
Pinnock states that we believe Job and Abraham believed and were saved why would it not be the same today? Why would it make any difference if Job was born in 900 BCE or 1900CE and how could something so arbitrary as when he was born change the way that god interacted with him?
Why not apply this to those who have yet to hear the message of Christ today or live in a culture where there is not positive Christian presence?
If God is revealing and unfolding history what is God revealing? Inclusivism states that God is revealing the second person of the trinity “The Son” but not always as Jesus.

In the New Testament you have people in Acts who are referred to as God Fearer’s these people are distinct from gentile proselyte's to Judaism as they fear God and live among their own people and have that identity. Namman was one in the OT and Cornelius, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and several others in the NT. They did not have faith in a traditional since or knowledge of God as Judaism would tell them to have but still they are counted as God fearers.

So the questions this raises is what must a person do to gain heaven? the answer is to earnestly be seeking God in their context and to place their faith in God. They are then granted grace and through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross gain salvation. So looking at Christ in an inclusive manner enhances one’s faith especially in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in acts
What I love about inclusivism is that it is intentionally vague and is comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity and mystery because when we remove that we fail often times to see the nuances of how God is moving and working in and through the world. God lives in the mystery and in the I don’t know’s and to try and to say empirically that God limits Godself or that God would be inaccurate. Just as it would be to relegate the incarnate Christ to being made incarnate through other religions and other people. God was made flesh and dwelt amongst us as Jesus Christ. Still the revelatory nature of that is not bound by space, time or geographical location. Christ came to seek and to save (John 3:17) and if the entire world declares the glory of God and IF we share common ancestors it would stand to reason that one could come to an understanding based on those things alone. As the narrative of scripture unfolds each person is responsible to the level of knowledge that they are granted to, come to an understanding of that knowledge and accept or reject and than to share that knowledge and each person is responsible to their own level of understanding and it is not my job to judge who goes where. So I love the ambiguity.

Western Christians limit the salvific work of Jesus Christ on the cross to 33CE + or - a standard deviation of 3 years and that event was static it happened on some cute scale or diagram when the reality was it was a catacylsmic event that human language cannot begin to describe and the ramifications of that action are still being felt today and will still be felt after the sun goes nova and all of time ends (eschaton).

I would suggest perhaps looking into liberal Christianity, Christian mysticism and then onto other religious systems if you still seek answers. I do not wish to at this time post a whole bunch of books but if you were interested in some I would suggest this to you. The reason I suggest that you is it sounds like you are struggling with your Christian inheritance and don't want to necessarily leave them at this time but are on a path to find genuine faith. The reason I mentioned this alternative Christian views is to show you that there is a wide breadth of ideas and faith in christ not all Christians are in the same tradition as your church.

Ultimately religion is not about answers but it is about questions and rarely about answers and finding a place where you can ask questions and seek to understand faith. Ultimately there is much that we don't know or understand about God and it is important to grab hold of the mystery and embrace the idea that there is a lot of truth out there and there is an imperative to seek things out and seek to understand religion to the best of your knowledge. To me truly meeting and searching for God is not about suffering from excessive certainty and embracing a healthy level of agnosticism.

finally I do not mean to denigrate or cheapen any other religion or idea but simply to show the breadth inside of Christianity and while it may not be your specific brand it may be worth reevaluating before you seek other paths and it is ok to look at other religions and to evaluate them and we live in a beautiful and diverse world and I hope your search goes well and this thread is beneficial.
posted by the_binary_blues at 9:42 PM on April 9, 2008

A true eye-opener for me was Dawkins' work "The God Delusion" ... it may change your question from "Am I in the wrong religion?" to "Is religion not the correct answer to my question?" Again with respect to all views, this is a view as well.
posted by navinomad at 7:43 AM on April 10, 2008

The OP asked about "what would be a clear indicator that the religion I am in is not the way I should go"?

My suggestions:
Insistence on the literal truth of the Bible. Indefensible.

An obsession with gender as being the defining thing about a person, rather than their efforts to live up to religious ideals. If a woman cannot hold certain posts, then a certain piece if flesh is being treated as a more important qualification than faith or good works or whatever. If a man who commits murder can repent and become a minister, but being born female is regarded as an unforgivable sin that condemns a person to a life of subjection, it is a religion to avoid. Of course many religions claim "equal but different", but those tend to have a deep aversion to real equality.

Rules that keep church members away from exposure to other ways of thought. Pornography is one thing, hearing a sermon in a different church is quite different, and should be allowed. Strong fences do not agree well with claims that this is the best place to be. Rules that try to cut members off from family who don't follow the same religion are clearly evil.

A lack of service to the wider local community. Helping church members and possibly people in different lands does not fulfil the Christian ideal as it is widely understood.

My questions focus on lower level things, not philosophy. I suggest that if you want to make comparisons you skip most of the suggested reading and pretty well all of the introspection and try working alongside others on service projects. Learn about other churches from their members.
posted by Idcoytco at 5:28 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I commend you for asking these types of questions. It's tough, and even scary, if you've been raised in a tradition that doesn't encourage them. Be at peace. I don't think you can ever displease God if you are honestly seeking the truth (for He *is* the truth).

I know many people have switched religions or denominations after some train of thought and I'd really like to know what that process was.

I can empathize with you on a few levels. I was raised in a non-denominational mish-mash which was heavily influenced by Pentecostalism. I had a profound, life-changing encounter with God during adolescence; after which I became very legalistic, trying earnestly to be faithful to God. In my early twenties, I began asking questions like those you're asking now. It was scary; I thought I was rebelling. Because I had no foundation, I went into a serious tail-spin. I didn't want to believe anything that wasn't true, and knowing my bias toward theism in general and Christianity in particular, I fought hard to compensate for it. I pretty much didn't believe anything for a few years and came close to atheism. Then, one thing led to another (by God's grace, I believe)--a philosophy class, a few good books, some serious, honest soul-searching--and I could no longer deny God's existence. After a lot of prayer and study, I became convinced of the Catholic faith and have been a Catholic for six years now.

I'm not asking which religion I should be in; just trying to figure out what would be a clear indicator that the religion I am in is not the way I should go... I never went through a process of finding a belief so now that I have lost my foundation for why I believed in this denomination (basically because it was all I knew), I don't know how to figure out if it's right.

You're essentially asking, "How do I know that what I've been told to believe is true?" Instead of answering that question, many respondents here are just telling you something *else* to believe. But I think that's the problem: You have, for too long, been believing things merely because others tell you to. That is not all wrong; we all start out that way; but as we mature we should test our beliefs to find if they stand on their own. You're overdue for that; and that's what you're feeling now.

In philosophy, the argument from authority is proving/accepting something as true because a seemingly reliable authority/guide tells you it is true. Although this is the weakest reason to accept something as true, it is still valid if you have reasons to believe that the authority really is reliable. But you first have to prove that. Now, I think that what you're going through is, first of all, due to the fact that you have accepted such a huge amount on authority--your whole worldview is reeling because it is so top-heavy--so much has been built on such a small foundation (the argument from authority offers the least amount of proof that something is true). And to boot, that already small foundation itself is beginning to crack--you're questioning whether or no the authority by which you accept so much is reliable after all. I think that the normal time to go through this is in adolescence, under the guidance of parents who teach you how not to believe things just because they tell you they are true, but because you have determined them to be true for other reasons--historical accuracy, logical correctness, etc.

Now, if you're overdue for learning how to think like this, you have to be patient and stay the course. I find that too many people in your position see the weakness in their foundation and, instead of repairing it, simply exchange it for another weak foundation. They discard the Christian religion which they believed on weak authority and start believing in an Eastern religion or in atheism on the very same kind of weak authority, and not because they have proved those beliefs to be true (or proved their old beliefs to be false). They no longer want to be spoon-fed by Jimmy Swaggart or T.D. Jakes, so they go off to be spoon-fed by Deepak Chopra or Richard Dawkins...and believe they are thinking for themselves. As G.K Chesterton wrote:
    "The modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with 'they say' or 'don’t you know that?' or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say."
And as E. F. Schumacher wrote:
    "The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man’s higher faculties. But it is not at all skeptical about skepticism, which demands hardly anything."
The thing is not to just believe what others say, but to listen to and weigh their arguments--the reasoning and evidence they offer in support of their positions. This is hard work--it takes time, it can be uncomfortable, and most people shrink from it...but it's the only way to true knowledge.

But to try and answer your question about clear indicators that your religion might be the wrong one:

General Reason/Logic:
Non-Catholic Christians since the reformation have tended to take a rather dim view of reason, believing that we lost our reason at the Fall. (Luther called reason, "the Devil's whore".) But that's a conclusion not shared by many Christians since, and almost all Christians prior to, the Reformation. Whatever your view of reason, it's simply a matter of common sense that the law of non-contradiction is true. So, a clear indicator that a religion contains error would be clear internal inconsistencies or self-contradictions. Now, sometimes belief systems will seem to have internal inconsistencies on the surface, but once you dig in and find the explanation, those inconsistencies will resolve. However, there are some that won't resolve, some that perhaps you wish you *could* resolve; but if you are really honest and humble, you can't resolve--not even after humbly hearing everyone's explanations, looking at it honestly from all sides, sitting on it for a considerable amount of time, and even praying about it. (Here's a good article to read on this subject. The second half or so is from a Catholic perspective, but the first part can be applied to any kind of religious inquiry.)

Any religion based on a set of historical facts, should withstand honest scrutiny of the historical record. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, "...if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ..." Read the best books on all sides of the issue; but be prepared--it's hard not to to lose the forest for the trees when going through the historical record, because many writers downplay the case that can be made from history against their beliefs and inflate the case that can be made in favor of them. Personally, I think that honest prayer and common sense go a long way in helping one to sift through this kind if stuff. Always compare any detailed argument with the big picture. Keep at it; and eventually, the truth will begin to emerge. (On the Christian side, I highly recommend the popular [yet difficult] book, The Everlasting Man. Mere Christian Apologetics, by Dave Armstrong is good, too.)

(i) If you've narrowed things down to a revealed religion, then tradition is important. In a revealed religion, the whole point is to be true to the original revelation; so once you've become satisfied that the original revelation is a historically verifiable fact, you should move on in the historical record to see what the earliest adherents to that revelation believed. The stream is purest closest to its source. Again, just as with the study of history, it's easy to lose the forest for the trees. Most every different Christian religion claims that it is modeled after the Early Church. Study the best resources from all perspectives. For what it's worth, here's one from my tradition. It would be ideal to read the primary sources. Also, check out Eusebius.
(ii) Even if you haven't narrowed things down to a revealed religion, you should take tradition into consideration. For instance, in order to be an atheist you have to believe that 99% of all the people who have ever lived have based their lives around a delusion. Why should just a few people from the Western world in the last century be right and everyone else wrong? That should be taken into consideration when deciding for or against atheism.

Psychological Arguments / Your Conscience
The inner-world of human experience offers valid data. I think this is what folks are hitting on when they say to pick a religion that you are most comfortable with. Though, I don't like the word "comfortable". Sometimes your heart tells you that reality is different from what is most comfortable. The folks I find most credible are those whose journey to truth was marked by struggle and pain (even if it ultimately ended in joy). The point is to take stock of what your heart/conscience is telling you. It's part of being human. You are not a calculator. There are folks (usually atheists) who discount the heart as an indicator of truth, but they do this by an a priori assumption that there is no spiritual element in the human person. If you don't want to preemptively rule that out before you even start your search for truth, you need to be open to the possibility that if God might be real, people might therefore have a spiritual element which senses spiritual realities. The "scientist" who preemptively discounts that as delusional is a materialist before he is a scientist (and is no more scientific than the person who is a theist before he is a scientist.) Don't preemptively dismiss anything. Listen to your heart. Just be sure to check what you find there in the inner-world of human experience against reason and the outer-world of fact and evidence. Some good books and essays about the search for God within the human heart are: Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing, "The Weight of Glory", A Severe Mercy, Surprised by Joy, and "Meditation in a Toolshed"

we were taught at church that our denomination was the only right one and pretty much everyone else was going to hell. That's all I knew and it never really occurred to me that I was wrong.

It's fine to think that your denomination is the only right one...as long as that's true. But how do you find out that's true? You open the matter up for investigation. But the moment you do that, you have opened up the possibility that you could be wrong. And you must do this in order to have true knowledge. True Knowledge is knowing that what you believe corresponds with reality, and the only way to have that is to test/measure your beliefs against reality. As Saint Augustine wrote in his debate with the Manichean heretics:
    "Let neither of us assert that he has found truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For truth can be sought with zeal and unanimity if by no rash presumption it is believed to have been already found and ascertained." (Contra Epistolam Manichaei Quam Vacant Fundamenti)
That is huge. It's so simple, but it's so hard for us to live by. Doesn't it make sense though? Say that someone is in error; how else can he see that he is wrong is except by considering that possibility? If he says, "Oh, but I don't need to be open to the possibility of being wrong, because I just know I'm right", then in error he stays. So, what if you, or I have that same attitude? Well, if we're in error, we'll stay there, too! Only by considering that we might be wrong, can we come to the true knowledge that we are right. We are finite. Reality is massively complex. So, there's always the *possibility* that we're wrong in our judgments.

We must make the subtle but very important distinction between the actual truth (whatever it is) and our conclusions about what we believe it to be. Our goal should be to conform our conclusions to reality--to the actual truth--and not vice versa. But, if we never recheck our conclusions about the truth, then our conclusions usurp the actual truth as the measure of all things. If we want reality--the actual truth--to be the standard and measure of our conclusion about it, then we need to reopen our conclusions when they are challenged. It's just a matter of keeping our eyes open instead of putting our head in the sand.

Being open to the possibility of being wrong does not lead to dogmatic skepticism, because, if our conclusions about the truth are right, each time we recheck them honestly against reality they will be re-confirmed and strengthened; and we will see, once again, that they are indeed true. As G. K. Chesterton said, we should keep an open mind like we keep an open mouth...in order to shut it again on something solid. Peter Kreeft says we should be skeptical skeptics, not dogmatic skeptics. We should be be skeptical of everything--even skepticism--and keep an open mind about everything--even about keeping an open mind. Elsewhere, Chesterton said that skepticism should be a spur that prevents a man from stopping, not a nail in his boot that prevents him from going on.

The point in being open to the possibility of being wrong is take a judge's approach to seeking truth and not a lawyer's. A lawyer just gathers evidence in support of the position he wants to prove. A judge weighs all the evidence so as to make an impartial decision. It's important to mention, though, that we are finite; we can't possibly weigh every single option in the area of religious truth...and each one exhaustively. I think the best approach is to be open to being challenged, and to re-weigh things when we are. And be conscious of the lens we wear. Many folks weigh all sides like a judge, but they are like a prejudiced judge because they judge other views through the lens of what they already believe. Thus, an atheist will preemptively dismiss religious experience as a psychological desire for the comfort of a father; and a religious person will preemptively dismiss atheism as, fundamentally, a hatred of God or love of some sin. You can "prove" anything you want if you go about it this way. The trick is to try to take off whatever lens you wear and try to imagine how the other side *could* be true. Have a hunger for reality as it really is (or might be), not for some sort of reality you want.

I've been researching the particulars of doctrine and it's hard to be sure. I have read many times on the site about how people say you should pick a religion that works for you, but to me that's not really an option... What people seem to be saying, though, is that religion isn't so black or white and nobody is necessarily wrong. That's the concept I'm struggling with in this thread. I have a black/white mentality on life in general, though I'm understanding more that there are lots of gray areas. Still, I would think religion wouldn't be one of them, considering what's at stake (your soul in eternity).

I think you're instincts are right here. A religion is like a map...a map of reality. It tells you the way things are. And just like you wouldn't pick the map that "feels right to you" when you're visiting England, you don't want to pick a religion because if feels right to you. You pick a religion, like you pick a map: because it is correct and accurate, i.e. true. And to all of those who say that religion is merely about love, meaning that doctrine and theology are superfluous and bothersome, refer them to Chesterton's essay, "The Usual Article".

At this point, I am of the belief that there is one right belief and if you believe in the wrong thing....there goes your soul. Like if I spend my entire life thinking that there is no God, for example, that doesn't mean there isn't and the fact that I believed the wrong thing, no matter how sincerely, won't save me from going to hell. So this is serious to me.

I agree with the high value you place on truth. It is serious. I agree that God places a high value on truth too; but in my seeking, I have concluded that God is merciful to the sincere seeker. He doesn't say "Seek and find", but "Seek and you will find" as if it's a promise that if we seek sincerely, He'll make sure we find. Plus, God knows we're finite. How can you possibly look at all the possible options to be *sure* you are right on every single point of doctrine? (I think this belief is what causes people to stick their head in the sand out of fear and pretend that their beliefs are right.) The Bible also says that He wants everybody to be saved. (1 Tm 2:4). Now if God really desires all to be saved, and that depends on them believing everything perfectly, what about all those people all over the world who haven't even heard of the Gospel? God wants them to be saved, too. I have found the Catholic Church's teaching on this matter to be most in harmony with the data from Scripture and tradition:
    "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation. Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 847-848).
I'm not offering proof of that view...just putting it out there in hopes that you'll consider looking into it. Consider also that Scripture (and Jesus) refer to God primarily as Father and not Judge. Father's *do* judge, but what father would condemn a child's honest mistake? If a child is trying with all his heart and might, but still gets his sums wrong, would a good father beat his child for that? Would *the* Father? If you are seeking painfully for right belief, but are honestly mistaken, I don't think God will condemn you for that. That view of God doesn't correspond with the data I find in Scripture, tradition, the lives of the saints, or in my own heart. As Thomas Flemming wrote, God is the kind of God who found men and women so worthy of salvation that He took on their weakness and became one of them. And as St. Josemaria Escriva wrote:
    "He has become so small—you see: an infant!—so that you can come close to him with confidence."
I'm not saying that God doesn't care about truth. He does. But what he wants most of all is our hearts. If we are honestly seeking Him (Who is Truth), He is pleased.
    "God is a lover, not a manager, businessman, accountant, owner, or puppet-master. What he wants from us first of all is not a technically correct performance but our heart." (Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You).
He wants our hearts. That's the seeking part. Our part. The finding, I think, is up to Him.
    "We just have to plunge in an look ourselves, honestly and carefully at all the arguments and all the answers and all the evidence. And above all we have to search honestly, for if modern psychology has taught us anything it has taught us that we are very good at decieving ourselves. And I think we even have to search passionately, because the more important an issue is, the less easy it is to solve. The most important truths are like deer, they hide in the bushes; they don't come out into the easy, sunny public places; so if you want them you have to hunt them down. There's not much in the philosophy of religion that atheists and theists can agree on, but I think they would both strongly agree with the following teaching of religious sages like Jesus and Buddha and Socrates: Seek and you shall find. In other words, if you don't seek the truth, or don't seek it well or don't seek it enough, you probably won't find it. The best way to find the truth is to seek it passionately and honestly, both objectively and subjectively with all your mind and all your heart. In fact that sounds like what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment. If Jesus is right about God, then someone who becomes an atheist because he has sought the truth with all his heart and mind and soul and strength--has really sought God...if God is the ultimate truth. And again if Jesus is right, all who seek find. So, perhaps the passionately honest atheist is far more pleasing to God that the less honest, less passionate theist." (Peter Kreeft, Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion, disc 1)
Be open--pray about and investigate the traditions who view God as the kind of God who would be pleased by a child who seeks honesty and passionately for the ultimate truth--Him. Is there any other choice? If you hold your beliefs out of fear of being wrong, are you "seeking" as Christ commanded? If you've been programmed not to question, then it's going to feel like rebellion. When you feel that way, just reflect on how honest you are being and how much God must be pleased with that. Reflect on how you could recoil from seeking out of fear and pretend that you have true knowledge that your beliefs are true. Would that please God? Reflect also on the parable of the talents. The servant who was condemned, buried his talents out of *fear* of the master. The servants who were rewarded by the master felt secure enough to take risks and earn more talents. The lesson, there, I think, is that God is not pleased by an unrealistic fear of him; but he is pleased if we trust Him and honestly and passionately use what he's give us--our minds and hearts--to please Him to the best of our ability.

Finally, here are some excellent resources for opening up the question of seeking religious truth:
posted by keith0718 at 1:41 PM on April 16, 2008 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: keith0718: I am blown away by the in-depth response you gave me and I truly appreciate it.

The last month or so since I've seriously been questioning everything and the past week since I posted the question have been stressful, especially the past week. I haven't really been able to sleep and I feel anxious and down most of the time. Just when I think I've reached some moment of clarity, I find myself unsure again.

I really want to ignore my doubts and live again as though what I've been taught is true. Right now I just try to think about it as little as possible, aside from a dedicated space of time each day spent lightly researching or journaling. I feel slightly overwhelmed and pressured and confused.

I do thank everyone for their comments. I come back to the thread frequently to re-read comments to help me through this.
posted by PinkButterfly at 6:31 PM on April 16, 2008

PinkButterfly, there is no reason why you have to find the full and final answer this week. I suggest you allocate yourself a suitable space of time, say 3 months, to look around at other beliefs, before trying to weigh up "the truth". In the meantime, let yourself follow the comfortable aspects of your original belief, while maybe lightening up on the uncomfortable bits in the interests of doing some proper exploring.

Clearly you can't tell your current pastor about what you are thinking. It sounds to me as though you should transfer out of your current church anyway if your pastor is stricter than others within your denomination. Can you feasibly run free for a little while without a designated "home" church? At the very least, you could tell both your pastor and your parents' that you will be attending either church, and then you can quietly slip through the cracks a bit.

Do look at other ways you can reduce the stress in your life, which sounds considerable. If it goes on, there are treatments for feeling "anxious and down most of the time".

To do the research properly you need to mix with people with other experiences. Get involved in other group activities, either purely social or educational or "good works". (OK, I know it may be hard to jon new groups when you are feeling down, but think about what you would most enjoy. Take baby steps in that direction.) Building up the links with the side of your family who have not been in the same denomination for generations would be good.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:15 PM on April 18, 2008

Response by poster: Idcoytco: Thank you for that.
posted by PinkButterfly at 4:59 PM on April 22, 2008

There is no clear, irrebuttable evidence that one denomination is superior to any other.

The tenants of the various denominations are strictly incompatible with the tenants of other denominations.

A just or loving God would not present you with what is essentially a guessing game for your soul.

From this one might conclude that there is no God, or if there is, he doesn't much care what you believe, if anything at all.

(The theory of language presented in Wittgenstein's Tractatus might help you see how you've come to be so puzzled by this question. Or it might just confuse you more, hard to say for sure.)
posted by brownbat at 6:56 PM on May 5, 2008

« Older Men's fashion advice for the stylistically...   |   Am I "one cupcake short of a baker's dozen?" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.