There are basically three criterion on which to base a religious decision: tradition, reason, and inspiration.
Tradition, at first glance, may not seem like a sound basis on which to choose a faith. Why should one practice a religion simply because that's what your parents taught you? For one thing, it is almost impossible to leave one's childhood religion behind; it stays with you wherever you go like so much else from our childhood. We have an emotional attachment and a better understanding of the religion we grew up in that we will ever have of any other faith.
Even those of us who are "universalists" or believe in the "unity of religion" or that "all paths lead to God" often have an attachment to Jesus that outweighs that tolerant philosophical construct. Rhoda Gilman, a Quaker Universalist put it this way: "Images of a blissful Nirvana fail to move me, and though the Buddha spoke of suffering, it is a twisted body nailed to a cross that opens me to the full depth of pain and suffering that is entailed when consciousness takes root in time and flesh."
None of us can escape the culture we are born into, which is undoubtedly Christian. Virtually every American is either a Christian of some variety, or is a critic of Christianity, or is engaged in defending his or her beliefs from Christianity. A person seeking to convert another will quote Bible verses, assuming that the listener will reconginize the authority or Christian scripture, without any attempt to establish a basis for that authority. In other words, the assumption is that we have a Christian background, and on some level, will acknowledge the Bible as "God's Word". And most of the time, that assumption is probably correct.
Therefore, since we cannot escape the religion of our family and/or culture, then the serious seeker should, at least take a good look at it, study it, learn of its history, and consider its strengths and weaknesses. We should also look at the diversity within that Faith; perhaps if we are unsatisfied with one perspective, we can still find a home within another sect of the same religion.
The second criterion for choosing a religion is reason. It has to make sense to use. However, we should recognize that reason is not entirely objective: what "makes sense" to us will seem like nonsense to another. For example, one reason I am not a Christian is because certain beliefs and doctrines do not make sense to me, even though I realize that I am by far in the minority.
Every religion has its own internal logic that is not always comprehensible by those outside, and one should hear of each religion from believers, not from critics, if you even want to begin to understand it.
The final criterion is the most important of all: Almost no one experiences a religous conversion after being convinced by rational argument. We follow our hearts, believing that God has led us in a certain direction. This is the most essential element, for without that inspirational experience, we don't really have a faith, but a philosophy that may, or may not, have that much to do with our lives. On the other hand, the emotional/inspirational aspect is the most dangerous, because it is impossible for us to know whether our personal spiritual experiences come form God, or from our own psyche somehow.
There are three major mistakes people make when they have a spiritual experience. First, they tend to feel that their own vision, dream, or feeling, is universally valid. The second is that they will discount the experiences of those outside their belief system, as being unreal, or even demonic in nature. Finally, people tend to confuse the prompting of their own hearts with what God wants them to do. I'm always a bit suspicious when I hear "God wants me to do such and such" and it exactly coincides with that person's own wishes!
Click here to return to Home Page
Still looking? Take a look at the Belief System Selector.