The list of world religions is very long: UFO religions, the various monotheisms and polytheisms, new age mystical movements, Shamanism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Universalism, Taoism, Islam. Each claims to have a special lease on truth, but we are, it seems, forced to choose only one. So, if religious truth is our aim, which religion should we choose?
One way to approach the question is to ask which of the various miracle claims of the world’s religions is the most compelling. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, it is claimed, and as far as miracle claims go, they don’t get much better than that. Or do they? It seems that many people have been declared dead, been stuck in coffins, and nearly buried, before being saved at the last minute as they bang and shout from inside the casket. What about Muhammad’s splitting the moon in two? That seems like a great miracle to tickle one’s religious fancy, but the event is not corroborated by any other peoples of any other nation who should have witnessed the moon splitting just as well. What about Guru Nanak multiplying the holy mosque? What about Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni’s golden plates? All these miracle claims are crippled by a lack of corroboration and by the fact that they happened many years ago. Perhaps a more recent example is needed. What about Satya Sai Baba’s daily materializations of holy ash from within the palm of his hand? Millions of witnesses and caught on camera to boot! Alas, it is obvious palming.
The miracle claims of world religions are simply too difficult to compare, given the time that has elapsed since the event, the relatively few witnesses to the event, the non-independence of witness testimony, and the possibility of alternative naturalistic explanations which are both simpler and precedented.
Another way, and a much better way, to approach the question of religious truth is to look for examples of independent agreement between the claims of different world religions. So, for example, let’s assume that Christian missionaries had arrived in Samoa to find Samoans already wearing crosses and reciting the lord’s prayer, before any contact with the West. Let us assume that the missionaries then go on to Tierra del Fuego to discover the very same thing. The independent agreement between these three communities would be enough to mount a strong argument to the effect that Christianity is the one true religion—a religion which has its very ethos inscribed on the heart of every human being.
So, just which religious facts do independent human societies converge on? In a recent study by the evolutionary psychologist of religion, Hervey Peoples, the religious beliefs of thirty-three hunter gatherer societies from Africa, Austronesia, Eastern Siberia and the Americas were surveyed. These are extremely isolated religious communities. The African sample alone had been isolated from the rest for approximately the last 100,000 years. If we are looking for independent agreement in religious belief, this sample should provide it.
Hervey Peoples compared the following seven traits of religiosity among the sample:
- Animism: A belief that nature is full of spirits, that trees, mountains, rivers etc. sometimes meddle in human affairs, and that disrespect of the spirits may incur penalties.
- Life After death: A belief that human beings have something akin to spirits which survive after the body perishes.
- Shamanism: A belief that some human beings have skills to interact with the spirits listed above, and may work to prevent or incur supernatural penalties on others.
- Ancestor Worship: A practice devoted to the ritual worship of the spirits of dead ancestors.
- High Gods: A belief that there exist supernatural entities responsible for the generation of the cosmos or of Earth.
- Active Ancestor Worship: A practice devoted to the ritual worship of the spirits of dead ancestors, who meddle in the affairs of the living.
- Active High Gods: A belief that there exist supernatural entities responsible for the generation of the cosmos, and who meddle in the affairs of the living.
Of the thirty-three societies canvassed, all thirty-three agreed that nature is full of spirits, and that these spirits should be respected, less we incur their wrath. There is a spirit of the mighty river, a spirit of the great mountain and, if you like, a spirit of the great pumpkin. Indeed, far more agreement was generated on this point than on the competing claim that any high gods exist.
So, it seems that the best candidate for religious truth is animism. This is somewhat surprising, given that most modern people take the “big-hitters” like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism to be the most probable contenders for religious truth. It must be kept in mind, however, that religions like Christianity have strong proselytizing traditions which are entirely absent from animist traditions. It is no wonder, then, that religions with such proselytizing traditions have larger total numbers of followers, and very strong PR skills.
So, I must conclude that, although I remain an atheist, if I had to throw my money in with one religious tradition, I would be an animist.