ISTANBUL (Reuters) - What happens when you put a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk in a room with 10 atheists?Turkish religious authorities are not enthusiastic. Although Turkey's government is formally secular, the vast majority of Turks are Muslims. The TV program may have trouble finding an imam to appear. But its producers are undeterred.
Turkish television station Kanal T hopes the answer is a ratings success as it prepares to launch a gameshow where spiritual guides from the four faiths will seek to convert a group of non-believers.
The prize for converts will be a pilgrimage to a holy site of their chosen religion -- Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.
"We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God," Kanal T chief executive Seyhan Soylu told Reuters.Now let's take a harder look at that last statement. I've heard it a lot, even here in America.
"We don't approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn't matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe," Soylu said.
"It doesn't matter which religion you believe in, as long as you believe."
Imagine a parent saying to a child, "It doesn't matter what you eat for supper, as long as you eat something."
Child: "Okay, I'll take pizza and chocolate ice cream - forever."
But that wouldn't matter, would it, as long as the child is eating something?
Math teacher: "It doesn't matter what your answers are on the exam, as long as you write something."
Employer: "It doesn't how you spend your time on the job, as long as you show up."
Why are we so willing to dismiss religion with a wave of the hand - "anything I believe is okay" - but won't accept such a non-standard in any other arena of life?
I'm going to give an answer I know in advance will make some readers hackles rise. It's because to the vast majority of Americans today, their religion is a hobby rather than the ordering principle of their lives. Consider that this statement actually is acceptable: "It doesn't matter what your hobby is as long as you have one."
One man's hobby is golf, another's woodworking. One woman's hobby is gardening, another's crafts. No one thinks his/her hobby is better than another's, and they're right. Hobbies, in the long run, don't really matter. That's why we call them hobbies.
But rare indeed is the religion whose doctrines don't insist it doesn't matter in the long run - the very long run of eternity. So if someone treats one's religion no more importantly than a hobby, then he simply isn't taking his religion seriously.
To say that what we believe, religiously, doesn't matter as long as we believe something betrays, I think, a covert belief that death is the end of existence. If there is no life after death, then not only is one religion as good as another, so is atheism. Or, as the apostle Paul put it, "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32).
However, if one does take seriously the possibility that we survive the death of our bodies in some meaningful sense, then the choice of religion becomes centrally important. For the three great monotheistic religions all teach that right beliefs in this life are of eternal importance for the next. Consider the orienting claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam:
Now, one could, I suppose, maintain that all three are wrong and that eternal life, if it is to be gained at all, is achieved another way than taught by them. Yet the alternatives of world religions are not encouraging in that regard.
Buddhism, for example, teaches that when one dies one is immediately reborn as someone or something else until, eventually, final liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth is the attained by entering a state of Nirvana, the literal meaning of which is "to extinguish." Buddha himself made no claims about Nirvana other than that it was "indescribable" and "unutterable." Not much there to stake a hope on, I'd say.
As for Hinduism, its teachings on eternal life don't differ much from Buddhism's, they simply describe it differently and Hinduism does affirm the existence of deity - deities, in fact, since Hindus are generally willing to acknowledge the existence of any god you care to name because specific beliefs about God or gods is not considered essential. Like Buddhism, Hinduism seeks release from birth/rebirth until the Self is ultimately subsumed into universal identity "as a drop of rain merges with the sea."
Frankly, that doesn't float my boat, either. I want to be me in the afterlife - a better, perfected me, oh please, but still me. And I want you to be you, too.
Only Judaism, Christianity and Islam can hold out any hope for me in that regard. But they do not agree on how eternal life with God is to be achieved. Though Christianity is the child of Judaism, there are obviously some starkly defining differences, mainly the affirmation of the divine identity of Christ, but not only that. As for Islam, it formally claims that both Judaism and Christianity are corrupted religions resulting from revelations from Allah, but which were adulterated and changed by human sinfulness.
Each has, through history, excluded the others from validity as a way to life eternal. And yet, in that more than any other thing of life, it is most important to be right.
So how to choose, and on what basis? Well, this post is long enough, so I'll take that topic up another day.