These are the times that try men's souls. Those words, immortalized by the author of Common Sense, are as true today as they were some 230 years ago. In these troubled times, men and women find themselves turning to Him for whom the worth of souls is great. It should not be surprising to see an increased turnout in religious communities and places of worship. Whether you are Christian or Muslim or Jew, there is a peace and security that comes from turning to God and submitting one's will to Him. Unfortunately, that may turn out to be more of a problem than it is a solution.
If my experience in religious debate has taught me anything, it is that ultimately, people will believe what they wish to be true more than they will believe what is actually true. All too often, religion is used as a veil or justification to believe the things we want to, rather than the things we should; people believe what they want, irrespective of the Truth. This is true even amongst members of my own faith. One can believe the right things for the wrong reasons.
On both sides of the aisle are individuals willing to capitalize on this fact, in attempts to turn the People towards this political cause or that, simply by appealing to the spiritual wants and desires of individuals. We see various religions and their leaders propping themselves up as the solution to these times, while promising their congregants the low, low price of doing little more than singing contemporary-style music, clapping their hands, and making a meager contribution to the collection plate, in return for a placating sense of "feeling good" about one's beliefs and resulting lifestyle.
Never-mind that many of the adherents of these religions utilize logical fallacy and scripture-mining to support various untrue claims.Never-mind many of these contemporary religions and their members base themselves simply on the idea of "We are right because everyone else is wrong," or appeal to sentiments of anti-denominationalism and self-righteous hubris, denouncing traditional religious practices, norms, and values, while proclaiming themselves to be representative of "true" religion. Never-mind that many of these religions spend more time attacking and tearing down other faiths' practices and beliefs, than they do building up the kingdom of God.
Please bear in mind: I have nothing against organized religion. In fact, I am a staunch defender of organized religion, and readily defend the idea that man needs religion in his life to grow closer to his Creator. However, there can and should be room for healthy religious debate amongst the various sects, and even WITHIN the same denomination. Nor should this be construed in any way as a "my-religion-is-right-and-yours-is-wrong" argument. We all should worship Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, while allowing, and even encouraging, others the same privilege. And while I may disagree on key theological issues with Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, and other religions, I recognize and benefit from the merit of their arguments.
So how can religion do more harm than good? Traditionally, religion is a means of drawing closer to God; of learning His heart and mind and will, and learning how to better adhere to them. It is a community of fellow believers with the same goals and desires in mind. We attend the church we do because of our similar belief systems and anticipated outcomes as a result of our faithfulness to those beliefs.
In this lies the key in discerning "true religion". Not "THE true religion", but "true religion". The distinction here is important. The latter can never be satisfactorily answered except by individual experience. Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Protestants, etc, all feel the same way about their brand of religion: that is is THE true religion, while others are heretical or apostate in some way, shape, or form. The answer to that debate will never come to us except by God, and it is up to the individual to seek that answer for oneself.
The former, on the other hand, refers to the nature of religion, and its purpose to bringing us closer to our Maker, the Almighty Judge. "True religion" is defined by the types of behaviors it demands of its adherents, not the doctrines it expects them to believe. Indeed, doctrine is merely a tool of advancing changes in behavior. (This is where the original meaning of the term "indoctrinated" comes from -we are indoctrinated, i.e. instructed and trained to act a certain way according to certain beliefs.) Its value is derived from its efficacy in instilling life-changing behaviors. A doctrine or teaching that fails to do this is useless. True religion defines God in such a manner as to be in some manner approachable, whether it be by prayer, personal revelation, confession, saintly veneration, or sacramental ritual, so as to be better able to emulate Him. It encourages Godly attributes: humility, patience, faith, love, hope, obedience, meekness, and knowledge of the truth, and good works, to name a few. A sincere and devout Catholic who seeks these things is as much a part of "true religion" as a sincere and devout Mormon, Evangelical, Baptist, Jew, Buddhist, etc who sincerely seeks the same.
Where "true religion" become defiled or tarnished, is when it becomes a vehicle of political and ideological indoctrination. We are seeing this via a number of means: liberation theology, anti-denominational rhetoric, and the "mega-church" to name a few. Such churches focus less (if at all) on the things you do or the kind of person you are, and more on the things you believe. Theirs is a salvation by catechism, not a salvation by grace justified by faith and works. They promise much and ask little. All you need "to be saved" is clap your hands together, profess a certain belief (whether it be scriptural or not be damned), and you will have eternal life. These same religions will often attack more traditional religions for the good works they do, accusing them of faithlessness, Pharisaism, or self-righteousness. "All you need to do is believe", and by believe, they mean simply wishing it were so.
But wishing it were so does not make it true. As Gandhi said: "An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it". What is the truth? Well, that I leave to you the reader to discover for yourself. But beware of the group or community that demands blind adherence to politics and ideology. Beware the religion that teaches you to hear the word only, and not to BE both a hearer and a doer. And most importantly, beware of the religion that takes you away from God as an individual, and filters Him thru a collective relationship. It is the responsibility of the individual to draw towards His Maker, and develop a healthy relationship with his Creator. The collective cannot save you. The collective cannot bring you closer to God.
The pursuit of truth is a life-long discovery, one that is culminated in a lifetime of experiences, analysis, and good old fashioned trial-and-error. It is also a painful discovery, one that forces us to learn from our mistakes, to admit that we were wrong, and become better than who we were before. We do not have all the truth, nor do I expect we will have it all in this lifetime. But that should never discourage us from seeking as much truth as we possibly can. We must, "Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear". We must hold to the Truth and all its eternal principles, and we must speak those truths with civility and love and without fear.
God did not stop teaching us with the lives of the Jews and early Christians over 2000 years ago. We must believe all the truth that God revealed to us, all the truth He now reveals to us, and all the truth He WILL reveal to us. He teaches us yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so long as we are willing to learn.