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The old fry cook was a man of un-muzzled thoughts. He was ancient and had been around since Noah was a sailor. One day he asked his smoke-choked clientele a question: “Which of ten thousand past, present, and future religions is the true religion?” 

Four customers in the jangled assembly, having already burnt their cheeks with the monarch of the vine (plump Bacchus with his pink eye), sang out in four distinct replies:

Amal: “Only one religion is true, and coincidentally it’s mine!” She went on …

True religious claims are found in the doctrines of one religion (mine) and that religion (mine) is uniquely privileged. Up to this very moment, no person in any given religion has been willing to concede that another religion is the exclusively true one. And so the matter comes to an intractable impasse. Except to me, mine is the only true one.

Bedros: “Only one religion is truest (mine) though a few other religions like yours and perhaps hers may be somewhat true!” He went on …

However, any truth within other religions (yours and hers) is already found more fully in the truest religion (mine). This view introduces a modicum of kindness toward people (like you) who do not share the truest religion. It’s only a modicum of kindness though, since the truest religion (mine) supersedes other religions in all matters.

Qiang: “All religions are true, even yours, remarkably!” He went on …

Religions are multiple paths to the same truth: multiple trails to the same mountain peak at the same location, as, say, Mt. Annapurna. Or religions are multiple paths to different truths: multiple trails to different mountain peaks on totally different continents, as, say, Mt. Everest and Mt. Fiescherhorn and Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Cotacachi and Mt. Whitney. This view is very kind and desires not to hurt anyone’s feelings, not even the feelings of long-dead ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks. However, you might say the position is logically impossible because religions make contradictory claims. Do people have one afterlife or multiple afterlives? Is there one God or many Gods or no Gods? Is hell temporary or eternal? Is sexuality an obstacle on the path to spiritual alertness, or is sexuality the path itself? No matter. ‘Truth’ here is defined functionally, and since all religions function for their practitioners, all religions are true, by this view.

Jingyi:  “No religion is true, not mine for obvious reason, and especially not yours or hers!” She went on …

I include here skeptics, atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, all of whom consider religions to be invented cultural compositions that might here and there offer true statements about particulars in morals, meditation and yoga poses but are not true in any larger, general, metaphysical, or super-natural sense. But if a skeptic doubts all truth claims, a skeptic should probably also be skeptical about the claim that skepticism is true. If skepticism is true, skeptics shouldn’t say it like they’re right. They should rather say, ‘This might actually be false: But I’m sure skepticism is true.’

The wise old cook, a man of untiring and continuous goodness, said to the crowd:

The sheer haphazardness of anyone’s participation in any given religion should lend itself to patience and forbearance and a benign sense of humor about the search for religious truth. What do I mean by ‘the sheer haphazardness of anyone’s participation in any given religion’ ? It is this: Almost no one chooses their religion. The matter is fated. Geography is fate. The historical epoch is fate. A culture is fate. A family is fate. All these are the fated vehicles of religion and irreligion. Ah, who knows what’s true?

And here are some words of caution about the truth of dead and future religions. A dead religion, a religion that met a historical cul-de-sac and no longer exists, was not necessarily an untrue religion. It may have been—woe to us today—the true religion. And a future religion, a religion that is hundreds or thousands of years distant from us, may turn out to be the true religion. If the true religion Christianity can arise four thousand years after the dawn of history, and if the true religion Islam can arise four thousand six hundred years after the dawn of history, and if the true religion Baha’i can arise six thousand years after the dawn of history, then the true religion X can arise eight thousand years after the dawn of history.

The crowd knit their ears to his experienced tongue—even as they hungrily plunged fresh-cut, fresh-cooked, crisp-crinkled french fries deep into dollops of Malayan and Taiwanese ketchup.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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