Are Christianity and Islam religions, or collections of religions? Is Buddhism a religion? What about Satanism? Scientology? Jedi?
Even though no one is really in agreement on what we mean by “a religion,” we sure do have a lot of them. Regardless of how you choose to categorize the religions of the world, there’s no denying that there are a lot of options, and unlike money, religion basically grow on trees. There’s no one regulating how many religions there are, and I could start my own religion at any time. I wouldn’t even have to stop at only one.
Religions are basically like excuses: there’s no shortage of them, and every asshole has one. Oh, and they’re used to justify bullshit.
This diverse faith environment provides an interesting dilemma for the non-religious person. Namely, how many religions do you have to examine before you can be comfortable in saying that religion is not for you?
Granted, you could be raised in one religion, reject it, and decide you don’t want to be religious at all. I’m sure people do that. In fact, there’s also people who were raised without religion and know little or nothing about any religion at all. While I understand such decisions, I think the unexamined life is not even worth living, so I’m pretty firmly on the side of those who learn about religion in order to make an informed decision.
One thing I found interesting was not studying living religions, but dead ones. Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic, Finnish, Slavic, and Germanic mythology (to name but a few Western examples) contains some of the best storytelling you’ll ever read. You’ll also see in such works the “inspiration” for great story tellers, from classics like William Shakespeare and John Milton to contemporary writers like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Disney in particular wouldn’t have the source material for over half their films without classic mythology and fables.
On a deeper level, then, I think you will get something intellectually fulfilling from reading mythology. I also noticed something else: when a religion is gone and dead, it is easier to perhaps see the appeal of these works. The ideas become far more compelling when they are not coupled with the embarrassing rabble of the faithful.
In many ways, one can see through studying religion that most of the problem with religion is not religion itself, but actually the religious.
On their own, these stories can teach a good person how to be better, without the rituals and belief in gods. These tales take on a completely different tone when read by the greedy, the selfish, the abusive, the violent, the angry, the fearful, the neurotic, or the psychotic. In my experience, some of these people almost seem to relate to the harsh nature of the gods and wish to embody this, perhaps thinking it will make them more loved by the gods, or even gods themselves.
However, a good religious tale is not a blueprint for how to live, but is instead an oil painting of what life is like.
Forget for a second that you think you’re special, and remember that how you act is one of only a few typical personalities, and those personalities have existed for as long as history is recorded. When you read a good story, you recognize characters, as if you had met them before. Even if you read a story that is thousands of years old and translated many times over, a good one will be filled with moments where you smile at someone’s remark or your heart breaks for someone’s loss.
Even though there is so much time and culture separating us from the myths of the ancients, we can still relate to them.
So, how many religions must one learn about before the examination ends? I guess that is a personal question. Maybe we never stop looking, even if we take extended breaks. For me, once I realized what religions were, it was not difficult to see that I would never be a religious man, though I know I will always be fascinated by religion.
If you can see mythology for what it is, it can be of immeasurable value to you, but the minute you take any of it literally… well… to me, religion is a myth that has come alive and gone mad. And yet, I would hope that mythology survives into the future, because it’s a priceless look into ourselves and our own lives that should be available to everyone.
I hope we never stop making up stories that compel us. I could do without the overzealous fans, though.