Gabriel Nieto

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One of the questions that many people not specially religious make, although not only, has to be with the reason for the existence of religions' diversity and the fact that most of them, at least each of the traditional ones, tells that is the true one, and until to a not very long time ago, even the unique religion where salvation is possible. The origin of this fact can be explained by dogmatic theology through the concept of grace, salvation, illumination, revelation, election, and so on that each religion defends, but there are other circumstances which contributes to the formation of the fact we would consider today briefly. Religious beliefs can be explained by dogmatic theology, of course, but at the same time we can have a look from phenomenology and social anthropology to see what these other sciences can tell us about the fact in question.

It is easy to ascertain that when a religion is really believed, practiced and supported, the option for other religions tends to be excluded. Only when the unity practice-belief is weak and the believer's life has entered in crisis, the change of religion is possible, but when the unity practice-belief is strong, even the more convincing reasons, examples or harsh situations are not able to separate a person from his religion. And if we consider the fact carefully, we will see that in comparison with the total number of believers, the change of religion from one to another is really something unusual. New forms of belief have appeared in the last decades, but from the point of view of comparative studies, many of them are not true religions, but spiritual movements, because the commitment required in many of the spiritual movements is weaker than in traditional religions where the whole life of the believer gets involved. Is more frequent to incorporate a new foreign belief to the own religion than to change from one religion to another, but why?



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From the point of view of the practice, religions are intrinsic conservative systems, unified forms of practice-belief. The more one believes, the more one practices, and the more one practices, the more one believes. Once a person has done steps, made vows, assumed promises, is much more difficult to be led astray of his path than if his beliefs are only sustained in the theoretical sphere. Two factors operate here. First, when we practice or develop a belief, we enter into a new level because we must choose, select and particularize the belief into material reality, into life, rejecting other things, options that were possible before the practice. Believe in abstract, is less difficult than to practice because for practice we must do an effort to incardinate the belief in the real circumstances of life. A true religion, is always associated to sacrifice, abnegation and self-deny. Second, once the belief has been transformed into a deed, the effect produced by the practice, by itself, tends to reinforce the belief. The dynamic of practice-belief leads, in a next step, to the conviction that fidelity is the key for salvation because one experiences the truth of a religion from its practice. Sometimes, the effect as a result of the belief can be not convincing, and a believer can put under question his religion, but very often what traditional religions command their followers to do works, is effective. The dynamic belief-practice is, in this sense, one of the main causes for religious fidelity, apart from theological conviction, which neither is separated from practice.


Another answer we will shortly explore to the question about the consideration that my religion is the true one, against the other religions, is that religious belief usually is a belief in common, shared inside a vital reference group. One believes in group, not alone, belonging to a specific cultural heritage, to the same social context, and many times to the same religious community as his relatives and friends, formed by people who share trust bonds, common goals and motivations. Beyond historical and theological considerations, the fidelity to a specific religion is reinforced by membership, by the link maintained with people who belongs to my own group, the group that has walked with me, supported me, and not to other groups. Due to our social nature, we feel a force that keeps us in the group to which we already belong and that makes us mistrust in what exits out of this group.

Instinctively, the trust in the own group is therefore correlative to the mistrust in the groups that are not my group. Without doubt, the instinctive trust in the own group keeps us in the correct way, in the true group, but we should take into consideration that the same force or phenomenon rules the permanency in the wrong path and in the wrong or opposite group. Being the breaking of trust bonds necessary, if we consider the rational possibility of leaving the own group to go to another better group we will surely experience a resistance to do it, even if we are really convinced, and if somebody tries to do it, he is usually condemned by the main body of the remaining group. In the religious atmosphere, the ethnocentric feeling firmly condemns the abandonment of the own religion to incorporate another, whereas the reception of a person who left his former belief to enter the own religion or group is celebrated.


The force experienced by a person who remains in the original group where he made the first commitments derived from the dynamic of practice-belief, often is very high. Unfortunately, this force that hold us in the good way, can also be considered as a major cause of the fidelity to groups where unhealthy ideas are professed or kept against the common sense, like dangerous sects or some political groups, supremacism and radical nationalism to quote two among many others, who justify different kinds of violence. Those are extreme examples of another aspect of the ethnocentric feeling: the tendency to underestimate the offences, errors and inconsistencies due to a focusing in the own virtues, successes and coherence, that often justifies the fidelity to the own group when a fault in the system of practice-belief is perceived. Self-criticism is the current tool used to avoid risks coming from ethnocentrism, one of the most profitable companions to political, religious, economic and other social systems of practice-belief. In sum, the idea of belonging to the true religion in which usually the followers of the different traditions believe, can be explained by two ways, apart from the theological one: the dynamic practice-belief that carries a selection and specification of the rational aspect of a religion, excluding other options while the dynamic turns deep and progresses in circle, and the social nature that keeps humans linked to their respective reference group.



Picture: A look from Lost Mount (3355 m.), Spanish Pyrenees.

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