Imagine a man who lived some time ago.* From an early age, he was drawn to religion. He went to the formal service every week, sometimes even taking notes. He believed everything his church taught him, never felt a need to challenge the teachings, and tried to live as he was told he should.
He took his church’s teachings literally: God rewarded or punished us for how we had lived on earth, by assigning us to an eternal heaven or hell after we died. He internalized these teachings until he didn’t even have to think about them; they became part of his nature.
This man took tremendous comfort in knowing that he would spend eternity with God, and kept that thought in mind when making hard ethical or moral decisions. He made and kept friends easily: perhaps because he forgave easily, as he had been taught at church, and looked for the good in everyone he met. The man married, was a good provider, a good and faithful husband, and helped his wife in raising two happy and healthy children, as well as a third child who was troubled and troubling almost from birth.
He gave generously of his time for what he saw as healthy civic causes, and was in all ways a good citizen who seemed to bless his world as he passed through it. He lived to see several of his grandchildren come of age, grieved deeply over one killed in the war-du-jour. Several years later, he passed away peacefully in his sleep. Everyone in the town came to his memorial service, and many of them spoke of the ways in which his kindness had touched them. Some of their stories could move anyone to tears of gratitude for this man’s life.
Two weeks after he died, it was suddenly proven beyond all doubt that almost everything the church had taught him was wrong: there was no God, nor any afterlife with rewards or punishments. So: we can say the man’s beliefs were false. But can we say his life was false? If not, what does truth really have to do with living a fulfilling life? How would we judge whether someone’s beliefs are good? If metaphorical trees are known by their fruits, then religious beliefs must be judged by our behaviors, especially toward the weaker and those who don’t share our beliefs.
It’s no coincidence that this has been the message of history’s best prophets and sages, nor the fact that it has always been – and will continue to be – the broad path: the path that Jesus and most other sages and prophets have preached against for millennia.
* Adapted and expanded from a story by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)