I’ve spent over two decades trying to find out which religion or spiritual path is true.
I’ve done this for personal reasons in my search for meaning and inner peace. And I’ve also done it as part of my journalism career, reporting on Hasidic Judaism, Islam, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, atheism and nihilism and writing about Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, occultism, shamanism, New Age spirituality, transhumanism and more.
In fact, I’m currently writing a book on cults and the search for belonging and truth called Cultworld that will be out later this year.
But the question remains: what have I discovered in my travels and investigations? Did I have some Eureka! moment where I finally realized the one true faith or something more subdued?
This is my answer.
What does “truth” even mean?
Before I start it’s important to cover the basics. What do I mean by truth?
Without channeling my inner Emmanuel Kant or Georg Hegel too much here, truth means a fact or repeatable occurrence in accordance with reality.
The thing is, religion claims to be “true” according to higher – and often invisible – realities, making questions of truth and proof a little bit trickier.
Religious and spiritual truth may not always be visible or “measurable” but I have talked to enough devoutly religious and spiritual people to be able to at least present you with what they consider as proof of the truth of their faith.
For myself, religion means reconnecting broken bonds of meaning. Truth means something which remakes the whole individual and the whole cosmos. The truth tells the whole story, across all the “layers” of reality, subjective experience and belief.
Any way you look at it, religion and spirituality is definitely a fascinating subject and that’s why I want to tackle it here.
So here we go: 10 surefire ways to know if a religion or spiritual path is true.
1. Its theology is consistent
There’s a joke that says there are seven billion religions in the world.
The point is that every person is their own religion in a way:
We all see the world differently, have varying life experiences and change our emotions, outlook, thoughts and priorities on a regular basis.
I used to be passionate about science fiction and care deeply about hockey growing up. They were my daily obsession and I could talk about them for hours. Now I rarely pay attention to either and wouldn’t get much further than knowing who Isaac Asimov was and telling you how a puck works.
Religion is supposed to be more than just a “passion” or interest. Spiritual paths and faiths are supposed to provide rules for life, or at least guidelines to leading a worthy and good life.
For this reason, I strongly recommend committing to a path whose theology is consistent.
If your church or temple believes in Scriptures that teach of a divine being who tells you murder is wrong but frequently murders people in the Scriptures then there are difficult questions to be asked about just how consistent the theology is here.
If the spiritual path you’re on tells you that everyone’s experience is valid but then tries to dictate what sort of conclusions you must reach about life, love and the cosmos then it’s likely going to be a controlling, limiting environment full of judgment and labels.
If your spiritual path or religion doesn’t make sense to you or gets wishy-washy on the hard questions then it has the potential to lead you off track and may be more of a vehicle for the human ego and dominance than the truth of the universe.
2. It cares about helping others and kindness
This is related to point one. If your religion or spiritual path’s theology is inconsistent that’s one thing: consider it a “software error.”
But if your religion’s philosophy or theology is consistent and wonderful but its actual practices, people and actions are harmful then that’s a “hardware error.”
Keep in mind that broad generalizations are often one of the biggest mistakes people make in deciding whether a religion or spiritual path is right for them.
“Religion X is oppressive and colonialist” or “Religion Y is full of peace and love” are both broad generalizations that will be proven wrong on multiple occasions if you engage too much in black-and-white thinking.
One example is Buddhism, which is a wonderful religion and philosophy that helps many people grow and shed self-limiting and suffering-inducing behaviors. However, devout Buddhists in various regions of Myanmar are deeply racist against the Rohingya people and engaged in programs of ethnic cleansing, so if you were part of their sects you would notice that disconnect between teaching and practice quite quickly.
Another example is Christianity, which is sometimes broadly dismissed by humanists as “oppressive” or too tied to colonialist abuses. There’s no doubt that the history of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism includes plenty of colonialism, violence and devastation, but it also includes incredible projects of compassion, solidarity and understanding.
For this reason, I recommend thinking about the local chapter of the religion or spiritual path you’re considering being involved with.
The big picture can often be painted to look any hue that the current narrative wants, but it’s a lot harder to hide your true colors one-on-one.
How do the people behave and what makes them tick? Do they genuinely want to help and love others or is there something else driving them?
3. It doesn’t shy away from the hard questions
Why is there suffering? What happens when you die? What is right and wrong?
These are hard questions, but any religion or spiritual path worth dedicating yourself toward will not shy away from these questions. You will sense that the Scripture and leaders of this movement have truly wrestled and resolved some of these questions on a deep level rather than just bumper sticker slogan solutions.
In some cases the question itself may be part of the mystery. There aren’t always logical answers we can understand to these fundamental questions, but there are authentic questions and sincerity.
In this case I would advise you to beware of “formulaic” answers that seem too much like copy-paste.
If you read that Hinduism considers physical poverty or low-class jobs to be a duty from the dharma of past lives and hear this repeated frequently by believers it should give you pause.
There is a giant difference between someone truly believing something and repeating it because they have been taught that.
In order to think for yourself you need to draw on your conscience and your own life experience to steer you in the right direction.
4. It’s not focused on taking monetary donations or rewards
We all need money to eat and live. That’s not controversial to say.
But if the spiritual path or religion you’re following is constantly asking for more money or seems to exist just to come up with new ways to empty out your wallet then you need to start looking for the exit.
This is equally true of things like New Age courses or religious charities which don’t only ask kindly for donations now and then but may hit you with popups frequently and repeatedly, drawing on your good nature and attachment to the beliefs to try to extract more funds from you.
It’s disappointing and hurtful to realize, but in some cases your well-intentioned beliefs really are taken advantage of and used to milk cash from.
If the spiritual environment or religious institutions you’re involved with ask for some help that’s fine. But if they seem to be centered around funding and asking for funding then you have a potential problem on your hands.
A variation on this is when you are (forcefully and repeatedly) asked to devote your time and energy to a group or cause that seems to be taking advantage of your labor and time. This is actually a core hallmark of many cults such as Warren Jeffs’ and his fundamentalist Mormon community. Jeffs and his abuse was actually uncovered as a result of police pulling over what they believed were drunk drivers on nearby roads; in fact, these individuals were weaving all over the road from exhaustion, having been worked 18 hours per day at Jeffs’ expansive Yearning for Zion ranch.
5. It doesn’t worship gurus or lead to egotistical personalities
Related to the last point about the child-abuser Jeffs, a true path or faith does not center around messianic personalities and leaders.
Whether it’s New Age, traditional or even just an informal meditation group with you and your friends, there should be a giant blinking warning sign in your head if things start getting worshipful of a person leading your group.
There is nothing wrong with having someone in charge or leading a group. It can be a positive and loving experience. But when it becomes exploitative or arrogant then even the beneficial and truth-revealing aspects of the path you’re on can get completely overshadowed by psychologically damaging behavior and methods.
As founder Justin Brown wrote here at Ideapod, spiritual ego is a major problem. Many people start out on a spiritual or religious path and beginning feeling superior to others.
They also can get the compulsion and obsession to convince others that they’ve found “the truth,” and may begin worshipping a guru or becoming a kind of guru figure themselves.
It’s entirely natural that people have role models or look up to community and faith leaders. But if you notice it start to get “cultish” or weirdly centered around one person and hanging on every word they say then it’s time to take a big step back.
6. It makes people face the darker parts of themselves
Any worthwhile path is going to bring you face-to-face with the darker parts of yourself.
However this doesn’t mean that it will shame you for being broken, sinful, or wrong. In fact concepts like this are regularly misunderstood by religious and non-religious people.
Most religions set out objective standards of right and wrong, but they don’t claim believing this will stop you from committing the error. In fact most faiths I’ve studied and participated in were very concerned with how even being a believer still leaves you wide open to making mistakes and falling short of the teachings of the faith.
Sinning and committing errors does not make someone who avoided those sins “better” than you, nor does it give them the right to judge you.
However there is such a thing as objective right and wrong: this is something even non-religious people generally agree on. They simply differ on what it is and who gets to decide.
I think many non-religious people misunderstand the religious fixation on concepts like sin, Hell and punishment.
How dare some ancient book call me bad for liking X or doing Y, they think. Why should I behave nicely so some vengeful God doesn’t burn me up forever?
The deeper truth of many teachings about sin and wrongdoing is not about that. Religions claim they will “save” you if you follow them, by facing the dark parts of yourself, not by becoming superior or “clean.” Even though some believers start to think this, it is a sign they have missed a crucial core of their religion.
Renowned Islamic scholar al-Ghazali put this well in his statements about sin, saying that before you seek to fix the injustices and excesses of the world around you, you should first seek to fix them inside yourself.
7. It’s more about actions than beliefs
This is going to be controversial, but I’ll say it anyway.
If you’re on a true path or religion it’s going to focus on actions over beliefs.
This was a big debate in Christianity that tore it apart for centuries (“faith vs. works”) and I understand it’s a touchy topic.
The idea is that you shouldn’t be trying to “earn” your way into Heaven, while those who focus on works say what’s the point of believing amazing things if you don’t follow through with real action.
I understand both points of view, but I believe the balance lies in favor of works.
The truth is that I agree works and action will not get you into Heaven and you can’t earn your way to being a good person – nor should you try.
In fact the biggest sign you’re a good person is that you don’t have a goal or particular desire to be a good person: you’re just doing your best genuinely 100% each day.
You fall down, you get angry, you fall short, but you get back up and you help and do good things because you can, not out of any expectation of reward or recognition.
Some might ask:
How is this any different than just doing good things regardless of what you believe then?
The answer is that believing in a compassionate and purposeful vision of humanity and the earth can guide, inspire and locate kind actions in a wonderful way.
It’s not about seeking out a reward for doing good, it’s about doing good in a meaningful context.
8. Followers treat non-followers with equal respect
In fact, a large part of the beginning surahs of the Qur’an talk about how outward piety and religious observance is only a pale reflection of the inner spiritual life that needs to take place for submission to Allah and salvation.
Praying regularly, fasting and following the pillars will not save you, the Qur’an emphasizes, adding that many who call themselves Muslim are even worse than nonbelievers and are hypocrites who don’t truly believe or practice what they preach.
I know that in my case I’ve had particularly positive experiences with Mormons and Muslims when it comes to being treated with equal respect and welcome upon expressing interest in their faith.
They did not try to define who I was or what I had to believe but straightforwardly introduced me to any of the core concepts of their faith, emphasizing that while they were 100% certain their faith was true, they did not judge me as less or more of a person because of my decision regarding joining their religion or not.
I have found that any religion or spiritual path which “rates” and values you based on how much you agree with it or not is caught up in ego and point-scoring.
At the same time, it’s perfectly normal that a religion or path would care that you follow what it believes is true.
The compromise here is that it would be perfectly fine to be pulled aside and told that “here we believe X” in a loving way in which you are still clearly valued and appreciated as a human being, however it would not be fine to be pulled aside and told you’ll go to Hell or are an evil person for not believing or following a certain part of the religion or path.
In other words, being objectively honest about what a religion believes or not is necessary. Having it made personal or to pass divine judgment on you by way of it is not.
9. It brings meaning to life and suffering
Even though many questions may still remain, the path you are on brings meaning to life and suffering.
They may do this through projects, study groups, worship, meditation, prayer and personal support. But either way: they do it.
Some of the strongest people I know are devoutly religious. They have gotten through situations I can barely comprehend because of their faith that life has a greater purpose and that all suffering will eventually be redeemed and worthwhile.
It’s not necessary to be spiritual or religious to be a good person, obviously, and all of us has an equally valuable and precious individuality that grows with life and challenges.
But any path that is true is going to respect your individuality and your own struggles while also giving you a communal group in which to find that you’re supported, loved and encouraged by others who’ve been through similar things to what you’re going through.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said “God is dead,” also noted that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
If you have a reason you can find a way.
10. It doesn’t speak for God
One of the warning signs of a religion or spiritual path is when a leader starts talking a lot for God or on behalf of supernatural powers.
There’s a tricky question here since many religious and spiritual paths involve communication or interfacing with the divine.
How, then, can you separate the crazy from the crucial?
I would propose two main types of messages from God that should be seen as harmful and not indicative of a true path.
Firstly are messages focusing on your own brokenness and unworthiness at length and making you feel ashamed, lost, small or worthless.
Yes, I do think sin and wrongdoing are real, but life is also beautiful and you should never be made to feel like a piece of garbage by a loving creator or universe.
Secondly are messages which are overly close to wish-fulfillment, vague and full of impersonal, fuzzy praise.
Yes, I think it’s good to be flattered sometimes and supported, but if your path is just telling you how great you are and not to worry about anything then you’re never going to have the kind of friction, doubts or self-exploration to face harder parts of yourself.
Fine, so which religion is actually the truth?
At this point you may be saying: “fine, so which religion is the truth?” and I’m going to tell you, I really am.
The one true faith is actually a specific sect of Jainism located in eastern Sri Lanka.
I’m joking, although Jainism has a lot going for it and probably isn’t fair to make the butt of a joke. I’m sure it’s a wonderful religion from everything I hear and I’d love to find out more about it from any Jain readers.
I won’t take it upon myself to tell you which religion is true or not, or whether they all have different degrees of truth in various ways. I will say that I firmly believe there is truth to numinous phenomena and that my experiences and research leave me convinced there is a non-physical world, Creator and meaning and sanctity to life.
I also find that there are various pros and cons to a relativist or absolutist approach to religion and spirituality.
The pro of a relativist approach is that it lets you pick and choose the best parts of every faith and spiritual path and craft them into an approach that’s made for your life and leads you in all sorts of amazing directions; the con of a relativist approach is that it can become confusing and self-defeating to just regard everything as potentially true and also lead to being taken advantage of by skilled gurus.
The pro of an absolutist approach is that it allows you to have firm guidelines for what is true and practice the discipline and routine of a religion while being surrounded by a community of likeminded believers who support you and become your close community; the downside of an absolutist approach is that it can descend into dogmatism and fanaticism and end up crowding out organic spiritual experience and growth.
There’s no perfect formula, but there are signs along the way. Only you can live your life and decide whether or not to commit to a spiritual or religious path that rings true to you.
After all: I’m still a seeker too!