There exists a climate these days, nothing new mind you, in which people will often call into question the religious beliefs of another.I have no problem with critically exploring religious beliefs, but more often than not the kind of attitude I am speaking about is based on little more than a knee jerk reaction. Often this reaction is built upon a very shallow understanding of some aspect of that religion. If this sounds familiar, wait until I've finished the rest of my intro; because this is not an attitude which is found only among the "usual suspects." No in this case those who often criticize the fundamentalist's intolerance, are found in their company when confronted with a religion that is too "out there". Religious tolerance it seems is a fickle thing, even among those who claim to defend it.
My favourite "whipping boy" in this case is Scientology. You will notice that I did not use a $ sign to replace the S, but it happens more often than not. I am, of course, not a Scientologist; nor do I ascribe to any of their beliefs even in the slightest. I am also critical of the structure of their religious organization, the Church of Scientology. Though unknown to most people, there are many Scientologists who are not members of the Church; so called "Free Zone" Scientologists. I can accept, and in fact share, most of the criticisms of the CoS, however I may differ from most in not finding anything particularly odd about their beliefs.
I mean really think about it, how odd are their beliefs compared to any number of world religions? Judaism; why they pray to an invisible sky man, who revealed his universal wisdom by turning into a burning bush, seen by one guy. Christianity; well they worship the same sky man, but also his zombie son; many of them do this through ritualistic cannibalism. Islam; same sky man, but this time revealed to a guy in a cave who ended up having a lot of wives. Hinduism; a million gods who are all the same god, but then you're not even you, but we. Buddhism: try to emulate a Indian prince who decided poverty was awesome, and owning things is the root of all evil; they seek enlightenment by thinking about weird things.
Part of my point is that anything can be made to sound ridiculous or terrible if you word it the right way, and focus on some detail, taken out of context. Many people would dismiss my points as shallow, erroneous and mischaracterizations of their religious traditions, and they would be right because they are. However there remains a kernel of truth in each statement, skewed as they may be. So people are also willing to ignore, or explain away the odd things which may exist in their traditions, but are not willing to extend that to others, especially minority religions.
Aside from this is a notion of efficacy, or reasonableness. I will provide a short comparison, between one of the oldest forms of religion, animism, and the default in the West, Christianity. From the Christian perspective, worshiping rocks, trees, rivers and mountains is the height of primitiveness; ignorant, superstitious and backwards. Why worship some dirt and pebbles, when you can pray to the supreme creator of the universe, and his son who died to give you the gift of immortality in the life to come? Well from an objective standpoint, it is the Christian, and not the animist, who hasn't got a leg to stand on. While one can not prove that rocks, trees, rivers and mountains have spirits, it can be proven that they exist. The Christian god on the other hand can not.
The practical effects of the objects of worship for the animist are tangible and far more influential than those of the Christian. A tree for example, can provide shelter from the elements, protection from predators, fuel for a fire, sticks to make tools, fruit to sustain you. The Christian god can not provide shelter, protection, fuel, tools or food, except in abstract or symbolic ways. Is it not eminently more sensible, since there are objective material benefits, to give praise and thanks to the objects which allow you to survive, rather than some disembodied sky man? Why then is animism held to be primitive or superstitious, when it is so much more practical than many so called modern religions? Little more than special pleading, or appeal to authority.