I dislike being an apologist for organized religion, primarily because I’m not all that organized, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.
First, Buddhism may not be a particularly mainstream religion in the U.S., but it certainly is in other parts of the world, so you’ve pretty much contradicted your argument with your first line.
Ahh, perhaps you’re talking about WESTERN religions – particularly the Judeo-Christian-Moslem branch. Okay, let’s go from there.
The first of the Ten Commandments reads (depending on the translation) “I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me.” So right from the get-go, there’s a certain “my way or the highway” built in.
Even with that, most “mainstream” Christian denominations have softened their “arrogance” toward those who believe differently. The compressed version of this is “those who live a godly life will see God.”
Of course, there are also groups like the Unitarian-Universalists (Espirx, are you around?) who recognize and celebrate diversity in belief and forms or worship. They believe there is a Supreme Being (not a particularly rigorous test of faith for someone seeking a religion) but leave other details to the individual’s conscience.
There are always petty little people who will dress themselves in the trappings of a religion to get what they want and crush those whom they dislike. From time to time one of these people may actually achieve a position of authority. They no more define what religion is than the flaws of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton define what the presidency is.
Also, religions do not evolve in a vacuum. They are shaped as much by the culture of their founders and members as they are by God. If Judaism seems at times a little tribal or clannish with its concern about heritage, it’s partly because it started as a tribal religion and partly because its enemies have always been happy to persecute someone on the basis of heritage. If Christian denominations seem concerned with power, it’s partly because Christians were officially persecuted for the first 400 years, and have spent the rest of the time watching the guy on the throne pretty much decide what everyone else was going to believe.
I don’t know you. I don’t know whether you’ve lived a life that deserves heaven or hell, and I’m not the one to judge you. I hope that the way you have chosen helps you “lead a godly life.” However, I have evaluated (and continue to evaluate)whether I am comfortable with my belief system. I am. I respect your choice to follow a path that I may not agree with. I ask that you respect mine equally.
And now, any real theologians out there?