What would happen if a leading lawyer examined some of the biggest religions in the world? How would Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, and other religions fare when put on trial? Our guest today, Mark Lanier, is a trial lawyer who was named on the list of Best Lawyers in America for 9 consecutive years. He is the author of Religions on Trial. We discuss how his legal training prepares him to discover truth and his assessment of various world religions.

Mark Lanier is consistently recognized as one of the top civil trial lawyers in America. Mark’s success in the courtroom and perspectives on litigation have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg News and the Houston Chronicle, among many other publications. He is also a frequent guest on news and business programs for a wide range of broadcast and cable networks. He is the author of multiple books including Religion on Trial.

Episode Transcript

Sean: What would happen if a leading lawyer examined some of the biggest religions in the world? How would Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, and other religions fare when put on trial? Well, our guest today, Mark Lanier, is a trial lawyer who is named on the list of best lawyers in America for nine consecutive years. He's the author of the book we're going to discuss today called Religions on Trial. I'm your host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae.

Sean: And this is Think Biblically, a podcast brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Mark, it's such a joy to have you back to talk about your latest book. I think it'd be helpful to remind listeners who maybe didn't hear the first episode a little bit about your legal experience and background that you bring to this examination of the world's religions.

Mark: Well, first let me say it is a delight and an honor to be on this show. Thank you, gentlemen, for what you're doing for people to think biblically. It's wonderful. Now, as to my practice of law, I got out of law school in 1984, so I'm pushing 39 years of practicing law. I've tried just about every kind of case there is all around the country, from California to New York, from Minnesota to Texas, and all points in between. I've gotten to try some of the largest cases in American history. I think I've got the largest verdict that's been upheld by the Supreme Court in a personal injury action.

Sean: Wow.

Mark: I've gotten cases that have changed the products that we use each day. I've gotten opioids off the street and held people accountable for the opioid epidemic that rages through the country. It is something that I do daily. I still practice law. I'm right now one of the co-leads in the national litigation concerning Tylenol and whether or not it causes ADHD when pregnant women take it in an adequate dosage. So I practice law, I'm currently representing 17 states in an antitrust case against Google. This is what I do day by day, but my passion, my heart, is to not just think biblically, but to live biblically. And I only feel fair doing that if I have personally addressed the options to the biblical faith that is presented in my Judeo-Christian upbringing. And so I've tried to not only examine my own faith, but I've tried to use the same legal tools I'll use in cases that can change the world. I'll try to use those same legal skills and approach to assess other prominent religious faiths to find areas of truth and to find areas that I find challenging to truth.

Scott: So, Mark, maybe one more question to help remind our listeners a bit more of who you are. Tell us a little bit briefly about your journey to faith and answer the question, why are you a Christian?

Mark: Wow. Well, I grew up in a home that was a Christian home. I had a Christian mother and father. And so I came by my faith, some might say genetically, but certainly environmentally. But like most people, even though it was very serious to me as a young man, and I took degrees to preach, and I also have a degree in biblical languages in Hebrew and Greek. As much as I loved that and wanted that, I hit that stage in life where I needed to make sure that I wasn't one of God's grandchildren. I didn't have my faith through my parents. And so I went through a very careful examination of why I believe the Christian basics answer the important questions of life. And some of that was reflected in a book I wrote, Christianity on Trial. That was the first volume of this IBP trilogy. We're talking about the third volume today. But it was always something that was important to me, but it's still something that I made the deliberate decision to hold on to myself. And I can say that my religious faith is one that makes sense to me. It makes sense to me of the world that I live in. It makes sense to me of that internal world that lives in me. It makes sense to me of dreams and hopes and aspirations as well as defeats and tragedies and times of grieving. But my religious faith is something more than head knowledge, and I'm not doing it justice if I don't say that it's also, you know, that Hebrew word, “yada,” which means "no." It denotes a level of intimacy, of experience. You know, Adam “yada'd,” he knew Eve, and she bore children. It's referencing obviously sexual intimacy there. But the intimacy of the word, the experience of the word, is something that's a very important part of my faith as well. So my faith is head knowledge, yes, I believe it to be true, but the demons believe it to be true and they shudder.

Sean: That’s right.

Mark: That doesn't put me walking with God. It's a vibrant part of my experience as well as my knowledge, if that makes sense.

Sean: It does make sense. So you've written books, you presumably go to a local church and have a family that's Christian, and yet when you write this book, "Assessing World Religions," you already have skin in the game, so to speak. So, how do you objectively assess these various non-Christian religions without falling into your own bias and commitments?

Mark: Well, we all live with that wonderful brain shortcut that the social scientists will call "confirmation bias." And it's something I speak on and I teach on because it's the nemesis of the trial lawyer. We start believing what we want to believe. We filter and interpret the evidence to fit our beliefs. We hear only that which is in concert with what we already want to hear, and we dismiss that which disagrees with the conclusions we've already drawn. That's confirmation bias. And it is endemic to people, and I'd be fooling myself if I told anyone I've risen above it. Nobody rises above it, but recognizing it and going to battle against it, taking it to task, is what a trial lawyer must do. Because if I don't, I'm always going to believe my case, and I'm never going to understand the other side. Truth is a multifaceted gem, and there are lots of sides to truth, and I always want to try and examine all of them as fairly and as equally as I can. And so what I've tried to do is that very thing. And do I have skin in the game? Absolutely. Do I go to church? Of course I do. I teach a class with a thousand people in it every Sunday morning.

Sean: Wow.

Mark: Have I written? Yeah, I've written these books. I've written books on the Torah. I've written books on the Psalms. I've written books on the Gospels. I've got a book that's coming out next year on the minor prophets. I mean, this is what I do. Okay? This is my faith. But it doesn't mean I can't work assiduously hard to be as objective as possible. And I think I can bring a level of objectivity to the analysis by virtue of the fact I've trained to do that, not just for the 39 years that I've been a lawyer, but we were national debate champions in high school and in college. And we, you know, this is something I've done since I was 14 years old, try to analyze every side to an issue and be able to argue every side effectively.

Scott: Mark, I have to tell you, Sean and I are feeling like serious underachievers here.

All: [laughing]

Scott: That's quite a ministry you have in your spare time while doing a very demanding day job at the same time. Well, you're kind. I'll send you some of the books. Be great. Love that. You can sell them on eBay for 10 cents a copy.

Scott: Not if you autograph them first.

Mark: No, if I autograph them, my mom will buy them off eBay and you'll get 15 pounds.

All: [laughing]

There you go. Mark, the first religion you look at is Hinduism. My guess is for most of our listeners, that's probably the one that they're least familiar with. So just give us a quick capsule sketch of what some of the key elements of Hinduism are.

Mark: Well, Hinduism is almost a misnomer. It's almost not fair to call it a religion. You might almost call it a philosophy because Hinduism is kind of like a buffet. You can believe almost anything and claim to be a Hindu. There are some people who claim to be Hindu Christians. I've got a dear buddy from high school, love this guy to death. He's a Hindu Jew. In fact, he's a vegetarian Hindu Jew. So when we're in New York City together, we go to a vegetarian Chinese Jewish restaurant. It's just hilarious. But a Hindu comes from the same word as the Indus River, the Hindu River. And it was originally just kind of the philosophies and beliefs of India. And think of it as a smorgasbord, a buffet. And you can have almost anything you want on it. The core idea behind Hinduism is all roads basically lead to the same conclusion and they'll lead to the same place. You just need to find your road and your expression. You can be Hindu and believe in thousands of gods, believe in a thousand, a hundred, ten. You can believe in three, you can believe in one, you can be a Hindu atheist and not believe in God. So it's a puzzling misnomer. And to a degree, that's a strength of Hinduism, hear me out. While it's also its target weakness. And I say to a degree, because I do believe that Christianity teaches you can find some element and layer of truth in almost any good faith religious expression. And by that I mean God has wired us, the Bible teaches God has wired us in a way that we are pre-programmed to want and desire truth. And when we find truth, we'll stick to it like metal to a magnet. And so you'll find in any good faith religious system, heavens, you'll find in good faith atheism, elements of truth. Two plus two equals four. There are scientific truths that atheists will adhere to like super glue. And they're no less true just because it's an atheist, no less true because a person's a Hindu. So you'll find elements of truth everywhere. The problem is not all roads lead to the same place. So if you think about it, I live in Houston, you guys are out in LA, I can get on Interstate 10 and I can drive from Houston to Los Angeles. And I'll see gas stations along the way that will help get me there or Tesla charging stations I guess. That works but I also have I-45 that leaves Houston and heads north up to Canada and I can't get on that highway even though it's got gas stations, even though it's got Tesla charging stations. It's got truth along the way. It's got things to help me out along the journey, but it doesn't go to the same place. And so this strength of Hinduism that recognizes you can find truth in different arenas is also its weakness because all truth does not exist in all of those arenas. You've still got areas where the roads lead to a different conclusion even if they've got elements of truth along the way and and so I can't buy into Hinduism. I'm afraid I'll end up in Canada instead of Los Angeles.

Sean: That's a helpful way to put it. I appreciate in your book, and you said it here a few times, that you look for positives in other religions rather than dismiss them wholesale. You say, ‘I'm sure there's some things they get right,’ and you recognize it, but ultimately on the big questions is where you differ. Now, one other big eastern religion you look at is Buddhism. So maybe talk about how it's similar and/or different from Hinduism, maybe what you find in common with it, with it, but ultimately why you think it doesn't address suffering adequately. Well Buddhism is fascinating. Of course the Buddha was the enlightened one who supposedly found an answer to suffering within this world, and he put forward, and his successors put forward four noble trees. Now much of Buddhism, being an eastern religion, is language and concepts that are held in in common with Hinduism, the idea of some level or layer of reincarnation, the idea of karma. These are typical far eastern religious thoughts that are expressed in a number of far eastern religions. But Buddhism's core is trying to alleviate suffering. The problem, first of all, the positive is I'm all into alleviating suffering. Suffering is not a a cool thing. Nobody likes to suffer. Nobody likes to suffer. God doesn't love suffering. Suffering as Christians understand and Jews understand a result of the fall. It's not the highest and best good. But Buddhism's avenue to leave suffering behind is basically just not wanting anything positive. It's, if you deny yourself the joys and you just are accepting of what there is, then you don't suffer. So you just accept that life is terrible and then you die. You know, you accept these things and when life is terrible you get on with it. Well, that's where I have my problem because I live in a world where I see the cause of suffering. I live in a world where companies will cut corners and purposefully, purposefully cut corners that wind up hurting people tragically. I've represented too many cancer victims who died of mesothelioma from asbestos. And when I see the documents where the companies say, "Hey, we've got asbestos in this product shouldn’t we get rid of it?" And the CEO writes on the top of the document, "What do you need? It takes 40 years before the cancer sits in.

Sean: Holy cow.

Mark: We will have collected our bonuses by then, and we'll be long gone. Who cares?

Scott: Oh gosh.

Mark: You have to die of something. I mean, when you see that kind of stuff, you don't sit back and say, "Oh, well, you know, life is full of suffering, and that's just not surprising let's let's not care about it. Instead you say no, no, no, no! And we're going to hold people accountable and we're going to try and prevent suffering we're going to find the child abusers and we're going to lock them up. We're going to find the people who are taking advantage of others and we're going to make them stop. Suffering is something we should engage in battle. Jesus did not see this lame and the blind and the hurting and say go and be filled. He said take up your mat and walk. He made mud in the dirt, put it on the eyes, and said see. You know He took to battle the causes of suffering. So I love the fact that Buddhism is tuned in to the need to do something about suffering. But I think what Hinduism offers is basically a band-aid on cancer, and I'd rather cut the cancer out.

Scott: And Mark, you have a fairly lengthy chapter where you take a pretty penetrating look at Islam. It's monotheistic like Christianity, though Islam rejects the idea that Christianity is actually monotheistic because of our view of the Trinity. But you ultimately reject Islam. What do you find lacking in Islam?

Mark: So Islam is something I categorize as a historical religion. And by that, I mean that the religion is based in history. And a Muslim will tell you that you should understand the Quran is correct and has been secured in its original form without one vow being altered. That it is absolutely pristine as it was handed down through Muhammad and successors. And the problem with a historical-based religion like that is, it needs to be right. And so what the, you know, I could examine Islam on 30 different levels. And first of all, there's so much about Islam that I do appreciate. I've got friends that are Muslim, and I do appreciate that they understand there's one God, even if they don't understand He's more complicated than they see. I do appreciate their devotion to prayer. I do appreciate their devotion to worship. But within the framework of that, the historical claims that are made within the Qur'an do not measure up to a fair assessment of history. There are so many mistakes that are embedded in the Qur'an that reasonable people who are just sitting there, you give me a jury of 12 unbiased people, I don't think I'm going lose a vote on that jury. None of them are going to say, "Oh, Islam is correct here in its history." And so as devotional as it is, the claims of history, if someone reads the Quran, they're going to read historical data supposedly about Jesus, supposedly about Abraham, supposedly about Isaac and Esau, supposedly about Mary, the mother of Jesus. They will read history, And there is just absolutely no way that that history can be right. And the problem you've got is You you can have the most beautiful Chairs on the titanic you can have a a ballroom with a chandelier And a band playing and everybody on a beautiful dance floor but if you've got a foundation that has a hole in it the way Islam does in terms of its history. That's the iceberg that has just ruptured the boat below the waterline, and all of that prettiness that's on the surface is going down to the deeps, because you can't float. Islam as a religious faith cannot exist if it's not dead-on accurate with everything it says. And I go through detail in the book because I want my Muslim friends to read it, and I'd love them to enjoin me in this dialogue and say, "Well, no, you're wrong because..." The problem is, I think these are like, these are clear holes in the boat that cause the boat to sink. One of the big ones you spent time on is in Surah 4, where it seems to strongly deny the the death of Jesus, which is just so firmly historically rooted that that takes some historical revisionism or theological gymnastics to potentially get around. So that's one of the examples you go into. But what about, you also talk about Mormonism, which is also a historical religion, which has some overlap with Islam, interestingly enough, but it's American-based. So what's your assessment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? But let me first say, I've got a lot of dear friends that are Mormons, that are wonderful people, and they really want to pursue their faith, and they really want to, they care about their families, they care about being devoted, and they're amazing people. And those are those elements of truth that you can find in every good faith religious system. Mormonism, if you look at it historically, is clearly a creature of the 1800s in America. America did not get a national religion like England. We avoided it. And as a result, in the 1800s, you've got massive numbers of small religious sects cropping up. And one of them is what became the Latter-day Saints or the Mormons. And this is Joseph Smith with Hill Cumorah, supposedly finding these tablets. First time he made a run at them, nobody accepted it. Second time he made a run at them, he had a few followers. He was selling the Book of Mormon to basically fund his life and traveling around trying to sell it. And supposedly it was a revelation that God had buried on Hill Cumorah, or had buried on Hill Cumorah, that the angel Moroni had helped him translate these golden tablets and it produces this Book of Mormon. Well, the Book of Mormon made some extraordinary claims in the 1800s that since the Mormon churches had to revise themselves because it's so clearly wrong. But the Mormon church has a history of trying to revise what was supposedly the revelation of God for the church for these latter days. And the ideas, for example, that the Native Americans were the lost descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. That was very prominent in Joseph Smith's day. You can read that in newspapers, contemporary newspapers to Joseph Smith. So he puts it in the Book of Mormon as history, but genetic DNA testing has shown that there's absolutely no way on this earth that that is true. So the Mormon Church has had to deal with that because, you know, they can't just say, "Well, science and DNA is wrong." So instead they're trying to figure out ways to alter those scriptures to say something different. You know, like Islam, if you're going to have a historically based religion, the history needs to be right, or at least not provably raw. You know, if you look at Christianity and Judaism, for example, you've got, did the wall of Jericho come tumbling down? And I say wall because in Hebrew it's actually singular, it's not plural. Was there a wall of Jericho that came tumbling down? And you can read the archeological works of Kathleen Kenyon, you can read archeological works of Gistang before her, You can find whether or not there's a presence there. Those are things where we can debate things back and forth. And I've got compelling reasons I believe they're true. Cynics may have compelling reasons they think it may not be true. But that's different than being discernibly, clearly, irrevocably proven false, which is what we've got with Mormonism and Islam. I think you see the same thing with the Book of Abraham and Mormonism, just a serious challenge to its historicity and Joseph Smith as a prophet. Well, we're just scratching the surface on so much more you do in this book, but let me ask you one question. You may have talked about this earlier in your book when you put Christianity on trial. As I understand it, in a lot of legal cases, there still might be some details or questions people have that there's enough data to convict somebody, but we're not exactly sure how to explain certain facts. clearly believe that Christianity is true and the evidence points that direction, are there certain facts or questions you have you're like, "I'm not sure how to fit this within Christianity, this is a tough one for me," or do you think the weight of the evidence just really strongly points towards Christianity being true? I think the weight of the evidence points to Christianity being true. I don't ever want to pretend to someone that I've got all of the answers and that I understand the depths of God and His thought. You know, how do we come to grips with the fact that we can choose God and yet He chooses us? You know, the proverbial free will versus predestination arguments. You know, in one breath we're predestined, Paul says, and in another breath Jesus says, You know, I would have gathered you under my wing as a hen does her brood, but you would not. You know, those things, and don't get me wrong, I've got some answers that I believe are viable answers there, but I'm not going to stand up on judgment day and tell God that he's got something wrong if he disagrees with me. But in terms of the entire picture of what answers these big questions of life, I think the Christian faith is hand in glove. I think it makes great sense. And it answers those big questions of why I am the way I am. Why are you the way you are? Why do I cry out at injustice? Why does it bother me that things aren't fair? Why do I get upset when people are unfairly treated? Why do I, you know, I don't think sharks moan when one fish gets eaten. And yet when something happens in Ukraine or something happens to some child, I lament, I cry, I care deeply. You know, I think the Christian worldview explains that in ways that give me not just peace but give me mental understanding. I say, "Yeah, that makes sense. I got that. Two plus two is four. I got it, I got it. And I do think Christianity does that. Well, that's awesome, Mark. We really appreciate you coming on, your clarity. Right in this book, I can only imagine the amount of research and time that went into it. It's clear, but there's also a lot of depth to it for believers who want to go deeper, but even I think some skeptics or people of other faiths who are curious how a leading lawyer would assess the great world religions. on Trial by Mark Lanier is a great place to start. Mark, thanks so much for coming back on and joining us. You bet. You all keep the faith and keep doing what you're doing.

Sean: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Biola University. We have programs in Southern California and now fully online, including where I teach in the Masters in Christian Apologetics. at biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thank you for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.