We're all one, man!

An interesting discussion (here and here) has been happening around the interwebs around Stephen Prothero’s book: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that his basic argument is refuting the idea that ‘religions are all basically the same’ statement. And personally, I have to agree with that. I’m not going to attempt to defend his position here (because I haven’t read the book!), but rather talk about the “all religions are the same/we’re all on the same path to God” lines that get thrown around quite often.

I don’t understand how people can claim that all religions are really just the same thing. Each one seems to address a different problem and propose its own unique solution to said problem. In Buddhism, we find that life is unsatisfactory, and to alleviate the suffering that accompanies this, we need to follow the 8-fold path to awakening (that was the 25 word idiot version of the 4 noble truths). In Christianity, Sin is man’s greatest enemy, and the only way to be rid of that sin is salvation through Jesus Christ. In Islam, it is pride that gets in our way, so submission to God is the way to rid ourselves of that pride. In Scientology, there are space demons that take over our bodies, and the only way to get rid of them is to give Tom Cruise all of your money. The list goes on and on; these are all very different ways of seeing the world and making sense of our place in it.

Now some would argue that focusing on these ideas, and each religion’s respective dogmas and scriptures is a superficial way of approaching the experience of religion. Some argue that when looked at from a mystic’s perspective, you can throw out all of the definitions traditionally used and reach a higher definition that would transcend all the dogma, ritual, and beliefs people traditionally associate with their respective religion. But I have to wonder, at that point, why even say that you are practicing said religion (and aren’t you really just practicing New Age…ism at that point)? When you start to talk about Jesus not being the son of God that performed miracles, rose from the dead who said that anyone that wants into heaven has to come through him; what is it about your practice that you would consider Christian? Why even use that word? It is similar to when a New Ager or Pantheist would call everything “God”. Sure, monotheists don’t have a copyright on the word, but I have to wonder if what you are describing is so radically different from any interpretation or definition held by 99.99% of people who use it; why use it at all? Why put your belief under that same tent? A part of me wonders if this happens when people are afraid to completely let go of the religion they grew up with? And so holding on to a part of that past self/culture makes the new set of beliefs…safer?

Personally, I find it a little insulting when people say that we’re all practicing the same religion, or that all paths lead to God. Sorry, I gave up on God well over a decade ago. I took up the Buddhist path because it ends in liberation, not because I believe I’ll end up in a literal heaven with God for eternity. I also think it’s a little disrespectful to not recognize that there is a difference in what we are practicing and trying to achieve, and to then attempt to re-define my beliefs to more closely align with yours.

Okay, so there are differences, so what about our similarities? Isn’t there one central theme that runs at the heart of every religion? Nah. I don’t think so. While all religions have the capacity for such things as charity and compassion and respect, those aren’t the tenets or beliefs that they are centered around. Ask %99 of Christians what their religion is about, and I’m guessing you’re going to hear something like “believing in Jesus Christ”, “faith in God” or something along those lines. And while the man preached about compassion and charity at length, the religion itself isn’t centered around it. It accompanies it. I’d even say that compassion isn’t at the heart of Buddhism, but is rather an effect (vipaka) that one cultivates when practicing the dharma. Would many Muslims say that compassion is the heart of their religion? Taoists? I doubt that’s what you’ll hear. And remember, we’re talking about religions here. Not your individual experience which may or may not parallel someone else’s.

But, knowing that each religion has the capacity for these things does give us the hope that we can all connect with each other on such manners. Religion is largely a response to living life as a human, all of us trying to figure out our place in the cosmos and answer the questions that we have about our shared human condition. The religious are all connected in the sense that we are all searching for something (be it God or enlightenment or Elohim) and whether we are searching for that something inside or outside of ourselves, we should be able to respect whatever means we employ to find that divine something (as long as it doesn’t involve blowing your self up or burning “witches” etc…).

So why prattle on about the differences in the world’s religions when so much strife has been created because people can’t seem to get over them? I think it’s important to understand the differences because largely, we don’t respect them. A part of the fighting that occurs between the world’s religions stems from a basic lack of respect (and this lack stems from a whole slew of things) of each other’s beliefs and practices. If we can begin to accept the differences we all have, we can then place them where they belong and figure out how to best deal with each other in the most compassionate way. But I truly believe that as long as we keep talking about how we’re really all the same, or glossing over the sacred practices many of us hold dear, we aren’t going to be able to reconcile with each other in a meaningful way. Yes, most religions share some basic concepts (which are mostly secular anyway) and we should work together to strengthen those when need-be. But it’s hard to reach out to someone who isn’t even going to respect that you are on your own path, and that it’s okay that we don’t have everything in common. I believe it is extremely important that we develop compassion toward one another, and part of that compassion is respecting one another’s beliefs as being of the utmost importance to that person.

What do you think?



Filed under Buddhism

16 responses to “We're all one, man!

  1. nathan

    my post this morning is trying to get at some of the same things yours is from different angles.
    even if we are “all one” in the end, that doesn’t mean we should gloss over all the relative (and thus real) differences
    between the different religions. good post!

    • Thanks! I read your (very nice) post after you commented here. For some reason it didn’t show up on my Blogger reader on time. weird.

  2. Adam, I agree with everything you’ve written here. I think the backlash against Prothero is due mainly to the way he unfairly took the Dalai Lama (a popular target these days) to task for the great sin of trying to build bridges between religions. Having said that, I do think that some teachers have bent over a little too far in trying to find common ground. At the same time, there is a real need for Buddhists to reach out to other religions, especially there are some among them who view us as demonic. When I hear Christians say that hey believe Buddhism is a form of witchcraft, that’s just scary and calls for better communication between the faiths.

    This whole “we are one” business can be traced back to Joseph Campbell who contributed greatly to our common understanding by pointing out the dangers in interpreting religious myths literally, while doing everyone a great disservice with statements like: “Jesus on the cross, the Buddha under the tree—these are the same figures.” He had a major impact in the late ‘80’s and in the 90’s and we are still feeling the reverberations today.

    • Thanks for that. I haven’t yet explored Joseph Campbell, though I do have a documentary of some sort of his (or about him?) in my Netflix cue that I may need to move up in order.

      I also think that Prothero was wrong when he was talking about the Dalai Lama, and probably made those statements in order to drum up some publicity for the book.

      • zenbija

        I like the post, and I agree with you, but I do have issue with this argument. Of course Prothero wanted attention for his book, but the Dalai Lama wanted attention for his books too. The best possible way to make an extended, logical argument is to write it in book form, but then you have to get people to read it.

        If we American Buddhists are going to grow up, we need to have a dialogue with authority. This means saying the Dalai Lama is wrong when he’s wrong. I think the Dalai Lama can handle a little criticism.

      • I was just saying that I thought he went specifically after the Dalai Lama to gain some publicity, and I think Rod Meade Sperry who wrote that article did a good job of refuting Prothero by quoting the DL:

        “And it is possible to understand the fundamental differences, but at the same time recognize the value and potential of each religious tradition. In this way, a person may develop a balanced and harmonious perception. Some people believe that the most reasonable way to attain harmony and solve problems relating to religious intolerance is to establish one universal religion for everyone. […] I have always felt that we should have different religious traditions because human beings possess so many different mental dispositions: one religion simply cannot satisfy the needs of such a variety of people. “

        I absolutely agree that we should feel free to criticize people like the Dalai Lama, rather than simply hang on their every word and elevate them to celebrity status. I’m not a huge fan of his, and this post wasn’t about supporting his position. But I think Prothero kind of misquoted the DL when he inferred that the DL said “There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth, he argues, is compassion.”

        What the DL said was “A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism.” Which I think is different than saying that “Compassion is the ONE truth behind all religions”.

      • zenbija

        Well, yes. So Sperry’s point should be, “It is important to understand both DL’s argument and Prothero’s argument, and come to a synthesis of both views.” But instead of playing balanced moderator, showing an understanding of both sides, he takes it upon himself to take DL’s defense, because DL could never be wrong. Prothero is painted as an opportunist book-seller–simply for saying things that the DL’s defenders are quick to point out that DL has said somewhere in his books. DL is given the benefit of the doubt; if you disagree with what he says, it must be because you don’t understand it very well. Prothero is given no such benefit, and people aren’t going to read his whole book because they’d rather stick with what they think he said in the CNN blog.

      • “people aren’t going to read his whole book because they’d rather stick with what they think he said in the CNN blog.”

        Very sadly, this is true. Many have already made up their minds based on a soundbite. Which is really why I avoided the whole Prothero vs. Dalai Lama thing on that site. Without reading the book, it wasn’t very clear exactly what his position was.

  3. Nicely stated, and thanks to David for bringing up Joseph Campbell’s work before I did.

  4. Don’t let my comment prejudice you in any way against Campbell. He was an amazing teacher. It’s just on this subject of oneness that I feel he was off. It was from my exposure to Campbell that I learned how to interpret religious myths and stop believing that they were truth. They are only symbolic of truth. Naturally, this changed my entire perception of the Lotus Sutra.

  5. I think we need leave this whole “The Dalai Lama is wrong” / “The Dalai Lama can’t be wrong” in the dust. It’s a false issue. The Dalai Lama is the first to admit he can be wrong. The people around him that I’ve met don’t think he’s perfect, not in the sense we’re talking about. Only his most rabid “fans” have that attitude, and I’ve never experienced it myself, only heard about it.

    He is a Buddhist teacher, and the only one outside of Thich Nhat Hanh, who gives really deep teachings to a wide audience, and believe me, he does that without compromise. At the same time he is in a position where he is trying to gather support for a humanitarian/political cause, and perhaps in that arena there are times when he does make compromises. His celebrityhood, however, is not something that he’s seeking, it’s mostly foisted upon by others. Just because he appears on Larry King doesn’t mean that’s how he’d really like to spend his time.

    I agree with Prothero’s message. What I didn’t care for was the way he attributed a quote to the Dalai Lama which did not appear in the Dalai Lama’s article. I don’t know if it was just sloppiness or if he was trying to pull a fast one, but it made me wonder about his motives.

  6. Yep, that’s it. Thanks, Zenbija. And yes, it would have been nice if he had mentioned that. He could also have refrained from taking it out of context: “Though we may find differences in philosophical views and rites, the essential message of all religions is very much the same. They all advocate love, compassion, and forgiveness.”

  7. fubar

    As an ex-bahai, I posted some comments about bahaism on the ShambhalaSun blog:


    Also see:

    —posted to the CNN Blog—


    sin, hell, evil are metaphors for the lack of: beauty, truth and goodness.

    The wiring of the human brain by evolution is what reveals the common psychological archetypes that appear in various cultural forms.

    For instance, Bernie Neville discusses how Hermes was the god of transformation and the god of deception. So much for postmodernism.

    Modernism, science and liberalism supposedly made religion and spirituality irrelevant, but large numbers of people still search for deeper meaning and transcendence, and an escape from the alienation of rationalism and modernism (which “cling” to the their own limited, culturally conditioned, “one truth above all” anti-patterns).

    When science is used to understand how the human brain evolved, it is possible to validate what is common in human consciousness, both rational and non-rational. Emotions have adaptive/evolutionary value. Selflessness, compassion and altruism are necessary for social bonding, for parents to sacrifice their own interests for their offspring, and for there to be respect for the old who pass on wisdom won from a long life.

  8. Hi,

    Yes, I agree. Anyone who says all religions are the same ought to spend a year living in Saudi Arabia.

    However, having said that, there are certainly a great many places where our religions overlap. I also think people can have a sense of dual belonging. I know I do.

    It’s also important not to take just one view of a religion and assume all its adherants are the same. For example, most of the Christians I know would not say that the central point of Christianity is sin. Rather, it is love.

    But, yes, you make a good point in this post. Respecting others means respecting what our differences are too.

    Thank you,


    • “sense of dual belonging” – Yes, this is something I share as well. I incorporate some of my more earthy religous beliefs into my everyday life, and they are wonderfully syncretistic.

      And yes, I do agree about not assuming too much, and using to broad of strokes to paint a religion.

      thank you