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?