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Do All Paths Lead to the Same Truth?

When we say that all religions are the same, we're trivializing them.

Dangerous. Disrespectful. Untrue. There’s a prevailing metaphor that portrays the world’s religions as different paths up the same mountain.

That’s what Stephen Prothero writes in the Wall Street Journal about the belief that all religions are pretty much the same in essentials, just differing in the nonessentials.

Prothero quotes several religious philosophers like …

  • Gandhi: “belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions”
  • The Dalai Lama: “the essential message of all religions is very much the same”
  • Religious Author Huston Smith: “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.”

Wrong, Prothero writes.

This is a seductive sentiment in a world in which religious violence can seem as present and potent as God. But it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue.

The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics — no religion tells you it is OK to have sex with your mother or to murder your brother — but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience and law. Such differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious folk.

Prothero writes that he understands the motivations of those who profess that all religions are essentially the same, but argues that their thinking isn’t logical or helpful:

Of course, one purpose of the “all religions are one” meme is to stop this fighting and this killing. But this meme, however well intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God may be one according to the Abrahamic religions, but when it comes to the mathematics of divinity, one is not the only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in 330,000. Moreover, the characters of these divinities differ wildly …

He also questions the mantra I often hear from our local “interfaith alliance”: that the Abrahamicreligions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all believe in the same God and should, therefore, ignore any other differences in one another. He writes about Islam and Christianity, specifically, saying:

But it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue will magically bridge the gap between them. Each of the great religions offers its own diagnosis of the human predicament and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation. Muslims say pride is the problem; Christians say salvation is the solution; education is a key Confucian technique; and Buddhism’s exemplars include the lama and the bodhisattva. If practitioners of the world’s religions are mountain climbers then they are ascending very different peaks and using very different tools.

Prothero writes that there is a distinct difference between religious tolerance (I acknowledge your right to belief and will not attempt to kill you for it) and religious unity (all religions are the same):

Some people are convinced that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. In our most intimate human relationships, who is so naive as to imagine that partners or spouses must be essentially the same? What is required in any healthy relationship is knowing who the other person really is. Denying differences is a recipe for disaster. What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept and, when appropriate, to respect them. After all, it is not possible to agree to disagree until you see just what the disagreements might be. And tolerance is an empty virtue until we actually understand whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating.

And that old story about the blind man and the elephant? Yep, he tackles that one too.

After hearing several different radio programs this past week discussing the differences between the core beliefs of Islam and Christianity, I found this article refreshing. When we say that all religions are the same, we’re trivializing them.

If we want to talk about respecting others, doesn’t that start with acknowledging that we are, indeed, different and that those differences are important?

Copyright 2010 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved. 

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About the Author

Heather Koerner

Heather Koerner is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Owasso, Okla.

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