Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the ‘oneness’ of all religions, the idea that all religions preach the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major faiths are more alike than not. But in his new book “God is not One,” religion scholar and On Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all religions “are different paths to the same God” is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who’s right? Why?
Whenever I see smart people take opposite sides of an issue – as Steve Prothero and Armstrong/Smith/the Dalai Lama do on this question – I tend to do four things.
First, I look for truth on both sides. Each side sees something worth seeing. So all religions do have commonalities – all, to one degree or another, promote compassion, forgiveness, self-restraint, and so on. But there are obvious and important differences – what the Qur’an does for Muslims, Jesus does for Christians, for example. To underestimate either side of the equation – the commonalities or the differentness – would be untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous in different ways.
Second, when questions create polarized camps with wise and good people on both sides, I tend to look for limitations or flaws in the way the question is framed. For example, the question itself may assume agreement on unspoken questions that need to be addressed. In this case, one such unspoken question would be, “What mountain are we talking about? Which mountain are we trying to climb?”
And here, the differences within religions can be bigger than the differences between religions. For example, for many – maybe most – Christians, the big mountain is “Going to heaven when you die.” Some Muslims would agree that this is the mountain that counts most, but few if any Jews would. For other Christians – I’d include myself here – the mountain is “God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here, some Muslims and some Jews would agree.
Third, when I come across questions that divide good people from each other, I often look for the rhetorical purposes of the question and its possible answers: what good do they intend to accomplish – beyond the intermediate goal of engendering agreement or disagreement? In this case, I might proffer this hypothesis:
Those who emphasize the similarity of all religions are interested in peace. They’re worried that when differences are emphasized, feelings of religious superiority or supremacy will rise, resulting in inter-religious conflict, violence, war, and death. Things well worth being against!
Those who emphasize the distinctiveness of all religions are interested in identity. They’re worried that when differences are minimized, religion in general or their religion in particular will become trivialized, marginalized, and colonized by secularism, consumerism, relativism, nationalism, militarism, and so on, and as a result, the unique treasures and contributions of each religion will be lost. Things well worth being against!
The problem comes when people on either side assume the worst about their counterparts. When distinctivists accuse similarists of being against religious identity, or when similarists accuse distinctivists of being against peace, each contributes negatively to the causes of dialogue, the common good, and wisdom.
Finally, in situations like these, I try to hold the good things that each side values, and encourage each side to do the same. Those who want to distinguish religions can still seek peace, neighborliness, and collaboration for the common good. Those who emphasize commonality can still affirm the distinctive identities of particular religions. We can distinguish in order to unite, and unite in order to distinguish, because in the end, our quest for goodness, beauty, truth, and peace can lead us beyond “us-ness” and “otherness” – to one-anotherness.