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?
Let me begin by stating that I have the greatest respect for both the Dalai Lama and for Huston Smith (I am not that familiar with the work or life of Karen Armstrong). They are both wise human beings who have inspired me in many ways, but I have to disagree with their view as presented above. I wish it were truer than it is.
I must also begin by defining what is meant by the word “religion.” It is an English term that draws its definition from the Abrahamic traditions, especially Christianity and Islam. For Christians and Muslims, religion refers to a particular set of beliefs about the divine, about human beings, and about the world, and these are formally perceived by their followers of these traditions to be absolute. Therefore, adherence to these beliefs is viewed as the primary criterion for judging who is “good” and who is not, for judging one’s status in God’s eyes. Although there are rituals and practices associated with each tradition, both see their own beliefs–and specific actions directly related with these beliefs–as having ultimate determinant of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. While they have a variety of doctrines their adherents are supposed to follow, all actions are ultimately subservient to belief. Statements from the New Testament such as “no one can come to the Father but through” Jesus or the Muslim “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet” clearly define belief in each tradition’s own prophet as a necessary criterion for salvation. This is why, for example, countless Christians believe that Jeffrey Dahmer, the mass murderer and cannibal, is in heaven, because he “accepted Jesus as his savior” before being killed in prison. At the same time, Christians and Muslims alike deny heaven to non-believers in their religions, irrespective of goodness of those people’s actions while alive.
There is no true equivalent term for such a belief-based concept in the languages of most non-European and non-Middle Eastern peoples. Therefore, one can use the word “religion” in this traditional Abrahamic sense described above, or one can use a broader contemporary understanding of it to include the beliefs, practices, religious cultures, and lifestyles of non-Abrahamic peoples as well. Either way, it is important to acknowledge that these are two very different understandings of religion.
Adapting a form of the latter concept, the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and Huston Smith view all the major religious as having much in common. They see the various traditions much like intersecting sets that share many common traits, and they have chosen to focus on a specific set of values therein as the predominant trait. Doing so, they find similarity in values like love, compassion, forgiveness, etc. that are held in high rhetorical esteem in most religions If one chooses to look solely at this particular set of values, then the similarities among religions stand out, and the Dalai Lama is correct. However, if one utilizes the Abrahamic perspective, in which a specific set of beliefs predominates, then Steve Prothero is closer to being correct. Moreover, when viewed in their totality, the major religions have far more differences in their specifics than they have in common. Each has its own unique belief system, set of values, doctrines, rituals, and other practices. Each has its own ultimate goal or goals and relatively particular criteria for reaching these goals, and these differences make the traditions stand apart much more than stand together. It is important to acknowledge and understand these differences. As Prothero suggests, it can be both disrespectful and dangerous to not do so. Those difference create uniqueness, but they also have led to a great deal of the distrust, friction, hatred, and violence that the world has undergone and continues to suffer through.
The one aspect of the Abrahamic traditions that seems to be the root cause that separates them from the other major religions is that their foundational beliefs are confined, for the most part, to a single text, a text that is held by most adherents as without error and is not to be questioned. In the case of both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran, the text and its version of reality was conceived in the Middle East under the influence of extreme tribalism and tribal consciousness. The superiority of one’s tribe went unquestioned, and its survival, protection, and promotion, at the expense of others if necessary, were pivotal. Each tribe had its own deity or deities who were seen to be protectors of the tribe. Thus, gods and genes were often connected. It is a concept actually found in many tribal groups around the world. The Jewish concept of chosen people is an early example of this. However, with the birth of Christianity, a pivotal change occurred. Rather than determining tribe based on genetic lineage, Christians redefined the concept of tribalism by basing their specific interpretation on belief lineage instead. Muslims started out with tribal identity but subsequently adopted the concept of a belief based lineage as well. For both, their respective “tribe” came to consist of those who shared their beliefs rather than their genes. However, they kept the same narrow view of the world, one in which their specific group was and is seen to be superior, its members’ relationship to its deity exclusive, and its success and proliferation paramount. Not limited to genetic lineage, they could now expand their tribes without limit.
Another aspect of traditional tribal consciousness in many parts of the world is that the killing off of one’s opponent tribes is sometimes seen as a necessary step to assure the survival and proliferation of one’s own. In the case of Christianity and Islam, this became translated into the destruction of opposing beliefs, rather than just peoples, to assure their own survival and proliferation. That is why both religions have spent so much time and energy throughout their histories converting others to their ways of thinking, and that is precisely why they are the largest religions in the world today. This is a very different way of thinking and acting than is found in the other major religious traditions.
Most non-Abrahamic religions, on the other hand, have not been similarly limited by such a narrow doctrinal and belief system, nor have they been so obsessed with spreading their “belief genes.” Although the religions of India have had their own problems and shortcomings, they have also had a somewhat easier ability to address them, since these traditions are not bound by a single text, and especially not by one written in such a situation as mentioned above. Although orthodox Hindus claim the Vedic scriptures are absolute, most Hindus do not feel bound by these texts, and countless Hindus reject and openly criticize them. In the Abrahamic traditions, criticizing or challenging the authority of the scripture can not only lead to expulsion from the religion but has lead to the death of untold numbers of people over the centuries.
The quote above that all religions “are different paths to the same mountain” is an ancient Hindu concept and view that is commonplace in the Dharma traditions. Because Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism each have a myriad of texts that their adherents can turn to for guidance and direction, an approach of scriptural and doctrinal openness and pliability has allowed these traditions to grow, to accept new points of view, and to reject those that are no longer seen as valid. This inspires a very different kind of religion, one that is not limited to a single belief, one in which disagreement and growth can go hand in hand, and one in which tolerance of alternate points of view is much more likely.
This concept of tolerance is clearly not consistent with the foundational doctrines of the Abrahamic traditions, and their exclusivist beliefs have lead many of their followers to dislike, denigrate, and even hate others’ religions and their adherents. Fortunately, millions of individual followers have been more tolerant than the doctrines of their own religions. They have and continue to accept others irrespective of their religious beliefs, and they seek to live in a world in which peace and harmony are more prevalent than hatred.
Fundamentalist thinking in any religious tradition is inconsistent with the concept of tolerance, and it is precisely because of the resulting intolerance that so many people today have chosen to separate themselves from religion in general. They see all the hatred and division that such views have caused and want to distance themselves from them. Sadly, many reject the important values that are taught as well. Swami Vivekananda once said that it is good to be born into a religion but die out of it. He saw the importance of being raised with a value system as found in most religions, but he also saw the problems with narrow fundamentalist thinking. Likewise, the Dalai Lama has often said that it is not important to be religious, i.e. affiliated with a specific sectarian organization, but that we need to be compassionate. In short, the values he emphasizes are the central elements of religion that can make our world a better place, while the fundamentalist and intolerant elements should be rejected.
In the end, I agree with Prothero. All religions are not the same, and we should not lump them all together. Those traditions that focus solely on belief, are bound by a text rooted in tribal thinking, and teach narrow mindedness, intolerance, and hatred need to change if they are to serve any ultimate benefit in the world. They could learn a great deal from those traditions that focus on the importance of right action and karma and that practice both compassion and tolerance. If all religions did so, then the vision of the Dalai Lama and like minded individuals could become reality, and the hatred that has become so identified with religion could actually become a thing of the past.
This does not mean that all religions should be alike. Their differences reflect varied cultural and personal conceptions of reality that can be useful in offering diverse approaches to solving the world’s problems. However, as long as religious narrow-mindedness and arrogance continue, so will the hatred and violence these views inspire, and the supposedly religious who promote them will remain a part of the problem and not a part of the solution.