The Death of a Modern Myth: All Religions are Basically the Same
How many times have you heard that phrase thrown around in casual conversation– as if agreeing with it were the only logical option available? I often feel compelled to nod– because it seems, at that crucial point, that the only other choice I have is to disagree and be branded close-minded and intolerant (and, perhaps worse of all, a Republican!)
The statement “all religions are basically the same,” often parades itself as a very intellectual proclamation that is meant to show a progressive, educated mindset. We think, “We’re past all those petty differences. We have to have modern, reasonable views on religion!” But what do we mean by such a phrase? Are we saying religions do not have dissimilarities? Are we saying all religions basically boil down to the same philosophies? Certainly a belief in one God and belief in many Gods are not the same basic philosophy. So, why is the belief that all religions are pretty much the same so popular?
Some people may say that all religions are basically the same in that they teach us to treat each others fairly. This view boils morals down to what is called the “Principle of No Harm.” In his book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway defines a wrong act as “one that manifestly harms others or their interests, or violates their rights or causes injustice.”
The inadequacy of the “do not harm” view to unify religions is revealed, however, when we see that different religions cannot even agree on what “harm,” “violation of rights” and “injustice” all mean. Islam has strict punishments for those caught in adultery that the Christian might say are disproportionate to the crime, unjust and harmful. Some Hindus hold to the caste system that both the Muslim and Christian must (according to their religion) reject as immoral and unjust. We cannot say that all religions teach us to “do no harm” when the religions themselves define “harm” and “injustice” differently.
Others say, “All beliefs are equally true.” Their view is that there are no absolutes so all religions are true if one really believes them. This, however, is illogical. Ravi Zacharias, in his book Jesus Among Other Gods, points out, “To deem all beliefs equally true is sheer nonsense.” His point is that someone who says “all beliefs are equally true” has to admit as equally true the belief that all beliefs are not equally true. In other words, the statement cancels itself out by allowing its opposite to be true.
Still, some may say that God is big enough to be all things; maybe He is (for example) many and One all at once! Maybe He is, but to hold this belief we would have to deny the critical Judaic, Christian and Islamic teaching that God is not many, He is only One. This idea creates a false unity by asking some of the religions to be less than fully themselves in order to be “unified”– which of course is a false unity.
Also, one of the first rules of logic is that something cannot be both true and untrue at the same time and in the same manner. As a simple example of this let us look at religious rules of consuming food. Which is right: to eat pork or not to eat pork? It cannot, at the same time, be both right and wrong for everyone to eat pork.
Someone might argue that God gives different rules to different people. Therefore, it is an offense to Him for the Muslim and Hindu to eat pork, but for the Christian, it is not. “Certainly, we could all agree on that,” you might say. However, if God told the Muslim that it is wrong for everyone to eat pork, but then told the Christian that it is not wrong to eat pork, God would be contradicting himself.
In the same way, if God says to the Muslim that He is not many, but says to the Hindu that He is many, He is contradicting himself. If this is the case, when He says He exists, then He may also not exist. Our religious devotion is then rendered null and void because it is impossible to know anything about a Being that is self-contradicting.
So why do we hear the phrase “all beliefs are basically the same” if it doesn’t seem to make logical sense?
Sometimes the statement is an attempt to lessen our religious differences to promote understanding and decrease violence and hatred. Though the objective is honorable, to seek peace by minimizing differences is to ask each religion to be less than fully itself. And, it makes us who are committed to a particular religion feel unaccepted–exactly the opposite of its purpose often. True spiritual understanding comes from knowing each other more completely (similarities and differences), not reciting hollow statements that create bogus unity and strip us of our individuality.
Other motivations may include the following: 1) a statement by someone who is not really committed to any one religion and makes the statement assuming their listeners agree or assuming that any modern, educated person could do nothing but agree. This person can also have the same motivation as above. 2) a statement by someone who wants an easy, intellectual-sounding excuse for not engaging in a spiritual search for truth. It is a sort of “giving up without a fight” phrase of the spiritually lazy. This person will eloquently say that Truth cannot be found, all the while not looking for it. Of course they will never find Truth or believe it is out there, because they are not truly seeking it.
At best it is the statement of a befuddled individual genuinely searching for Truth but confused by all the religious fare available. To that person I say, do not give up with such an empty phrase. Keep searching. Truth wants to be found.
I believe that “All religions are basically the same” is a philosophy that keeps us from truly knowing each other fully and it encourages us to wallow in a shallow spirituality devoid of logic and truth.
It is a modern myth that should be allowed to die.
Our differences are our differences. We ignore them to our peril. Let us understand them as we search for Truth together and truly listen to each other– not being afraid to disagree.
May we not settle for anything less.