Are All Religions Identical?

Are all religions identical? Many people seem to think so, especially if they’ve taken a world religion course in college or read a Joseph Campbell book. They will tell you that all religions teach us to value life, to refrain from harming others, and to renounce selfishness. Therefore, so the thinking goes, all religions are identical in both content and purpose. The corollary assumption is that there can never be legitimate conflicts between religious beliefs, therefore all disagreements between followers of different religions must be fundamentally illegitimate. These conflicts allegedly stem from simple misunderstandings or unwillingness to admit common ground.

Such a view is certainly comforting, since it suggests that religious factions need only to listen to each other to find out they’re not so different after at all. Then, as trendy therapists might say, the healing can begin. The only problem with this tidy, conciliatory view is that it is utterly incorrect. A little knowledge of world religious traditions might convince us that they are identical, but a lot of knowledge tends to convince us that they are very different.

Many people who believe all religions are identical pay special attention to the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or between ancient myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical flood story included in Genesis. All of these describe the actions of a powerful deity who created the world by conquering the forces of chaos. But why is this similarity so surprising? All of these religions arose in the same tiny sliver of the world known as the Fertile Crescent, and their development often overlapped. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi almost certainly inspired the Jewish Ten Commandments, which later found their way into both Christianity and Islam as those religions absorbed and reinterpreted Judaic religious concepts. Thus, it’s hardly newsworthy that Near Eastern religions tend to resemble each other to some degree.

Still, resemblance does not imply equality, and the common religious concepts of the three major monotheistic faiths have not prevented them from making violently contradictory claims. To a Christian, Jesus represents the incarnation of God on earth, and his sayings carry a corresponding moral authority. Muslims hold Jesus to be a great prophet, but believe Muhammad to have provided a more accurate record of God’s intentions. Jews, of course, believe Christians have given the Judaic concept of the messiah a meaning it never should have possessed, and reject any suggestions that Jesus was anything more than a man. These differences, among others, have led to very real disputes between adherents of these three religions. Someone seeking to reconcile these differences might explain them as simple misunderstandings, but he would also be explaining away the very convictions that make each of these religions so meaningful to its followers.

In addition to the conflicts among these three faiths, there have also been conflicts within them. There have been standoffs between Catholics and Protestant Christians, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and Orthodox and modern Jews. These frequently bloody confrontations did not arise from simple misunderstandings, but from contradictory convictions about the nature of the divine. After all, Jesus was either a being of pure spirit lacking a human body (as some Gnostic Christians claimed), or he possessed a physical body of flesh and blood. Both of these claims cannot be correct.

Things only look worse for “all religions are the same” hypothesis when we examine world religions originating outside the Fertile Crescent. Religions uninfluenced by Islam, Christianity or Judaism lack concepts of a future apocalypse or a messiah, and posit very different models of ultimate reality. Religions such as Hinduism see the lifespan of the universe as essentially eternal and cyclical, a view at odds with the time-bound and directionally evolving world of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In some Eskimo traditions, grafting the souls of artic sea birds onto their own can cure a person with a troubled soul. And anyone who has seen Soulymane Cissé’s great film Yeelen knows about the exotic world of African religion it shows – a world in which blacksmiths occupy high strata of social life and possess magical powers. What analogies for these beliefs exist in the three major monotheistic traditions?

Sometimes, those who posit the identity of all religions seek common ground in the nature of the mystical experience itself. They argue that the psychological experience of the transcendent shows uniformity across cultures and historical periods, and this similarity shows that religions spring from a common source. But what can we really make of this claim? If all mystical experiences were very similar, we still would not have grounds for thinking they resulted from contact with a higher spiritual reality. The feeling of hunger also seems constant across all cultures, but this constancy doesn’t prove it is anything more than a physiological phenomenon, or demonstrate the equality of hungry people everywhere. Cognitive research shows that many details of mystical experiences result from stimulation of particular areas of the brain. Researchers can reproduce these sensory experiences in controlled settings, and are learning more about the complex physiological responses associated with feelings of religious awe.

Like all sensory perceptions, mystical experiences can also vary significantly from one cultural setting to the next, whatever general similarities they may have. There are no sensory experiences completely separate from cultural and personal expectations. For instance, the physiological phenomena known as sleep paralysis or “night terrors” have many general similarities, such as feelings of immobility and awareness of a strange, ineffable presence in the room. Yet, a Satan-obsessed sixteenth century woman might interpret the hallucination as a demonic visitation, and a modern American might interpret the same kind of hallucination as an alien abduction experience. Mystical experiences follow a similar pattern. A Christian mystic may see hordes of angels and saints, while an Eastern mystic may find confirmation that the universe is either infinite or non-existent, depending on her particular beliefs.

Even if we accepted the proposition that mystical experiences were very similar, we still could not justifiably conclude that religions themselves were similar. Explaining religions in terms of common building blocks, or core experiences, does not reduce their differences any more than explaining objects in terms of atoms. All physical reality may be composed of atoms with similar properties, but the collection of atoms known as Adolf Hitler was very different from the collection of atoms known as Bertrand Russell. The moral is that superficial similarities among mystical experiences should not distract us from the fact that they lead to very different insights about the ultimate nature of reality.

We should also remember that all religions must be more than a feeling of awe to be meaningful. Religions use symbols and sacred stories to convey ideas and insights about human relationships, and the ties between mortal and divine realities. These insights are the very things the religious faithful cherish, and use as guidance in living a virtuous life. And the fact that most religions address questions of how people should live does not change the reality that the answers offered differ. An analogy with politics may clarify this point. In a general sense, all political thought explores strategies for governing society. But different political thinkers favor very different strategies. A Marxist believes in the redistribution of wealth, while a free-market capitalist wants to foster an open market with no restrictions on individual prosperity. Most people would agree that these strategies are not compatible. Why then do some of the same people believe that there are no genuine conflicts between the different moral principles of religions?

Many religions may command us to live a virtuous life, but their ideas of virtue tend to differ. A radical Muslim believes in the virtues of “protecting” the modesty of women by limiting their social and personal freedoms, and a liberal Muslim believes in the virtue of declaring the sanctity and equality of all human life. Each bases her view on a plausible reading of the Quran, but the views are irreconcilable. Looking across the religious spectrum, we see many further conflicts. A Manichean who believes the world is essentially evil will draw radically different moral lessons than a pantheist who finds God present everywhere in his creation. An extreme Zionist will reach different conclusions about the covenant between God and man than a follower of Reform Judaism or a Christian liberal. And few citizens of modern democracies would find much virtue in the Bible’s commandment to burn witches.

People who assume a common ethical code across all religions tend to think that only good things follow from real religious beliefs, and overlook any aspects of religions that don’t conform with modern moral standards. They define religion as equivalent to goodness and virtue, so it’s hardly surprising that all religions reflect these qualities back at them. This tautological view of matters prevents many people from asking if some religious beliefs might have inherent negative consequences as well as positive consequences. Christians, for example, do not often consider the possibility that monotheism may fuel intolerance of rival religious factions, and allow people to exterminate their neighbors in the name of piety. Christians often express sincere concern about events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, but tend to see these events as aberrations of true Christianity rather than tendencies inherent within monotheism itself. Monotheism can also motivate good ethical conduct, of course, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the bad conduct. Both are real parts of the legacy of world religions, and responsible scholarship should not ignore one at the expense of the other.

What does all of this mean? Should we conclude that religions have nothing important to say to each other? No, we should not. Instead, we should remember that the goal of legitimate education should be to expose ourselves to views and ideas different from our own, rather than seeking false comfort in the belief that all ideas are equal. The notion that all religions are identical may sound admirably open-minded, but it really is dismayingly parochial. If we think all religions are the same, how likely are we to actually learn something about unfamiliar religious traditions? We are far more likely to see other religions as simply quaint variations of the beliefs we already know about, and will stop probing any further. In the name of openness, we close our minds to ideas that may challenge us to think just a little bit harder. Having decided in advance that religions are the same, we simply seek out the ideas that sound similar to our own and reject the rest. This hardly does justice to either the diversity of religious beliefs or the importance of religions to their followers.

Of course, most people in the “all religions are equal” camp do not intend anything harmful. On the contrary – they have the best of intentions. They are genuinely concerned about the effects of religious divisiveness in the modern world, and have arrived at a solution appealing to their sense of fairness. This solution seems to give all believers a firmer foundation for their beliefs in the wake of spreading secularism, while also lessening the tensions between different religious traditions. However, a false belief in the equality of religions will only lead to frustration when believers themselves continue to see their traditions as unique, and encourage failure to understand the ideas involved when religious conflicts occur.

All of us, secularists and theists alike, have a moral obligation to understand the role of religion in the world today. There is no possible understanding of humanity that does not include an understanding of religion, and no possible understanding of religion that does not include honest evaluation of different religious traditions. This is especially true today, when religion inspires not only terrorist hijackers but also those who help their victims. To understand how this is possible, we need to reject both the facile explanation that only good actions result from true religious belief, and the corresponding idea that all religions preach the same code of basic moral goodness. To cling to these simplistic ideas in the modern world is to fail to understand the problems facing us, and to abandon our highest moral responsibility to understand our fellow human beings in all their bewildering complexity.

Phil Mole frequently contributes to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer. He can
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