“Separate truths”

Ed1 pointed me to an article on religion in yesterday’s Boston Globe that asserts that different religions are not different paths to the same basic wisdom. Stephen Prothero’s essay “Separate Truths” begins by saying:

At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to “All Religions Are One” (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.

In reality, of course, different religions are, well, different. I got over my fascination with Buddhism when I realized that nirvana seemed too much like nothingness for me to want to aspire to it; I’d rather be compost when I died, not mere nothingness. As Prothero points out, different religions may share the same starting point, but they take different journeys which end up in different places:

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.

So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.

Good hearted Unitarian Universalists are often guilty of believing that all religions ultimately have the same goal, and we even sometimes believe that we get to choose the most attractive religion, the path that attracts us most. But to say this glosses over the differences between religions, and too often becomes a way of reducing other religions to our own pet beliefs; this attitude causes us to be intolerant of real religious differences, and ultimately disrespectful of other religions. It’s a kind of cultural imperialism, taking over other religions to serve our own ends. Since tolerance is one of our chief values as Unitarian Universalists, it behooves us to remember that true tolerance grows out of acknowledging and respecting real differences.

You can read Prothero’s full article online; it’s adapted from his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.


1 A propos of nothing, Ed is the only person I know who has a mountain named after him.

8 thoughts on ““Separate truths”

  1. Amy

    Gotta read this article.

    I think you were given a sloppy translation of the concept of sunyata. “Emptiness” is better than “nothingness,” though misleading in its own way. Better than either, as I very imperfectly understand Buddhism, is “transient” or “empty of permanent existence.” IOW, the fact that you will one day be compost IS what is meant by sunyata.

    However, to really get into the Buddhist spirit, you’ll have to release your desire to be compost…

  2. Victor

    Not sure I agree with Prothero’s conclusion: “What we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. ” Understanding where religious rivals clash might be interesting to a Boston University religion professor, but I think it would only create more problems among religious rivals.

    Perhaps the idea really isn’t that all religions are basically the same – rather, it’s that all religions basically teach some form of the Golden Rule. Whether or not that’s true, I really don’t know.

  3. Bill Baar

    I heard Rev Scot Giles peach once long ago that religion practiced outside the disicpline of a Church easily turns into a very dangerous thing. Different religions practiced under very different sorts of disicipline (polity if you like) and those different institutions yield very different outcomes. So yes, while a lot of Religions profess the “Golden Rule”, we really ought to look at the structures that have evolved around the practices, and look at how those structures are contending with the upheaval in today’s world brought on by Globalization and the acceleration of life.

    The first page of Conrad Wright’s book on politiy talks about our democratic tradition and heritage being the one constant in our history. Much of what we’ve said and written over our history has changed so much a UU from our era would ben unrecognizable to a U or U from an earlier, but I met the our practice and polity would be quite familiar to all.

  4. Dan

    Bill @ 3 — The only problem with Conrad Wright (which he has been frequently criticized for) is that he really doesn’t know or care much about Universalist polity, and he tends to gloss over the real differences between Unitarian and Universalist polity. I also think our polity has changed substantially over time, and presently has significant regional variations. Having said that, I would generally agree that the biggest source of continuity in Unitarian Universalism lies in our institutional structures and our generally democratic tradition.

  5. roger butts

    Hey that is cool about Ed. How can I get a mountain named after me?
    I’m doing a whole year on ‘neighboring faiths’ as part of worship and adult education. The idea is to find what parts of the traditions help their practictioners deepen their faith, act ethically, etc. We’ll neither focus exclusively on common ground nor differences but hopefully after the year together we’ll be wiser and bigger hearted.

  6. Ron Krumpos

    Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-bookon comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  7. Dan

    Ron Krumpos @ 6 — If you read his book, you’ll find Prothero offers a nuanced view of mystic traditions in various religions. I would also suggest that an appeal to mysticism is not going to resolve the arguments about religious pluralism vs. ultimate unity; especially for those who are not mystics, but also not even for many mystics (certainly not for me!).

  8. Ron Krumpos

    In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at www. suprarational . org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states: “Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

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