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.