Do all religions share a common thread?

UU World magazine recently published “Do All Religions Share a Common Thread?”, a book review column I wrote in which I discuss God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together by the Dalai Lama, and A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion by Kenneth Patton. You can read it online here.

You can comment over on that site, but realistically I am less likely to respond to your comment there. Therefore, if you want to engage me in conversation about that column, feel free to comment here.

Update, 2020: This article still appears on UU World’s list of top ten most accessed articles. Go figure.

18 thoughts on “Do all religions share a common thread?

  1. Nancy Banks

    I just returned from a month in Africa where religion overwhelmed each aspect of my visit, whether trying to figure out how to get some food during Ramadan – not much during day light hours or respecting the Christians fasting requirements, I came away with a feeling that American have managed to homogenize most religious beliefs. But more importantly, it challenged some of my fundamental UU beliefs. Unlike almost any religion, we demand so little. In our respect for the individual, we deny the sacrifice. And although I saw many chickens and goats gathered for the annual New Years’ sacrifice of Ethiopia’s New Year, I began to appreciate the belief of sacrifice as a pillar of belief. Maybe we need to ask more.. I am not ready to ask for chickens and goats, but I think I am ready to ask for something that says I stand in solidarity with this faith and for that I give this up. Not sure what – still a work in progress.

  2. Jeff

    Glad to see you cover this subject for the UU World readership, Dan. I’m using God is Not One as the textbook for my Intro to Religion course for freshmen this semester. Many were shocked by Prothero’s assertion that the various religions aren’t just different paths up the exact same mountain–which was just what I was going for, since this reaction provoked lots of excellent in-class discussion. Reflecting on the attitudes in my local congregation, I feel like there might be a common UU version of this: all religions are paths up to the top of the same mountain, except for Christianity, which is a path down into the flaming bowels of the Earth. At least, that’s the attitude that is clearly given off, something I’m working to clear up (despite not being a Christian myself).

    Funny that you brought up A Religion for One World in the same review, since we’re reading that in the upcoming Universalism course I’ll be offering for SKSM. Our discussion of the Universal Religion turn that Universalism took in the 20th century (and whose DNA is still apparent in many corners of the combined denomination) will include some Prothero-esque critiques, and I’m curious to see how a group of mostly middle-aged UU seminarians will react vs. how my 18-year-old Gen Y university students react.

  3. Steve Caldwell

    Dan … Rebecca Parker talked about different ways of framing religious pluralism at her LREDA talk a few years when she talked about the “many paths – one mountain” view and the “many paths – many mountains” view.

    A common element in many workshop covenants in our congregations is “Use ‘I’ Language” where we are encouraged to speak from our personal experience and not to forcibly assume that our views are universally held by others.

    When one says “all religions teach the same thing,” I feel that this is a huge example of failing to use “I” language. The person trying to flatten the differences in multiple religions is attempting to forcibly assume something for all of us.

    This flattening of religious differences is depicted in the parable of the six blind elephants and the human:

    “Six wise, blind elephants were discussing what humans were like. Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience.

    The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, ‘Humans are flat.’

    The other wise, blind elephants, after similarly feeling the human, agreed.”

    Another example of how people tend to flatten religious differences can be found in the arrest of Bertrand Russell during WWI. After his arrest for anti-war activities, he recorded on the jail’s forms that he was an agnostic. The jailer, noting that Russell had defined his religious affiliation as “Agnostic” commented: “Ah yes; we all worship Him in our own way, don’t we.” Russell commented that the jailer’s comment “kept him smiling through his first few days of incarceration.”

  4. Philocrites

    When I took “UU Theologies” with Paul Rasor at Andover-Newton many years ago, it was striking how unpopular Patton was among the theologians we studied. And yet I suspect that there’s a divide between clergy (and religion scholars) and the typical UU when it comes to topics like syncretism and the “perennial philosophy” idea.

    When I taught an adult UU theology course in a congregation—using a much smaller sample of theologians, of course—the one the parishioners had the hardest time relating to was James Luther Adams, whose ideas are much more frequently invoked by clergy than Patton’s.

  5. Tim Muench

    I can relate to Jeff’s comment about negative UU attitudes to Christianity, which I also find in my congregation. On the one hand, I can see it as natural to the rebellion and separation from Christianity that Unitarian Universalism embodies. On the other hand, we are directly related and perhaps do not understand our heritage. As with growing up, you must separate from your parents but also develop a mature relationship.

  6. Dan

    Nancy Banks @ 1 — Thanks for sharing your impressions of non-Western religious culture.

    Jeff @ 2 — Prothero’s book would make a really good textbook. And I’d be curious to know what your seminarian students say about the whole Universal Religion concept.

    Steve @ 3 — The Bertrand Russell quote is priceless. Thanks.

    Philocrites @ 4 — I’d never thought of it this way before, but you’re right: Patton did have an enormous impact on the ordinary culture of Unitarian Universalism, while at the same time annoying many theologians and ministers. While James Luther Adams, whose theory of voluntary associations tends to support theological differences, has been widely ignored in UU popular culture.

  7. Steven BREWER

    I enjoyed reading your article, which was a thoughtful treatment of a couple of modern views on religious unification. I think an interesting contrast to the idea that religions should be “unified” is Homaranismo, the set of principles outlined by Ludwig Zamenhof (the creator of Esperanto) to enable people of different religious faiths to peacefully co-exist by establishing the rights to religious freedom and self-identification of ethnic, social, and linguistic identity. People remember Zamenhof for Esperanto, but fewer have heard of Homaranismo:

  8. Jazz

    My husband and I attended a UU church back in 2000 for about a year and then gave up on institutional religion altogether. We’re considering giving it another try so I was checking out UUWorld where I discovered your wonderful blog.

    Your review of Prothero’s book was of particular interest. I agree that all religions are different and should not be considered the same. However, I think Prothero hasn’t taken into account that the esoteric tradition within all world religions, even Western religions, share the goal of accessing what is “really real” and “piercing the veil” of egoic individual perception. In this sense, the “goal” of religion is spiritual training for personal transformation. You have to be able to strengthen your spiritual abilities if you want to engage in the interior journey just as an athlete has to train the body to engage in athletic events. Joseph Campbell defined religion as the final mask before reality. In that sense, William Blake was not incorrect to say they are “One” and Huston Smith’s analogy that religions are different paths up the same mountain remains accurate.

    Prothero is correct – it is far more effective to recognize differences than to attempt to homogenize religions. But you should also be very careful not to homogenize individual religious traditions, too. I agree with those who say Prothero’s approach for identifying problems and solutions is far too simple, at least based on your example. For Buddhists, the problem is dukkha, which gets mistranslated as suffering, but is not exactly suffering. To claim Nirvana is a “solution” shows major Western bias. The moment you make Enlightenment or Nirvana a “goal”, you make it impossible to attain. It’s not about achievement. Sin, for Christians, is ambiguously understood as “missing the mark” and theories abound since the earliest days of Christianity on what is meant by “salvation”.

    I’m not familiar with Swami Sivananda so can’t comment on his understanding, but I highly doubt Blake or Smith were in favor of a universal religion. Different parts of the mountain will obviously have different obstacles to overcome, therefore each individual path will be very different. To attempt to universalize the exoteric symbols and experiences of these paths would make the ascent impossible. What works for one part of the mountain will not necessarily work for another part. Each individual ascent must be respected as fully other. In that way, we cannot mistake our individual perceptions or those of our culture as the whole. We only ever truly experience Oneness by being deeply reverent and respectful of what is Other. There is no way to experience what is at the top of that mountain, otherwise. We have to be willing to suspend our individual biases.

    I’m not sure this is entirely an anti-UU stance. Emerson said that individuals must first experience a personal, internal transformation before trying to transform society. You have to have that view from the top of the mountain to be effective because otherwise, you mix your personal story up with the stories of others and become unable to fully “see” the other. Of course, the ability to fully “see the other” IS compassion. But this does not seem to be Prothero’s understanding of compassion as you describe it.

    (I just wrote a whole lot. I’m sorry!!! Thanks for the thought provoking review!)

  9. Peter Richardson

    “Philocrites” is simply incorrect to associate Ken Patton with the so-called “perennial philosophy” or with syncretism. Patton emphasized our human kinship, the search for the good life, religion as a love affair with life, but he never proposed that religions are the same and certainly had no synchronistic and “bits and pieces” approach. He specifically opposed this in A Religion for One World. Religions are valuable to us because of their different perspectives and practices. Yes, all the gods have a human face, i.e. all religion has its roots in our shared human nature. Patton’s philosophy was humanist/naturalist and as you know the theosophical approaches are theistic. To ask our congregations and our students to claim their world religious inheritance as citizens of this planet is not to be artificially synchronistic. What a resource for the spiritual journey! As we mature, individually and collectively, we may yet create adequate temples for A religion for one world.

  10. Dan

    Jazz @ 10 — You sound like you are staying with the “it’s all the same mountain” approach. That’s still a legitimate approach to understanding religions. But the approach represented by Prothero offers the “one mountain” approach some serious challenges — I’d say it’s definitely worth going beyond my review and reading his book.

    By the way, in the book Prothero does emphasize the differences within religious traditions. He also touches on what you call esoteric traditions, but it’s not a major concern for him.

    Peter @ 11, good to hear from you! While Patton himself may have had a more nuanced understanding of “universal religion,” Philocrites is correct in saying that many UUs have turned his “universal religion” into a kind of syncretism. My own reading of Patton’s A Religion for One World is that he comes pretty doggone close to syncretism.

    You write: “As we mature, individually and collectively, we may yet create adequate temples for A religion for one world.”

    I can’t agree with this — I don’t expect the human race to mature any farther than it already has. And this gets at a basic philosophical divide — the hope of humanity maturing is a wonderful product of a modernist outlook, whereas Prothero and Philocrites and myself find ourselves in the wilds of postmodernism, where the existence of such absolutes seems less and less likely.

  11. Jazz

    The same mountain, perhaps, but totally different, individualistic ascents up that mountain. Lest we forget, the mountain is a metaphor for an internal journey – not a literal ascent. Our culture has lost it’s ability to understanding metaphor – especially within academia which is only equipped to deal with the exoteric, literal nature of religion.

  12. Peter Richardson

    Dan, you are correct that I am not a postmodernist but not on the modernist side of it. I too do not expect the whole species to mature anytime soon. But I do hope for individuals and even congregations here and there to mature sufficiently to celebrate a global perspective. I don’t recall when Patten used the term, “Universal Religion.” I’ll have to scan his works. However, again, we must go back to the beginning, our human kinship, not attempting to scissors and paste with religions long evolved. We must see religion from its origins in our nature, from below not from above. A common mistake is to see them at arms length as they may appear to be studied in 3 credit courses. — Peter R.

  13. Dan

    Jazz @ 13 — You write: “Lest we forget, the mountain is a metaphor for an internal journey – not a literal ascent.”

    Yes, the mountain is a metaphor. But for many people, it is not a metaphor for an internal journey, e.g., for traditional Christians the ultimate destination, i.e. the metaphorical mountain peak, could be understood by them as salvation including bodily resurrection into heaven — not at all an internal journey. Again, I think you might enjoy Prothero’s book — hope you get around to reading it.

    Peter @ 14 — You write: “We must see religion from its origins in our nature, from below not from above.”

    There are going to be lots of traditional religionists who would disagree very strongly with you on that point. I’m not trying to be noodgy here, rather it’s important to make that point in the context of this post — from Prothero’s point of view, you as a Western post-Christian religious liberal are trying to solve a quite different problem than people in other religions.

  14. Peter Richardson

    So I’m a “western post-Christian religious liberal.” Well, I suppose so. And what does this say about me? This means apparently that I am not “eastern” however defined? Or not Christian-or if not, what? Religious, well that is comforting. And liberal, well of course. And of course many traditionalists around the globe will not understand. But what have you said about me? Do these labels lead anyone to where I live spiritually? Do these labels indicate why I wrote Archetype of the Spirit or my Sunday Meditations? Do they hint at what a reader would expect to find in them. Of course not. Global consciousness, a religion for one world, cannot be captured with post-modern labeling. And what problem might I be trying to address, as opposed to those in “other religions?” And “other” than what?

  15. Jazz

    Of course the mountain can mean different things for different people!! But Huston Smith specifically uses it as a metaphor for the internal ascent, not the external ascent. If you understand religion esoterically, it doesn’t even make sense to attempt to create a universal religion. Only those with an exoteric view would attempt to do so.

    Smith’s greatest fear, (like that of Nietzsche’s, Schwietzer’s, Huxley’s…) was that contemporary society would eventually its capacity to understand esoteric metaphors. That is what makes me hesitant to read Prothero, based on your review. It seems to me he has totally misunderstood what it is Smith devoted his life to doing.

    But I’ll definitely pick it up and check it out next time I’m in the bookstore. My library doesn’t have it.

  16. Jazz

    I left out “lose”. Sorry about that….Smith’s greatest fear is that we’ll lose our capacity to understand esoteric metaphors (which is most of the Bible – OT and NT). His entire life’s work has been devoted to making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of the traditional world view which had no trouble whatsoever making sense of esoteric metaphors. Like Nietzsche and Schweitzer, he is very skeptical of the study of the “Historical Jesus” for this reason. He claims it is liberalism that has created fundamentalism. Two sides of the same exoteric coin pushing against one another.

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