It’s a pretty common opinion these days. But I am not sure what to really make of it. How could all religions be the same? Perhaps it comes from an idea where people want to respect all cultures and all religions. You wouldn’t want to say that one culture or one religion is better than another because then you sound like some sort of imperialist. So, to say that all religions are different but the same, is somewhat like saying that all cultures are the same. This only makes sense if culture and religion are the same thing– all Europeans are Christians, all Indians are Hindu, all Middle-Easterns are Muslims, and other gross generalizations. But, I don’t think religions and cultures are the same entity. I am South Asian by culture. But I am neither Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain. I am Christian, and Christianity goes back in my family for around 4 generations. Similarly, there are Chinese Muslims and American Buddhists. I think it’s safe to assume that culture and religion are not the same thing. Obviously then, cultures and religions are independent entities not reflective of each other.
Perhaps it comes from a philosophical stance that says that all religions are humans trying to transcend life– so in that sense, they are all the same. Well, if that is the case, to say that all religions are the same actually minimizes the diversity and uniqueness of each religion. They are all special and unique in their own way, and have something worthwhile to offer to the world. Saying that they are all the same doesn’t seriously respect each one on its own terms. No Muslim wants to be told that they are exactly like a Buddhist (or vice-versa). No pagan wants to be told that they are exactly like a Christian. Each of them wants to be acknowledged and respected for their uniqueness. Do you or I really want to live in a paradigm that mangles all religions into one pigeonhole? I hope not.
Consider Jewish or Muslim beliefs that there is only one God, or Christian beliefs that god is a “Trinity”, or Hindu beliefs that there are many gods and goddesses. Some religions even disagree with themselves— Theravada Buddhism (like the Dalai Lama) says that desire leads to karma; so if you can extinguish desire, you can extinguish karma, and thus liberate your soul. Mahayana Buddhism (the one that people in the West are most familiar with) says that if you accumulate enough good karma, it will outweigh the bad karma, and then you can liberate your soul.
Well, which one is it— killing all desire to extinguish karma? Or having only good desires to accumulate the good kind of karma? Are those not two different means to an end?
And when you start thinking about everyday life, like sex or a good meal, this opinion of all religions being the same seems much too simplistic. Some religions tell you that your body is just an illusion. Other religions will tell you that your body is real. But sex feels great and starvation feels terrible, so it might be helpful to know if my body is an illusion or if it’s real.
So you can imagine my mild apathy when someone says all religions are the same, because information.
I guess what they really mean is that all religions basically tell you how to be a good person. Or if you like philosophical jargon, they differ in their ontology but have the same teleology. Or if you prefer metaphors, they all have different starting points but end on top of the same mountain. I guess in that sense, all religions are the same, because they all tell you how to be a good person. In fact, we probably don’t need religion at all to know how to be a good person, as some rightly argue.
But life is more than just learning how to be a good little boy or girl, isn’t it? Isn’t life learning to make sense of grief, pain, suffering, meaninglessness, apathy, purposelessness…? Isn’t life learning to overcome fear, eating disorders, depression, abuse, hurt, among other things?
So, if there was a religion that made sense of all these things in a satisfying and meaningful way, that would be the religion that works. If there was a religion that helped us overcome everything negative, that would be the one that I want to be part of. So, I guess all religions can’t be the same because they all deal with life very differently. Some of them will tell you that the pain that you experience is an illusion or the suffering that you experience is bad karma. Some will tell you to try harder, think positive, blame circumstances, blame society, achieve harmony. Some will tell you “S*** happens.” Thanks! Some of them will tell you that you can overcome your weakness by sheer willpower. Or better yet just be a better person. It’s like a man in a boat yelling swimming instructions to a shipwreck survivor trying to save herself. Think this, think that, try this, try that, do this, do that…
It can be exhausting! Maybe that yelling guy should just lift that poor swimmer out of the rough seas and into his boat. All of this makes you wonder if religion is worth it. Or if religion can ever speak accurately to our life circumstances.
Well, is there a religion out there that speaks to our existential needs and hurts, that makes sense of the world we live in? I sure do hope so.