"All Religions Are the Same…" (except Where They're Not)

It was my privilege to participate in an event at Stanford University last weekend that featured a Muslim apologist (Jihad Turk), a Hindu apologist (Swami Vedananda) and your servant.

Over the course of the evening, a particular form of argument emerged that emerges all the time in such conversations, a form of argument that needs exposure as much less impressive than it might first appear to be.

It generally appears in one of two versions.

Version 1: All religions are essentially the same. Despite whatever else they might say, they are fundamentally about doing good to your neighbour, living a good life, being a good person, contributing to the good of the world.

Version 2: All religions are essentially the same. Despite whatever else they might say, they are fundamentally about apprehending the ultimate truth of the universe, feeling the oneness of all things, enjoying a transcendent spiritual experience within and beyond all particulars.

Version 1 is moralism; version 2 is mysticism. The form of the argument is the same and in our world of bewildering and competing and threatening plurality of religions, this argument is appealing to many of us.

But it’s not an interesting argument, because essentially it says this: Once you pare away from all religions everything that makes them different from each other, behold: they’re all the same!

(Uh, yeah. I suppose they are.)

What needs to be argued and not just asserted is that each of the major religions really does reduce down to moralism or mysticism without a loss to its essential character. And, in my view, most religions do not so reduce. Devotional (bhakti) Hinduism (the most popular form of Hinduism) doesn’t; Mahayana Buddhism (the most popular form of Buddhism) doesn’t;  Judaism doesn’t; and Christianity and Islam, the most popular religions in the world, certainly don’t. (I recognize that there are moralistic and mystical varieties of each of the Abrahamic religions, but the majority of believers and of those religions’ formal traditions do not, I maintain, reduce their religions to mere moralism or mysticism.)

John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith are among the academic luminaries who have tried to show what is, in their view, the Universal Core of (Good) Religion, but they certainly haven’t convinced even a majority of their colleagues. The Vedanta form of Hinduism that Swami Vedananda represented at Stanford has purported to offer the true essence of Hinduism at least since Swami Vivekenanda brought it to America a century ago, and the roots of it go back a millennium to Shankara and, indeed, to the Upanishads. But it’s a simple matter of fact that most Hindus don’t think this tradition represents the heart of their religion, and most believers in other traditions certainly don’t recognize it as an accurate simplification of their faith.

So as politically useful and personally pleasant a belief as it would be–that all religions are basically the same–I continue to aver what most of the religions of the world actually do say: They’re not basically the same and one does have to choose.

We’ll have to keep investigating and thinking about what Map of Reality (which is what religions and all other forms of life-philosophy purport to offer) is the best one. We don’t have to conclude that all religions are wrong except one. More than one map can depict at least some of the territory at least somewhat correctly. But we can’t blithely suggest that they’re all equally, or even fundamentally, right, either. That would have to be shown, and I haven’t seen a good argument yet for that (unlikely) hypothesis.

0 Responses to “"All Religions Are the Same…" (except Where They're Not)”

  1. Maurice Harting

    On this topic Prof. John Stackhouse and I agree. For starters the god of Islam is not the same God of the Bible as the God of the Bible loves His chosen ones, both of the Jews and Gentiles, while the god of Islam despises both Jews and Christians (see sura 5 in the Qur’an). Secondly, the polytheistic stance within Hinduism contradicts the Oneness of God of the Bible.
    All religions oppose the biblical and exclusive claim in the NT that Jesus is the only way to the Father in heaven.
    And most, if not all religions that are not founded in Jesus Christ have some form of works-righteousness build in to their “salvation” platform.
    The concept of substitutionary atonement of/ in Jesus Christ is foreign to both Islam and Hinduism.

    From personal experience I have found that debating a muslim on biblical topics does not lead to a transformation of thought of both parties and as such has limited (and I am not saying no) value.

    Maurice Harting
    mauriceharting@yahoo.ca

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother Maurice,

      A few corrections, if I may:

      1. Many Muslim converts to Christianity have testified, as did Paul of Tarsus, that they did not change Gods upon their conversion. The Muslims say that they have come to worship Christ as God and as their Saviour, rather than simply revere him as a great prophet, as they had previously.

      2. The Qur’an’s discussion of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) is not, I must say, to be summed up as “they are despicable.” Much of a positive nature is said of Judaism and Christianity, about the scriptures of both, and of Jews and Christians. I don’t finally agree, of course, with how the Qur’an puts all those matters, but to say it simply despises Jews and Christians I’m afraid is just not accurate.

      3. My experience of discussion with Muslims has been limited to the world of academic exchange, whether discussing Islam and Christianity with a Muslim student from a Muslim-majority country (as I did last term at the University of Ottawa), a Muslim apologist (as I did last weekend at Stanford U.) or with high-level theologians (as I did last year at Yale). But I have always found it transformative of my own thought and my Muslim interlocutors tell me that it has changed their minds about a thing or two as well. I’m sorry your experience has not been more positive.

      We agree, however, on The Main Thing: Jesus is Lord and Saviour of the world. So let us indeed honour and serve him where we are as best we can.

  2. Jack McLaughlin

    Well said, Dr. Stackhouse

    Having taught introductory courses for many years on World Religions (to senior Secondary School students) in which the various world religions were examined as to their answers to ‘the big questions’ as does James Sire in the Universe Next Door, I (we, my wife and I, who also taught similar classes) found it liberating for ourselves and our students, to break away from the notions that “all religions are basically the same” and to see that “they’re not basically the same” and we need to recognize the differences.

    We tried diligently to be fair in our presentation of the answers that each of the religions (including atheism as a religion or worldview) offer on the “big questions.” It was our hope that in the end, students would understand that they had to choose. In fact, not choosing was itself a choice.

    All of us, as humans, have some sort of unconsciously held religious (worldview) position. It is better to bring that to the conscious level and discover with Socrates the value of an “examined” life.

    Thanks for reminding me of good days in high school classrooms with students who got turned on by thinking about thinking “worldviewishly”.

  3. Debbie

    I have found there are many assumptions on both sides when it comes to Christians and Muslims.

    After working in a Muslim community in the Mid-East I found that I had many assumptions about Muslims that were false and that they had many assumptions about Christians that were false.

    I have found Muslims to be some of the kindest, most loving people I know. One of the things that surprised me was how open they were to discussing our differing beliefs (and yes, there was no question in their minds that we have different beliefs).

    Frequently, in an ESL class I taught for government workers in the Palestinian Authority, my students would tell me what Christians believed. I would gently explain to them where they were in error and try to clarify Christian views. They finally became so frustrated that they insisted that we have a full day where we talked about what Christians believed so that they could compare it with what Muslims believed. Of course, I was happy to help them out with that!

    The academic world can be a tough place to communicate the Gospel. In the ‘regular world’, Muslims are becoming Christians (including some of my former students!). They see visions, they have dreams and they are learning to love Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

  4. Matt Jones

    “We’ll have to keep investigating and thinking about what Map of Reality (which is what religions and all other forms of life-philosophy purport to offer) is the best one. We don’t have to conclude that all religions are wrong except one.”

    I have a few questions about this notion. While I can agree that various maps can show “some territory somewhat correctly”, doesn’t it seem that the metaphor becomes strained as we reach the logical conclusion of the Gospel? If Jesus has made ultimate claims about reality and how to be part of the Kingdom, any “map” that doesn’t include that, will be found lacking and essentially wrong. To me, that would suggest we would, eventually, have to conclude that all religions are wrong except for the one that claims Jesus is, indeed, savior and son of the triune God. How do we not reach that conclusion?

    • Sung Kim

      I think we cannot say all other religions are just wrong.

      because we cannot fully understand Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, we cannot say they are just wrong.

      In addition, some people say that the Triune God is not limited within the Church.
      and, if we somehow agree with the idea of ‘Anonymous Christian,’ can we really say ‘all other religions are just wrong?’

      • Sung Kim

        (sorry, it’s strange. I can’t modify it.)
        I believe that Jesus Christ is the only savior, but what I wanted to say is that we do not have to claim that others are wrong because we don’t understand them.

        • John Stackhouse

          Having taught world religions for twenty years, I don’t agree with Sung Kim that we can’t understand other religions. We certainly can understand them enough to compare them usefully in lots of ways.

          Matt, I agree with you that the Main Thing is to affirm that Jesus is Lord. But to say then that “all religions are wrong” is far too categorical a conclusion to make. Various ones are right about some things, some of them about a great many things–as I think you are acknowledging. It’s that affirmation along with the confession that Christ (alone) is Lord that makes missionary work both appreciative of aspects other faiths and evangelistic nonetheless.

          • Sung Kim

            Thank you for comment Dr. Stackhouse.
            Your blog always helps me to challenge my low knowledge.

            I heard some people say, “If you want to fully understand my religion, you should be converted.”

            Somehow, I agreed with their saying, because (I thought) if they understood Christianity, they must be converted and believe in Christ as their only Savior. That’s why I came up with the poor opinion.

            But, on that point of comparative religion, I strongly agree with you, Sir. We understand them enough to have a dialogue.
            Moreover, rather than a dialogue with others, proclamation of Jesus Christ the Only Savior for all must be our missions.
            Thank you again for your comment. I am really excited.

  5. Jeremiah Duomai

    This is something we come across again and again in India. Hindus have no problem calling Jesus as God; just that they don’t want to say “there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

    But Hinduism itself has so many schools. And sometimes two schools can have contradicting beliefs. Even within Vedanta Sankara’s is monistic (Advaita) whereas Madhva’s is theistic (Dvaita). Madhva argued that he was right, and Sankara was wrong. But this logic is not accepted by many many Hindus. And this still continues to surprise me.

    In my first year for Bachelors Degree in Delhi University I was taught law of non-contradiction in Logic; but in my first year for Masters Degree in the same university the professor of Indian Philosophy ( which is primarily a study of Hinduism and Buddhism) argues that we i.e. Indians, don’t accept the law of non-contradiction. As a staff worker for campus ministry I have come across so many Hindus switching to a different realm when we talk about religion; a realm where logic does not apply. I have never come across any Hindu who has come to the Lord through intellectual argumentation (read traditional apologetics). All that I know have come through building friendship/relationship first.

    Here in India Christians have teamed up with Muslims many times to protest against the high-handedness of Hindu fundamentalist. Indian Muslims are more or less peaceful than Hindu fundamentalists. It’s just that Hindu fundamentalist can’t be banned because they are too powerful. Had non-Hindus in India been 50% organisation like Bajrang Dal would have been banned. But it’s said that bulk of the money used by Hindu fundamentalist to sponsor “attacks” on Christians and Muslims in India come from Hindus in the North America and Europe in the name of development and relief fund.

  6. Rob Haskell

    Very helpfully stated:

    “But it’s not an interesting argument, because essentially it says this: Once you pare away from all religions everything that makes them different from each other, behold: they’re all the same!”

  7. Wayne Park

    Much agreed Prof Stackhouse
    I have found the attempt to somewhat water down all faith into a common essence to be somewhat culturally imperialistic in tone, and that’s my biggest criticism of (Western) Universalism. The appropriation of Buddhism, Islam and all the major religions is really not an honest estimation of those faiths, but rather a Western domestication. Any true and self-respecting imam or guru would not give our versions the time of day.

    I participated in a smaller-scale forum at our local university chaired by an American Buddhist priest. Sitting last in the row I had to listen to a dozen people saying what was special about their religion and how we were all no different just unique…

  8. David alexander

    Can moralism as part of various religions be good when true Truth is Christ Jesus alone ? Then what about eternal life ? The Bible tells us that Eternal life is: knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ. (Jh 17:3) Not sure the value of these types of discussion that really in the end seem to go nowhere as we are in fact different in view of God in Jesus. I guess I would say there is no good in a fallen world except thru and by Jesus. Including various parts of other religions.

  9. Stan Ward

    I teach a worldview/world religions course for secondary students, and the issue is much less philosophical for them. I work at a boarding school with a Christian curriculum but also a number of non-Christian students from a variety of countries. The real sticking issue is what to do with people who live a very moral life, true to the religion of their parents, yet don’t follow Christ.

    Likewise, how do you explain Aslan’s reaction to Emeth in Lewis’s _The Last Battle_? It’s certainly not universalism, but what exactly is it? (Would you call it “heresy”?) Aslan’s response seems to fall into the “moralism” category.

    • Wayne Park

      That’s funny, I thought that’s exactly what it was – universalism. I’m not sure how it could be any other.

      • Sentinel

        I think there is a significant difference between saying: “God will take into account the entirity of a person’s life (including the cultural paradigm in which he lived)”, which I believe is Lewis’ message, and “All religions are equally valid as paths to God”.

        God reveals Himself to all people through His creation. He has also revealed Himself in the person of Jesus and in the Bible – but these specific revelations are more or less easily heard and received by different people. If the Gospel has not been translated into your language, it’s hard to receive it.

        I believe that Lewis is saying that while receiving and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus is the way to salvation, it does not simply follow that someone who has never heard the Gospels is automatically barred from salvation.

  10. Paul

    Thanks for this, Dr. Stackhouse. I did my thesis on Hick’s Christology. He claims:

    “If he [Jesus] was indeed God incarnate, Christianity is the only religion founded by God in person, and must as such be uniquely superior to all other religions.”
    John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate

    “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
    John the Apostle, The Gospel of John

    For a sample of my argument, see here.

  11. Robert

    Or as G.K. Chesterton once put it:
    “Students of popular science, … are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.”

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