• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

"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.