Q: Arenít all religions the same?
A: No question about it: it is very popular today to assert that all religions are really the same at heart. They seem to put us in touch with a higher power (usually called ďGodĒ) and they provide us with a set of guidelines to live our lives by, guidelines that seem to be pretty universal, such as telling the truth, not killing, being faithful to your spouse and so forth. What being a Hindu does for one person appears to be the same as what being a Christian does for another person; the differences seem to be purely geographic and cultural.
This understanding of religion comes to us with two strong lines of support. For one thing, there is our contemporary commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Enlightened people everywhere are promoting the attitude that we need to respect each otherís diverse backgrounds, and to give respect means to embrace the legitimacy of many different paths to the same God. To try to label specific religions as different or unique would seem to be one huge step toward the idea that only one religion might be worthwhile and that all others donít have validity.
Secondly, people who hold to the idea that all religions are the same usually do so on the basis of what they see in the various religions. After they have studied different religions, they feel that they begin to see patterns of similarity among them, and then, once they strip away the superficial things that seem to divide the religions from each other, they assert that at their core they are not different from each other at all.
But if you just read the previous paragraph attentively, you will realize that this is exactly where the problem with the ďall-religions-are-the-sameĒ approach lies. Religions are the same only if you first of all take away from any particular religion that which makes it specifically that religion. For example, one can defend the claim that Buddhism is no different from any other religion just so long as one removes the specific ideas of devotion to the Buddha and his teachings. But what sense does that make? Or, one could presumably say that Islam is just like all other religions if one is just willing to look past the specific revelations of the prophet Muhammad. But it is precisely the specific revelations of Muhammad that make Islam Islam. Take those away and you donít have the core or Islam, you have no Islam at all.
The only way one can actually defend the thesis that all religions are the same is by deciding in advance that this must be so. One has to already have this idea in mind and then be willing to ignore the evident differences between religions in order to make it come out this way. Itís a little bit like saying that two persons, say Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa, are really one and the same person. Then, anyone who might point out the obvious differences between the two would be told that those are just superficial attributes, but that underneath all of them is the essential person that transcends all the details. Not a very convincing line of argumentation, and I donít think it holds for religions any more than it does for people.
The fact is that, if we do not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of reductionism, we do find some serious distinctions between religions. Allow me to point out a few, using the two religions that are the subject of this website to illustrate my points (realizing, of course, that I am stating generalizations).
1. Different religions have profoundly different purposes. In Hinduism, as in most Eastern religions, the goal is for the individual to escape the cycle of rebirths driven by the power of karma; in Christianity, where a basic doctrine is that a human being only has one lifetime and that all humans are born sinful, the goal is to be reconciled to God so as to spend eternity with Him.
2. Different religions have different understandings of God. Again, unless one predetermines in advance that all ideas of God are actually the same, one cannot get away from the fact that when different religions use the term ďGodĒ they may refer to beings with very distinctive characteristics. One needs to think of the Christian idea of the trinity here and contrast it with the monotheism of other religions; in Hinduism there are several ways of thinking about God. The classical thinkers Shankara and Ramanuja taught that God was in essence either impersonal or personal respectively; so we see here that even within one particular religion the adherents would be very surprised to learn that, despite their insistence on the differences in their conceptions of the God they worship, modern people have determined that those differences really do not matter. They did to them.
3. Different religions have different means of accomplishing their purposes. Hinduism is, of course, well known for the idea that there are several different ways toward release, the ways of works, knowledge, and bhakti-devotion, while Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God comes about only when a person puts personal faith in Christ and his death on the cross.
4. Different religions do have different standards of behavior. Happily, religions usually agree on basic matters, such as respect for human life, personal property, and the truth. But the way in which these injunctions are interpreted can be very different, and many religions also have their very distinctive rules. Hinduism enjoins the special protection of cows, a notion totally foreign to Christianity. At the same time, the ten commandments of Christianity and Judaism forbid the veneration of images, a practice that is, of course, solidly at home in Hinduism.
So, religions are not all the same. There are many important differences between religions that we should recognize. And isnít that as it should be? After all, you and I want to be recognized by other people for our specific personalities and strengths, and I would not consider any person particularly tolerant who claims to accept me, but then explains away the very things that make me the unique person that I think I am. In the same way, even though it sounds tolerant to claim that all religions are at heart the same, it really is not all that tolerant because in making that statement one would have to ride right over the distinctives of each religion and trivialize them all in the process.
As you search for truth in your own spiritual quest, I encourage you to look at the unique claims of Christianity.