I hear it often. Whenever conversation turns to religion, as it occasionally does, somebody invariably makes the following statement: “After all, all religions basically teach the same thing.” It is normally stated in such a way that this should be completely self-evident. Except it isn’t.
Entirely by the way, isn’t it bizarre that social convention dictates that we not talk about all the things that actually matter to us in life – politics, religion, sex? And the reason we are not supposed to do so is that we might offend somebody! As if the worst thing that could happen to a person is that another person might actually disagree with them! No wonder society is filled with ignorant and bigoted people: they have been denied precisely the kinds of discussions that would enable them to become less so. Conversational etiquette is practically designed to cultivate intellectual myopia.
Now the people who claim that all religions basically teach the same thing are perfectly well intentioned. Tolerance, after all, is the cardinal virtue of the post-modern world, and these are the kinds of people willing to champion the cause. But this kind of statement, while appearing to include everybody, actually disrespects every religion. Far from embracing tolerance, this statement – implicitly underpinned by the enormously problematic assumption that difference is inherently bad – reduces the complexities of every creed and philosophy to a few trite rules for virtuous living, to a nebulous quest for the divine, and absolves the speaker of the responsibility of making the effort to understand any one of them.
But the religions are not all the same. Even the most basic research into comparative religion will make this clear. Buddhism is atheistic. Hinduism is happy to believe in many deities, while Islam, Christianity and Judaism maintain that there is only one God. Even the monotheistic religions differ: Christianity insists that Jesus is God, Islam sees him as a prophet, while the Jewish perspective of him is traditionally negative, as it holds that as it is heretical for a man to claim to be God. These are not inconsequential differences. A more detailed investigation of the major religions would reveal that while there may be superficial similarities in the value systems they espouse, there are also significant differences. Some would hold that taking a life under certain circumstances is not only acceptable, but a moral imperative. Others would reject the taking of any form of life. Even within each of these religions, key teachings will be interpreted differently. This is natural and good. It means that people are thinking for themselves. It means that religious adherents are aware of the complexities of the beliefs and philosophies they subscribe to. To even begin to seriously assert that they all basically believe the same thing is not only ignorant, but deeply disrespectful to them all. It is an academically lazy, ethically reprehensible stance, which ironically reveals in those who hold it the very bigotry they hoped to avoid.
Perhaps it can be attributed to the reluctance of modern society to accept that anybody’s viewpoint might actually be wrong. The cardinal sin (if I am even permitted to use such a negative term) nowadays is to judge or disrespect somebody. “You have no right to judge me! That’s my opinion!”, is the rallying cry of the day. But the flaw in the logic is the premise that if we believe somebody to be wrong, and voice that belief, that we are disrespecting them. We forget that it is not the act of disagreeing that is disrespectful, but (potentially) the mode. Still, I see it in the classroom all the time: we are raising a generation of young people who are either too afraid to voice their opinions out of fear that they may offend, or who are too willing to voice them because they believe they are beyond reproach. There is a prevailing conviction that all perspectives are equally (and unquestionably) valid.
One of the stories often used to justify this stance is Buddha’s story about the blind men and the elephant. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Buddha told a tale about six blind men who were asked to describe what an elephant was. They each formed a picture of what an elephant looked like, based on the part of the elephant they happened to feel, likening it to a fan, a rope, a wall, a pillar, a spear, a snake respectively. But the Buddha’s point was not that they were all equally right. They were blind, after all – an important detail. It was that they were equally wrong. And there was still, objectively speaking, an elephant.
The problem with interpreting the story to mean that we are all equally right is that it removes any incentive to explore truth further: after all, if we already have a reliable viewpoint, why continue to seek? It also encourages arrogance: if I am right, I need neither question my own perspective nor listen to yours, because the implicit consequence of my supposing my picture to be complete is that yours can have nothing of value to add to it. So we dismiss the need to consider other positions, comfortable in the assurance that if others differ, we can all be right. Truth is relative, after all, and that means I don’t have to engage in the onerous task of actually reflecting on why we differ, or face the inconvenient discomfort of having to shift positions.
And so we find ourselves adopting a logically indefensible stance because the alternative is too threatening. And the idea that all religions are ultimately true is logically inconsistent. There cannot, for example, simultaneously be one God, no God, and many Gods. Somebody’s picture is wrong. While I maintain that everybody has the right to believe what they wish, and has the right to be respected for that belief, they do not have the right to be right. And that’s okay. You’re no less human, less valuable, less worthy, less intelligent, for being wrong occasionally.
So the next time, buoyed by couple of drinks, somebody at the dinner table sagely opines that all religions basically teach the same thing, check yourself before nodding your agreement. Ask yourself why they so desperately want that to be true, why they avoid doing any detailed exploration of any of the religions. Ask yourself what problematic cultural assumptions have led them to make such a sweeping, reductionist generalisation. And then explain to the collected company what real tolerance is: the ability to completely disagree with another person’s beliefs, and to be able to challenge their perspectives from a position of respect, derived from a sincere attempt to understand their stance, and from a position of humility and a genuine desire to learn and grow. It is a refusal to reduce the complexity of any one position so that it fits our preconceptions. It is a refusal to let comfort get in the way of engagement. True tolerance recognises our common humanity, our common blindness, the fact that we all have incomplete pictures of an infinite truth too complex for a finite mind. True tolerance strives for a better picture. A tolerant person recognises that there are gaps in her own picture, and so is in a position to be both humble and respectful when pointing out the gaps in others’ pictures.
So I am not ashamed to say that I am Christian, that I believe Jesus’ claims of divinity. I am not ashamed to say that in many of my beliefs I consider myself to be right. I am also not ashamed to say that my picture is woefully incomplete and in places, I am sure, absolutely inaccurate. I am, after all, only human, and these are mysteries that go beyond my comprehension. I need, and am entitled – like anybody else – to learn, unlearn and relearn. I do consider other religions to have incomplete pictures too, and believe that some are describing giraffes and not elephants (I do believe that we are all looking for an elephant; I don’t believe that we all have found one). We are not all the same, and we cannot all be right. But when I disagree, I pray that I might have the grace and wisdom to do so from a deep understanding of what each religion believes. I hope that when I engage in debate over the elephant, it is out of a desire to understand more, not from a refusal to accept that I see so little. But even if I come to utterly reject everything you believe, I suspect that you will have been treated with more respect than if I simply concluded that we ultimately believe the same thing, because – whatever you may believe – I will never doubt your worth as a human being, and will have extended you the courtesy of giving your opinion the respect of my careful (if admittedly flawed) consideration instead of merely brushing it off.