Posted by: gcarkner | August 17, 2012

All Religions Say the Same Thing?

It doesn’t matter what you believe, because all religions are basically the same?

This is certainly a common sentiment, promoting tolerance and respect for difference. This is often the discussion in the clever TV show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The trouble is, it’s a naive statement that lacks gravity and plausibility. It trivializes some of the most important discussions of our time. What a person believes about the ultimate meaning of life matters infinitely, especially to them. Believers at least recognize the differences and their significance for how life is lived. They often risk torture and death for their beliefs, especially if they refuse to bow to an oppressive political regime. They quite literally stake their lives on these beliefs; that’s not trivial at all.

But are these believers mistaken? Does it really not make any difference what you believe? Are all religions at bottom the same? Is John Hick and other religious relativists correct after all, i.e. that plurality of cultures and religions within our globalized world means that pluralism (the ideology) is true? Has our late modern world trivialized truth too much?

Undoubtedly, there is much common ground between religions. Many accept a Creator and have some story of origins, plus a notable figurehead. All have a sense of good and evil. There is often a search for enlightenment or truth about oneself and the world–the meaning question. They try to answer why we suffer at some level. Most foster worship and teach an ethic for living well, being responsible for one’s family and respecting one’s neighbour’s interests. There are indeed many similarities; few would question that claim. There is also much that is good in most religions [We say this while knowing that there exists also bad religion which deceives, exploits and oppresses the individual, steals her freedom or livelihood].

But the similarities are by no means complete. In fact, the differences are quite staggering upon further investigation. Take conceptions of the divine, for example. While Buddhism prefers the emptiness of Nirvana to any positive or definite idea of God, tribal religions are polytheistic, believing in many gods, like the ancient Greeks. And in between, we have everything from the impersonal Brahman of Hinduism to the intimate personal Lord of Christianity. And of course we have the religious neo-Atheist who claims that God and religion is irrelevant and probably even harmful. There are also different analyses of what is lacking in the world (the brokenness within the human condition) and how this can be redeemed, repaired, or addressed effectively.

A further example is the Christian idea of the incarnation. That God bent on revealing himself to us entered history as a human being is a claim unique to the Christian faith, but it is absolutely essential to the integrity of that faith. Other religions might claim temporary manifestations of deity as an avatar or angel from time to time. Christianity alone rests on the assumption that God literally became man for our salvation. If supernatural aid for our current problems is available, that is significant indeed; it ought to capture our attention.

Are these beliefs all ihe same? One could hardly say that. They are at variance with each other: they are even contradictory on many points. They might conceivably all be wrong, but we fear that they cannot all be right on all points. But here is the basis for dialogue: to understand and appreciate each other on campus. We are here at UBC from all round the world and from a grand diversity of religious backgrounds; we ought not settle for stereotypes but ask our friends what they actually believe and why. Learn from and respect your laboratory and research neighbour.

We conclude that it does matter very much what you believe. All religions make strong exclusive claims; if one digs below the surface, each one believes they have the truth on many matters. We need to examine these claims to determine which are true, which are most plausible. This can be a fun and enlightening exercise. Considering that the majority of our world’s population espouses some faith, this is not trivial at all. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Gord Carkner

Reference: Eerdmans Handbook on the World’s Religions; JND Anderson, The World’s Religions. See also the post called Dialogue on Worldviews.

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