Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Are All Religions the Same?

Stephen Prothero has a new book out, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero is very gifted in presenting matters of faith and religion to the American public. His previous books include American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t. In his latest book, Prothero argues that we are not advancing toward a better world by claiming that all religions are essentially the same. He opts for realism over idealism and says we do more good by a healthy understanding of the differences found the world’s religions. Click here for an article by Stephen Prothero about his book.

I am one of those who may lean too far in the “all religions are the same” category. My wife and I have had this same discussion. My view is usually something like, “Religion is a universal human trait. Because religious practice arises in every human culture, it will follow similar patterns.” Or I’ll say, “When you read the mystics and spiritual masters of each religion, you find the same concern for compassion toward other people and acknowledgement of a reality greater than ourselves.” Then my wife will say something like, “I’m sorry, but you cannot tell me that those (suicide bombers, fundamentalist Christians, or any number of representatives of unhealthy religion) are in the same path as the Dalai Lama (or some other representative of healthy religion).”

Prothero’s point is well taken, however, that we cannot just gloss over religious differences and think that all religions are the same. It is also true that what a person believes about God or ultimate reality will affect how that person engages with others in society. Prothero uses a sports analogy to drive home his point. You cannot say that baseball, football and basketball are the same, because they have different goals and rules. You cannot say that baseball is superior because it scores more runs, when the other sports do not even have scoring runs as a goal. I have a clergy friend who was telling me about an interfaith group she was a part of. There were Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians in the group, and they did not try to say that they believed the same things. What they were trying to do was to find ways to live together and projects in which they could cooperate. So I can agree that all religions are not the same.

Prothero uses the sports analogy. I might use a different analogy, though. People throughout the world speak different languages. Even though these languages are not the same, and often concepts are lost or diminished by attempts at translation, each language has grammar and syntax, and each language has communication as its purpose. So in some sense, languages are the same even though the words and sounds are completely different.

I really love matters of interfaith. As a religious person, I am fascinated by other religious people and am often surprised when I find ministers whose livelihood is religion to be so uninterested in other people’s religions. I have spent much time with other communities of faith, not in any official capacity, just as a face in the crowd – a present observer. What I have discovered is that the way to really get to know a faith community is to sojourn long enough to know what songs they sing together, how they treat one another, and what they contribute to the larger community and the world. This gives me more understanding than studying theological treatises or reading position papers.

I have also found my own faith practice enriched by encounters with other faith practitioners. One of my favorite books that I found at the library years ago was The Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. Goldman. Goldman’s approach is different from Prothero’s. Goldman is a journalist and an observant Jew. The book is about his experience taking a year’s leave of absence to study at Harvard Divinity. He states that his preconceived notion was, “If you know one religion, you know them all.” Diana Eck, professor of World Religions at Harvard, gave him a wake-up call on the first day of class when she said, “If you know one religion, you don’t know any.” Goldman came to understand that “It is unfair and unwise to understand one religion by the yardstick of another.” The author came to appreciate other faiths in the course of his studies by seeing them from the inside. There is a good review of the book I found online at

The reviewer includes a quote from the book that gives a good flavor of Goldman’s intent in writing the book:
"I am sitting in a black Baptist church and feel swept away by the incredible combination of pain, joy and music ricocheting through the building. I am sitting in a Russian Orthodox Church surrounded by statues and icons, and feel a sense of mystery and transcendence. I am sitting among Quakers at a Friends' meeting and feel a serenity I have never before known. In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in the richness of my own faith but nourished by the faith of others."

Another book that I found at the library which I loved so much, I had to buy it is The Jew in the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz. The author is a poet and English professor, and not-so-observant Jew who was invited to accompany and chronicle a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism (with delightful input from Hassidic scholar Zalman Shachter-Shalomi). The effect upon Kamenetz was a rediscovery of his Jewish roots. Click here for a review of the book. Kamenetz’s own account of “What I Learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama” can be found here.

A third treasured book that I read years ago is A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield is a prominent interpreter of Buddhism to modern American life. His book was one of the most affirming books to my own Christian practice that I have read. I mention it just as an example of the value of learning from other faith practices.

Prothero is correct in explaining that we cannot gloss over religious differences and claim that we are all really saying the same thing. He also gives some helpful information about the different goals of the different religions. As a seeker, however, I must add that Ari Goldman’s approach (and Kamanetz’s discovery) of having one’s one faith strengthened by encounters with other faiths is very appealing to me.

So are all religions the same, or are they different. My answer is a resounding “Yes!” (Those with mystical tendencies will understand).


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