Thursday, August 16, 2007

Are all religions essentially the same?

A friend once surprised me by saying that she no longer identified herself as a 'Christian'. She still prayed, she said, but no longer held the belief that there was only "one path to God". This got me thinking... despite the appeal of such inclusivism, is this really a more enlightened approach to religion? And on what basis can Christianity claim to be true, to be a religion worth following?

"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal." This statement, attributed to the Dalai Lama, would probably find broad support in contemporary society. If everyone would just recognise that all religions are essentially the same, the argument goes, there would be no need for sectarian violence and hatred. It is certainly an appealing proposition. Saying to someone else, "My religion is right, but yours is wrong" seems akin to saying, "My culture and my way of life are better than yours." But are they the same thing? Language, culture, ethics and religion are so intertwined in everyday life that we may be tempted to regard them as inseparable. The Dalai Lama quote referred to one aspect of religion, one that is central to Buddhism: namely how we should live (including our attitudes). But religion is generally more than just a user-guide to life.

So, before we examine the question, "Are all religions equally valid?" we need to know just what it is that religions 'do'.

All religions claim to have answers to certain kinds of questions, or at least to provide insight into them. Almost by definition, such questions have no scientifically verifiable answers. 1

Although there are many such questions, they seem to group themselves into the following three areas:

  1. What is the nature of existence? Including: "How did the universe (and we) come to be?" and "Do I have a soul (or mind), or am I just matter?"
  2. Is there life after death? If so, what form does it take? And is there anything I can do to affect the kind of afterlife I will have - i.e. to make it enjoyable?
  3. Is there a universal moral code? (Or, at least one for all of those in my 'society'?) If so, on what - if anything - is it based: internal factors (e.g. survival of the species, the greatest happiness for the greatest number) or external factors (e.g. to please God, to be more like God)?

So, let us return to the task of comparing religions. It seems there are, at most, four basic options:

  1. Only one religion is right; all others are wrong
  2. One religion has the truest and most complete set of answers; other religions differ in how close they come to the complete truth 2
  3. All religions are 'right', or equally valid; no religion is superior to any other (in terms of answering questions that have no scientifically verifiable answers)
  4. All religions are equally meaningless, because such questions are fundamentally unanswerable (otherwise known as agnosticism)

It may seem that I have omitted one option: "All religions are equally wrong, because nothings exists apart from matter" (otherwise known as atheism). However, atheism is actually a specific form of A (dogmatic exclusivism).

So, what would happen if C ("all religions are equally valid") were correct? Consider two religions that answer the same question (such as, "Is there one supreme being who created everything?") in two contradictory ways ("yes" and "no"). Regardless of the question, regardless of whether an answer to it could ever be proved or disproved, the statement "X is true and X is false" must always be false (because it is fundamentally false).

Imagine I have flipped a coin in a locked room and you are outside that room. You could either say:

  • "I believe it is Heads", or
  • "I believe it is Tails", or
  • "I don't know whether it is Heads or Tails", or
  • "I don't care whether it is Heads or Tails"

... but it would be absurd and meaningless to say, "I believe it is Heads and it is Tails." 3

Those who claim to believe C ("all religions are equally valid") are really adhering to D ("all religions are meaningless": agnosticism), because their real answer to a specific question (e.g. "Does God exist?") is not "I don't know", but rather "I don't care." Option D supposes that it is possible to not make a decision of belief, whereas the most we can do is postpone a final decision. In the meantime, we are in effect saying, "Until more evidence comes to light, I will act as though such-and-such were true." This is our 'default' position.

There is a principle in science, known as "Occam's Razor". In its simplest form, this principle states that one should make no more assumptions than needed. In other words, when you have two competing theories, which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the best to follow. So, given that there is quite compelling evidence that the universe has not existed forever, which of the following is the simpler explanation for how it came to be?

  1. It was created by a supreme being ("God").
  2. It came into existence spontaneously.

Although the first seems to be a 'black box' theory - passing the burden of explanation onto a statement that defies further examination - the second is not much better. It says, in effect, "That's just the way things are." Yet many scientists - even if they do not state it explicitly - operate as though this were a 'given'. This is their 'meta-assumption': their assumption about which is the best assumption.

But, does it really matter? After all, it is often said that following a religion, regardless of its specific doctrines or principles, can be worthwhile, because of what it offers the believer, such as peace of mind and a sense of purpose in life. This is even presented by many believers as the primary motivation for their faith. But, if such benefits were built on nothing more than a delusion, it would be like someone taking a poisonous drug because it makes them happy right now. But if God is really God, and grace is real, my present "peace of mind", or lack of it, is surely a side issue. The real issue is: "In which direction shall I point my life?" or "To what, or whom, shall I pledge my allegiance?"


  1. Of course some religions - or the fundamentalist varieties of some religions - claim to have answers to other kinds of questions as well, even if they come into direct conflict with scientific evidence. But that is not our concern here.
  2. We could divide options A and B further, according to whether or not we believe that we know which is the 'right' religion.
  3. Actually, quantum physics says that, at a sub-atomic level, such contradictions do take place: e.g. a photon can be said to have travelled along two distinct paths simultaneously. However these do not occur at the 'macroscopic' level (molecules, drops of water, human beings, planets, galaxies, and beyond).

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