The idea that all religions are beautiful, true, and essentially
the same is a well-intentioned but dangerous myth. It's time we
studied religious differences seriously.
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed
across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been
fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are
This claim, which reaches back to "All Religions Are One" (1795)
by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as
odd as it is intriguing.
The most popular metaphor for this view portrays the great
religions as different paths up the same mountain. "It is possible
to climb life's mountain from any side, but when the top is reached
the trails converge," writes philosopher of religion Huston Smith.
This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful,
and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and
sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods
This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable
rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your
kind will make it to heaven or Paradise.
For most of world history, human beings have seen religious
rivals as inferior to themselves - practitioners of empty rituals,
perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths.
The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century popularized the
ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.
But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and
it has not made the world a safer place.
In fact, this naive theological groupthink - call it Godthink -
has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of
religions that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of
the rabbit hole and back to reality.
Divergence on essentials
The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics,
but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience,
and law. These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers
of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.
Muslims do not think that the pilgrimage to Mecca they call the
hajj is inessential. In fact, they include it among the Five Pillars
of Islam. Roman Catholics do not think that baptism is inessential.
In fact, they include it among their seven sacraments.
But religious differences do not just matter to religious
practitioners. They have real effects in the real world. People
refuse to marry this Muslim or that Hindu because of them. And in
some cases religious differences move adherents to fight and to
One purpose of the "all religions are one" mantra is to stop this
fighting and this killing. And it is comforting to pretend that the
great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment,
however well intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically
Faith in the unity of religions is just that - faith (perhaps
even a kind of fundamentalism).
One reason we are willing to follow our fantasies down the rabbit
hole of religious unity is that we have become uncomfortable with
argument. Especially when it comes to religion, we desperately want
everyone to get along.
In my Boston University courses, I work hard to foster respectful
arguments. My students are good with "respectful," but they are
allergic to "argument." They see arguing as ill-mannered, and even
among friends they avoid it at almost any cost.
The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the
straitjacket of religious agreement.
Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different
from one another.
We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel
safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are
the same does not make our world safer. …