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All religions not same to you

July 9, 2010

Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan
Buddhist Studies at Columbia University
The Washington Post
July 7, 2010

Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama,
who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often
refers to the 'oneness' of all religions, the
idea that all religions preach the same message
of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians
Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major
faiths are more alike than not. But in his new
book "God is not One," religion scholar and On
Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the
Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all
religions "are different paths to the same God"
is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who's right? Why?

I haven't read Steve's book yet fully, though I
admire his work in general. I think the way you
put the question, black or white, is misreading
all of the authors you mention - though perhaps
it's good to be provocative when you want to get your bloggers moving!

I don't think His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or
Karen Armstrong, or Huston Smith are any of them
saying there are no differences between the world
religions, that they are "different paths to the
same mountain," etc., meaning by "the mountain" a
single entity of a religion, or a single reality
of "God." Not at all. They all know very well the
exquisite particularities of the various faiths,
and they all revel in the rich diversity of them.
In fact, the Dalai Lama makes a big point of
insisting that religions must come to consider
each other as each a complete path to each one's
chosen goal of what it means to be a good human
being. He compares those who hope for a single
world religion for all with people who would like
it if all restaurants in the world served only the same meal!

What these writers do say though, is that all
lasting human religions have urged their
followers to be compassionate, charitable, moral,
gentle, and wise, at a minimum. And the Dalai
Lama goes so far as to say that even most
nonreligious people value kindness and
ethicality, i.e. uphold some sort of humanism. He
sees that as mandated by human biology.

The long-term helplessness of the human young,
the living in communities, the need for cultures
of altruism in order to cooperate to accomplish
aims - these values are universal. And that is
what he means when he says "my religion is
kindness;" Or refers to "the common human
religion of kindness." He doesn't mean that any
one formal "religion" amounts to no more than
kindness, or that they are all the same in other
respects. In fact he lauds the differences
between them, as he considers particular ones
better suited for the needs of particular
individuals and communities. When he gives public
speeches, he always prefaces his teachings by
saying that he welcomes people of other faiths to
learn whatever they want about Buddhism and use
anything they find useful, be it idea or
practice, but that they should do that within the
bounds of their own traditions, they should
discard anything that conflicts with those
traditions, and thus their learning should
strengthen their religious commitment, not weaken it or change it.

Now, as I said, maybe I've missed something in
Steve's latest study, but I don't think he would
conflate the thoughts of the three thinkers you
mention with some presumed "one world religion
true believers" and then dismiss them as being
"untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous."

Steve's point, as I divine it, is rather that
anyone who says all religions are the same is
really saying that they should be the same, and
therefore that what that person holds to be "the
true religion," inevitably her or his own
religion or set of beliefs, must be what everyone
else should believe. This is a disguised form of
bigotry or even fanaticism, a crusader attitude
that everyone should convert to the crusader's
religion or else. It is disguised by the pretense
that the fanatic doesn't need them to convert,
since they already are believing the same thing,
whether they know it or now. So that kind of "all
religions are one" theory is obviously untrue, it
is disrespectful since it doesn't allow for true
variety in religions and doesn't respect others'
religious choices, and it is dangerous, because
it quickly leads back to the long established
dangers of religious fanaticism and the lethal intolerance or crusaders.

So I very much doubt that Steve Prothero would be
accusing His Holiness, Karen, or Huston of such
an attitude. By the way, the Buddhist teacher
Maitreyanatha famously wrote words to the effect
that "We never say that buddhas are many, or that
buddhas are one. We do not say they are many,
because in the ultimate truth they cannot be
differentiated. But we do not say they are one,
because each buddha gets to enjoy individually
the inconceivable unity of all." This kind of
genius expression helps us both avoid the
dangerous pride of thinking our formulations of
what is beyond us ultimately are ultimately true,
and the equally dangerous irresponsibility of
thinking that what we say doesn't matter because it's all equally untrue.
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