October 27, 2003


Are All Religions Identical? (Phil Mole, Butterflies and Wheels)

Are all religions identical? Many people seem to think so, especially if they've taken a world religion course in college or read a Joseph Campbell book. They will tell you that all religions teach us to value life, to refrain from harming others, and to renounce selfishness. Therefore, so the thinking goes, all religions are identical in both content and purpose. The corollary assumption is that there can never be legitimate conflicts between religious beliefs, therefore all disagreements between followers of different religions must be fundamentally illegitimate. These conflicts allegedly stem from simple misunderstandings or unwillingness to admit common ground.

Such a view is certainly comforting, since it suggests that religious factions need only to listen to each other to find out they're not so different after at all. Then, as trendy therapists might say, the healing can begin. The only problem with this tidy, conciliatory view is that is utterly incorrect. A little knowledge of world religious traditions might convince us that they are identical, but a lot of knowledge tends to convince us that they are very different.

Many people who believe all religions are identical pay special attention to the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or between ancient myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical flood story included in Genesis. All of these describe the actions of a powerful deity who created the world by conquering the forces of chaos. But why is this similarity so surprising? All of these religions arose in the same tiny sliver of the world known as the Fertile Crescent, and their development often overlapped. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi almost certainly inspired the Jewish Ten Commandments, which later found their way into both Christianity and Islam as those religions absorbed and reinterpreted Judaic religious concepts. Thus, it's hardly newsworthy that Near Eastern religions tend to resemble each other to some degree. [...]

People who assume a common ethical code across all religions tend to think that only good things follow from real religious beliefs, and overlook any aspects of religions that don’t conform with modern moral standards. They define religion as equivalent to goodness and virtue, so it's hardly surprising that all religions reflect these qualities back at them. This tautological view of matters prevents many people from asking if some religious beliefs might have inherent negative consequences as well as positive consequences. Christians, for example, do not often consider the possibility that monotheism may fuel intolerance of rival religious factions, and allow people to exterminate their neighbors in the name of piety. Christians often express sincere concern about events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, but tend to see these events as aberrations of true Christianity rather than tendencies inherent within monotheism itself. Monotheism can also motivate good ethical conduct, of course, but that doesn't negate the existence of the bad conduct. Both are real parts of the legacy of world religions, and responsible scholarship should not ignore one at the expense of the other.

What Mr. Mole fails to consider is somewhat the opposite point: that a certain level of intolerance is necessary to a healthy society. Everyone recognizes this at least implicitly--consider, for example, how few voices were raised in protest when the Feds cracked down on militia groups after Oklahoma City. Speech, assembly, and gun rights justifiably took a back seat when those seeking to exercise them were racist separatists. Similarly, WWI and the Cold War brought Red Scares; WWII saw the incarceration of the Japanese-Americans and totally trumped up prosecutions of various Bundists; and 9-11 brought a massive roundup of Islamic immigrants. It's all well and good to protest that some or all of these were mistaken, but we keep doing it, don't we? We feel ourselves entitled to defend society from those who are most alienated from it and who openly threaten it. Moreover, the alternative to such intolerance is a society which does not even attempt to be decent in the way that most of us would define decency. Instead, mere peaceful coexistence is elevated from a means to an end in itself. It is detente on a personal scale, requiring one not to take notice of the intolerable conditions one's neighbor imposes on his family, because, after all, who are we to judge? It requires, in fact, that we deny that there is even such a thing as Good, or Evil, because recognizing them to be real then forms the basis for making judgments about others.

It seems implausible that any social structure could long endure which was truly tolerant --the notion depends too much on a Utopian belief in the essential decency of human nature. But the more basic issue is whether such a structure, even were it workable, is something that most of us would desire. Do we just want to be left alone, even if it means ignoring the sins and suffering of those around us, or are we, as Aristotle said and as Christ ordered us to be, social creatures?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2003 5:11 AM

Actually I think the crusades represent the
high-point of "lived Christianity".

Our country had that spark of righteousness
twice in our history (the Civil War and WWII).
I am afraid we have not found it this time
around (War on Terror/Islam).

Posted by: J.H. at October 27, 2003 8:49 AM

Shouldn't "high-point" be in scare quotes?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 27, 2003 10:51 AM

Our country had that spark of righteousness
twice in our history (the Civil War and WWII).


You forget about the righteousness of Our Country in The War Against the Injuns. One might make a case for righteousness on behalf of the Confederacy in the afformentioned Civil War. Were Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh and those who agreed with them righteous? Seems a poor litmus test to me.

Posted by: Jimmy at October 27, 2003 11:53 AM

I find it rather strange that someone who recognizes the differences among religions is naive enough to think monotheistic religions have a monopoly on hostility to outsiders.

Of course, zionist, a political position, is used for Jew in this essay.

Posted by: at October 27, 2003 6:30 PM

I find it rather strange that someone who recognizes the differences among religions is naive enough to think monotheistic religions have a monopoly on hostility to outsiders.

Of course, zionist, a political position, is used for Jew in this essay.

Posted by: at October 27, 2003 6:30 PM

Well, people who read Campbell books cannot be assumed to have thought about religion, or anything else. We might ask, though, whether people who have thought about religion find them much of a muchness.

The first person who we know who did so was Herodotus, who at the end of Book One ruminates on the custom of the (Parsees, or some allied group) eating their dead. It is, he decides, a mark of respect and thus equivalent to the Greek custom of burial.

But while Herodotus is ready to ascribe righteousness to the foreigners, he does not suggest that the Greeks should eat their dead, or, still less, that if they adopted it, it would be, for them, righteous.

I find Mole's essay shallow and naive.

It ought to matter something how a religion treats neighbors who hold a different belief (or none). The tolerance of an Herodotus appeals; the attitude of any of the universalist, salvationist religions does not.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 28, 2003 1:50 AM

What Harry said.

It costs me nothing to tolerate, say, the beliefs of Mormons. And while it may annoy them highly, it costs them nothing to tolerate my beliefs.

Its the actions that matter.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 28, 2003 7:56 AM

I'm not saying you're wrong, Jeff, because you come close to the Jewish position on gentiles, but you are taking a position on a contentious religious dispute.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 28, 2003 8:02 AM

Which contentious religious dispute?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 28, 2003 8:34 PM

Yep, uncritical toleration of all religions is just what the doctor ordered. That's the idea I was communicating with my article - that we should just stop worrying whether religions advocate moral or immoral behavior and just tolerate everybody all the time. Uh, yeah.

You are to be congratulated for your penetrating and perceptive reading of my article, and your ability to cogently discuss its main themes. I stand humbled before your astonishing reading skills.

Posted by: Phil Mole at October 30, 2003 2:42 PM