It’s a common enough question, and one that is often posed less as an actual question than as a simple observation, or even as a subtle assertion: “When you get right down to it, aren’t all religions really just saying the same thing?”

Well, yes and no. It depends upon what you think they are all “saying.”

A lot of religion has to do with ethics and morality. And it is true that all of the major religions (and most if not all of the minor ones) do promote compassion and loving-kindness toward others, even if that love and compassion is not always perfectly realized in practice.

Jesus is well-known for having eloquently expressed the Golden Rule in the New Testament: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” But this principle of treating others as you’d like them to treat you did not originate with Christianity; it can be found in many other religions as well, some of which date back long before the time of Christ.

Rabbi Hillel, a great Jewish sage who died an old man when Jesus was still just a young teen, put it this way: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.” Confucius, who lived some 500 years before Christ, long predated both: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” The Buddha, who lived in India at the same time as Confucius lived in China, advised: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” A Hindu purana (sacred text) proclaims: “That which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.” Muhammad is said to have taught: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” A Wiccan principle succinctly states: “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”

Plenty of other examples exist in still other religions, as well. Bottom line: so far as morals and ethics go, yes, most if not all religions are indeed on the same page, essentially saying the same thing.

But religion isn’t only a matter of moral behavior, or loving one’s neighbors. Religions also make claims about the nature of reality — especially about the nature of Ultimate Reality, or God (or the nontheistic equivalent, in nontheistic religions). They make certain particular assertions about the soul, about the afterlife, about the nature of existence, about the meaning and purpose of life.

And here, the religions can and do disagree with each other. They are by no means all on the same page when it comes to what each religion believes about God, the soul, the afterlife, or ultimate human destiny.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all believe in one God, a God who is in some sense “personal.” Hinduism believes in one impersonal Supreme Reality (Brahman), as well as in multiple personal manifestations of that Reality as God (as Vishnu, or as Shiva, or as Kali, or as many other deities). Taoism believes in a different sort of nonpersonal ultimate Principle (the Tao), rather than in a monotheistic creator God. Buddhism and Jainism do not believe in any sort of God at all — personal, or otherwise.

Christianity believes that God is in some sense three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Judaism and Islam reject this, finding it smacking of “tri-theism,” rather than of the absolutely uncompromising monotheism that they both insist upon.

Christianity further believes that God can become incarnate in the world, and that he has done so exactly once: as Jesus Christ. Both Jews and Muslims flatly reject the notion of an infinite God somehow incarnating as a finite human being, finding the very idea both preposterous and blasphemous. Hinduism, on the other hand, not only has no problem with the idea, but in fact affirms that God has become incarnate in the world not just once (as Christianity insists), but in fact many times; Vishnu, for instance, is traditionally said to have had ten different major incarnations (as Krishna, as Rama, etc.).

Mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam regard the self or soul and God as two fundamentally different entities; God is the Wholly Other, and the Creator is never to be confused with his creation (or with his creatures). Hinduism, on the other hand, affirms that the deepest self, our innermost soul or atman, is fundamentally identical with Brahman, the infinite and eternal (but nonpersonal) World Soul or Supreme Reality. And Buddhism in fact rejects the entire notion of such a thing as an enduring self or “soul” altogether, as a false construct.

Mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that human beings each live but a single lifetime on this earth, followed by an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell (although some question the doctrine of hell). Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism believe instead that human beings each live many lifetimes on this earth (in fact, not all of one’s various multiple reincarnations may be human ones, or even earthly ones).

Jews and Muslims believe that righteousness and obedience to the will of God is what determines each individual’s postmortem destination. Christians believe that faith in Christ as one’s savior is necessary for salvation. Hindus and Buddhists believe that it is the metaphysical law of karma, and not the moral judgment of God, that determines the nature of one’s future reincarnations; they further believe that one’s ultimate aim or destiny is not achieving or receiving salvation from sin, but liberation from spiritual ignorance, in an experience of mystical enlightenment or illumination which at last frees the individual altogether from the otherwise endlessly repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (culminating in the eternal bliss of union with God or Brahman for Hindus, or the eternal bliss of the radically transcendental state of nirvana for Buddhists).

So, are all religions saying the same thing? In terms of moral virtue and ethical behavior, yes, pretty much so. But in terms of the ultimate nature of reality, the ultimate nature of the self, the ultimate truths about the spiritual universe, the ultimate nature of the human condition and of life’s meaning or purpose, and the ultimate destiny of human beings, it would seem not so.

To gloss over these very real (and, to the adherents of each of these religions, very significant) differences would be to fail to do justice to a genuinely adequate and accurate understanding of each of the world’s religions on their own terms — understanding them as they understand themselves.



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