What exactly do you do when the Dalai Lama appears on “Nightline”, and you’re not satisfied with his answers?
— George Carlin
The Dalai Lama says that compassion is the common thread that binds the world’s religions together and gives them their inherent identity. Thankfully, I’ve already done the work on this assignment— I wrote this last year, and I’ll point again to a Stephen Prothero column I quoted just a couple weeks ago.
No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.
This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”
Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars… It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”
This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.
Like I said last year, the decision to subordinate all those doctrinal differences to a general, secular ideal of getting along and making an effort to respect the common humanity of people with whom you disagree about almost all matters of importance is a good one. In case anyone was waiting for my opinion, I’m in favor of it, for the record. But it’s more than a little galling to see people pretend that this was an inherent part of the nature of religious belief all along while carrying on with the usual sniping at secularists, who, of course, are primarily responsible for getting all these god-addled idiots to take a break from centuries of killing heretics within and infidels without (to whatever extent that’s been accomplished).
You’re perfectly free to choose to emphasize the aspects of different religious traditions that appeal to an educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan, modern audience and weave them into some inspirational narrative to make your life seem more meaningful. But your version is no more “true” than that of people who imagine that religion is all about thinking the correct thoughts to get a reward and policing other people’s sexual activity. Make any other argument for it you want — it’s more conducive to happiness, it’s more attractive to a wider number of people, it makes food taste better, it makes babies cuter, and it gets out ground-in stains that normal cleaning agents don’t — but if you’re honest at all, stop trying to pretend that all that ugliness, all that intolerance, and all that death somehow had nothing to do with the texts and prophets that were the inspirations, or that they were simply misinterpretations, the results of flawed humans getting their hands on something too pure and beautiful for them to appreciate and understand (until you thankfully came along to finally explain it all for us). Religions have always reflected the full spectrum of behavior inherent in the humans who invented them, from altruism to savagery.