Do All Religions Lead to the Same God?

Recently I watched videos and read a few articles by Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.  He writes for a variety of news outlets on religion and has authored several books.  One of his books titled, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World”, claims that different religions do not lead to the same end.

In the YouTube video also titled, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World”,  he links the lack of basic knowledge of other religions, or even our own religion, partially to the idea that all religions lead to the same God, saying this lack of knowledge contributes to the erroneous assumption.

Do all paths to God lead to the same place?

I find his viewpoint refreshing as I’ve often heard, especially in higher education, that all religious paths lead to the same place and therefore we need to embrace all religions as our own.  This type of reasoning permeates our culture in all areas.  Believing everything is “the same” is said to promote tolerance.  Through sameness we can embrace each other.  This line of thought, though, also loves to promote uniqueness.  But that uniqueness only seems okay when it doesn’t imply that someone else’s uniqueness might conflict with their own.

A Huffington Post article by Richard Schiffman talks of how we need to be enlightened and see that all religions show the same Truth.  The quote below provides much of Schiffman’s argument:

These professors are right of course: religions differ. And it certainly is a fact that these doctrinal differences have been a bone of often violent contention throughout human history. But they miss Vivekananda’s deeper point that dwelling on the differences rather than on the far more essential common ground between creeds is a prescription for perpetuating these age old conflicts rather than resolving them. 

Mystics have always observed that the intellect sees divisions whereas the soul perceives the underlying unity of existence. Religion, for mystics like Swami Vivekananda, is the art of returning human consciousness from fragmentation to unity. He would have disagreed with scholars like Prothero who put their emphasis on the differences between faiths. Vivekananda believed that we do religion a service rather than an offense when we remind it of its mission to heal the divisions between us and within us.

In the Wall Street Journal article Schiffman references regarding Prothero’s thoughts Prothero states:

To be fair, those who claim that the great religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars. Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge, Mr. Smith admits, “in the foothills of theology, ritual and organizational structure.” To claim that all religions are one, therefore, is simply to claim that debates over whether we have souls (yes, say Christians; no, say Buddhists) or whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) do not really matter 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 claim is as odd as it is intriguing. We accept as self-evident that competing economic systems (capitalist or communist) and clashing political parties (Republican or Democratic) propose very different solutions to our planet’s problems. Yet when it comes to religion we jump eagerly down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which, like children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all religions are above average….

…Faith in the unity of religions is just that—faith, and perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism. And it does not just infect the perennialists. While popular religion writers…see in all religions the same truth and the same virtue, new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins see in all religions the same idiocy and the same poison. In both cases, Godthink is ideological rather than analytical. It gestates in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are in the ground. In the case of the new atheists, it springs from the understandable desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case of the perennialists, it begins with the equally understandable desire to praise the good in religion. 

I like what Prothero says.  I never understood how my religion, a conservative branch of Christianity, could be “the same” as all other religions or lead to the same place.  Christians claim one God and Jesus as the Saviour and answer to the predicament of sin.  Perhaps one can draw similarities to the other monotheistic religions but how does that work with a polytheistic faith?  Christianity offers inclusiveness in that Jesus died for everyone and everyone has access to Him.

I’ve never understood why this type of inclusive exclusivity creates such a problem.  If I weren’t Christian and met a Christian and learned about the core doctrine of Christianity and then that Christian said to me, “All religions lead to the same path, so I think your religion is right also, if you believe it’s right for you.”  I would think I had fundamentally missed something about what Christianity teaches.  If what Christianity teaches is correct than not every other religion can be right.  (The same can be said about most religions.)

This idea, though, does not necessarily promote intolerance, as often argued.  One can believe in an exclusive-to-other-religions theology and still understand that others have their own views and be accepting of those differences.  Each person makes their own decisions and choices.  If someone wants to believe the world is flat and they need stand on their head for five minutes each day so they can end up in heaven, they can do so.  I don’t believe it, and won’t promote that religion but I’m also not going to force them to be a Christian if they don’t want.  It’s their choice.

I believe learning more about all religions increases understanding of why people do what they do.  It also helps everyone making their own intelligent decisions about which religion, or lack there of, they want to follow.  All religions aren’t the same and learning why that’s the case promotes worldwide understanding.

The other video I watched from Stephen Prothero called, “On Religious Literacy” is also a talk based off one of his books. This one focuses more on how in America we know very little about religion in general.  I suggest watching it.
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