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 Asmstrong 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 mountain” is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous.
Who’s right? Why?
Both are right. And both are wrong. It just depends on the lens you are wearing. And, it depends on how you define God, religion and religious identity which is often influenced by the history, the philosophy and the practice of its people.
At the core, for human beings to live together, they need a shared human values system. These in effect are often common for all – the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. As I see it, at the generic level, these values are not bound by any tradition or belief systems. They are the glue that binds humanity together. From that lens, yes there is much similarity.
If these human values are generic to us, as a species, should they be labeled in any other way? The reality in the human existence is that religion and religious identity plays a significant role in the world today; often they are politicized.
From an eastern perspective, the Vedas, the root of almost all Dharmic traditions says the paths are many but the Truth is One. The ultimate goal is freedom, moksha, discovering the divinity within. The path is an internal journey. Derived from the Puranas, the stories, the practice through the rituals, the festivals, the whole culture, is a way to help the aspirant eventually turn inward. Different teachers interpret it and explain it in their own way, but all go to the same well for succor. There is no conversion to another belief system. From a philosophical perspective there is more room for the pluralistic existence.
The Christian and Islamic traditions on the other hand have often preached there is only path and my path is the only path. It leads to an Us and Them viewpoint. Then, there is a need to convert the other to my belief system so that the person can be saved. It can become a zero sum game.
My question to Prothero is: Are God and Religion the same?
Religion plays a role in structuring societies to advance philosophical views. The stories in the texts (many for the Dharmic traditions and one for each of the Abrahamic traditions) are certainly different. They are influenced by the histories of the people.
Mankind needs both structure and freedom. In the Dharmic traditions there is more freedom in religion through spirituality; whereas in the west the society is freer and religion is more bound.
I want to note that religion (primarily Abrahamic today) plays a far greater role in providing institutionalized social service with government involvement (at least in the U.S.), than in the Dharmic traditions, the way they are organized today. Adaptation and acculturation in the religion context, within the U.S., an arena that I am currently exploring requires societal change… another topic of discussion.
For me, it is not that God is not One. God is. Truth is. Undivided, Whole, Perfect and One.
But, religion and its accompanying multitude religious identities, as commonly defined and understood today by diverse human bodies, is far more complex.
And no, from that lens all religions are not the same!