“All Religions Are the Same”

Photo by Noah Holm on Unsplash

I live in Lebanon, a country violently divided along religious lines. I very much understand and sympathize with some of the motivations behind the idea that all religions, au fond, are the same. It seeks to identify a common ground, a common humanity, a common religious core to build a peaceful and pluralistic society on. In fact, I myself am involved in initiatives that pursue reconciliation between Lebanese of different religions, as we ultimately work towards a society in which religious difference no longer connotes hate and violence.

A few days ago, I had the privilege to speak with a lady that has been fighting for over 40 years to know the fate of the 17,000 that went missing in the Lebanese Civil War, which includes knowing what happened to her own husband. This civil war violently pitted Christian against Muslim, Shiite against Sunni, Druze against Maronite. It is quite understandable that this lady would believe that religious differences are problematic, to say the least, and that she would prefer to believe that “at their core, all religions are the same.” Again, I find it hard to argue with the motivation to seek a shared foundation for peacebuilding in a highly divided religious society.

However, this claim that all religions are the same often gets promoted as more inclusive and tolerant than the exclusive claims of specific religions, which supposedly are the cause of violence. Here I beg to differ.

The problem is that, in order to be able to say that all religions are the same at their core, one has to render these religions unrecognisable to the majority of their adherents. You have to tell the Jew that his people is not God’s only chosen people, to the Christian that Jesus is not the exclusive incarnation of God, to the Muslim that the Qur’an is not God’s perfect and final revelation.

You have to tell the adherents of various religions that they cannot claim that the truths revealed to them are universally true. You have to tell them that they should not seek to convert others to their perspective, even if they believe God commands them to do so, because it leads to violence and strife.

You have to tell them that, despite what they believe, all their religions are the same.

Basically, this “inclusive” claim that all religions are the same is one that only includes caricatures of the vast majority of religious people around the world, and excludes the real people who often hold very exclusive beliefs. What most religious adherents consider crucial ethically and metaphysically, this perspective must often dismiss as marginal, even inauthentic, in its absolute focus on what it believes is the common core: the abstract idea of a higher Being, and the command to love people.

Now, it may in fact be true that all religions are the same, and that most of these religions’ adherents simply get it wrong. Indeed, the people making such claims might know Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (to stay within the Lebanese context) better than these religions’ own adherents. I find this unlikely, however.

Regardless, my point is that, however legitimate or true a claim it may be, it is not an inclusive one. It is simply a rival “religious” claim, as exclusive as any other.

Its adherents believe that their own perspective is right, and that “those exclusive religionists” get it wrong; its adherents try to convert people of other beliefs to their own, arguing like fervent missionaries that if only all people believed as they do, the world would be a better, more inclusive place; and its adherents fight with religious zeal against rival ethics they consider immoral.

Consider the case of ISIS for example. I’m quite confident that the “all religions are the same” person feels very much the same way about the group as I do: I believe ISIS to be wrong in their worldview, that the world would be a better place if ISIS saw the world as Ido, and that ISIS’ ethic is highly immoral and should be opposed.

The “all religions are the same” worldview is therefore inconsistent in pretending to be all-inclusive. This claim, and the worldview it accompanies, are only inclusive in the sense that, if all would adopt this perspective, there would be no more exclusion. But that is also true of the exclusive, orthodox variants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I believe there is sufficient common ground between people of various religions that we don’t need to suppress all difference, or pretend that we can do without exclusive claims, for the sake of peace. It is very true that there are times when we need to focus on the common ground to build healthy and peaceful societies. However, there are actually times when we need to focus on our differences to build peaceful societies. Take ISIS again: seeking common ground is unlikely to lead to a more peaceful society.

Inclusion itself therefore cannot save the world. It can only pretend that it is successful by ignoring the forms of exclusion it creates in its fight against exclusion (bombing ISIS is not quite inclusion). Merely believing that “all religions are the same” is not going to solve the problems of violence and exclusion. For inclusion to be successful and to escape the total relativism that makes one unable to call ISIS evil, it must at times be complemented, not with exclusion, but with a call to conversion.

Indeed, sometimes, people must be converted, their view of the world must change, if they are to be included. However inclusive we may believe we are, we still want members of ISIS to convert to a more tolerable perspective (preferably ours), before we make them full members of our societies.

However, we must never forget that the call to conversion stands not only for the other, but also for ourselves. When meeting the other, I must also be ready to change where needed, to experience a conversion of my perspective.

When meeting a member of ISIS — preferably in a safe way — I certainly won’t convert to their version of Islam. However, I might experience a conversion of my perspective when I start to understand some of the factors that may have driven them to join the group: abject poverty, for example, or death threats to family members. Then I may extend my own call to conversion with more compassion, without caricaturing the other.

P.S. I: I argue here based on the essentialist perspective that the “all religions are the same” person tends to assume. This perspective presumes that there is a “true” Judaism, a “true” Christianity, a “true” Islam. Usually, it is their liberal versions that get identified as the true variants. However, these liberal variants represent only small minorities of the various religions’ adherents globally. In contrast to this essentialism, I actually believe that religions are not at all essential in nature. I see many Judaisms, many Christianities, and many Islams. From this perspective, of course, the claim that all religions are the same is meaningless.

P.S. II: ISIS is an easy example as most of us agree about the evil of the group. However, one should consider the above argument by imagining other groups one vehemently disagrees with. For example: atheists, Christians, pro-life people, pro-choice people, homosexuals, homophobes, etc. Sometimes we may find we need to fully convert to the other’s perspective. Many times, however, our perspective may change for the better without us needing to let go of our own call for conversion to the other. Still, our call for conversion should have become more informed, more compassionate, more loving in the process.

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