One day, I realized that different religions actually are different. Kind of a funny thing to realize, but it hit me extraordinarily hard. On the one hand, I do sort of like the “many paths to god” idea. It’s certainly better than the “you are wrong, so you’re evil, so I’ll kill you” viewpoint. On the other hand, once we get past the let’s-kill-each-other phase, there are some assumptions couched in this viewpoint that sincerely trouble me.
I do think that, when it comes right down to it, people are just people. We’re not really as different as some would like to believe. In some ways religion does play more-or-less the same role across the board. In a nut shell, it helps people make sense of death, life, society, and themselves. Our similarities are certainly cool and important things to realize.
Yet, cultures can be drastically different from each other. Religion is often part of that difference. Religious differences aren’t just about what names you assign your deities, what pictures you draw, or what songs you sing. Religion is a way of structuring society, and understanding one’s place within that society. Even beyond that, cosmology! Cosmology - the understanding of the cosmos. We base our understanding of the universe and our place within it on our cosmology. It affects our brains and how we function. If cosmologies are different, it creates very real differences between the societies and the individuals under question. In Judeo-Christian cultures we tend to base our understanding of the world around a divide of what old school anthropologists term the “sacred” and the “profane”. In other words, we have natural stuff and sacred stuff - the world is divided into two distinct spheres. When in church, it’s expected that one acts differently than when not in church. Certain objects are seen as special, and because of that are treated differently than other objects. To not respect the sacred/profane divide is seen as rude at best, sacrilegious at worst. This divide is generally seen as a ‘natural’ part of life. You have the sacred stuff and the normal stuff, the religious places and the secular places, the clergy and the laity. I’m not sure just how much it’s related, but such dichotomous thinking also happens to characterize a lot of the Judeo-Christian mindset - heaven/hell, good/evil, spiritual world/natural world, man/woman, adult/child, man/beast. Growing up exposed to only Judeo-Christian customs, the sacred/profane division just seems like the “way things are” - it seems like a crucial part of what makes a religion. But, this is not a universal way of experiencing the universe. Anthropologists and religious scholars have argued that this divide just does not exist in many non-western religions.
In my experience, trying to forge similarities between religions leads to projecting completely foreign concepts onto another person’s framework. This can happen on a large, cultural scale, or on a small, individual one. For illustration’s sake, an example! At the beginning of my romantic relationship, when I identified as Christian and Bassie identified as a secular Buddhist, I tried to make his Buddhist beliefs into the same as my Christian ones (and tended to just straight up ignore his atheist stance). We’re saying the same thing! You just say “enlightenment”, where I say “regeneration”! You just say “meditation”, where I say “prayer”! We’re doing the same things, looking to the same God, trying to reach the same destination…right? I look back onto this time of our relationship with a little bit of shame and a lot of amusement - because we were very much not doing or saying the same things. I remember one time, in the hopes of bringing us closer to God as a couple (oh jeez), I suggested we try meditating together. He meditated, I pray-meditated (read: thought about god, the beauty the universe, let my mind wander, tried to get ‘out of myself’, and entered into that spiritual high I talked about a while back). When we were done I said “So! What did you think about?”. Much to my confusion, his response was “Nothing? I was meditating. I thought about breathing.” Me: “Well…what about breathing?” Bassie: “Nothing, just breathing. That I was doing it. Meyrin, I don’t think you quite understand what I’m saying when I talk about meditation.”. Alas. Zen meditation is not the same thing as prayer. They do distinctly different things, and reinforce different understandings of how the human mind works. I refused to believe it for a long time. I thought he must just be doing it wrong, or didn’t want to talk about it. Now, looking back, I realize that I was coming from a place of intense arrogance. I was just refusing to listen. I refused to understand what my loved one practiced - it was more important for me to have the illusion that he believed in fundamentally the same things that I did. As it turns out, we do believe many of the same things, it’s just that they don’t have anything to do with a god. And, we still have our very real, significant differences. We’re still happy together precisely because we don’t try to trick ourselves into thinking we’re the same, and in fact actively work on not just glossing over the differences. Our relationship is stronger and more loving when recognize and accept those differences, and weaker when we try to project our own mental weirdness onto the other person.
The differences between cultures are real, and beautiful. They are not just different ways of saying the same thing - they are different ways of saying very different things. By trying to make them the same, we are silencing many distinct viewpoints. We are also saying that other beliefs or thought-systems are only valuable if they have similarities to ours. It is the height of ethnocentrism, a holdover of colonialism, and extremely disturbing. The many-paths-to-god approach hinges on the assumption that we can only like each other if we secretly think the exact same thing. Why is being basically the same a prerequisite for tolerance? While it might be a good way to introduce someone to being tolerant, it’s a pretty scary notion to stop at. It’s a way of saying “look, Ma, I’m tolerant!” without actually giving up ideas of superiority. If you approach other religions on their own terms, not only will you actually understand them better, you might also end up challenging some of your own beliefs about how the world works. Most importantly, you will exercise the ability to accept that other people aren’t you, and learn to see that as a valid and awesome thing. You will, in fact, become a more genuinely nice person.
(Quick Atheist Plug: of course, once you realize that religions are saying inherently different things, and that they are all still equally valid, it becomes a lot harder to give any sort of authority to one particular culturally-steeped religious system. Thus my Evil Atheist Agenda is realized.)