Are all religions basically the same?

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from The Western Experience! Thanks for the link, Jason!

I’m sure that all my readers will have noticed that there a huge number of different religions in the world. This is called religious pluralism. Religions all make claims about the way the universe is, and the way that we ought to act in order to solve the problems that we all face as human beings.

The law of non-contradiction

To start with, we all need to be familiar with the law of non-contradiction. This is the stuff that software engineers all learned in undergraduate computer science courses. Computer science is a lot like analytical philosophy because both study symbolic logic. Analytical philosophy is as rigorous as mathematics.

The law says that for any proposition P, P cannot be true and not true at the same time, and in the same context. For example, let P be the statement “it is raining outside my window right now”. It is impossible that the reality of the world be that it is raining outside my window right now, and not raining outside my window right now.

The external world is shared by all of us, and it is objective (it is not affected by what we think about it). When we make propositional claims, it is the external, mind-independent world that makes claims true or false. And by “world” I mean all of reality, past, present and future.

Similarities between religions

On a superficial level, religions are similar because they all try to answer the same kinds of questions:

  • what is the nature of the ultimate reality in the universe?
  • what is the fundamental problem faced by human beings?
  • what should human beings do to solve this problem?

These questions are shared by all religions, but on a more fundamental level, religions are all completely different because they give mutually exclusive answers to these questions. Therefore, according to the law of non-contradiction, they cannot all be true at the same time and in the same context.

Differences between religions

In this post, blogger Neil explains how the Christian Bible claims that Jesus died on a cross, but the Koran claims he did not die on a cross. How do we understand these two contradictory claims? Are they propositional truth claims about the external world, or something else? There are two answers.

Postmodernism: Treating religious claims as subjective nonsense

We could say that all religious claims are just nonsense, and are not intended to apply to the external world, but are just personal preference claims about each believer – they are neither true nor false. The problem is that the postmodernist is then being condescending to the religious adherent by redefining their own words.

Rationality: Treating religions claims as genuine claims about reality

We could instead avoid insulting believers by being condescending about their claims. We could say that all religious claims are exactly what the believers claim they are: real claims about the external world. We could then resolve the conflicts using the same tools we use in our everyday lives: the laws of logic and empirical evidence.

How do postmodernists reinterpret religious claims as non-propositional?

Here are a few ways that postmodernists reinterpret the conflicting claims of different religions:

  1. relativism: you reinterpret truth claims of the different religions so that they are claims of personal preference, which express the deluded myths that each individual religious person finds “fetching”
  2. pragmatism: you reinterpret truth claims of the different religions so that they are claims of personal selfishness, so that each religious believer chooses the delusion that is personally satisfying to them
  3. syncretism: you re-interpret truth claims of the different religions so that claims that are absolutely central, such as “was Jesus God?” are reinterpreted as being peripheral issues, and then the religions can all agree on the core of religious belief, such as advocacy of socialism, global warming and abortion

Why would postmodernists want to treat religious claims as nonsense?

In addition to the desperate desire to keep God from having authority over our moral decision-making (i.e. – sin, rebellion, etc.), there are 3 reasons why people try to treat religious claims as non-propositional nonsense.

  1. Ignorance: people do not know the conflicting truth claims that different religions make
  2. Laziness: people do not want to have to spend time evaluating the competing truth claims
  3. Cowardice: people do not want to investigate and debate truth claims: it makes them unpopular

Postmodernists have decided that the purpose of life is to be hedonistic, and not to worry about the world really is. They think that trying to find out the truth about our origins, our purpose, and our ultimate fate is hard work, and talking about it makes them unpopular. So they don’t want to do it.

But that is not what they say when you ask them. Instead, they say that disagreements about religion has caused a lot of wars, and so it’s better if we just reduce the question of truth in religion to personal preference. That way, everyone can choose the delusion that makes them happy, (although religions are all actually false).

But postmodernists are arrogant to redefine the claims of all religions as nonsense. And it is self-refuting because they are substituting their own view of religion as objectively true, which is just what they deny everyone else. And if disagreeing about religion causes wars, then why are they disagreeing with us about religion?

So then how do we deal with the plurality of religions?

The answer is to treat religion the exact same way as any other area of knowledge. We can tolerate people’s right to disagree, disagree while still being polite, and resolving disputes using logic, and evidence supplied from disciplines such as analytical philosophy, scientific investigation, and historical analysis.

People who want to involve emotion and intuition in the process of testing the conflicting religious claims can just butt out of the conversation. The search for truth should proceed irrespective of what you think about the truth claims of religion. Yes, the doctrine of Hell offends people, but that doesn’t make it false.

Further study

Portions of this article were borrowed from this lecture by philosopher Douglas Groothuis, in which he explains the how to think carefully, using the laws of logic, about religious claims and the fact of religious pluralism. Note that Doug is a lot less snarky than I am in the lecture.

Also, I noticed that Unbelievable has posted a debate between Muslim Shabir Ally and Christian Tony Costa on whether Jesus dried on a cross and whether he rose from the dead.

Here are some related posts on the question of postmodernism and testing religious claims. All of them are far, far, far less snarky than my post today.

Related objections answered:

11 thoughts on “Are all religions basically the same?”

  1. If one were to draw it out on a Venn diagram, there is some overlap between religions, and some areas where individual religions differ.

    The areas where they overlap are more likely to be true than the areas where they differ. For instance, both Islam and Christianity say there is a God, but they differ about God’s nature. They could both be right about there being a God, but at most one would be right about God’s nature.

    But it is possible that all religions are wrong, and that even the areas where they overlap are wrong.

    I do think that religions, especially where they overlap, may contain wise rules of behavior, even if the reasons they state for the rules are false. Indeed, I see religious traditions as incorporating “implicit learning” by which the brain develops good rules for action through methods that don’t involve rational calculation but are learned through trial and error (e.g. like discouraging promiscuity)


    1. “The areas where they overlap are more likely to be true than the areas where they differ. ”

      See, here’s the problem, TE. You don’t decide truth by seeing who is in agreement about propositions. It is irrelevant what religions agree on or disagree on. That is not what makes a proposition true. What makes a proposition true is logically consistency and correspondence to the objective reality that we all share.

      We need to look at the content of specific propositions, examine them using the laws of logic, and then evaluate them using empirical evidence. That is how you decide if religious truth claims are true or not.


  2. WK, as a point of clarification, I think the term “religious pluralism” is most often used to designate the view that all religious perspectives are equally true (or false), not merely the phenomenon of religious diversity; the view that all roads lead to Mount Fuji, not just that there are many roads. There is, of course, a great deal of equivocation in the use of this term. See Nonetheless, I might reconsider your use of “religious pluralism” for the sake of clarity.


  3. WK, the first word that came to mind was “universalism”, but that’s not right, since universalism usually denotes the idea that all will be “saved”, not necessarily that all religious claims are true. “Religious relativism” is another possibility, but probably not ideal either, since it normally insinuates subjectivism when speaking of religion, which doesn’t really constitute a claim about “truth”, per se. I think “religious pluralism” actually is your best bet. John Hick, who is probably the best known proponent of the idea that contradictory truth claims in the religious sphere are nonetheless “true” expressions of an inexpressible reality, is referred to as a “religious pluralist”. Of course, the claim isn’t exactly that our contradictory religious claims are in fact true, both a and not a. Rather, in a Kantian vein, all of our religious claims are ultimately false, or at best partially true, since the noumena, reality itself, is ultimately inaccessible to human minds. At best, our religious claims are metaphors that hint at religious reality. I actually think you’d be hard pressed to find a serious thinker who actually advocates that our contradictory religious claims are all objectively true in defiance of the law of non-contradiction. On the street, by contrast, I find that the approach you call “syncretism” is most common. The irony, of course, is that in minimizing and diluting the beliefs that religious people themselves consider central and non-negotiable, another religious truth claim is being made. The question of truth, like a whack-a-mole, just keeps rearing its head :)


  4. By the way, as a web designer, I have a small suggestion. Your Grid Focus theme is very nice, but as a rule, nothing but links should be underlined because on the Web people intuitively read them as links. Instead, I’d make abundant use of the h1, h2, h3, etc. tags. Depending on the configuration in WordPress, sometimes you have to click the palette button above your editing textarea to access additional options like the “Header 1”, etc. And if Derek actually applied underlining to a header, well, shame shame :) So, sorry for the presumption. Of course, feel free to just delete this comment. I wouldn’t have posted it if you weren’t moderating. Keep up the good work.


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