Are all religions basically the same?

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

So, everyone knows that there a huge number of different religions in the world. This is called religious pluralism. Some people infer from the large number of different religions that there must be no religion that is correct. After all, they say, there are people in many different religions who are sincere, so that must mean that they are not wrong. (Sincerity = not mistaken) Or, some say that because different religions disagree, then that must mean that no religion is correct. (Disagreement = no right answer) Or, some say that because different religions make different groups of people feel happy, then no religion is wrong. (Makes you happy = not mistaken) Or, one I see among Hindus a lot: “my family and my nation are Hindu, so it cannot be wrong or else my family and nation would be wrong”. (family pride and national pride = can’t be mistaken). There are probably other variants, but the common factor is this – religion is not like math or science or engineering or technology, where we do have right answers and wrong answers. Religion is something else – it’s more like clothing conventions, or culinary preferences, or taste in art or music. It’s more about a person’s likes and dislikes, not about claims being made about reality.

How should truth-seekers respond to religious pluralism?

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.

Acknowledgement: I owe some of the thoughts in this post to the work of Douglas Groothuis, who is an expert on thinking about postmodernism and religious pluralism. You can hear his thoughts in a lecture posted at Apologetics 315.

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

  1. I really enjoyed this post! I’ve always been bothered by attempts to water down religion, in the name of a misguided tolerance or as a veiled unbelief–i.e. the ontological claims of religion couldn’t really be true, so they must be just lifestyle choices.

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  2. It seems most postmodernist pluralists primarily seek social peace and mutual acceptance among people who disagree on some issue they consider important. They want to stop all wars and all heated debates in their circles of friends and family, e.g. over the merits of abortion, same-sex practice, some tax issue or law, or what religious beliefs will actually give proper meaning to their present lives here or after death, etc. We all want love, respect and an end to conflict. To get that postmodernist pluralists argue that no one knows actual truth on such issues and that everyone has only their own perspective on these. Hence, Jesus’ claims in John 14:6 must be dismissed (or explained away, cf. Brian McClaren, A New Kind of Christianity).
    A better approach IMHO is to love the world as God does (John 3:16) and to love truth as God/Jesus does (John 8:31-32) and to love and respect every fellow human as created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), though we are all sinners and can expect to disagree, but should do so graciously (1 Peter 3:15-16).

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  3. This is a great post! Besides the fact that “all religions cannot possibly be true,” it is also a fact that branches of Christianity can (and have) fallen by the wayside when it comes to the truth contained in God’s Word. I am in the process of “politely debating” an individual on his agreement with Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” book vs. my born again beliefs regarding biblical Christianity.

    I already know the errors of Tolle’s beliefs (when it comes to comparing what he has espoused vs. what the Bible reveals), but I have (thus far) been cautious not to “turn off” this young man by stating outright that Tolle (and by extension, the young man) is wrong in several areas of his religious beliefs. He has already gained an increased respect for Jesus Christ, but Tolle’s teachings combine pantheism, Buddhism, and Gnosticism. I suspect that the Buddhism aspects of Tolle’s beliefs appeal to this young man. It has been an interesting discussion…to say the least!

    In a recent discussion, I noticed that when I shared Bible verses and quotes by Jesus, the young man had not heard of them before. He said he has read the Bible, but just reading it once and not studying it can lead a person to take another person’s “word for it” (e.g. Tolle) when it comes to truth and doctrine. Many Christian denominations have “fallen off the rails” too; as they dismiss the truth of the Bible for man’s errors and imaginations. I call this “syncretism stew” and the book of Jude warns us that the closer we get to the end times, the greater chance there is for anyone, (including some who call themselves Christians!) to fall for non-biblical beliefs within Christianity. End Times prophecy reveals that there will be a great falling away; while at the same time the absolute truth of the Bible will reach others and will build Christ’s church!

    Anyone interesting in reading about Eckhardt Tolle (so that you will know how he skews away from biblical Christianity), here is a post over at my blog Talk Wisdom: What do you think about Eckhart Tolle?

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    1. Thanks for this great comment, Christine. I am seeing a lot of young people embrace pluralism such as Tolle’s version. I don’t usually start with pointing out how it differs from the Bible, I start with how it differs from reality. For example, the origin of the universe. In Theravada Buddhism, there is no Creator, so what is their explanation for the origin of the universe?

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      1. Thank you for your kind reply! I would think that as a progressive individual, he believes in evolution.

        The history of my talks with this young man would be too long to post here. He has shown greater respect for Jesus Christ, but he seems very interested in showing me that our beliefs “are not very different” from each other. So, I have been sharing what Jesus has said in the gospels and situations (like the two thieves on the cross next to Him) where repentance has been the key issue. The young man liked the story of Mary and Martha – how one was scurrying around and worried about so many things while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to his teachings – which He said was far better.

        I am hoping that the young man will consider “listening to Jesus’ teachings” from the Bible rather than automatically taking Tolle’s explanations as ultimate truth. It has been an interesting, ongoing discussion!

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          1. Thanks for sharing that link. The mini debate there was quite interesting. I have not heard of the “positive and negative ‘cancels each other out’ and so equals nothing” argument of atheists before. Yes…that is certainly a bend over backwards view!

            I am familiar with William Lane Craig and plan to go to the link and watch that debate, too.

            The young man in whom I have been talking with seems more interested in showing me how his beliefs equal my beliefs. Or, perhaps he plans to overcome my beliefs with the “truth” he thinks he has found through Tolle’s writings? We shall see what ultimately pans out in further discussion.

            Without the young man actually knowing “the way, the truth, and the life” that is only found in Jesus Christ, our beliefs cannot be truly reconciled. That is the religious pluralism that (as you mentioned) many millennials like to cling to. Oftentimes, it is because of the leftist teachings of college professors who are ignorant of God’s Word and/or would do anything to avoid discussing the truth of Jesus Christ.

            I am enjoying your blog and am now following it in my reader. BTW, the “resident atheist” at my blog (screen name “GMpilot”) has already commented on my blog post link to your post and takes issue with some of what you have written. So…what else is new? I’ve been dealing with him for over 10 years now. He’s not seeking the truth, he just tries to continually combat it.

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