We’ve all heard the vacuous claim that all religions are the same. “They’re just different roads that go up the same mountain,” people parrot to us, repeating what they’ve been told thousands of times. That claim, as baseless and simplistic as it always has been, may start getting less and less support.
It is noteworthy that the illustration of the many roads on the same mountain actually appears in a widely used university textbook for religious studies’ classes. Huston Smith’s popular (with 2.5 million copies sold) The World’s Religions claims, “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” One wonders how he knows such a thing!
But many people, not just evangelical Christians, are beginning to expose the emperor’s new clothes behind that assertion. An honest look at most religions simply won’t support the thesis. Religions differ widely and substantively. More pointedly, to insist that all religions are the same actually insults all religions which claim to have unique paths to salvation, fulfillment, nirvana, or paradise. In an ironic twist, the claim for tolerance is actually quite intolerant.
Consider Stephen Prothero’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2, 2010, p.B9-10). Prothero is a professor of religious studies at Boston University and the author God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero does not identify himself as an evangelical and little he writes suggests that he is. But with boldness he writes:
“I do not believe that Islam and Christianity are fated for battle in a “clash of civilizations.” But it is fantasy to pretend that they are in essence the same, or that their disagreements with Judaism are trivial. God may be one to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but their G-d, their Christ, and their Allah make very different demands on their followers.”
He then goes on to liken the progress our society has made in recognizing the weighty differences between races as an important step in resolving racial tensions. We thought we could erase racial barriers by creating a color-blind society. It didn’t work. Instead, we are working on recognizing and appreciating racial differences. Prothero concludes, “Today it is widely recognized that a firmer foundation for interracial and interethnic civility is a robust understanding of, and respoect for, racial and ethnic differences. The realm of religion requires no less understanding of diversity, and no less respect.”
This willingness to examine and discuss differences, with respect, could have seismic implications for evangelism and interfaith discussions. It is time for reopening a topic that never should have been shut down. It is time for emphasizing and appreciating our differences and pointing to the very different path of salvation paved by a god who dies and rises again.
And it is certainly time for new textbooks.