Difference and Similarities Among Religions

One of the books I just finished reading in connection with my own writing is Stephen Prothero’s recently published book, God is Not One. Prothero, a serious and highly-regarded scholar of religion, is reacting against those who claim that all religions are essentially the same.

I agree completely with Prothero that it is folly to pretend that there are no differences among religions and that such pretense is dangerous. Like him, I think it is important to have a “realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.”

Having said that, I think it is important to be careful in determining what differences are significant and what differences are merely a matter of using different terms to refer to concepts that are very similar. One of Prothero basic arguments is that religions are fundamentally different in their diagnosis of the human problem and their prescription for solving it. However, I find the some of the distinctions he draws between religions in this important regard to be overstated.

In distinguishing Buddhism and Christianity, for example, Prothero argues that for Christianity the problem is sin and the solution or goal is salvation, whereas for Buddhism the problem is suffering and the solution is nirvana. However, that distinction ignores the fact that the fundamental delusions we operate under that Buddhism believes cause suffering and the delusions that cause alienation from God (sin) are very similar, if not the same.

Some of the other differences Prothero discusses between religions seem to me to be based on overbroad generalizations and do not seem as stark as he suggests. In distinguishing between Christianity and Confucianism, for example, he says Christianity draws a sharp distinction between the secular and the profane, although he at another part of his book acknowledges that Christianity is also about hallowing ordinary things, calling to mind the Jesuit notion of finding God in all things. In distinguishing Christianity from several other religions, he talks about orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy, using the example of the Creed, which proclaims, “I believe.” But a proper understanding of “credo” would acknowledge that the creed is not simply a matter of intellectual assent but about an embrace of the heart which has as much to do with orthopraxy as orthodoxy. (David Steindl Rast’s Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed does a wonderful job elucidating this theme.)

I think Prothero’s book is a good an important book. But I make these points because I think it is essential that, while we not pretend that all religions are the same, we look to find those places of congruence that do exist. That makes it very important to look deeply to be sure things we claim are different are in fact truly different and not merely different means of expressing very similar concepts.