Often in my work, people seeking to affirm our connections with one another, state that the world’s religions are really all the same in the end. There is nothing but good intentions behind this view. I affirm those sentiments but want to suggest another possible way to approach our planet’s religions.

I noticed the claim that all religions are the same really took off after 9/11. Facing the possibility of demonizing Muslims and dividing societies into Us and Them, the statement was important for uniting voices. And, in fairness, there is something to it. Religions often seem to address similar questions around the nature of the cosmos, human origins, and what is a good life. You also see similarities in practices – Quakers’ quiet meditation can resemble a Zen session and the ecstatic joy of Hare Krishnas bears some resemblance to some Pentecostal gatherings.

However, there are also vast differences. Quakers are monotheists while Zen teachings have no god. Pentecostals believe we live one life followed by eternal reward or punishment whereas Hare Krishnas believe we live innumerable lives in an epic quest to finally achieve enlightenment.

But this question is more than academic: I think much is lost if we see religions as essentially all the same. The religions of the world display the enormous span of human living – its beauty, its horror, its wisdom and folly, practices that console and strengthen and teach us about community and our own bodies. Admittedly, if everyone else’s tradition is just like mine, maybe it is easier to accept them….but only at the cost of erasing those things that make them unique. I might feel there’s little need to learn about these other ways of life (since there’s no real differences) and that would deny me a golden opportunity.

I think the key is how do we approach difference? If we treat difference as mainly a threat, a cause of conflict, then we will have to insist everyone else is a copy of us in order to keep the peace. But if we treat difference as an opportunity, a chance to see what other paths have learned, where they have developed impressive teachings and practices, as well as where they have gone astray, then the obvious path forward is curiosity and outreach – the desire to learn about others. To see them authentically as sometimes like me and sometimes really different. There lies both personal growth and the opportunity to connect more authentically, by seeing other people and communities as they really are.

Maybe we’re not all the same….and that’s okay. Even a good thing. I revel in the differences between Jewish Shabbat and a Hindu aarti service. If all religions were the same, it might honestly be boring. It’s a big world. We can live peaceably and even benefit from our diversity. The best thing we can do is to connect and spend time learning about each other. Let us know if Encounter can help.

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    1. Kathy McGuire August 12, 2021 at 3:55 pm - Reply

      Guess that means that I might have to admit that my religion is nit the one true religion. I’ve been trying to share that idea for a very long time with little success. Thanks for your insightful analysis.

      • Brian Carwana August 17, 2021 at 10:20 pm - Reply

        Even if someone feels that theirs is, ultimately, the correct one….I think there’s still room to learn from others. Religions are still human organizations on this planet and we can always learn from one another.

    2. Kaila Cramer August 13, 2021 at 2:19 am - Reply

      I agree with you 100%. I spent most of my adulthood in the very multiculti GTA, rubbing shoulders and sharing coffee breaks with a vast sampling of world citizens. Even before I heard your “overview of religions” lecture in Orillia, I viewed the similarities and differences between the many religious cultures I encountered NOT with fear, but rather with the reaction of, “Hmmm. That’s so interesting!” I was fortunate enough to have grown up as a sub-group of a sub-group in Montreal, and feeling confident in my identity (and therefore not threatened by otherness). To view the world through another lens is not to lose something of one’s own beliefs. It is more akin to art appreciation—if I love the Impressionists, who says I can’t also enjoy Renaissance painting?

      • Brian Carwana August 17, 2021 at 10:19 pm - Reply

        well said Kaila!

    3. Jay Moore August 13, 2021 at 7:32 pm - Reply

      As a child raised in a fundamentalist home and community, I never heard anyone say, “all religions are essentially the same” and if anyone outside our particular faith said so, we’d know they weren’t true believers – obviously! As an adult finding my own, very different way, I find the similarity among most conventional religions is the use of a supernatural component in the belief system to account for the unknowns and to provide a basis for hope. In this aspect, my beliefs, my philosophy, my worldview, is very different than most conventional religions.

      • Brian Carwana August 17, 2021 at 10:17 pm - Reply

        Yes, true Jay. Many are taught more exclusive philosophies. I didn’t address that perspective in this post as I was aiming for a middle ground of acknowledging uniqueness and genuine diversity without the need to criticize or denigrate. But yes, that view is of course fairly common.

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