Are all religions basically the same?

A friend recently asked me about religious pluralism. I thought I’d share here what I shared with him.

Religious pluralism is the idea that all religions are basically the same. Implied in this idea is that there exists a certain similarity between the world’s religions that places them ontologically on level ground. The religions of the world are all thought to be culturally conditioned ways of encountering the same “Reality,” a reality which Christians happen to refer to as “God.” Usually, claims regarding pluralism are described using a vague concept of “common morality.” But what are we to make of these claims?

First, no one who has seriously undertaken a comparative study of world religions could possibly say (at least not with a straight face) that all religions are basically the same. They exhibit fundamental differences, not just at the periphery, but on major theological issues such as the nature and existence of God, definitions of good and evil, and the afterlife. For example, many Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in “god” at all. Many Hindus are polytheists and worship a whole pantheon of gods. Some world religions don’t believe in heaven at all, and among those that do there are fundamental differences regarding how one gets there and regarding what “there” actually means. How can these wildly divergent beliefs then be described as “basically the same” in any legitimate way when they are so obviously and fundamentally different? The answer is they can’t and only the willfully ignorant would ever claim otherwise. Plus, if one wishes to talk about cultural conditioning as it relates to religious beliefs, then surely the very notion of pluralism itself is subject to its own critique. Pluralism is a very western idea and one that is rarely held in most other parts of the world especially among those who have not been influenced by western thinking. Thus the claim that religious beliefs are all culturally conditioned is itself a culturally conditioned religious claim, and, therefore, the argument is self-defeating. In other words, if all religious claims that are a product of their culture should be held lightly and suspect, then so too should pluralism because it exactly fits that description.

In reality, claims to religious pluralism are intellectually lazy because they exhibit an unwillingness to consider the weight and veracity of various religious claims. In other words, just because other religions exists, why should we assume thereby that they are all equally valid? The answer is we shouldn’t. Religious claims can be weighed and evaluated if one is willing to do the hard intellectual work of actually investigating them. Pluralism is simply reductionism and intellectual laziness at its very best.

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