Separate but equal: are all religions merely different paths up the mountain?
In this article, Stephen Prothero explains why this sentiment is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.
What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.
We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.
So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.
If diagnosing problems and prescribing rectifying actions are based on what is probably not true, probably not accurate, probably not correct, then by our uncritical tolerance for religious belief we are, in effect, tolerating and respecting unjustified beliefs – faulty truth claims – which translates directly into tolerating and respecting unjustified actions done in the name of those beliefs. Why should we respect and tolerate ignorant actions based on faulty truth claims just because they come wrapped in piety? We don’t respect and tolerate faulty truth claims in any other field of human endeavor but hold those who spread them liable for the damage they cost… except, of course, when it comes to safeguarding the faulty truth claims of the various competing religions. Then far too many of us have a tendency to put aside our reasonable concerns about what is and is not true and replace our justified concern with a special dispensation that exempts religiously inspired truth claims from the same critical examination. By doing so, we keep legitimate and justified concerns (like human rights, for example) away from the center of our attention and actions. We push them slightly to the side and tend to marginalize them somewhat to make room for meaningful concern about respecting and tolerating the unjustified religious beliefs that so often empower the disrespect and intolerance that cause the concerns to arise in the first place (like sectarian violence, sectarian gender inequality, sectarian genital mutilation, so on)!
If we want to bring about an end to these sectarian concerns and wish to promote a unifying notion about common humanity with a common respect for what is true, for what is justified, then we do not further our common cause by offering respect and tolerance to beliefs that are inherently disrespectful and intolerant of what is true empowered only by belief in what is probably not.