God Is Not One
ISBN 10: 006157127X
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to All Religions Are One (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so obviously at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, essentially the same, and this view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least in Dan Brown’s multi-million-dollar Da Vinci Code franchise.
The most popular metaphor for this view portrays the great religions as different paths up the same mountain. “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge,” writes philosopher of religion Huston Smith. “At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. . . . But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.” This is a comforting notion in a world in which religious violence often seems more present and potent than God. But is it true? If so, what might be waiting for us at the summit?
According to Mohandas Gandhi, “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions,” so it is toward this one God that all religious people are climbing. When it comes to divinity, however, one is not the religions’ only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in thousands. Moreover, the characters of these gods differ wildly. Is God a warrior like Hinduism’s Kali or a mild-mannered wanderer like Christianity’s Jesus? Is God personal, or impersonal? Male, or female (or both)? Or beyond description altogether?
Like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama affirms that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” In his view, however, what the world’s religions share is not so much God as the Good—the sweet harmony of peace, love, and understanding that religion writer Karen Armstrong also finds at the heart of every religion. To be sure, the world’s religious traditions do share many ethical precepts. No religion tells you it is okay to have sex with your mother or to murder your brother. The Golden Rule can be found not only in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Talmud but also in Confucian and Hindu books. No religion, however, sees ethics alone as its reason for being. Jews understand halakha (“law” or “way”) to include ritual too, and the Ten Commandments begin with how to worship God.
To be fair, those who claim that the world’s religions are one and the same do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars. Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge, Huston Smith admits, in the “foothills” of dogma, rites, and institutions. To claim that all religions are the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences among a Buddhist who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God, and a Hindu who believes in many gods. It is simply to claim that the mathematics of divinity is a matter of the foothills. Debates over whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) do not matter, because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials.”
This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves—practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths. The
Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological group think—call it God think—has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and back to reality.
The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people. Muslims do not think that the pilgrimage to Mecca they call the hajj is inessential. In fact, they include it among the Five Pillars of Islam. Catholics do not think that baptism is inessential. In fact, they include it among their seven sacraments. But religious differences do not just matter to religious practitioners. They have real effects in the real world. People refuse to marry this Muslim or that Hindu because of them. And in some cases religious differences move adherents to fight and to kill.
One purpose of the “all religions are one” mantra is to stop this fighting and this killing. And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that—faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.
Allergic to Argument
One reason we are willing to follow our fantasies down the rabbit hole of religious unity is that we have become uncomfortable with argument. Especially when it comes to religion, we desperately want everyone to get along. In my Boston University courses, I work hard to foster respectful arguments. My students are good with “respectful,” but they are allergic to “argument.” They see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends they avoid it at almost any cost. Though they will debate the merits of the latest Coen brothers movie or U2 CD, they agree not to disagree about almost everything else. Especially when it comes to religion, young Americans at least are far more likely to say “I feel” than “I think” or (God forbid) “I believe.”
The Jewish tradition distinguishes between arguing for the sake of victory (which it does not value) and “arguing for the sake of God” (which it does). Today the West is awash in arguments on radio, television, and the Internet, but these arguments are almost always advanced not in service of the truth but for the purpose of ratings or self-aggrandizement or both. So we won’t argue for anyone’s sake and, when others do, we don’t see anything godly in it. The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straitjacket of religious agreement.
Yet we know in our bones that the world’s religions are different from one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a religion that is essentially the same as your own.7 We pretend these 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. What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. Approaching this volatile topic from this new angle may be scary. But the world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.
Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions has sold over two million copies since it first appeared in 1958 as The Religions of Man. One source of its success is Smith’s earnest and heartfelt proclamation of the essential unity of the world’s religions. Focusing on the timeless ideals of what he calls “our wisdom traditions,” Smith emphasizes spiritual experience, keeping the historical facts, institutional realities, and ritual observances to a minimum. His exemplars are extraordinary rather than ordinary practitioners—mystics such as Islam’s al-Ghazali, Christianity’s St. John of the Cross, and Daoism’s Zhuangzi. By his own admission, Smith writes about “religions at their best,” showcasing their “cleaner side” rather than airing their dirty laundry, emphasizing their “inspired” philosophies and theologies over wars and rumors thereof. He writes sympathetically and in the American idioms of optimism and hope. When it comes to religion, Smith writes, things are “better than they seem.”
When Smith wrote these words over a half century ago, they struck just the right chord. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, partisans of what was coming to be known as the Judeo-Christian tradition were coming to see Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism as three equal expressions of one common faith. Meanwhile, fans of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) were denouncing the longstanding human tendency to divide the world’s religions into two categories: the false ones and your own. The world’s religions, they argued, are different paths up the same mountain. Or, as Swami Sivananda put it, “The Koran or the Zend-Avesta or the Bible is as much a sacred book as the Bhagavad-Gita. . . . Ahuramazda, Isvara, Allah, Jehovah are different names for one God.” Today this approach is the new orthodoxy, enshrined in bestselling books by Karen Armstrong and in Bill Moyers’ television interviews with Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and other leading advocates of the “perennial philosophy.”
This perennialism may seem to be quite pluralistic, but only at first glance. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner has been rightly criticized for his theory that many Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews are actually “anonymous Christians” who will make it to heaven in the world to come. Conservative Catholics see this theory as a violation of their longstanding conviction that “outside the church there is no salvation.” But liberals also condemn Rahner’s theology, in their case as condescending. “It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world,” writes Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an ‘anonymous Christian’ as presumptuous.”
The perennial philosophers, however, are no less presumptuous. They, too, conscript outsiders into their tradition quite against their will. When Huxley’s guru Swami Prabhavananda says that all religions lead to God, the God he is imagining is Hindu. And when my Hindu students quote their god Krishna in their scripture the Bhagavad Gita (4:11)—“In whatsoever way any come to Me, in that same way I grant them favor”—the truth they are imagining is a Hindu truth. Just a few blocks away from my office stands the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society. Its chapel looks conspicuously like a mainline Protestant church, yet at the front of this worship space sit images of various Hindu deities, and around the room hang symbols of the world’s religions—a star and crescent for Islam, a dharma wheel for Buddhism, a cross for Christianity, a Star of David for Judaism. When my friend Swami Tyagananda, who runs this Society, says that all religions are one, he is speaking as a person of faith and hope. When Huston Smith says that all religions are one, he is speaking in the same idiom.
I understand what these men are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such vision, and such hope. Yet, we must see both for what they are, not mistaking either for clear-eyed analysis. And we must admit that there are situations where a lack of understanding about the differences between, say, Sunni and Shia Islam produces more rather than less violence. Unfortunately, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are—not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.
Whether the world’s religions are more alike than different is one of the crucial questions of our time. Until recently, most sociologists were sure that religion was fading away, that as countries industrialized and modernized, they would become more secular. And religion is receding today in many Western European countries. But more than nine out of every ten Americans believe in God, and, with the notable exception of Western Europe, the rest of the world is furiously religious. Across Latin America and Africa and Asia, religion matters to Christians who praise Jesus after the birth of a child, to Muslims who turn to Allah for comfort as they are facing cancer, and to Hindus who appeal to the goddess Lakshmi to bring them health, wealth, and wisdom. And it still matters in Western Europe, too, where Catholic attitudes toward women and the body, for example, continue to inform everyday life in Spain and Italy, and where the call to prayer goes up five times a day in mosques from Amsterdam to Paris to Berlin.
But religion is not merely a private affair. It matters socially, economically, politically, and militarily. Religion may or may not move mountains, but it is one of the prime movers in politics worldwide. It moves elections in the United States, where roughly half of all Americans say they would not vote for an atheist, and in India, which has in the Hindutva (Hinduness) movement its own version of America’s Religious Right. Religion moves economies too. Pilgrims to Mecca and Jerusalem pump billions of dollars per year into the economies of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Sales of the Bible in the United States alone run roughly $500 million annually, and Islamic banking approaches $1 trillion.
All too often world history is told as if religion did not matter. The Spanish conquered New Spain for gold, and the British came to New England to catch fish. The French Revolution had nothing to do with Catholicism, and the U.S. civil rights movement was a purely humanitarian endeavor. But even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.
In the twenty-first century alone, religion has toppled the Bamiyan statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan and the Twin Towers in New York City. It has stirred up civil war in Sri Lanka and Darfur. And it has resisted coalition troops in Iraq. In many countries, religion has a powerful say in determining what people will eat and under what circumstances they can be married or divorced. Religious rivalries are either simmering or boiling over in Myanmar, Uganda, Sudan, and Kurdistan. The contest over Jerusalem and the Middle East is at least as religious as it is economic or political. Hinduism and Buddhism were key motivators in the decades-long civil war that recently ravaged Sri Lanka. And religion remains a major motivator in Kashmir, where two nuclear powers, the Hindu-majority state of India and the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, remain locked in an ancient territorial dispute with palpable religious overtones. Our understanding of these battlefields is not advanced one inch by the dogma that “all religions are one.”
Toxic and Tonic
The beginning of the twenty-first century saw dozens of bestselling books in both Europe and the United States by so-called New Atheists. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Michel Onfray preach their own version of Godthink, aping the perennial philosophers by loading all religions into one boat. This crew, however, sees only the shared sins of the great religions—the same idiocy, the same oppression. Look at the Crusades, 9/11, and all the religiously inspired violence in between, they say. Look at the ugly legacies of sexist (and sexually repressed) scriptures. Religion is hazardous to your health and poisonous to society.
Of course, religion does not exist in the abstract. You cannot practice religion in general any more than you can speak language in general. So generalizing about the overall effects of religion is a hazard of its own. Nonetheless, the main thesis of the New Atheists is surely true: religion is one of the greatest forces for evil in world history. Yet religion is also one of the greatest forces for good. Religions have put God’s stamp of approval on all sorts of demonic schemes, but religions also possess the power to say no to evil and banality. Yes, religion gave us the Inquisition. Closer to our own time, it gave us the assassinations of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat by Islamic extremists, of Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish gunman, and of India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards. But religion also gave us abolitionism and the civil rights movement. Many, perhaps most, of the world’s greatest paintings, novels, sculptures, buildings, and musical compositions are also religiously inspired. Without religion, there would be no Alhambra or Angkor Wat, no reggae or Gregorian chant, no Supper by Leonardo da Vinci or Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, no Shusaku Endo’s Silence or Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Political scientists assume that human beings are motivated primarily by power, while economists assume that they are motivated primarily by greed. It is impossible, however, to understand the actions of individuals, communities, societies, or nations in purely political or economic terms. You don’t have to believe in the power of prayer to see the power of religious beliefs and behaviors to stir people to action. Religion was behind both the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947 and the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, both the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.
When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christians bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories. I found this response terrifying, and I still do, since failing to grasp how Nazism was fueled by ancient Christian hatred of Jews as “Christ killers” allows Christians to absolve themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with how their religion contributed to these horrors.
After 9/11 many Muslims absolved themselves too. The terrorists whose faith turned jets into weapons of mass destruction—who left Qurans in their suitcases and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) as they bore down on their targets—were not real Muslims, they said. Real Muslims would never kill women and children and civilians. So they, too, absolved themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with the dark side of their tradition.
Is religion toxic or tonic? Is it one of the world’s greatest forces for evil, or one of the world’s greatest forces for good? Yes and yes, which is to say that religion is a force far too powerful to ignore. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist convinced that he had given too much quarter to Muslims when he agreed to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. But Gandhi’s strategy of satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, was inspired by religion too, deeply influenced by the Jain principle of ahimsa (non-injury) and by the pacifism of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Yes, religion gave the United States the racist hatred of the Ku Klux Klan, but it also put an end to discriminatory Jim Crow legislation.
Today it is impossible to understand American politics without knowing something about the Bible used to swear in U.S. presidents and evoked almost daily on the floor of the U.S. Congress. It is impossible to understand politics in India and the economy of China without knowing something about Hinduism and Confucianism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. DuBois prophesied that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” The events of 9/11 and beyond suggest that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the religion line.
One of the most common misconceptions about the world’s religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not. Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis. Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die. And only religions that think we have one soul ask after “the soul” in the singular. Every religion, however, asks after the human condition. Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?
This book explores the different answers each of the great religions has offered to the different questions they have asked. It aims to demonstrate how practitioners have lived the biggest of the big questions and to suggest ways that each of us today might also live these questions, not least the deceptively simple yet complex question of how to become a human being.
On my last visit to Jerusalem, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man in the Muslim Quarter. As a shopkeeper, he seemed keen to sell me jewelry. As a Sufi mystic, he seemed even keener to engage me in matters of the spirit. He told me that religions are human inventions, so we must avoid the temptation of worshipping Islam rather than Allah. What matters is opening yourself up to the mystery that goes by the word God, and that can be done in any religion. As he tempted me with more turquoise and silver, he asked me what I was doing in Jerusalem. When I told him I was researching a book on the world’s religions, he put down the jewelry, looked at me intently, and, placing a finger on my chest for emphasis, said, “Do not write false things about the religions.”
As I wrote God is Is Not One, I came back repeatedly to this conversation. I never wavered from trying to write true things, but I knew that some of the things I was writing he would consider false.
Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.
Of course, religious differences trouble us, since they seem to portend, if not war itself, then at least rumors thereof. But as I researched and wrote this book I came to appreciate how opening our eyes to religious differences can help us appreciate the unique beauty of each of the great religions–the radical freedom of the Daoist wanderer, the contemplative way into death of the Buddhist monk, and the joy in the face of the divine life of the Sufi shopkeeper.
I plan to send my Sufi shopkeeper a copy of this book. I have no doubt he will disagree with parts of it. But I hope he will recognize my effort to avoid writing “false things,” even when I disagree with friends. –
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