How would you respond to a statement like this one: “All religions basically believe the same thing”? It’s a common enough idea, so it’s worth asking how we might respond if someone brings it up in a conversation.
My suggestion? Start asking questions.
Here are a few that I’d consider asking, depending upon the particular circumstances and the person(s) involved:
- What makes you say that all religions teach the same thing? Is it something you’ve studied?
- If religions teach more or less the same thing, wouldn’t they have similar answers for some of life’s biggest questions? (What is a human being? What is wrong, if anything, with our world? What happens when we die?) Is that in fact what we find?
- Do you think serious adherents of the major world religions would agree with you that they believe substantially the same things? Why or why not?
- If religions make truth claims that would seem to contradict each other, can we really say they teach the same thing, lead to the same place, etc.? For example, if one religion says there’s an afterlife, and another says there isn’t, how can they be teaching the same thing? Or if one says that you must believe x to have life after death, and another says x will do you no good, how do we reconcile that?
These questions and others like them may help in at least two ways:
- They may help demonstrate that original assertion that all religions are alike (or believe the same thing, end up at the same place, etc.) is just that: an assertion. In other words, it’s not a truth that’s so obvious or repeatedly demonstrated that we’re justified in taking it for granted. And in most cases, it won’t even be the fruit of a well-reasoned and supported argument. Rather, it’s often simply a vague or ill-informed opinion.
- They point people to the fact that the world’s different religions really do ascribe to very different beliefs. In fact, many of them contradict each other.
Christianity is obviously the religion I’m most familiar with, so I’ll use an example from the New Testament to demonstrate the point. People often emphasize the similarities between Judaism and Christianity, and rightly so, at least to a degree. Christians see Jesus’ life, death, resurrection as a continuation and fulfillment of the redemptive plan God had been unfolding through the Jewish people. And yet, in John 8, Jesus tells his fellow Jews, “If you do not believe that I am he [i.e., the Messiah], you will die in your sins.” This despite all the things they would have agreed upon—regarding things like God as Creator and Lord of the universe, his dealings with people like Abraham, Moses, David, etc., his giving of the Mosaic law, and so on. Jesus still draws a sharp line of demarcation based on their belief about who he is. As he says a few chapters later: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We could point to many similar statements all over the New Testament, just as we find many statements from Jewish leaders and teachers both inside and outside its pages that would also affirm their understanding of God and how to relate to him is very different from that of Jesus and his followers. And if this much daylight can be found between two groups with such a common heritage, how much more so between either one and, say, Buddhism?
At the end of the day, we’ll find we can’t reasonably treat all religions as if they believe, practice, and/or hope for the same things. And that suggests we might want to investigate whether any of them make a compelling case. And if so, which one makes the best case? And as a Christian, I’d certainly welcome that conversation.