Are All Religions the Same? [In Work]
Some people believe all religions are essentially identical. Can this be?
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
- Genesis 1:1 [KJV]
According to Wikipedia, there are hundreds of individual religions and dozens of religious groupings. According to the Harper Collins Guide to World Religions, 33 of them are considered worthy of detailed analysis. We select a subset of the Harper Collins religions based on contemporary interest and overall coverage of religious belief, as follows:
- Christianity (2200 million followers)
- Islam (1600 million)
- Hinduism (1100)
- Buddhism (500)
- Taoism (100)
- Shinto (100)
- Sikhism (28)
- Judaism (14)
- Jainism (4)
To compare one religion to another, there are certain core topics which must be covered:
- Basic tenets of the religion
- Number and nature of god(s)
- God-human relationships
- Source(s) of religious truth
- Human-human relationships
With the guidelines cited above, we present the results of our study of world religions. Conclusions are presented first, followed by a one-by-one analysis of each selected religion (in reverse order).
Are All Religions the Same?
The legendary founder of Taoism (or Daoism) is Lao-tzu who lived around 600BC. His religion is centered around the Tao, or flow of the universe, its source and its permeating force. The concept of Tao is very abstract by Western standards, but in China, where Taoism originated and is widely practiced, the undefined nature of the Tao is readily accepted and embraced. The Tao is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. Tao includes Qi, or life force, and Qi is in perpetual transformation between condensed and diluted states, related to abstract polar opposites known as yin and yang.
Taoism favors lightness of being and freedom from heavy demands. In Taoism, nothingness is better than being, and emptiness is better than fullness.
The basic tenets of Taoism and its cosmological construct lead to system of belief that emphasizes non-striving self-acceptance. Life is whimsy, chaos is ok, so discover who you are and live in harmony with your own nature. Life's goal is not perfection, but Ming, or self illumination and enlightenment.
Number and nature of gods - In Taoism, gods are optional. The concept of god or supreme being is respected and each person can have a deep relationship with what they view god to be. God may or may not exist. Neither option affects behavior. Some Taoists have gods who are enlightened immortals who walk beside them, laugh, play, and alter reality on their behalf.
God-human relationships - With or without a formal belief in god, the goal of a Taoistic life is longevity and immortality. Taoism encourages fasting and vegetarianism. Rituals include animal sacrifice, burning images, and street parades with firecrackers and spirit-possessed dancing. Fortune telling and divination are commonplace. Three life forces are cultivated:
- Spirit (shen) via meditation
- Breath energy (Ch'i) through orbital breathing, holding breath for a prescribed number of heartbeats (12 to 420 or more)
- Sexual essence (Ching) by refraining from ejaculation
Scripture - Taoism is primarily transmitted verbally and cannot be historically traced through written records. There is, however, a Tasoist canon with four primary parts:
- Tao-Te Ching, the keystone text written by founder Lao-Tzu
- I Ching, ancient text with inspiration for religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art
- Zhuangzi, a collection of anecdotes and fables by the author of the same name
- Daozang, about 1400 core texts
Human-human relationships - Most Taoistic teachings concentrate on the individual, although there are a few guidelines for inter-personal relationships.
For the individual, the fundamental teaching is to live in harmony with the Tao, wherein a person discovers his or her own Tao. In modern Western parlance, the injunctions 'Be true to yourself' and 'follow your gut' embody Taoism. Taoists are to embrace life in actions that support themselves. Relax. Do what you feel is right. Explore. Make no plans. Live without expectations. Smile. Breathe.
Ethics in Taoism are built around Wu Wei, or non-action. There are three jewels or treasures:
- Abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment
- Refusal to assert active authority
- Absolute simplicity of living
Treat people as you want to be treated. For those who are not willing to accept you as you are, simply let them be.
The central theme of Buddhism is personal suffering or, more precisely, the cessation of personal suffering. In Buddhism, suffering comes from desire, and desire comes from ignorance. Cessation of suffering, which is called nirvana, comes from extinguishing desire and ignorance. In addition to cessation of suffering, an important result of achieving nirvana is liberation from a relentless cycle of re-birth and re-death, or reincarnation, wherein a person must live another life to suffer and strive for nirvana. A person's karma, or actions in this life and the results of those actions, determine the character of the next life.
The revelation of suffering, its origin, and its ultimate cessation comes through a personal event called awakening. Once awakened, a person may pursue an 8-fold path to cessation of suffering. The 8-fold path has three major components: moral precepts, meditation, and wisdom. The moral precepts have five prohibitions:
- No killing
- No stealing
- No lying
- No abuse of sex
- No intoxication
Historically, Buddhism's ideals were first taught by the Buddha, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived about 2500 years ago. The prince became the Buddha upon his awakening, and his teachings, called Dharma, include the Four Noble Truths of suffering as outlined above.
When a person achieves nirvana, he or she is said to be a buddha. Along with buddhas, there are also bodhisattvas, those who are not yet awakened but are focused on future awakening.
Spiritually minded Buddhists often becomes monks and nuns, committing their lives to simplicity, detachment, and selflessness. Laypeople support monasteries to gather merit for good fortune. Support of monks and nuns is central to Buddhist politics.
As with most religions, there are variations on the central theme. The quest for nirvana is often called the First Turn of Dharma. But there is also a Second Turn of Dharma wherein nirvana is purposely postponed to promote lifestyles of good works, friendliness, compassion, and wisdom, making the world a better place. Another variation emphasizes teachers called gurus to hasten one's awakening.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama sits under a bodhi tree until he becomes enlightened, awakened as The Buddha
Number and nature of gods - Buddhism has no god or gods. By all accounts, Buddhism is not a theistic religion. It is more a way of life patterned after the teachings of the Buddha and those who came after him. Because Buddhism explicitly disavows taking any position on the existence of gods, Buddhism is compatible with other religions that worship gods and has, in some places, picked up elements of worship from other religions.
The futility of answering the question 'Does God exist' is explained in a famous teaching of the Buddha known as The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In the parable a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and proceeds to investigate its source, rather than remove it from his body. The obvious parallel is asking whether or not God exists, rather than simply living a good life.
God-human relationships - Even though there are no gods, relics from the Buddha and other buddhas are enshrined and worshiped. Sometimes bodhisattvas deemed as celestial beings are worshiped as well. In all cases, Buddhist gods, or lack thereof, do not interfere with human pursuit of Buddhist goals.
Scripture - Buddhism harbors a vast and diverse collection quasi-canonical texts. Without a divine being, the texts are obviously not deemed divinely inspired. Instead they come from the Buddha himself (called sutra) and other philosophers over the centuries. Buddhism has plenty of writings, but no textual authorities.
Human-human relationships - From the point of view of one person, Buddhism is a religion of selflessness fixed on extinguishing desire and ignorance. It is sometimes called a middle path, or an existence between self denial and self indulgence. The goal of Buddhist worship is calmness of mind, which is often achieved through quiet meditation in a seated position while concentrating on breathing. Wisdom is defined as awareness of 'no self,' which unravels the chain of suffering.
When two or more people are involved, the passive, selfless nature of Buddhist life fosters good inter-personal relationships. Adherence to Buddhist precepts is motivated by the desire to achieve nirvana.
Most Westerners have little knowledge of Hinduism. If asked about it, replies might be 'It is from India. They have a lot of gods, and they worship cows.' More astute replies might add comments about the effects of karma and the invigorating advantages of yoga. None of these observations are fundamentally wrong, but they miss the complexity and depth of Hindu tradition.
Hinduism does not satisfy 'normal' features of religion. There is no central prophet, God, philosophy, doctrinal authority, or religious rite. Hinduism does not adhere to a unified and encoded system of belief. Instead it is a very personal religion - a way of life - stressing close union between its followers and Brahman, the one, sacred, external, absolute, universal, spiritual reality. Human behavior is guided by four Purusarthas, or life goals:
- Dharma: ethics, duties, the right way of life, keyed to caste, stage of life, and role in life
- Artha: the virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood and prosperity
- Kama: pleasure, the enjoyment of life, senses, with or without sexual aspects
- Moksha: liberation, freedom from the re-birth and re-death cycle of reincarnation
Hinduism is very mystical, with strong emphasis on a person's inward life. Followers of Hinduism believe in the existence of atman, the soul, self, or irreducible essence of man which is subject to reincarnation. Moksha, or 'atman is Brahman,' is liberation from earthly existence and absorbtion into the absolute. Part of the path to moksha is karma, the belief that good deeds bring good effects in this life and in reincarnated lives, with bad deeds the opposite. Yoga, also, helps move an individual toward moksha.
Structurally, four 'currents' or 'denominations' are found in Hinduism:
- Smartism: simultaneous worship of all major Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, Surya and Skanda
- Vaishnavism: focus on Vishnu
- Shaivism: focus on Shiva
- Shaktism: focus the goddess, or cosmic mother, Devi
A diya is an oil lamp, usually made from clay, with a cotton wick. They are used in religious festivals such as Diwali.
Number and nature of gods - Hinduism is polytheistic, believing in many gods, although mystical Brahman, the one universal spirit, brings overtones of monotheism. Some ancient writings cite over 300 million Hindu gods, and this Wikipedia page lists hundreds by name. Nevertheless, there are three major Gods, with different names, different natures, and various incarnations. Vishnu is the preserver and protector of Hinduism, with major characteristics of omniscience, sovereignty, power, strength, vigour and splendor. Shiva, who has benevolent and fearsome attributes, is the creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer and concealer of all that is. He is protector of the Dharma, lord of cattle and, more generally, lord of all animals. Devi, the Goddess, embodies the active energy and power of male deities. She is often depicted as Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, and as Parvati, consort of Shiva.
There is also an element of pantheism present. Hinduism respects all life, plant and animal, because divinity is believed to permeate all beings. This belief leads to the practice of ahimsa, or non-violence, and, in most cases, it leads to vegetarianism.
The Hindu concept of God is complex and depends upon individual preferences, traditions, and philosophies, so it is difficult to summarize the Hindu God-nature in one or two sentences. In general, the pantheon interacts with life on earth and is celebrated, worshiped, and revered by human followers. Most, if not all Hindu dieties have well-known physical features which appear in works of art and architecture.
God-human relationships - In Hinduism, the prospect for a better life is promised by karma, and there are obvious physical and mental benefits of yoga, but, in general, relationships between the Hindu gods and mankind are pretty much one-sided. Devotees worship, serve, and strive for their gods while living on Earth, but the gods are not believed to reciprocate directly in tangible ways. This is true for one's spiritual striving for moksha (liberation), the physical service to the pantheon in worship and ritual, and in non-violent reverence for all living organisms.
Some Hindus leave their social and material worlds to engage in lifelong sannyasa (renunciation) to achieve moksha. Most Hindus practice some form of yoga, a mystical discipline which trains the body, mind and consciousness for health, tranquility, and spiritual insight through a system of postures and exercises. Puja is the most visible form of Hindu worship, and is carried out by the individual, by families, and at Temple gatherings. Worship includes recitation, singing, night vigils, oblations, meditation, festivals, pilgrimages, life-cycle rituals (e.g., at name giving, at moving into a new home), circumambulation (walking around a sacred object), and bathing. In worship, it is the sound of the words, not their meaning, that is important. One of the well-known mantras, or sacred utterances, is 'Om' which represents the Brahman and the atman.
Ganesha is one of the best-known and most worshipped Hindu deities. Devotion to Ganesha is widely diffused and extends to Jains and Buddhists. Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the heavenly excellence of intellect and wisdom.
Scripture - Much of Hindu culture is deeply suspicious of written material. Careful recitation has produced stable transmission of information across time and space. Written material does not carry as much weight in Hinduism as it does in other religions. Most Hindu traditions recognize a body of sacred literature, but all scripture needs approval of one's inner conscience to be valid. The Vedas is a foundational Sanskrit text first recorded about 1200BC. Later books are concerned with moral and social order. Two Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, capture devotional and philosophic ideas. For instance, the four goals of life (the purusharthas, discussed earlier) appear in the Mahabharata, which is a story of Princes and war.
Human-human relationships - Karma and yoga are two Hindu paths that help an individual improve his or her personal life and, therefore, improve society in general. Similarly, the belief that all living creatures are sacred produces non-violent attitudes that benefit society. However, the strong cultural caste system, which is supported in part by Hindu practice, tends to divide people, weakening society. The four classes, or varnas of the caste system are (1) brahmins, who are vedic teachers and priests, (2) kshatriyas, the caste of warriors and kings, (3) vaishyas, farmers and merchants, and (4) shudras, servants and labourers.
The right way of living, or Dharma, appears in much Hindu writing and teaching and contains duties, rights, laws, conduct, and virtues in all, or most, situations. A good summary of inter-personal behavior appears as virtues and vices, as follows:
- Chief Virtues
- Self control
- Other Virtues
Islam, with its predecessors Judaism and Christianity, is recognized as one of the three predominant monotheistic religions of the world. These religions acknowledge only one god: the almighty Creator god. He is known by different names in different religions:
- in Judaism the name of the Creator is sacred and not casually mentioned; it is usually written G-d,
- in Christianity Jesus is the Creator and his name is used directly; however various doctrines bring other names into use, such as Jehovah, Yahweh, I am, YHWH, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the Triune God,
- in Islam the name of the Creator is Allah.
Islam was founded by its prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the year 622AD. This happened a few years after the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad in Mecca in present day Saudi Arabia. The colorful history of Islam, recorded in their holy scriptures, the Qur’an, includes summoning the people of Mecca, establishing a community in Medina, choosing a successor for Muhammad, and expanding Islam throughout the region. Eventually, Islam spread throughout the world.
According to this timeline from conservative scholars, Islam is the most recent of the three great monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Since the progression of monotheism -- from Judaism to Christianity to Islam -- is so linear, one expects to find aspects of Judaism and Christianity in Islam. In fact, the Qur’an mentions Jews and Christians, calling them people of the book, i.e., people of the Bible. Examples of Jewish and Christian influence in the Qur’an include the angel Gabriel appearing to Muhammad as he did to Mary, mother of Jesus. Much of today’s acrimony between Muslims and the people of the book comes from the story of Abraham’s two sons, recorded in the Qur’an and in the Bible, wherein Jews and Christians descend from Isaac, and Muslims descend from Ishmael. Isaac is Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah, and Ishmael is Abraham’s son by his slave girl Hagar.
The primary mission of Islam is to extend Allah’s rule over the entire world. In fact, Islam is more than a religion. Islam attempts to organize all aspects of human society, including religion, politics, and culture. A caliph is a successor to Muhammad, and the ultimate goal of Islam is to create a caliphate which establishes Islamic religion, politics, and culture around the globe, relying on jihad, or holy war, as necessary.
The governing foundation of all caliphates (local, national, or worldwide) is known as shari’a. Shari’a law comes from the Qur’an and other Islamic documents and traditions. It is markedly different than western law. Western law springs from the will of the people, but shari’a law comes from Allah and does not require human approval. Some, but not all, interpretations of shari’a say that Islamic states should wage war against non-Islamic states.
There are two major branches of Islam. Sunni Islam, with well over 80 percent of Muslims, far outweighs its counterpart Shi’ism. The technical argument that separates them involves succession of leaders.
King Abdullah Mosque in Amman, Jordan
Number and nature of gods - Islam is fiercely monotheistic. The Islamic statement of faith, the Shahada, is an Islamic creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God's prophet. The declaration reads:
There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is his messenger.
In Islam, Allah is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, Creator of everything, and judge of everyone. He speaks through the Qur’an. He depends on nothing, but everything depends on him. Muslims claim that Allah is the same god as that of the Bible, although Jews and Christians do not agree. Supernatural concepts of the Bible, such as heaven, hell, angels, devils, and resurrection, are supported by Islamic teaching. All people are to love Allah, and heaven is for people who submit to him.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ is sometimes called the Son of God. This particularly offends Muslims because the Qur’an states that Allah does not beget children. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is firmly rejected by Islam, as is the idea that Allah can be known personally.
Prayer five times daily is the formula for most Muslims.
God-human relationships - Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam carries no characterization of Allah as a loving protector or generous provider. Instead, the relationship between Allah and his followers is very one-sided: people must submit to Allah through obedience and worship. Islamic submission is shaped by its Five Pillars of Faith:
- Pillar 1: Subscribe to the testimony of faith, the Shahada outlined above
- Pillar 2: Pray 5 times daily
- Pillar 3: Help the needy (pay an obligatory tax)
- Pillar 4: Reflect and fast, particularly during the month of Ramadan
- Pillar 5: Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime
Worship of anything other than Allah is strictly forbidden. Alcohol use is forbidden, as is charging interest in financial dealings. The Qur’an is to be recited. Hygiene and modest dress are required. There are rituals for life cycle events such as circumcision (both male and female), marriage, and death.
One of the most disturbing practices encouraged by some Muslims is female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.
Scripture - The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, records revelations received by Muhammad while he was alive. Muslims consider the Qur’an as the restoration and culmination of the Christian and Jewish Bible. The Qur’an is error-free and closed; nothing is to be added or removed. The Qur’an denies the crucifixion of Christ, which is absolutely central to Christianity.
Human-human relationships - Since Islam is a system for all of society, a good way to summarize personal and national relationships is to consider Shari’a law. We have a separate article that gives details of Shari’a Law [PRESS HERE]. There are three primary divisions, with subdivisions as follows:
- Moral Law
- Crimes against Allah (Hudud)
- Crimes against mankind
- Morality in marriage
- Civil Law
- Religious Law
The Qur'an encourages jihad, or military action against non-Muslims.
Shari’a moral law, like the Bible’s Ten Commandments, separates right from wrong. The primary difference is that when a person breaks a Bible law, judgement comes from God in a spiritual dimension, but, in Islam, punishment comes physically and is carried out by religious police. An extreme example of punishment for moral misconduct is honor killing, where a daughter is killed by her father when she breaks the moral law of modest dress.
Civil law has several provisions for governing Islamic society. The most extreme shari’a civil law is the unity of religion and state. This gives the state’s capacity to wage war and execute civil punishment to religious leaders. Fortunately, many modern Islamic nations today separate religion and state. Turkey is a good example of an Islamic nation which has been so secularized. The Bible, especially the New Testament, fosters the separation of religion and state, which is markedly different than shari’a.
Finally, jihad, or holy war against non-Muslims, is part of shari’a religious law. The Qur’an contains passages which directly command Muslims to participate in jihad, either directly or in a supportive manner.