Are all Religions Basically the Same?


“Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed taught the same thing. All religions are basically the same.” This quote is copied word for word from a website. It’s a very popular opinion. I think: All religions are different. And I can talk about that, too!

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

In my experience people who say “All Religions are Basically the Same” come from three very different points of view.

Let’s begin with those who have some respect for religions, but really feel they are competing somehow. That’s a historical problem, though I think: not many wars are really waged because of religion. Even the crusades can be explained by economical causations. Many historians did exactly that.

If you believe that wars start because of religion, it’s understandable to point out that religions are basically the same. This argument often comes from a good place in the heart of those proclaiming just that, but often it comes from lack of interest.

The second group of syncretists – which is the name of a school of thought that’s trying to harmonize religions – the second group of syncretists don’t care about religion at all. Hardcore atheists blame ALL religons for not telling the truth, for being somehow opium for the masses and often argue that religion is at the root of inhumane social systems.

And they got a point: It’s not important if women are opressed in Hinduism, Islam or in Christianity. The problem is the opression and the fact that traditional religions often deliver the arguments. Even more annoying: These arguments can’t be discussed rationally, because they come from divine sources.

This critique can be purely humanitarian, but can be hateful, too. Many atheists have made bad experiences with religion. And look at all the sexual abuse cases of the Catholic Church: This is how you produce generations of atheists!

That leaves the third group: Esoterics or New Age. Those seem to respect religions as a way to worship a higher power. They like some traditions more than others and they often mix what they like into a spiritual smoothie.

They’d say: “You know: some say Allah, some say haShem – you say God, but what’s the difference? These are just different ways to worship the divine!”

That’s a comforting concept. Most believers of any religion tend to be especially miffed about this way of harmonizing, because it comes from a point of judgement. Basically it says: “We know about the divine seed from which your religion is just a sprout. We respect your belief, but it’s somehow a little bit old-fashioned. But we do like your fancy statues. BTW: Do you sell them?”

Okay. Now we know why people may think that all religions are basically the same.

Now to the question: Are they?

We could start by asking randomly picked specimen of the billions of people with faith. Their reaction will be something like: “Yes. All religions are the same. Fine. Agreed. Except … well, mine. Mine is the only true one. Sorry, folks!”

He or she is quite right. Regardless what your religion is, it’s not worth a dime if you believe – deep down in your heart – that the religion of your neighbor is far, far better. (Okay, maybe if you are a child and you’re the only one on the block with no presents under no christmas tree. But that’s simply bribery.)

Every religion is absolute. Every religion claims to explain the only true and real reality in the best way. To believe in something means: To be sure that things that can not be proven are real.

No one who is a believer will say that his religion is basically the same as any other one.

Fine. That said there are three assumptions I will make going on:

The first assumption is that my choice of religions is useful. I picked Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Everyone who knows a little bit about the study of religion knows: That’s arbitrary.

For example: There are far more taoists in the world than Jews. But Judaism is important in the development of the other two book religions.

Or: Most of the buddhists in the West will insist that buddhism is not a religion at all. That’s important for their self image. (BTW: Most buddhists in the East would reply: Who cares? I don’t mind. What’s religion anyhow?)

And then there’s hinduism. It clearly checks all the boxes for the category “religion”. Which is mainly because the British invented Hinduism. Imagine some Victorian colonial officials. They had to put something in the empty space on the form with the caption: “Faith”. And that’s only slightly exaggerated.

My choice of religions is based on the way these religions echoe in modern Western societies, where most of my listeners live. It’s not accurate and not scientifical at all.

The second assumption would be: If I say “Religion X states that…” it is based on the faith of the majority of the people believing in religion X.

For example: There were and still are Christian groups and churches that believe in reincarnation. But I have to exclude that, because this would make any comparison impossible.

Third assumption: Let’s not talk about how every religion bans theft, murder or false statements. That’s just common sense. Every community does that. Atheists do that. Agnostics do that.

Same with sex: So far every cult who strictly prohibited any form of procreation simply went extinct.

Morality and religion are two completely different things.

I think we can find the best evidence regarding similarities or differences by talking about death. So, let’s talk about death, baby …

Death is inevitable. We all die. Regardless if we were religious or not.

So, religions talk about death, baby.

And about what happens when that song is over forever.

The concepts of life after death shows the first clear divide between those religions. In one corner we have Hinduism and Buddhism and in the other corner the three book religions.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam tell us: That’s your life. You only got that one! Better make it count! Make the best out of it! Carpe the fricking diem, baby!

Regardless where you are born and under which circumstances, it’s your responsibility to lead a life worthy of your god. There was no life before you were born and there will be no second chance down here on earth. All you have is an unknown number of years. You can die any second and then you have to stand by your deeds.

That’s a grim approach! This philosophy lead to our modern societies, which are based on individualism.

If you only got that one trip, you better pay attention. Everything you do has consequences for you and for the people you love. So, act! Do things, invent things, build things, plan things and go on and on! Get better! Improve!

This is not relaxing at all, but – if a civilisation thinks about this for centuries over centuries – it will lead to the declaration of human rights. The compassionate obligation in a one-live-world is to build a world that’s fair, so that more babies have the same opportunities.

In the other corner is reincarnation. Regardless where you are born and under which circumstance: It’s karma. It’s the consequence of all the lifes you already lived.

If you’re poor, sick and your parents hate you – karma. There’s nothing you can do, just accept the facts.

If you’re really good in accepting this little lap round of the marathon called existence, maybe you get a better starting position next time around.

That looks like a grim approach, too. And it is. But, on the other hand side it can be the fundament of a deep tranquility and serenity. It’s not so bad if you fail. You can continue your efforts in the next life. It’s not a tragedy for you if you die. That’s rather reassuring.

That would be the first big gap between religions. And it’s a fundamentally different approach.

There’s nothing to be harmonized or unified: Either you will be reborn or not.

In one of the corners believers try to live forever in heaven and in the other corner they hope to not been born again. Eternal life and Nirvana seem like two opposites.

It’s safe to say: Hinduism and Buddhism are not the same as the three book religions.

What do the book religions have to say about life after death?

Let’s begin with the oldest sibling, with judaism.

If we look into the torah and search for concepts for a life after death, we find almost nothing. Well, there’s sheol. The dead living in the bowels of the earth. But sheol is not an actual place on earth, it’s more like the greek “hades” – a metaphor for oblivion.

In one of the youngest books of the ketuvim, Daniel, we find: “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.”

That looks perplexingly like heaven and hell in Christian theology, but: This apocalyptic concept is not important in Jewish tradition at all.

It’s more like Jewish scholars didn’t really care for the question how an afterlife could look like. Some tried to propose the ideas of “Gan Eden” and “Gehinnom”, but it never played an important part in theological discussions. There is even the idea of reincarnation in Judaism, called “Gilgul” which was proposed by Jewish mystics.

For traditional Judaism the problem of a live after death is just not an interesting question at all. Religious tradition and a righteous life right now is the center of attention. There are rules and bans, mitzwot, given directly from haShem. If you can work out how to follow them reasonably, you are on the safe side. Then, when you die, you’ll see what happens next! That’s soon enough.

The next sibling is Christianity. It started as an escatological sect of Judaism. Escatological means: Early christians were convinced that the Last Judgment is just around the corner. Like tomorrow or in the next year. The contemporaries of Jesus will experience it, that’s what he promised!

After the apocalypse failed to appear new concepts were developed. The most prominent one is to be found in the revelation of John, where the righteous believers live in a renewed Jerusalem.

Since then the concept of the afterlife continued to evolve. Most Christians nowadays believe that they will be resurrected on the day of judgement. In blood and flesh. But this new born person will be without pain or anger or any character flaw. It will live in the vicinity of God and in the presence of God. For eternity. The concept of a “New Jerusalem” is understood metaphorically nowadays.

The youngest of the three is Islam. The Qran is rather explicit in describing what’s happening when you die. The soul of the believer is pulled out of its body by an angel. It gets interrogated and waits in a place called Barzakh until judgement day.

Then Allah himself will be the qadi and weigh its good deeds against its bad deeds. If the soul passes this test the believer will live in Dschannah. This place has exactly the same address as the Garden Eden had. The Qran says that paradise is the place where Adam and Eve lived – I mean, before they were moved.

Paradise is living in a garden. Not any garden: The Garden of gardens! It’s nice there. Shady. Ripe fruits and streams where water, milk, wine and honey flow and enough time and room for everyone to live … well again: for eternity!

You will not live nearer to God or in the presence of him – you’ll live in paradise.

That should be enough!

Now: Do you think it’s okay to say: Religions are basically all the same?

Though the three book religions have worked with the same ideas, the results are very different. I’ll admit that especially Islam and Christianity are similar, but they’re not the same!

Let’s bring this episode home!

Religions are NOT basically the same. I grew up as a Christian so I understand Christian concepts more readily. But that’s my individual bias. Apart from that I personally do not like any of these ideas of a life after death at all. That includes the Christian one.

But I do respect everyone with faith and I do respect other religions.

That said: It’s not okay to force women into marriage, to sexually abuse children, to seperate people by caste or race or to kill people because of their faith: Religion has its problems. We need to address that. Every religion has to evolve, but each one on its own trajectory.

The concept “All Religions Are Basically the Same” is not respectful.

Said to a believer of any religion it means: Your position is interchangeable and replacable!

To makes things worse it seems to come from a feeling of superiority: “I can judge about that because I can compare your religion, your feelings with other religions. You are just one among many!”

Sure, we can talk about the similarities with believers of other religions. We should. That’s nice.

“Hey, you do that, too! Wow, we do that too! Isn’t that nice?”

Yeah. That’s nice. But nice is not enough.

We should talk about the differences. That’s more purposeful if we want to live together in peace. Interreligious dialogue is important but it does not have to be compulsively harmonious or even without dissent.

Let’s be respectful, but let’s dispute and argue and crititicize!

Be assured: Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed would do just that!

Because every religion is different.

And that’s a good thing!