From this perspective, popularized by "perennial philosophers" such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, all religions are beautiful and all are true. The prevailing metaphor portrays the world's religions as different paths up the same mountain. "It is possible to climb life's mountain from any side," writes Mr. Smith, "but when the top is reached the trails converge."
This is a seductive sentiment in a world in which religious violence can seem as present and potent as God. But it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue. […] Of course, one purpose of the "all religions are one" meme is to stop this fighting and this killing. But this meme, however well intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God may be one according to the Abrahamic religions, but when it comes to the mathematics of divinity, one is not the only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in 330,000. Moreover, the characters of these divinities differ wildly. […]
You would think that champions of multiculturalism would warm to this fact, glorying in the diversity inside and across religious traditions. But even among multiculturalists, the tendency is to pretend that the differences between, say, Christianity and Islam are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don't warrant the fuss practitioners make over them. […]
The Age of Enlightenment 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 groupthink—call it Godthink—has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us world-wide.
Faith in the unity of religions is just that—faith, and perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism. And it does not just infect the perennialists. While popular religion writers such as Mr. Smith see in all religions the same truth and the same virtue, new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins see in all religions the same idiocy and the same poison. In both cases, Godthink is ideological rather than analytical. It gestates in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are in the ground. In the case of the new atheists, it springs from the understandable desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case of the perennialists, it begins with the equally understandable desire to praise the good in religion. […]
Some people are convinced that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. In our most intimate human relationships, who is so naive as to imagine that partners or spouses must be essentially the same? What is required in any healthy relationship is knowing who the other person really is. Denying differences is a recipe for disaster. What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept and, when appropriate, to respect them. After all, it is not possible to agree to disagree until you see just what the disagreements might be. And tolerance is an empty virtue until we actually understand whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating. Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at
. This essay was adapted from his book "God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," recently published by HarperOne. Boston University