Monday, May 10, 2010

The Differences Do Matter

This post is going to be a reversed from my normal format. I will talk briefly and then share a longer-than-normal quote.

I am sure most of the people reading this have seen the popular "Coexist" bumper stickers. According to the providers of the bumper stickers the intent is to promote people finding a way "to live together in peace and harmony". Unfortunately ideologies such as this have been twisted into a false form of "tolerance" that wants people to believe there are no critical differences between religions and that we should accept them as equal. When it goes that far it is, at best, wishful thinking.

Dr. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, recently released a book called God is Not One where he shows why the differences in religions do matter. Below is a rather long excerpt taken from the Wall Street Journal. I do not agree with everything he says in it but his overall assessment of the situation is accurate:
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. Is God a warrior like Hinduism's Kali or a mild-mannered pacifist like the Quakers' Jesus?
I do not believe we are witnessing a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. But it is a fantasy to imagine that the world's two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue will magically bridge the gap between them. Each of the great religions offers its own diagnosis of the human predicament and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation. Muslims say pride is the problem; Christians say salvation is the solution; education is a key Confucian technique; and Buddhism's exemplars include the lama and the bodhisattva. If practitioners of the world's religions are mountain climbers then they are ascending very different peaks and using very different tools.
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....
This wishful thinking is motivated in part by a principled rejection of the traditional theological 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 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.
Neither of these desires serves our understanding of a world in which our religious traditions are at least as diverse as our political and economic arrangements....
I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we must pursue this goal through more realistic means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together into one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences between Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism.
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.
By His Grace,

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