To tell the truth, I have no idea which element of my hyphenated identity as a Buddhist practitioner and a scholar of comparative religions is more prominent in my conviction that religious diversity, which also includes indifference to organized religions, is simply a normal, natural aspect of life. Yet I was brought up to think that it was a huge problem. At some point, fairly early in my life, it just became ludicrous to me to think that of all the people on earth, only a relatively small group of very conservative German Lutherans had their heads on straight and had all the correct answers to every difficult problem or existential issue. Truly, how much sense could that make! I did not have many resources with which to come to that conclusion—very little lived experience encountering much diversity, no like-thinking friends or mentors, and few books or other intellectual stimulation. But it just didn’t make sense to think that the group into which I was born was so superior to every other group on earth, or that other people didn’t feel affection for their own lifeways, whatever they might be. Given the ease with which I thought past the indoctrination I was given, I am somewhat impatient with people who buy into religious chauvinism—or chauvinisms of any kind.
John Hick is fond of talking about adopting a pluralist outlook regarding religious diversity as a Copernican revolution regarding religion that is necessary in our time. While I basically accept his idea, I would add that overcoming our discomfort with that diversity is critical in that Copernican revolution required for religious believers at this time. There are two parts to my claim. The first is that religious diversity is a fact, and it is also a fact that religious diversity is here to stay. There simply are no grounds to dispute those facts. The second part of my claim is that we need to find the resources and means to become comfortable with and untroubled by the fact of that diversity.
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The sun does not revolve around the earth, and one’s own religion cannot be declared the One True Faith. These are equivalent statements, of equal obviousness and clarity, no matter what previous religious dogmas may have declared. It is as useless to hang on to the dogma that one’s own religion is the best because that is what one was previously taught as it would be to hang on to the dogma that the sun literally rises and sets because it appears to and because the Bible seems to say so. Religions always get into the most trouble when their dogmas lead them to deny facts on the basis of authority; but dogmas die slowly. I was amazed in the fall of 2011 to discover that some Jain pundits still declare that the earth is flat because that’s what Jain scriptures state. When empirical evidence is presented to them, they respond that some day science will catch up with their scriptures.
Exclusive truth claims and religious diversity are mutually exclusive; they cannot survive together in any harmonious, peaceful, and respectful way. Surviving religious diversity involves coming to a deep and profound realization that religious diversity is not a mistake or a problem. It does not have to be overcome, and there is no need to suggest that other traditions may have partial truth or to try to find some deeper, overarching or underlying truth that encompasses the many religious traditions. To accept this truth often requires profound inner adjustments, but they are not very hard to make in the face of obvious evidence.
What is such incontrovertible evidence regarding the naturalness of religious diversity? From the comparative study of religion, we learn that, no matter where or when we look in the history of humanity, people have devised a great variety of religious practices and beliefs. This diversity is both internal and external. That is to say, not only are there many religions around the world; each religion also contains a great deal of internal diversity. Even those religions that proclaim they are the One True Faith are internally very diverse. How could they imagine that someday there will be one universal global religion to which all people will adhere when they cannot even secure internal agreement about their own religion’s essentials? Why should we expect that in the future, such diversity would disappear and the religious outlook of one group of people would prevail over all others? That has the same cogency as expecting that most people would give up their native tongue to adopt another language for the sake of an ability to communicate universally. And, as I have argued in the past, having a universal language would actually be very helpful and make communication easier, whereas having a universal, common religion would not significantly improve anything. In fact, it would rob us of a lot of interesting religious and spiritual alternatives, a lot of material that is good to think with, in the felicitous phrasing of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. It would be helpful if we could all talk about all those alternatives in a language we could all understand. It does not seem that we are likely to have that common language anytime soon. But diminishing the number of religious alternatives, per the vision of religious exclusivists, does nothing to enrich our human community.
Related: Dialogue Across Difference
However, the vast variety of data available from the cross-cultural comparative study of religion does not provide theologically the incontrovertible proof regarding the normality and naturalness of religious diversity that I am seeking. Those data are simply a fascinating kaleidoscope. They present us with facts but say little about how to value those facts. There would seem to be an obvious, simple theological justification for religious diversity available to theists and monotheists. I used to suggest to my Christian and theistic students that the deity they believed in had obviously created a world in which religious diversity rather than uniformity prevailed. One would think that for those to whom belief in a creator deity is important, the manifest world that the deity had created would be acceptable. But my students objected to that logic, saying they knew that God wanted them to stamp out religious diversity. Factual information is often unconvincing to those with settled theological opinions. Unfortunately for them, one of the most famous monotheistic justifications of religious diversity was from the wrong revealed scripture, so it didn’t matter to them. The Quran states:
To every one of you we have appointed a [sacred] law and a course to follow. For, had God so wished, He would have made you all one community. Rather He wished to try you by means of what He had given you; who among you is of the best action. Compete therefore with one another as if in a race in the performance of good deeds. To God shall be your return, and He will inform you concerning the things in which you had differed. (Q. 5:48)
Take out the theistic language, and this advice is not too different from what I propose.
On the other hand, what I propose is quite different from what the Quran says in one significant way; for we need to locate the rationale and need for religious diversity, not in what unseen and unknowable metaphysical entities such as deities might decree, but in how human consciousness operates. If we are to speak of Copernican revolutions in how we view religious diversity, I would suggest that we shift our focus from how we think of God and instead put much more emphasis in thinking about how and why we construct and accept the theologies we do. In other words, shift the gaze from theology to spirituality. Shift from looking to something external, even an external as abstract as Ultimate Reality, as the source of our religious ideas. Instead look to our own quest for meaning and coherence. As I am fond of telling my follow Buddhists who want to believe in strange, nonhuman origins for some of their texts, sacred books do not fall from some other world into our sphere, neatly bound between two covers. They are the products of cultural evolution and are accepted only because they seem coherent and helpful to humans. For those who are or want to remain theists, such a move does not jeopardize their belief system. Belief in an external deity is such an attractive alternative that most people prefer it to nontheism. In fact, in some forms of Buddhism, it can be hard to detect how Buddhists have remained true to the nontheistic origins, though more sophisticated exegesis of such forms of Buddhism can always rescue a nontheistic core. However, thinking there could be an unmediated text, creed, or religious practice—something independent of human agency—is not only a strange idea but also an idea that is devastating to flourishing with religious diversity.
Moving from theology to spirituality and human consciousness would be a realistic and very helpful move. It is also a typical nontheistic and Buddhist move. According to Buddhism, human minds create our worlds, both their problems and their possibilities. This is probably the biggest difference in the claims made by theistic and nontheistic religious, though a nontheist Buddhist would argue that theistic religions are actually created by their adherents, not by the deities they worship. (Interesting is that both Buddhists and students of comparative religions agree on the point that religions are products of human history and culture, not of direct divine intervention into history.) We have created our problems, and only we can solve them. That becomes something of a bottom line for Buddhists. We need to train our minds to be less attached, less mistaken, less shortsighted, and, most of all, less self-centered. After all, discomfort with religious others is a form of self-centeredness.
How do we take that perspective into solving the “problem” of religious diversity? First, I would argue that religious diversity exists because it is psychologically and spiritually impossible for all human beings to follow one theological outlook or spiritual path. We are not built that way. That’s just not how we are. Religious diversity, which is inevitable, natural, and normal, flows from our different spiritual and psychological inclinations. Therefore, inevitably, we will encounter religious others. Second, I would argue that the acid test of a religion’s worth lies with what kind of tools it provides its adherents for coping gracefully and kindly with their worlds and the other beings who inhabit them. Discomfort with religious diversity and the wish to abolish it is a psychological and spiritual deficiency arising in an untrained human mind, a mind that does not know how to relax and be at ease with what is, with things as they are, as Buddhists like to say. Solving the “problem” of religious diversity has much more to do with human beings’ attitudes toward one another than with somehow adjudicating their rather different theological and metaphysical views. Thus, I am suggesting that we should start, not with religious creeds and questions about religions or metaphysical truth, but with questions about how people are—different from one another—and about how well religions function to help them live with how they are.
[This article was first published in 2015.]
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