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‘Aren’t All Religions Basically the Same?’

All the world religions do have some things in common, but that doesn't mean they're equal.

Paul Senz

There are around 8 billion people in the world. About 85 percent of those people profess some religious belief. Most of those people belong to the major world religions: there are about 2.5 billion Christians (about 1.4 billion of whom are Catholic, about 800 million Protestants, and 260 million Orthodox), 1.8 billion Muslims, about 15 million Jews, 1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists, 17 million Mormons, and many, many more.

It should go without saying that these different faiths, with contradictory and mutually exclusive beliefs, cannot all be true. All of them contradict one another, some in fundamental and profound ways. Some of these ways may be a surprise to the reader (for example, the common belief that “Mormons are Christians” is patently false), but nonetheless, there is a commonly used platitude that, in spite of their differences, all religions “basically say the same thing.” What is this “same thing,” and do they really all basically say this?

When we hear someone say that all religions say basically the same thing, what he typically means is that all religions boil down to a moral code: just be kind to others. Leaving aside the fact that not all religions say this, there is another issue.

The trouble is, this is not what is most fundamental about each of these religions. We cannot say that all religions basically say the same thing. The claims that lie at the heart of each religion differ fundamentally from one religion to the next.

What do the world’s religions have in common? Certainly, truth is truth, and the Church recognizes that many of the world’s religions have some elements of the truth, albeit from an incomplete (even tremendously incomplete) understanding. In fact, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate considered many points on which all men typically agree, Catholic and non-Catholic.

All world religions have in common a belief in something beyond what we can see and feel and touch. Most of them recognize in this the supernatural, and even some sort of divinity, although here there are practically innumerable variations. Most also preach love and care for our fellow man, not for utilitarian purposes, but because he deserves them inherently.

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (Nostra Aetate 2). So the Church sees what good and truth there is in these other religions—but it does not stop there. There is not a hint of indifferentism in the council’s declaration. Just the opposite: “Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14: 6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.”

So even after acknowledging the elements of truth that may be present in another religion, the Church reminds us that we are called to preach the gospel, to bring all men to Christ. There is no “I’m okay, you’re okay” here, no “live and let live.” On the contrary, Jesus’ mandate to us remains in full force (see Matt. 28:19-20).

The question is often asked: why does it matter? Why should we even care about differences in religious belief? Even if one acknowledges that they are not “all fundamentally the same,” isn’t it merely a difference of opinion? Like a favorite flavor of ice cream?

Certainly not! It matters because the truth matters. Religious faith is not merely a question of opinion. “I’m a Catholic” does not have the same weight as “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a San Diego Padres fan.” Truth exists, and different religious traditions make different claims about that truth—things are one way, and are not other, contradictory ways. Water is by definition wet; it cannot also be dry. God exists, and he is the only God; there cannot also be many gods. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity; he cannot also be merely a sound moral teacher who was not divine. Two contradictions cannot both be true, because truth is objective.

There is nothing at all wrong with comparing and contrasting different religious traditions, or with finding areas of common ground among them. In fact, finding common ground can be an important means of evangelization. But the existence of commonalities by no means indicates a fundamental sameness. In fact, the commonalities make the differences starker, and it is important to recognize and acknowledge these differences.

This doesn’t mean that we should just accept the differences, let bygones be bygones, and leave each to his own. We are called to evangelize, to spread the good news, to go out to all the world and baptize. The Church was commissioned by Christ for this apostolic work, and in order for our work to be fruitful, we must acknowledge that the Catholic Church is set apart from other world religions.

In most cases, evangelizing adherents of other religions can start from a place of dialogue, finding common ground. All religions do not “say basically the same thing,” but the things we do say together are a perfect starting point for evangelization.

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