World religions share more in common than not, if only one looks closely
"Never discuss religion or politics" has been a truism of polite society, particularly in times where passions run hot and fast.
But maybe aversion to topics of belief is exactly where the problem lies—for religion, at any rate. Lack of open discussion about faith and belief leaves room for misunderstanding and misconceptions to creep in, obscuring much shared common ground.
Christopher Johnson, clinical professor of sociology at Texas State University and editor of How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, has spent much of his career studying the world's religions and said that far too much effort is focused on differences among religions rather than the many striking similarities of belief.
"What I learned from doing this is that there’s more a thread of commonality among the world’s religions than differences," Johnson said. "I think we’re overfocused on the differences, and that’s what creates the disunity and religious prejudices that are so strong in America.
"Consider that the golden mean is in all the world religions. There’s reward and punishment present in all the world religions," he said. "An interesting thing that I found out is that the word religion actually means 'social bond.' I've asked pastors, 'Do you know what the word religion means?' and not one of them knew. Their whole life has been their religion, but they did not know what the word religio, or religion, means. So, we have to ask ourselves, is the religion creating a social bond?"
Of course, within the diversity of world religions—Christianity alone has around 38,000 sects and denominations—there is considerable room for differences to arise. There are widely diverging views on death and the afterlife, Johnson said. Some view heaven as a physical place, whereas others view it as purely spiritual with no physical component at all. Still other faiths view it as something in between those two points.
"In the South there are stereotypes of world religions that are non-Christian. There’s stigma, particularly Islamophobia and stereotyping Islamic beliefs, and not recognizing there’s as much diversity in Islam as there is in Christianity," Johnson said. "The Baha'is believe heaven and hell are a continuum of closeness and remoteness to God. It's a spiritual condition. Catholics are very similar in that they have heaven, purgatory and hell, so it's kind of a continuum there.
"Baha'is and Catholics both believe in prayers for the dead because they believe you continue to progress in the life hereafter. Whereas for the Baptists, it doesn't matter. You're judged immediately, and you're going to go to heaven or hell," he said. "The bottom line for all the world's religions is that whether they believe in seven heavens and hells, or a fiery furnace, or a spiritual condition of deprivation or glorious reward, it's always reward and punishment for all these world religions."
When the second edition of How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife came out, Johnson was invited to speak to theological faculty at St. Andrews in Scotland. The faculty had spent so much time focusing on the differences between Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and others that they'd never thought to look for similarities.
"We got to talking about eschatology, which is the view of the end of the world, and they had no idea they're amazingly similar. If you really look at it, they all talk about an end time when religions will be one," Johnson said. "Even Native American prophecies talk about a time where we'll all be in one teepee.
"Civilizations have moved from tribal systems to city-state systems to nation systems. And now, we're moving toward a global system," he said. "That's something the Ba'hai faith promotes, the ultimate evolution of the world faith—the unity religion. Unitarians kind of fall into that, except theirs is more of a secular version of it."
Even religions that seemingly have vast differences often have significant beliefs that parallel each other, Johnson said. At a glance, Christianity and Buddhism would seem to share little in common, but a closer examination reveals that to be a superficial reading of the faiths.
"Christians say there's nothing said about God in Buddhism, but there is a book called The God of Buddha that argues Buddha did talk about God. Some Buddhists believe that Buddha himself was a god-man, as many Christians believe of Christ with the notion of the Trinity," Johnson said. "In fact, there are entire books paralleling Buddha with Christ, or Krishna, who is the Hindu prophet, with Christ. There are books that parallel Zoroaster with Christ. The three 'wise men' who visited the baby Jesus were Magi or Zoroastrian priests.
"The more that I learn, the more I realize that it's significant for people to understand not just the differences, but more importantly what we share in common and focus on that. That's where dialogue and reduction of prejudice actually happen," he said. "When people defocus from dissimilarities and look at what we have in common, that's where dialogue can begin. That's where interfaith groups are beginning to develop—they share ideas about death and the afterlife and what salvation is. Some look at social salvation and others look at individual salvation and some look at both. I think organizations that build on dialogue and similarities, what we have in common, help break down prejudice and barriers."