First published in the Bridge Magazine, May 2018
Do all religions lead to God?
The belief that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is something of a cultural norm today. It’s often taught in schools to undergird the so-called “British” values of tolerance and respect, things which are surely essential in a multicultural society. And yet the moment you pause to think about the statement, it’s utterly absurd.
For a start, how could anyone claim to know that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain? To know that all the paths up the mountain lead to the top you’d have to have total knowledge of the mountain, which when you remember that the mountain is God, is an enormously arrogant thing to claim!
Next, there’s the problem of what you mean by “all religions”, does “all” really mean all? For example, does “all religions” include the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte (St Death)? In 2008, drug gangs kidnapped rival cartel members and sacrificed them in a ritual honouring St Death. Does a human sacrifice religion count as a legitimate route to the top of the mountain? Or what about some of our modern science-fiction religions – for example, Jedi, which only began when Star Wars came out in 1977, or L.Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement? Hubbard was a science fiction writer in the 1940s and 1950s, and allegedly as a result of a bet with another author, invented a religion as a get rich quick scheme. Hubbard was reputedly worth $600million when he died, so it must have worked for him – but will it work for anyone else? Are these all legitimate routes up the mountain? And if they aren’t, why not, who gets to decide, and how do you apply for the job?
But perhaps the biggest problem with saying that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is the huge differences between the religions on important things like god, the nature of the universe, human beings, morality and salvation.
Let’s take three obvious examples:
- Christians believe there is one god. Hindus believe there are many gods. In what way is that the same?
- Jews believe in a personal, speaking god. Buddhists don’t believe in god at all. In what way is that the same?
- Islam, Judaism (in fact most of the big religions) teach that salvation (whatever they mean by that) comes about by human effort. Christianity teaches that no amount of human effort can ever earn salvation, instead, it’s a gracious gift from God offered through Jesus. In what way is that the same?
When you take the time to understand what the different religions believe, they can’t all be true because their beliefs are mutually exclusive. No matter how sincerely people believe they are right, there cannot be both multiple gods, only one god, and no god. In other words, some of the paths going up the mountain are leading nowhere!
The poet Steve Turner sums it up well in his tongue-in-cheek poem, Creed (which is well worth reading in full if you have the time).
The differences between religions really matter. So much so that saying all religions lead to the same place is a bit like saying all trains lead to the same place.
As a child, I used to catch a train home from school, and one night my train wasn’t on its regular platform. I noticed, but two of my friends didn’t and boarded the express train to Scotland that the Fat Controller had unhelpfully parked on our regular platform.
Looking across at them through a grimy British Rail window, my first thought was, “It’s alright because all trains use platforms, rails, tickets, and seats – so they must lead to the same destination.” But then thankfully I realised that if they ever found out I hadn’t warned them, they’d probably never speak to me again, so I got off my train, got onto their train, and gave them the shocking news that all trains don’t go to the same destination and that if they wanted to get home tonight they really needed to get off!
I’d like to tell you that a surreal debate followed, in which my friends declared that all train destinations are just a matter of opinion and that they liked how their train made them feel, and who was I to declare it wrong for them? But thankfully my friends listened to the good news and followed me onto a train that would take them home!
All trains don’t lead to the same destination, and nor do all religions. Not if you actually bother to take onboard what they teach.
So what does all this mean for life in multicultural Britain?
Well, first it means we need a better basis for tolerating and respecting difference than arrogant and empty statements like “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain.”
Second, it means that when we hear people saying “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain” we should ask them why they believe that and demand to see the evidence.
And thirdly it should challenge us to ask the big question that our multicultural society is trying to tell us doesn’t matter: How can I know what is truly true?