What All Religions Have in Common and Why it Matters

Recently in Brenham, TX (our fair town), two local churches sponsored a public forum concerning the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Included on the stage were a Professor from Harvard Divinity School (whose dissertation was on some technical aspect of the Quran), an Imam, and one of the local pastors. 

As one might expect from such a meeting, the viewpoint universally expressed was that Christianity and Islam worshipped the same god, that “all roads lead to the top of the mountain” (meaning all religions get you to the same place), and that “when we all get to heaven” (a dangerously false assumption) we will find out where we were all right and all wrong. No questions were allowed from the floor but were “chosen” from pre-screened index cards. As a result, no tough questions were asked and no opposing viewpoint was heard. 

The fact that Christianity and Islam are mutually-exclusive is undeniable when one takes the words on the page (be it the Bible or the Quran) in their normal, everyday, socially-designated meaning. One must allegorize and spiritualize the two texts before one can harmonize them. For example, inside the Dome of the Rock, the major Quranic inscription over the arches of the inner arcade is addressed to the “Followers of the Gospel,” i.e. Christians. It reads as follows:

“O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three” – Cease! (it is) better for you! – Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is sufficient as Defender.” [4:171]

There is no way to take that at face value and reconcile it with this statement from the Bible:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18 NIV 84)

This being said, it is true that all religions hold certain doctrines in common. Put another way, every religion regardless of the type (monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, spiritistic, etc.) subscribes to the following truths. (This list is taken from S. H. Kellogg, A Handbook of Comparative Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1899), 6-10.

  1. All religions assume the existence of a higher power or powers that are superior to man and able to influence his destiny. The individual is dependent upon the higher power or powers to one extent or another so that this relationship is a necessary relationship. It is assumed that each person is born into this relationship and there is no way for the individual to free himself from it. It is also interesting to note that, even in religions that worship more than one god, in the background of the religious consciousness there remains the dim outline of one sole power to which all other powers are subordinate. 
  2. Because of man’s relationship with the higher power or powers, certain actions are obligatory while other actions must be avoided. If these actions are not avoided then the inevitable result is suffering. Thus, all people are, to one extent or another, responsible for their own actions. 
  3. Between the individual and the higher power or powers, something is wrong. Put another way, in every religion there is some appeal to man’s sense of sin. This is most obviously displayed in the various religious practices and offerings designed to either soothe the anger of the higher power or powers or to court the goodwill of the power or powers. 
  4. All religions assume that there is a state of being after death. The consequences of one’s actions in the present life follow the individual into that state of being. Even in Buddhism, which seems to deny the existence of a soul that can live after death, there is much that seems inconsistent so that the reality of a state of future rewards and retributions may be found.

Why it Matters

When one considers the variety of religious belief in the world and the mutually exclusive claims of these religions, it is remarkable that so much may be found in common. The only conclusion that makes sense, at least to me, is that there must be a spiritual reality in the unseen world that presses upon the souls of men. In other words, there must really be something out there that is unseen but nevertheless real that can be and is known at the most fundamental level of each person. 

People universally speak of such abstract concepts as love, hate, grief, joy, longing, friendship, or pride. That these concepts are known to everyone indicates that they are realities that are at once internal to the individual but common to the experience of everyone. The same is true of religion. 

The fact that every religion believes in a higher power or powers means that there must be some invisible but, nevertheless, real power out there that influences our lives. That every individual is born into this relationship means that this power or powers are universal in scope. That there is something wrong between the individual and this power or powers means that sin is real. That all assume a state of being after one dies means that everyone must be ready for that day at all times.