I used to believe that underneath all the obvious differences between religions, there was a difficult-to-discern common core. Mysticism was what united Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, and other faiths.
God is One. Humans have, or rather are, a soul. It is possible for this soul-drop to merge into the One god-ocean.
There. Three simple sentences. Forget all the complex divisive theologies. That's the oft-forgotten genuine essence of every religion: realizing that our true Self is, basically, the same as God.
It was a nice belief. Warm and fuzzy.
The Indian spiritual organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, that I was an active member of for over thirty years promulgated this creed in books that purported to show how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism really were the same once the common mystical essence of each religion was recognized.
And who was the recognizer of this amazing truth? As the old saying goes, you only get three guesses, and the first two don't count.
Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB).
That common mystical essence just happened to be exactly what the RSSB gurus and high-ranking devotees taught. If you were a Christian and thought you knew what Christianity is all about, you were mistaken. You needed to buy the RSSB books which explained what Jesus really meant in the New Testament.
Ditto for Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism. To my knowledge Radha Soami Satsang Beas never has gotten around to showing how Buddhism and Taoism are akin to the RSSB teachings, probably because this would be such a stretch.
In a fascinating piece, "Preventing holy wars, by consensus," David Chapman convincingly argues that this all religions are one notion is a load of crap. He focuses on how Consensus Buddhism gets this wrong, but his analysis pertains equally to anyone, including RSSB, who claims to know the common essence of all religions.
If all religions are essentially the same, what is it that is the same about them?
This is a question advocates of the “brotherhood of all religions” would rather skate over. When pressed, they usually produce one of two answers:
- All religions say everyone should be nice to everyone else.
- The essence of all religions is the mystical insight that your True Self is the same as God.
Both of these are factually false.
...Almost no one agrees that your True Self is God
The only major religion that says your True Self is God is Hinduism—and only some Hindu sects.
Nevertheless, the idea that this is the essence of all religions—which are therefore all really the same—is increasingly popular in the West. This is called “Perennialism” by religious scholars.
Perennialism is rejected by most prominent spokespeople for most religions. Perennialists need to argue that all these authorities are deluded about the nature of their own religions. A Perennialist knows The Truth about Islam, that it is really one path among many to becoming God. Most imams consider that the worst idea imaginable, but they don’t really know anything about Islam. Since the essence of Islam is the mystical experience of becoming God, which the imams have lost, they are idiots and should be ignored.
...The third problem with “all religions are essentially the same” is that it has been, from its invention, a tool for totalitarian domination. Whoever gets to say what the “essence” is holds all religious power.
This has been the strategy of American Consensus Buddhism: to define all alternatives out of existence by insisting on sameness.
Read Chapman's entire essay. The comments on his piece also are interesting, including Chapman's responses to some criticisms.