It's (churchless) confession time. I'm getting down on my bloggish knees and admitting to a mea culpa. Not a very juicy one, though. It's philosophical rather than salacious.
For a long time I've been an advocate of the notion that under their dogmatic skins religions share a common skeleton. Aldous Huxley called this the Perennial Philosophy and wrote a book by that name.
But now I've come to agree with Stephen Prothero, chair of Boston University's Department of Religion, who said in Newsweek recently that the proposition "The Major Religions are Essentially Alike" is false.
Religious people do agree that there is something wrong with this world. But they disagree as soon as they start to diagnose the problem, and diverge even more when it comes to prescriptions for the cure. Christians see sin as the human problem and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in this tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem and liberation from suffering (nirvana) as the goal. If practitioners of the world's religions are all climbing a mountain, then they are ascending very different peaks and using very different tools.
On the other hand, I've quoted this passage by Huxley many times. It used to make sense to me. Now it doesn't.
The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being – the thing is immemorial and universal.
Well, those words sound warm and fuzzy. I can almost picture the founders of the world religions sitting around a campfire and singing Kum-Bai-Ya.
But the reality is that once you get beyond the broadest generalizations of which Huxley speaks – there's something more than physical reality, and we can know it – religious beliefs have precious little in common. Prothero urges us to recognize this, rather than paper over the differences.
Coming at the problem of religion from the angle of difference rather than similarity is scary. But the world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually understand whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.
I have no problem respecting someone's belief, so long as they admit that this is all it is: a belief, not truth. Where I went wrong in my Perennial Philosophy phase was not recognizing this: accepting that some people have been able to actually know the truth about divine reality and go beyond belief is itself a belief.
Huxley simply takes this as a given. He says that most people who spout off about spirituality and religion are merely echoing what others have written (who in turn probably have done the same thing). Yet he claims that there have been first hand exponents of the Perennial Philosophy who have been given the name of saint, prophet, sage, or enlightened one.
That's true enough – that they've been given those names. But what proof is there that these supposed first-handers aren't also passing on secondhand inspiration that may never have been grounded in any direct perception of a higher reality?
A present day guru, Gurinder Singh, is fond of saying, "How do you know I'm not a fraud? How do you know I just don't have the gift of gab?"
Indeed. How? There's no answer to that question, not in any scientifically demonstrable sense at least. If there was any solid proof that one religion knew the really real truth about divine reality, it would have risen to the top of the religious pyramid – just as scientific theories do.
Instead, what we have, after 10,000 years or more of intense human striving to understand what, if anything, lies beyond the physical, is a confusing mess of conflicting religious claims.
So like I said in my previous post, science turns out to be more spiritual than religion. Science continually converges on a consensus about the nature of reality, while religion never does.
Why is this? The two most likely possibilities are (1) there's no metaphysical reality to be discovered, or (2) there is indeed a non-material side to existence, but it is absolutely ineffable – incapable of being described.
Since I want to live on after I die, naturally I hope the latter is true. But I'd put my bet on (1) as being more likely. Unfortunately, there's no way to win that bet and get a payoff. If I'm right, I won't be around to know it.