I used to be a proponent of the "perennial philosophy." This is the notion that there's a basic agreement about the nature of metaphysical reality. Aldous Huxley wrote a book by the same name, saying the perennial philosophy is:
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. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.
This statement used to make sense to me. That's because I didn't think about it very much, nor consider as deeply as I should have whether it conformed to the way things are.
Which, it doesn't. Religions don't agree. Mystics don't agree. Spiritual sages don't agree. That's a fact.
The only possible way to find commonality among faiths such as Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, or sages such as Rumi, Lao Tzu, and Moses, is to make extremely broad sweeping statements about what they supposedly agree on that lack any meaningful substance.
Like, it is possible for people to become more in tune with what is true about the cosmos.
Well, duh? Who doesn't believe that?
To fancy up this thought and call it a "perennial philosophy" is to make something out of nothing. And that is exactly what one of my favorite atheist bloggers, Greta Christina, says is the reason religions don't agree.
There's no there there.
-- There's no demonstrable evidence of God, so how can people agree about God?
-- There's no demonstrable evidence of any metaphysical reality, so how can people agree about metaphysical reality?
-- There's no demonstrable evidence of life after death, so how can people agree about life after death?
Check out Christina's "Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things."
It's a terrific demolishing of a metaphor that gets way overused by those who believe that seemingly disparate religions actually are pointing to different aspects of the same divine reality.
Here's some parts that I especially liked:
I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is. I have never seen a version where the blind men say, "Hey, come over here! Follow my voice, and check this out -- this is why I think it's a snake!" (Or a tree trunk, or a rope, or whatever.)
And yet, that's exactly how science works.
Yes, of course, if God existed, he would be immense and complex and difficult to perceive and understand.
And what -- the physical universe isn't?
The physical universe is both far, far larger and far, far weirder than we had any conception of 500 years ago, or indeed 100. Billions upon billions of galaxies all rushing apart from each other at blinding speed; everything made up of atoms that are mostly empty space; space that curves; continents that drift... I could go on and on. It's way too big, way too complex, way too multi-faceted, for any one person to accurately comprehend.
And yet, the blind men [scientists] are coming to a fair understanding of what an elephant is.
Every century, every decade, every year, the blind men are getting a better and better picture of an elephant.
...Why does this work?
Because the elephant is really there.
Because there is actually something out there that we can compare notes on. Because when two blind men feel an elephant's trunk, they're feeling the same real thing.
...In religion, we have no such consensus. The Snakians and the Treeists and the Ropafarians are still squabbling, still dividing up into sects, still coming up with no better argument for their beliefs than "Other people say it" and "I feel it in my heart" and "You can't prove it didn't happen." And they're still coming up with no clearer picture of the elephant: no better ability to predict what the elephant will do, no better skill at guiding the elephant in the direction that they want, than they had a year ago, or a hundred, or a thousand.
Because there's nothing there.
...The reason that there's no increased consensus about religion? The reason that different religions today are as different, as inconsistent, as mutually contradictory, as they always have been, for thousands of years? The reason that prayer and prophecy haven't gotten any more effective over the years?
The reason isn't that God is a huge, complex, multi-faceted elephant that no one person can completely and accurately perceive.
The reason is that there is no elephant.