We live in a world of religious diversity that includes a range of spiritual perspectives. This diversity includes pretty much everything from global faith traditions to atheists who consider religion as an infantile delusion or “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx once famously wrote. So it’s surprising to note the similarities that unite the religions, and do so in a way that transcend the divisive behavior of those who feel that any religion other than their own is simply incompatible with the truth.
But let’s consider their compatibility. To begin with, most of the world’s religions are monotheistic; they believe in one God. With just a little detachment, it’s easy enough to consider that they believe in the same God. They agree, for example, that God is both placeless and everywhere at the same time. “I fill the Heaven and the Earth,” it says in the Book of Jeremiah (23:24) and “The whole world is Brahman,” as noted in the Hindu Upanishads.
That God is somehow inside each of us is also a concept in which most religions agree: “We know that He dwell in us because He has given us of His Spirit,” (1 John, 4:13), “God dwelleth in all hearts (Bhagavad Gita) and “closer to you than your life vein” (Baha’i, “The Promised Day is Come”).
There are many such examples of religious similarity, far too many to cite here, but perhaps the most recognizable one is the Golden Rule of Christianity, the “do unto others” maxim found in the Bible: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,” (Matthew, 7:12). Phrased differently but with the same meaning, this prescription for a virtuous life can be found in the holy writings of most of the world’s major religions:
- “Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you,”
(Hindu, Mahabharata 5:1517),
- “Choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself,” (Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Writings),
- “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself,” (Islam, Sunnah),
- “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the law: all the rest is commentary” (Judaism, Talmud, Shabbat 31a),
- “That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self.” (Zoroastrian, Dadistan-i-Dinik, 94:5), and
- “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddhist, Udana-Varga,5:18).
Considering that this same spiritual principle was iterated in different parts of the world by different prophets and at different times in humanity’s development, it becomes apparent that there is a commonality of beliefs and that every prophet-founder of a major religion sustains and reinforces spiritual principles from previous dispensations.
Religions are different, of course, and the distinctions between them are purposely apparent. They are distinctively different in their social teachings which determine how every religious society arranges its respective affairs: Laws of diet, laws of marriage and divorce, burial practices and so forth, all change from one dispensation to the next, sometimes in dramatic ways. The social teachings change according to the spiritual condition of humanity at the time of the Manifestation. Given the sectarian violence that seems to be engulfing our planet, this is an astounding realization.
One last example about the similarity between religious traditions is in the area of prayer. Different religions handle devotions differently and at different set times. But the words that are used in prayer are at least recognizable, if not familiar, from one religion to the next. Sometimes they’re the same words. One example that comes to mind is this supplication from the Old Testament, taken from the Book of Psalms (51:10-19):
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
The words resemble the Early Modern English used in the 17th century court of King James, but it happens that the prayer, itself, strongly resembles another prayer from a much later religious dispensation, the Baha’i Faith. Both prayers begin in a very similar fashion and employ a poetic device known as parallelism where ideas are developed through repetition in the same verse:
"Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope! Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire! Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God! Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquility on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!" (Baha'u'llah, Prayers and Meditations, page 248)
If the followers of any religion, or perhaps every religion, were to consider truth as something not absolute but relative and complementary to the understanding of others, would this not foster an environment in which difference becomes appreciated and not discounted? We live in a world of religious diversity, yet within this diversity rest the seeds of common understanding.