Religions are organized approaches to understanding God. Around the globe, countless religions arose as different cultures developed unique interpretations of Divinity.
Each day we see religion in the news. Understanding religions other than our own, beyond mere toleration, requires the willingness to explore their similarities and differences. Each religion has strengths and weaknesses, faults and perfections, harmony and discord. Understanding can decrease hatred and lead to valuable interactions with others.
Perhaps the greatest similarity among religions is the ability to adapt. An enormous variety of internal and external pressures have caused every great religion to change and branch out since its inception.
- Judaism has Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Hasidic movements;
- Christianity has Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant denominations;
- Islam has the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi streams;
- Hinduism has followers of Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti;
- Buddhism has the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions.
The number of further subdivisions is legion. Why all these differences?
Change occurs in religions because they are alive to history, culture, politics, human nature, and personality.
Across the ages, inspired individuals, powerful politicians, and charismatic leaders have come to conclusions which were commented upon and changed by their successors.
There were innumerable debates: how to pray, how to live a righteous life, how to organize society, who to follow, and how to become closer to God or Absolute Reality and whether it was even possible in this lifetime.
The positive core of the great religions includes similar ethics and practices of self-control that lead to unselfishness. Moving beyond self-centeredness combined with approaches to meditation, contemplation, and prayer can bring peace and clarity as well as expand the mind.
Religions also share negative similarities, often inspired by the unfortunate aspects of human nature that religion was expected to address. These include narrow-mindedness, hatred, anger, greed, ego, injustice, protection of wealth and pursuit of power. Atheists and agnostics are useful critics of these abuses.
The effort to understand the different religions calls for flexible levels of analysis. When approaching sacred literature and stories, what should be taken literally? What is specific to a particular time and place? What is a metaphor, simile, or analogy? What is something to contemplate for its deeper meaning?
Understanding different approaches to God/Absolute Reality must take into account recent scientific developments. Trying to adapt science to fit religion is a waste of intelligence.
Widening understanding of different religions can focus our attention on important shared values and increase the probability of peace. Such understanding can enrich our individual experience.
Religion is a shared human condition.