One essential and troubling religious truth

rainbowvestmentsI was flipping through my copy of Newsweek the other day and came across a headline that almost made me swoon. To make matters more interesting for people who care about religion news, this little article was part of the magazine’s giant “What You Need To Know Now” spread.

The headline said: “True or False: The Major Religions Are Essentially Alike.”

According to author Stephen Prothero of Boston University, the correct answer is “false.” Prothero is, of course, the author of the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.

Here is now the Newsweek article opens:

At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful — and all are true. The proof text for this happy affirmation comes, appropriately enough, from the Hindu Vedas rather than the Christian Bible: “Truth is one, the sages call it by many names.”

According to this multicultural form of wisdom, the world’s religions are merely different paths up the same mountain. But are they?

Anyone willing to deal with facts and doctrines, rather than emotions and fog, has to come to the conclusion that the various world religions clash over and over again, creating eternal divides that are real and can only be covered up by living in a state of denial, according to Prothero.

Yet that is precisely where many people — including scores of journalists — like to live. Here is the heart of the Newsweek article:

You would think that multiculturalists would warm to this fact. But instead they try to flatten out diversity by pretending that the differences between, say, Judaism and Taoism are more apparent than real. …

But understanding real religious diversity — the undeniable differences demarcated by religious boundaries — is essential to understanding the powerful role that religious beliefs, practices and institutions play in the world today.

I do not believe that we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam. But it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest faiths are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically close the divide between them. Even Shia and Sunni Islam are in many respects quite distinct — a fact American officials might have learned before things in Iraq went awry if our public schools had not been treating this subject as taboo for generations.

Faith may or may not move mountains, but it is doubtless one of the prime movers in politics, both in the United States and (with the notable exception of Europe) abroad.

It may be scary to accept reality, he concludes, but the “world is what it is.” It is hard to build true tolerance and respect (and accurate news coverage) on lies.

This Newsweek mini-essay really stuck in my mind because of something I heard several years ago, when I had a chance to take part in a conference on religion and the news held at the University of Nebraska’s School of Journalism. The keynote speaker was Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, who has, over the past few decades, been one of the most important voices pleading with the mainstream media to do a better job of covering religion news.

During his lecture — which focused on the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, on mainstream news — Marty noted that one of the most powerful beliefs among journalists is that the number of people who cling to traditional forms of religion will decrease in the years ahead and that the number of people who embrace more liberal forms will increase. This belief does much to shape their coverage of the news.

Meanwhile, one of the core convictions of the leaders of the religious left is their conviction that the various world religions are, in the end, the same and, thus, all equally true. Many elites in our culture go even further and assume that the religion will fade — period.

Here is the key quote from a column I wrote about that Marty speech:

Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. …

“The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

So, combine the insights of Marty with the hard, cold fact stated by Prothero. The result will be sobering news for many mainstream journalists.

However, the world is what it is.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Philocrites

    Terry, you write: “Meanwhile, one of the core convictions of the leaders of the religious left is their conviction that the various world religions are, in the end, the same and, thus, all equally true.”

    Are you sure? Or are you mistaking a commitment to interfaith dialogue and ecumenical cooperation with a belief of perennial philosophy? If you are sure, I’m convinced you’re wrong.

  • tmatt

    Find the religious left and, soon, you find Universalism and, in many cases, syncretism. There are exceptions, but if you define religious left in DOCTRINAL TERMS — which is how we do things around here at GetReligion — you will almost always find Universalism in the left’s creed.

  • Jerry

    I was struck your reference to the hard cold fact and by these quotes, the first which you did not reproduce:

    Whether the world’s religions are more alike than different-obviously they share both differences and similarities…
    Coming at the problem of religion from the angle of difference rather than similarity is scary. But the world is what it is.

    It’s obvious that many in the world today are focusing on and magnifying the differences between the religions and between different groups within religions. It is therefore a mistake to ignore the differences. It is equally a mistake to ignore the similarities.

    I personally don’t find any “hard, cold facts” in the Sermon on the Mount nor in the Saint Francis Prayer. Nor do I find it scary to acknowledge the differences in dogma and theology between various religions. Those are certainly there and clearly the cause of much misery and suffering in the world today. Personally, I prefer to focus on the similarities which include such ‘soft, warm’ points as:

    The Golden RuleHonor Thy Father and MotherSpeak TruthMore blessed to give than to receiveKingdom of Heaven is withinLove thy neighborAs ye sow, so shall ye reapBlessed are the peacemakersMan does not live by bread aloneMore blessed to give than to receiveFollow the spirit of the scriptures not the letterGod is LoveMan is created in God’s image

    The “soft, warm” small book these were taken from is entitled, not surprisingly, Oneness: Great Principles Shared by All Religions. I’m sure that book is unsatisfying to those focusing on cold, hard facts.

  • Jerry

    Sigh. Sorry about the formatting in my last post. I tried to get the points one per line but that was eaten by your software when I submitted the comment.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “So, combine the insights of Marty with the hard, cold fact stated by Prothero. The result will be sobering news for many mainstream journalists.”

    That would be true if mainstream journalists paid attention to facts that are not in line with their predispositions and assumptions. But few do. Instead of being sobering news for them, it will be background noise that they will ignore.

  • Next Biggest Billygoat

    Actually, I thought that Jerry’s formatting fit his idea quite nicely, sort of one long mushy thought about everyone being kind to each other. While “love thy neighbor” (or some variation of it) is an essential part of the law in all religions, it’s not what defines or distinguishes these faiths. It’s hard to see how a lowest-common-denominator approach to religion honors anyone’s deeply held beliefs.

    Personally, in the spirit of this post, I’d like to see an article about how belief and unbelief aren’t really all that different. Theists and atheists have more in common than they have in difference, don’t they? Similar DNA, often the same tastes in movies and music, etc. The bottom line: what difference does belief make?

    And perhaps that is where, without realizing it, some journalists are coming from. Religious beliefs are a matter of taste – quaint cultural artifacts – interesting holiday traditions. And that’s why they’re puzzled by people who actually get believe these things and sometimes get upset about them.

  • Dan Berger

    Jerry, as I understand it there are a sufficient number of such syncretistic religions running around; Bahai is the one that springs to mind, though Hinduism seems to have the ability to absorb the prophets of other religions.

    On the other hand, nobody is served by ignoring (or papering over) the very real differences between, say, Christianity and Islam.

    To paraphrase the Catholic Catechism, “Truth is one” means that whatever is true comes from God. It doesn’t mean that each religion is the same; the Bahai take would be that all religions contain falsehood to the extent that they stray from Bahai’s universalist, syncretistic principles. Sound familiar?

  • Dennis Colby

    I agree, but I don’t think this is merely a problem for mainstream journalists or people on the religious left. The religious right has witnessed its own version of creeping universalism in the last 30+ years, as the culture wars have pushed together churches which formerly regarded each other with superstition.

    Think of the support many Evangelicals had for the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. It’s unfathomable to imagine believers from similar traditions championing nominations that would lead to five Catholics on the US Supreme Court if the nominations were made 50 years ago. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State started out as Protestants United, remember.

    So on the left, you have a kind of feel-good universalism rooted in the idea that all religions are different ways of expressing the same thing, on the right you have a political universalism which minimalizes doctrinal differences in the name of solidarity on cultural issues. Just as religious leftists urge us to find the similarities in the “Abrahamic religions,” the religious right talks about our “Judeo-Christian traditions,” as if there aren’t sharp and unbreachable differences between Jewish and Christian theology.

    The result of these parallel trends is that people everywhere – in the press and in the pews – are paying less attention to creeds, dogma, and doctrine.

  • Dennis Colby

    In my first graf there, it should read “. . . formerly regarded each other with suspicion.” Freud’s been discredited, so don’t take that “superstition” as anything more than errant keystrokes. . .

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    An interesting bit of content from I’m gonna hope I can format this so you can read it:

    Bahá’í World Faith:
    “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.”

    “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah

    “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself.” Epistle to the Son of the Wolf

    Brahmanism: “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”. Mahabharata, 5:1517 ”


    “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta NIkaya v. 353

    Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18

    bullet “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
    bullet “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31, King James Version.
    bullet “…and don’t do what you hate…”, Gospel of Thomas 6. The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

    bullet “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23

    “Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3

    “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” Mencius VII.A.4

    Ancient Egyptian:

    “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110 Translated by R.B. Parkinson. The original dates to 1970 to 1640 BCE and may be the earliest version ever written. 3


    This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517


    “(5) Humanists acknowledge human interdependence, the need for mutual respect and the kinship of all humanity.”

    “(11) Humanists affirm that individual and social problems can only be resolved by means of human reason, intelligent effort, critical thinking joined with compassion and a spirit of empathy for all living beings. ” 4

    “Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you,

    British Humanist Society. 3

    Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”


    “Therefore, neither does he [a sage] cause violence to others nor does he make others do so.” Acarangasutra 5.101-2.

    “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara

    “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. “Sutrakritanga 1.11.33


    “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18

    “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

    “And what you hate, do not do to any one.” Tobit 4:15 6

    Native American Spirituality:

    “Respect for all life is the foundation.” The Great Law of Peace.

    “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” Black Elk
    bullet “Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong, but yourself.” Pima proverb.

    Roman Pagan Religion: “The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves.”


    “The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form”

    “Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God.” Ko-ji-ki Hachiman Kasuga


    Compassion-mercy and religion are the support of the entire world”. Japji Sahib

    “Don’t create enmity with anyone as God is within everyone.” Guru Arjan Devji 259

    “No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend.” Guru Arjan Dev : AG 1299

    Sufism: “The basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. If you haven’t the will to gladden someone’s heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone’s heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this.” Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order.


    “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien.

    “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.” Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 49

    Unitarian: “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent of all existence of which we are a part.” Unitarian principles.

    Wicca: “An it harm no one, do what thou wilt” (i.e. do what ever you will, as long as it harms nobody, including yourself). One’s will is to be carefully thought out in advance of action. This is called the Wiccan Rede

    Yoruba: (Nigeria): “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”


    “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself”. Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5

    “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29

    None of which denies the enormous differences.

  • Mike

    No “cold hard facts” in the Sermon on the Mount? What about:

    For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.

    You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye…

    …if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you.

    …everyone who hears this words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

    Whether or not you think Jesus was right, let’s not water down his teaching. People who say only “warm soft” things are very rarely executed as political prisoners.

  • jeanie

    I truly enjoyed this article. It’s comforting to know that I’m not an anachronism…and from Newsweek of all places.

  • Carl

    This is a situation where the “reality-based community” is out of its moorings. How you describe the reality of the world ends up (in part) determining how the world really is. If you say, “The various religions are different and will conflict” enough times, then the religions are different and get to feuding and a’ fighting. On the other hand, if you tell members of religion X, “Religion X is a religion of peace,” maybe they’ll buy it and leave the rest of us the hell alone.

    In a related example, it’s a cold, hard fact that in the US, African American males are more likely than a lot of other groups in America to end up in jail. But if you were a parent to a African American boy, would you emphasize that fact to him or would you tell him, “You can become anything if you apply yourself and work hard…”? “Applying yourself and working hard” is definitely wooly-minded and non-factual, but it’s still worth emphasizing that so as to change reality by re-describing it.

    Of course, GR is all about being objective as journalists, but there’s a difference between saying things as means of issue advocacy and “peaceful world advocacy.”

  • Shocked

    Before yammering on and on, please read this and then yammer;

  • Palladio

    The string of quotations is interesting, as much for the differences as for the similarities, however, which have been bruited about for a long time. Taken, as they are, out of context and out of their original languages, it is impossible to make much sense of them. They mean anything, so nothing. If the message is that the world lives ‘religiously’ more alike than not, that is patently false. Besides, the exclusive and violent claims and crimes of Islam are now forcing serious reexamination of the differences between religions which, the old line went, worship the same god. If Islamic countries worship the same god, their societies little resemble those in the West, still nominally Christian, or Judeo-Christian in origin. For example, yesterday’s attempted carnage in London should leave Islam with a lot of explaining to do. It would be easy to extend this scrutiny, for other reasons but to the same end, even to the pre-communist East with its caste systems and xenophobia and unreconstructed racism and chauvinism.

    This string of quotations suits well our multi-cultural mix up, which finds comfort in reassuring half-truths and warm and fuzzy muddles. It could offer lyrics to a Coke commercial sung in a round, with diverse peoples hand in hand and glory clouds in the sun-filled blue sky.

    Follow your conscience, by all means, as your faith directs, but please let’s not confuse and conflate religions the world over.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).”

    Right. Early Christians accepted a “gospel” with passages such as this:
    114 Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

    Those early Christians: what an accepting, tolerant bunch.

    Let’s stick to commenting on how the press reports on religion.

  • Philocrites

    Terry, perhaps your view of the world is so bifurcated that you can’t see this, but I’ll say it again: A religion that doesn’t assert that every other religion is utterly false does not necessarily assert that everything that every other religion teaches is equally true. The alternative to hard and unforgiving orthodoxy is not syncretistic universalism; there are other doctrinal approaches. Pluralism, for example, or a certain degree of humility about the absolutism of the truth one has received.

    Your version of orthodoxy may mean that you think that all other religions are false and without merit, but there are forms of orthodox Christianity that recognize the religious reality and even faithfulness of other religious traditions. (The Pope recognizes the faithfulness and continuing reality of God’s covenant with the Jews. What shocking universalism!)

    I fully respect your right as a partisan of your own dogmatism to misrepresent the doctrinal perspectives of others, but as a journalist it’s inaccurate to say that the theological perspectives of all leaders on the religious left are, fundamentally, nothing more than relativism.

  • Palladio

    I agree with Philocrites–and applaud his nom de plume–and offer some alarming evidence, which surfaced only today, that the left may be far worse than foggy-headed moral relativists.

    If you think the left endorses anything like religious tolerance, let alone universalist thought, take a look at what the Baptists, endorsed by left Democrats (of the Jimmy Carter sort) and preparing the way for Hillary, celebrated yesterday in Washington, but read beyond the quotation I now give from the BJC website: “In May 1920, George W. Truett, a Baptist preacher from Dallas, Texas, climbed the east steps of the U.S. Capitol to address a throng of some 10,000 onlookers. His purpose in addressing the crowd was to rally support for religious liberty and its constitutional corollary, the separation of church and state. Religious, political and educational leaders will celebrate our Baptist heritage by reading excerpts of Truett’s speech. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, William Underwood, Pam Durso, Jeff Haggray, Stan Hastey, Daniel Vestal, Amy Butler, Julie Pennington-Russell, Curt Lucas and Rob Marus are among those scheduled to participate.”

    Truett was a segregationist and a hater of Roman Catholicism: here is one part of the speech they apparently did not read from yesterday:
    “And since I have thus spoken with unreserved frankness, my honored Pedobaptist friends in the audience will allow me to say that Baptists solemnly believe that infant baptism, with its implications, has flooded the world, and floods it now, with untold evils.

    They believe also that it perverts the scriptural symbolism of baptism; that it attempts the impossible tasks of performing an act of religious obedience by proxy, and that since it forestalls the individual initiative of the child, it carries within it the germ of persecution, and lays the predicate for the union of church and state, and that it is a Romish tradition and a corner-stone for the whole system of popery throughout the world.

    I will speak yet another frank word for my beloved Baptist people, to our cherished fellow Christians who are not Baptists, and that word is that our Baptist people believe that if all the Protestant denominations would once for all put away infant baptism, and come to the full acceptance and faithful practice of New Testament baptism, that the unity of all the non-Catholic Christians in the world would be consummated, and that there would not be left one Roman Catholic church on the face of the earth at the expiration of the comparatively short period of another century.”

    There are other parts almost as bad, but may I suggest that the problem of approaching religion as religion is that it fails to recognize what each and every one of its faiths and denominations _does_in the name of the divine. Three terrorist attacks and one hateful speech delivered in two days: the evils visited upon this earth are endured by people from people: let’s keep naming names, being sure who is the evil-doer and who is the victim.

    Anyone for using Mein Kampf at the next church social?

  • Jerry

    Mike, words are tricky things. I should have defined ‘warm/soft’ as bluring distinctions between religions, you know, gasp, shock, universalism/syncretism versus creating hard distinctions between religions. Of course such expressions as “As ye sow, so shall ye reap” are challenges, warnings and promises, and, in that sense, ‘hard’.

    I do find it interesting that by the definitions offered here, the esoteric view of religion is put together with the left. For example, this statement by a Christian mystic would be no doubt labeled as ‘left’:

    I believe in allowing everyone to have their own view of reality from their own personal experience. I only wish to give people access to the methodology for opening oneself to the Holy Spirit that has worked for me. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave to mankind that I consider the most important thing he did. There are other methods in other religions that also bring us to God and I respect all of them.

    And such principles are also present in that “left wing” part of Islam known as Sufism as that notorious lefty Hazrat Inayat Khan demonstrated when he said:

    The Sufi shows his universal brotherhood in his adaptability. Among Christians he is a Christian, among Jews he is a Jew, among Muslims he is a Muslim, among Hindus he is a Hindu;

    In case it’s not obvious to all, I don’t see the differences between esoteric and exoteric views of religion in “left/right” political terms. But I suppose in an era where some psychologists are defining the right as those looking for daddy to run the government and the left as looking for mommy, all sorts of unusual bedfellows are possible.

  • Huw Raphael

    All religions are different. That’s clear to anyone who can read. Stating that difference and being honest about it is *not* the same thing as disproving that all religions are “different paths up the same mountain”.

    What we need to prove is not the difference in paths but in the mountain.

    The Newsweek piece ends

    Our understanding of these battlefields is not advanced by the shibboleth that “all religions are one.”

    And he’s very right… It’s a logical fallacy to say all religions are the same – this is easily disproved by pointing to at least as many doctrinal differences as there are practitioners. One doesn’t need a degree in religion to start to see differences between even Antiochian, Byzantine and Russian Orthodoxy. Needless to say differences get wider as one looks further away – and that despite any similarity one might see between (say) Tridentine Catholicism and Shintoism.

    That doesn’t, however, prove or disprove anything about the one-or-many mountains some want to claim we are all trying to climb.

  • Stephen A.

    I found the Newsweek article refreshing, because for once, the answer in this so-called “news” magazine isn’t “Of course all religions are the same. And they ought to be if they’re not.” The observation that the Left sees religion as “quaint” is on target. The routine and trite denial by some here that the Religious Left really isn’t “left” is boring.

    Prothero’s insight that

    Even Shia and Sunni Islam are in many respects quite distinct—a fact American officials might have learned before things in Iraq went awry if our public schools had not been treating this subject as taboo for generations.

    is an articulate call for an informed, non-doctrinaire religious education in American schools. Heck, even in Journalism Schools.

    I think reporters’ ignorance of religious differences, and failure to understand that a DIFFERENCE isn’t automatically a NEGATIVE, gets in their way of writing factually about religion in general and about some *doctrinaire* and *exclusivist* religions in particular. “But, religions are all the same, right?” is a misconception that I hope the Newsweek article helps clear up – for reporters as well as the Religious Left.

    The “list” by Jeffrey Weiss is precious, and perhaps is a *mild* illustration of the above phenomenon. I submit to you that the Wicca Rede “Do what you will and harm none” (and its various permutations) is far different than what a Muslim or Christian believes in that list of seemingly similar sentiments. There is utter uniqueness in Wicca, Islam, Christianity and other faiths that makes them fundamentally different, and that’s simply an observation of a fact, not a condemnation, nor should differences be written up as a condemnation in ANY news reporting, incidentally.

    I do hope reporters know that they need to write as if they are informed agnostics – so unbiased and well informed about their topics that their readers have no idea how they worship, or even IF they do.

    But back to the list, creating lists like this – a practice that was popular even a century ago among liberal theologians – seems to be a naïve attempt to smash down those differences into an easily-understood, though inaccurate, mediocrity, i.e. the Coke Commercial that was alluded to earlier.

    Frankly, that would be just lazy reporting, not to mention bad theology.

  • Ben

    “Marty noted that one of the most powerful beliefs among journalists is that the number of people who cling to traditional forms of religion will decrease in the years ahead and that the number of people who embrace more liberal forms will increase. This belief that does much to shape their coverage of the news.”

    But this is a pretty easily verified fact. Look at the recent Barna group poll, for example:

    “One of the most fascinating insights from the research is the increasing size of the no-faith segment with each successive generation…When adjusted for age and compared to 15 years ago, each generation has changed surprisingly little over the past decade and a half. Each new generation entered adulthood with a certain degree of secular fervor, which appears to stay relatively constant within that generation over time. This contradicts the popular notion that such generational differences are simply a product of people becoming more faith-oriented as they age.”

    adult Mosaics (current ages 18-22)
    Busters (current ages 23-41)
    Boomers (current ages 42-60)
    Elders (current ages 61+)

    The aM group is 19% atheist and agnostic in 2007.
    Busters were 16% atheist and agnostic in 1992 and are 14% atheist and agnostic in 2007.
    Boomers were 8% a&a in 1992 and 9% a&a in 2007.
    Elders were 4% a&a in 1992 and 6% a&a in 2007.

  • Rathje

    Until journalists learn to embrace the reality of conflict, they will never really understand the various religions.

    I served as a Mormon missionary in “Buddhist” Japan for two years deliberately trying to convert Japanese people away from their religion and toward mine.

    Occasionally, I’d get the stink-eye from various European and American tourists, exchange students, English teachers, etc. They’d sometime even bother to take me to task for having the arrogance to bother these people and “force my beliefs” on them. Why couldn’t I just live-and-let-live.

    The irony was, that I typically found such people to have a very superficial and incomplete knowledge of Japanese culture. Westerners who had lived in Japan for years often had less real understanding of Japanese culture than wet-nosed 18 year old Mormon kids from Idaho who had been in Japan for less than 8 months.

    Here’s the trick:

    The entire time I was a missionary, I hammered my head against that culture. I fought against it on a daily basis. As a result, I had a pretty good idea of what that particular culture was made of. It was a familiar, yet worthy opponent.

    I learned more in two years about the Japanese by confronting them, than most of the other Westerners in Japan are likely to learn about the culture in two decades.

    The thing is, I took the culture very seriously. I’m not sure I can say the same thing for the other Westerners I met in that country.

    You’ll get more mutual understanding from a good old fashioned fight than you will from respectfully ignoring each other.

  • Fr. Greg

    You’ll get more mutual understanding from a good old fashioned fight than you will from respectfully ignoring each other.

    Ah, so maybe I really ought to embark on that mission to Utah I’ve been considering. (Smilies: where are the smilies?)

    Seriously (not that the above isn’t serious), Rathje, you have a point, but there are obviously limits.

    Also, both readers and writers of GetReligion may find the following blog to be of interest:

    Islam and Christianity

  • Str1977

    Jerry and Jeffrey,

    ennumbering the (real or supposed) similarities is not enough to deny the fact that there are also differences.

    Focusing on the similarities is all too often a codeword for ignoring the differences.

    The Sermon on the Mount, for all its importance and beauty, BTW is not the entire teaching of Jesus.

    And the Gospel of Thomas was, contrary to the above, not widely accepted by Early Christians. It is even debated when this book was written. This is all wishful thinking based on a selective reading of religious texts.

  • Str1977


    “if you define religious left in DOCTRINAL TERMS — which is how we do things around here at GetReligion”

    IMHO it would be better not to define it at all but to use a descriptive label. Reft and Light are of limited use in politics already, I don’t see any use of them in terms of theology or religion – unless one wants to portray one side as the baddies (whether these are the left or the right depends on the political geography of the writer).

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  • Deborah

    IMHO it would be better not to define it at all but to use a descriptive label.

    Definitions need not be value judgments. Defining one’s terms is a prerequisite to truly intelligent and useful debate. Refusing to define one’s terms, however, is disingenuous.

  • Str1977


    is that a reply to my point?

    What I argued for is that reft and light and empty words, saying more about the stance of the person using them towards the subject discussed (assuming that one knows whether that persons leans left or right) than about the subject itself.

    I completely agree with what you wrote.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Some of the insights of this post can be empirically proven. The excellent book The Churching of America: 1776 – 2005 by Finke and Stark (there’s an earlier edition that only goes to 1990 as well) that shows how the history of religion in America has been dominated by the idea that America would move towards a more liberal, generalized, “mainline” faith – but that in fact, most people by large margins prefer to join “high tension” conservative religious bodies.

    A key quote:

    Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude. People seek a religion that is capable of miracles and that imparts order and sanity to the human condition. The religious organizations that maximize these aspects of religion, however, also demand the highest price in terms of what the individual must do to qualify for these rewards .

    They even show that the times historians often say Americans were less religious only means Americans were abandoning watered down, liberal mainstream churches for more rigorous, conservative ones.

    Another quote from the book:

    The most striking trend in the history of religion in America is its growth–or what we call the churching of America. The backbone of this book consists of our attempt to explore and explain how and why America shifted from a nation in which most people took no part in organized religion to a nation in which nearly two-thirds of American adults do. …Not all denominations shared in the immense rise in membership rates, and to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper. The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.

  • Mike Bertaut

    #10, I really enjoyed all of the different renditions of the “Golden Rule” that you provided! Very cool, and certainly supports one of my personal Summa statements about the existence of God as Creator of us all….makes it hard to imagine that all of humanity could have come to such a conclusion unless it was PUT THERE. Fascinating.

    But, alas, the Golden Rule is not Christianity. Christianity revolves around the existence, life, death, and resurrection of a single entity, Jesus Christ himself. While their have been other mythos in the past proferring a self-sacrificing God, none have preserved such stunning cultural writing. None have inspired his followers to proclaim His divinity unto death (at least none that we know of). None have endured, and so changed the world as this Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, has.

    So, there are differences. Big, amazing, world-rending differences between the faiths. While PRACTICES may look alike, the raison d’etre of each is often compellingly different.

    My 2 cents…


  • Will

    I have been convinced for some time that the preoccupation with hooraw over labels and symbols is the Lowerarchy’s plan to distract us from the REAL differences.

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