It’s quite popular today to claim that all religious paths lead to the same destination – that when Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others pray to their god(s), they’re actually praying to the same god(s).
I once heard it put like this: imagine a scenario where there are three blind men touching an elephant. They are each asked to answer the question, “What is the elephant like?”. The first blind man, holding the elephant’s leg, says, “The elephant is like the trunk of a big tree”. The second blind man passionately disagrees; grabbing the elephant’s trunk, he exclaims, “No, you’re wrong. The elephant is like a snake”. The third blind man, touching the elephant’s side, retorts, “No, you’re both idiots; the elephant is like a wall”.
The point to note here is that each blind man thinks he is right and that the others are wrong, even though all three of them are touching the same elephant and all three are in fact right. And so it is argued that, in a similar way, all the world religions are in contact with different parts of the same ultimate reality – that we’re just touching different parts of the same “elephant”.
The story is appealing, even compelling, but it has one critical and fatal flaw: circular reasoning. How do we know that the blind men are all describing the same elephant? Only because the story assumes it. Though the pluralists present this as the conclusion, it really is the starting assumption. What if the first blind man answered, “Like a big tree”, while actually holding onto an oak tree? What if the second blind man said, “Like a snake”, because he was actually clinging to a fire hose? And what if the third blind man replied, “Like a wall”, because he was actually touching the side of a building?
As I see it, the different religions of the world are not touching the same “elephant” at all. Why? Because each religious tradition makes truth claims which contradict the truth claims of their counterparts. For example, when Christians claim that each person lives once and then faces the judgement and Hindus claim that each person lives many lives determined by the law of karma, two very contradictory notions are being asserted. We cannot possibly be touching the same “elephant”!
The principle of non-contradiction states that two contradictory assertions (“x” and “not x”) cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time; either one of them is true or both of them are false. So, within the context of the grand claims of religion, if two religions make truth claims which contradict one another, they cannot both be right; either one of them will be right and one of them will be wrong – or they are both wrong. For example, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then at the very least Muhammad cannot be a true prophet of God as he denied this central Christian truth. Conversely, if Muhammad is a true prophet of God, then at the very least Jesus Christ cannot be the Son of God.
Think about it: the various religions differ on key questions such as where we go when we die and how we even get there in the first place. They also differ on the most fundamental of questions about the nature of God: Hinduism, for example, says everything is God; Buddhism, in its purest form, says that nothing is God; Christianity and Islam say that there is only one God but Islam calls him Allah and the Bible calls him Jesus – and the latter has very different characteristics to the Allah of the Quran. These are not just examples of minor differences; they are mutually exclusive depictions – contradictions of the highest order – that cannot possibly be descriptive of the same God.
I appreciate that the pluralistic view of religion is politically pleasing; if we were to agree that all religious paths converge at the top of the same mountain, perhaps there would even be less religious bigotry in our world – or so the argument goes. But ultimately this way of thinking defies one of the most basic laws of logic: the law of non-contradiction. All paths cannot possibly lead to the same destination; we are not touching the same “elephant” and so we need to disembark the “all ideas are equally true” multi-faith bandwagon! And this means that, when it comes to the question of which religion or no religion, each of us must make an informed choice that will have significant consequences, both in this life and even in the life to come too.
By Dominic De Souza