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I have read, a highly revered mystic and ascetic of Hinduism -- Lord Ramakrishna, the Guru of Swami Vivekananda, had a worldview that every religion is true and every religion eventually leads to God. They differ in practices and methods, but they ultimately lead to the same goal.

My question is, does the above worldview factually true? I have interacted with Muslim friends who says the way the above mentioned ascetic practised countless number of religions including Islam isn't simply acceptable to Islam because once somebody takes Islam they cannot literally continue any form of idolatry or polytheism any more. If the ascetic deviates even a trace from the Islamic commandments or literature, then he is no more practising Islam.

Similarly, Buddhism does not believe in god. It looks for Nirvana, that is total annihilation of the soul. (Please correct me if my understanding is wrong.)

Although religions superficially gives similar advise like don't tell lie, don't steal others' stuff etc, the philosophical principles or worldviews practised by them are drastically different.

So my question is; if there is really any unifying principle between all religions or they are fundamentally different?

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If Google is correct and there are roughly 10,000 distinct religions worldwide, it makes sense to be very wary of any answers which profess to know what 'all religions' say.

It would also make sense to be wary of any 'syncristic' religions which claim to have unified the incredibly diverse and frequently mutually contradictory tenets of such a large number of religions.

It is possible if not likely that syncretists underestimate or ignore the number of extant religions. A casual online enquiry into 'strange' or 'unusual' religions will likely quickly demonstrate that at least two religions make mutually contradictory claims.

For one example of this, see Contradictory Religions Can't All Be True.

Bear in mind that anyone sufficiently dedicated could interpret all religions in a unifying way, because interpretation allows for metaphor and symbolism, which means anything can be claimed to mean almost anything else, but it's doubtful such interpretation is what Ramakrishna aspired to. If it was, then his claim was probably more an act of amalgamative creation than of any credible unificatory insight.

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  • I question the logic of this answer. It's an error to equate 'knowing what all religions say' with 'knowing what all religions lead to'. it's a bit like saying that "There are countless roads that lead to Boston and no one can travel them all, therefore Boston cannot exist." Note that I'm not saying Boston does exist; I'm saying that the 'too many roads'' argument is fallacious. Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 15:55
  • @TedWrigley. I'm not sure I've understood you properly here, Ted. Are you saying that you can know what all religions lead to without knowing all of the claims made by all the various religions? What if one of the claims you don't know directly contradicts what you had previously learned/assumed? Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:08
  • I'm saying that religions necessarily aim to satisfy some basic human (social/psychological/spiritual) need. As such they necessarily have common goals, principles, and orientations. To extend my analogy, a lot of roads say they lead to Boston. Some have potholes, some have impassable obstructions, some take you the wrong way and leave you in Chicago. But the idea (the principle) is to get to Boston. Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:42
  • If that need is a common one between all 10,000 religions, what do you think it might be? I'm making assumptions now, but I'm guessing some religions aim at enlightenment, some at forgiveness/atonement, others at pleasure, others at meeting aliens, others at rebirth (second attempts at life), others at recognition of Satan as lord.... I'm unsure what such a unifying need could possibly be. Maybe something very general like 'self-improvement/advancement'? Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:46
  • Soterioogy: The need for salvation. As Hobbes put it, human life has a tendency to be nasty, brutish, and short. The problem (to put it mildly) is that we humans are smart enough to realize it doesn't have to be that way; to see that life could be long, gentle, generous, beautiful, kind, etc. Every religion (in its own idiosyncratic way) is going to want to say: "Here's how you make that happen." Some approaches will be immature and angsty; some will be intelligent and sophisticated, but still... Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:57
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No, it is not true that all religions can be summarized as a single principle. What principle would that be?

Belief in an afterlife or immortality of the soul

There are religions that have no such belief. For example, Judaism had no belief in such a thing until ca. 200 BCE.

Belief in a deity or deities

Many Buddhists are atheists.

Universal moral values

It would be very challenging to find any moral values that are universal across all religions. It's interesting to note how restricted the Judeo-Christian ten commandments are. There is no commandment not to lie, only a commandment not to bear false witness. Although there is a commandment not to kill, other passages in the Hebrew scriptures show that this is context-dependent. Killing is not just allowed but commanded by God. See Psalm 137:1-4, Hosea 13:16, Numbers 31:17-18, Deuteronomy 20-21, and Esther 8:11, 9:16. God sometimes says it's correct behavior to commit rape, murder, and feticide.

If someone claims that all religions can be summarized in a single principle, then there are in fact insuperable methodological obstacles to verifying or falsifying the claim. One problem is that if anyone proposes what the principle is, then I can always start some new religion that asserts the opposite. One could require that the religion be popular or traditional, but then we get absurdities such as saying that early Christianity wasn't a religion. A equally bad problem is that the principle can be made so vague and generalized that it becomes meaningless. For example, the answer by SonOfThought proposes that "Seeking of the Truth, happiness or liberation is seen as an aim in all religions." The trouble here is that this is so vague and broad that we lose the distinction between religion and things that aren't religion. Seeking happiness is more like an evolutionary fact about our brains. Atheists seek happiness. People who deny the supernatural seek happiness.

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    This is realky helpful answer
    – user63180
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 14:10
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Do all religions summarize into the same principle?

There are probably several unifying ideas that are common to all religions. Let me offer one: No one ever dies, really.

By this statement I mean that human consciousness survives death. Even after the end of physical life, something that is essentially You will be active somewhere in the great beyond.

Details differ. Some religions posit a heaven and a hell; and the content of those two places varies widely. In Buddhism it seems that the soul parks for a while in a rather neutral environment while waiting for reincarnation, which might happen immediately after physical death. But wherever you go, you will be conscious of what is happening.

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Let me tell you a rather famous joke that was voted best religious joke. Its author is Emo Philips.

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

"Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

The joke is funny because of the dissonance between two fundamental truths about religion:

  1. The adherents of a specific faith are very aware of how their faith differs from other faiths. This is one reason why their specific flavor continues to exist: If its faithful didn't pay careful attention to the specifics of their faith, it would have stopped being different a long time ago. (This is a bit of a self fulfilling principle akin to the anthropic principle.) This always reminds me of the various flavors of the radical left in Europe in the 1970s, Maoists vs. Trotzkists vs. Leninists. it was no coincidence that they were called "sects".
  2. From an outside perspective though, the various flavors of a given religion seem very similar. For somebody believing in a world where plants, animals and objects are animated and the ancestor's spirits roam the land, the differences between Protestants and Catholics, and indeed Christians and Muslims, must seem insignificant. An atheist like me finds a lot of similarities even between wildly different religions. Again, this is very similar to the flavors of the radical left in the 1970s: Nobody who wasn't one of them understood their differences, and consequently almost nobody understood why on Earth they fought each other instead of forming a united front against their common enemy. This incongruence has been made immortal by Monty Python.

This is the fundamental framework in which contradictory statements like "all religions lead to god" and "there is only one true religion: Ours" are possible.

But what is really true now? This is, unfortunately, one of the hardest questions you can ask a philosopher ;-).

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    "all religions lead to god" and "there is only one true religion: Ours" are not strictly speaking contradictory, because it can be true that other religions are not entirely true, but are true enough to lead to God (as in God may recognise one's attempt to find him and live a good life, even if you picked the wrong religion). The problem is with how different the moral principles for each of them are (and I'd probably go in the opposite direction as the answer, and say that even just Christianity arguably has too wide a range of beliefs to reasonably fit under the same umbrella).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 15:56
  • @NotThatGuy Well, the "only one true religion" statement was meant to imply that everybody else goes to hell. Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:02
  • One true physics doesn't mean all the non believers float off into space.
    – yters
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 19:38
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To say that all religions lead to the same god would be to make a claim about what the "true" god is like and what leads to them. This isn't really all that different from the claims made by any given religion.

In a lot of cases, what some people believe necessarily contradicts what others (even others of the same religion) believe. If what those people believe about God is true, that arguably necessitates God not accepting those believing contradictory things.

Some denominations are e.g. fully accepting of certain groups of people, while other denominations (across different religions, and within the same religion) would have people in those groups put to death. It seems unlikely that such contrasting things would both be compatible with the same god.

So no, we don't really have much better reason to say all religions lead to God as we have to say that any given religion is the one true religion. In fact, this seems less plausible than the claims made by many religions. That's at least if you stick to all religions; if you go with many or some religions instead, you might have a more plausible claim, but that's still not something we have good reason to be all that confident about.


One might look at the moral principles taught by any two religions, see how much of an overlap there is and thus how likely those religions are to lead to the same god.

But this involves some assumptions about what's important to that god. Christianity, for example, tends to teach that accepting Jesus as your saviour is the only way to be saved. If this were true, another religion could match it 100% on moral principles and that religion would still not lead you to God. If the other religion were true, then they may in fact both lead you to God.

And even if you just stick to different denominations within one religion (e.g. Christianity), you'd probably be able to write a book (or a few books) on the topic of how similar or different they are and what that means.

Also, and crucially, religions being similar wouldn't tell you much about whether they're true.

One should probably stick to evaluating the truth of each religion on its own merits.

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Let me preface this by saying that not all religions posit an overt 'God' in the Abrahamic sense. Ramakrishna himself and Vedanta as a whole use the term 'God' to point to an abstract and abstruse principle of the universe: a 'being-ness' more than a 'being', if that makes sense.

That aside, this idea is essentially the Perennial Philosophy developed mainly in the Transcendentalist community. Philosophically, it developed out of the need to address multiculturalism and the plurality of religions without resorting to zealotry, bigotry, hatred, and ultimately war. Religion carries the hope of salvation for vast numbers of people; a multiplicity of faiths creates an existential threat because it calls each religion (and thus each hope of salvation) into question. The idea that all religions lead to and encapsulate the same (albeit vague and inscrutable) principles eases that existential threat.

Note that I haven't discussed whether the perennial philosophy idea is true, though I happen to believe it is (for reasons far too complex to get into here). I'm merely suggesting it is necessary. The alternative is desperate bloodshed on an unconscionable scale.

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  • 'Necessary' as in, 'desirable' though, right? The fact that something might be beneficial says nothing about whether or not it exists. The bloodshed on an unconscionable scale is already occurring. Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:20
  • +1 for mentioning perennial philosophy to which my answer hinted at as an example
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:29
  • Why is it necessary? There is the possibility some, or even all, religions have incorrect principles, and there can be tolerance between the religions (and non religious) as that gets sorted out. Tolerance of potentially incorrect ideas is the essential philosophy to prevent bloodshed, not the philosophy of saying everyone is right. No one is going to believe the latter. Most people see the value of the former.
    – yters
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 19:34
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    @yters: While I'm a fan of tolerance, tolerance is (itself) insufficient. Soteriology (in its less mature forms) presents itself as a need: a question of (eternal) survival. It's extremely difficult to be 'tolerant' of something that is perceived as an existential threat. What's called for is an overarching unifying principle, so that differences appear as preferences, not needs. That allows tolerance to function. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 16:07
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Many people see the obvious overwhelming differences between religions and take that as fact. Of course if you want to see difference you can find as much you please and more!

Your question clearly expresses the wish to go in the opposite direction. Post the twentieth century there are three broad streams that are helpful in this direction: (a) The Perennial Philosophy (b) Open minded empirical study, most famous in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (c) Jungian Archetypes. For this answer let me focus on (c)

Jung explained 'archetype' as 'ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious'. Eg Wikipedia explains that Atticus Finch in the film to Kill a Mockingbird is named the greatest movie hero of all time because he fulfills three archetypes: (a) father (b) hero (c) idealist

Freud and Jung disagreed on many fundamental topics yet when Freud taps into the ancient myth of Oedipus to explain repeating patterns in current being-practiced psychology he is — maybe involuntarily — accessing an archetype. Further, when one tries to find the same pattern in different religions/times/cultures one finds this father-son clash a repeating theme:

  • The Greek god Chronus castrates his father Uranus on the advice of his mother
  • The Indian astrological deity Saturn eclipses his father the Sun from the moment of his birth, setting up a perennial father-son conflict
  • The Judaic Isaac wishing to bless son Esau is deceived by his wife Rebecca to bless Jacob instead

Passing on to deeper/higher spiritual cases we can compare the birth of Jesus and Krishna.

[According to Christians] Jesus' birth is foretold and fated, the evil king Herod is so terrified of the force of good that he tries to kill him and to make sure he kills all babies he can lay his hands on. Jesus is saved because his parents run away like refugees

[According to Hindus] Devaki's eighth child is fated to kill the evil king Kamsa. Kamsa is so terrifed of the fate that he personally kills all Devaki's earlier children. But the eighth — Krishna — is saved because his father Vasudev sneaks out of the prison, where the jailers mysteriously fall asleep. When Kamsa discovers that Krishna has escaped he's enraged and starts killing all infants.

I take care to say "According to Hindus/Christians" because the factual details of these stories is no more relevant than the factuality of Oedipus. That these stories give profound meaning to Hindus and Christians and their striking similarity is the point to be noted.

In Mark Andrews' answer above he talks about the commonality of not dying at death being a repeating theme. This is of course correct yet so bland that it tends to obscure the power and the commonality of all (major) religions. These death-stories give an enlivening color that makes religion no less philosophical but more gripping than (plain) philosophy. So some examples:

  • Hindu: Shiva drinks the terrible poison that is about the annihilate the world. The poison is so terrible that even Shiva could perish with it. But by his yoga-power he holds it in his throat. His throat however gets burnt and he becomes "The blue throated one -- Nilakantha"
  • Jesus dies on the cross to save humanity. That he will resurrect is certainly not known by his closest followers. But for the story to make sense it could not even be known to him. However that he does resurrect means that — at least given some pre-conditions — death is conquer-able. This delineates the ultimate goal of the Christian: to do what it takes to not die.
  • The story of Nachiketas having a chat with the god of death — across a cuppa coffee! — is more allegorical than mythological and is an important cornerstone in the philosophy of the Upanishads
  • Buddha, when he finally leaves his father's palace has four sights. The first three are (1) an old man (2) a sick man (3) a dead body. The last leaves him completely shaken until he sees the fourth — a sanyasi who's renounced the world. He gets the answer to his anguish. He too must renounce the world and inquire what/why all this. In short the first three, culminating in death are the problem, the religious mode is the solution.
    Note: That the solution he found becomes a religion named after him is after-the-fact, after-his-death. As a mode the meaning is clear enough: Do what Buddha did.

So in summary if you look for differences and divisions you'll find them. If you look with the eye to finding commonality you can detect the outline of universal archetypes.

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  • Nice answer, but the archetypal similarities you produce are not global. There are some similarities between Krishna and Jesus and different similarities between Saturn and Chronus and so on.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 18:31
  • Similarities in stories is not what archetypes are. Archetypes are meta stories, purportedly to be broadly addressed in all human cultures, thereby showing there is something unifying in all human experience. Religions contain archetypes in their stories? Sure. Religions necessarily contain archetypal stories, and in this way they are the same? No, they don't.
    – user10479
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 0:31
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If there is really any unifying principle between all religions or they are fundamentally different?

Realisation of the Truth, achieving happiness or liberation is seen as an aim in all religions. And if all religions could assert with absolute confidence that this could be achieved through those religions, there would be no fundamental differences.

I believe that Ramakrishna was able to say that because he was able to find the basis first (the omnipresent object). As non-dualism asserts (as the ultimate truth in everybody's case) he also must have realised that it is none other than himself who is everywhere. Then it is not difficult for such a person (who wiped away all the dirt in the mind to find the basis) to embrace all religions or to become non-religious. You may have heard that even his gurus were amazed at his sincerity in attaining the goal. Even while practising other religions he was not able to give up the innate serenity and purity of his mind. Even though his words might seem superficially irrelevant, those who sincerely seek the truth will realise that those words are true.

I believe his words are about the ultimate goal; not about narrow religious practices. The people you interacted with were only followers of those religions; not the founders of those religions. Since they have not yet achieved their goal you could ignore their words.

One who does not have the heart to receive goodness (regardless of religion) can be sure to still need purification if realisation of the Truth, achieving happiness or liberation (before or after death) is the aim of all religions. If overcoming suffering (from something) were not a common issue in all religions no religion would have been originated.

So all religions believe the principle that sufferings can be eliminated by some practices.

One who found the basis can realise all the plays happening within it; Ramakrisha was that. He realised what these play are for. This is the summary of my explanation.

PS:

About your friends' strong beliefs:

You can explore what the ultimate goal of idolatry or polytheism is. And ask yourself if idols and countless gods are really the ultimate goal according to the people who follows/worships them.

Why can't you think that his target may be the 'remnant' left after the 'annihilation of the soul' :) ?

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One unifying principle that all religions agree on: "there is a religion"

Even a religion based on the anti-principle "there is no religion" is itself a contradiction to that anti-principle, so substantiates the original principle.

They may all differ on their definition of what the religion is, but they all agree on the existence of a religion.

Therefore, insofar as any religion exists, it is an affirmation of the principle that "there is a religion", and consequently all religions agree on that principle merely by existing.

So, Ramakrishna is at least correct in that regard.

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    Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But, a slow clock might be right way less often.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 20:50
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    +1 Nice thinking. You could go farther and say they all believe there is at least one true/correct religion. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 5:59
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So my question is; if there is really any unifying principle between all religions or they are fundamentally different?

Max Weber describes characteristics religions embody relative in their meaning to the individual [Sociology of Religion]. To say there is a unifying principle would be a stretch. To say there are shared characteristics between various religions would be true.

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