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God Squad: Stressing similarities in all religions

I'm a physician who frequently gets into religious discussions with my patients. I tell them I think religion is a set of beliefs and a ritual structure used by individuals or groups of individuals to communicate with God. I believe that religion is the language people use to speak to God and the language God uses to speak back to people. If a person truly believes in an almighty God, he or she must accept that such a God is almighty enough to understand all languages and therefore receptive to all people of good heart, no matter what religion they use to communicate with God. Therefore, I believe we must validate and accept everyone's religion. Mine is the right one for me, but I have to accept that yours is the right one for you. Finally, I take the position that anyone who doesn't accept this line of reasoning doesn't truly believe in an almighty God and is simply using religion to hide their atheism!

- A., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., via e-mail


Well, A., let me respectfully urge you to stick to doctoring and leave theology to theologians.

I'm impressed that you're motivated to think about big questions. When I go to see my doctor, we mainly talk about golf and my prostate. Your patients are lucky, but let me encourage you to reconsider some of your positions.

First off, the fact that God understands all languages doesn't mean that all religions are equally true. It could just mean that God understands the languages they use to say false things. I've often used the metaphor that the many religions of the world are like many paths up the same mountain. Proponents all reach the top, even though they take different routes. This is your point, but it's not exactly mine, and it is not true.

What I believe, and what reason confirms, is that there is a central core of ethical beliefs necessary for the thriving of human beings and their cultures. These are rationally verifiable ethical norms, and they are accessible to people of faith as well as atheists.

For example, the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you appears in many religions and many secular ethical theories. Any religion, or secular ethical theory, that incorporates such basic rational ethical elements is true; it's a valid, trusted way up the mountain to the ultimate human flourishing, whether that flourishing is described as salvation, release from reincarnation, enlightenment, moral virtue or eternal life in the World to Come. Such religions are all true because goodness is true, and goodness is not a mere parochial teaching. Goodness is a rational human virtue that's also at the core of every true faith.

Are some of these true religions and philosophies truer than others? Yes, but the differences between them matter less than their overwhelming similarities. I honor them all, as should you and your patients who come to you for pills and prophecy.

One way I try to honor other true faiths is to be very careful which texts from Scripture I quote. There are unifying texts and divisive texts in every canon. It seems to me that for the sake of unity, we should self-edit our quotations from Scripture so as to increase our harmony, support our common efforts to mend our broken world and generally improve the image of religion for those who see it only as a divisive force.

For example, think of the Christian text from 2 Peter 1:5-7: "For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love." What you have missed, I fear, is the important distinction between all the generally true religions and the religions that are not true at all. There are indeed religions (and secular philosophies like communism) that don't send anyone up any mountain. These religions teach hatred and exclusion, bigotry and torture, oppression and racism. To treat them with equal respect just because someone calls them a "religion" is ridiculous and demeans the true religions, which teach compassion and respecting the truth.

There are false faiths and brutal, inhuman political philosophies, and we must say so loudly and clearly. Also, a true faith can be perverted by evil people who teach evil in the name of God. The way all this will get sorted out is in God's hands, not ours.

Our only concern ought to be to live a life of goodness and humility in which the best arguments for our faith don't come from a sacred text but from the overflowing love of our grateful and blessed souls.

Tell your patients to take two good deeds and call you in the morning.

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