Among those who first began to suggest that religions were ‘pretty much the same’ were the critics of religion, those who thought humanity would be better off without it. Today, many religious folks themselves advance this perspective, not to put an end to religion, of course, but to see the great divisions and rancor among religions, which has been the source of so much human anguish, diminished and perhaps eliminated.
One of the ways we can begin to assess the validity of this claim is to compare the teachings of our four sages. Comparing religious teachers is not the same thing as comparing religions, which are far more complex realities than the philosophies of individuals. As I emphasized earlier, we cannot simply equate the teachings of Confucius with Confucianism or the teachings of Jesus with Christianity. But it is much easier to compare specific teachings than to compare whole religions and doing so might offer some insight on the problems facing a religiously plural world. So let us turn now to reviewing the perspectives of our sages in relationship to each other. I think it will be apparent that the four teachers did in fact view the world in ways different from one another, and in many cases these differences were substantial. Nonetheless, in some important areas, particularly on matters of spiritual and ethical practice, they are not that far apart.
From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea, and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system, or thought it to be a strange affair; I scarcely knew which it was: but I well remember, when about seven or eight years of age, hearing a sermon read by a relation of mine, who was a great devotee of the church, upon the subject of what is called Redemption by the death of the Son of God. After the sermon was ended, I went into the garden, and as I was going down the garden steps (for I perfectly recollect the spot) I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard, and thought to myself that it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man, that killed his son, when he could not revenge himself any other way; and as I was sure a man would be hanged that did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons. This was not one of those kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection, arising from the idea I had that God was too good to do such an action, and also too almighty to be under any necessity of doing it. I believe in the same manner to this moment; and I moreover believe, that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system. (Thomas Paine)