The common practice in modern discourse is to assume that all religions are equal. That is why we see the “Coexist” bumper stickers and why religious discussions are often excluded from public discourse. It is the idea that if all religions are equal, they become private like a person’s sex life, although sex is now acceptable in the public discourse.
But are they all equal? I do not ask this as a kind of rhetorical question in order to promote one over the other. That is not what this post is about. I have sat through countless sermons about how Christianity is better than other religions because of this or that. I’m sure the subject has been beaten to death for many churchgoers and non-Christians alike.
First of all, we must establish what a religion is. It is most certainly not something that is granted special tax exemption status from the government. Simply put, religion is an organized gathering of people to worship some higher power than themselves. In most cases, religion will have a set of rules that constitute the morality of those who follow it. This does not mean, however, that irreligious people are immoral. Or that religious people are moral.
Though I consider agnosticism and atheism to be spiritual beliefs in their own right, they are not organized religions, more like common philosophies. And though they find themselves at odds with religions (mostly Christianity), they are not what we would consider a religion.
When people worship a higher power, they do so in order to connect with something greater than themselves. Whether it is a need for finding salvation, gaining some kind of power or insight, or simply to feel good, most organized religions exist for connecting mankind with the divine.
But what do we mean by equality? In the simplest sense, when people say that all religions are equal, what they mean is that their ultimate purpose is the same, just that each one has a different means of getting there. Wherever that place is.
But right there we see a problem inherent in that declaration. If all religions are equal, then why is that each teaches a different kind of salvation to begin with? Christianity talks of Heaven, as well as Islam, though both religions have very different images of what Heaven is. Buddhism talks of reaching Nirvana, which as far as I can tell, is supreme enlightenment or nothingness. Hinduism appears to be about reincarnation until you reach nothingness at the end. The ancient Greeks believed in merely a miserable existence in Hades.
In some cases, it does not matter what you do in life to a large degree. If you are reincarnated, then screwing up in this life had little to no meaning. Of course, there were incentives that the next life would be better, but in all honesty there was nothing tangible in the current life. As for the ones that do preach a reward in the after-life, they were not always preaching the same thing. For the Wahhabis Muslims, there were the 72 virgins while Christianity preaches a less sexual and more transcendent experience in Heaven.
In none of these cases can we say that they are equal because they offer different outcomes for different actions you take. They are not the same and thus, cannot be equal. Equality would mean that at the very least, the end result would be the same. But it is clear that religions do not agree on what happens in the after-life or even on what the ultimate purpose of their beliefs are.
It seems to me that people who declare all religions are equal are in fact ignorant of what both religion is and what equality is. Usually such people do so in an intellectually dishonest manner in order to further promote their misguided beliefs.
If you are going to deal with religious diversity, you have to first acknowledge that the diversity of religion does not mean separate but equal.