Forget the map. Shut up and drive.
I heard this today: All paths lead up the same mountain, so it doesn’t matter which one you take. Our time is better spent climbing, rather than circling the base telling everyone else they’re on the wrong path.
There were knowing chuckles of approval as this familiar trope hit home. Oprah likes it and Bush has expressed versions of it in interviews. The hope is that, while religions and people are flawed, we share a common yearning for the transcendent. The real, Almighty God is not a Christian, a Muslim or anything else. He is God (whatever that means) and rewards all who honestly seek Him.
This is an idea that offers hope in a world riven by religious differences. If we can’t find common ground, our prospects for peace aren’t good. It reminds us that, despite our conflicting creeds, we’re all really of one mind and one purpose, to find and follow the one, true God. For this idea to heal us, though, it really has to be true. There is too much at stake for us to accept a false comfort based on a false unity. So let’s unpack it and see if it holds up.
I’m as socially liberal as they come, but I’m intellectually conservative. This makes me reluctant to invoke supernaturalism as an explanation for anything. To a methodical, reserved thinker, supernaturalism is an extravagant leap that creates more problems than it solves. But I recognize that most people go to supernaturalism easily. It fits well with their values and psychology to say “God did it” or “God loves me” and things like that. I consider such statements to be gigantically overreaching, going way beyond what we can honestly claim to know. So, this idea excludes about a billion nonbelievers who are climbing another mountain, or none at all.
But for those who do believe in God, this metaphor is attractive, so let’s walk a little further. Anyone who has ever hiked knows that all paths don’t lead to the top, and those that do aren’t equivalent. All of us make judgments about which path to take and we know there are right and wrong answers. This is uncontroversial. If we are new to an area, we often consult a map and we are grateful if there is someone on the trail to tell us we’re going the wrong way. It is only in religion that we like to say that all paths lead to the top.
We do this, of course, because we value avoiding conflict more than just about anything else. If someone is taking the long way, who am I to accost him and tell him there’s a better way? I might offend him or he might get angry. Why risk it? If he asks, I might tell him which way I think is best, but I’ll be careful not to insinuate that I know more than he does.
Next, this idea won’t be palatable to fundamentalists or conservative believers at all. To them, there are core beliefs that make their religion what it is. If all paths lead to the top, this means that they converge and that there is very little room up there. As we climb, our fellow travelers come into view around us. We can see the beliefs they are carrying. To make room, we all have to discard chunks of creed and dogma as we approach the top. If one person thinks God is simply Nature, and another believes He is Yahweh, they can’t both be right. In the logical space near the top, there is not room for both beliefs. To converge and inhabit the same locale, both hikers have to jettison baggage. The Yahweh guy might have to give up intervening in human affairs, and the Nature guy has to add some sentience or something to move closer to the Yahweh-picture. As with many compromises, both views get hollowed out, no one wins and the resulting God is something no one envisioned.
Our idea might even survive all this, but now we begin to see more consequences of this approach. If all paths lead up the same mountain, then none of the world’s religions have it right. The One, True God has to be something that is in some way compatible with each of them, but doesn’t exclude any of them. If you’ve ever tried to schedule a meeting for even 4 people, you know how hard this is. And it’s sure to exclude nonbelievers and the fundamentalists of all religions. Only the most liberal, flexible and undoctrinal people will be able to ascend to such airy heights. And their accomplishment is going to be equally vacuous. The only “God” who can survive such treatment is an empty one, a null god which offends no one. He probably would have to have no traits at all, since even a trait like “Love” would cause some people to defect, since his grace doesn’t seem to be equally distributed. We have embraced Him out of existence. Death by committee.
I am passionate about learning how to live together and build the good life for as many of our human family as possible. But comforting reassurances like this one don’t help. They tell us there is no problem when there is one. Some religious diversity can be embraced, but it can not all be reconciled without eviscerating each tradition, and this is not the kind of reconciliation anyone wants. As a nonbeliever, perhaps I should be content with people holding such neutered beliefs. They are certainly preferable to noxious fundamentalism. So, I’ll say ok, perhaps. As long as faith remains subordinate to humanistic values. What could enforce that stricture? We already have something and it works very well: social pressure. No one believes the Earth is flat anymore. There’s no law against it, it’s simply so marginalized that education is all it takes to correct this belief. Faith healing, female genital mutilation and discrimination against homosexuals should get the same treatment.
It is natural to be optimistic and I applaud the peacemakers among us. But our ecumenical efforts have to be grounded and realistic. We liberals are rightly accused of being naïve and glossing over difficult issues. No adult wants that kind of treatment from her doctor; we don’t want comfort, we want the facts. Likewise, we can’t reduce the fever of our religious conflicts with palliatives. We have to face the fact that, as long as we demand the freedom to believe whatever we want, unconstrained by natural, scientific bases, then others will exercise it, too. And with it, they can justify behaving in ways that don’t help us live together. Religious belief is sanctifying but indiscriminate. It needs humanistic constraints to avoid malignancy.
The faith mechanism divides us into the fractured world we see around us. Our beliefs may be harmless, but endorsing faith itself provides sanction for honor killing, oppression of women, etc. The believers who practice those things are guiltless within their faith. This should bother us. There should be no religious justification for abridging the rights of others, but there it is. What shall we do, then? Give up faith? The social contract requires that we give up many liberties to live together. The result is a better life for everyone. It is not enough that our own beliefs be peaceful. The method we use to reach them must be peaceful, too. We now have abundant data on the fruits of faith. The results are often peaceful, but the loopholes are large. If we love our faith, we can not condemn another’s. Yet, this is exactly what we have to do when faith tells people to harm others.
Are we to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Is there a way to keep just the good kind of faith? Yes and no. We have been doing this in recent history, as plain old tribal values have pruned the more brutal practices from our faith traditions. But then, we have to ask, where do we get our values? If our natural values are actually curtailing our religious ones, then our values aren’t coming from our faith. We had them all along, and when the political climate made it safe to resist inhumane religious practices, we did so. At some point, many of us realized that the good in religion can survive without faith, and the bad in religion can not.