I am a Christian. I judge but I try not to be judgmental (Matthew 7:1-6). I am a Muslim. I try to keep my promises, and be fair towards others (Qur’an 17:34-35). I am a Hindu. I try to speak and act truthfully (Mahabharata, Book 12, Section CCLIX). I am a Buddhist. I try to nurture compassion for all living things (Sutta Nipata 143-152). I am also an atheist. But that I think is at most of secondary importance.
The great Sufi poet and philosopher, Rumi, once wrote about the religions of the world, “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.” He calls on us to focus our attention on the commonalities between different religions, which are profound and important – rather than the differences. Rumi’s call is as timely now as it was in the thirteenth century when he penned it. Too many wars and conflicts, much misery and pain, and a great deal of personal tragedy have resulted from disagreements about religion. If you need an example, just open today’s newspaper, or yesterday’s, or that of the day before… Immersed in petty quarrels about details, we often lose sight of the things all great religious traditions have in common. Their inner truth and essence, if there is any, is love for all of creation, and that is a value all people of good will, whether they identify with any particular religion or not, can equally subscribe to.
Unconditional love precludes discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, or national origin, and demands that we transcend ourselves and show genuine concern for the suffering or misfortune of others, regardless of who they are. That is the moral imperative at the core of all religion, and hence constitutes a universal ideal, which has the historically-proven power to transform not only individual lives but whole societies. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi lived that ideal, as well as they could, and they put it into practice. They came from very different backgrounds, one firmly rooted in the Abrahamic and one in the Indian tradition, but had arguably more in common than any one of them had with many of their fellow Christians and Hindus, respectively. If we listen, our personal experience too tells us that the good (or god, if you will), as well as the ugly, can be found in Christians and Muslims, just as it can be found in Hindus and Buddhists, and people without religious belief.
We inherently know that each one of us is only a very small part of a larger scheme of things, yet our bursting egos refuse to embrace or accept that fact. We fear insignificance, and we try to get over that fear by tying ourselves to something bigger. It is this quest for meaning and belonging that partly explains the prominence of religion in human life. Religion responds to the very basic need for significance and acceptance that all humans share, and gives us direction and purpose. All too often, however, people cling to rigid and uncharitable interpretations of their traditions, and the direction and purpose offered by religion is perceived as narrow and exclusive. We get absorbed in small-minded debates about sexuality, marriage, drinking, or clothing, and act and speak, as if our belonging depended on whether we hold the truth on these issues, and must be defended against others who subscribe to different belief systems. In doing so, we often miss the bigger picture. Likely, no religious or philosophical tradition has all the answers. Nobody has a monopoly on truth. We can be confident, however, that a good Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, or simply a good person for that matter, is first and foremost one who is respectful of others, kind, compassionate, honest, and fair. While different religions, which originated at different times and places, unsurprisingly have moral codes that differ in their specifics and at times conflict with each other, that should not distract us from the crucial fact that these codes are all based on the same fundamental values, mentioned above, which also have a central place in the worldview of an overwhelming majority of non-theists.
It is easy to identify faults in others and condemn their ways and practices, and we have proven time and again that we are good at it. Defining ourselves not in contrast to others, but in terms of what unites us, is hard and takes courage. What we often fail to realize as people of a particular religion or worldview is that we have one thing in common – belief, which helps us through our lives, and guides our actions. Our paths might be different, just as each one of us is different physically, emotionally, and mentally, but we are here together, and must learn not only to coexist, but to cooperate, and to understand our diversity as a strength rather than a deficiency. There is so much we can learn from each other, if we are humble and open, from each other’s scriptures and intellectual traditions, and so much good we can achieve if we are willing to join hands, across superficial religious and ideological lines. It is okay to disagree, but we should also be able to put our disagreements aside, and translate what we agree on into action, make sure, together, that every child in this world gets a decent education, everybody has enough to eat and a warm and safe place to sleep, nobody is wrongly discriminated against, the earth remains habitable for future generations, and no animal suffers because of human greed. Sadly, and much to the shame of humanity, we are far from meeting any of these goals, and anybody willing to change that is one of mine – belongs.
The true heretics are not those who do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth walked on water, or that Buraq carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem; not even those who do not believe in the existence of God, Brahman, or nirvana. Heresy is being callously indifferent to the suffering of billions of animals in factory farms, setting fire to buses filled with innocent people, killing authors and journalists because one disagrees with their writings, treating domestic workers and beggars as less than human, and sitting idle while others are dying from poverty.
This post was co-authored with Namrata Anirudh. Namrata is an animal behaviorist, and currently working in slow loris conservation in Indonesia.