What Do All Religions Have in Common?

The traditional defintion of religion according to wikipedia is “an organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.” The World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World notes that there are 19 major world religions that can be subdivided into 270 smaller groups. A more recent reference book, The Everything World’s Religions Book: Explore the Beliefs, Traditions, and Cultures of Ancient and Modern Religions, identifies about 4,200 different religions in the world. As an aside, the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism published by the WIN-Gallup International in July 2012 reported that of the world’s population, 13% are atheists, 23% are not religious, and 59% are religious. Given all these diverse ideological landscape, what do all religions have in common?

Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583- 1658) writing in the Age of Enlightenment (17th century) — indeed in the context of a much simpler religious landscape, attempted to answer this question in his book On the Religions of the Nations published in 1645. Herbert believed that all world religions shared five common principles:
1. Belief in one deity
2. The obligation to worship that deity
3. The obligation to act morally on the basis of worshipping that deity
4. The need to feel remorse from and avoid sins
5. Reward or punishment in this life or the afterlife

Further, Herbert, who is considered the “father of English Deism” believed that these five basic truths or common principles could be reached, not be revelation (e.g., through scripture, or religious dogma), but rather by reason alone. Herbert’s seminal book, De Veritate (On Truth) published in 1624, made a strong case for Deism that eschewed religious dogma and advocated reason. Deists were reacting to a world where priests had corrupted religion for their own personal gain as well as the class interests of priests. According to the Deists, over hundreds of years, the priests had saddled pure, original religion with layers of irrational theological doctrines (superstitions, myths, mysteries, and so forth) and established themselves as authorities on the revelations of scripture — leaving the layman completely dependent on the information and instructions from priests. Deism, therefore, sought to strip religion of all that corruption, restoring it to its original condition — defined by simplicity and rationality.

The basic tenets of Deism establish a world view that falls between two polar opposites: unquestioned religious dogma and outright skepticism. Sir Leslie Stephen writing in English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, published in 1876, summarized the two prongs of Deism:

Critical tenets:
1. Rejection of all religions based on books, claiming to reveal the word of God
2. Rejection of all religious demagogy and dogma
3. Rejection of religious mysteries (eg, miracles, prophecies, etc)

Constructive tenets:
1. God does exist and created as well as governs the universe
2. God gave humans the ability to reason

For further reading: World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in The Modern World edited by David B. Barrett, Oxford (2001)
The Everything World’s Religions Book: Explore the Beliefs, Traditions, and Cultures of Ancient and Modern Religions by Kenneth Shouler, Adams Media (2010)

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