A few weeks ago, I was conversing with someone who trotted out the old line that “really” all religions are the same, because what they’re “really” about is giving us a sense of purpose and the greater good, encouraging us to behave and to become better people, and the like.
It’s so easy to forget just how common this kind of misunderstanding is.
After my initial shock (and thinking silently “really? really?!”), I tried as best I could, gently but forcefully, to point out that my interlocutor had missed the most important part: the Gods themselves. The singular, unique divine persons with whom we cultivate a relationship. A relationship of worship and devotion, and possibly with other dimensions and aspects as well, but at bottom, a relationship with a person.
While I don’t want to push this analogy too far, compare the case of marriage or committed romantic relationships among humans. While healthy marriages tend to produce certain ancillary benefits—contentment, material and emotional security, even longer life expectancy and less likelihood of getting sick—none of these is the point of such a relationship. Just imagine telling one’s partner that these things were what the marriage was “really” about, with no reference to the partner as a person! The point is relating intimately to one’s partner, for the unique, singular, wonderful individual that that person is. If those other benefits also happen to come along (and while it’s not the subject of this post, I’ve seen studies that suggest that they’re statistically likely), that’s nice. But that’s just it: they’re nice, but they’re extra. Those other benefits are not the point. Without an other person, we would not have a relationship at all, and without this other person, we would not have this relationship, in all its wonder and mystery and uniqueness.
So too, mutatis mutandis, for religion. It’s about relating to the Gods as the singular, unique, wonderful individuals that they are. To be sure, it often works out that when we do that, other blessings and benefits tend to come our way. But when someone says that those other benefits are what it’s “really” all about, they are asserting that the Gods themselves are not “real,” and this is nothing other than atheism.
To neglect the persons—the Gods themselves, in all their singular uniqueness—is to leave out the most important part.