07/03/2012 07:34 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

Do Abrahamic Faiths Have a Monopoly on Truth?

From the culture wars here in America to debates over sharia in Muslim countries, religion has been front and center of many political debates. In our studies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, one thing has been particularly striking: the exclusivism of the Abrahamic religions. Jews are the "chosen people," the path of Jesus is the "only way" and Muhammad's was the "final revelation."

Based on most interpretations of Islam, Muhammad's revelation follows the same evolution of thought that the earlier prophets, Moses and Jesus, shared through Judaism and Christianity. According to this view, Muhammad was the "seal" or last of the Prophets, receiving the final revelation in the form of the Quran, which was to be universal: for all mankind, for all time. So Islam -- like Christianity and, historically, Judaism -- was to be spread across the world through da'wa or proselytization.

One way we've understood this "exclusivism" is through compassion: practitioners have experienced the merits of their own religion and want to share with others the benefits of what's helped them -- sort of like loving a food and raving about it so others are motivated to try it too.

But that view can also amount to disrespect for other choices and beliefs, implying that "mine is better than yours." Quranic and biblicalpassages often seem hostile toward others. And around the world, missionaries try to convert others to Islam and Christianity on the basis that those people are condemned to hell for following the "wrong" path. And this is often done without even knowing anything about other beliefs. A Christian friend, for example, told us that he thinks his path "is the only way and all the others are garbage" even though he could hardly pronounce some of the others.

And some of these ideas aren't just personal, they're universalized: "idolatry is not just bad for me, but bad for everyone; Christianity isn't just the best religion for me, it (and not the others) is best for everyone -- and my views should be spread." If these were personal interpretations, that would be one thing. But the importance of this idea seems to be written clearly in the texts: the Abrahamic religions see other paths as inferior.

This often makes it difficult for new adherents to accept something that's so exclusivist. When a friend of ours accepted Islam as her own path, she felt uncomfortable when fellow Muslims spoke about Islam as the only way. She had to shut off from the outside world and concentrate on her own spiritual journey -- to feel God for herself, and make a personal connection. Her confusion has largely subsided, because some of the more contentious passages in the Quran didn't really speak to her, just as most Jews and Christians don't focus on the passages in their texts that seem to endorse slavery, polygamy or stoning women. But her disappointment with the idea of religious supremacy, as with ours, remains strong.

For someone to truly embrace something, at the end of the day they need to come to that decision on their own. Yet fear-based social norms exist in many cultures: "You have to pray five times a day," "you have to take communion," "you have to take a beer keg stand with the frat brothers." This fear doesn't create the kind of humanity that any tradition would want us to embrace. The Quran, for example, says "there is no compulsion in faith," yet so many Muslims act against this clear commandment.

Recognition of a divine truth can come through various forms. Fear -- of punishment or of being ostracized -- is one form, but not one that seems like a healthy path that humanity should live by. Being driven into something by fear or guilt makes it less genuine; you're not doing it because you really want to, but because you're avoiding consequences.

So what this exclusivism may come down to is ego. When people talk about how their path is the only path, it may be a sign of insecurity with their own identity. There are theories about how and why this is the case in certain parts of the world, but it is definitely pervasive. In fact, this exclusivity -- "I'm right, you're wrong" -- isn't solely found among some religions or people. Ancient Hinduism used the word mleccha to mean "polluted," and it meant anything that was outside of the normal order, including foreigners or other castes. It's similar to Muslim vs. "Kafir," Jew vs. "Goy," Christian vs. "Heathen" -- basically, insider vs. outsider.

Even closer to home, we've got secular divisions: if you're not a patriotic American like me, you're a freedom-hating communist; if you're not an intelligent atheist like me, you're an ignorant religious zealot. Maybe there's a human tendency to create an "other" so we can think about our own as ideal, in order to give ourselves some certainty. After all, if "mine" were not the ideal, why would I choose to follow it?

On the other hand, why would there be -- why would God allow for -- so many different paths if only one was valid, or even superior? Different paths up the mountain bring about different experiences on the way up. But in the end, don't we all seek something similar? Don't we all yearn to be reunited in oneness, to feel a union between humanity, our selves and something altogether greater? And if so, then how can a lowly human being tell another that their genuine attempt to unite with God is wrong? What arrogance, what disrespect for God.

In many ways, it amounts to one person trying to decide what is good for another. But in order to understand the absolute divine, we all need intermediaries that speak to us as individuals, whether they be physical, like statues, temples, or holy lands; people, like gurus, prophets, or priests; or even written or spoken words in Sanskrit, Hebrew or Arabic. Different people may need different means for their own betterment. As the Prophet Muhammad himself said, "There are as many paths to God as there are human breaths."

There may be things that people can tell each other about how they should definitely not behave -- like being violent or abusive. But when it comes to God, it is most inspiring when people simply live their faith and share it with those who show interest. Leading by example is the most meaningful way to practice and share one's beliefs.