THE BLOG
12/02/2010 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Supreme Purpose in All Religions (and Their Shared Failure), Part 1

"All religions serve the purpose of reuniting the soul with God."
-- Paramahansa Yogananda (1893 - 1952)

I once read of a rabbi who corrected a young, arrogant student named Jacob who loved to make fun of Christians. He regarded Christians as ignorant and ill-informed and Christianity as an absurd religion.

One day, the rabbi took Jacob aside and said, "Jacob, why do you suppose Christians make it a habit to tap the side of the saltshaker while Jews always tap the bottom?"

Certain the rabbi was going to join him in ridicule of Christians, Jacob was more than ready to play along. "No, Rabbi, I do not know. Why do Jews tap the bottom of the saltshaker while Christians tap the side?"

"To get the salt out!" answered the rabbi.

There are many ways to tap the shaker, but the purpose is the same: to dispense salt.

Ask the followers of almost any religion what is the purpose of their religion and they will say the purpose is to guide them to know God. They may use different words or ideas to say this, but it is essentially the same purpose. Even in religions like Buddhism, where there is no belief in a Higher Power per se, they still speak sometimes of the "Universal Mind." What is that, if it is not the same Reality toward which the words and names that others use point as well?

Similarly, a spiritual seeker in Christianity is really no different than a spiritual seeker in Islam, Taoism or Hinduism. All want to know God, the higher self, or to reach what Hindus call Samadhi, or "bliss consciousness," what Christians may call "salvation" or "God-realization."

In other words, everyone wants to be complete, to be happy and to alleviate human suffering, which the Buddha showed us is mostly self-induced anyway. In other words, we all seek the same thing. We just know it in different ways, based on our cultural, social, ethnic and religious conditioning. Since everyone is seeking God-consciousness, sometimes confused with "happiness," then you can understand that every religion has evolved to help facilitate this purpose.

In Christianity, the purpose is called by as many different names as there are names for God. Sometimes, it's called "salvation." At other times "redemption," "justification," "conversion" and, in some repressive cultures wherein missionaries took the Christian story, the promise of "liberation," which has great meaning to indigenous, oppressed peoples. It became known among Christians as "liberation theology."

In Buddhism, it is nirvana or freedom from dukkha, or "suffering." In Hinduism, the purpose is called moksha and the goal is to escape earthly suffering and cyclical existence -- and to ultimately arrive at nirvana. In Islam, a follower is known as a Muslim, which, by definition, means "one who submits to God." Islam is now the second largest religion in the world, just behind Christianity. It's multiplying much faster, too. If its growth continues at the present rate, and every indication would point in this direction, it will soon become the religion with the largest number of followers in the world.

Many Christians find this thought, if not unbelievable, reprehensible. But, the fact is, Islam will achieve this status and will likely do so in just a matter of years. The political, social and economic environment worldwide is conducive for Christianity's decline and Islam's growth. You can resist this reality if you choose. Or, you can wage war with it and so attempt to prevent it from happening. Some Christians would actually opt for this approach, which partly explains why fundamentalist Christians are among the most ardent supporters of our military presence in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. While they would argue with this analysis, the fact is, their real desire to see terrorism defeated masks a secret desire to see the Islamic faith, if not defeated, seriously impeded.

To those persons who may not have a specific faith orientation, the shared human quest for self-realization or self-fulfillment is the same, nonetheless. It is expressed, however, with terms like "inner transformation," "awakening," "unity consciousness" and so forth. But, again, though the terminology may differ, the purpose in all of these is to know unity with the Self and so live with a sense of connectedness to the universe or Intelligence itself.

Even those persons who do not believe in God per se still share in the same human longing for wholeness. Just like everyone else, they instinctively seek its fulfillment. It may sound to Christians a bit like doubletalk to hear of a "spiritual atheism," but there are some devout atheists who've had some kind of spiritual awakening themselves. Even Albert Einstein referred to himself as "a deeply religious non-believer." Whatever it is that has happened to them, they have found it humanly satisfying and life-transforming. It has rewarded them with a sense of the sacred that gives them peace, joy, gratitude and contentment in ways many religious people I know have never experienced.

If you're a religious person, how do you explain this? Well, some would dismiss it as a trick of Satan himself. They would argue that these atheists have been deceived -- that they just think they're happy, satisfied, content and at peace.

But, I'm not so sure. The ones I know seem quite content, happy and at peace. As a matter of fact, some of them think more like Christ, and live more Christ-like, than many of the Christians I know. So, my perspective is this: The only real delusion here is the denial of this possibility by those who cannot accept it.

Since I have always believed in God, it is hard for me to understand what some describe as "atheist spirituality." But, I will not deny that anything is possible. Besides, after reading some of the writings of Andre Comte-Sponville, who is a contemporary French philosopher and a self-professed atheist, there is no denying he has had some kind of transcendent and transformational life experience. He does not call what he has experienced "God," but it has left him with the satisfying sense of belonging to something much grander than he. Moreover, it is shaping him into a more ethical and felicitous human being.

So, for all their differences, all religions share the same essential purpose. It has long been my hope that religious people would learn to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences. It seems today far more imperative that all people share a similar hope, indeed a commitment in this direction. I firmly believe, in the words of the Dalai Lama, "Until there is peace among the religions, there can be no peace in the world."

In Part Two, I'll write about the shared failure of all religions.