We may as well face some facts. Back in the old days people would be born, live and die in the same village. Everyone they knew was of the same nationality, ate the same kinds of food, wore similar clothes and, most likely, was of the same religion. Some may have been vaguely aware that other cultures exist, but lacking any real contact with them, it was almost as if people from those other cultures were not really real. Back then it was common and acceptable to perceive one's own culture and religion as central -- and to see all others as somehow not "counting" quite as much. Few people had reason to think any more widely than this: provincial worldviews were the norm.
But as transportation options improved, people began to move from place to place. Then suddenly they were exposed to people who were different. Some wound up with neighbors from a different country. Some might have had coworkers, or even supervisors, from a different religion.
This brushing up against different world cultures would have caused people to compare their own customs and beliefs against those of these strangers. Generally speaking, two types of reaction were possible: 1) people could retreat into their comfortable and familiar worldviews, resisting and resenting the influx of these strangers into their awareness. They could dig in their heels and insist their own ways were more real, more right, and more valid than all the others. Or 2) They could forge relationships with the strangers and seek to understand the differences. They could try the strangers' foods, listen to their music, even engage in conversations about their contrasting religious beliefs. People choosing this more transformative response would find themselves seeing commonalities with these strangers. They would likely come to see that there is good and bad, truth and falseness in all cultures -- and all religions. This most likely would loosen the stronghold of religious exclusivity, and weaken the fences between people with different beliefs.
People choosing the first option above would be refusing to allow themselves the opportunity to learn about others. They would be excluding a part of the truth from their awareness. They would be reinforcing their own provincialism and limiting their own growth. Conversely, those choosing the second option would be allowing more of the truth about our existence into their awareness, expanding their own horizons, growing.
Now, these days with global communications as they are, people don't even need to move to be exposed to other cultures and religious views. We need only turn on a computer or TV to be immediately thrown up against huge numbers of issues, people and cultures from all over the world. Their religious beliefs and practices will conflict with ours. This leaves us the same choices as listed above. We can choose to see only the differences, and retreat in fear from these others. Or we can broaden our worldview to include them in our common humanity.
But how to include these others on the religious front when their beliefs and practices seem so different? How to move forward when some of our religious leaders are still insisting their own particular belief system has the only right answers? Admittedly it can be hard to rise above the divisiveness and triumphalism -- and the attempts to convert everyone -- when certain factions are blowing up our buildings with thousands of people in them.
But there is another way to view this.
Every religion has a literal level where all the beliefs and practices are specific to that faith. From within the literal level, one's own creed appears very different from -- and superior to -- all the others. This can lead a person to conclude that his religion is the only right one, or at least the best one. Seeing only the literal level leaves us mired in discord, trying to assert the primacy of our beliefs over those of others.
But another way of looking at this issue is emerging to the forefront in several camps. Thanks in part to global communications, some people are beginning to see beyond the literal level of religion. They are beginning to see through the specific symbols of their religion, to emerge with a far more general metaphorical understanding. They come to realize the allegorical nature of the stories in their religious texts. Then when they are faced with comparing those stories from other faiths, they can see that the religions are not so very different in intent.
All religions contain a common core of values. Opening our minds and hearts to this truth allows us to realize that all religions arose from a common human search for connection with something greater than ourselves.
All the elaborate rites, rituals and beliefs that make up each individual religion were created by humans according to their own local culture, but arose from a common universal quest shared by everyone. In this sense we must admit that all religions are but different localized ways to express a basic human need. Seen this way, insisting our religion is the only correct one begins to sound downright limited, parochial and immature; imposing specific rules from our particular holy book on others who have not chosen to follow it begins to sound ridiculous. When we can expand our worldview to include people of all religions, and those of no religion, into our human family, we become more mature in a spiritual sense. We move toward a position of seeing all people as cut from the same cloth. This is one little step on the road to unity -- or the Oneness expressed as a goal of some religions like Buddhism.
Some proponents claim that a general spiritual transformation is afoot where people are moving more and more quickly toward this realization. As more and more people are exposed to other belief systems, they are coming to appreciate that each religion contains some truth, but none has the whole and entire truth. They are coming to see that there is no chosen people, no one religion that is right over all the others. This transformation is being helped along by global communications, which increasingly exposes us to all different religions. Many people are confused, overwhelmed or turned off by competing religions all claiming superiority. But still recognizing their own search for connection with something greater than themselves, they adopt the "spiritual but not religious" label.
Religious leaders interested in maintaining a vibrant flock would do well to adapt their message to this snowballing trend of globalization, which they cannot fight. Traditional religion will soon render itself irrelevant if fails to adopt more universal, more unitive themes into its teachings.