How Unique is Your Religion?

In my post entitled “We aren’t a religion“, I tried to illustrate how this phrase is used by some folks to, somewhat deceptively, declare themselves to be unique.  A Christian commentor then claimed just that: “Christianity is unique.”  I started debating with him but thought about critical questions that may be best to answer before continuing.  Deciding how unique Christianity or any religion is, comes with several problems to address before even trying to delineate what traits do or don’t make something unique:

  1. What is the definition of unique?
  2. Why are we having the discussion?
  3. Even if it were unique, why should we care?  Is uniqueness a virtue?

Below is a diagram addressing only the first question.  I illustrate 5 possible “uniqueness-positions” on the graph but here are an infinite number of possible curves, of course.  To aid in dialogue, I am OK with negotiating the meanings of abstract words like “unique” — I do not hold a Platonic view of language.

Questions for Readers:

  • Which curve is closest to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism — give us your thoughts.
  • Does this graph help you see some of the inherent issues behind uniqueness?
  • Is declaring one’s religion unique an empirical claim or an emotional claim?  (oooops, that is point #2 above)


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “How Unique is Your Religion?

  1. Interesting framework… But every religion has a gazillion traits. You could probably never enumerate them all for even one religion. So you’d want to look at only the “essential” ones, or to weight traits by importance.

    And then you’d run into the problem that different religions consider different traits important. (Even within a religion, people would disagree about which aspects were important.)

    A random example: Monotheism is considered very important by most adherents of Islam. Most Muslims would say that Hinduism is extremely different because it has many gods. But when both are viewed from an atheistic religion (like some forms of Buddhism), Islam and Hinduism are practically indistinguishable. They are both eternalist, share the belief in immortal souls, a transcendent reality, personal deities, and so forth.

    From point of view of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are practically indistinguishable. They both teach rebirth, and liberation from rebirth as a result of personal effort — rather than once-only life and death, and salvation or damnation by divine judgement (and/or grace).

  2. Wil

    It seems like this is an irrelevant question. I always grouped belief systems into two main categories: philosophies and religions. In my framework, religions require some belief in the fantastic for the system to be coherent, whereas a philosophy is just a way to think about the world and doesn’t require mythical beings or metaphysics to work. Some Buddhist sects are religions, some are more philosophies. Jesus taught a philosophy, but his followers turned their beliefs into a religion.

    So if your belief system requires that you believe in some supernatural elements, then it’s irrelevant whether it’s unique or not because, frankly, you’re a fool to believe in it. According to my perspective, at least.

  3. @ David Chapman :

    (1) “Gazillion” traits :
    You are right. And for a “we-are-special” person to realize that their religion has a gazillion traits is a great starting point. But it should not be discouraging. The apparently innumerable different traits among living things never stopped the endeavors to classifying living creatures. We are just now only beginning to approach the number of fundamental trait units and this is yielding tons of useful information. Now we are using computers to analyze base pairs in DNA as a classification method – not sure if there are a “gazillion” of them, but it should be close especially if we add in the phenomena of epigenetic information which shows us that the environment contains information used to determine traits. Perhaps even “intent” can create traits. All to say, useful meaningful comparisons can be made without knowing everything. But I am sure you agree.

    (2) Essential Traits :
    I think that the “essentialism” move is exactly what the “we-are-SPECIAL” folks want to focus on. And my graph not only captures the specialness but also helps to illustrate shared traits to help the person see a bit further than their banner which signals “specialness”. Thus the graph is only meant as a dialogue tool to illustrate the types of shared vs. special qualities of religion. Much like genetics, then we can think about inherited, injected and co-evolved traits.

    You are absolutely right, the “We-are-Special” folks are always going to want to minimize shared traits and highlight their felt unique traits. But I see two problems there:
    (a) They are often wrong in what exactly what they think makes them unique
    (b) They don’t understand the shared habit of highlighting a trait at the expense of ignoring shared qualities.
    It is probably a unless effort on my part because the committed mind of faith is very good at stopping such costly insight, but I can try.

    (3) Blurred Boundaries :
    As genetics is showing us, our simple categories are more useful than “true” albeit the inaccuracies can indeed lead to abuse. Similarly, using a trait analysis of religion, even at a basic level, illustrates that terms like “Christianity”, “Buddhism”, “Islam”, “Hinduism” and such do not so much tell us about real, unique entities but show us how humans use flags as tools.

    All of these are the intent of my graph — as one tool to help illustrate the limitations to taxonomies/classification. But I have an odd, ironic and perhaps pathological attraction to taxonomies given my strong anti-Platonic (non-essentialist), pragmatic (vs. realist) stance on them. The reason for these taxonomies, however is simply to illustrate habits and traits rather than actually creating deeply meaningful categories. I will use this excuse to make a list of taxonomy posts I wrote:

    a) About Taxonomies
    b) Weirdness Taxonomy
    c) Philosopher Knowledge-Systemization Taxonomy
    d) Personal-Theology self-Taxonomy: dialogue tools
    e) Atheist Knowledge-Fervency Taxonomy
    f) Atheist Aggression-Indignation Taxonomy
    g) Atheist Parental-Influence Taxonomy

  4. @ Will :
    Thanx for jumping in, Will. I figured few would jump in since it is rather abstract post.

    I agree that the question has so many problems as to be practically almost irrelevant. But I am trying to argue from WITHIN the assumptions of the person who embraces the category of uniqueness and uses it to inform their life. Heck, to show you my mutual doubt, I even question the attempts at claiming human uniqueness here.

    But concerning your religion taxonomy of “Mythical Fantasy” vs. “Philosophies”:
    I get your point to some degree and I also don’t share sympathy with “magical world views” which are done with seriousness. But I do like playing dragons, Santa Claus and such. But, unlike you (apparently), I don’t see Magical Worldviews as the terrible part of religions. I see exclusivity, sanctity-which-kills-skepticism-and-dialogue, freedom-limiting, and anti-scientific-methodology as very destructive. I think some folks can hold Magical Worldviews and do none of this.

    So I am not sure I agree with your vehemence. And I am strongly against calling such people “fools” because, as I have written elsewhere, we are all fools: we are all confused, we all hold beliefs we can not support ect…, we all misplace our priorities and misunderstand ourselves.

    Lastly, I don’t think there is consensus on what Jesus taught. Some people try to turn him into a non-religious philosopher but I think that move is no less problematic than the move to turn him into a god.

  5. Ian

    Every religion is unique. It isn’t a quantitative thing. Every religion shares a huge number of predicates with every other, and a large number more with some others, and many that are not common (there are a large number of theological and cultic things unique to any particular religion). But that isn’t the point of calling a religion unique, I don’t think. The point is to say that those things that are different are the significant bits.

    In other words, Christianity is unique because its followers have a direct relationship to the living God, through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and the indwelling of the holy spirit. Even if they were the only two things that were unique about Christianity, and therefore Christianity were ‘generic’ in your diagram, it would still be ‘unique’, in its own terms. Because those are the things that matter.

    The same pattern holds among antagonistic denominations, where the things that sets them apart becomes the most important factor.

  6. Interesting post and discussion.

    When people begin to raise a ruckus about the uniqueness of their religion I get annoyed, regardless of their creed.

    To me, religion ought to be about opening hearts and sharpening minds as distinct from than shutting hearts and dulling minds. In my albeit limited experience, cultivating wisdom and compassion does not seem unique to any one religion. Similarly, every major religion seems to have its corners, large and small, where neither wisdom nor compassion is cultivated.

    I was prompted to leave a comment mostly so I might encourage others to click on the “attempts at claiming human uniqueness” link in Sabio’s response to Will above. I’m glad I did.

  7. I wonder what would be the motivation to follow a religion if you didn’t think it was special or unique. People practice a particular religion because they think it works, because they think it’s Number One. That’s perfectly natural. Who ever said to themselves, hey, I think I’ll become a believer in a Third Rate religion? Let’s go find a religion that doesn’t work and practice it . . .

    When confidence in your religion leads to intolerance towards other ones, that’s a problem. But simply believing that your faith has something unique to offer the world is not.

  8. @Ian :
    When the Christian declared “Christianity is Unique”, I am sure he did not feel he was merely stating a tautology. The mini-creed you gave as Christianity’s unique aspect break down as follow:
    We believe:
    (a) there is a living God
    (b) we can have a relationship with (a)
    (c) the relationship is DIRECT
    (d) there was a Jesus
    (e) Jesus gave an atoning sacrifice
    (f) there is a holy spirit
    (g) it is indwelling

    And as you know, all those are shared by other religions.
    All those are not common to all Christianities.
    It is in exploring the Christian’s emphatic claim to uniqueness that many of these issues become exposed.

    @ Dan Gurney :
    Here you are pointing at is important, and perhaps part of what Ian was saying.
    Some religions consider their special offering to be an exclusive ticket to heaven. You don’t agree with them and they don’t agree with you. When you say “religion OUGHT to be about…”, you are simply telling us about your religion. Many agree with your type of religion but many don’t. [I do, of course].

    @ David :
    I agree that making the “special” or “unique” offer is a great marketing gimmick. And that may be natural. But I think with a little introspection and discussion, the silliness of that simple mental trap can be exposed — thus this post is part of that venture.

    But I think equating “Unique/Special” with “it works” is a mistake. I think people can choose a faith because they feel it “fits” them (in that pragmatic sense you used “it works”), but most people, when they declare their religion is unique, are declaring “superiority” or “exclusiveness”. Untangling those issues was part of the intended direction of this post.

    You can believe your faith has something unique to offer the world (special) without believing it has a unique standing of truth and salvation — which is the stance of most who use this concept.

  9. i’m with Ian on this, the lines blur and there are similarities even if the motivation for them is different. it’s a hard and complex thing to tackle and i admire you for trying and love the posts you’ve linked to Sabio that you have done in the past. yet it’s all to big for my brain to handle. i think the only honest answer is D for both the religious and irreligious.

    for some reason i think of the movie “Flash of Genius” here. this movie is about the dude who invents the delayed windshield wiper only to have it stolen by Ford. during the patent trial Ford states that the inventor didn’t do anything new, he just put together stuff that already existed. the inventor counters with reading a quote Shakespeare stating that Shakespeare didn’t invent any of the words used, but assembled them in a new way that has never been seen before. i think the world religions are sort of like this. they all have similarities, a social component, a monastic tradition, etc etc. yet ultimately come together to make a new and unique whole. yet not totally unique.

    clear as mud? thanks for reading this mess anyway.

  10. @ Zero
    Again, when believers declare, “Christianity is Unique”, they are saying much more than the bland definition of “unique”. They are also implying, “we are the best”.

  11. I agree with the last statement, Sabio – the uniqueness implies some superiority. But it’s a subjective claim, completely unverifiable. And even worse, it’s a completely subjective claim that’s based in fantasy. Not that there aren’t some parts of religion and spirituality that all religions have in common, or that all humans experience. The problem is the mythologies and constructions of reality that humans create and systematize to explain their spiritual experiences.

    So to claim uniqueness of your human constructed, subjective interpretation of reality is just… pointless. I don’t care if you subjectively think (not you Sabio, you Mr. Anonymous Christian believer) that your fairy tale man in the sky is the only possible fairy tale man in the sky because why else would your holy book tell you such an absurd story as the virgin birth, death and resurrection (an actual argument used by C. S. Lewis to prove the truth of Christianity). I don’t care because you can’t even prove the reality of your mythology, much less the uniqueness of it.

    I don’t believe completely in rational materialism. I believe that we should remain open to spirituality and the irrational. But I do think that we should try as much as possible to keep it simple stupid… believe in what we can see and experience, no more.

    Arguing about uniqueness is giving up the basic argument and moving the goalposts, so to speak.

  12. “They are also implying, “we are the best”.”

    oooooohhhh…. i see. totally went over my head. and yeah, when CHRISTIANS say that it’s true. duh.


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