All Religious People Aren't the Same

03/17/2015 06:20 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT

Within the English language, the term for God is exactly that, a term. Without a capital letter, god refers to the pagan deities of idolatry, the supernatural beings of polytheistic religions. With a capital letter, it refers to the singular Deity of monotheistic faiths, the One God -- but it is still a term. There is no recognition of -- for want of a better word -- the personal. Stating that someone believes in the One God, thus, does not really tell me much, for the question must then be asked: which One God?

Aristotle's One God could not know the details of human individual life; a belief in One God Who can accept prayer obviously reflects a vastly different perspective. When we consider that included in many people's understanding of God is that He is the source of morality and ethics, the distinction in the variant understandings of His Essence becomes even clearer. The One God Who considers abortion to be murder is not the same One God Who considers abortion to be an acceptable object of human decision-making. Some distinctions in the understanding of the One God may be minor; some may be major. Of significance is that we recognize that a shared acceptance of belief in One God still does not mean that we are all sharing a similar perception of the One God. The One God may be understood differently by different people.

This is an idea that is often difficult for many people to accept. There is frequently an assumption that all religious people basically are the same -- that they basically share the same core values and only really differ in methodology. This is a conclusion that, in fact, regularly flows from the importance we assign -- and correctly so -- to the value of freedom of religion. It is easier to accept the other if we perceive any religious differences to be simply matters of form and not of substance. "He/she prays in that language while I pray in another but we are still channeling the same drive" -- and we are both basically praying to the same One God. The challenge in acceptance of the other, which must flow from the value of freedom of religion, is much more difficult when the religion of the other -- that is, the other's understanding of the One God -- promotes a value which I find problematic. Applying the concept of freedom of religion, and understanding the nature of religion, becomes thereby much more challenging.

There are obviously situations where certain other values would put a bar on our ability to abide by the value of freedom of religion. As an extreme example, we could not, would not and should not tolerate individuals who practiced a religion which called for human sacrifice. As other values challenge the value of freedom of religion, the issue becomes more thought-provoking, demanding of society to balance the variant concerns.

Defining religion monolithically thus makes the whole issue much easier. If we say that the ones demanding human sacrifice are not really religious, we are even able to circumvent the inherent value concern regarding freedom of religion presented by this case. The fact is, though, that the call of human sacrifice is a religious one -- and it reflects a different perception of deities. This also applies in the realm of One God. One person's perception of One God may not be similar to another's perception -- and this can have a practical effect on behaviour and values.

I find this realization to be of profound significance in our present world. There are those who are wary of applying the term 'religious' to the actions of certain individuals or groups for they would find themselves facing a difficult challenge if they accepted such behaviours as having any basis in faith. This can, however, lead to a total misreading of the situation. To define such behaviour without its religious roots can lead to misunderstanding and inappropriate responses in regard to what should be done. Because one is projecting an understanding of One God that is totally different than mine -- even in many ways contradictory to my understanding -- does not necessarily mean that this person simply doesn't really believe in God or that his/her behaviour is not motivated by such a belief. It may be actually a different One God in which he/she believes.

It is also equally important, as we attempt to understand these differences in the understanding of One God, that we do not project onto someone a perception that is incorrect for him/her. It is not only that the three major monotheistic religions each have a different perception of the One God but that the variant subcategorizations within each faith also have their differences -- and it may also be that a certain viewpoint within one broad faith grouping is actually closer to a certain viewpoint in another broad grouping than it is to another viewpoint within its own broad grouping. It is time to see the true complexity of religion and not rely on simplistic understandings that are easier.

Christianity is not monolithic. Judaism is not monolithic. Islam is not monolithic. Perceptions of One God between them -- and within them -- are not the same. In our present world, this is something that we must understand and accept. To do otherwise is more than problematic but dangerous. The value of freedom of religion then calls upon us to work with this reality in the best interest of all humanity. This is not done, though, by believing that all religions are basically the same -- all believing in motherhood and apple pie, only disagreeing about what type of ice cream compliments the apple pie -- and that the one who doesn't like the apple pie could not possibly be religious.