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Vivekananda and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

March 17, 2009

vivekananda-thumbStudents in one of my courses have been reading Vivekananda, who insists that all religions are the same; all gods, of course, are simply various manifestations of Brahman.

Many of my students find such a claim appealing; they’ve grown up inundated with liberal religious ideas and Vivekananda offers an argument that supports what they already believe. (Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, the criterion used to determine “Is it persuasive?” is almost always “Does it fit with what I want to believe?”)

My personal opinion is that this is nonsense—religious traditions are incredibly different and any claim to the contrary ignores the evidence. The claim that all religions are the same reminds me of a Loch Ness Monster t-shirt I once saw: “Searching for the truth—ignoring all the evidence!” (This is close but a little different than the one I remember seeing.)

To get my students to reflect critically on Vivekananda’s text, I’ve divided them into three groups for a class debate.

The first group has to argue that Vivekananda is right: all religions are basically the same.

q-photo-flying-spaghetti-monster-sculptureThe second group has to argue that Vivekananda is on the right track with is claim that all religions are the same, but he’s wrong about Brahman: in fact, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the unifying force behind all religions.

The third group has to argue the following: if we stick to claims that are verifiable by all parties, we’ll have to conclude that religions are, in fact, different from one another.

I hope they’ll see that the claim that religions are all the same is no more verifiable than the claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is behind all religions.

The group that was assigned to the third position was complaining: “We don’t know where to start; our position is the hardest!” I assured them that they, in fact, had the easiest argument—their group has the facts on their side! All they need to do is look up some details about how religions are different.

We’ll see how it goes. These things never go as well as I think they should …

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2009 5:39 pm

    I find the whole “all religions are really my religion” thing really irksome.

    It is especially irksome when my soon-to-be co-religionists do it. They most of all do it with the Eastern Orthodox though. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are ceirtainly a lot closer than Catholicism and Neo-Pagan Syncreatism (the religion of my parents) but they have some significant differences. What bothers me though is the way Catholics will go “yes everything the Orthodox believe is just what we believe in different words” because it is so obviously insensitive, the Orthodox (if there are any around to hear this) do not like the insinuation at all. Some things (the filioque for instance) really are semantic differences which got blown up by political machinations in the 11th century. Others though like the interpretation of atonement and original sin, purgatory etc are different, and the general… “ambiance” of the religions are different. There is a wildness and a disorganisation to Orthodoxy, Catholicism is much more orderly (in essense, not necessarily in your average hippy run post-Vatican II parish), much more systematic and at the same time more sentimental.

    When people start saying religions more different than that are the same I just assume they have never really looked in depth at more than one religion. I got in an argument with a Catholic who thought Buddhism and Catholicism were the same. But even at the most basic level of what each values they are practically diametric opposites (which …makes the similarities in praxis between Tibetian Buddhism and Catholicism quite fascinating…
    But then that’s probably just the feudal context of both.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 12, 2009 10:54 am

    I love this line: “your average hippy run post-Vatican II parish”! Awesome.

    I think you’re right to suggest that the people who think they’re all identical often just don’t know—they just haven’t studied different religions, so they end up projecting their own ideas onto all other traditions.

    To me, a really interesting question is not just how they’re different, but also why people want to insist that they’re all the same. What social relations are reinforced when people insist on essential sameness of religions? I know that in many cases it has something to do with a desire for religious tolerance, but I don’t think that’s all of it …

  3. April 12, 2009 2:15 pm

    What do you think it is then?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 12, 2009 4:35 pm

    I’m not really sure, so I hesitate to make suggestions. To some extent I think it has to do with wishful thinking—I think it makes people feel comfortable to have their knowledge of the universe so secure. Maybe it alleviates the challenge other traditions pose to your own; if they’re all really the same then the fact that people believe something different than I do doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or need to reconsider my own beliefs.

    I also think it goes along with an authentic/inauthentic dichotomy. Good Christians, good Buddhists, and good Muslims are all basically the same—where “good” basically amounts to “those who behave like I do.” By contrast, those who launched the crusades or run airplanes into skyscrapers are inauthentic. Consequently, their views or their claims can be dismissed without consideration.

  5. April 12, 2009 4:40 pm

    Were I feeling flippant I might say that “good Buddhists” “good Christians” and “good Muslims” are all the same since their belief in liberalism (in the more general sense of the word than Americans are wont to use it) transcends any vestiges of religious belief they might have inherited from the ghosts of what once was their ancestors culture.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 12, 2009 4:53 pm

    I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. To some extent liberal religious practitioners are more liberal than they are Christian, Buddhist, or whatever.

  7. September 16, 2009 8:22 pm

    All religions are the same in terms of their general function, which is to contact and sustain relationship with the transcendent, whatever that is in each cultural context. That’s what Vivekananda was getting at. Everyone of any religion has their own relationship to what is divine to them, regardless of the minutiae of their beliefs.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 16, 2009 8:27 pm

    Jody, you can’t expect me to take that seriously, can you? What you’re saying sounds like this: “What V was saying is that every religious group has something that’s really important to them.” If that’s what V was saying then it wasn’t worth saying. Seriously, that’s practically a tautology. And, unless you completely ignore what he actually wrote, that was NOT what he was saying. He was making more substantial ontological claims than you suggest.

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 16, 2009 8:36 pm

    By the way, “All religions are the same in terms of their general function” is an absurd, essentialist claim—it’s about as sophisticated as claims that begin with “All black people are like x” or “All women are like x” and so on. “All y are the same with respect to x” is the foundation for building a stereotype.

  10. Padmaspongebobha permalink
    February 15, 2010 10:31 pm

    I know this is an old thread, but I stumbled in to it and thought I’d add some perspective. I agree with missivesfrommarx’s comment about why people might adopt this attitude. However, in this case, I speculate that the insistence (especially by Brahmans) that all deities are avatars of Brahman is a means of maintaining the authority of Brahman priests in Hindu society. The “all gods are one god, and that one god is the one that I worship” approach is very common, if not a staple of Hindu religious belief. It sounds very nice and welcoming on the surface, but it more likely serves to maintain the status quo, in some respects, in Hindu society. Buddhism was a threat originally because it removed Brahmans as intermediaries to religious life, which was a threat to their power. If you talk to Hindus of today, the standard opinion is that Buddha is an avatar Krishna, and sometimes he will be worshiped by Hindus as such. However, Buddha never claimed to be an avatar of a god, nor did he claim to be a god. In fact, he explicitly (according to the stories) indicated that he is not a god and should not be worshiped. My hypothesis is that the view expressed by Vivekananda was created (implicitly, most likely) as a means of reestablishing control by Brahman priests.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 16, 2010 8:30 am

    Great point; thanks for adding that!

  12. Richard permalink
    April 5, 2010 3:56 am

    One flying spaghetti monster, many religions!

    Your article confuses religion with deity: patently religions differ while sharing some stories etc. The point is that if there were a deity, as in a creator of the universe, the religions that subscribe to this belief must have one and the same entity as referent.

  13. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 5, 2010 7:22 am

    Rich, that doesn’t follow at all. If you said George Bush was president of the US and I said it was Bill Clinton, and then a third person said Barack Obama—it wouldn’t follow that we must all be talking about exactly the same person.

    There is no way to justify the claim that talk about gods with different names all have a single referent.

  14. noisician permalink
    July 27, 2010 1:51 pm

    yeah, that’s nuts. if there really were an omnipotent diety, and if it wanted us to know anything about it, it would easily communicate that knowledge to everyone without error. since that hasn’t happened:

    – there is no diety, or
    – it isn’t omnipotent, or
    – it doesn’t really want us to know the truth about it

  15. March 28, 2011 9:26 pm

    @missivesfrommarx:

    Embodied mind theory explains that the brain is quite simple in its functions, despite being phenomenally complex as an organ. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that religion, something that more of less happens everywhere there are human beings, is a function of a particular feature (or set of features) in the brain. Therefore, you can say that all religious ideas, despite their cultural source, serve a particular function for humanity as a whole.

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