Is There a Common Theme in All Religions?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Mike:

Religions of the World

Religions of the World

I believe in God. But I don’t really know why. How can this be reconciled? I was saved as a Christian but I feel a connection for other faiths even Hinduism and Buddhism. I see truth in many areas of religion and spirituality. What is the most important message that God has for us according to each of the major (and minor) religions of the world? Is there a common theme?

Great question, Mike!

Of course, it would be impossible to say what’s the most important message according to each and every major and minor religion of the world. There are thousands, if not millions of ’em! However, there are some common themes that run through most of the religions of the world:

  1. Believe in, love, and honor God.
  2. Don’t do evil, selfish, and destructive things.
  3. Do good, loving, kind, and useful things for your neighbor instead.

Jesus summed it all up in the two Great Commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

(See Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–37.)

What? The two lists aren’t the same? Yes they are! Let’s take a closer look.

Many religions, one God

Yes, yes, there are too many religions to count. And yes, they say all sorts of different—and even conflicting—things.

  • Some say there are many gods, and some say there is only one God.
  • Some say only people in their religion are saved, some say people of all religions are saved.
  • Some say you have to be good only to people of your own religion and culture, some say you have to be good to all people.
  • Some say they’re completely right and everyone else is completely wrong, others say there is truth in all religions.

And, quite frankly, some religions are pretty messed up!

So it’s not as though we’re going to get all the religions of the world to sit down together and say, “Yeah, we all basically agree with one another, so let’s hold hands in a big circle and sing Kum Ba Ya.”

Ain’t gonna happen.

And yet, I still believe that there is one God who is the God of all the religions. (See: “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”)

And if there truly is one God who is the Creator and God of all the universe, and therefore the God of all the religions of our earth, then it makes sense that God would have some especially important and critical messages to convey to all people, through all the religions of the world.

That is why I believe that although there are many different religions saying many different things, there are some common strands of divine truth and inspiration that run through every legitimate religion.

I say every legitimate religion because there are some truly wacked out and illegitimate cults that have more to do with glorifying and enriching some truly sick human beings and gratifying their twisted whims than they do with loving God and loving the neighbor.

It is also true that some legitimate religions, such as the philosophical strain of Buddhism that has become popular in the West, hardly even mention God, and are more focused on achieving our human spiritual potential.

So it’s a good idea not to get too absolute about saying, “All religions believe X.”

And yet, once again, because I believe there is one God who created the entire universe and everyone in it, I do believe that there are common threads that run through most, if not all, of the religions of the earth.

Let’s look at two or three of these basic themes of religion.

God is the center and focus of all genuine religion

The central theme of all genuine religion is, as Jesus said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Or as I phrased it above:

Believe in, love, and honor God.

True, some segments of some religions such as Buddhism and Taoism don’t have a clearly defined doctrine of God that they put at the center of their religion. But even these religious belief systems involve a “path” or “way” that is seen as transcending merely human and worldly concerns. In these religions, that “path” or “way” is an abstract conception of God.

However, most religions do have an explicit conception of a divine being (or beings) central to their belief and practice. Even polytheistic religions see their gods as being greater than human beings, and as requiring belief, love, and honor from their followers. And in the major polytheistic religions, some of the more philosophical believers and teachers think of the various “gods” as being more in the nature of various attributes or ramifications of a single universal God.

Regardless of whether a particular religion thinks of God as an abstract ideal, a multiplicity of individual deities, or a single supreme God who is the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists, that Divine Being or Principle will form the center and focus of the religion. Everything else in the religion revolves around it.

So the first common theme of all religions is:

A belief in, love for, and honor of God, however God is conceived

That’s what makes a religion a religion rather than a secular moral and ethical system.

Loving the neighbor is a key element of all genuine religion

Although religions aren’t mere moral and ethical systems, all religions do have a system of morals and ethics guiding their followers on how to treat their fellow human beings.

Jesus made this the second key principle of religion when he said that the second Great Commandment is:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Realistically, if we are going to follow that commandment there are two absolute necessities, which I phrased as:

  • Don’t do evil, selfish, and destructive things.
  • Do good, loving, kind, and useful things for your neighbor instead.

Or as stated compactly in the book of Isaiah:

Cease to do evil,
learn to do good.
(Isaiah 1:16–17)

Don’t do evil, selfish, and destructive things

The first step in loving our neighbor (meaning our fellow human beings) is to not do bad things to them.

Let’s face it. We humans tend to think of ourselves first, and of other people only as they relate to our own sense of wellbeing. And that natural self-centeredness leads us to say and do many things that are hurtful to our fellow human beings. Lying, cheating, stealing, attacking, fighting, and killing—all of these and many other hurtful and deadly things we do to one another arise out of our natural focus on ourselves and our own wellbeing.

So the first thing religions of all types tell us about our behavior is that we must not do evil, selfish, and destructive things.

Yes, different religions have different rules as to exactly what we’re not supposed to do. But the ones listed in the second table of the Ten Commandments—honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, and not even having a burning desire to have what belongs to our neighbors—are pretty basic and universal rules in all the various religions around the world.

One common way this step is expressed in various religions is that we must repent from our evil desires, thoughts, and actions. The word “repent” simply means, “Don’t do that anymore! Don’t even think about doing it!”

As long as we’re still doing bad things to our fellow human beings, such as stealing from them, lying about them, and killing them, it’s sort of hard to do good things for them, isn’t it? One cancels out the other.

That’s why the first step in loving our neighbor as ourselves is:

Don’t do evil, selfish, and destructive things.

This is Religious Common Theme #2A.

Do good, loving, kind, and useful things for your neighbor instead

As we stop doing bad things to our fellow human beings, we can begin to focus on doing good things for them instead.

Every legitimate religion has a moral and ethical code that not only says what you’re not supposed to do to your fellow human beings, but also what you are supposed to do for them.

There is an even greater variety here than there is on the rules of what we’re not supposed to do. But in general, the various religions teach that we are to be honest, compassionate, merciful, and faithful in our dealings with our fellow human beings, and that we are to devote our life to serving them through engaging in good deeds and useful service in our community.

Jesus tied this commandment to love and serve our neighbor directly to the even greater commandment to love and serve God. In his teaching about the Judgment of the Nations, also known as The Sheep and the Goats (in Matthew 25:31-46), he said that as much as we have given our neighbor in need something to eat and drink, clothing, a friendly welcome and invitation, cared for them when they were sick, and visited them in prison, we have done these same things for God.

Every legitimate religion teaches that it is God’s will that we should love and serve our neighbor in compassionate, practical, and helpful ways.

That’s because the second step in loving our neighbor is:

Do good, loving, kind, and useful things for our fellow human beings.

This is Religious Common Theme #2B.

The common themes in all religion

Here, then, are the common themes that you will find running through all genuine religions if you look deeply enough:

  1. Believe in, love, and honor God.
  2. Don’t do evil, selfish, and destructive things.
  3. Do good, loving, kind, and useful things for your neighbor instead.

Or to boil it down even further:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in All About God, Spiritual Growth
3 comments on “Is There a Common Theme in All Religions?
  1. Alex says:

    Hi Lee. Good article!

    I have a specific question. Some of the biggest religions on this world do have some rather inhuman practices. I am specifically referring to the Old Testament and the people who follow it and refuse the New Covenent, as well as the Islam. Mind you, I have read wonderful things in the Kuran, however, I have also seen very antiquated practices that remind me of the times before Jesus. As far as I understand, the Old Covenant was only for the people of Moses and was not meant to stay, but be fulfilled by Christ, who would make the New Covenant with all the people. Yet those practices stick around to this day, especially in the middle east. I know a person, who used to be a part of a religion like that, but left it behind because in his eyes in encourages inequality and exclusivity. He disliked that concept as he wanted to view people as equal and not discriminate or destroy ‘infidels’.

    This part has me puzzled. One the one hand, God gave us religions to glorify Him. But on the other hand, there is the New Covenant and many of the old practices should be no more. I have a hard time believing and stoning someone in this day and age is a reasonable command and that religious leaders should act as intermediaries between God and us. Wasn’t the point of His comming to eliminate the need for intermediaries, so that we can have a personal relationship with the Lord?

    This ultimately begs the question of whether some people are misguided, and this scares me. I do not wish for anyone to be damned because of the mistakes of another or because of manipulation. All should have the chance to experience the glory of God and choose freely. However, I also know that our God is a God of love, but also Justice. He will save the righteous and we can trust that His decision is the right one.

    You had an article about bloody and brutal religions and how people that walk away from it for the right reasons are justified, and yet we have evolved as humans, both intelectually and spiritually, but many bloody practices still exist in a time where the New Covenant has already been made.

    Anyway, I realize that I am rambling a bit, but I am having trouble to put my concerns into words. I hope you understand what I am asking.

    Cheers 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi Alex,

      Yes, I’m having a little trouble discerning the “specific question” here. 😛 But I’ll take a few potshots and see if any of ’em hit. 🙂

      Humanity around the globe progresses (or not) at varying rates, and takes different paths, culture by culture and individual by individual. Some cultures in various parts of the world are still very much in an “Old Covenant” state and mindset. These cultures still live by rules that are quite similar to those of Old Testament times. Other cultures have moved on to a “New Covenant” state and no longer follow the ways of the Old Covenant. And some think of themselves as being New Covenant while still really being Old Covenant in practice. On that, see my article, “Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!” And to make a long story short, the religion followed by each culture still to this day is adapted to the mindset of that culture.

      Individuals who don’t match the mindset of their culture have to deal with that in one way or another. Fortunately, it is generally easier today than it was in past centuries to leave one’s nation and culture for another one that is more suitable. Yet there are still many people stuck in cultures that don’t match their own mindset and spiritual path. Some of these people become the agents of change that move their cultures in new directions. Others get martyred. And some just keep their heads down and try not to get noticed.

      Yes, some people certainly are misguided. Whether than means they are headed for hell is another question entirely. It is a conceit of the educated classes, especially in the West, that our intellect determines our entire trajectory, both here on earth and in the hereafter. And though intellect, faith, and beliefs certainly do have a major effect on our life (see: “Does Doctrine Matter? Why is it Important to Believe the Right Thing?”), it is what we love and what we do that counts the most in the long run—and especially in eternity. So people who are misguided but well-intentioned, though they may do some unintended damage along the way, will eventually find their way to heaven. Ditto for well-intentioned people who are duped by misguided or even badly intentioned spiritual and religious leaders.

      If none of this particularly answers your specific question, feel free to hone it down to something a little more specific and try again. 🙂

  2. Alex says:

    Hi Lee. Sorry, if it was rather unspecific. I tried to avoid taking a direct stab at a world religion, as it isn’t my place to judge. My primary concern was that I am sad and maybe anxious about those people, who live in a religion that is not based on lesser truths than those based on greater ones. I am hesitant to call the words of Jesus Christ superior, as it would be arrogance to presume the words I study are superior, but I can not shake the feeling that many other religions are lacking compared to the love and grace shown by Jesus during his time here and his new plan for Salvation. Seeing how the current Jewish religion could be a direct consequence of their denial of Christ in ancient times is making me feel uneasy. Or seeing how most religions, including Christianity, has turned into a exclusivity club where people argue that their way is superior to others. Such assumptions kill the very purpose of religion as a mean to glorfy the Lord. How can we love others if we treat them as inferior unbelivers?

    However, what you wrote gave me some solice, but there is still much unanswered. Answer only the Lord knows. But what chances are the Lord knows better than I. Everything we know of is of His design and nothing is beyond His control. And still I pray for those people, unable to cast all my worries on the Lord.

    But time and prayer on this matter should resolve it for me in due time, if the Lord wills it 🙂

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