NO, all religions are not “ultimately the same”: Perennialism, Traditionalism and Authoritarianism

One of the commonplace expressions encountered in popular American religious culture, including popular Buddhist culture, is that all religions are ultimately the same. Without exploring any of the nuances, this expresses in “bumper sticker” brevity a central tenet of Perennialism. Although older, Perennialism was popularized for generations of seekers across the middle of the 20th century—first given new life by Aldous Huxley, and then instantiated as part of the academic study of religion by Huston Smith. The idea was further set into the bedrock of popular Western religious thought by the simplistic idea conveyed by the metaphor of “one mountain, many paths,” which exemplifies the empty truism that “there is only one truth and all religions lead to it.” Not only did Smith promote Perennialism, but he acknowledged his personal acceptance of Traditionalism as well, indicating that he considered it a legitimate religious stance. And to be clear, this is a religiously informed preconception, not an empirically grounded generalization about religions.

In equally simplistic form, what Traditionalism adds to the ideology of Perennialism is the belief in the need for legitimate initiation into an authoritative tradition with roots in the ancient past. One of the very most critically important books for the modern study of religion is Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2009 link). Sedgwick refers to this idea that there are some traditions that have such legitimate initiations as “initiatic validity” (226). For most Traditionalists, modernity is an illness of the soul for which modern religions, lacking such a mystical connection to the ancient sources of wisdom and power via initiation could not cure.

Traditionalist ideas have found new adherents among the extreme right wing and quasi-fascists, both in the United States and Europe. This is seen for example in Steve Bannon, advisor to former President Trump. Bannon’s promoted the ideas of Julius Evola, the Italian Traditionalist who “is best known as a leading proponent of Traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.” (NYTimes, Feb. 10, 2017 link) Here, in yet another inflection, is the racist idea not only that some people are naturally, inherently better than others, but that this gives them the right to rule over those others.

Particularly and compellingly relevant today is one chapter of Against the Modern World, “Neo-Eurasianism in Russia.” Sedgwick explains neo-Eurasianism as a form of Traditionalism crafted in Russia. This incarnation of Traditionalism is particularly the work of Aleksandr Dugin, who also translated Evola into Russian. Dugin’s ideas about the mystical role of Russia have been influential in the formation of Putin’s ideas about the relation between Russia and Ukraine. (See also Ezra Klein, “The Enemies of Liberalism are Showing Us What It Really Means,” NYTimes 3 April 2022, link).

A particularly trenchant, and chilling paragraph—the significance of which escaped me when I first read Sedgwick’s book several years ago—points out that the usual form of nationalism as a claim to unity based on shared ethnicity and territory (blood and soil, or “Blut und Boden” in the phrase popularized by the Nazis) was not meaningful for the multi-ethnic and expansive Russian state. Instead of fantasizing a mystical unity based on blood and soil, neo-Eurasianism offered an alternative, more inclusive form of state-based identity (Sedgwick, 238). The claim of neo-Eurasianism is that

The Eurasian bloc, led by Russia, would include not only the whole of the Russan Federation but, in most interpretations, areas such as Ukraine and Belarus. In some views it would also include not just the territories of the former USSR, but also most of the Islamic world.

Sedgwick, p. 238

The contemporary idea of religion focuses on doctrinal systems, that is belief systems–and Buddhism is also treated that way in much of both popular and scholarly discourse. This move to frame religions as systems of beliefs makes religions simply another form of ideology. And ideas may seem to be ennobling to some because they cloak or justify their own claim of being noble. At the same time, having leveled all religions into systems of beliefs, Evola, Smith, and other Traditionalists make Buddhism fit into their own ideological system. If you have a copy of Smith’s The World’s Religions (formerly The Religions of Man) on your bookshelf, perhaps left over from an undergraduate course, you can see what I mean—particularly in light of the critical examination of Traditionalist treatments of Buddhism (see below). One of the concepts that Smith popularized was that of “ancient wisdom traditions.” Again, this is not an empirical category, but rather a rhetorical one that claims authority by juxtaposing the three terms of the phrase.

So when someone talks about Buddhism as an “ancient wisdom tradition,” that claim entails many dimensions that may be undesirable. Similarly, the claim that all religions are “ultimately” the same, while empty, carries with it a suppression of the teachings and practices of Buddhism that are unique, instead leveling Buddhism out as just one more religious ideology to be integrated into a grand hierarchical scheme—whether Evola’s, Smith’s, Bannon’s, or Dugin’s. Those finally authoritarian and oppressive systems do not represent the Buddhism that I find conducive to the benefit of myself and others.