The false idea that all religions are essentially the same is as old as, well, religion itself. But advances in communications over the centuries – from the printing press to social media – keep giving syncretism a fresh set of legs.
For example, 18th century poet William Blake wrote the seminal book All Religions Are One.
A century later Mohandas Gandhi declared, “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions.”
These days, the Dalai Lama affirms, “The essential message of all religions is very much the same.”
The “all religions are one” mantra reverberates throughout today’s culture, at least in part because it serves as an antidote to the vitriol with which so many religious zealots defend their faith.
Even so, it isn’t true.
In Cholula, Mexico, stands the Church of Our Lady of Remedies. It sits atop the largest archaeological site in the Americas — a pyramid laced with catacombs and filled with artifacts from pre-colonial days.
According to some accounts, the natives of Cholula refused to welcome Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 16th century. So to teach them a lesson, Cortes massacred thousands and ordered the people to build 365 Catholic Churches, one for each day of the year.
They never reached their goal, but Cortes made his point: The Aztecs were a conquered people, and their religion was subjugated to Roman Catholicism.
The Aztecs understood this — or should have. Previously, they were the conquerors and had built their sacred sites atop those of other indigenous peoples.
An interesting side effect is that none of the religions remained pure. Rather, each incorporated some of the beliefs and practices of the previous peoples into their religious life.
As a result, in many parts of Latin America today Roman Catholicism is a skin stretched over the ancient bones of animistic and pagan practices that find open expression outside the Catholic Church in religions like Santeria and Voodoo.