I decided to take what I learned in my classes at Harvard on religions, as well as my other classes in psychology, sociology, philosophy, and evolutionary biology to share my experiences and learning of the deeply common nature and destiny that we share. I see UEF as working toward the development of a vaccine against the insidious virus that prevents us from extending unconditional love toward one another. One of the first big projects of Universal Enlightenment & Flourishing has been the writing of a book on commonalities across all religions. My goal was to write a book that would broaden and deepen our understanding of religions, demonstrate that religions have historical roots situated in distinct contexts, and help to change readers’ exclusivist views of religion. It dawned on me that many others might be able to benefit from a more critical examination, just as I have. Most of us do not have enough understanding of our own religions, much less those of others. This is only natural, as we are not taught about religions in grade school — at least not from a critical perspective — and most of us do not have the free time in our adult lives to pursue this kind of study on our own, there is simply too much religious literature out there to comb through! Until now. The beauty of this book would be to curate a collection of quotes and insights from the world’s major religions, distilling the main substance of human wisdom into a single concentrated product. When I worked at Unilever earlier in my career, the active ingredient in the soaps and other products we sold only constituted 5% of the total volume of the container! I think of this book project as a distillation of just that 5% of material from belief systems that will have the most powerful effect upon readers.
My connection to Harvard enabled me to gather a small team of researchers and writers to help me with this book, as well as other UEF projects. Among them is Allen, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of theological studies degree in 2018, and has been working on the religion book since then. He was very skeptical at first, wondering what the value of such a book would be among all the other existing literature on religions. But soon he came to see the uniqueness of my approach and became more passionate about the project. This further convinced me that this would be a book that many readers would find to be powerful and important.
Early on in the research process, we were both surprised to learn just how many common themes we found across all religions — more than fifty! These similarities that we found are amazing from one point of view, but completely unsurprising if we view religion as a meaning-making endeavor of humanity that manifests itself in different contexts. In other words, although real differences across belief systems exist, they exist primarily due to historical and geographical context, as compared to the most important and prominent tenets of religions, which do not change across time and place — loving one’s neighbor, for instance. In a healthier world, religion would be viewed not as a competition over who is right and who is wrong, but rather a collective human endeavor toward meaning-making. Our differences should be seen as complementary aspects to be shared with one another in our collective quest as human beings to better understand the world we inhabit and our relationship to it. Because we all experience this same world in different ways, we only get closer to the truth by pooling our different perspectives.
There is a well-known story in Indian religious texts, including those of Hinduism and Buddhism, about an elephant and a group of blind men. Because they are blind, the men must rely on their sense of touch to examine the elephant. Since they all are touching different parts of the animal — the trunk, the tail, the tusks, etc. — they all come to very different conclusions as to the identity of what they’re touching. And thus the elephant can only be seen for what it is by the blind men if they each share and piece together their findings. This is how we should understand religion: each of the major prophets were dealing with limited information and resources based on their historical and geographical contexts. Furthermore, their insights had to be constrained in ways that would be communicable to their own people, rather than the people of other continents to which they were unable to travel. Nevertheless, their teachings all contain truths about humanity and the universe, and if we today pooled together these different, smaller truths, we collectively would be closer to the bigger Truth. We want to help people love and celebrate the beautiful diversity that exists among us, and see this diversity as an opportunity rather than a threat. As Joseph Campbell once noted, “A single song is being inflected through all the colorations of the human choir.”
After more than two years of conducting research for our book, we are ready to start sharing some of the beautiful quotes and insights we’ve gathered from the world’s major wisdom traditions. We welcome you to read the articles in this series, each of which will treat one of the common themes we have identified. But this is only the beginning. My nonprofit institute, Universal Enlightenment & Flourishing, is about more than just writing books on religions and other belief systems. These books are a starting point to lay the intellectual foundation of our mission. We are ambitiously starting a movement that we are hopeful will come to have a huge impact on the world. There are plenty of great educational institutions and resources out there. What we are trying to facilitate instead is a different type of learning, the enlightenment that comes from waking up, asking big questions about yourselves and the world around us, examining what we have been socially programmed to believe, and making the conscious decision to let go of all beliefs that hinder us from extending universal love to all others.