Skip to main content

'God Is Not One': A book on acknowledging religious differences

Religions are different. They have different aims and fill different needs. It is respectful to acknowledge this, rather than to pretend otherwise, says Stephen Prothero. Originally posted to Helium Network on May 7, 2010.

"No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same," Stephen Prothero says in the opening to his 2010 book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter. "Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, essentially the same..." Writing in response to a philosophy embraced by academia after Huston Smith's 1958 book "The World's Religions", Prothero aims to explain, to the contrary, why religious differences are significant and important.

Prothero says he teaches his students to use a four-part analytical framework: each religion identifies a problem in the human condition, proposes a solution, provides a technique for achieving that solution and points to exemplars or role models. In Christianity, for example, the problem is sin, and the solution is salvation. Judaism's central lament is exile, Buddhism is concerned with suffering, and so forth. This framework emphasizes differences between religions.

Those who side with Huston Smith often brush aside differences in creeds and sacraments as minor and inessential, while alleging that some other characteristic unifies all religions. Prothero says this claim stems from "naive theological groupthink - call it Godthink" and "ignorance" with the dangerous consequence that humans will never recognize or understand religious conflict. It may also be the mere hope for a united religion, expressed by people who "are not describing the world but reimagining it." In fact, the differences between religions are quite significant. A Confucian knows she is not a Catholic, and so should anyone who spends five minutes talking to her; it is actually disrespectful, says Prothero, to suggest otherwise.

When we rigorously study religions with the intent of observing their differences, might we run the risk of concluding that one is better than all the others? Well, yes - but only in the sense that each is devoted to its own unique focal point. Prothero makes an athletic analogy:
"Different sports have different goals: basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink puts. So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start."
To observe that Christianity is the best at addressing sin and salvation, then, is not to disparage the religions that are concerned with other philosophical problems entirely. This specialization also occurs in more pragmatic areas:
"If you want to help the homeless, you will likely find the Christian Social Gospel more useful than Hindu notions of caste. If you want to find techniques for quieting the mind through bodily exercises, you will likely find Hindu yogis more useful than Christian saints."
Acknowledging one religion as superior in this limited, focused way does not lead directly to bigotry. To the contrary, observing and understanding our differences is the first step to tolerating and respecting each other. This is true not only of interreligious relations but of interracial relations and of human partnership in general. "Who," he asks,
"is so naive as to imagine that the success of a relationship depends on the partners being essentially the same? Isn't it the differences that make things interesting? What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is. And this requirement is only frustrated by the naive hope that somehow you and your partner are magically the same."
Expressed so simply, this seems uncontroversial and has a memorable charm.

Image by Vaikunda Raja. © Creative Commons. Hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

At a book talk in Boston on April 27, 2010 - the day after he gave an "On Point" radio interview with Tom Ashbrook - an audience member spoke out of turn and asked the author, "Are you a relativist?" Prothero answered quickly, "I'm not a relativist and I think the book is profoundly anti-relativist." Neither one of them defined what they meant by "relativism." Given his disavowal of that mysterious philosophy, it may be surprising that, throughout his exposition of the world's religions, Prothero seems to betray admiration for philosophies that would be best described as relativist: Confucian virtue ethics interpreted as art rather than science; the Buddhist belief that a teaching's truth is determined by its usefulness and that all is empty, even the self; the Zen intuitive approach to nonduality and satori; the Jewish tradition of arguing without assuming that one possesses the truth; and the work of mystic Sufi poets such as Rumi, who referred to a place "beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing".

The meat of the book is in the lively illustrations of the world's major religions, and through these portraits, Prothero succeeds in making his point: God, or at least Religion, is not one.


Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia; despite Ethiopia's defeat in 1936, the nation ultimately retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Raymond Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36) The Victorian English spelli

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House . Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity. Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be

War is still about power, not truth

President George W. Bush told the nation in his 2003 State of the Union that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when no weapons stockpiles had been found, the head of the Iraq Survey Group testified that it "turns out we were all wrong." President Bush had to admit this in Summer 2003, and he used the line "we were all wrong" in his memoir, Decision Points, in 2010 after he’d left office and while the war was still ongoing. Americans, then and now, rationalized the national error by compounding it, insisting on an additional mistaken belief that Iraq somehow contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A majority of Americans believed it at the time, and even today in 2018 the narrative still has traction. In reality: None of the hijackers were Iraqi. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz “was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11” but had the idea of “using” outrage over th