684 Prothero’s Provocative Argument: “God Is Not One”

Stephen Prothero is a very important teacher far beyond his classroom at Boston University. We last talked with Stephen in 2008, when he published his “Religious Literacy”—a wake-up call to Americans about how little we know even about our own individual faiths! This week, we welcome Stephen back to ReadTheSpirit for an interview about his latest book, “God Is Not One,” which is a very helpful overview of eight world religions and their distinctive differences.

Prothero’s books are sold under provocative titles, but his mission is vitally important—as crucial as helping the millions of Americans who travel overseas navigate the rocky boundaries between various faiths and cultures. This week at ReadTheSpirit, our overall theme is: “How do we talk to each other honestly?” That’s at the core of Prothero’s work as an educator and writer.

Care to read about the research that led him to write “God Is Not One”? Here’s a link to our 2008 Interview with Stephen Prothero about “Religious Literacy.” Then, here’s a link to 10 sample questions from Prothero’s infamous religion quiz.

So, why is it important for all of us to know more about the differences between religions? We’ll talk with Stephen about this at length in our Wednesday interview this week. But his new book’s main message is easy to misunderstand. As we recommend this book to you, today, we also are sharing …

A Brief Excerpt of “God Is Not One” by Stephen Prothero

“’The Tao has 10,000 gates,’ say the masters, and it is up to each of us to find our own.”

To explore the great religions is to wander through these 10,000 gates. It is to enter into Hindu conversations on the logic of karma and rebirth, Christian conversations on the mechanics of sin and resurrection, and the Daoist conversation son flourishing here and now (and perhaps forever). It is also to encounter rivalries between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Jews and Muslims in Israel, and between Christians and Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria. Each of these rivals offers a different vision of “a human being alive.” Each offers its own diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation. Muslims say pride is the problem; Christians say salvation is the solution; education and ritual are key Confucian techniques; and Buddhism’s exemplars are the arhat (for Theravadins), the bodhisattva (for Mahaynists), and the lama (for Tibetan Buddhists). These differences can be overemphasized, of course, and the world’s religions do converge at points. Because these religions are a family of sorts, some of the questions they ask overlap, as do some of the answers.

It is tempting to lapse into the sort of naive Godthink that lumps all other religious paths into either opposites or mirror images of our own. The New Atheists see all religions (except their own “anti-religious religion”) as the same idiocy, the same poison. The perennial philosophers see all religions as the same truth, the same compassion. What both camps fail to see is religious diversity. Rather than 10,000 gates, they see only one. Godthink is ideological rather than analytical—it starts in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are on the ground. In the case of Hitchens and the New Atheists, it begins with the desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case of Huston Smith and the perennialists, it begins with the desire to praise the good in religion. Neither of these desires serves our understanding of a world in which religious traditions are at least as diverse as our political, economic, and social arrangements—where religious people make war and peace in the name of their gods, Buddhas, or orishas. It does not serve diplomats or entrepreneurs working in India or China to be told that all Hindus and all Confucians are equally idiotic. It does not serve soldiers in the Middle East to be told that the Shia Islam of Iran is essentially the same as the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, or that Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel do not disagree fundamentally on matters of faith or practice.

I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am concerned, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.

You can order “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter” from Amazon.

Come back tomorrow for a review of a movie—new to DVD this week—about Americans’ difficulty in talking about the true cost of our global wars. On Wednesday, Stephen Prothero talks about his new book.

(Originally published in readthespirit.com)


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