Interview with Stephen Prothero on ‘God Is Not 1’

Prothero’s book does not contain maps. This map, ABOVE, is one of many attempts to show dominant areas of religious faiths.Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One,” is really the book that many readers expected they were buying when they purchased “Religious Literacy” in 2008. Now, these books almost form a two-volume set. The first book reported on the problem of widespread ignorance about religion. For example, most Americans can’t name the 4 gospels. But, there wasn’t room in that first book to include all the fascinating Religion 101 material that many readers expected to find there. Now, in 2010, “God Is Not One” offers us engaging, discussion-sparking overviews of eight major world faiths. This new book really is Religion 101 as taught by a very popular teacher.

One big innovation in Prothero’s new book: There’s an entire section on the Yoruba religion and its many colorful forms now morphing around the world, including in American neighborhoods.

Yes, it’s also true: The new book opens and closes with Prothero’s rather startling arguments rebuffing the work of some other popular teachers like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong. But the core of “God Is Not One” is a very substantial look at eight of the world’s most important religions. In short: If you’ve got a small group that wants to explore other religious traditions on a weekly basis, this book will keep your members excited and full of conversation for two months.

On Monday, we also published a brief excerpt from the book, which explains Prothero’s overall argument. It’s important to understand that, while Prothero definitely disagrees with Smith and Armstrong on some key points, Prothero is not calling for religious friction. He is not a throw-back to the days when many American writers wrote about other world religions mainly to prove them wrong and to show American missionaries how to convert their members. On the contrary, Prothero argues that his clear-eyed approach to teaching about religious differences can form a stronger basis for civil acceptance of all major religions.

Highlights of Our Interview With
Stephen Prothero on “God Is Not One”

DAVID: Given your title, I think readers will be surprised at what they’ll find between this book’s covers. First, there is a passionate manifesto here, trying to steer educational programs about religion away from the Huston Smith model that focused on the universal similarities between religions. But, the vast majority of this book is really a “great read” about eight of the world’s biggest religions. Am I correct that you’re sandwiching two different goals between these covers?

STEPHEN: The book definitely has those two aims. At the most basic level, the book is a general introduction to the world’s religions that avoids some of the mistakes of past books and projects that tried to smoosh all the world’s religions into one common faith.

Then, there also is this argument I’m making that shows up more in the introduction and the conclusion to the book. Maybe it does have a manifesto feeling to it. It’s my response to the Huston Smith crowd that promotes the idea that all religions are the same and are good. But there’s more to my argument than just a response to Huston Smith. I’m also responding to the new atheists who say all religions are the same and are bad. And, I’m responding to all those people who say their own individual religion is the only good and the only right religion. I’m trying to thread the needle here between all three constituencies.

DAVID: You’ve got a lot of memorable lines in this book. Here’s one from early in the book: “Religion is not merely a private affair. It matters socially, economically, politically and militarily. Religion may or may not move mountains but it is one of the prime movers in politics worldwide.” This seems particularly true in a post-9/11 world.

STEPHEN: Since 9/11, we are all aware that religion has an undeniable public presence in the world. Before 9/11 as a religious-studies scholar, I had to explain to people what I do. That included my colleagues at my university and people I met at cocktail parties and in airplanes. People thought if you used the word religion in your job title, then you had to be a minister or some kind of evangelist. But now we’re all aware of religion as a force in the world.

I still think there are a lot of false views out there: Some say religion is going away; some say religion is just for idiots; and some say we don’t have to worry about religion because religion is a good thing. All three are false. What we witnessed on 9/11 was religion being dangerous. Now, we understand that religion has such force. I think we get that religion can be dangerous. But, here’s the problem: I think we still don’t know much at all about religion. The next step is: We need to learn about this force in our world.

Prothero on Yoruba Religion

Contemporary wood carving of the Yoruba orisha Shango, a manifestation of God in the Yoruba religion. Shango is depicted traditionally as a god of thunder. Sometimes, Shango’s image is abstracted into the form of a huge axe from which thunderbolts are produced. In this case, he is shown as a male figure holding an axe. He is supporting an image of his wife.DAVID: Now, when readers see that the bulk of your book is an introduction to eight world religions, they may think: Ohhh, that sounds boring. That sounds a lot like other books I’ve got on my shelf already. In fact, you’ve got some surprisingly fresh sections in this book. Let’s talk about what I think is the most important: your section on the Yoruba religion. There’s very very little good reading material out there. Wikipedia has a little bit on Yoruba religion, but that Wiki page is pretty lame.

Your 40 pages on Yoruba, which you subtitle “The Way of Connection,” is one of the great selling points for this new book. I think people should buy it just for those 40 pages.

I’m guessing that most of our readers aren’t familiar with this religion. In fact, along with this interview I’m going to publish one of the online maps of dominant religions around the world—and most of those maps don’t even include the Yoruba religion. In your book, you give us a few popular culture connections with Yoruba. One comes from the 1950s, when Desi Arnaz used to sing songs naming the Yoruba “orisha,” or manifestation of God, known as Babaluaye. Then, flash forward to 1990 when DC Comics began featuring Yoruba orishas in popular comic books to add more African diversity to DC’s pantheon of superheroes. So, let’s talk about this very unusual part of your book.

STEPHEN: Thank you for noticing that! One issue when you’re writing any general introduction to religion is the question of what you will include. At Boston University, I am the advisor for the Sikh student group and yet I didn’t have enough space in this book to include Sikhism. I wanted to make room for the Yoruba religion because it’s one example of religions that other writers tend to dismiss or to lump together with phrases like “primitive religions.”

Shango in DC Comics, using his axe to spark thunder.In planning this book, I asked the question: What are the leading religions of the world right now? I decided to write about the Yoruba tradition because it has close to 100 million adherents. And it has a real presence in the United States in groups like Santeria. It also has public power here, because one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases in the last century was the Santeria case in Dade County where there was an effort to outlaw the sacrifice of animals.

DAVID: OK, now you’re referring to Santeria, which we might say is a New World branch from Yoruba, and readers will begin to light up with mental associations. But, we have to admit that some of those pop-culture associations are not good. I can think of stock villains in some mystery novels and movies that are cast as Santeria practitioners or followers of Vodou or Vodun.

STEPHEN: Yes, we’re aware of Vodou through pop culture. People have seen images and references to this tradition, so I thought that readers could use this opportunity to learn about this as a true world religion. I also had a very specific push in doing this. I gave a talk about two years ago in Louisville in an interfaith gathering and this African-American woman stood up and said: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about all these white religions all the time. When are you going to write about religions of people of color—about African religions?”

Also, I have worked with Wande Abimbola, an important Nigerian scholar. This is a religion that is ancient and also is urban and has flourished in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. It crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade to Central and North America and it’s famous for merging in some ways with Catholicism to form movements over here. I find it fascinating because of a few concepts in Yoruba religion. One is the concept of ashé, which can be translated as the power to make things happen. This power takes many forms in the world—in people and in plants and animals, too. And a huge effort in the religion is to tap into ashé and create power for yourself. It’s a tradition that put the notion of power front and center and also put the problem of disconnection and the goal of connection front and center. A lot of us in the modern West feel disconnected from what matters in life, from sources of power. The more cell phones and computers and iPhones and iPads we have, the more we feel isolated at the same time. This is a religion that has thought for centuries about how to connect humans one to another and to the cosmos and to the gods and to the natural world—and to connect us to our own true selves. The tradition is fascinating.

DAVID: I’m sure we’ll get an email or two from readers pointing out that Santeria and forms of Vodou aren’t really the same thing as the original Yoruba religion, so let me at least ask you about your grouping of them.

STEPHEN: If you get an email like that, then you’ve got very well educated readers. But you’re right. This is a real question, so I showed this chapter—and all the chapters in my book—to experts in these traditions. The one comment I got from some Yoruba experts is the thing we often hear in academia: Don’t lump. Things are distinctive. And that is the bane of academics today. Buddhist scholars say there is no single Buddhism. There are many different Buddhisms. Others will say: Don’t confuse Protestantism with Catholicism with Mormonism, because they’re now three separate religions. But that isn’t an issue of truth or falsehood. It’s a question of what kind of zoom lens we place on our cameras as we explore these traditions.

I see enough continuity between the Old World and the New World Yoruba religion to use one name for this section of the book. I know some scholars will disagree with me. But, I would argue there are probably fewer continuities between contemporary American Southern Baptists and traditional Russian Orthodox than there are between Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria and Santeria practitioners in New York City.

DAVID: I’m asking about this, because your own book’s major theme is: Don’t lump religions together. Can we tell readers roughly where this unifying movement began? We might go back to William Blake in the 1700s or the Baha’i movement in the 1800s. We might pick a number of other starting point.

STEPHEN: The origins of this contemporary idea of religions being one, I think, comes to us through India. I do mention William Blake in the book, but what I’m talking about is mainly a 20th century phenomenon that comes through India and crosses over into southern California. I’m talking about Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith and that whole crew that Don Lattin has written about.

DAVID: We just welcomed Don Lattin into ReadTheSpirit to talk about his new book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” Huxley was part of that movement as was Smith and a number of other famous people.

STEPHEN: Yes, Smith and Huxley and these guys were talking with swamis in southern California and then filtering this message out through their own popular writings. This was a theological desire to have all the religions seen as the same. Part of this emerged from modern India as a response to Christian missionaries. Indians began pointing out that their religion was valid and, in fact, had great similarities to others—so stop coming over to India and trying to convert us. Then, this gathers a moral force among people opposed to the imperialist and exclusivist ideas about religion.

DAVID: But you’re opposed to such forces, too.

STEPHEN: What I’m saying is that there are more than these two choices. You don’t have to be either an exclusivist—or declare that everyone is the same. I think there is another approach that sees the real differences in religion. You’ve got to remember that the world Huston Smith and the others were responding to was the world of their parents. There’s something definitely good to be said for their movement. We don’t want to go rampaging around the world trying to covert everybody. What Huston Smith was doing in the 1950s took great moral courage and intellectual bravery.

Now in 2010, I’m saying, we’ve had generations of religious studies since the 1950s and we’ve seen a lot of change in the world. But, this kind of orthodoxy from this earlier movement remains and says that we must say that all religions are the same.

DAVID: There’s an important truth in what you’re arguing here. One way to see it is to walk into a grocery store or a Target or Walmart store and start looking closely at products. Look at exercise clothes—often promoted as yoga gear for the millions of people who practice yoga. Or look at candles, teas and other beverages, popular music, outdoor gear, general inspirational books, magazines.

A few years ago, I asked a Hindu scholar to spend an hour walking through a Target store. I don’t think he normally went shopping for his household, because  he finally began picking up packages and looking carefully—and he was amazed and a little angry as well! He said, “Hey! They’re selling my tradition with their toothpaste! And they aren’t getting it right!” One problem with this all-religions-are-the-same idea is that people can smoosh religious themes into our consumer products as well, right?

STEPHEN: Part of why we can get hoodwinked by the lump-all-religions-into-one folks is that we don’t know enough. Many people aren’t even knowledgeable about their own religion. But if we begin to learn about world religions, we realize that they are not all the same.

Prothero’s Call for an “Amazing Conversation”

DAVID: We’re going to run a very brief excerpt from your book’s conclusion to explain more about your argument to our readers. ALSO, on the day this interview appears, we’re going to publish a story by a young American Muslim woman who describes how great it is when her father, who is Muslim, cordially debates with her uncle, who is Hindu. This is an important part of her family life—and it can be a model for civil community in our world as well. We don’t have to agree on everything. But we do have to find cordial ways to explore each other’s core values.

STEPHEN: I love what you’re saying about this young woman! One of the things that is very attractive about Judaism is that Judaism has a great tradition of joyful argument. I lament the loss of that in college! That was a huge experience for me, too, when I was growing up. Yes, we have to talk. We have to argue. If we’re left with pretense and misunderstandings, then that leads us to conflict. I use the term “conversation” in my book. The world’s great religions invite us to enter into an amazing conversation. To pretend that all religions are the same is to forestall much of this amazing conversation. I love the story of this Muslim woman. If her family concluded that all religions were the same, then she would miss out on the Hindu uncle and the Muslim father arguing in the dining room.

DAVID: Are you hopeful we can achieve this kind of civil community that joyfully debates?

STEPHEN: I am totally hopeful. This is the Confucius in me, I think—the Confucius who believes in the importance of learning. I’m convinced that the old ways of going about this are not going to work. I think we need Interfaith 2.0. Rather than forcing false unity, let’s assume we’re different and our goal is to understand the differences and to appreciate living with them.

(Originally published in

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