In 2007, Stephen Prothero (professor of religion at Boston University) wrote a book called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. Prothero made the case that secularism in American education was converting the citizens of our country into religious illiterates at just the time we need to be more aware of the role of religion in society. Religious Literacy struck a chord as it quickly climbed onto the New York Times Bestseller list. (See my review here.)
Three years later, Prothero is back with another book, provocatively titled, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). His new book builds on the case he made before: religion matters.
But Prothero goes a step further in God Is Not One. He not only seeks to convince Americans of the need for religious knowledge; he also believes we need to put an end to the idea that all religions are fundamentally the same. Not only does religion matter, our religious differences matter too.
Prothero believes that many scholars are unable to understand each religion on its own terms because of their mistaken foundational belief that all religions are fundamentally the same:
“This [belief that all religions are fundamentally the same] is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one… The idea of religious unity is wisful thinking, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide.” (2-3)
So Prothero sets out to give us a brief history and description of the eight big religions in our world today. His goal is to promote tolerance, not uniformity:
“Tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.” (5)
At one level, I affirm Prothero’s attempt to demonstrate the irreconcilable differences between the religions of the world. When it comes to cracking the pillars of liberal mushiness regarding the deepest beliefs of religious adherents, Prothero is an ally. He writes:
“God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that – faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.” (3)
But at another level, I’m troubled by what Prothero fails to see (or address). When he starts analyzing the world religions, he enters a rabbit hole of his own. He carefully makes distinctions between religions and then weighs their positive and negative aspects. The result makes Prothero out to be an objective, non-committed scholar standing over each religion, making judgments on religious manifestations. But in the end, I wonder: On what ground does Prothero determine what is positive and negative?
So Prothero can say:
“We need to see the world’s religions as they really are – in all their gore and glory. This includes seeing where they agree and disagree, and not turning a blind eye to their failings.” (17)
But nowhere does Prothero engage in any serious reflection about his own vantage point. What are the tools he uses to judge the “gore and glory,” the “successes and failings” of the world’s religions? Where do these tools come from?
It is interesting to see Prothero give Islam the first chapter of the book. He claims that Islam deserves first place regarding influence:
“To presume that the conversation about the great religions starts with Christianity is to show your parochilaism and your age. The nineteenth and twentieth centures may have belonged to Christianity. The twenty-first belongs to Islam.” (63)
A provocative move, for sure, albeit overstated. For me, the frustrating aspect of the treatment of Islam and Christianity is the way Prothero goes to great lengths to rehabilitate Islam’s image. He wants us to see mainstream Muslims as inherently tolerant and peaceful. Then, when describing Christianity, Prothero informs us of violence perpetrated by Christians in the past. It appears that he is trying to level the ground between Islam and Christianity by pointing out that peace and violence have a place in both histories.
Ironically, Prothero’s attempt to level the playing field proves the point he doesn’t try to make. The very fact that he has to search for language of Christian warfare indicates that the violent strain of Christianity is not as pronounced as the strain in Islam. Christians apologize constantly for the Crusades. I’ve never heard a Muslim apologize for their ancestors taking over vast portions of Europe by sword.
In a book that summarizes the beliefs of eight different religions, analysis must be simplified. At times, Prothero simplifies things well. Other times, his analysis is too simplistic. For example, he summarizes the main monotheistic religions this way:
“Judaism begins and ends with a story. If Christianity is to a great extent about doctrine and Islam about ritual, Judaism is about narrative.” (243)
Or take this:
“Whereas Christians strive to keep the faith, Jews strive to keep the commandments.” (245)
Any subtlety or nuance disappears from statements like these. Perhaps I am being too hard on him at this point. How else Prothero can be short and precise about eight major religions without making these kinds of summary statements at times?
Overall, God Is Not One is an informative book about the religions of the world that fails to live up to its subtitle. Prothero admirably lays out the differences of the world religions, and yet by failing to put forth his own foundational beliefs, we are left with little understanding as to how and why these religious differences matter.