Book review: 'God Is Not One,' by Stephen Prothero

By Jay Tolson
Sunday, May 23, 2010


The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World--And Why Their Differences Matter

By Stephen Prothero

Harper One.

388 pp. $26.99

Religion confuses even the best minds -- and maybe the best minds most of all. Chalk that up partly to the contempt most modern intellectuals have felt for the "opiate of the people." That attitude is hardly conducive to deep understanding, and in fact has given rise to a number of popular misconceptions. One is that modernization -- and its handmaidens, mass education and science -- would lead inevitably to the long-heralded twilight of the gods. We would all be good secular humanists one day soon.

Confidence in that particular shibboleth took a bad hit in the last decade or so. In addition to 9/11 and other acts of faith-based zealotry, Americans witnessed the boisterous return of religion to their public square. Other evidence from around the world -- whether it's the assertive role of Hinduism in contemporary Indian politics or the renewed interest in Confucian principles in still nominally communist China -- has made it much harder to think that religion is a spent force.

Intellectuals friendly to religion have fostered an equally misleading notion, one that is thoughtfully dispelled in Stephen Prothero's book, "God is Not One." Seeing the world's major belief systems through Enlightenment-tinted glasses, a succession of influential philosophers, artists, scholars and even many religious leaders have tended to minimize the differences of ritual and dogma among the various religions to emphasize a supposedly universal and benign truth shared by them all. Such well-meaning believers (and they do constitute a kind of religion of their own) have subscribed to variations of the Dalai Lama's affirmation that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."

It's an uplifting bromide, to be sure, and Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, gives its supporters their due. The Golden Rule and other ethical principles are indeed shared by a majority of the world's religions. The mystical traditions of many religions employ similar disciplines and aspire to similar ends, whether transcendence of baser desires or a sense of unity with a supreme being.

But if the devil is in the details, the point of Prothero's useful book is that God is, too. Which is to say that the particular and often problematic features of a religion -- from its core narratives and rituals to its arcane points of theology -- are at least as important to its followers as those qualities that it may share with other religions. The universalist impulse may be a "lovely sentiment," Prothero writes, "but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue."

And not only friends of religion abuse the truth through such generalizing, says Prothero. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other so-called New Atheists attack religions as if they were an undifferentiated mass of barbaric superstitions, all having a disastrous effect on the development of humanity, rational discourse and civil society. Prothero does not deny the evils that have been done in the name of God; he insists that it is precisely a religion's mixture of dark and light, its potential for good and evil, that makes each and every religion so distinctive and so ineradicably human.

The aim of Prothero's previous book "Religious Literacy" was to show how little most Americans know about their own and others' religious traditions -- this, in what is supposed to be the most God-fearing nation in the industrial world. Here, he seeks to show how intractable the differences are not only among the world's major religious traditions but also within them. Just as puritanical Wahhabis refuse to accept that Sufis are proper Muslims, for example, so many evangelical and other Christians insist that Mormons lie outside the orthodox Christian fold. Some major traditions stretch the definitional limits of the word religion to the breaking point. Confucianism, and perhaps a couple other Asian traditions, would appear to have more in common with an ethical system such as stoicism than with most other religious systems, in which creeds and deities and worship are more central. So why is one called a religion and the other not?

Prothero takes up that question and many related ones but never adequately wrestles them to the mat. To my disappointment, his book ends up being more a primer on eight major world religions -- a useful and generally reliable primer, it should be said -- than a sustained examination of the incommensurability of the world's religions.

The latter would have required more attention to history and the forces that have contributed to the rise and transformation of all world religions. The steady march of globalization has increased contact among religions, resulting sometimes in competition and conflict and sometimes in emulation and outright borrowing. The responses of religions to the rise of modern science, the spread of mass literacy, and sweeping changes in the world's political systems are just as crucial to their distinctive and ever-changing character.

Some of these factors are mentioned in passing, but the professor's set lectures finally say too little about the questions that trouble our age. What are the commonalities and differences among the many modern religious fundamentalist movements -- and how do all reject yet depend on the scientific worldview? How and why are some religions becoming more and more like political ideologies? Answering those questions would show more convincingly why differences among religions really do matter.

Jay Tolson is news director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He has reported and written extensively on religion and is the author of "Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy."

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