Camden Theological Library

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God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter

Posted on 30 July 2010 Gavin Glenn

By Seforosa Carroll

 

Stephen Prothero is professor of Religion at Boston University. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of the book Religious Literacy published in 2007. This book, Prothero states, is in part written for those many respondents (to Religious Literacy) confessing their religious ignorance and asking for a single book they could read to become religiously literate.  Prothero delivers. The book is very accessible to first time (religious & non-religious) readers exploring their way through the maze of at least eight of the world’s religions. 

 

Prothero’s methodology is simple and based on a fourfold approach. Each religion articulates:

·        a problem

·        a solution to this problem, which also serves as the religious goal

·        a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution

·        an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution 

 

Following this approach Prothero argues the case that all religions are not the same and to insist that they are will serve to do more harm than good. To deal with the world as it is, Prothero asserts that we need religious literacy. It means that ‘we need to know something about the basic beliefs and practices of the world’s religions’. (p.337) Prothero applies this approach to the following religions, which he explores in the book: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism and Daoism. He examines how these religions wrestle with the human predicament and how different religions emphasise their ethical and ritual dimensions.

Prothero traces the idea that “all religions are one”, back to the English poet, printmaker and prophet William Blake, in the poem titled “All religions are one” written in 1795. This idea was later maintained in the popular metaphor, which portrays the religions as different paths up the same mountain, the Golden Rule, and in the story of the blind men and the elephant to name a few, by religious thinkers and leaders from the world’s religions. According to Prothero to claim that “all religions are one” is ‘dangerous, disrespectful and untrue’. (p.2). It is wishful thinking motivated in part by an understandable rejection of exclusivist missionary views. One of the purposes of the “all religions are one” mantra, Prothero asserts is to stop the fighting and the killing, to make the world a safer place. But, Prothero insists, ‘the idea of religious unity has not made the world a safer  place’. (p.3) It has instead ‘made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide’. (p.3) Prothero emphasises that

while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are- not just at their best but also at their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers. (p.7)

So where does this leave interfaith conversation and collaboration which Prothero maintains will not bridge the gap of differences or maybe even lessen the violence and fear? It is Prothero’s intention to dispel the claim that “all religions are one” by advocating a second way of speaking about religions. This second way of speaking about religions, Prothero claims, is what is missing in the conversation about religions. The fourfold schema devised by Prothero and cultivating the art of religious literacy is the second way of talking about religions. It takes as a starting point the fact that religions have different problems and goals. For example: for Christianity the goal is salvation, the problem is sin. For Buddhism the goal is nirvana; the problem is suffering. Salvation is not the same as nirvana (and vice-versa). Each religion asks different questions and attempts to answer them. What religions do share is a starting point not a finish line. Prothero admits that his approach is admittedly simplistic, however, as a model, it serves ‘to make plain the differences across and inside religious traditions’. (p. 15) In terms of interfaith dialogue it is to ‘recognise that genuine dialogue across religious boundaries must recognise the existence of these boundaries and the fundamental difference between the lands they bisect’. (p.336)

As Prothero’s book is very accessible and easy to follow, it makes both an informative and enjoyable read. You don’t actually feel like you are reading a text about religions. However, I don’t think Prothero can exclusively make the claim about the second way of talking about the religions as missing (maybe a general assumption) as this proposition had already been floated by the Christian theologian S. Mark Heim in his book The depth of riches: a Trinitarian theology of religious ends published in 2001. Heim emphasised the notion that all religions do not share the same goals and ends. I would highly recommend that Heim be read alongside Prothero, as a Christian theological response.

In conclusion, although I enjoyed Prothero's book, agreed with his approach on the second way of talking and thinking about religions, I would have liked him to link and expand how the second way can open up and deepen interfaith dialogue and collaborative practice. This he touches lightly upon but does not further elaborate. But then again it could just be the subject of his next book!