Friday, June 24, 2011

God is Not One

God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter
© 2010 Stephen Prothero
400 pages



Despite the promises of modernity to drive religion out of the human mind, the New York City skyline bears witness to its continuing relevance. While religion can serve as a force for good,  it’s a master at nurturing the darker sides of human nature, and the good religions have achieved is often a testament to the moral courage of humans who have fought to push these systems of thought beyond their origins.  Some have gone so far as to say that the differences between religions are unimportant, that they are merely different paths up the same broad mountain which arrive at the same place. Stephen Prothero says different.  None of this tearing-down-the-walls-that-divide-us nonsense for Prothero, he intends to prove that religions are all rigidly disconnected boxes, and that while we may choose to shake hands with or shake fists at the fellows in the other boxes, we can only do it through tight little windows.

I looked forward to grappling with this book, largely because my own mind is so divided on the subject: while I believe that all religions were created by human beings to understand the world and perhaps to better themselves,  I also know that some religions are so defined by their aggressive assertions that they cannot easily find peace with other.  I found God is not One to be an unsatisfactory sparring partner, however, being  frustratingly simplistic, and ultimately disappointing.  In the first eight chapters, Prothero analyzes eight  of the the world’s major religion’s through  four-points:

  • a problem
  • a solution
  • a technique
  • an exemplar


He believes each of these religions (Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Taoism, Hinduism) attempts to address one of eight different problems in human nature, and offers eight fundamentally different approaches to life based on that problem.  This analysis is entirely too simplistic for the problem at hand, however. While it’s possible to identify characteristics within a religion that make them unique, those characteristics do not constitute the religion. This eight religions, eight boxes organization ignores the more fundamental similarities religions might have:  the constant cycle of life/death/rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, and the hateful split between the material and spiritual worlds that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so keen on convincing us of.

A second problem with this is one Prothero tip-toes around: although the eight religions he identifies here do have many varied differences, they are not necessarily hostile.  Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all existed in China together for centuries, for instance: they each have different offerings, and people happily sample beliefs and practices from each table, cafeteria-style, arriving at a worldview that meets their needs. Prothero speaks of religions ruling the world like hostile nation-states, but not all religions are as imperialistic (and therefore, conflict-prone) as the dominant forms of Christianity and Islam.  The Asian triplets point out the greatest problem with this book, Prothero’s sinister attitude about the relationship between humans and religion.  He would have us owned by religion, forced to live within that particular religion’s box. In the beginning, he snorts that attempts at interfaith dialogue which ignore the walls of differences are “disrespectful” of religion. I say poppycock. Why should we be respectful of religion and let it lie like a dusty rug? We should pick it up, bring it into the sunlight, and then beat it vigorously until all the dirt has fallen away and nothing but beauty remains. Why should we, the living, be content to breathe the dust of our ancestors?

Although Prothero’s thesis never grows legs to stand on here, the book may have some use for those interested in learning about other religions. He shows no bias toward one religion over another, though I advise nonreligious readers to steer well clear. He is bizarrely hostile toward humanists and atheists, dedicating an entire chapter to calling the ‘New Atheism’  a religion and its advocates hypocrites and plagiarists. This is stupidity, of course: religions are organized systems of beliefs, while atheism is a single belief -- and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are no more plagiarists for making the same criticisms of religious assertions that Bertrand Russell did than is the second man in the crowd who dared to say the emperor had no clothes on.

I’m ultimately disappointed with this book: while it has its uses for comparative religion readers, there are assuredly superior books out there on that subject. I daresay even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religion or some similar work would be better. I despise the spirit that sees the maintenance of religions as more important than the good we might do by overcoming our differences.

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