Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World. New York: Harper Collins.
In his Introduction, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero earnestly affirms the differences between the great world religions. He argues heavily against the mountain metaphor which explains religions as merely different paths up the same mountain, and thus, that all religions are essentially the same and only differ in the non-essentials. Prothero claims, “This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue” (2).
One reason many suggest the idea of an inherent religious unity is to promote religious tolerance and attempt to quell some of the violence sparked by religions worldwide. But in the process “The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straightjacket of religious agreement” (4). Furthermore, “tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting” (7). Prothero supports the idea that discussing and acknowledging religious differences does not necessitate conflict—but can actually serve to eliminate some conflict.
The majority of the book takes the “eight rival religions that run the world” each in turn. The foundation of this exploration is the reality that religions ultimately seek different goals and therefore have different techniques and priorities to reach those goals.
One of the most common misconceptions about the world’s religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not. Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis. Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die. (24)
There is a long line of Christian thinkers assuming that salvation is the goal of all religions and then arguing that only Christians can achieve this goal. . . . Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. . . . The real question is not which religion is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. (21-22)
The one unifying question: “Every religion, however, asks after the human condition. Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?” (24). Each religion answers this question within its own framework.
Prothero explains each religious framework through a four-part method, showing within each religion
- 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; and
- An exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution. (14)
The extent of the information and explanation within each chapter makes each religion worthy of a separate review. The diversity between the different traditions makes it nearly impossible to give adequate summarization here. For the purposes of this review, however, the information Prothero shares about each world religion will be best summarized using his own approach, particularly the first three points. [I have listed the religions in the order Prothero addresses them in his book. He explains this order to be based on “greatness” or contemporary impact (see p.18-20).]
- Problem: Pride (in the idea of Self-Sufficiency)
- Solution: Submission
- Technique: Performing the religion (Five Pillars, Shariah Law, etc)
- Problem: Sin
- Solution: Salvation
- Technique: Some combination of faith and good works
- Problem: Chaos (Disharmony and Disorder)
- Solution: Propriety and Order
- Technique: Education and Ritual; Cultivation of the Five Relationships (for example: ruler/subject; parent/child) and the Five Virtues (human-heartedness; justice; propriety; wisdom; and faithfulness)
- Problem: Samsara (Cycle of life, death, and rebirth/reincarnation)
- Solution: Moksha (Spiritual liberation of soul from bondage of samsara)
- Technique: One of three “yogas” (disciplines); the third yoga is most popular today.
1) Karma Yoga (“discipline of action” of ritual action and fire sacrifice);
2) Jnana Yoga (“discipline of wisdom” of the wandering sages and the philosophy of Upanishads);
3) Bhakti Yoga (“discipline of devotion” with love and heartfelt devotion to the god of your choosing)
- Problem: Suffering
- Solution: Nirvana (Literally “blowing out;” Extinguishing suffering)
- Technique: Noble Eightfold Path, which includes practices such as meditation and chanting
- Problem: Disconnection
- Solution: Connection to the Divine
- Technique: Divination and Sacrifice
- Problem: Exile
- Solution: Return to God
- Technique: Remembering what God has done and Obeying God’s Laws
- Problem: Lifelessness
- Solution: Flourishing
- Technique: Union with the Dao (or natural rhythm of things)
Prothero adds a “brief coda on Atheism” after these eight religions. In short, he is critical of the scathing hatred and anger typically expressed by the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc). This does not lead him to throw out the tradition all together. In fact, he argues that in one sense, atheism actually is another religion, with a set of creeds, ritual activities, ethical codes, and institutions. This “way of reason” is best expressed by the so-called “friendly atheists.”
In conclusion, Prothero says, “To reckon with the world as it is, we need religious literacy. We need to know something about the basic beliefs and practices of the world’s religions” (337). His book is an excellent place to start.
When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including the violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. Far more powerful is the reminder that any genuine belief in what we call God should humble us . . . (340)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- In today’s world, how important do you think it is for religions to have generous dialogue with one another?
- What are your thoughts on Prothero’s introductory comments on the differences between religions? Do you agree or disagree?
- What are the implications of affirming an essential religious unity? How does this view affect the ability for interfaith dialogue?
- With which of the religious traditions Prothero addresses do you most closely identify? Does this very brief summary of this religious tradition agree with your own understanding and experience?
- Why are religious tolerance and understanding important? How do you express them in your own life and interactions with others?
- Religious tolerance should not be equated with religious agreement. There is great value in correctly understanding different religions, even if you do not personally agree with their beliefs and/or practices.
- Prothero says that one of the great challenges of people of faith is acknowledging ways their religious tradition has been used for evil ends and then bending those aspects back for good (35). The past (or present) use of a religion for negative ends does not necessitate its complete rejection or vilification.
- Differing understandings of the problem inherent to the human condition give way to differing religious goals and means to solve the problem. Differing answers to these fundamental questions plays a major role in giving shape to various world religions.
- We must come to all conversations of religion with a deep sense of humility and a desire ultimately for understanding. We should follow the advice to “first seek to understand, then to be understood.” This attitude of humility in no way compromises our own religious convictions.
Diana Gruver© 2018 CYS