I’ve mentioned Stephen Prothero’s revolutionary book, God is Not One, in this blog before. I think his writings are worth noting, especially with the hopes that he could be signaling a change in the ways our culture discusses different religious views. At the beginning of a new year, it may be worth praying that a new cultural trend will accompany the new calendar.
Published in 2010, God is Not One sent ripples through Prothero’s academic discipline of Religious Studies. He is not a Christian but voices something Christians have been trying to say for quite some time – The major religions of the world do not teach the same things. The subtitle of Prothero’s book tips his hand – “The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.” (Interestingly, the 2011 paperback edition of his book dropped the phrase “and why their differences matter.”)
A professor of religious studies at Boston University, Prothero has done what few academicians have been able to do – connect to both university and pop cultures, finding a platform in both The Chronicle of Higher Education and on Oprah’s couch. He writes winsomely and cogently and dares to say what few, if any, in his field have had the nerve to say. Truly, his book has an Emperor’s New Clothes feel to it.
He cites Huston Smith’s well-worn illustration equating different religions to different paths up the same mountain and says such a view is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue” (p. 3). Smith’s book, The World’s Religions may be the most popular religious studies textbook of all time, selling over two million copies since its release in 1958. I’m sure you know that his sentiment holds sway in the minds of most people “on the street.” But what gets challenged in academic circles has the potential to trickle down and change popular discourse. One can only hope for that in this case.
Consider a few other observations Prothero makes:
“According to Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions,’ so it is toward this one God that all religious people are climbing. When it comes to divinity, however, one is not the religions’ only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in thousands.” (1-2)
“…the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and back to reality.” (3)
“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)
“If practitioners of the world’s religions are all mountain climbers, then they are on very different mountains, climbing very different peaks, and using very different tools and techniques in their ascents.” (12)
“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.” (24)
And Prothero takes on the popular notion that it doesn’t matter what different religions believe as dogma (usually used as a derogatory term) since all that “really counts” is how we treat one another. (I’ve often been bothered when non-Christians feel the freedom to declare what the “really important parts” of Christianity are and which beliefs “don’t matter”). “No religion,” Prothero says, “sees ethics alone as its reason for being.” (2)
His book is not without its flaws. I’ll share some concerns in a future blog. But it’s worth celebrating (and quoting) when he sees things the way we want others to. Part of the necessary, pre-evangelistic process of deconstructing people’s worldviews will be to disabuse them of the silly idea that all religions are the same. Once people get released from that straightjacket, they may appreciate how the Christian view of atonement is radically different from those other paths on those other mountains.