Commonality among world’s religions is a myth, author asserts
Stephen Prothero, best-selling author and Boston University religion professor, has ruffled some feathers with his new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.” He criticizes respected religion scholars Huston Smith, Karen Armstrong and others, who he says have soft-pedaled the differences among the world’s religions in favor of finding their commonalities. He takes on the attitude that gained popularity after the Sept. 11 attacks that all religions are one, just different expressions of the divine. Prothero argues that religious differences are profound and shouldn’t be dismissed. Just consider the questions each faith asks, Prothero writes in the book’s introduction. In Christianity, the problem is sin and the solution is salvation. In Buddhism, the problem is suffering and the goal is nirvana. And even among Christians and Buddhists, there are disagreements on how to accomplish those goals. “The world’s religious rivals are clearly related,” Prothero writes, “but they are more like second cousins than identical twins. They do not teach the same doctrines. They do not perform the same rituals. And they do not share the same goals.”
Prothero, whose 2007 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t” challenged readers to gain a better understanding of the world’s religions, answered questions by e-mail from faith columnist Eileen Flynn.
Austin American-Statesman: In ‘God Is Not One,’ you outline the fundamental differences in eight of the world’s most influential religions, which is a departure from many world religion books that treat the great faith traditions as ‘different paths up the same mountain.’ What motivated you to look at the differences rather than the similarities?
Stephen Prothero: From the time I was in college, I repeatedly heard people say that all religions were essentially the same. But I never bought that. I knew a lot of different religious people, and I knew they disagreed, and disagreed vigorously. I also knew they observed very different rituals and told very different stories. Academics have turned to emphasizing religious differences over the past generation or so, but popular books on religion have not kept up the pace. So in “God is Not One” I’m trying to bridge that gap.
You argue in the book that the view that all religions are essentially the same is not only naive but also potentially dangerous. Can you give an example of what you mean?
How about Iraq? When we went into Iraq we went into a country whose language we didn’t speak, whose culture we didn’t understand, and whose religion we knew nothing about. We did so naively, under the assumption that, because all human beings are basically the same, everyone will want the same democracy that we want. After Saddam Hussein was out of the picture, and Sunni and Shia Muslims started fighting with one another, we were surprised. Throughout this debacle, we failed to reckon with the differences between Christianity and Islam and between the Sunni and the Shia.
With your books ‘God Is Not One’ and ‘Religious Literacy,’ you have challenged your readers to develop a better understanding of the world’s religions. Are we as Americans becoming more religiously literate or are we still mired in ignorance?
It’s too early to tell. This fall, the Pew Forum is coming out with a major survey of U.S. religious literacy. So we’ll have a snapshot of the general population then. I’m sorry to say that the level of religious literacy we see on television and in Washington, D.C., doesn’t seem to be improving much. The only real good sign is that we now know how little we know about the world’s religions. And knowing what you don’t know is always a first step toward better understanding.