Com­mon­al­ity among world’s re­li­gions is a myth, author as­serts

Austin American-Statesman - - FAITH & BELIEFS - EILEEN FLYNN Eileen Flynn blogs at eileen­flynn.word­press.com

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.

Stephen Prothero

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