All Religions Are Not Alike
Stephen Prothero calls “pretend pluralism” a danger
How does a religion teacher get an invitation to appear, in June, on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report? By writing a book saying that Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and others have preached about the shared, benign beliefs unifying all great religions — and then dismissing that message as garbage.
Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne), which hits bookstores today, argues that the globe’s eight major religions hold different and irreconcilable assumptions. They may all push the Golden Rule, as progressives like to point out, but no religion really considers ethics its sole goal. Doctrine, ritual, and myth are crucial, too, and on these, writes the College of Arts & Sciences professor, there is no meeting of the religious minds. For example, Christians who think they’re doing non-Christians a favor by saying they too can be “saved” ignore the fact that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Confucians either don’t believe in sin or don’t focus on salvation from it. (Hinduism, Daoism, and the African religion Yoruba round out the eight.)
The notion of “pretend pluralism,” as Prothero derides it, may be nobly intentioned, but it is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.” It blinds us to understanding, and therefore solving, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism or Jewish-Arab disputes over Jerusalem or the contest for Kashmir between two nuclear powers with competing religious majorities (Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan), he writes.
“People are thirsty for information about this topic,” Prothero says. “We are in a post-9/11 moment. It became clear we did not understand what was going on in the world — ‘Oh my God, there are Muslims who want to kill us.’”
How do Prothero’s academic colleagues feel about his latest thesis? One could say that their responses are definitely not one. Nonagenarian author Huston Smith, whose book The World’s Religions is a classic in the field, says Prothero misrepresents him as an apostle of pretend pluralism.
“The historical religions are both alike and different,” Smith says. “They are alike in believing in God’s existence and that His/Her/Its will is that we love one another.” (Prothero’s book begs to differ: many Buddhists don’t believe in God, while Hindus believe in multiple gods.) “However, they are a far cry from being carbon copies of one another.”
Another noted liberal theologian, Harvard’s Harvey Cox, gives Prothero qualified support. “Steve is right that the ‘unity’ of religions has been exaggerated,” says Cox. “He helps us all see that in interfaith dialogue, we converse with a genuine ‘other.’ What he may overlook is that religions are changing, sometimes quite rapidly — the lines between them are becoming more porous — and that a considerable amount of borrowing back and forth has been going on.”
This isn’t the first time that Prothero has held a mirror to our religious views. In 2003’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, he probed the personal projections we foist on the Christian Son of God, from SUV owner to eco-conscious greeny. His 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, achieved best-sellerdom and a spot for its author on The Daily Show by scolding Americans as religious doofuses. We think Sodom and Gomorrah are a married couple, he wrote, and he urged mandatory public-school education about religions.
Prothero says researching God Is Not One took him to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, where he discovered moderates who don’t share the Islamist dreams of some of their Middle East coreligionists. He visited Jerusalem, where, similarity to a joke setup notwithstanding (“I was showed around by a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim”), he experienced the city through different perspectives.
So how, at this point, to defang religious animosity? The book argues that understanding their differences is the start of accepting them.
The book cites only one example of Prothero’s strategy: Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core, which assembles young people from diverse religions to rub shoulders on community service projects.
“I don’t give many examples because there aren’t many examples,” he admits. He acknowledges that homicidal fanatics like Osama bin Laden aren’t open to embracing differences and must be forcibly stopped. But he’s convinced that we’ll never stop the crazies by following what he calls ineffectual naïfs cawing about religious solidarity. His Third Way, whether extremists can accept it or not, is humility about one’s views, exemplified by what Prothero saw while researching Hinduism in Bali.
There, unlike in India, laden with images of Hindu deities, “the classic image of God is an empty chair,” he says. “Put in that chair whomever you want.”
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments