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All Religions Are Not Alike

Stephen Prothero calls “pretend pluralism” a danger


Stephen Prothero says that understanding religions’ differences is the start of accepting them. In Bali, he says, “the classic image of God is an empty chair. Put in that chair whomever you want.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

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 barlowr@bu.edu.


22 Comments on All Religions Are Not Alike

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 6:40 am

    In DOG we trust

    If “GOD” is doing the job we have assigned him well, then we are to carry “GOD” around with us, and inside ourselves, or at worst in our pocket, but never upon our sleeve.

    As you each read the word: “DOG” here each will conjure a slightly different image of “DOG.” The role of “DOG” does not change, as companion, and protector, just the image and interpretation of “DOG” changes within us. I do not think there is a healthy barking or biting “DOG” that man cannot tame with love and understanding. Perhaps it is the same with “GOD.”

    If “GOD” as we conceive “GOD” to be is to serve mankind at all it is to unite not divide us. Without incurring the wrath of Professor Prothero, for I have not had any of his classes, it is possible to believe that beyond mankind’s quest for inner peace, spiritualism, and answers to existential questions much of the associated dogma we politely refer to as religion is mere politics.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 7:01 am

    Tough pill or swallow...

    I am looking forward to reading this book. The concept is one that may compel one of any religion to at least contemplate the fact that there are a variety of beliefs on this planet. This leads to the uncomfortable question of “Is there a “right” religion?” (As crass as the television show can be, South Park has an episode with deep undertones in which the children go to hell and are perplexed as to why they were not saved. They are informed that the “right” answer was “Mormon.”)
    Many major religions’ dogma includes belief that, somewhere down the line, God spoke directly to a human and gave his directives. Those directives must be followed and are the correct path. To even think seriously about other religions, one must step momentarily outside their own faith and think – “What if that story isn’t true? What if the other story is true?” It is a very difficult and faith-shaking journey that may lead to a greater conviction in one’s own religion or a general doubt of the validity and veracity of all religions. It’s much easier to say, “Mine is right. Yours is wrong,” That may very well be a person’s conclusion, but that sentiment is only valid if one has fully examined the “wrong “ choices.

  • Zachary Bos on 04.20.2010 at 8:57 am

    On defanging religion. I

    On defanging religion.
    I hold an old-fashioned optimism, with hope for more peace, more pluralism, more equitable and more widespread prosperity. The greater threat to my optimism is not terrorism, but the local Episcopalian congregation. I say this because I hold to the view that the strongest refuge of such ideas that cannot withstand rational debate is the heart and mind of a good person.
    It is an easy thing — even a patriotic thing, in our circumstances — to decry overt violence done under the banner of religion. The more difficult and vastly more essential thing is to call out religious belief in all its manifestations. One may smile, and be a villain; one may feel benign, and yet enable villainy. So one might prove pious, genuine yet with just the announcement of faith help to weaken public resolve against nonsense. When dangerous, indefensible beliefs costume themselves as benevolent fixtures in the ethics and culture of a congregation, good people become the unwitting vectors of irrationality. And it spreads.
    Back to the article. Prothero, if I have it right, answers that we might begin to defang religious animosity by coming to appreciate the true differences that make religions, and indeed sects within religions, distinct. Not just distinct, but mutually incompatible — animosity is inherent in any religion worth the name, as it is in any absolutist ideology.
    When confronted with a strange and different conception of the world, the impulse to understand before responding is quite sane. But to admit to no other possibility than acceptance, once understanding has been obtained, is negligent. The ethical response to religious animosity, the responsibility of an ethical person, is to offer autonomy as a better substitute to religion, and self-determination as a superior thing to ideology. Mind you, this need not necessarily mean that we give up congregational forms of community — indeed, we will find ourselves more able in the task if we have the support and alliance of our neighbors.
    We are talking about a threat with fangs for sure. A threat is not defanged by acceptance, but by challenge and resolve. I look forward to reading Dr. Prothero’s book.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 9:55 am

    News flash: Christians and Muslims don't get along

    The two religions spawned by Judaism; Christianity and Islam, have a long history of preaching hatred and trying to exterminate other religions. They pervert basic human decency and spirituality in the name of God. _ _ _

    As Harvey Cox is quoted “religions are changing, sometimes quite rapidly” – That sounds like a description of a dangerous virus to me.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 10:11 am

    An Atrocity

    This book is an utter atrocity that serves only to further preserve the world’s disunity. The author seems to know little to nothing about the universal and foundational truths of both Hinduism and Buddhism and I can only imagine upon reading this travesty of international proportions that I will find he neglects the fundamental truths of the other major religions in the world. People who can only base their arguments in facts, rituals, and myths cannot begin to comprehend the true power of religions and the truths that they are built upon. The world of academia in the United States leaves no room to truly understand the foundations of religion, although I would have expected a bit more from a religion professor who must have come into contact with holy texts and been able to interpret them for their true metaphorical use. Foolishly, however, the reader – often uneducated in such matters – is left feeling even more distant from his brothers and sisters on this planet. We are human; race and religion are not biological differences, but rather psychological differences. I hope that readers take this literary work with several grains of salt.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 10:21 am

    “Whoever assigns his wealth, strength, intellect and devotion towards the promotion of humankind is worthy of reverence.”

    Can we safely assert that this does not apply to Prothero?

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 10:40 am

    All Religions Are Not Alike

    Jews don’t believe in sin? Really? Their most sacred day isn’t the “Day of Atonement”? And they have no focus on Tikkun- essentially salvation from sin? Really? That’s interesting.
    Stephen Prothero sounds like yet another iteration of a fundamentalist from one religion, and fundamendalists are more politician than spiritualist, criticizing other religions for having fundamentalists.
    Perhaps his teaching should be balanced with a little more learning about his subject matter.

  • Anna on 04.20.2010 at 10:47 am

    Thank you. It’s about time people stop telling me that the point of religion is to get you to do good. For as much logic as we have in our society, it really is astounding how often irreconcilable religious differences are simplified and dismissed. Let’s talk about them!

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 11:02 am

    I don’t know if this was a mistake on your part but yoruba is an African LANGUAGE, NOT a Religion. However, I do agree that the unity of religions has been very much exaggerated and it is good to see scholars who are willing to study this and speak about it.

    • Thomas on 01.28.2013 at 3:01 pm

      Never heard of it before, but a quick search on Wikipedia reveals it’s a language, ethnic group, and religion.

  • Rhoda C. Serafim on 04.20.2010 at 11:34 am

    As a student of philosophy and theology dealing with the problem of the one of the many, I have found pluralism to be a stumbling block on the road to inter-religious engagement and education. That is, the “pretend pluralism,” that Prothero brings forth is a social reality that has made it difficult to take religion serious or as able to provide any reason to reflect on one’s own view of the world in light of someone else’s. I think it makes it even more difficult to exchange world-views because pluralism, by ‘equalling’ the ‘status’ of each religion suffocates the possibility and need for serious religious, cosmological, theological and scientific inquiry. In other words, if we can’t meaningfully engage another religion in a serious and dignified manner, the tough issues never get solved and neither are we encouraged to change.
    Moreover, why is it that we call it ‘religious pluralism’ and not simply polytheism?

  • Robert on 04.20.2010 at 1:45 pm

    To the comment that mentioned that Yoruba was a language and not a religion:

    Yoruba is a term for the Yoruba people, a west African ethnic group. The term Yoruba can be used to refer to their culture, language, and their religion.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 3:03 pm

    Obviously I haven’t read his book yet, but I think I will. I’ve long been irritated by those who claim the sameness of religions — a statement disengenuous to all religions. That view seems most frequently adopted by the intellectually lazy. Some religions are not even theistic!

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 3:13 pm

    All religions are similar in the sense that they are merely primitive ways of explaining both the universe and life. There are of course further similarities between them; they were constructed from the same human psyche and will follow some similar themes, patterns, and structures. The real “ineffectual naïfs” are those who argue about religion without asking themselves what they are really arguing about, and whether it is even worth arguing.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 5:59 pm

    It’s a hopeless task to try to inspire peaceful and intellectual discussion about religion when you exclude a huge portion of humanity – the nonreligious. Not all nonreligious people hate religion, although some would like to project that message. In any case, we as a species cannot move forward towards peace by excluding our brothers and sisters. If one can defend any of these religions, one should also defend religionlessness. Otherwise, the effort is doomed to failure.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2010 at 6:06 pm

    Devoting an entire life to religion- what a colossal waste of time

  • rr on 04.22.2010 at 9:05 am

    Of Course

    The author’s premise should be obvious, but sadly to liberals, it is not. Unitarian universalists and liberal Episcopalians, etc., believe themselves to be intellectually superior and yet they push silly syncretism and moral relativism which is illogical at its core.

    Christianity is unique among the religions – really quite crazy. All the other religions say do this or that to earn your way to heaven or nirvana or ultimate peace or whatever. In contrast, Christianity says, “Forget it, You can’t earn your way to heaven, so God, through the sacrifice of His Son, will give you a ‘free’ ticket.” The thief on the cross next to Jesus did nothing to earn his salvation but Jesus told him that he would be with him in heaven simply because of his faith.

    If there are eight logically inconsistent world views, then either one is correct and seven are wrong or they are all wrong. How un-inclusive! How intolerant!

  • Anonymous on 04.22.2010 at 9:34 am

    As one who gave up another career to devote myself to religion (thank you, STH), I respectfully disagree that it is a ‘colossal waste of time.’ The reasons are too many to even touch on here, but until religion is integrated into the rest of life, neither has meaning.

    Now don’t say that some don’t have a religion. May I suggest that ones ‘god’ is whatever one values most, and for many that is even more foolish than worshiping something or someone.

    What’s yours?

  • Andrew on 04.22.2010 at 8:08 pm

    Thanks, Prothero!

    Thank you, Professor Prothero. This bubble definitely needed to be popped. There have been religions that are objectively evil and criminal, specifically those that practiced human sacrifice, and as a Christian, I really don’t appreciate being told my faith is the same thing.

    — Andrew

  • 333 on 04.27.2010 at 11:17 pm

    The only hope we have as human beings is to acknowledge that all of our hands are stained with the blood of innocents, stains inherited from our self-justifying, delusional, conquering ancestors and their priestly co-conspirators, and to resolve with a sincerity so bright it overwhelms the irrational, soul-destroying madness that history has witnessed in the name of faith, that we will atone. We will atone by finally seeing that all human beings are kin, all facing death, all seeking solace, all struggling to live in a world of hazard and confusion, and to cherish each other as such. We ought to have recognized long before now the grand trick that has been played by power brokers who pretend to speak for the cosmos, devouring the world in their insatiable hunger, so as to make the first halting steps toward creating a world that doesn’t stink of mass deception and the decomposing bodies of the harmless, crushed by the boots of the hypnotized and preyed upon by those whom we permitted to capture our imaginations with high speech and mastery of psychological manipulation. Your religion is not an exception, not unless it promotes the shedding of the scales of ritual exclusivism from our eyes, and that the real way, truth, and light are our decisive refusal to worship any person or object but that which brought about all things, and, most importantly, to end once and for all the ages-long pattern of brainwashing, slaughter, and enslavement that has become the hallmark of our species. Who gives a damn about doctrinal rivalry or soft-soap, saccharine-laced kindergarten philosophizing? They’re equally malignant. Your source is divine, your origins are not sinful, and nor are those of the brother whose ideas you find incomprehensible. The only hope is to offload our ideological baggage, clean our hands of the blood of the generations, and exert decisive kinship among all people and the living things with whom we share this world. Everything else is fairytale, imperialism, and fatal hubris, and is damnedly doomed to squalorous ignominy.

  • carteles on 01.28.2013 at 5:24 am

    Religions are not usually poor, who really applied this evil are religious leaders since they apply their own vision on the religion they profess

  • Mat on 10.20.2016 at 9:39 pm

    As I understand the symbolism behind the “Empty Chair”…it suggests to the Balinese that God/Bramah is too vast and complex to define, so they leave the chair empty….

    This was the explanation given to me by my Balinese temple guide.
    This definition pleased me profoundly… reminiscent of the yhwh concept…the sound of the wind, being the symbol for the presence of god…ever present yet invisible


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