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Don’t Judge Stephen Prothero’s ‘God Is Not One’ By Its Cover

My much-hyped (in certain circles) interview with Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter, is now up at The Huffington Post. Check it out.

Basically, I had expressed some doubts about Prothero’s premise after watching him on The Colbert Report a few weeks ago. I hadn’t seen his book yet, but just figured that it’s already common knowledge that there are big differences between Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Budhism, Yoruba, Judaism and Daosim, though admittedly not at the academic level that god-is-not-one.jpgProthero had previously written about in Religious Literacy. Else, why would anyone belong to one instead of another? Why would we have so much conflict between religions, on the global stage and around dinner tables?


Now that I’ve read God Is Not One and spoken with the author, I’ve concluded that his book is a good comparative religion guide for a general audience — it should really be called Religion Is Not One — but just not a convincing case for different religions = different gods, or that only one has the correct God in the end, unless you already felt that way going in. After all, wouldn’t you expect religions that originated in different cultures to ask different questions, basing their belief systems on the problem/solution/technique/exemplar (Prothero’s model) that made the most sense for that historical context? Furthermore, there are also some huge disagreements among each faith’s denominations — for example, Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Unitarians; a few of those traditionally don’t consider the others as part of the same religion. Prothero could easily write a sequel called Jesus Is Not One (perhaps with a more marketable title, though).


Complicated, isn’t it?

As a bonus, here’s what Prothero, who entered the world of religion reporting himself a few months ago over at CNN’s Belief Blog, had to say about how journalists cover interfaith and conflict stories:

I don’t know if I have any well formed views about religion journalism. I think probably I have fewer complaints about it than most my academic colleagues. My colleagues complain that journalists generalize too much, and sometimes they don’t know enough. But come on, if you have a 500 word piece or a 1,200 word piece, all you can write is 500 or 1,200 words. You can’t write a dissertation, and also you can’t expect religion journalists to be experts in 14th century French Catholism, you can’t expect a journalists to have your expertise. I think those are unfair criticisms.


In terms of this little scuffle, my complaint is more about popular religion books [than with news coverage of religious conflicts]. But, I do think that the media, if I had to say which way it tends to go in terms of religion, it tends to go towards emphasizing the similarities. They want the world to be a better place, and they think that more feel-good kind of stories might help.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Comments read comments(10)
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Jon Monday

posted June 30, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Good interview – which asked the right question: Where is Prothero at religiously, that he can make such an unambiguous statement as “God is Not One”.
The answer he gives is, “I’m religiously confused now. I don’t have any real answers to any of these important questions. I think the reason that I keep studying them is because I don’t have answers”
What right does someone who is admittedly confused about his subject have to teach or write about that subject, except to just ask questions. His review of the practice and general beliefs of the religions of the world is perhaps a useful introduction, but the material at the beginning and end of the book, where he posits that Perennialism is “wrong” and people like Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, and Joseph Campbell have misled people, rings false in the light of Prothero’s confusion.
Plus, there is already a very good general introduction to the religions of the world titled: The World’s Religions written by Huston Smith, which Prothero has said is “the most important book ever written in Religious Studies.”
It’s as if a person who has only gotten as far as Newtonian physics is making controversial pronouncements about Quantum physics. One should have a clear understand and grasp of their subject before trying to teach it.
Can you imagine a math teacher confessing that he or she is confused about their subject and still having any standing in their field?

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posted July 1, 2010 at 8:15 am

Prothero is religiously confused, not intellectually confused. Thus, he can write about the intellectual history and philosophical perspectives of the different religious traditions, within academia.
Now, if he were a priest, or rabbi, or thera, then there might be a problem.

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Jon Monday

posted July 1, 2010 at 1:01 pm

To Dharmashaiva,
I’m not sure I agree with you. I see the problem with Prothero’s main argument, “God is Not One” as being both intellectually and logically confused, in addition to being religiously confused.
If we take his statement as a reflection of his firm understanding, (as it is stated as fact, not a question), then he must also believe that:
There is no God, or
There are many Gods, or
One religion has it right and the others have it wrong, or
More likely, he hasn’t thought this statement through to its logical conclusion.
He firmly, and almost with anger, rejects the many paths up the same mountain analogy. But accepts his own version of different paths up different mountains (if he’s not an atheist, implying that there are many creators).
I have no problem accepting that Prothero is religiously confused, I have a big problem with him being adamant, firm, and clear about one particular religious view being wrong and bad for the world (which happens to my religious outlook). He never addresses the foundation of his views, in the context of its implications.

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posted July 1, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Speaking only for this atheist, there are many religions and each is almost certainly wrong but some versions of some religions (generally the fundamentalist ones) are a lot more harmful than others.
I, too, have not read the book (probably won’t, at least till paperback) but it is certainly logically possible to conclude a, b, c, d, … are all different without being able to make a choice between them. In fact if they were the same it would be silly to waste time making a choice between them.

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posted July 2, 2010 at 1:36 am

As with so many topics, people assume that religions formed in the same sort of vacuum. However, they are products of geography, history, and other external forces that are integrated or forcefully refuted. That there are differences is no surprise. That there are similarities is a delightful mystery. That religion is used more as a weapon than as a tool is part of the sad history of humanity.
Prothero presents difficult and complicated material in palatable and reasonable way. For more detailed, academic/intellectual approach read Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith, or Joseph Campbell. Another easy to read and discuss book is Bruce Feiler’s Where God Began.

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posted July 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm

jestrfyl: As always, well said. I particularly like your first paragraph.

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posted July 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm

So the remarks here are by people who haven’t read the book that this blog is about?

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Think Feel Create

posted July 9, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Stephen Prothero makes it quite clear that he is not dealing so much with the spiritual oneness of god but with the differences occuring within each persons environment and hence tradition.
Obviously anyone praying to god, regardless of their name for god or their religious background will be praying to god. The big difference occurs when a group of people from different races, environments and different socio economic backgrounds isolated from each other for thousands of years create their own perceptions and traditions of god. Each of them claim that only their religion will provide salvation.
It is not the belief in god which is different, only the rules (traditions)created by man are different.

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