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Stephen Prothero to Stephen Colbert: ‘Christianity is Losing Market Share’

posted by Nicole Neroulias

A few years after giving readers a crash course in Religious Literacy, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero’s new lesson plan focuses on debunking the theory that all religions are just different paths to the same goal (heaven, enlightenment, salvation, etc.).god-is-not-one.jpg His new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter, has made lots of religion news lately, and the Prothero’s promotional rounds included a visit to last night’s Colbert Report. (That’s the second time this Comedy Central show has come up here in the past week, even though it’s been ages since Stephen Colbert devoted a segment to “This Week in God” or “Yahweh or No Way.”)

In the discussion between the Stephens, the author explained that, contrary to atheists (who see all religion as the same and bad) and multiculturalists (who see all religions as the same and good), he sees them as “going up different mountains with different techniques and different tools.” For example, Buddhists focus on letting go of human suffering, Jews on the issue of exile, Muslims on overcoming pride and submitting to God, Hindus on resolving the cycle of reincarnation, Confucianists on addressing social order… you get the idea.

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When pressed by Colbert — a Roman Catholic — to explain which faith is “winning,” Prothero noted that Islam is ahead (in terms of contemporary impact) and “Christianity is losing market share, if you think about it in business terms.” Colbert’s response made me chuckle:

“Well, of course, but Jesus always wins in the end. I mean, Jesus loves to run up the odds. You saw what he did the last time he was here. He let them think they had him on the ropes, and then three days later, BOOM! He comes back, they clean up at the table.”

All kidding aside, however, I’m not sure how I feel about Prothero’s message. I haven’t seen the book yet, but as a religion reporter, I’m generally more interested in probing what different faiths have in common (especially when you get strange bedfellows), as opposed to stoking conflicts (which make plenty of news anyway). Perhaps this also has something to do with being in an interfaith marriage, but if that’s the case, more than a third of Americans may be inclined to feel this way, too.

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

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posted June 15, 2010 at 5:47 am

Without having read the book, the title is preposterous. It is not about God at all, but religion. Religion makes lots of noise about God, but religions are about themselves–their doctrines, their rituals. Kind of like political parties make noise about America, but they are about themselves–their candidates, their coffers.

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posted June 15, 2010 at 10:10 am

The title of the book is straight up Advaita: “God is not one”. Of course, the other half of the Advaitan formula is that “God is not two (or many)”, either.

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posted June 15, 2010 at 11:02 am

“Jews on the issue of exhile”
Sorry, but exile is not the focus of Judaism.

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Nicole Neroulias

posted June 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

I haven’t read the book yet, Kauko, but I think Prothero was referring to a theme of exile from God (and striving to return) in Judaism, not just a particular example of exile. He specifically referred to how, as opposed to Christianity, which views the Eden story as one of man’s original sin, Jews may interpret it through this exile frame.
Has anyone here read the book yet?

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posted June 15, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Haven’t read it yet, but this is from the forward. Makes sense to me:
To claim that all religions are the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences among a Buddhist who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God [and so forth; the debates] do not matter, because as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials.”
This is a lovely sentiment but is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves–practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths. The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink–call it Godthink– has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and back to reality.

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posted June 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

The idea of a small Church with fewer nominal Christians is not a bad thing at all.

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Your Name

posted June 15, 2010 at 2:11 pm


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posted June 15, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Oh, dear! More apocalyptic warnings from yet another millenialist voice?

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Ron Krumpos

posted June 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states:
“Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

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Jon Monday

posted June 15, 2010 at 2:42 pm

The problem is, as I see it, that to say that “God is Not One” tortures the very definition of God. Leaving aside the claim of the Buddhist point of view that there is no God, is there one creator or not? Is there a different creator for each of the religions that believe in God?
This isn’t a matter of childish, surface level descriptions of what God may look like, but to dive deeply into the concept of God, Creator, Ground of All Being, The Source, etc.
Now back to the Buddhist point of view – I have many friends who are Buddhist and have videos of D.T. Suzuki who talk about God all the time. When pressed on why there is a perception that Buddhists don’t believe in God, they answer that the point of the Buddha’s teaching is to not depend on an external source for your salvation – that it does no good to dwell on God, Soul, or other things, just follow the eight fold path. Buddha did not deny the existence of God.

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Kevin McFoy Dunn

posted June 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Different mountains? If you will. But I know of no confession whose emblematic repertory either graphic or verbal lacks the image of the summit wrapt in cloud — the cloud of unknowing, certes; and in nube dissolve the tribal and local distinctions of the fallen world that is symbolized by those several Merus and Sinais. The Mevlana and his Xian dervishes; the qawwal “I will go with the yogin”; usw. Adducing Sivananda is accordingly apt of Prothero — Dharmashaiva’s comment on the incomprehensible abolition of contraries wherein Advaita ontological analysis subsists is pretty good, too — but, characteristically oscillating within the narrow arc between the prosily figurative and the achingly literal, he undercuts it by unashamedly declaring a preference for sociology over theology in his embrace of the regular folks’ praxis — which of course fosters with terrible frequency many charming local folkways, like female genital mutilation in Muslim Africa, invariably claimed by their adherents to be sanctioned in scriptures that as often as not do nothing of the sort. Prothero has always seemed personally bemused by the mystical regime of apprehension of the Absolute; I sense that he finds the experience of the dismissively denominated “spiritual superstars” as somehow inauthentic.
Whatever. Did anyone else notice how he led his too-pop-by-half “market share” comment, which came, actually, at the back of an utterance in response to SC’s query as to which global faith was on the ascendant? His first words in answer to that query: “I think Islam is winning, I hate to say.” He hates to say? Really? I’m absolutely (so to speak) sure that I didn’t mishear — so, like, discuss.

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posted June 15, 2010 at 3:27 pm

KM Dunn,
Interesting perspectives! As one who went to churches for some years (long ago) and gave up because church doctrine seemed self-contradictory and blasphemous), I maintain that no one can talk knowledgeably about God; God cannot be measured and studied. All we can do is offer our thoughts, speculations, hopes, and fears, all of which may be grotesquely wrong or inadequate. Some systems of belief become entrenched, and these religions that talk ABOUT God (with no more knowledge and authority than anyone else possesses, which is nothing) become a surrogate for God.
I agree with Prothero that religions are not essentially the same. When I was young, I was taught that Judaism and Christianity were the same except for a dispute about the purported divinity of Jesus. As I learned more, I saw that these two religions are very distinct–so distinct that the familiar phrase “Judaeo-Christian” now seems to me to be as meaningless as “Navajo-Hindu.”
Prothero’s comments about “market share” merely illustrate that organized religions have thoroughly earthbound concerns. As for his remark lamenting that Islam is growing… Well, that is a tough one. It may be politically correct to demand a nonjudgmental attitude toward different religions (even though religions themselves are generally highly judgmental), but I wonder if maybe he was really indicating dismay at the growth of a culture (not a set of religious doctrines) that many people around the world have come to equate, however unfairly, with violence, fanaticism, and terrorism.

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Jon Monday

posted June 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

To Heretic_for_Christ,
I was wondering if you were talking the Muslim faith or Christianity when you said, “It may be politically correct to demand a nonjudgmental attitude toward different religions (even though religions themselves are generally highly judgmental), but I wonder if maybe he was really indicating dismay at the growth of a culture (not a set of religious doctrines) that many people around the world have come to equate, however unfairly, with violence, fanaticism, and terrorism.”

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posted June 15, 2010 at 7:06 pm

The question of “God” and Buddhism is a tangled bank, but if one resorts to the earliest Buddhist perspective on the issue, one can find a pretty clear resolution, which centers on how one defines “God”. In the Pali texts, the Buddha denies the existence of a being characterized by the following properties: (1) all-knowing; and (2) all-powerful; and (3) all-loving. The Buddha denied such a being existing because of the existence of suffering and pain and death. (The Buddha had other reasons for denying such a being, but this reason may serve as introduction to the other reasons.) If suffering and pain are real, then why does the all-powerful and all-loving being not stop them?
The Buddha did not deny the reality of very powerful beings who exist in the spiritual realms, and who are likewise trapped in samsara just like us humans. Such beings are called “devas”, or G/gods.
Also, nirvana — though not usually considered “God” — serves many of the same functions that “God” serves in Christianity: nirvana is, among other things, free from change or decay, it is “deathless”, it is free from being trapped by conceptualization, and it is the “highest happiness”.
And, of course, the Buddhas themselves are “all-loving”, “all-knowing”, but not “all-powerful”.

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posted June 15, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Indeed, the “I hate to say” comment about Islam “winning” stood out to me, along with his agreeing earlier in the interview that not all religions are of equal value. Of course the various religions have different approaches and messages. The question is what purpose does stressing that fact serve in our modern social-political context? (And that’s not a rhetorical question, by the way)

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posted June 15, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Clearly, I was referring to Islam, but your point is apropos. I have commented elsewhere that the real wars are not between different religions but between rational people and fanatics within each faith. That applies to Christianity as well as to Islam. Right now, however, people are far more apt to associate terrorism with Islam than with Christianity.
What purpose does it serve to debunk a widely held myth? I think that is its own purpose. And in this case, the myth is that all religions are essentially the same and seek essentially the same things through different means. That is a comforting but false notion.

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Apuleius Platonicus

posted June 22, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Thank you for stating what a great many other people feel: that many of us are very interested in what religions have in common.
Prothero takes the extreme position that there are no spiritual commonalities among religions whatsoever. He also completely misrepresents the positions of those he claims to be arguing against. No one has ever claimed that “all religions are the same.”
In fact, both Huston Smith and William Blake explicitly acknowledge that there is tremendous variation among the world’s religions.

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posted June 22, 2010 at 11:05 pm

All right you genius.. First of all, tell me why you need to market your belief and if so then why church always ban the scientific inventions that won’t support the lie spread by them.. If your thought is different than reality then you should close this little shop and let people stick with their belief because even you are not sure what you speak.
Pointing to other religions.. thats funny. Do you even know what you read or talk to some tango charlie and speak what you have heard?
People like this so called person is a threat to humanity. I would suggest he must be hanged outside church before playing and thinking of faith.
Funny.. people like this must be ignored by press.

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Ron Krumpos

posted July 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Those who believe the kinship of faiths should join the social network of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Look at and I would be happy to be one of your first friends there.

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Jason L Hall

posted September 1, 2010 at 4:16 am

Islam/ Christianity… religion. The conflict always boils down to the- “my God is real- your god is heresy” argument. It would be a good argument to stay out of. The measure should be about how benevolent his people are. The Bible, the Koran can and have been interpreted many ways. God has been attributed many conflicting attributes: loving, judgmental, benevolent, forgiving, jealous, malevolent. What we really have is a war in both faiths. Is God really benevolent? Would he want us to kill in his name? If we are victimized does God allow us to disregard his commandments and kill? Does God want his followers to physically force others to worship him? Follow your faith to it’s logical conclusion and you’ll understand why the death of malevolent God is the true death of God. Though he may be praised and prayed to- the benevolent God will grant us only sadness and destruction.

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Jason L Hall

posted September 1, 2010 at 4:33 am

*should read- the death of benevolent God is the true death of God.

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