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Stephen Prothero was everywhere last month as one of the principal talking heads on PBS’s interesting and balanced series God in America. Hearing his comments and reading his newest book as part of a blogger roundtable for the Patheos book club, I was reminded again that he is one of the most astute observers of American religion today.
He is not afraid to tip sacred cows, either in the documentary or in his own writing. His latest book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter, takes on some of the sacred cows of the right (the idea that Christianity will and should continue as the world’s premier faith tradition) and the left (the idea that all religions are one, and we will all sing Kumbayah together). Right from the start of the book he challenges the late 20th century’s ascendant ideal of religious unity, the much-touted notion that all religions are simply different paths climbing the same mountain. He criticizes fellow HarperOne author and scholar Huston Smith as one of the primary propagators of this naive fallacy.
Saint Huston, held up for scrutiny!
In a college world religions class, we had to read Smith’s The Religions of Man, which I loved because it adopted a refreshingly respectful approach to Eastern religions. But when in grad school I was a teaching assistant for a class in world religions (at Columbia University, a campus known for religious and every other kind of diversity), Smith began to wear thin. The primary sources we had students read from the various world religions’ own sacred texts did not always seem to coexist comfortably with Smith’s insistence on the basic oneness at the heart of all faiths.
If I teach a course in world religions again, I will use Prothero’s book. No question.
If Huston Smith was the textbook spokesperson for the late 20th century’s emphasis on enlightened optimism and expected unity, Prothero speaks to the sharp divisions (both intra- and inter-) that characterize world religions today. His book also serves as a primer on eight “great” world faith traditions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism, and Daoism. The idea for this introductory text on world religions emerged from the response to Prothero’s book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. After that book diagnosed a widespread and deep problem with basic religious literacy among Americans, some readers asked him what they should read to educate themselves. This book is Prothero’s response.
Some will quibble immediately with the order of importance of these chapters, as Prothero arranges religions in the list above from most to least influential in the world. Islam before Christianity? Yes. He pulls no punches:
To presume that the conversation about the great religions starts with Christianity is to show your parochialism, and your age. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries may have belonged to Christianity. The twenty-first belongs to Islam. (p. 63)
As I read Prothero’s book last month, I was waiting to hear whether a trip I was supposed to take to Iran would actually happen; we were scheduled to depart on October 18th but did not receive our visas in time, a bureaucratic tangle that I understand is common. I hope we can reschedule for next year. The trip is a study tour for Mormon scholars to sit down with Shia Muslim scholars for interfaith dialogue.
In preparation, I read part of the Quran, so I was particularly interested in Prothero’s take on it: like me, he found it both sublime and disturbing. If fearmongers on the right have burned Qurans in their hatred without bothering to find out what is actually written in the book, some progressives on the left have glossed over violent passages.
But at least people are starting to read it. Prothero writes that just over a century ago, Christians were 35% of the world’s population, which is down slightly to 33% today (and that figure generously includes most of western Europe, which is a stretch). Islam, by contrast, is exploding in numbers. In 1900 Muslims represented 12% of the world’s population, which is up to 22% today and growing quickly due to high birth rates.
Seismic changes are ahead for world religions, and we’re going to need good navigators to help us chart the waters. Stephen Prothero’s book is one such compass. I hope it gets a wide readership.