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I am in New York at the moment, and am going to walk across the street to a bookstore in a minute to buy Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s new book, “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter.”
Here’s an excerpt from an interview Prothero did with Garrett Baer of Killing The Buddha:
Garrett Baer: The title God Is Not One echoes that of New Atheist Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, and it sounds like a refutation of the Shema. Then the subtitle makes it clear that you are arguing against the religious universalism of authors like Karen Armstrong. Where does the title–and the book–locate you within these debates about contemporary religion?
Stephen Prothero: I read it as a refutation of the notion that there is only one way to figure the mathematics of divinity. Yes, God = 1 according to the Shema, the Trinity, and the Quran. But God = 0 according to many Buddhists, Confucians, and Daoists. And God is > 1 according to many traditional Hindus. In a backhanded way, I think I am arguing for the Shema to be the Shema. Why do we have to pretend that Jewish monotheists are saying essentially the same thing as Hindu polytheists and Buddhist nontheists? Let each be what it is–which is to say, recognize that we are bumping up against genuine religious diversity here.
Baer: But couldn’t there be a place for “perennial philosophers” like Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith, and Joseph Campbell to privilege universal aspects of religion? Or is that approach inherently misguided? In other words, do you see your book as refuting the perennial philosophers, or providing a necessary complement?
Prothero: I have no problem with theologians advancing the theological proposition that the religions are essentially the same. This is Ramakrishna’s point, and I’m happy to let Ramakrishna be Ramakrishna. What I oppose is the sleight of hand that turns this subjective theological desire about how things ought to be into an objective analytical fact about how things really are.
What an important and necessary point! Just because religious hotheads have killed and sometimes do kill in the name of religion and religious difference, and de-emphasizing religious difference stands to reduce incidences of religiously-motivated violence, does not make the universalist arguments true. Prothero argues that we’re never going to have real peace among the world’s religious if we gloss over true diversity of belief in favor of a bland universalism that denies deep differences. He also says that New Atheism is more of a media phenomenon in the West than a viewpoint that has a chance of winning hearts and minds globally. The hysterical hatred of religion espoused by the better-known New Atheists actually hurts their cause, Prothero asserts: “I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence.”
That seems right to me. I would no more sit down and talk about religion with a P.Z. Myers type than I would sit down and talk about religion with a fundamentalist street preacher. Somebody like the atheist Freddie de Boer is a non-believing thinker I could learn from, and would surely enjoy talking to.