Many Religions, One God? A Review of Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

_ God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, _ By Stephen Prothero

Join the Book Club discussion on this book.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that about 95% of Americans believe in God, but that our definitions of who or what God is differ markedly. This may be a good indication that Stephen Prothero is on to something.

Prothero is the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, which aroused a good bit of healthy guilt when it was published in 2007. Now the professor of religion at Boston University offers a new book, which is at once vitally helpful and controversial: God Is Not One.

In his introduction Prothero explains that after his earlier book was released, he received numerous letters and emails from readers who admitted their ignorance of the world's religions and wanted "a single book they could read to become religiously literate. This book is written for them."

The bulk of the book is a masterful (though necessarily brief and simplified, and therefore more than a bit frustrating) exploration of the world's eight great (not necessarily good, he says) religions, in order of their contemporary impact in the world. In Prothero's thinking Islam comes first because of its "breakneck" growth and impact throughout the world in the last century, a "stagnant" Christianity is next, then come Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism, with a brief coda on the new atheism, which he says can often devolve into another form of fundamentalism.

In his overview of each religion Prothero follows an "admittedly simplistic" four-part approach: Each religion articulates a problem, a solution to this problem (which also serves as the religious goal), a technique (or techniques) for moving from problem to solution, and an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart the path from problem to solution. This helpful grid for summarizing the religions, sort of an ultra Cliff's Notes for the vast histories, traditions, rituals and writings of each, is fleshed out in provocative and breezy chapters.

Whoever reads this book obviously does so through the lens of his or her own set of assumptions, traditions, experiences, and beliefs, and my mainline Protestant faith certainly colors what I read. (I particularly bristled at his description of Jesus as a "mild-mannered wanderer"; I don't get that from my reading of the gospels.) Even so, I can't remember being more challenged, frustrated, disturbed, and stimulated by reading a book. I couldn't keep my red pen off the pages, underlining, marking up, writing questions, agreeing, arguing, and even scoffing. Prothero certainly engages the reader.

Why my agitation? Prothero's helpful contemporary guide to world religions is set in the context (still dubious to me) that, as his title puts it, "God Is Not One." In other words, despite what many religious thinkers have said over the centuries (going back, he suggests, to William Blake's All Religions Are One in 1795), and particularly in more modern days (everyone from Huston Smith to Mohandas Gandhi to Karen Armstrong to the Dalai Lama comes under fire for expressing the view that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same"), there are such clear differences among the religions that there can be no reasonable or acceptable way to believe that there is One God behind them all. And, he proposes, forcing that belief only exacerbates the religious conflicts that only seem to be growing in our day. "This naïve theological groupthink--call it Godthink--has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide."

Prothero, who was raised a Christian but now describes himself as "religiously confused," admits that "the world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law." His point is that if we would understand and acknowledge the differences between our religions, we can defuse this conflict--even though he acknowledges that "in some cases religious differences move adherents to fight and to kill."

I understand and agree with the need for all of us to be better informed about the world's religions. But why emphasize the differences between them? Why not appreciate both the differences and the commonalities--the mutually held ethics and the broader spiritual reality behind all religions? Why not acknowledge that all religions have a common starting point, as he does, namely that there is something wrong with the world, and celebrate the different ways we can work to make it right?

While Prothero makes a compelling case that the world's great religions are not one, though they may hold some similar or complementary teachings about human reality, he fails in my mind to make a convincing case that "God" is not one, however we may define God.

Prothero writes, "For more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion. They thought they found this holy grail in God, but then they discovered Buddhists and Jains who deny God's existence. Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religious share."

This is where I have my biggest problem. Can we recognize the spiritual component of all human existence, out of which the various religions have developed? In other words, regardless of our own religious traditions, can we be united in our appreciation that the human essence embraces an other-ness, a beyond-ness, an above-ness, a within-ness, which might in fact be thought of as One God?

While Prothero offers strong evidence of the vast differences among religions--even among those that are historically connected (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and even within each of these religions--I believe he fails to adequately explore the extra-human reality which has over time caused people to seek a religious expression and to work that expression out in such a splendid variety of ways.

Even so, Prothero has done a terrific service in providing a way to understand better the world's major religions in a contemporary context. We must all strive to be more literate in understanding these religions so we can communicate better together and, we can only hope and pray, work together more effectively, despite our differences, for the good of all.

Prothero concludes: "...any genuine belief in what we call God should humble us, remind us that, if there really is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most. This much, at least, is shared across the great religions."

That may be a good starting point.

Here's my question for Stephen Prothero, submitted through the Book Club :

You make a compelling argument that the world's great religions are not one, and though they may hold some similar or complementary teachings about human reality there are too many primary differences to say otherwise. But can we not acknowledge the spiritual component of all human existence, out of which the various religions have developed? In other words, regardless of our own religious traditions, can we be united in our recognition that the human essence embraces an other-ness, a beyond-ness, an above-ness, a within-ness, which might in fact be thought of as One God?

Stephen Responds:

A.  You are trying to engage me in theology here-something I try fairly assiduously to avoid in "God is Not One."  I certainly can see that some theologians might find in "the spiritual component of all human existence," as you call it, something that might pass as the "One God."  But my point is that move requires considerable effort, since without such leaps of the imagination what we are faced with is the brute fact of difference.  To put it another way, I am not saying that theologians are wrong when they say that Buddhism's nirvana is the same as Christianity's heaven or that Judaism's G-d is the same as Islam's Allah.  I am just saying that when they do so they are speaking not as historians or anthropologists or sociologists but as practitioners of the theological imagination.

See the complete Q&A with Stephen Prothero here.