God Is NOT ONE by Stephen Prothero
Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm
When I picked up God Is Not One, the title led me to jump to the conclusion that this was probably just another broadside by a new atheist against religion; along the lines that religions have such different ideas about God that it’s pretty obvious that there’s no truth in any of them. The subtitle quickly put me on the right track: “The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter.” The author, Stephen Prothero, is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the main content of the book is a series of overviews of different religions, one chapter for each: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism.
What you get is not an assemblage of dessicated, objective facts about religions, but a sympathetic attempt to enter into the spirit of each one. Moreover, he doesn’t just give an account of the classical teaching of a religion but also explains its recent evolution, contemporary role and significance on the world scene. Prothero argues that we need to understand different religions to understand what is going on in the world.
SoFers are likely to find the Introduction and the penultimate chapter (A Brief Coda on Atheism) of most interest. The introduction analyses and critiques the view that all religions are essentially the same. This is a view that I have often heard and have been generally rather at a loss to know how to respond to. In this view, the foothills of the different religions may differ (different practices, beliefs, etc) but at a higher level they are like different paths to the peak of the same mountain. Prothero comments “this is a lovely sentiment, but it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue.” While the sentiment aims to promote religious tolerance, we are not helped at all to understand the intractable conflicts around the world
in which religion plays a role by this rose-tinted view.
The idea that Buddhism is a path to salvation is confused, because ‘salvation’ is a Christian concept, a solution to the problem of sin, which really plays no role in Buddhism.
There is no one essence that all religions share: all you can say is that there are family resemblances in some of the seven ‘dimensions’ of religion identified by Ninian Smart:
ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal and material. While religions are all ways of wrestling with the human predicament, they each have their own diagnosis and prescription for a cure.
The penultimate chapter contrasts angry and friendly atheism. For the one sort, religion is poison and the only way forward is to abolish it, while the other asks only that atheism be regarded as a valid point of view deserving a fair hearing. He wonders whether the first sort actually functions just like a religion and hopes that the second sort will emerge more strongly.
The book has a lively, readable style and I never found it boringly familiar. Some may feel that it inclines towards the journalistic rather than the theological/philosophical but I found it satisfying and insightful.