Religion Matters – A Review of Stephen Prothero’s “God is Not One”

 

"...even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world." - Stephen Prothero (God is Not One, p. 8)

It takes all of five seconds on CNN.com to see that religion matters. Whether it be the discussion of whether or not Jesus is/was supernatural, an article covering the congressional discussion of the “radicalization” of Islam, or a video of a judgment day caravan the top stories streaming on one of America’s leading news networks testify to how religion continues to capture our imagination, challenge our stereotypes, confirm our fears or confront our own belief.

Above all, these popular news stories make the point of Stephen Prothero’s newest book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter, very clear – religion matters. Whether it be politics, personal issues or the palpable effects of religious extremism in the public sphere, religion plays a significant role in the world. To ignore this fact is to do so at our peril.

Prothero shares that he disagrees with, “most sociologists” who “were sure that religion was fading away, that as countries industrialized and modernized, they would become more secular.” (p. 7) He argues against such religiously fatalistic commentary, claiming that the world is still “furiously” religious and religion continues to play a visible role, for both good and ill, in the world as we know it. Prothero has long been a champion for religious literacy. Whether it be through 140-character Tweets on the worlds major religions, or full books such as his foundational book Religious Literacy, Prothero believes that in order to “reckon with the world as it is” (p. 337) we need renewed religious literacy in the USA and indeed, throughout the world. God is Not One is Prothero’s attempt to “offer this literacy.” (p. 337) To that end, God is Not One leads readers not only through an overview of the eight major religions running the world today, but also why these religions are so vitally important to our understanding of humanity and the human condition. He states unequivocally that “…even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.” (p. 8 )

Ranking them according to “contemporary impact” Prothero covers Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism (with a coda on Atheism…more on that later) in as much detail as 30-40 pages allows. These profiles do not follow any strict “cookie-cutter” approach to each religion. Indeed, the author hints as much when he prefaces that each chapter will explore “the different answers each of the great religions has offered to the different questions they have asked.” (p. 24) Thus, each religion, in a way, dictates the flow of its own chapter in God is Not One.  At times it can get somewhat convoluted. However, Prothero does anchor his reader with the foundation that each religion presents a problem, a solution to that problem and a technique to get there. In doing so, the religious commentator covers each religions major theoretical, practical and sociological expressions (e.g. Islam’s Koran, the Five Pillars, Muhammed, Shariah Law, Islamism and the major branches: Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi). Below is a basic representation of Prothero’s take on each religion’s proposed problem, subsequent solution and tried technique.

1 – Islam (The Way of Submission) – the problem is self-sufficiency, the solution is submission, the technique is performing the religion (the Five Pillars etc.)

2 – Christianity (The Way of Salvation)- the problem is sin, the solution is salvation in Jesus Christ, the technique is some combination of faith and good works.

3 – Confucianism (The Way of Propriety) – the problem is chaos, the solution is social order, the techniques are ritual and etiquette.

4 – Hinduism (The Way of Devotion) – the problem is samsara (cycle of death and rebirth), the solution is moksha (release) and the technique is devotion.

5 – Buddhism (The Way of Awakening) – the problem is suffering, the solution is nirvana, the technique is the Eightfold Path.

6 – Yoruba Religion (The Way of Connection) – the problem is disconnection, the solution is reconnection to the divine, the technique is divination and sacrifice.

7 – Judaism (The Way of Exile and Return) – the problem is exile, the solution is return, the technique is remembering and obeying.

8 – Daoism (The Way of Flourishing) – the problem is lifelessness, the solution is flourishing, the technique is the Dao.

Limiting himself to 30-40 pages on each of these religions means that Prothero sacrifices depth in fully discussing major  religious beliefs, the ins and outs of significant practices or parsing contentious sociological issues having to do with particular religions. Nonetheless, Prothero makes a significant effort to cover the BIG questions of each religion and to offer the reader a little more insight into the practitioners’ journey in each religion.

With that said, this is not an academic text on world religions. At times I struggled with this aspect of the book, feeling Prothero was too chatty and “scatter-brained” in his coverage of the world’s religions. His unscripted exploration of each religion can sometimes lead the reader to get lost in the details. Some readers may finish a chapter and wonder what it is they learned about the religion they just read about. Sure, they now know more about Sufis and Yoruba orishas, but what is the essence of what it means to be Muslim or a Yoruba spiritualist?

This happened to me when I was reading through the chapter on Daoism. I found myself getting lost in the yin and the yang, the nature and the chaos, the alchemies and the immortals. As I read I asked myself, “what’s the point of Daoism?” However, as I started and re-started the chapter and its sections I was reminded of when I read the Daodejing itself. The lost feeling I felt reading Prothero’s chapter mimicked the lost feeling I felt reading Lao Tzu’s tome on the dao. Thus, in a subtle way, Prothero recreated the Daoist practitioner’s experience in his coverage of that religion. Whether or not this was his specific intent I cannot say. However, what my experience reflects is Prothero’s true intent to present a practitioner’s view of each religion. Shying away from a purely academic review of each religion, Prothero successfully offers a layman believer’s account of what it means to be Muslim, Christian, Confucian etc. while not ignoring the major issues that leaders of each religion have addressed or those expressions of each religion that outsiders necessarily confront when interacting with people of such belief.

In the end, Prothero’s approach to each religion reflects his own religious journey. As he mentions in the introduction he follows German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to “‘love the questions themselves.'” (p. 23) The reader is invited to explore each of the eight major religions covered in God is Not One as a religious seeker who yes, delights in understanding, but also thoroughly enjoys the tension and the mystery that is left in the wake of each religion’s questions and ensuing doctrinal or practical discussion thereof. This approach may leave some readers wanting more, but then we should ask ourselves, “Are we reading this book to understand religions on their own grounds or according to our prescribed presuppositions?”

Further reflecting his pursuit for the sake of quest, the reader can also deduce Prothero’s mystical bent. In each of Prothero’s chapters he outlines the more mystical elements of the various religions and often gives them a positive nod (specifically in his chapter on Islam). This makes sense, given the fact that many mystics answer their respective religion’s questions less with definitive doctrine and more with ambiguous experience and even more questions. However, do not expect Prothero to belabor the mystical aspects of each religion, there are those who criticize him for not writing enough about mystics in the various religious traditions!

Another element of Prothero’s survey of world religions that makes it stand out is his effortless interlacing of notes on comparative religion. Straying away from systematic comparisons of each religion, Prothero often mentions how certain beliefs, features or practices of each religion are similar, or in antithesis, to another religion’s doctrine or act of devotion. Comparing a Yoruba belief to a Daoist practice and a Christian practice to a Confucian belief not only helps his readers better understand each religion and integrate that knowledge into their own experiences, but also paves the way for better religious dialogue in the future; a religious dialogue that notes the differences between religions, but can also reflect on each religion’s similarities. As Prothero himself notes, “the world’s religions do converge at points. Because these religions are a family of sorts, some of the questions they ask overlap, as do some of the answers.” (p. 333) Prothero’s method of noting these similarities is not overbearing or systematic, but is instead quite natural and thus more enjoyable than typical explorations of such comparisons, which are typically represented in less-than-engaging tables and comparison charts.

The punch of Prothero’s book comes in his final two chapters. In his brief coda on Atheism, Prothero holds little back in regards to how he thinks the New Atheism undermines society in trying to argue that all religions are equally poisonous. Instead, Prothero shines his light on the friendlier side of Atheism and highlights its attempt to coexist with other religions and enter into dialogue with people of religious belief and practice. Almost as a segue, this “coda” serves to set the reader up for the author’s concluding chapter. In it, Prothero contends that both perenelliasts and the New Atheists misconstrue and misunderstand religions when they proclaim that all religions are the same because they are all true, or that they are all the same because they are all equally false (read a related Ubuntu post here).

Prothero instead offers a “middle way” that appreciates religious diversity and seeks to analyze it in order to better understand the variance of what it means to be human and strive for a better humanity through religious pursuits. He asserts that  “denying differences is a recipe for disaster” and encourages a more “secular way to talk about religion” that is focused on objective religious observation and reporting. All the while, he affirms religious reporting that avoids dogmaticism and instead promotes and reports on the mutually shared human quest to understand the transcendent, share it with the people of the world and do so from a perspective of humble awe.

For this reason, Prothero’s book is a significant popular milestone in the effort to improve religious dialogue in the post-modern era

And so, I highly recommended this book.In fact, it will form the basis for my introduction to the world’s religions class I am offering in April. Why? Because religion DOES matter and to make sense of the personal, the political, the promising and the problematic things of this world is to make sense of the religious motivations and foundations of the people involved. Furthermore, being a religious practitioner myself, I appreciated his exhortation for all students of religion to examine belief-systems from a perspective of mutual interest and awe, with our eyes wide open to both the similarities and differences in the world’s great religions. From such a vantage point students will not only better learn, but better discuss religion, dialogue with people of other faiths and share with one another in the great human pursuit to understand the human condition.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Are you engaged in the effort to promote and share religious literacy?  Is this the type of resource you believe needs to be read in our world today? What do you think of the points made and reviewed here? Agree? Disagree? Share your comments below!

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University, has published several books on American Religion and is a regular contributor at CNN.com’s Belief Blog. Visit his website to learn more.

Ken Chitwood is a graduate student studying theology and culture at Concordia University Irvine, CA. He reports on religion, religion in the public sphere and encourages religious education through his Ubuntu Spirit blog.  He also serves as an intern with LINC Houston, a charitable organization working towards the development of whole communities in the diverse urban landscape of Houston, TX. He has published articles in both secular and religious publications and speaks on theology and religious issues on a regular basis, having taught in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa and Indonesia.

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Filed under African Spirituality, Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Non-Religion, Religion and the Public Sphere, Religious Education

4 responses to “Religion Matters – A Review of Stephen Prothero’s “God is Not One”

  1. Pingback: Take the Class, Minus the Assignments « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

  2. recreative

    In my second reading of this book, and as I prepare to teach a class on world religions using Prothero’s book as the text, I want to note that Prothero also includes each religion’s “exemplar” (e.g. Mohammed, Jesus, the Buddha etc.) and states thus in his introduction. I apologize for neglecting that fact in my review.

    -Ken

    • Joan Wolf

      For the first time, I used God is Not One as my primary text for World Relgions class. I personally find the book refreshing, enthusiastic, and enlightening. Generally text books are too stodgy and fact oriented whereas Prothero reveals the essence of each religion in a casual yet informative way.
      Without a doubt, I had to supplement basic material so that students would have a more concrete knowledge of the religion, but that actually worked out well. We did not have to depend completely on one source but enjoyed an array of resources, both written and visual.
      I would say that more mature students tend to like Prothero’s approach, but then I did not hear the younger students complain. I think they relied on the supplemental material to fill in their gaps of knowledge.

      I am usng the book again in the spring and look forward to utilizing Prothero’s ideas and approach even better than I did this semester. Thanks for a great book, Stephen, and for a great review, Ken!

      Joan Wolf, Phil. Prof.

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