book larnin’

I just finished reading God is Not One by Stephen Prothero, on Leslie’s excellent recommendation.

The premise of the book is that the appealing, friendly, sort of hippy-dippy notion that all religions are “paths up the same mountain” is wrongheaded, insulting, and dangerous.  For me that was a slap upside the head, because it’s something I have rather uncritically believed, even as I strive to ground my ideas about religion in the context of culture.  Having read the book, I tend to agree with Prothero:  each religious tradition represents a unique worldview, and attempts to synthesize all of them into one spiritual stream are either so broad as to be useless, or so biased towards one perspective as to be insulting to the other traditions.

For example:  in my previous post I wrote about the “many paths to God” idea that I was taught as a child in Catholic school.  The idea was that all religious traditions were valid ways to know God, and that the righteous people practicing them would find their way to salvation.  It’s a welcoming idea, one that gave a generation of Catholic kids the warm fuzzies, but it is stuck in the perspective of Christianity:  non-Christians are not actually looking for “salvation” in the way that Christians use that word, and to imply that other traditions will actually lead to the Christian idea of salvation is to erase the actual goals of those other traditions.  I am explaining this very poorly.

Prothero names eight traditions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, Daoism) as the “rival religions that run the world,” and spends the main part of the book trying to elucidate their worldviews, goals, and practices:  he tries to lay out, in other words, the “big questions” that each religion is trying to answer (not always the same questions), and the prescribed paths to the answers that each tradition lays out.  He suggests that the real way to understanding and coexistence is to understand these differences and diversity through what he calls “religious literacy”–understanding the basics of each tradition.

It’s a fascinating read and it has really opened my eyes.  From the conclusion:

If human beings acted in their families, communities, and nations purely on the basis of greed and power, then economists and political scientists could do a decent job of describing the world.  But people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse.  Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do.  Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do.  Because God said so, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that this land is their land, so they fight for it in the name of G-d or Jesus or Allah.  Call this good news or bad news, but by any name it is the way things are.  So if we want to live in the real world rather than down a rabbit hole of our own imagining then we need to reckon with it.

To reckon with the world as it is, we need religious literacy.  We need to know something about the basic beliefs and practices of the world’s religions. . . . Today we have plenty of Christians doing Christian theology in public, plenty of atheists doing atheology in public, and plenty of perennial philosophers telling the public that all religions are one.  Our airwaves and bookstores are clogged with angry arguments for this religion and against that religion.  On Hardball and other television shows that sound like they were named by adolescent boys, producers regularly pit ideologues on the Secular Left against ideologues on the Religious Right.  So there is no shortage of religious (and antireligious) name-calling.  What is missing is this second way of talking about religion–a voice that sounds more like the old-fashioned news gathering of CBS and the BBC than like the contemporary vituperations of Fox News and MSNBC.  This book has tried to speak in this different voice, offering new ways to enter into the ten thousand gates of human religiosity.


6 responses to “book larnin’

  1. Those ideas make a lot of sense, I gotta say. Too bad I’m too lazy to educate myself!

  2. I’m glad it was good! It made a lot of sense when I saw him interviewed. I will have to actually read the book now, too, one day… 🙂

  3. As someone trained in Anthropology I tend to think that at a very basic level, both institutionalized religion and it’s less-clearly defined step-sister “spirituality” serve a common psychological function. When I think in terms of all religions being “the same,” I guess I am actually thinking that they serve the same function psychologically (if not sociologically in each culture). I am totally talking out my ass cause I have nothing to back this up with, but I do think there are commonalities apart from the worldview exercised in each.

    In general, though, while I wish I could find some belief system to believe in, I just find it exhausting and fruitless because I’ll never know the answer and I want THE answer, you know?

    But if sounds like you can tolerate the “what if’s” a lot better than me and find some joy or comfort in the exploration.

    • You know, I think you’re right that all religions probably serve similar psychological functions for their practictioners–at some level they are all concerned with a search for meaning, or forgiveness, or salvation. Looking for something that seems to be missing from life. But I think what Prothero is saying is that you can’t actually respect each tradition without looking at the places where they differ. For instance, you can contrast Christianity’s focus on the afterlife with Confucianism’s focus on relationships in this life. These are two big ideas that, while fulfilling the same psychological need, are not going to be understood in any significant way by anyone who just lumps them together. The ways in which they’re similar are very broad; the ways in which they’re unique are what you reach when you look a little deeper. And in our modern age, when people can “shop” for religions and belief systems instead of being just stuck with the one they’re born with, it’s the differences, not the similarities, that lead people to adhere to one tradition or another.

  4. I’d love to read that book! I’m going to put it on my wish list for Christmas!

  5. I have a constant issue with this myself. I went to a faith based group mtg last wk with brass knuckles in my handbag in case one of them tried to tell me IVF was playing god.

    Making it bland doesn’t really make it fit. That was my whole defense. I need to reconsider.

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