God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that run the World – and Why their Differences Matter – Book Review

Author: Stephen Prothero
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN 13: 978-0061571282

Reviewed by Hugh Kemp, Academic Dean and Head of Mission, Redcliffe College. Hugh is also author of the recently published The One Stop Guide To World Religions (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2013).

If Jesus is the only way to God – as Christians claim – then why would Christians want to learn about other religions? I know that Christianity claims to have “the answer”: the real problem in life – according to Christian belief – is “how can I deal with the sin in my life, or how can I get right with God?”

When looking at other religions, Christians often compare the
religions’ dealing with sin on the same terms that Christianity does. Walk into any Christian bookshop and pick up the brochures that compare the religions – nicely displayed on a stand-alone rack, designed as an easy-to-read abbreviated comparison of beliefs – and the list is inevitably determined by Christian categories: God, sin, salvation, creation and the likes. I concede that over the years I have actually bought some of these brochures, looking for easy lists to memorise. Salvation: this is what the Bible says; this is what Buddhists believe; this is what Hindus believe; this is what Muslims believe. But I confess these brochure lists have never sat very comfortably with me: they seem too… well, simplistic and reductionist.

If I then seek to give one of these brochures to a non-Christian friend, puzzlement follows. People often have a vague notion that in some sense all the religions are really just the same, and hence a list of comparisons seems odd, at best, when all paths lead up the same mountain, where at the summit we find that God is really the same God of all the religions. This of course is anathema to most Christians: Christianity does have a certain exclusivity to it when it claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Yet students in my classes are often unsettled by this murky notion ‘out there’ that there’s really not any difference between the religions. I sense they’ve bought into the Dalai Lama’s claim that “all religions are as fingers on the hand”: sort of utilitarian appendages connected to a united substrate (the palm, in his metaphor). [1] Because it is socially expedient to be seen to be tolerant, it is tempting to buy into Mohandas Gandhi’s notion that “belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions”.

Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that run the World – and Why their Differences Matter takes on this myth of religious unity. Prothero’s is a timely reminder that religions are not the same at all. Other religions are not even pretending to be dealing with the problem of sin (for example), Prothero claims. To claim thus is not to understand any of them. In fact, they are far from being one: they are “rival”, and their “differences matter” a lot. And this is a brave position to take since many consider that religions don’t matter at all – both in the popular media and in the academy – and are content to ridicule them or ignore them.

“God is not One” in as much as religious theological unity is a myth, and the Dalai Lama’s conjecture is simply naïve. In spite of the New Atheists’ attacks on Faith, the world remains deeply religious: [2] indeed, “furiously” religious, according to Prothero. [3] We don’t pretend that all economic or political systems are the same. But for some reason – Prothero demonstrates it’s due to the so-called ethic of tolerance – there is a pretence that all the world’s religions are merely different paths to the same God. Prothero’s genius in this book is the very simple notion that not all religions claim to be dealing with the same problem, and therefore they offer different solutions. We can throw our simplistic brochures out: two thirds of the world simply don’t recognise that “sin” – in a Christian sense – is a problem.

The book is divided into eight chapters – one religion for each – with a coda on Atheism in a ninth chapter. For Islam, the problem is pride; the solution is submission. For Confucianism, the problem is chaos; the solution is social order. For Buddhism, the problem is suffering; the solution is awakening. For Judaism, the problem is exile; the solution is return to God. For Hinduism, the problem is bondage to samsara (because of karma); the solution is moksha (release). For Christianity, the problem is sin; the solution is salvation. In addition, arguing against simplistic notions of “primitive religion”, Prothero demonstrates that the New World derivatives of west African Yoruba religion can be classified together as a “world religion” (p. 226), where the problem is that we have forgotten our destiny; the solution is to remember our destiny. Incidentally, this classification of Yoruba as a “world religion” is innovative for a book on world religions, but certainly defendable in light of the huge migration of West African peoples, both forced (slavery) and more recently by choice.

These are of course Prothero’s take on the religions, and he himself falls prey to his own reductionism. Can, for example, “salvation” be the only answer to the stated problem of Christianity, that of “sin”. How would the Kingdom of God as a narrative of God’s breaking into the human sphere, fit here? Is Judaism’s problem of “exile” all that different from Christianity’s “sin”? And, since the two religions are related, it could be demonstrated that Christianity’s categories could subsume Judaism’s. Is Confucianism’s answer to chaos simply social order, when that social order certainly seems to have quasi-religious notions to it, and today, Confucianism can really be only understood in its dynamic interaction with the other two religions of China, namely Daoism and Buddhism?

But these are deeper critical issues to be discussed in the classroom. The symmetry of Prothero’s chapters is a strength of the book: easy to follow, with accessible language. His framework is logical and simple, informed no doubt by copious teaching notes and experience as professor of religion at Boston University.

God is not One joins an emerging list of books from Prothero which have been published to high acclaim: New York Times bestsellers, Time front cover and the likes. Prothero has found a voice in the popular media: he is on a mission to make his chiefly American readership religiously literate. See for example his Religious Literacy: What every American needs to know, and doesn’t (HarperCollins, 2008). God is not One is a further resource to this end.

However, in a candid moment Prothero suggests that religions may indeed offer one thing in common: the primary purpose of religion – any religion – is to “ward off the chill of death” (p. 240). Noting that religions may rise and fall on how well they deal with mortality, Prothero suggests the opposite: religion may be more about making sense of birth, not death; of creation rather than destruction. He notes for example, that the Bible (and Jewish scriptures) starts with creation of a good world, rather than with suffering, or the deaths of its founder, be it Abraham, Moses or Jesus. Perhaps, Prothero suggests, religion may be really dealing with the question of flourishing: how can I live life to the full? How can I be the best that I can be, here and now? (p. 241). If this thesis is true, and this impulse is embedded in any or all religions, then perhaps here is a commonality for a way forward in dialogue?

Terry Muck and Frances Adeney argue that a common metaphor for the interaction of Christians with other religions today – sadly – is a “managerial competition”, [4] and in light of this, offer a fresh model of “giftive mission” built on the notion that the Gospel is a free gift and should be offered as such. Prothero’s explicit agenda is the education of his compatriot Americans into religious literacy. If any of us are going to develop literacy in religions, then perhaps the best “gift” we can offer is to acknowledge the diversity of what each religion is claiming, accept them on their own terms (rather than ours) and together sit and explore what “flourishing” as humans might be all about. As a teacher of world religions at Redcliffe College, this could well be the first conversation I teach my students to have.

[1] This I’ve heard the Dalai Lama say at public meetings I’ve attended between 1996 and 2008.
[2] The New Atheists include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, amongst others, and found voice particularly between 2004 and 2007.
[3] Inside front dust jacket
[4] Muck, Terry, and Frances S. Adeney. Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-First Century, Encountering Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, p. 10.

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 46.

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