Vive la Différence

In his 2007 book, Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero identified a dangerous contradiction.  Americans are not only profoundly religious, but also profoundly uneducated about religion—including their own.  The enormous role of religion in contemporary politics means that religious literacy is nothing less than a civic responsibility.

Now, with God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, Prothero provides a crash course in Religion 101 for the legions of religious illiterates.  Prothero, however, has written much more than a mere textbook.  His guide to the world’s eight most important religions is informed by his insistence that religions, rather than offering different paths toward the same truth, begin with different problems and offer different solutions.  If this approach appears contentious, it’s because Prothero is entering a public religious debate characterized by absolutist claims.  Religion is either wholly terrible, a virus of the mind as Richard Dawkins has characterized it, or mankind’s greatest treasure, because, as Karen Armstrong has written, “Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.”

Prothero offers a moment of reasoned calm amidst the mudslinging.  If there is to be peace, he argues, we must understand and accept differences, rather than deny them.  Informed by this sensitivity to diversity, Prothero finds the divine in the details. The beauty of the world’s religions lies not in their ineffable universality, but in the concrete particularity of their expressions.  I spoke with Prothero on evangelical atheists, wishfully-thinking scholars, and the politics of the 21st century’s most important religion.

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Garrett Baer: The title God Is Not One echoes that of New Atheist Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, and it sounds like a refutation of the Shema. Then the subtitle makes it clear that you are arguing against the religious universalism of authors like Karen Armstrong. Where does the title—and the book—locate you within these debates about contemporary religion?

Stephen Prothero: I read it as a refutation of the notion that there is only one way to figure the mathematics of divinity. Yes, God = 1 according to the Shema, the Trinity, and the Quran. But God = 0 according to many Buddhists, Confucians, and Daoists. And God is > 1 according to many traditional Hindus. In a backhanded way, I think I am arguing for the Shema to be the Shema. Why do we have to pretend that Jewish monotheists are saying essentially the same thing as Hindu polytheists and Buddhist nontheists? Let each be what it is—which is to say, recognize that we are bumping up against genuine religious diversity here.

Baer: But couldn’t there be a place for “perennial philosophers” like Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith, and Joseph Campbell to privilege universal aspects of religion? Or is that approach inherently misguided?  In other words, do you see your book as refuting the perennial philosophers, or providing a necessary complement?

Prothero: I have no problem with theologians advancing the theological proposition that the religions are essentially the same. This is Ramakrishna’s point, and I’m happy to let Ramakrishna be Ramakrishna. What I oppose is the sleight of hand that turns this subjective theological desire about how things ought to be into an objective analytical fact about how things really are. I have used Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions in my courses for years, but I always read him more as a theologian than as a religious studies scholar. It is the masquerading of theology as analysis that I’m opposed to here.

Baer: In the introduction to that book, Smith writes, “Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities.” Why can’t differences be confined just to such particularities, while making room for what may be universal?

Prothero: Well, you can look at perennialism from two perspectives.  One is to see its universalism derived from common human experience.  The other is to see its universalism derived from the one divine reality that undergirds that experience.  Either way, however, you elide the radical pluralism I at least see all around us.  We all live on the same earth, but how common, really, is human experience?  And how much in common, really, do the various gods have?

Baer: You suggest that religious literacy is a civic responsibility, and that assuming all religions are the same may even be dangerous. Of course, both the New Atheists and the religious universalists could be said to have political motivations guiding their approaches. What is the political backdrop here?

Prothero: I think both these perspectives are driven by desire—the desire of the universalists to embrace all religions as equally true and beautiful and the desire of the New Atheists to reject all religions as equally false and poisonous. As for politics, I don’t know, though I’d say there is a shared naïveté. You may wish to end religious conflict by blinking and making all religions the same. Or you may wish to end religious conflict by blinking and making all religion go away. But the world is what it is. And, as citizens and political animals, we need to reckon with reality rather than with desire.

Baer: How much have they succeeded? What, for instance, do you think will become of atheism in the new century?

Prothero: It is going into a teeny tiny corner. Atheists account for roughly two percent of the U.S. population, and while atheism has gained a foothold in Western Europe, it is moribund almost everywhere else in the world. We live on a religious planet, and arguments from atheists—are at least at this point—are proving impotent to change that.

Baer: Still, today, the New Atheists have succeeded in attracting a lot of public attention? Isn’t this significant?

Prothero: The public role of the New Atheists is, in my view, important. Most obviously, they are raising questions about precisely the things many people value most, not least God, Jesus, and the Bible. More urgently, however, they are calling the Religious Right to task. There used to be a gentleman’s agreement that kept both our faith and our doubt out of the public square. After Christians raced into U.S. politics in the 1970s and 1980s, that agreement was breached. Many of the New Atheists are criticizing the God proposition not only because they don’t believe it but also because they object to the conservative political uses to which that proposition has been put. Here too they are advancing the conversation, by pointing out there is a price to pay for enlisting God in political projects.

Baer: After covering the “eight rival religions,” you give atheism a tenuous position within that pantheon by adding a ninth chapter dedicated to the topic. You write that “atheism is a religion of sorts, or can be.” Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

Prothero: One argument of my coda on the New Atheism is that many atheists are religious against their own intentions. But not all New Atheists are religious. It depends on the person. But atheism as a whole would be less religious if it were less emotional and less evangelistic.

Baer: Proselytizing atheists like Dawkins have carved out a niche within a largely religious public sphere. Would a less emotional, less evangelistic atheism be capable of maintaining even this degree of influence?

Prothero: I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem.  Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers.

Baer: The chapter on Islam concludes, “The nineteenth and twentieth centuries may have belonged to Christianity. The twenty-first belongs to Islam.” That’s a big statement bound to ruffle some feathers. Is it safe to dismiss the possibility that adaptation could sustain Christianity’s dominance?

Prothero: I am not dismissing the possibility that Christianity will continue to change. In fact, I expect it. But I also see the pendulum swinging in terms of global influence toward Islam. That said, I am a historian not a futurologist (or whatever modern-day prognosticators are called). So who really knows? All I can do is call it as I see it, and I see this century as an Islamic one.

Baer: I was surprised to see Judaism placed seventh in importance, with only a brief mention of the Israeli state. What factors played a role in this decision?

Prothero: Judaism is the trickiest case here. In terms of historical influence, it may be number one, since it gave rise to the two religions—Christianity and Islam—that now account for over half of the world’s population. But in terms of contemporary impact it is tiny. There are about as many Jews in the world as there are people in Mumbai.

Baer: Still, it seems that if Islam’s influence continues to expand, then the political significance of Judaism, or at least Israel, will also increase, regardless of the Jewish population. How do you understand the relationship between Israel and the contemporary significance of Judaism?

Prothero: The Middle East is the world’s hottest religio-political hotspot, and Israel stands at the center of that.  But at the center of the Israel-Palestine problem stand Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  At some point, numbers matter.  And there are only 14 million or so Jews in the world, over against about 25 million Sikhs.  I feel far worse about not including Sikhs in “God is Not One” than about ranking Judaism seventh.

Baer: For me, the most striking expression of your emphasis on diversity was the amount of space you gave to the Yoruba religion, which many Americans and Europeans haven’t even heard of.

Prothero: I hope my book changes that.

Baer: You say God Is Not One was written for “readers asking for a single book they could read to become religiously literate.” What lessons—from your teaching experience, friends, or your encounters with various religious texts—most influenced the final shape and argument of the book?

Prothero: For the most part I try to describe the key beliefs and practices and stories of each of the great religions. But of course I can only do so from my particular perspective, so I try to fess up throughout when it comes to what that perspective might be. I did make a conscious decision in writing this book not to censor myself, as religious studies professors are trained to do. If I found a passage in the Qur’an troubling, I have to assume that many of my readers might also. So I wrestle with that passage, and with why it troubled me. Similarly, if there is a story in Daoism that delights me, I suspect that some of my readers might be delighted by it too.  One of the things that is lost when you insist on lumping the world’s religions together into one mash-up is the unique beauty of each. I try to give voice to that unique beauty, without neglecting, of course, the unique dangers each brings to the world of religions.

Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.