Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Introduction to God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Do all of the world’s great religions share a belief in one God, or even one central idea?  In the Introduction to God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero tells us that Hinduism has many gods and Buddhism has no god.  But Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the religions of the book—are the most contentious and they all share a belief in one God.  Prothero, who is skeptical of what passes for interfaith dialogue, tells us that belief in one God is about all that those religions of the book have in common, and he notes there are even some Jews who do not believe in God (p. 21).

            Prothero challenges perennialists like Huston Smith who assert that all the great religions have the same ultimate goal but different paths to achieve it, as well as Mohandas Ghandi’s statement that “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions.” (p. 1)  Prothero acknowledges the need for religious tolerance gained through the freedoms of religion and expression, but he questions whether religious tolerance will lead to religious unity:
“The Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.  But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place.  In fact, this naïve theological groupthink—call it Godthink—has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide. “ (p. 3)   

            Prothero points out similarities and differences between religions: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics [morality], but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience and the law.” (p. 3)  Prothero makes a distinction between the two components of legitimacy—the voluntary standards of ethics/morality and coercive laws (p. 3)—but he doesn’t explain why the distinction is essential for religious tolerance.  Religious rules or laws must be voluntary; if they are coercive, as with apostasy and blasphemy laws, there can be no freedom of religion or speech.  Those freedoms are possible only in libertarian democracies where laws are made by elected representatives and are subject to fundamental human rights.

            According to Prothero, the “all religions are one” mantra is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. (p. 3)  He explains, “The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straight jacket of religious agreement….What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.” (p. 4)

            Prothero takes notice of the New Atheists who condemn all religions as inherently evil.  He acknowledges that religion is one of the greatest forces of evil in the world, but argues that it is also one of the greatest forces for good (p. 9); and because most people in the world are religious, whether it is good or evil “…religion is a force too powerful to ignore.” (p. 10)

            As for Christian and Muslim interfaith relations, Prothero says, “While I do not believe we are witnessing a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap.” (p. 12)

            Christianity is the world’s largest religion at 33%, but Islam is the fastest growing, from 12% in 1900 to 22% in 2010. (p. 18)  While Christians make a distinction between religion and secular politics, Muslims do not.  They consider Islam both a religion and a holistic way of life with comprehensive and immutable laws that limit individual freedom. (p. 19)

            Prothero points out fundamental differences in faith and belief between the religions of the book, and the many variations of each religion create a vast diversity of beliefs.  There are common themes: Christianity is about sin and salvation, while Judaism and Islam are less about sin and salvation and more about a holistic way of life.  Both Judaism and Islam are deontological or rule-based religions, while Christianity is more teleological, emphasizing belief in an ultimate principle of faith rather than obedience to religious rules and rituals.              

            Prothero’s stated goal is to make people more religiously literate in order to disprove the perennialist view that all religions share one central theme. (pp 22-24)  That is a laudable goal, but it would be a serious mistake to emphasize religious differences to the exclusion of their similarities.  That reverses the error of the perennialists, but is equally mistaken.  The truth lies in between: There are many religious differences, but there is enough common ground to avoid hate and violence so long as we respect our differences.

            Prothero’s emphasis on religious differences can give the false impression that religious diversity is a problem.  Libertarian democratic cultures with a diversity of religions have produced cultures of religious tolerance and minimized religious fundamentalism in the West since the Enlightenment.  Where there is intrafaith diversity progressive believers can often find more in common with those of other religions than with fundamentalists in their own; but that has not happened in the Islamic East where fundamentalists in emerging democracies have used apostasy and blasphemy laws to prevent the freedoms of religion and expression.

            Jews, Christians and Muslims have many differences, but they share a belief in one God and also share a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  It is a common principle of legitimacy based on love over law.  Were it not for fundamentalist believers who insist on imposing their holy laws on others, Jews, Christians and Muslims could all embrace the principle that we love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves—even our unbelieving neighbors—and promote religious tolerance through the freedoms of religion and expression.

Notes and References to Resources and Blogs:

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, Harper One, 2010.

On religion as a primary source of morality and law, see the Introductionto The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy at pages 10-15.  On the importance of the Enlightenment to conforming religions to libertarian democracy, see above and the following blogs: Religion and Reason (posted 12/8/2014), Faith and Freedom (posted 12/15/2014), Religion and Human Rights (posted 2/22/2015), God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty (posted 3/29/2015) and Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy (posted 4/12/2015).

On a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see The Greatest Commandment (posted 1/11/2015) and Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?(posted 1/25/2015).

See Love over Law (posted 1/18/2015).  

On whether religion is good or bad and the atheist view, see Is Religion Good or Evil (posted 2/15/2015) and Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (posted 3/1/2015).

On religious exclusivism and competition, see Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? (posted 2/8/2015).               

On religious differences on issues of sex, see Love Marriage and Homosexuality (posted 2/1/2015).

On religious violence, see Religion, Violence, and Military Legitimacy(posted 12/29/2014).  

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