Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A nice foil to John Hick’s theory that “God has many names” is Stephen Prothero’s recent book, God Is Not One, which bears the provocative subtitle, The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

The entire title tells it all. We need only to cite the chapters on the eight religions, find why their differences matter, and uncover Prothero’s argument for his contention that God is not one.

As for the eight chapters, I'll simply enumerate them in the order of what Prothero judges to be their contemporary impact: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism.

Prothero begins to defend his thesis with a list of those who think God is one and the same in all religions. This includes the aforementioned William Blake, who in 1795 published the illustrated book All Religions Are One. Prothero then quotes Mohandas Gandhi’s statement that “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions” and the Dalai Lama’s affirmation that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” Huston Smith’s 1958 book, The World’s Religions is also mentioned. Along the way he cites the books of such fellow-travelers as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, and Dan Brown.

“The most popular metaphor for this view,” Prothero says, “portrays the great religions as different paths up the same mountain.” Half the introductory textbooks in this commodious genre, it seems, use this metaphor to lead students astray. “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side,” he quotes Huston Smith as saying, “but when the top is reached the trails converge.” The religions have distinct rituals, theologies, and organizational structures, “but beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”

There are at least two reasons for this disinformation campaign. One motivation, explains Prothero, is that those who hold this idea are rejecting the missionary view that only their path leads to the peak. The other reason for repeating the “all religions are one” mantra is the hope that it will somehow lead to world peace.

Prothero has no difficulty with the alternative to the many-paths doctrine, which is to embrace the eighteenth century ideal of religious tolerance. “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 . . . has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

Hidden behind Prothero’s grand rhetoric, there are arguments. Two are based on analogy. (1) “No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same.” And (2) “What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is. And this requirement is only frustrated by the naïve hope that somehow you and your partner are magically the same.”

Besides these two arguments, there are three others.

First, the differences in the religions’ doctrines, rituals, mythologies, and laws “may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.” Just as do the religions’ gods.

Second, if we hold to the idea of religious tolerance, we are assuming essential differences among the religions, because there wouldn’t be a need to tolerate another religion if it were essentially like our own.

A third argument is that “the characters of these gods differ wildly.” One god (Yahweh, for example) may be personal while another (say, the Tao of Taoism) is impersonal. One may be male, another female. One might be a warrior, another mild-mannered.

And so on.

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