god is not one, for someone with my buddhist and ecumenical leanings, was a bit of a provocative book title so i started reading it with some resistance. was this going to be some rabid right-wing pseudo intellectual trying to persuade me that all gods are bad except his?

really, the title of the book should be “if you think all religions are the same, you’re ill-informed and unrealistic when you hope that your attitude helps world peace.” (clearly, the people at harper-collins are better headline writers than i.)

far from a raging religious conservative, the author, stephen prothero from boston university, calls for empathy and a celebration of diversity while acknowledging the reality that the vast majority of people who practice a religion feel very strongly and protective about the details that make up their religion. while every religion “asks after the human condition. here we are in these human bodies. what now? what next? what are we to become?”, they tend to differ sharply among what philosopher of religion ninian smart calls the seven dimensions of religion: the ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal and material dimensions.

prothero makes a good case for his idea, although some of his arguments are a little circular. for example, he tells us that each religion articulates

a problem
a solution to the problem
a technique for reaching the solution
an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart the path from problem to solution

for example

in buddhism, the problem is suffering; in christianity, sin
in buddhism, the solution or goal is nirvana, in christianity, salvation
in buddhism, the technique is the noble eightfold path; in christianity, a combination of faith and good works
in buddhism, exemplars are, among others, bodhisattvas; in some forms of christianity, saints

this analysis is not a bad idea. prothero readily admits that this is a very crude lens, and i quickly came to like the book because he so freely admits to this and other shortcomings. however, what he doesn’t acknowledge is that it is easy to make the point about the divergence of religions if he is the very person who sets up the criteria by which this divergence is to be measured. this is all the more interesting because he points to that very problem with others: “there is a long tradition of christian thinkers assuming that salvation is the goal of all religions and then arguing that only christians can achieve this goal.”

another (small?) weakness of the book is that prothero does not do much to bolster his arguments – that religions are more different than alike, and that negating this difference detracts from harmonious co-existence – with evidence or reference in the relevant literature. he doesn’t point out who makes counter arguments (and how they might be refuted) or who else makes arguments similar to his. i put the word “small” in parentheses because the book is clearly meant as an introductory text for a wide audience. a person interested in the subject would do well to do some further reading.

these weaknesses aside, i am enjoying reading this book. prothero underlines that religions must be looked at warts and all, and from the point of view of its ordinary practitioners, not from the point of view of mysticism. i haven’t come to a conclusion yet whether i agree with that (i suspect that i might come to think that both perspectives are useful) but i welcome the chance to think about religions from that angle.

prothero’s concept of “godthink” is also interesting – a “naive theological groupthink” that lumps all religions into one, and which is practiced by theists and atheists alike.

i read the beginning and the end of the book and have a feeling that i have a good sense of prothero’s main arguments. and while i believe, perhaps mistakenly so, that i have a good grasp of the general outline of most of the religions he discusses in the middle of the book – christianity, islam, judaism, confucianism, daoism, buddhism, hinduism, yoruba and atheism – prothero has piqued my interest enough for me to look forward to what he has to say about these religions. so stay tuned; i think i’ll mention this book again.


  1. Hmm…sounds like prothero has an interesting case study on religious values and ideals on his hands. I know of some people who would argue that religion is nothing more than that of a small cult of people who “need” something to believe in to prove our existence on this earth. Personally, I am indifferent; however, I can certainly appreciate the diverse set of beliefs that accompany each religious view.

  2. i think the people who you reference are exactly those that prothero finds dangerous. he says that it is ludicrous to dismiss religion as a strong force, just like politics and economics (with which it is intertwined, of course). for example, he talks about how american politics of every stripe is influenced by christian values through and through, how the bible gets cited in just about any discussion at the congress, etc.
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..godthink =-.

  3. Interesting! Glad you enjoyed it! I know I’ve been guilty about lumping all the religiouns together, but I see from the few things you said that they’re really quite different! Thanks for being on this tour!

  4. I am left with the same feeling after reading this book – stay tuned because it will be coming back! I am definitely interested to read more on all of the religions that Prothero mentions. For me I say it less as we have to focus on the differences as simply we need to acknowledge that there are differences. Either way, I definitely want to read more on the subject!
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Review: Reflections on Islam by George Jonas =-.

  5. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  6. In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states:
    “Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

  7. thanks for all your comments!

    amy, have you written another post about him yet?

    ron, thanks for taking the time to write two comments! i think the point that prothero makes about mystics is very important. mystics are in the vast, vast minority. the people who influence our world are the george bushes and stephen harpers (have you seen the book about his religious ties). they are not mystics. they are people for whom religion and politics, despite what it says in our constitutions, are intimate intertwined, and they are the ones who are cearly married to the “outer” aspects of spirituality.
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..speaker line-up for mental health camp =-.

  8. Among the mystics I have met were the chairman of an American global bank, a police inspector in Copenhagen, and three university professors: of philosophy in Kyoto, of history in Tel Aviv, and of political science in Cairo, plus 14 religious leaders of five faiths in 12 countries.

    A paragraph from my e-book:

    Mystics range from rare saints, who have lived perpetually in the divine, to those millions of people who had momentary experiences of oneness. Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the U.N., Vaclav Havel, past President
    of the Czech Republic, Ramesh Balsekar, C.E.O. of the Bank of India, Arthur Eddington, Britain’s famous physicist, Martha Graham, American dance choreographer, and many others well known in the 20th-century were mystics. Virtually every country in the world has had, and now has, mystics.

  9. i’m not saying that only “special” people can be mystics. however, i can tell you without a doubt that the vast majority of religious people i know (and i know quite a few) cannot be called mystics by any stretch of the imagination. in fact, i would put forth that mystics are rarely “pillars of the church” – but the pillars of the church are the ones who count in church and politics.
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..speaker line-up for mental health camp =-.

  10. You are right, they are seldom pillars of the church. Many of those from the past, however, have been designated “saints,” usually long after their passing.

    I forgot to mention the person who introduced me to mysticism in 1959: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel physicist who once said, “God is man’s greatest creation.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.