Stephen Prothero, GOD IS NOT ONE (2010)

Here is a book I’ve mentioned a couple times, having read portions of it over the years since it was published. Only last month did I read it all the way through.

Mixed review. The book makes some excellent points at the start, goes into a great deal of detail, perhaps too much, in the middle, and ends with a sniping chapter in which he is very angry and those he calls the “angry New Atheists.” The last sorta spoils the book. Prothero, I conclude, has faith in faith; it doesn’t matter which faith a person might follow, but a person needs faith. As a way of self-examining the human condition. Not about what’s really true.

(It’s as if someone wrote an admiring book about pseudoscience, marveling at the history and inventiveness and complexity of the theories of astrology, of alien abductions, of the flat earth, and including a chapter at the end in which he expressed Great Anger at those spoilsport scientists and rationalists who are out to ruin everyone’s fun by pointing out that those pseudoscience, uh, aren’t true.)

Still, the book has some very good points to make, initially. I’ll repeat some comments from one of my memoir essays (here):

Prothero’s 2010 book is to challenge the nostrum that all religions are more or less the same, that they all worship the same god. No, they’re not, no they don’t. His central observation is that all the major religions presume to identify some crucial problem that afflicts humanity, and offers a cure.

  • Christianity identifies the problem as sin; the cure is salvation.
  • Islam thinks the problem is pride; the cure is submission.
  • Confucianism identifies the problem is chaos; the solution is social order.
  • Judaism identifies the problem as exile; the solution is to return to God.
  • Buddhism identifies the problem as suffering; the solution is awakening.

This is a useful way to consider religion, because it establishes religion as an issue of human psychology, a need to fit the problems of the world into some cause-and-effect paradigm. Or problem-solution paradigm.

I will summarize the 24-page introduction in some detail, since that’s where the interesting points are made.

  • Since the counterculture in the 1960s, it’s been fashionable to affirm that all religions are one, all beautiful and all true. No one says this of political of economic systems. Huston Smith [[ author of the popular mid-20th-century book THE WORLD’S RELIGIONS, which I have a copy of; it’s like an encyclopedia, with main sections remarkably like Prothero’s ]] used the analogy of different paths up the same mountain. But religions do not even agree on the number of gods. Dalai Lama: the essential message is the same. Karen Armstrong: a common harmony of peace, love, and understanding. Of course the ethics of the religions do share similarities.
  • But these sentiments are dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. It’s wishful thinking, driven by the rejection of the thinking that only one’s own religion is true. The idea of a unity of religions is naïve and dangerous, because it blinds us to the clashes of religions that threaten the world.
  • Different religions have very different rituals and doctrines, that sometimes move adherents to fight and kill.
  • We want to get along; we don’t want to argue. The notion of religious tolerance admits that differences exist.
  • Huston Smith’s book sold 2 million copies, with its proclamation of the essential unity of all religions. He emphasized religions at their best. He struck a chord, in his time. The idea of religions as different paths up the same mountain was echoed in Huxley, Campbell, and recently Karen Armstrong and Bill Moyers. Others disagree, presuming that others are e.g. ‘anonymous Christians.’ But we need to understand religions for what they are.
  • Sociologists may have felt religion was fading, but in general the world is furiously religious. You need to understand religion to understand the world, and its history – many examples, including 9/11.
  • The 21st century’s ‘new atheists’ saw only the shared sins of religions. Yes, religion has done evil, but also inspired social movements and much great art.
  • Author recalls how his students rejected Nazi interpretation of the Bible as not being ‘real’ Christians – just as some Muslims dismissed the 9/11 perpetrators as not ‘real’ Muslims. [[ This is the  ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy ]] So is religion toxic or tonic? Yes, and yes.
  • We cannot understand politics, of America or India, without understanding the Bible, or Hinduism and Confucianism.
  • The world’s great religions share a starting point: that there is something wrong with the world. Examples. But they part in what to do about it: sin, suffering. And there are many variations, varieties of Christianity, of Islam. There is no one essence that all religions share, not even belief in a God.
  • The world’s religions are related, but like second cousins. Each religion includes a problem, a solution, a technique, and an exemplar.
  • In Christianity the problem is sin, the solution salvation, the technique some combination of faith and good works, and the exemplars the saints.
  • In Buddhism the problem is suffering, the solution or goal is nirvana; the technique is the Eightfold Path; and the exemplars includes the bodhisattvas…
  • This is a bit simplistic but helps to highlight the differences between religions.
  • This book doesn’t cover every religion of course. What does it mean to refer to religions as great? Not that they are necessarily good. So included are religions, for better or worse, that are widespread and weighty. The order here is by influence.
  • Which is the greatest, then? Christianity in the US, certainly. But Islam comes in first in global impact and current growth. Muslims make no distinction between religious and ordinary life.
  • Author intends to be careful but honest in discussing the various religions, restricting terms to the religions that acknowledge them, e.g. not every religion is about salvation or beliefs or rituals; Buddhists do not believe in sin. There’s an analogy with sports, each sport pursuing different goals.
  • Author thought he knew the answers to the big questions, until realizing he didn’t even have the questions right. He lost the Christian faith of his youth and became a religious studies professor. The world’s religions do not ask the same questions. They do ask after the human condition.
  • Great is not necessarily good. How is greatness determined? Partly by numbers; also historical significance. And contemporary impact. Today, the two are Christianity and Islam.
  • The Greatest Religion is Islam; it’s growing, while Christianity is declining slightly. And Muslims have no public/private distinction. It’s more influential in the world’s hot spots.
  • Sports and Salvation. Author got advice about how to discuss religions. Their terms are distinct. They’re not all about faith or believing. Nor is it about salvation; that’s a Christian concept. Again, the sports analogy; different ones have different goals. So which of the Big Questions the religions ask should we be seeking? The usual big ones: what is god? What happens after we die? And so on. But it’s not the answers, but the questions that matter. It’s civically responsible to be religiously literate. All religions in some sense ask about the human condition.

The central some 300 pages of the book consists of eight chapters, about the ‘major’ religions, in order of the author’s perceived order of importance: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism.

I will not attempt to summarize these chapters; glosses on these religions’ beliefs and histories are easily available. I will note some general observations, however.

  • All of these religions change over time, giving way to political forces, splitting into sects for seemingly mundane reasons, often by force of personality of religious leaders who emphasize one aspect of belief over another. (You see this throughout Christianity, but it happens in other religions too.)
  • As said above, some of these, the eastern religions, are more philosophies than belief-systems, especially Confucianism and Buddhism. But Buddhism became *more* like western religions, with its sudden identification of many gods (Buddhas), once they came into competition with western religions, via globalization as it was in the late 19th century.
  • The Yoruba religion, which I’d never heard of, is the if you like ‘tribal’ religion of West Africa and then the New World, especially Cuba and Brazil. It involves destiny and many gods, the author’s summary sounding like an over-complicated fantasy novel. (Author mentions a fun fact: in the 1950s show “I Love Lucy,” Desi Arnaz’s occasional pleas to “Babaluaye” was to one of the Yoruba gods.)

Then the final Chapter 9, “A Brief Coda on Atheism: The Way of Reason”

  • Atheism is not a great religion by this book’s standard; it’s for elites rather than ordinary folk. [[ Elites meaning intelligent and educated, apparently. But I agree with him! ]] Not influential, except maybe in western Europe. Still it’s a venerable teaching tradition. Yet in the past decade there have been books about atheism. The writers can deny only the gods they know. [[ Nonsense; they dismiss the very idea of gods, and teacups ]] Their solution is to flush the poison of religion away. [[ And yet, this will never happen; human nature. ]]
  • Some distinguish between strong and weak atheists, or between angry and friendly. The New Atheists are the angry type; aggressive and evangelical.
  • [[ Why is this any worse than aggressive and evangelical Christians? I’ve always wondered why these writers have been dismissed as “angry”; to me their writings and public speeches have much the same tone as a pseudo-science debunker, patiently trying to explain to someone why the world is *not* flat. ]]
  • p320.4: “In decades past, western intellectuals honored a gentleman’s agreement of sorts to keep their faith, or lack thereof, largely to themselves.” Then the US Religious Right came in the ‘70s, Muslims poured into Europe; and 9/11. These led to public debate, with the “wrecking-ball” atheists questioning the very idea of religious tolerance.
  • Critics responded about dividing the world into good and bad. The Atheists are as fundamentalist as those they criticize, as if the evidence for their side is obvious. [[ It is. ]]
  • Most atheists would resist being called religious; but recall the French Revolution. It depends what we mean by religion. How does it stack up against the four c’s: creed, cultus, codes, communities? Michael Onfray disputes ethical codes of the other atheists. There are a few communities, like summer camps. But Onfray still finds the stench of religion among many. Perhaps humans are religious by nature. If the problem is religion, the solution may be religious too.
  • Most atheists are no more hardcore than most religious people. Examples: “Friendly Atheist”; William Lobdell; Julia Sweeney; others. Some want religion done away with; some want mutual tolerance. It’s now at a crossroads. A ‘new’ new Atheism may be emerging, less angry and friendlier.
  • [[ Error: He cites the website “Friendly Atheist’ (recently folded in to the OnlySky site (, as if its title means something different than the stance of the “new atheists.” In fact, its author Hemant Mehta is as derisive about day to day examples of the irrationality of faith – especially the many right-wing evangelists and “prophets” – as any of the “new atheist” authors of the 2000s. Prothero clearly hasn’t read the site. ]]

This chapter has references to a fifth “New Atheist,” Michael Onfray, a French writer of many books, only one or two of which have been translated into English. Notably Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam published in English in 2007. Yet another book I’ve had on my shelves for years, and last month, just after reading this Prothero book, finally read. About that in future post.

Prothero’s final Conclusion:

  • The worlds religion do converge at points. All adherents are humans with human bodies and failings. It’s up to each of us to find our own gate, out of Dao’s ten thousand. New Atheists see all religions as the same idiocy; philosophers see them as the same truth. (He’s lumping Dawkins and Huston Smith into the same group that doesn’t understand the truths author sees.) Both don’t see the diversity. Yet there are those of all stripes who see rival religions as dangerous, and justifying war.
  • Author hopes for a world in which everyone gets along with their religious rivals. Start by understanding their differences. A new inter-faith dialogue.
  • There were two ways to talk about religion: one to take them at face value; the other to discuss them secularly. Like art history vs making art. So we need religious literacy. [[ The answer he doesn’t see is understanding religion for the functions it serves, and not as literal rival cosmologies, but as a product of evolution. P337 ]] We need literacy as this book has tried to lay out. But we need more. More of the second way of talking about religion. Not like the blind men examining the elephant. We need to realize it’s about the limitations of human knowledge. We need the reminder that we should be humbled, that any god must know more than us about the things that matter most.
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