It’s easy to misunderstand a book about religion. My first impression of Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World — And Why Their Differences Matter was not good; I read a summary of the book he wrote for the Boston Globe that seemed to strain for Tea Party relevance by mocking the popular idea (attributed to the likes of the Dalai Lama) that all religions are the same, and hinting that this had something to do with national security:
… this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
I went to hear him speak two months ago in New York City, and happily found Stephen Prothero to be more subtle and moderate in person than his publicity department probably wants him to be. HarperCollins may be trying to ride God Is Not One on the coattails of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. They even swung him an appearance on the Colbert Report, where, again, he came across as thoughtful and knowledgeable, and clearly no firebrand.
In fact, God Is Not One is a wide-ranging and entertaining survey of eight major religions, tied together with a unique and fairly neat formula that describes each of the religions in terms of what human need it fulfills. This is why Prothero considers it wrong to be too relativistic about the world’s religions — they are each designed to solve different problems. Roughly:
Islam solves the problem of pride by emphasizing submission to a greater authority.
Christianity introduces the concept of sin, and offers a path to salvation from this degraded state.
Judaism is all about return from exile — in both the personal and cultural sense.
Confucianism offers an organizing principle for a disorganized world.
Daoism provides a freewheeling alternative to an overly structured Confucian society.
Hinduism offers a variety of vivid alternatives to the suffering of human existence.
Buddhism attacks the same problem as Hinduism, but in a more psychological and intellectual way.
Yoruba Religion offers a connection to the spiritual realm for an often-displaced people.
The book’s most convincing passage might be this one:
Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer, of course, is baseball, because “runs” is a term foreign to basketball, tennis and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: basketball players shoot baskets, tennis players win points, golfers sink puts [sic]. So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start. To criticize a baseball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.
I think Prothero makes a great point here. But I’m not sure what to do with this point. Prothero is certainly not arguing for a greater intolerance towards variant religions (which is one reason I like this book better than Dawkins’s or Hitchens’s, both of which treat all religion with intolerant disdain). I’m not sure why several paragraphs in the introduction poke fun of new-agey religious types or hippies (or, again, the Dalai Lama). It’s a fact that religion is the source of much violence, bigotry and genocidal hysteria in our world today, from Sri Lanka to Amsterdam, but unless I’m missing something, hippies really aren’t the problem.
Some of Prothero’s chapters are stronger than others. He’s particularly lucid on Confucianism and Daoism, but as an ethnic Jew I found his chapter on my heritage lacking in fresh insight. His most unusual move is to list Yoruba religion (born in West Africa, today mostly known for Caribbean and Cuban movements like Santeria) as one of the world’s “Big Eight”. If, like me, you mostly know of “Santeria” as a song by Sublime, you’ll learn a lot from this chapter, including the fact that Ricky Ricardo’s song “Babalu” is about a Yoruba deity. (Who knew?)
The chapters return often to the main point, the essential functional difference between each major religion, though it remains unclear what the author thinks we should do with this fact. Here’s what I keep stumbling on here: assuming it’s true that each religion serves a unique purpose, what’s to say that an individual person born into one religion will need what that religion offers? What about a Moslem child who hates to follow rules, a Jewish child who does not feel isolated, a Daoist child who loves to put all his toys into their proper boxes and hates to see anything out of order? In the end, don’t all of us have some need for what all of these religions offer?
I’d like to know what you think — are all religions actually unique, and if so, what should we do about this fact?