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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2011
Number 75
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Reckoning with Rival Religions

A review essay by Esther R. Nelson

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Prothero, in this excellent volume, claims to give us “new ways to enter into the ten thousand gates of human religiosity” (p. 338). He describes with some detail the diversity of eight world religions—Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism. He adds a chapter titled, “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” although states at the outset of that chapter, “Atheism is not a great religion…[n]onetheless, atheism stands in a venerable tradition…” (p. 317).

“Religion is now widely defined, by scholars and judges alike, in functional rather than substantive terms. Instead of focusing on some creedal criterion such as belief in God, we look for family resemblances” (p. 324). Members of the family of religions typically exhibit Four Cs: creed (statements of beliefs and values), cultus (ritual activities), code (standards for ethical conduct), and community (institutions). Prothero thinks it is imperative that we understand how various religions apply these “Four Cs,” not just so we can be religiously literate—something Prothero argues for in his book, Religious Literacy What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)—but so we can see how religious beliefs orchestrate world events. “Religion was behind both the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947 and the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, both the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s” (p. 10).

“Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it” (p. 11). Prothero uses a four-part approach to his description and explanation of religions: a problem, a solution, which also serves as the religious goal, a technique(s) for moving from this problem to this solution, and an exemplar(s) who charts this path from problem to solution. In Judaism, for example, “this problem is exile—distance from God and from where we ought to be. The solution is return—to go back to God and to our true home. The techniques for making this journey are two: to tell the story and follow the law—to remember and to obey” (p. 253). The exemplars who chart this path are the Jewish people themselves who remember and obey while “wrestling with God.”

Prothero’s emphasis throughout this volume focuses on the differences among religious traditions. He is critical of Huston Smith (philosopher of religion, b. 1919) who writes, “At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct…But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons” (p. 1). Not so, says Prothero. “One of the most common misconceptions about the world’s religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not. Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis. Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die” (p. 24).

“One purpose of the ‘all religions are one’ mantra is to stop this fighting and killing” (p. 3). “I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear–eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism” (p. 335). “In our bones” we know there are significant differences. We don’t speak about having to “tolerate” a religion that is in agreement with our own.

Prothero adds, “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law” (p. 3). “No religion…sees ethics alone as its reason for being” (p. 2). Prothero notes the work of Eboo Patel, a Muslim who runs Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, as a positive force as he (Patel) puts participants of different faiths “to work on community–based projects, encouraging them to discuss…how their very different traditions impel them toward a shared commitment to service” (p. 336). This is a good example of how religious rivals converge on ethics. It’s the only “convergence” Prothero mentions.

I don’t see why the rituals, mythologies, and experiences of “religious rivals” could not converge as well, forming a rich, diverse tapestry of the various ways people have imaginatively approached and “entered into” both sacred and profane space—impelling us forward to celebrate and honor our shared humanity.


Esther R. Nelson is adjunct professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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