Al Bità's Reviews > God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter

God Is Not One by Stephen R. Prothero
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Jul 28, 10

Read in July, 2010

This is an interesting take on comparative religions which introduces the reader into eight 'great religions', in order: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism and Daoism. By 'great' the author means those which he considers most influential in the modern world. Sometimes this also means those with the largest numbers, but this is not necessarily always the case. Prothero himself admits much is missing from his choices — some examples: Shinto, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Baha'i, Sikhism, and even such new movements as Rastafarianism and Scientology.

Prothero writes in a friendly, easy-to-read way and speaks eloquently of each of his chosen religions. Part of the fun is that as each of these is described, one is sorely tempted to become like Woody Allen's Zelig and literally transform oneself into each of them. This works in two ways: first, by concentrating on how each religion goes to resolve the problems it sees for humanity and its role in the world; and secondly by making many cross-references between all eight where they seem to complement if not echo one another. The latter, however, is not to be taken as meaning that the author sees them as all the same underneath. Indeed, the main thrust of the work is to argue against codifying them as such. Prothero argues that each religion presents its own unique and different approach. As the title of the book suggests, each religion shows a different path to different gods, and that these differences are significant.

The chapter titles provide a simplified, usually one-worded description of these ways: Submission (Islam); Salvation (Christianity); Propriety (Confucianism); Devotion (Hinduism); Awakening (Buddhism); Connection (Yoruba); Exile and Return (Judaism); and Flourishing (Daoism). In the process, 'religion' becomes redefined more as representing a way of life, a way of living one's life, which is reflected in the rich diversity of interpretations each religion provides. It is interesting that this also implies that one does not even need to believe in the actual existence of a god or gods for each specified pathway to influence the way you live your life.

And here, perhaps, is the problem. The existence of a vast, complex variety of religious experiences and influences is an obvious aspect of humanity. But the redefinition of religion in this way makes the author argue that Atheism is also a religion. He includes what he calls a brief coda on Atheism (aka the Way of Reason) but only to speak of it pejoratively — basically because some Atheists call for the abolition of all religions — and Prothero finds religions far too interesting in themselves. He sees them as humanity's ways of being human, even though he does seem to acknowledge that some see the great religions as having the task of transporting and transforming us, essentially because they seem to argue that the world is not our home, and that being human is not our true calling. (An Atheist would argue the opposite: the world is our home, and being human is our true calling.)

While acknowledging the real diversity of religions, Prothero still argues that if there is one thing shared across his great religions it is a humbling belief that, if there really is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He, She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that mater most. I'm not sure where that places Prothers on the question of whether god exist or not, but given the fact that everything that we 'know' about these 'gods' has been created by men and written down by men, nothing in this work is a very convincing argument for their actual existence at all.
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