There are many people, deeply imbued with the spirit of tolerance, who assert that the God/gods of all religions are really the same God, and that all these religions are getting at the same Truth, which can be boiled down to the Golden Rule. This ecumenical view reduces all religions to a lowest common denominator, and so flattens the spiritual landscape that religious diversity becomes unrecognizable. It’s like saying we all should all treat one another well because there is someone or something which either wishes or commands it.
Karen Armstrong, who has written something like 19 books on the subject (and ironically, the virtues of “spiritual silence”), comes immediately to mind. She is like the Rodney King of religion: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Against this background, it is nice to see that someone recognizes the many differences between religions and the consequences of these differences. Carl Hartman has reviewed Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter:
“The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century popularized the idea of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it,” Prothero writes. “But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink-call it Godthink-has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”
Prothero cites the religious element in wars, clashes, murders and atrocities from a morning in lower Manhattan to 30 years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka. The book’s dust jacket summarizes the problems that Prothero considers as preoccupying five of the eight religions: Islam deals with pride, Christianity with sin, Confucianism with chaos, Buddhism with suffering and Judaism with exile.
All religions originate in a certain time and place, under specific historical, economic, material, cultural, and social circumstances. As they develop and change over time, these circumstances substantially shape each tradition. Religions do not simply appear, sua sponte and sui generis, fully formed from the ruler of the golden realm.
For those who want to understand and perhaps even explain the universality of religion, understanding these circumstances is essential. Prothero’s book is therefore a welcome addition.