Not One for All

God is not OneReview by David Southwell

Book | God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, And Why Their Differences Matter | Stephen Prothero

This 2011 book, written by Boston University religious studies Professor Stephen Prothero, promises to be a polemical broadside but mostly comprises a general introduction and overview of world religions.

The book’s early pages do come out swinging. Prothero labels the notion (which has been espoused variously by poet William Blake, the Dalai Lama and Gandhi) that all religions are different paths to the same spiritual goal or ethical understanding as “wishful thinking”.

Not only do religions often give diametrically different answers to the big questions, they often don’t even agree on the questions, Prothero argues.

Furthermore, skating over religious differences is dangerous because it reduces understanding of what motivates conflict.

The book then launches into a description of eight major religions. They are somewhat unnecessarily and contentiously ranked in terms of “greatness”, meaning global influence.

Broad-brush tenets, history, trends and variations of Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Daoism and the Yoruba religion (from Nigeria) are briskly outlined.

It reads a little suspiciously like a first-year comparative religion textbook. However, the scope of learning is impressive, and despite occasional minor repetition, the writing is easily digested.

Prothero states he will be largely sympathetic in representation and he is.

A short chapter devoted to atheism is something of an exception where he takes aim at the evangelistic opponents of religion such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

In emphasizing incompatible difference Prothero is eventually left in the uncomfortable position (however bracingly ‘realist’) of having little to say about avoiding religious conflict.

Rather farcically he makes the case that people of different religions can live together peacefully because rival baseball or soccer team fans generally manage to do so.

Prothero also makes a closing call for religious humility, saying humans can’t fully know the mind of God, which paradoxically he says is something all religions can agree on.

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