Monday, May 24, 2010

Believable Conflicts

In God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World -- and Why Their Differences Matter, Stephen Prothero insists divinity is in the details

The following review appeared last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Blessed are they that can distill without oversimplification. Theirs is the kingdom of publishing.

Ever since his debut in 2003 with American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has distinguished himself as a writer of notable clarity and wit. He is for the most part a popularizer, but one who manages to bring an overlay of analytic sophistication to his work. These qualities were on display in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- But Doesn't, his 2007 bestseller that is both a narrative history of (incomplete) secularization in American public life and a handbook of religious terms that I have used very profitably in a high school civics course I teach. In God is Not One, he widens his lens to take in the global scope of religious tradition and their overlapping, as well as conflicting, paths.

In a way, this book marks an effort on Prothero's part to reverse the journey he traced in Religious Literacy. In that book, he demonstrated how leaders of American public life sought to sidestep religious controversy by minimizing doctrinal differences in favor of an ecumenical approach that tried to affirm religious values but ended up diluting them. The result, Prothero explained then, was a kind of collective amnesia and indifference. What's even worse, he now explains, is that this amnesia and indifference is commonly invoked to assert that the great faith traditions are fundamentally alike, a premise embraced by atheists no less than those who think of themselves as friends of religion. Such an approach not only trivializes religious experience, he says, but makes it impossible to truly understand the world we live in.

And so it is that Prothero seeks to offer, in highly encapsulated form, a survey of the major faith traditions in the world today, attentive to the various -- and, in some cases, opposing -- answers to the great questions of human existence.  He is careful to frame these portraits in more than doctrinal terms; indeed, one of the themes of this book is that a western faith tradition like Christianity's emphasis on doctrine blinds its adherents to other aspects of religious experience. So it is, for example, that he sees Confucianism, for example, as more than an ethical system.

Prothero arranges his 30-40 page chapters on the eight faiths he considers most influential in descending order. This is, to a great degree, a matter of numbers, but not entirely. So it is that Islam comes first, before his treatment of Christianity, despite the fact that the world has more Christians, because Islam is a more dynamic, rapidly growing faith. Judaism ranks seventh (just behind Yoruba and ahead of Daoism, because "while Judaism itself commands the allegiance of only two of every thousand human beings, its offspring [in Christianity and Islam] account for one of every two." Prothero also gives chapters over to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, which he notes substantially overlap (as do African Yoruba and North as well as South American Christian religions), even as they maintain distinct identities. Indeed, those identities can be antithetical, at least in theory; the Confucian emphasis on piety conflicts with the Daoist emphasis on  the natural and spontaneous, though eastern religions in general have proven to be remarkably tensile and symbiotic.

To at least some extent, however, Prothero's structure is at cross-purposes with his argument. If his point is really to explore religious divergence, his chapters probably should have been arranged around fault lines like the role of god (monotheism, polytheism, or non-theism) in different religions, the primacy of faith versus works, or the relationship between doctrine and ritual. Instead what we get are substantially compartmentalized overviews of eight faith traditions -- something closer to a handbook than a truly interpretive piece of scholarship or a tightly stitched trade book. Moreover, by the time we get to the end -- which includes a chapter on atheism as a kind of religion -- Prothero comes close to saying that religions really are substantially alike in the way they exhibit the "Four Cs": creed (belief), cultus (ritual), codes (law), and community. This is, of course, an observation about shared form while Prothero's emphasis is on differing content, so he's not exactly contradicting himself. But it does make one wonder if the people he's criticizing for emphasizing what religions share are all that far off the mark.

Such reservations aside, God is Not One is a notably accessible and highly utilitarian book. It is an excellent point of entry for someone seeking an introduction to the great faith traditions, and as such will be a durable teaching tool. Nimble and nuanced even as it sketches with broad strokes, the book consolidates Prothero's position as the premier commentator on religious life in the United States.