God is Not One

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Article Reviews

By Stephen Prothero (HarperOne, 2010)

In the comparative study of religion, there are two main lines of thought, both of which use the analogy of mountain climbing. One is that all religions take different routes up the same mountain and will meet at the peak, be it God or whatever you call it. The other is that adherents of each religion climb their own mountain. Not only are their paths unique, but the ultimate goal is as well.

With a book titled God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, it is clear Stephen Prothero sees religions as different paths to different destinations. A professor of religion at Boston University, Prothero has written an introductory class in religious studies in book form, including a brief summary of the unique beliefs and practices of the world religions that he deems most significant (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism, plus “A Brief Coda on Atheism”).

God Is Not One is Prothero’s follow-up on Religious Literacy (HarperOne, 2007), in which he argued that it is essential for Americans to learn more about religion. Here he outlines the minimum of what he thinks we ought to know—and he is not afraid of being subjective. He offers his own assessment of the religions and the diversity within each tradition, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses (including extremism and violence) in each. His subjectivity isn’t bad, though, as it helps the American reader understand the significance of religion in today’s world.

After majoring in religion in college and taking much more than the introductory courses, I found the “one mountain” school more convincing: At some level of mysticism, beyond language, I think we’re all traveling up the same mountain. Still I found God Is Not One a valuable read. It’s important to remember that most people aren’t mystics, and, as Prothero says, religious differences do matter, especially as our world gets smaller.                  

This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 7, page 43).