Review: God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero

I don’t fully hate the idea of pluralism or universalism. Truth be told, it sounds like a pretty nice idea that all religions worship the same God, that we’re all blind men touching different parts of the elephant or we’re all walking up different roads on the same mountain. I don’t think it’s true, but it does sound like a nice idea.

God Is Not One serves to show how pluralism is a falsehood not by the means of any one religion, but all of them, something I also genuinely appreciate.  Stephen Prothero, though self-described as “religiously confused,” demonstrates through what is effectively a religion catalog just how anyone who lumps all religions together is quite misinformed.  Yes, there are areas of life (primarily ethics, but also ritual) where they are similar or even exactly the same, but their root differences and end goals make it so that pluralism is not only impossible, but somewhat dangerous to accept.

The notion of unity amongst the world religions being dangerous sounded a little silly to me at first, but it actually does make sense in the way that Prothero describes it. No religion exists without its militants, or a darker side to its deity or prophet (think the Old Testament, or the military teachings in the Quran), and these unfortunate sides of religion do effectively make them incompatible as serving the same God or having the same destination at their end.  This doesn’t mean that tolerance and dialogue are off the table, but it does mean that lumping them together is.

Prothero’s other pet peeve with the pluralists is the disrespect they do to world cultures.  Everyone’s culture is, in some way, colored by the predominant religion, and vice versa.  For example, there is a strong identification with Indians being Hindu.  It’s very much a part of their national identity, just as much as Italians often identify as Catholics, or Islam being tied to many Middle Eastern and African nations.  Each religion also carries socio-cultural beauty in and of itself, and to say all religions are the same is to deny these unique characteristics.  Prothero does a beautiful job showing how the eight biggest world religions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism, and Daoism) are unique in and of themselves, and how their unique perspective can really make a difference in the cultures they emerged in.

On a related note, one of the things I truly appreciated was chapter 9 of GINO, entitled “A Brief Coda on Atheism.” Here, Prothero demonstrates how New Atheism, which lumps all religions under such labels as “evil” and “viral,” as militant and fundamentalist in and of itself, and subject, more or less, to its own religious trappings.  He takes no issue demonstrating their own lack of tolerance in regard to those who think differently than them, and I found myself cheering him on in this process. The New Atheism irks me to no end, with its haughty derision and nose in the air attitude to anyone who acknowledges that there might, in fact, be a god of some type in existence.

What also made me happy about this chapter, though, was Prothero’s display of the “other atheism,” the one where atheists don’t condemn religion as 100% evil, but merely wish to be seen as a viable option.  I have met atheists like this and found them, on many occasions, to be some of the nicest people I’ve met.  I take no issue with another person’s beliefs; what I take issue with is someone belittling me for mine, and to see atheists out there willing to be in open dialogue with religious folk makes me happy.

All in all, this is an excellent book, and I’m glad to have read it.  Check it out for yourself!

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