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"God Is Not One" - An Interview with Stephen Prothero

by Mary Arsenault


In April of 1993, the FBI attacked the Waco, Texas, compound of the Branch Davidians, ignorantly fulfilling the twisted End Times philosophy of leader David Koresh. We watched on television as flames engulfed the compound, killing Koresh as well as seventy-five followers, twenty-one of whom were children.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian Sikh wearing a turbin, was shot to death at an Arizona gas station by a vigilante presuming him to be a Muslim.

These instances, and the poorly informed rhetoric following each, are examples of what led world religion scholar and NY Times best-selling author, Stephen Prothero, to the conclusion that the United States is a country of religious illiterates. At least as pervasive as cultural illiteracy, according to Prothero, religious illiteracy is more dangerous "because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture, because religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil."

In his research, Prothero found that not only were the majority of Americans ignorant of the major world religions, they did astoundingly poor on tests of basic knowledge of their own professed religions. His best-selling book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know - And Doesn't, is a call for bringing religious studies back into school curriculums. According to Prothero, there is "a confusion about the crucial distinction between theology and religious studies - between what the Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg called ‘the teaching of religion’ (which is unconstitutional) and ‘the teaching about religion’ (which is not)." As a result, world religions are not covered in any real depth within our schools, with most teachers wrongly assuming and fearing that any mention at all of religion in the classroom is unconstitutional.

In his latest book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World - And Why Their Differences Matter, Prothero fulfills his own call for religion education by offering an overview of the eight largest religions in the world: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism, and Daoism, ending with a brief coda on Atheism. The title of the book addresses the mistaken belief that many people have that all religions "are different paths to the same God," which is simply not the case. According to Prothero, "At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true...This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue."

Unlike other books on world religions, Prothero’s style is more conversational and highly engaging, with occasional injections of humor alleviating the weight of the subject matter. Sure to top Religious Literacy in popularity, God Is Not One is a must-read for anyone hoping to gain an in-depth understanding of the most popular religions in the world today and how their differences frequently both cause and affect the tide of events.

Stephen Prothero is a native of Massachusetts and professor of religion at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, National Public Radio, and othet top media outlets. He writes and reviews for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Aalon and other publications. He very graciously took time away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Wisdom.

Wisdom: What led to your initial interest in studying world religions?

Stephen: I was interested in religious practices from the get go. My parents
took my siblings and me to church, and when I was in kindergarten my sister and I used to play communion at home (wonder bread wafers and grape juice administered in front of the fireplace). So I guess it all started with Christianity and branched out from there.

Wisdom: In the Introduction to Religious Literacy, you state that you were raised Episcopalian, and if pressed, will fess up to being a Christian,
but that you prefer to describe yourself as "religiously confused". What is the nature of your "confusion"?

Stephen: I call myself religiously confused because when it comes to religious matters I have more questions than answers. I should add that I like
it that way. I don’t find confusion of this sort a burden. It’s having all the answers that’s burdensome. Wrestling with the questions is a joy.

Wisdom: In Religious Literacy you make a strong argument for including
education on world religions as part of our schools’ curriculum, stating that "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the bloodletting in such places as Waco and Afghanistan and Iraq might have been avoided if we had understood a bit better our own religion’s traditions, and those of others." Although you’ve listed many examples where lack of religious knowledge either caused or exacerbated a situation, would you consider lack of religious knowledge to be the major cause of the problems we are experiencing in the world today
regarding religious differences, or would you consider intolerance to
other belief systems to be a stronger factor?

Stephen: I think they are both a problem. Obviously intolerant people have been committing violence in the name of God for millennia. But ignorance isn’t benign. If President Bush had possessed even basic knowledge about Islam he might have thought twice before going into Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wisdom: What do you feel would be the best way to foster more tolerance in people towards religious ideologies which are different from their own?

Stephen: Conversation. Conversation in high school and college courses on the world’s religions. And conversations with our neighbors. I am happy to say, moreover, that these conversations are expanding rapidly, especially among young people who in their lives, both virtual and otherwise, are getting to know people of very different religions. Facebook is a lot of things, but it may be one of the best agents for interreligious tolerance that we have.

Wisdom: In God Is Not One, you describe the eight major religions of the world with great respect and sensitivity towards each belief system. However, you also included a chapter on Atheism in which your views seem somewhat negative towards the more hard core Angry Atheists. Do
you, in fact, have a negative view of Atheism in general and, if so, why?

Stephen: I push back at the new atheists a bit because they are so pushy themselves. And my pique at the new atheists comes in part from my frustration at how poorly they represent what I believe is a venerable intellectual tradition, and a valuable part of our common conversation about religion. Far too much of what is written today on atheism is in my view about self-aggrandizement and posturing. It reminds me of the worst of our political rhetoric.

Wisdom: In God Is Not One, you mentioned that you routinely give your students an assignment to create their own religion. Given your extensive knowledge of all religions, what would a religion of your own creation entail?

Stephen: I plead the fifth on this one. I will say, however, that the one student religious creation that really sticks with me is "Consectationism." The aim here is for each of us to find our unique purpose in life—our "Lex" as "Consectationists" call it—and then pursue that purpose with creativity and vigor.

Wisdom: Dictionary.com gives the psychiatric definition of delusion as "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact." If we consider as "actual fact" the inability of science to either prove or disprove the existence of a diety (or dieties), would you agree that anyone believing that God either definitely does or definitely doesn’t exist is participating in a mass delusion of some kind?

Stephen: I don’t think it’s delusional either to believe in God or to not believe in God. I do think, as Freud argued, that belief in God is an illusion, which is to say wish-fulfillment. But Freud is careful to distinguish between illusion and delusion. In other words, just because we believe in something we cannot see, in part because we want to, does not mean that "that something" does not exist.

Wisdom: Do you feel that some of the religions may be losing their relevance in the modern world?

Stephen: One of the great constants of all religions is change. Yes, many religions pretend they are in possession of unchanging truths. But the fact of the matter is that religions must adapt or die, and adapt they do. Buddhism dropped begging, for example, when it moved from India into China, and it picked up a social gospel when it came to America. The history of religion is a history of unrelenting change, which is why religions are not losing their relevance in the least. Buddhists and Sikhs, Hindus and Jews continue to adapt their religions to the realities of the Internet, the cellphone, geology, and democracy.

Wisdom: The only mention I saw of "new age" spirituality in either of your books is one paragraph on page 109 of God Is Not One where you quote book reviewer Gordon Haber as saying that much of what passes for spirituality today "encourages self-involved people to become more self-involved." What is your overall understanding of, and opinion of, the philosophy of new age spirituality? Do you feel it differs significantly from the mainstream religions and, if so, do you see this difference as an evolutionary step forward or a major step backwards?

Stephen: I think much of so-called "New Age" spirituality is actually very old. And I don’t generally accept the hard distinction that many supporters and critics of the "New Age" want to make between religion and spirituality. Without the religion of Hinduism we would not have the spiritual practice of yoga. Without the religion of Buddhism we would not have the spiritual practice of zazen. So my criticism of the New Age arises only when its practitioners are ungenerous toward the religions that birthed and sustained their contemplations.
Spirituality is part of every living religion. So, I might add, is
your keyword: wisdom.

Mary Arsenault is the publisher of Wisdom Magazine.


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