Friday, May 28, 2010

Holy Crap! Two reasonably intelligent reviews of Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One"

According to Stephen Prothero's own self-glorifying narrative, he is on a daring crusade against the "dangerous" and "seductive" "prevailing metaphor" for how we have come to (mis-)understand the world's religions. It's strange, then, that he has so far encountered remarkably little criticism in response to his new book, God Is Not One. But maybe that is starting to change.

A few discordant notes are beginning to be heard, finally, in what has until now been a monotonous chorus of puff-pieces, soft-ball interviews, and one particular "review" that keeps getting repeated over and over and over again.

First up, there is Jay Tolson, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post (here). Tolson starts off his review by congratulating Prothero for having "thoughtfully dispelled" the following "misleading notion":
Seeing the world's major belief systems through Enlightenment-tinted glasses, a succession of influential philosophers, artists, scholars and even many religious leaders have tended to minimize the differences of ritual and dogma among the various religions to emphasize a supposedly universal and benign truth shared by them all. Such well-meaning believers (and they do constitute a kind of religion of their own) have subscribed to variations of the Dalai Lama's affirmation that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."
But wait a minute. This is not what Prothero says at all. Prothero doesn't argue against those who "minimize the differences" between religions. Prothero argues against those who claim that "all religions are the same."

You see, it would be one thing if Stephen Prothero were to accept the premise that there are both differences and commonalities among the world's religions. But he does nothing of the sort. He categorically denies that there is any spiritual common ground between the "rival" religions of the world.

Having congratulated Prothero for what he has not done (or even set out to do), Tolson does, by the end of the review, get around to pointing out that Prothero never "adequately wrestles" with the questions he has raised. In fact, Tolson admits that God Is Not One fails to be anything more than a "primer on eight major world religions". In other words, Prothero has written just another survey of religions, and one that is little, if any, different from the very books (Huston Smith's The World's Religions in particular) that Prothero claims to be debunkifying!

Tolson squarely hits the nail on the head when he states that Prothero has completely failed to provide "a sustained examination of the incommensurability of the world's religions", which, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely what Prothero had promised to provide.

Alec Solomita, writing in last Sunday's Boston Globe (here), is more to the point. From the beginning he characterizes Prothero's book as an "attempt to debunk the idea that all religions are brothers under the skin." And Solomita makes it clear that in his opinion Prothero's attempt not only fails, but disappoints.

But, as was the case with Jay Tolson's review in the Washington Post, Solomita also cannot bring himself to cast the issue in the mindlessly crude manner that Prothero does. For Prothero does not anywhere claim to be attacking the notion that "all religions are brothers under the skin." Instead, Prothero boldly declares, over and over and over again, that he is out to disprove the claim that all religions are the same.

There is a big difference between saying all religions are "brothers under the skin" and claiming they are "the same". And the most important difference is that many people do claim that humanity's religions share a kind of kinship, but no one seriously claims they are all the same.

It would be one thing to differ over how (and how closely) the world's religions are related to each other. But it is another thing altogether, at the serious risk of repeating myself, to deny that there is any spiritual common ground whatsoever among the world's religions, as Stephen Prothero emphatically, proudly, and repeatedly does.

Solomita presents much more detailed criticisms of Prothero than what is found in Tolson's comparatively superficial review. But both reviews should be read carefully by anyone interested in how the Saga of Prothero's Quest is playing out.

Both reviews clearly and effectively make the same basic point: Prothero never even begins to even attempt to make good on his chest-beating declamations about taking on the terrible mind-destroying "meme" that "all religions are beautiful and true." Tolson's and Solomita's joint decision is all the more damning since they are both sympathetic to Prothero's cause, and they were both clearly hoping he would succeed - or at least that he would actually try.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One":
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero

[The smoking crater pic is from The epic bike fail pic is a combination: the kitty is from here, while the bike fail itself is by jeremy king.]


Kayleigh said...

Personally, I support Prothero's intended point (well, the title) because pointing out the differences between religions is important to preventing culturally insensitive appropriation; I think that more emphasis on this could, for example, motivate a New Age Christian to actually do research on some of the deities that have been appropriated into their "Ascended Masters."

On the other hand, if Prothero's book (which I have not read) thinks that the faiths are ultimately incompatible, he's missing the forest for the trees. A book about navigating differences between your faith and the person next door's would be better if it focused on the common humanity and motivation behind the different approaches. Of course, Abrahamic religions are fundamentally irreconcilable with many polytheisms from a strict doctrinal point of view. Perhaps his background in Christianity has made him particularly sensitive to this.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I am all for examining the very real differences that exist among the various religions of the world. And I do believe that there are even genuine examples of "incommensurability" in specific cases.

The problem with Prothero is that he crudely insists on the extreme position that there is no common ground whatsoever in terms of the spiritual content of different religions. Obviously that is not true, and everyone knows it is not true.

In my opinion, what Prothero is really up to is that he is trying to find a weasely way to partially re-legitimize the historical position of Christianity that it has an exclusive claim to spiritual truth.

The really crazy thing about Prothero's position is that it forces him to deny even the commonality that obviously exists among the Abrahamic religions.