Friday, May 21, 2010

More on Prothero: Who, if anyone, is he arguing with, other than himself?

In his latest self-promotion campaign, Stephen Prothero has managed to publish more or less exactly the same warmed-over tripe in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Also impressive has been the way in which a substance-free "review" of Prothero's new book (God Is Not One) has been picked up and repeated by everyone from the Phoenix Metromix to the Mercury News to the Washington Examiner to the Republic (of Columbus, Indiana) to the Stamford Advocate (subscription required) to the West Virginia Gazette (cached) to (cached), and many more (this puff-piece was originally filed by veteran, and now semi-retired, AP reporter Carl Hartman).

Prothero has also been interviewed or otherwise featured on NPR and a number of other print, broadcast, and online media outlets, and he is scheduled to appear on the Daily Show Colbert Report in June (it will be his second appearance he has previously appeared on the Daily Show).

Every time the ubiquitous author of God Is Not One opens his mouth or puts his thoughts in writing these days he mindlessly intones his unchanging mantra: "all religions are not the same." Like some wind-up political hack campaigning for an open city-council seat, he is never off message.

But who, if anyone, has ever claimed that "all religions are the same"?? Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero actually arguing against?

Well, according to Prothero: (1) the "dangerous" concept of religious sameness originated with the Enlightenment philosopher, artist and poet William Blake, and (2) the most "dangerous" contemporary proponent of the idea is religion scholar Huston Smith (whose 91st birthday is coming at the end of this month).

The trouble, though, is that neither Blake nor Smith are guilty of anything like the kind of hamfisted religious homogenization that Prothero imputes to them.

Here is what Huston Smith actually says in his classic The World's Religions:
What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting up their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do these strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus?

We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine . . . .

The book does not attempt to give a rounded view of the religions considered, for each hosts differences that are too numerous to be delineated in a single chapter. One need only think of Christendom. Eastern Orthodox Christians worship in ornate cathedrals, while Quakers consider even steeples desecrations. There are Christian mystics and Christians who reject mysticism. There are Christian Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Unitarians . . . .

Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities. The former, when lifted out and made clear, speak to what is generically human in us all. The latter, rich compounds of rites and legends, are not easy for outsiders to comprehend. It is one of the illusions of rationalism that the universal principles of religion are more important than the rites and rituals that feed them; to make that claim is like contending that the branches and leaves of a tree are more important that the roots from which they grow.

[Huston Smith, The World's Religions, pp. 2-3]
Huston Smith does refer to "universal principles" that are to be found in "every religion", and it is important to note that when he does so he directly ties his conception of religious universalism to our common humanity ("what is generically human in us all").

In the book's chapter on Hinduism, Smith gives a specific example of universalism when he talks about Tantra and sexuality:
Tantra's teachings about sex are neither titillating nor bizarre: they are universal. Sex is so important -- after all, it keeps life going -- that it must be linked quite directly with God. It is the divine Eros of Hesiod, celebrated in Plato's Phaedrus and in some way by every people. Even this, though, is too mild. Sex is the divine in its most available epiphany. But with this proviso: It is such when joined to love. When two people who are passionately, even madly -- Plato's divine madness -- in love; when each wants most to receive what the other most wants to give; -- at the moment of their mutual climax it is impossible to say whether the experience is more physical or spiritual, or whether they sense themselves as two or as one. The moment is ecstatic because at that moment they stand outside -- ex, out; stasis, standing -- themselves in the melded oneness of the Absolute.
[p. 141]
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Prothero never addresses what Huston Smith actually says. Rather he repeats over and over and over again the claim that Smith and others ignore all substantive differences between religions. As the above quotes demonstrate: that is a lie.

Prothero also stoops to bald-faced lying when it comes to William Blake, whose 250 word poem, All Religions Are One, was the inspiration for the title of Prothero's new book. But in that brief work, Blake twice repeats that "all men are alike (though infinitely various)," and makes it clear that both the commonality and the variability of the human species are reflected in human religion.

Prothero has chosen one of the lowest paths that any scholar can take: the Straw Man argument. Rather than honestly engage with those he claims to disagree with, Prothero only engages with the voices in his own head. Perhaps it is the case that as a young undergraduate he misunderstood some of his assigned reading. And now he is going forth and sharing his misunderstandings with the world.

But the most troubling aspect of all this is not the intellectual shoddiness of Prothero's theorizing about religious difference/sameness. Rather, it is the fact that the idea of religious universalism, as is made clear in both Blake and Smith, has always been inextricably intertwined with the fundamental principle of human equality. Prothero's specious argument that "all religions are not the same" is identical to the argument of the segregationist who insists on "separate but equal", or the misogynist who perverts "la différence" into a justification for sexism. This dark side of Prothero's theory of anti-universalism will be addressed in a future post coming soon to a web browser near you.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero:
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero