Prothero’s Polytheism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 19, 2010 — 21 Comments

Author and religion professor Stephen Prothero is releasing a new book tomorrow that should warm the heart any polytheist. Entitled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, the book makes the case that all gods are not one god, that all roads don’t lead up the same mountain, and that’s OK.

“At the dawn of the twenty-first century, dizzying scientific and technological advancements, interconnected globalized economies, and even the so-called New Atheists have done nothing to change one thing: our world remains furiously religious. For good and for evil, religion is the single greatest influence in the world. We accept as self-evident that competing economic systems (capitalist or communist) or clashing political parties (Republican or Democratic) propose very different solutions to our planet’s problems. So why do we pretend that the world’s religious traditions are different paths to the same God? We blur the sharp distinctions between religions at our own peril, argues religion scholar Stephen Prothero, and it is time to replace naÏve hopes of interreligious unity with deeper knowledge of religious differences.”

A quote from Prothero’s book in an Associated Press review shows that  he goes far beyond simply calling those who wish for interreligious unity naive, marking the impulse as ultimately dangerous.

“The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century popularized the idea of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it,” he writes. “But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

So if god is not one, how many gods are there? Prothero’s polytheism doesn’t go that route. He instead explores eight different “great” world religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Yoruba, Confucianism, and Hindusim), their conceptions of god, what they see as the primary problem with the world, and how they approach solving that problem (for example, in Buddhism the problem is suffering and the solution is awakening). It’s an interesting way of approaching the subject, and I look forward to seeing how Prothero presents it.

As for Paganism, if Prothero mentions it, and what material in the book may appeal to us, writer, poet, and fellow Pagan blogger Ruby Sara (who recently did a guest column for The Wild Hunt) got her hands on an advance copy and lays out the good and the bad.

“Pagani will want to know if Prothero talks about us.  The answer is no, which is understandable given the parameters he outlines in the work.  He does give Wicca a brief and inaccurate mention, placing it (in my opinion) incorrectly alongside such faiths as Zoroastrianism and not among New Religious Movements (folks still clinging to the thoroughly outdated “Wicca is an ancient religion” talking point will be thrilled), but this isn’t some outrageous error beyond our comprehension – it’s simply another reason to continue to produce sound scholarship in our communities, participate in interfaith organizations, and work to clarify our histories and identities, in the hope that contemporary religious studies will one day catch up with us.

But this admittedly expected omission of our religious group doesn’t mean the book has nothing to say to us.  Quite the contrary.  For example, Pagans will be particularly interested in the chapter on Yoruban religions, as certain themes addressed in the chapter seem relevant to some issues in our own communities, and of course there is some considerable crossover between the Pagani and practitioners of some African Diasporic religions … Likewise, the chapter on Confucianism raises some interesting ideas in regards to “thisworldly” religion that I feel is relevant to some contemporary Pagan theologies…”

I strongly encourage everyone to read her entire review, as it has some important things to say about the book, and what value we (as Pagans) may find within it.

Despite modern Pagans not getting a mention, I think this could be a very important book for our community. Primarily as a vehicle for talking about how our conceptions of the divine differ from the other world religions, but also as a way of enriching our own understandings of the faiths that shape the world around us. I’ll definitely be picking this one up, one way or another, and depending on how things go, maybe I’ll attempt to see if I can get an interview with Stephen Prothero to talk about our religious non-unity.

Jason Pitzl-Waters