Religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, writes an editorial for The Boston Globe warning of the dangers inherent in what he calls “Godthink”, the idea that all religions are essentially the same.
“The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions. But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?”
Prothero criticizes popular figures like Oprah, “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert, theologian Karen Armstrong (author of “A History of God”), and even the Dalai Lama for pushing the “megareligion” meme. He calls for a realism in dealing with the world’s religions, and that to do otherwise is to invite trouble.
“We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. False rumors of weapons of mass destruction doubtless led the United States to wade into its current quagmire in Iraq. Another factor, however, was our ignorance of the fundamental disagreements between Christians and Muslims, on the one hand, and Sunni and Shia Islam, on the other. What if we had been aware of these conflicts as of 9/11? Would we have committed 160,000 troops to a nation whose language we do not speak and whose religion we do not understand?”
While there have been some criticisms of Prothero’s work and assumptions at this blog, I agree with Erynn Rowan Laurie that this work could represent a significant turning point in interfaith relations between polytheists and monotheists.
“Regardless of its impact on the Pagan community per se, I think this is a message that people doing interfaith work, particularly monotheists doing so, need to hear. I can’t tell you how frustrating it always was for me when they got into the whole “we’re really all one” rhetoric and how impossible it seemed for them to understand that polytheists don’t see it that way. If it makes even a small crack in that facade, it will have been worth the writing.”
Our differences don’t have to mean we can’t coexist in a secular society, but it does mean we have to acknowledge and respect our profound differences if we are going to move beyond assumptions that are either triumphalist, naive, and over-simplifying.