Archives For Stephen Prothero

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

That’s it for now! Happy Friday! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Just a few quick notes for you this Sunday.

Wiccans in Livingston Parish: A local NBC affiliate in Louisiana interviews Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller in the aftermath of local uproar over a Pagan festival being held at Gryphon’s Nest Campground in Livingston Parish. In the interview, Eller stresses that Wiccans aren’t a group of evil people looking to destroy the town with their wickedness.

“Residents of Livingston Parish, Louisiana say they don’t want an upcoming pagan festival to take place near the town of Killian. One woman wants to set the “spell-casting” and “devil-worshipping” rumors straight. Self-described Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller says the beliefs of her religion are far from evil, and promises nothing harmful will take place at the festival.”

It’s nice to see some sympathetic local coverage, though I really wish journalists would get over the “self-described” epithet when talking about Pagan clergy. Can you imagine the trouble if they referred to a local evangelical leader as a “self-described” pastor? Here’s hoping the upcoming festival is as uneventful as the recent fundraiser that was held.

Interview with Stephen Prothero: I realize that 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”, has been somewhat divisive amongst my readership, but I think both critics and supporters might enjoy listening to this short interview with him on the State of Belief radio show/podcast.

This weekend on State of Belief, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero critiques the premise that all the world’s religions are essentially the same.  He joins host Welton Gaddy to discuss his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

You can download the whole program, here. Or you can subscribe to State of Belief’s podcast.

The End of the WASPs? The Wall Street Journal, prompted by the looming reality of a Protestant Christian-free Supreme Court of the United Sates, examines the decline of America’s Protestant Establishment (aka the white anglo-saxon protestants, or WASPs) and what that might mean for our future.

“The Protestant downfall can be attributed many things: the deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections. Yet many also point to the shifting dynamics of the faith itself, with mainline Protestantism giving way to the more fire-and-brimstone brands of Evangelicals in recent decades. The Episcopal Church, usually seen as the church of the Establishment, has seen some of the most pronounced declines in recent years.”

The article also points out that Hindus and Jews are shifting the demographics of affluence away from the Protestant standard of generations past. Meanwhile, Diana Butler Bass at Beliefnet heaves a great sigh for the quiet passing of Protestant cultural dominance.

“I will miss the fact that there will be no one with Protestant sensibilities on the court, no one who understands the nuances of one of America’s oldest and most traditional religions–and the religion that deeply shaped American culture and law … I can’t help but think that losing the lived memory of American Protestantism will be a loss for all of us indeed.”

I think the various “virtues” that are ascribed to Protestants by the Wall Street Journal and Bass are a bit over-stated, and not as exclusive as some would be led to believe (I even agree with Rod Dreher that this isn’t a big deal). But I do think this yet another sign of us moving into a post-Christian America, one where Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity, is just one voice among many, and not the driving cultural force it once was.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Through much of April a very public debate has been raging over the practice of Yoga in the West, and whether its Hindu origins are given proper credit and acknowledgement by those who profit from it. One on side of the debate is Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation, on the other mega-selling New Age author Dr. Deepak Chopra, who seemingly bristles at calling himself a Hindu, and is trying to “sanitize” Yoga because there’s a lot of “junk” in the religious tradition from which it originated.

Some of yoga’s best-known—and most entrepreneurial—purveyors concede they’ve consciously separated Hinduism from yoga to make it more palatable. “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru whose latest book, co-written with Marianne Williamson and Debbie Ford, is The Shadow Effect. “We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology. Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there. Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”

The Hindu American Foundation released a position paper on the subject, saying that there is no way to entirely de-link Yoga, no matter how secularized, from its Hindu roots.

“While HAF affirms that one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, it firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.”

In a Newsweek editorial published yesterday, Lisa Miller, author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife”, ultimately backs HAF’s stance (despite a truly bizarre opening paragraph), and talks to 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”, to bolster that position.

“My friend the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has just written a book called God Is Not One, which argues that the good in any religion (e.g., yoga) necessarily comes with the bad (caste systems). By seeing religion as a single, happy universal force, we blind ourselves to tensions of great consequence to individuals and to history. “America,” he says, “has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That’s what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you’re a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset.”

But, Prothero points out, Chopra has a point. The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes. “You can’t stop people from appropriating elements in your religion,” Prothero adds. “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source.” Prothero’s bottom line is also my own. You can read from the Dalai Lama in yoga class. You can even read from the Sermon on the Mount. But know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant “om,” it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages.”

I suppose it all comes down to respect. If you practice and benefit from Yoga, it’s only decent to acknowledge that you are benefiting from a practice that has sprung from Hindu religion and philosophy. To do otherwise would seem to cheapen and insult the practice. What about you, my readers? Do you practice Yoga? If so, do you acknowledge it as a Hindu practice?

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.

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.

Pellet reviews of some recently released books of interest.

Barbara Jane Davy’s “Introduction to Pagan Studies” is an essential overview and distillation of current academic thought concerning the history, beliefs, and practices of modern Paganism. Accessible and written as an introductory textbook, Davy provides an excellent starting point to people wanting to know more about Paganism, and to Pagans wanting to explore the burgeoning realm of Pagan Studies. Highly recommended, and I’m not just saying that because my writing is referenced in one of the chapters.

“Savage Breast: One Man’s Search For the Goddess” by Tim Ward, is an unflinching look into one man’s psyche as he goes on a quest for the divine feminine. Ward travels the world investigating holy sites dedicated to ancient goddesses, while working out his own personal issues with women along the way. I don’t say “unflinching” lightly, Ward goes through some pretty ugly emotional purging and realizations about how he has viewed women, and ultimately comes to feel that the absence of goddesses has created an unhealthy cultural and spiritual imbalance that must be corrected. This is a uniquely powerful and emotionally honest work.

Lisa McSherry’s book “Magickal Connections: Creating a Lasting and Healthy Spiritual Group” tackles the thorny issue of Pagan group dynamics and offers some solid advice in building and maintaining spiritual groups. McSherry draws from a variety of sources both religious and secular (including the excellent “Antagonists in the Church”) to help overcome common problems found within the small worship and ritual groups that typify our communities. This is a wonderfully functional and useful book that deserves wider attention.

America’s religious illiteracy is becoming dangerous, and something needs to be done. That is the basic thesis of Stephen Prothero’s “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t”. Prothero’s book looks at the roots of our country’s religious illiteracy (and measures equal blame to both the idealogical “left” and “right”) and advocates for a renewed commitment in our public schools to religious education. Prothero envisions a “fourth R” (religion) to help students grapple with the religious underpinnings of important social and political issues that face us today. While I do quibble a bit with how “literate” in religion early Americans truly were, I do agree that classes dealing with the prominent religions in our world are increasingly necessary. But the needed compromise between the secular left and Religious Right to make Prothero’s proposals happen may not be coming any time soon.

(Pagan ) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 19, 2006 — 1 Comment

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Is Paganism hard work? Graham Coxon, former member of Blur, talks about his solo career and tells the interviewer why he isn’t Pagan.

“…it takes a lot of effort to be pagan – to be really pagan. I don’t consider myself Christian, though…I believe in, I suppose, the nature of sorts. Yeah…and I do believe in rubbing soil upon your naked self every once in a while and talking to the moon–and the seasons being very important. Things like that, yes. I don’t believe in men with beards in the sky.”

He already sounds more Pagan than many Pagans I have met. You need to lower your standards a bit Graham!

The Phoenix in its 2006 wrap-up praises the PBS show “Keeping Score” and in particular the episode dealing with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”.

“In the crowning episode of this excellent series, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas explored the oh-so-metal pagan and folkloric roots of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, whose premiere – May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, under Pierre Monteux – goaded its Parisian ballet audience to howl for the composer’s blood (as well as that of the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky). It would seem that the Entombed-style downstrokes of the “Augures printanieres” section and the proto-doom-metal trudge of “Rondes printanieres” were too much for even the most hardcore of top-hatted headbangers to handle.”

For more, there is an essay on the piece at the Keeping Score web site.

Stephen Prothero, Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, takes time to answer the question of if America is a “Christian” nation for the Washington Post blog “On Faith”. His answer strikes a welcome inclusive note.

“What intrigues me about this new notion of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic (aka Abrahamic) America is how it manages to be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Obviously, it admits Muslims in what had once been a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish club. But by stressing such Western religious staples as monotheism, it obviously excludes religions that affirm no God (Buddhism) and those that affirm many (Hinduism). I see both the Judeo-Christian model and the newer Judeo-Christian-Islamic one as rear-guard efforts to keep the Christian America model alive—efforts that will likely fail. We live in a country where Buddhists and Hindus are now asking for a place at the table of American faiths—where the sort of “faith-based” social services lauded by the Bush administration are delivered not only by Christians, Jews, and Muslims but also by Hare Krishnas and Zen Buddhists.”

In other words, American will inevitably move beyond monotheism. A cultural sea-change that can’t happen too soon. Also, don’t miss Starhawk’s reply to the same question.

Speaking of Starhawk, activist and retired teacher Shepherd Bliss quotes the Pagan activist for a meditation on the nature of darkness in our culture.

“In darkness we can dream, revealing parts of ourselves that are otherwise hidden. “We need to dream the dark as process, and dream the dark as change, to create the dark in a new image. Because the dark creates us,” social activist Starhawk writes in her book Dreaming the Dark. Starhawk later adds, “How do we find the dark within and transform it, own it as our own power? How do we dream it into a new image, dream it into actions that will change the world into a place where no more horror stories happen, where there are no more victims?” Sometimes I conceive of the Dark as a dance partner; it feels more feminine than masculine. I do not try to lead, but rather to follow. Weaving the multiple benefits of darkness into my life (and avoiding its pitfalls) seems to be my main Winter task here at the end of 2006, as 2007 approaches. In the darkness one can rest and be renewed. Spring may come again, with a different set of abundant gifts.”

On a final note, just in time for the holidays Nancy Humphrey Case reports on the history of mistletoe for the Christian Science Monitor.

“In ancient Scandinavia, people believed that mistletoe had special powers. They thought it would keep witches away, heal diseases, make peace between enemies, and ensure that a bride and groom would have plenty of children. The druids, ancient Celtic priests, also prized mistletoe. In a yearly ceremony on the first day of winter, a druid priest climbed high in an oak tree to cut mistletoe with a golden knife, while the other priests sang and danced around the tree.”

Something to ponder next time your standing under a sprig! That is all I have for now, have a good day.