Book Review: "God is Not One"
Dr. Jenny Taylor is Director of Lapido Media, a consultancy that promotes religious literacy in world affairs. www.lapidomedia.com
COMPARATIVE RELIGION IS A NON-STARTER as a supposed field of academic study.
As the former head of the Study of Religions department at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London used to say: "We have an epistemological problem".
How do you know what another religion is like if you are not a member of it? How do you evaluate the "biases" that inform and shape cultures, without having a bias to one yourself? What is your standpoint therefore? If you pretend you don’t need a standpoint that is openly disclosed and carefully referenced throughout the text, you become part of the general obfuscation you are seeking to penetrate – and that’s what happens, perhaps involuntarily, in Stephen Prothero’s latest book.
Someone was bound to attempt this now; a sort of Golden Bough for our post-9/11 times, which is often dazzling, and certainly audacious. But the title’s promise, and indeed the Introduction, are not fulfilled. It’s as if Prothero has submitted a manuscript drafted before 9/11 – his PhD thesis maybe – and had it gone over and shaped up by an editor with an eye to an obvious new market.
One is bound to welcome the initial polemic against what he calls "theological groupthink – or Godthink" that has it that all religions are essentially the same, since there can be no doubt this "has made the world more dangerous". But his introductory riposte to what he calls "the dogma that all religions are one" peters out quite early into the book.
Certainly, as with his bestselling Religious Literacy, he articulates the emerging zeitgeist, the awareness post 9/11 of a paucity of religious knowledge, with fluency and humour. "It is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family . . . but in some cases religious differences move adherents to fight and to kill," Prothero observed.
Yet he fails to address why that should actually be. His religions are all so "fascinating" one simply cannot get why there is a problem. Americans, he laments, "follow their fantasies down the rabbit hole of religious unity because they have become uncomfortable with argument." "The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straitjacket of religious agreement." The reason for that is fear. "We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral."
Yet where the danger lies remains, by the end of this book, a mystery.
While stating his aim as being "a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate", he demonstrates a sleight-of-hand he himself may not even be aware of in order not to offend. And exposing the trick requires either insider knowledge or a very close eye to discover what’s really going on.
And what is going on?
The tricks, which are several, derive from the insecure viewpoint of an avowed former Christian ("I usually say that I discovered the study of religion just as I was losing the Christian faith of my youth . . .