Book Club Channel
Religious Differences Are Real
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
That religious differences necessarily lead to conflict. Samuel Huntington has been widely criticized in liberal circles for his thesis that the Christian and Muslim worlds are fated for a "clash of civilizations." Yet many liberals join Huntington in assuming that if there are fundamental differences between the world's religions they are fated to clash. That's why they elide those differences, in many cases, to the point of erasing them. I think that's a mistake. We do not assume in our relationships that our partners or spouses are essentially the same as us. In fact, we say that variety is the spice of life. Here we say differences are enriching. Why can't we respect and even revel in differences when it comes to religion?
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I'm writing for general readers rather than academics. Some academics who have read the book have said I'm coming late to the party-that religious studies scholars have been rejecting the so-called perennial philosophy for a generation. That is largely true. But not many religious studies scholars write popular books on religion, so the most widely-read books on the subject still preach pretend pluralism. What good does it do our soldiers in Iraq to tell them that Sunni and Shia Islam are essentially the same? Or our diplomats in the Middle East to tell them that the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are inconsequential. So I'm for those soldiers and those diplomats-curious readers who know you can't understand the world without understanding the powerful role the world's religions play in it.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
All of the above. I have certainly done my share of pissing people off, and I do think some of the writing in the book will bring readers pleasure, but the main goal is to inform. The world's religions are in my view not so much repositories of unchanging dogmas as they are repositories of unanswered questions. "How do we get rid of suffering?" ask the Buddhists? "How do we stop being reborn?" ask the Hindus. "What must I do to be saved?" ask the Christians. So I want to inform readers about the questions these great religions have asked, and about how practitioners have wrestled with various answers.
What alternate title would you give the book?
My working title was "The Great Religions," but we finally decided on something with a little more frisson.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love everything about it, including the colors (yellows and browns) but especially the photograph, which shows a road punctuated by two one-way signs, each pointed in a different direction-an elegant summation of the main argument of the book.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
So many! But since there is a hidden fiction writer in me just waiting to get out I'll go with Jumpa Lahiri's short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. One story in that book, "This Blessed House," is a masterpiece that somehow manages to explore the mysteries of both marriage and faith without lapsing into clichés about either. Oh, and it comments on Jesus-obsessed America along the way.
What's your next book?
It's still simmering, but likely something on America's debts to Judaism.
This article originally appeared at Religion Dispatches and is reprinted with permission.