God Is Not One?

Via The Wild Hunt, here’s an essay in the Boston Globe from Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. It’s adapted from his new book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.

I haven’t read Prothero’s book (and I don’t know that I will), but his main point in the essay is that folks who say “all religions are essentially the same” (a group that includes many, if not most, UUs) are very wrong.

He has some valid points: “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.”

And he is quite correct when he points out the differences in religions as they are lived out by imperfect (and sometime malicious) followers: “We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.”

But Prothero makes the all-too-common mistake of blaming religious differences for problems caused by politics and nationalism: “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?” Yes, there are religious differences in these conflicts. But they pale in comparison to problems of land and culture and the lack of justice (by any definition) in those parts of the world.

And he claims that “For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths.” This simply isn’t true, and reflects the attitude of orthodox Christianity, which is still the dominant religion in the West. For most of human history, people have understood that while I worship my gods in my way, people in other lands worship their own gods in their own ways. Only when religions began competing for followers did the “my god is the only real god” idiocy began. Read the Ten Commandments carefully: the Hebrews didn’t claim that Yahweh was the only god, just that he was the only god they were to worship.

Prothero is right to call for a greater understanding of religions and religious differences. But he is wrong when he criticizes Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda for saying “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

Religion is a response to the realization that we are alive and that someday we will die. It is an honest attempt to spend our limited years in this world on things of ultimate, rather than transitory, importance. It is an attempt to live a life that is meaningful and helpful, to ourselves, our families, and our world. Those are the essentials, and they are the same whether you believe in no god or one god or many gods.

Ultimately, God is One. Goddess is One. We are all One. The sooner we all realize that, the better off we’ll be.

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