Friday, June 11, 2010

Book learnin' - God is Not One

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Stephen Prothero's God is Not One. It's basically a follow-up to his excellent Religious Literacy. In that book, he pointed out the fact that even though the U.S. is a very religious country, its citizens are exceedingly ignorant when it comes to knowing some of the basics of exactly what it is they believe. In that book, he touched on the notion that it's a mistake to view all of the world's major religions as being "different paths up the same mountain" since the major religions of the world concern themselves with some very different things. With God is Not One, he follows up on that idea and explains the differences.

The book is divided up into nine chapters where he covers Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Yoruba Religions, and atheism (more on the last one later). Much of what I read I already knew, but there was a lot more that I certainly didn't know (especially when it came to Yoruba Religions. I must confess that I knew next to squat about that particular system of faith). It was also interesting to get it all in this particular context, where you are made to see just how totally different they all are.

Essentially, the thing that unites all of the religions is that they all identify a problem in this world, and then they offer the solution. One of the problems that people of different religions have with one another is that they just don't get why the other person doesn't seem to have the same priorities. For instance, Christians often talk about how their religion is the only one that offers them salvation. However, this is completely unappealing to a Buddhist, who isn't interested in salvation. They see finding happiness in the present life as being the thing for which we need to strive.

It's definitely a good read, and I agree with Prothero's assertion that the only way we can deal with people of different faiths is if we understand where they're coming from in the first place. I also thought it was interesting that he started with Islam, as he thinks that it's the religion of the 21st Century, and Thor help us, he just might be right. I also appreciated just how level-headed the whole book was, yet at the same time, he wasn't afraid to explain his personal issues when it came to certain faiths. For the most part, each chapter is an objective account of what the religion is about, but usually toward the end he gives some of his thoughts. What's good about it is that it's clear that he's giving his personal opinion at that point, and the reader is given the impression that he or she can take it as just that rather than an objective deconstruction of that religion's particular flaws.

I suppose that if I have any issue with the book, it's his final chapter on atheism. He certainly seems to have a bone to pick with the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etcetera. I have to admit though that he makes a good case for how their anti-religious sentiment almost resembles a religion as well. At the same time though, he doesn't make the fallacy of equating atheism with being a de facto religion of anybody who simply chooses "none of the above". He makes it clear that for a lot of atheists, they simply just don't believe, and in that case it's hardly a religion.

Still, he sidesteps the point of guys like Dawkins. Are they right? Is religion harmful? Then again, maybe that's not his point, but he does seem to find that their rhetoric only preaches to the choir. I don't quite agree with this, as I know enough that a lot of people have read the works of the "New Atheists" and were finally able to find the words for the objections to religious thinking that they've had all along.

Whatever, it's a small quibble. A book like this is too important to get all upset over minor things like this. After all, one of my problems with religious people is how dogmatic they are, and how they often bristle at anything that dares to challenge their beliefs. I guess it's a good sign that it doesn't bother me too much. After all, I like how he concludes the (brief) chapter on atheism. He relates the story of one Amanda Gulledge, a mother who lives in a conservative, Christian area. She told a crowd at an atheist meeting of how her children sometimes lose friends because they're not Christian. He concludes the chapter by writing:
I wouldn't walk around the block to hear Christopher Hitchens take cheap shots at Christians. But I'd get on the subway, and maybe even a plane, to hear Amanda Gulledge tell me why her kids are good people too.
Would I prefer it if everybody could throw off what I see as the shackles of religious thinking? Sure. Could I live with it if they could simply learn to tolerate and respect those who didn't share their particular belief system? Yes, I could.


Ron Krumpos said...

Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

Conflicts in Conventional Religion. "What’s in a Word?" outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

You've posted this elsewhere, no? A quick Google search shows that you've posted this to quite a few forums/blogs.