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Stephen Prothero: Take religious differences seriously

The author of the book “God Is Not One” says the popular notion that all religions are essentially the same is disrespectful and dangerous.

May 3, 2011

Stephen Prothero is a historian of American religions and author of the book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.”

In the book, Prothero disagrees with the claim that all religions share essential beliefs, arguing that it’s important to acknowledge honestly religious differences.

Prothero Prothero, a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University,  is also the author of the New York Times best-seller “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn’t.” In addition to his scholarly work, he has written for popular magazines and newspapers and has commented on religion on NPR and on television programs such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He is also a regular contributor to CNN’s Belief Blog and was chief editorial consultant for the PBS series “God in America.”

Prothero received his bachelor’s degree from Yale College and a Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard University.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about dealing with religious differences and what Christian leaders can learn from other faith traditions. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You say in your book that thinking that all religions are the same is dangerous and disrespectful. What you mean by “disrespectful,” and what you mean by “dangerous”?

The disrespectful piece is that if you talk to ordinary religious people who are Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or Jews or Christians, and you ask them, “What is central to your tradition?” … you’ll see that the answers they have to those questions are totally disparate.

For a Muslim, it may be very important to do five-times-a-day prayer and to make the hajj to Mecca. For a Christian, it may be very important to believe in the Trinity and to participate in the Eucharist.

Those are different, and the only way to get to the theory that all the religions are essentially the same is to not take those people seriously when they tell you what their tradition is about.

So the way people get around this problem -- because there’s obviously religious difference -- is they have to carve out the “inessential” from the “essential,” and then term things that practitioners think are essential and say that they’re inessential. I think that’s disrespectful, and I think it’s condescending.

The dangerous piece is that I think that we are really hamstrung in our understanding of what’s going on in the world -- especially in religiously inflected hot spots in the world, which is to say most of the hot spots in the world -- if we are carrying around this baggage that all religions are essentially the same.

Because how can you explain what’s going on, just to take an obvious example, in Jerusalem or in Iraq with the theory that Judaism and Christianity and Islam are all the same in Jerusalem, or even all forms of Islam are the same in Iraq? It’s just a non-starter.

I think we are all human beings, but I think one element of being human for the overwhelming majority of people throughout world history is to take religion seriously and to have your politics and economics be to some extent determined by it. So I think it makes it impossible for us to understand and then to act effectively and with wisdom in international conflicts unless we take religious difference seriously.

Q: Ironically, that’s the impulse that presumably leads people to believe that in the first place -- a desire for everyone to get along in a kind of a naive way.

Yes, they want everybody to get along, and therefore they say that the religions are the same, because they think that wherever you have difference you’re going to have conflict. I don’t accept that. I don’t think that’s true.

I think that throughout history we’ve always had difference, at least in urban areas, and at borders we’ve always had difference, and we’ve always learned throughout human history how to fight about that, but we’ve also learned how to get along.

Human beings have always disagreed with one another about very fundamental things, always. Inside our families, inside our relationships, inside our villages, inside our cities, inside our countries, inside our religions, we’ve always done that, and we’ve been able to cross those boundaries, too.

The fact that we’re still here has shown that there are a lot of us who are willing to live with differences, but you can’t really live with differences until you surface them.

We don’t think it’s a huge problem for us to interact as a country with other nations that have different political structures than our republican government. We understand there are differences between a constitutional monarchy and our form of government. We don’t pretend they’re the same, and we don’t assume we can’t get along with them because they’re different.

Q: You say that this conversation starts with a clear-eyed understanding of the different faiths. What comes after that?

Again, I would point to other aspects of human life, including our own relationships. We don’t think that the source of a good relationship is that the two people have somehow magically come to the realization that they are actually essentially the same person. Is that a recipe for a good relationship or a good marriage? I don’t think anybody would say that.

What would we say? Well, you get to understand the person, you get to understand how you’re similar and how you’re different, and you learn to try to revel in both the similarities and the differences. That’s how we get along. That’s how human beings get along.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that in the religious world. I think the reason we don’t do it in the religious world instinctively is because of the legacy of religious war. We’re afraid of that, and I think we’re rightfully afraid of that, but I don’t think that needs to take us into fiction.

Q: If your faith has as one of its tenets that it is the only way to salvation or that it’s the only truth or whatever form that might take, does that make it more difficult?

I don’t think that has to be conflictual at all. I think you can believe that Jesus is the only Son of God and that there’s only one way to heaven, and that’s through him, and that in the afterlife there will be heaven and hell and that hell will be populated.

I think you can believe all those things, and then what does the Christian tradition tell you to do? It doesn’t tell you to go kill those people [who aren’t Christian]. It tells you to convert them. It tells you to argue with them. It tells you to preach the gospel to them. Most Christians have not said, “Oh, because you’re Jewish I’m going to kill you” or, “Because you’re Muslim I’m going to kill you.”

Some Christians have done that, but those Christians have been condemned by the Christian tradition itself. The witness of the church is not to go kill people who disagree with you, and that’s true inside every religion.

Every religion has theologies of the other because they’ve been around long enough to have conversations.

Q: You argue in your book “Religious Literacy” that Americans should know more about other faith traditions. But I think a lot of Christian leaders might say, “We struggle to form our own people in our own tradition.”

I don’t think it is the job of American church leaders to educate young people about Buddhism and Hinduism. That’s something that -- if we think our citizens should know about it -- we should do in the public schools.

I think the primary focus of church leadership is to educate people about Christianity and about their own tradition.

But that said, we do live in a world -- it’s a cliché, but it’s true -- that’s increasingly global. So to talk about your own religion in isolation from other religious traditions just doesn’t make that much sense anymore, especially for young people who have ready access to information about other societies, other cultures, who in many cases have friends who are Buddhists or friends who are Muslims.

I think the comparative questions come up. For example, it’s useful [when talking] about Christianity to say, “OK, this is a tradition that takes doctrine seriously. And it’s different, because a lot of traditions don’t really care about that. You can be Jewish and not believe in God. Isn’t that interesting? In Christianity you have to believe in God to be a proper Christian."

That’s a comparative insight, and you can’t get to it without knowing a little bit about Judaism.

Q: What should Christian leaders know about these other traditions?

I think if you want to be a better leader in the Christian tradition in general or as a Lutheran or as a Presbyterian, it’s useful to know something about how things are done in other societies.

For example, I think Christians can learn from Confucianism, especially Christian leaders, because a lot of Confucianism is about leadership. There’s been a lot of reflection on the issue of leadership in Confucian cultures. It goes all the way back to Confucius, and has been happening for over two millennia.

There are insights that leaders can get both as leaders and also as Christians from other religious traditions, not because we want to present people with the option of being Christians or Confucians, but just because there’s some wisdom there.

Q: One of the eight religions you describe in your book is the Yoruba religion. Talk a little bit about that religion, which I suspect is not well-known to most Americans.

This is a tradition that moves from West Africa -- particularly Nigeria -- into Brazil, the Caribbean and also American cities that have large Caribbean or African populations, like New York City and Miami. There may be about 100 million people.

It comes in a lot of different versions -- the one we hear about is Santeria -- and typically it’s a kind of syncretic mixing between Yoruba tradition and Catholicism. So the saints of Catholicism will be sort of matched up with, conflated with, confused with orishas, these supernatural spiritual presences.

There will be various kinds of worship, but the worship often has a sacrifice. [Sometimes] you sacrifice an animal, though it’s not always an animal. It could be you’d make a gift of some vegetables or something. That’s one piece of the ritual.

The other piece is divination.

Q: I thought it was fascinating that you said the diviner brings the knowledge of stories, while the deep wisdom of the process comes from the individual.

The diviner casts these beads or shells, and then the way the shells land, up or down, is divination. There are 256 possibilities, and the diviner knows stories associated with each and just starts to tell the stories.

It’s a narrative tradition. You listen to the stories, and you figure out which of the stories is relevant to you. That story then generates some wisdom and some sacrifice that needs to happen to get you back on track.

It’s a kind of tradition where you consult the diviner when there’s a problem -- you have a problem in your marriage, your business is failing, you’re sick. You cast the shells, and then the wisdom comes to you or from inside you. It’s activated by the hearing of these stories.

That’s another point of really intriguing wisdom there: that we learn best through stories. One thing that I came to in part through this book is an appreciation for the different stories that different religions tell. There are wonderful and very different stories across each of these traditions.