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, 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.