Thursday, July 01, 2010

Prothero on Religions, Or When the Interviewer Doesn't Listen

Huffington Post religion writer Nicole Neroulias offers a pretty good interview with Stephen Prothero, Boston University professor and author of the significant book, God Is Not One, which aims to expose the public to the huge differences among world religions.

We commend the article for emphasizing what those of us who study one religion know very well: "religion" is not a unitary concept, let alone "god."

Prothero points such things out very, very nicely. Some religions don't have gods. Some have one, some many. They're not all about ethics or even mostly about ethics. Most endorse compassion, but for reasons so varied and with outcomes so varied as to marginalize the significance of the similarity as presently construed. Thus, reducing all religions to a common denominator--as does the stylish, modern discipline of religious studies--is wildly misleading.

We also like Prothero's indictment of the intellectual dishonesty of atheism and his functional description of most atheists as simply rejecting the (usually Christian or Jewish) religion of their parents. Spot on.

Note as well Ms. Neroulias's ridiculous prologue to her interview, which offers only the blandest of categorical denials of Prothero's thesis, offering no evidence to the contrary. Of course, she writes for a left-wing web site, so proving her views has never been important to her professional advancement.

Props to Prothero for offering balance to the discussion. With all the world discussing similarities, someone needs to discuss differences. Long live the difference!


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.

Anonymous said...

What does this mean? ... "religion" is not a unitary concept, let along "god."

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Editorial note: self-promotional comments of self-published authors are not always deleted by the blogger.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Anon, if you're asking SWNID what we meant, note first that "along" was a typo for "alone," now corrected. Gently suggesting that a reading of the linked interview might have helped you understand our point, we will try to explain our meaning nevertheless.

People think that different "religions" are similar enough that one can speak of "religion" as a whole and make statements about it. Prothero notes the vast differences among religions and so insists that it's nearly useless to generalize about "religion" as such folks do, as if it were one, unified phenomenon.

Similarly, various "religions" have varying concepts of "god," or even no concept at all. So it's likewise useless for people to generalize about the truth or usefulness of the concept of "god" in all religions, as again many are wont to do.

If you wonder whether SWNID is denying that the Christian God is coherent or singular, you are mistaken in your hunt for hidden heresy.

If in fact you're offering a rejoinder to Mr. Krumpos, we wish you well in your endeavor. His thought is not attuned to the assessment of differences.

Bryan D said...

I haven't read Prothero, but I will. At least I will once I'm finished with The Testament of Gideon Mack.