World Religions: Not One, Not Many
Tuesday April 13, 2010
Stephen Prothero has a new book coming out next month called God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- And Why Their Differences Matter. In this book he argues against the popular idea that the world's religions are all just different paths up the same mountain, so to speak. "This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue," he says.
Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University who has written a number of books, including Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't (2007), which documents that in spite of our industrial-strength religiosity, Americans don't know nothin' about religion. A shocking number of American Christians cannot name the four books of the Gospels when pressed to do so. And only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions; 15 percent cannot name any.
I haven't yet read God Is Not One, but according to a press release the book makes that case that a basic understanding of the world's great religions is essential to understanding global issues. But understanding a religion means to understand it on its own terms, not to view the religion through an idealistic haze that blurs the distinctions.
This strikes a chord with me. During the recent Tiger Woods/Brit Hume flap, many Christians in media and in our own blog comment threads proudly told us that only Christianity offers redemption for our sins, so why wouldn't we want to convert to it? As I wrote at the time,
Christians carry around in their heads a conceptual framework of what religion is supposed to be that simply doesn't apply to Buddhism. (This is one of the reasons so many people argue that Buddhism is not a religion; I say it is, and the framework is flawed.) So to say that Christianity is superior to Buddhism because it offers redemption is a bit like saying birds are superior to horses because they have feathers. It's nonsensical.
I get emails all the time from young people whose teachers have given them lists of questions about Buddhism. But the questions often are unanswerable as asked, because they are actually questions about Christianity-- questions about sins, repentance, redemption and heaven. All I can do is send them a link to the "intro to Buddhism" article and hope they read it with an open mind.
As for the part about all religions are not one -- the "all religions are one" meme has become an orthodoxy in some circles, and to stand up and say "no, they are not" and insist that distinctions be recognized and respected is to risk being called a fundamentalist. But according to Prothero's publisher, the new book explains that each of the world's great religions looks at a different problem and comes up with different solution.
-Islam: the problem is pride / the solution is submission
-Christianity: the problem is sin / the solution is salvation
-Confucianism: the problem is chaos / the solution is social order
-Buddhism: the problem is suffering / the solution is awakening
-Judaism: the problem is exile / the solution is to return to God
This explains why the Christians who wandered over here during the Brit Hume flap could not fathom why we weren't worried about our sins. But it also illustrates, I think, why one really can't blend two or more of these religions together without some distortion.
Although Jesus and the Buddha agreed on many things, ultimately the sin/redemption model and the suffering/awakening model are incompatible, at least from a Buddhist perspective. There's no place in Buddhism for an "other" power that "redeems" us. (Who redeems? Who is redeemed? From what? For what?)