God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter - Stephen R. Prothero I am not going to spend much time discussing the bulk of this book – the nine chapters that introduce you to “the eight rival religions that run the world” (in Prothero’s estimation) and atheism – because that turns out not to be the important part. I’ve had a difficult time writing this review because I didn’t know where to start but then it hit me as I was desultorily leafing through the book that the most important section is the author’s introduction, where he sets out why “god is not one” and why the idea that He is, is wrong headed and dangerous.

So let’s get the religions out of the way:

Prothero’s writing is strongest with the religions he knows best – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Or, as I think it more accurate to say, Christianities, Islams and Judaisms, for he shows pretty clearly that even within religious traditions, adherents can have wildly variant ideas of their supreme beings (e.g., Mormons vs. Other Christians; Sunni vs. Sufi, etc.). He’s less confident when he writes about the others, however. I found this particularly noticeable in the chapters on Buddhism and Hinduism. In both he admits to not quite “getting” them, and it shows in his writing, which all too often becomes trite and superficial. I felt I was reading a different book and author compared to his treatment of Western religion. That said, if you’re serious about become more religiously literate, these chapters are a good place to start though not an end point. From recent personal experience I know how much more there is to all of these faiths (e.g., Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History, among others). Another example is his chapter on the Yoruba religious tradition (which includes Santeria; Candomble, Umbanda and Macumba; the Orisha Movement; Kele; and some aspects of Vodun) – an entirely new subject for me.

The true importance of the book lies in the introduction. If you don’t accept Prothero’s contention then the rest of the book is nothing more than a handy primer on different religions. If, however, you do see merit in Prothero’s argument (as I do) then the book assumes a somewhat more important status – a call to recognize religious differences as real, that each religion is a legitimate quest to discover what it means to be human, and that we must cultivate an atmosphere of tolerance (freedom of conscience).

Two statements Prothero makes struck me as key to his argument. The first is that, in as much as there’s any commonality among religions, it’s in the realization that “something is wrong with the world” (p. 11). And the second, is that every religion may begin from the same point but they identify different causes for the “wrongness” and different solutions. He breaks it down into four broad approaches religions take:

1. Identify the problem (e.g., “sin” in Christianity, “suffering” in Buddhism)
2. Offer a solution (e.g., “salvation in Christ”, “nirvana”)
3. Describe the technique (or method) to achieve the solution (e.g., faith and good works, the Eightfold Path)
4. Present exemplars of the faith (e.g., saints; arhats, bodhisattvas and lamas)

As Prothero notes, this is only a framework. A religion is an extraordinarily complex animal and shouldn’t be reduced to such an arbitrary mold but it’s a place to start to understand a faith.

Religions are a manifestation of humanity’s desire to know what it means to be human (the so-called “religious gene”?). Unfortunately, humans can also exhibit a need for certitude – not only is my religious tradition the best but it’s the only one – which fuels violent religious expression. In any quest to reconcile faiths, the ideas of certainty and exclusion will have to be jettisoned. Prothero is cautiously optimistic that such a spirit exists and is growing, particularly in the face of the obvious consequences of intolerance the world over.*

With some caveats, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.

* I’ve read too much history to be quite as optimistic. I’m reminded of a comment I heard while watching a video of a Tea Party rally in DC: “The only thing I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.” Or ignorant statements from people like Senator Coburn (R-OK) or Billy Graham’s son that Islam is a religion of violence (or not even a religion at all). If these were fringe elements that usually had audiences that could be counted on one hand, then it wouldn’t matter but, sad to say, they have platforms that reach millions.

** I’d also want to mention that I liked Prothero’s use of a biological metaphor in describing religions: “Religion” is a genus; “faiths” (or creeds or beliefs, however you want to describe them) are species. And just like you know an ostrich and a hummingbird are “birds,” you’re not going to confuse the two or suggest that they occupy the same environmental niche.