Thursday, April 1, 2010

Teaching the Great Religions: Stephen Prothero

GOD IS NOT ONE by Stephen ProtheroIn the New York Times bestselling Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, demonstrated how little Americans know about their own religious traditions and why the world's religions should be taught in public schools.

Now, in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, Prothero provides students with much-needed content about each of the eight great religions. For those assigning books by Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong--here is a significantly different argument to share with your students: The world's religious traditions are not different paths to the same God. We blur the sharp distinctions between religions at our own peril, and it is time to replace naïve hopes of interreligious unity with deeper knowledge of religious differences. We must stop pretending that all religions are the same--and we must understand and respect what motivates and influences others.

To claim that all religions are the same is to misunderstand that each attempts to solve a different human problem. For example:

  • 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

Religion is not just a private matter; it affects the world from social, economic, political, and military perspectives. Prothero reveals each of these traditions on its own terms to create an indispensable guide for students studying in diverse fields who need to better understand the big questions human beings have asked for millennia—and the disparate paths we are taking to answer them today.

A bold response to a generation of scholarship, God Is Not One creates a new context for understanding religion in the twenty-first century and disproves the assumptions many students make about the way the world's religions work.

If you've decided to assign God Is Not One to your students, please request a desk copy.

Meanwhile, you and your students can meet Stephen Prothero in this video.


  1. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book 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.

  2. In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review he which states: Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to "gamble everything for love"; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.