Stephen Prothero is the bestselling author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't and a professor of religion at Boston University. His latest book is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- And Why Their Differences Matter. I caught up with Prothero on his book tour to chat with him about religious zealotry, atheists, and Islamic pride.
As you discuss in the book, religious zealotry has been the cause of much tragedy in world history. Is there an antidote to that or is that just the way things will always have to be?
Well, zealotry of both the religious and the nonreligious sort has been the cause of much bloodshed. If we are to blame Jesus and Muhammad for violence by proxy from the hand of God we must blame Marx and Lenin for the atrocities of Stalin and Mao.
As far as the antidote goes, I don't think pretend pluralism is the way to go. All religions are not one. They are neither the unified beauty the multiculturalists want them to be nor the unified ugliness the new atheists insist that they are. In a world in which the world's religions do so much good and so much evil, we need to see them as they are on the ground, not as we want them to be. I am not a "clash of civilizations" guy, but as any ordinary Muslim in Indonesia or Christian in Nigeria can tell you, Islam and Christianity are not one and the same. It is just as false to say that all religions are poison as it is to say that all religions are beautiful and true.
The way forward? To work to understand religious differences and then to try to find a way to respect and perhaps even honor them. On the question of race and ethnicity, we used to imagine that a colorblind society was the way to go. We are all human beings after all. Why should being black or Hispanic or Chinese matter? We now know that the way forward on race and ethnicity is not to turn a blind eye to diversity but to acknowledge, understand, and respect differences. Why can't we do the same with religion?
Do you consider atheists and their strict and steadfast adherence to non-belief a religion unto itself?
It depends on the atheist. Some atheists are religious. Some are even fundamentalists. Others are non-religious. It's way too simplistic to say that atheism isn't a religion because atheists reject God. So do Buddhists. So do Jains. So do Confucians. But that doesn't mean that Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism aren't religions.
In evaluating whether atheism is a religion you have to ask to what extent it walks and talks like other religions. Fine, atheism rejects God. But does it have an ethical code? Do its adherents gather into communities? Do they perform rituals? Celebrate holidays? Tell stories? Preach dogmas? The answer, of course, is yes and no. So like I say it depends on the atheist.
I have met atheists who are far more religious than most of my churchgoing friends -- zealots who join free-thought communities, work hard to make converts, and celebrate Darwin Day with a fervor exceeding most Jews at Purim. But other atheist friends of mine take their non-theism with a yawn, which is to say non-religiously. Which reminds me of the joke about the curious son who asks his father why he believes there is no God. The father replies, "I don't know. You'll just have to take it on faith."
The basis of your book is how all these religions differ, but don't you see commonalities in those that are monotheistic?
Of course there are commonalities. In the western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God or Jesus or Allah is said to be a creator, lawgiver, and judge. He (and He is most often thought of as male) speaks through prophets and in scriptures. And He acts in history -- from the glorious beginning to the bitter end. Moreover, when it comes to the mathematics of divinity, these Abrahamic religions are in common cause against the Buddhists (who traditionally say there is no God) and Hindus (who traditionally say there are many). But even these so-called Abrahamic religions differ when it comes to describing God. Can He take human form, as Jesus does for Christians? Or must he refuse not only a human body but also artistic representation, as Allah does for Muslims? More importantly, the Abrahamic gods differ sharply when it comes to the requirements they set forth for believers. What exactly does this one "God" require? The Five Pillars of Islam? The Seven Sacraments of Catholicism? Or the 613 mitzvot of Judaism?
In the book, you write about how Islam has a problem with pride. What do you mean by that?
Each of the great religions begins with a sense that something is rotten with the human condition. But the religions differ when it comes to diagnosing the human predicament and they diverge even more when it comes to prescribing the cure. For Christians the problem is sin. For Buddhists it is suffering. For Muslims it is pride or self-sufficiency -- the sense that I can get along just fine without God. The antidote for this sickness, Muslims say, is submission to Allah, which will lead you on the right path through this life and into paradise in the life beyond.
Benyamin Cohen, the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, is the content director for the Mother Nature Network.