06/30/2010 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011

Stephen Prothero Interview: The Many Forms of Faith

Talking with Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- And Why Their Differences Matter, is like watching those Miller Lite commercials where tempers flare over the "Great Taste!" vs. "Less Filling!" properties of the beer:

What seems like an intense conflict is ultimately just a marketing gimmick.

The Boston University religion professor's argument, punctuated by his book's bold title and cover art of dueling one-way signs, is that these belief systems are fundamentally different, rather than merely divergent paths up the same mountain. In interviews, he calls interfaith families "inconsistent," and dismisses atheists as "dishonest." Yet each chapter notes an array of similarities among the profiled faiths -- Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism, Daoism -- and describes major game-changing disagreements within their underlying denominations.

By the end, God is either one, many, or irrelevant.

As an introductory comparative religion textbook with mass appeal, written with a light enough touch to compare Jesus with Michael Jordan and the Buddha with Rocky, God Is Not One gets the job done. But, unless you already thought your religion was the only way up, it won't suddenly convince you that other believers aren't climbing that same mountain - or, at least aiming for the heavens somehow.

Highlights from my recent talk with Prothero:

You write that viewing religions as different paths to the same God "is a lovely sentiment, but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue." Couldn't the same be said of focusing on their conflicts?

If I had the perception that everybody writing about religion was just writing about difference, difference, difference, then I would be more inclined to write about similarities. But, I'm reacting against a generation of popular books that have really tried to push the pendulum very far toward religious similarities, and I'm trying to push it back.

What I'm trying to do is get away from two kinds of extremes: that religion is all good and that religion is all bad. I'm trying to say that it's both.

Religions are certainly different, but aren't they're all serving the same basic purpose: explaining the world and how to achieve some higher state of being?

I don't disagree with the Dalai Lama or Huston Smith or Karen Armstrong on the question of whether all religions preach compassion. The really important disagreement I have with the next step: that, therefore, religions are the same. I don't think ethics is what religion is essentially all about. A lot of Protestants think that religions are belief systems. Confucianism is more about ethics and ritual, Judaism is more about law and story, Buddhism is more about experience.

All these people want us to get along, they're speaking on behalf of peace, and some of them are winning the Nobel Peace Prize. They think the way toward peace is to pretend that religions are the same; I don't think that's the way towards peace. If you look at other areas of life, like race and ethnicity, that's not the way towards peace. It's about understanding differences. I'm baffled that we have to do this pretend thing in religion. You can have differences without conflict.

Given that Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals, among others, aren't the denominational differences also significant? Where does it end?

The fact that the religions are kind of divided against themselves also makes this broader point about religious difference. Catholics are not the same as Protestants are not the same as Mormons, and the Sunni-Shia division is very important inside Islam. That's why it makes even less sense to make this claim that all religions are the same, if all forms of Christianity aren't even the same.

How do you account for people who blend religions, such as interfaith families or someone practicing both Buddhism and Judaism?

One way is that they are inconsistent. Another is that they're only accenting the parts of their religions that work together. Another is that their religions are puzzle pieces that can fit - Judaism has traditionally not had the kind of contemplative practice emphasis that Buddhism has, and Buddhism doesn't affirm a God, so it doesn't bump up against the "no graven image" problem. They're very different religions, but they're not making, for the most part, incompatible claims. You can be Daoist and Buddhist at the same time; a lot of Christians in east Asia are also Confucian. That's because those religions operate largely in separate spheres.

Why are you so hard on atheists?

I think they're intellectually dishonest, and I think it's the hardest religious position to take up. With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world. With atheism, you have to reject every single god. There's a lot of gods out there. I think many atheists are not actually atheists; they're just people who've rejected the Jewish or Christian God, more specifically the god that their parents taught them. They don't know anything about the Hindu divinities. How can you reject a god that you've never even heard of?

Perhaps they just feel committed to scientific evidence rather than mystery?

Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels! But, even rejecting the supernatural, not all religions have gods, not all religions necessarily have the supernatural. Confucianism and Buddhism might be the religion for them.

Couldn't you also frame this as the differences between believers and nonbelievers, or between fundamentalist and progressives across the board, not between religions?

There's truth to that, but I don't think that's on a global scale. In American politics, the liberal Episcopalian and Reform Jew have more in common [with each other than with other Christians/Jews]... But these religions have their own narratives and their own rituals, and those aren't shared across these religious traditions.

One can see how this book appeals to believers who feel strongly that their religion is distinct. How does your Christianity affect your views on other faiths?

I'm religiously confused now. I don't have any real answers to any of these important questions. I think the reason that I keep studying them is because I don't have answers; I think if I had answers, I'd become an economist!

When I go to a religious service, I usually go to a Quaker meeting where no one speaks, so no one ever says anything that I disagree with. It's a pretty good situation.

For more from this interview, visit Nicole's Belief Beat blog.