Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

Since completing Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, I have read a book that might interest both theists and atheists: Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

When Americans talk about spiritual matters they tend to focus on the majority religion, Christianity. However I have found it helpful to look at religious issues from a long-term, world-wide perspective, and reading Prothero’s book is a fine way to do that.

God Is Not One is well-researched and well-written. I have studied comparative religion for some time, but this book taught me new things about traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, and the African-born Yoruba faith.

One of Prothero’s insights is that “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world” (p. 11). That makes sense, and I find that theists, atheists, and agnostics can often agree about what is most challenging about the human condition. Furthermore there is often quite a bit of agreement about how we should treat each other, as Prothero observes: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics” (p. 3).

I was also enlightened by the book’s discussion of Hinduism. I had thought that Hindu concepts of deity tend to be impersonal, describing God as an It rather than a Thou. I knew that Hindus who lack formal education often view God in personal terms, but I thought this contradicted mainstream Hinduism.

Prothero says that at one time Hindus did worship an impersonal deity. “Philosophical Hinduism was functionally atheistic; while the gods existed, they were largely irrelevant to the task at hand. [Liberation] was something you achieved by yourself, not something handed to you from on high” (p. 152). But today Hinduism emphasizes bhakti yoga, meaning loving devotion to one or more gods. For Hindus, “The notion that God is impersonal and ineffable is now confined to the rare philosopher” (p. 153).

The book also includes “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” dealing mainly with science-oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The author is quite critical of this approach, and he sometimes makes sweeping, stereotypical statements, e.g., “Atheists argue that the human problem cannot be solved by religion, because religion itself is the problem” (p. 318). That’s true of Dawkins and Harris, but I have known many atheists who would deny that religion is “the” core problem. To his credit, however, Prothero says there are many different approaches to rejecting God’s existence, and not all atheists are angry and rigid. Taking a swipe at Dawkins et al., he notes that ” . . . most atheists today are far less dogmatic than the high priests of the New Atheism” (p. 327).

I thank Stephen Prothero for this eye-opening survey of the world’s faith traditions, a book that gives us the gift of greater understanding.

Roger

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4 thoughts on “Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

  1. Roger wrote:
    -snip-

    To his credit, however, Prothero says there are many different approaches to rejecting God’s existence, and not all atheists are angry and rigid. Taking a swipe at Dawkins et al., he notes that ” . . . most atheists today are far less dogmatic than the high priests of the New Atheism.”

    I really wish that folks would drop the tired “atheist dogma” or “fundamentalist atheist” trope.

    If Dawkins et al. were to say they were convinced that there were no god or gods and no evidence could ever convince them that god or gods do exist, then one might be able to call this “dogma” or “fundamentalism.”

    But this isn’t what we see and hear out there. Most of the prominent atheists don’t say that god or gods don’t exist. They just say that it’s very unlikely based on what we know about the world and the evidence offered to support the “god hypothesis” has been lacking so far.

    There are a few prominent atheists and skeptics who do reject the “god hypothesis” for reasons other than evidence … some would say that it’s a poorly defined hypothesis.

    If calling the idea that one can draw provisional conclusions based on evidence is a form of “dogma” or “fundamentalism,” then we are radically redefining “dogma” and “fundamentalism” where they are meaningless.

    One of my favorite bloggers (Greta Christina) wrote about this several years ago:

    “‘Fundamentalist’ Atheists and Squabbling About Language”
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/03/fundamentalist_.html

    There may be better words than “dogmatic” or “fundamentalist” to describe the so-called “new atheists” … passionate, committed, vocal, etc. These words are more accurate and don’t distort the very useful meanings of “dogma” or “fundamentalism” to something else.

    • Steve Caldwell wrote:

      I really wish that folks would drop the tired “atheist dogma” or “fundamentalist atheist” trope.

      If Dawkins et al. were to say they were convinced that there were no god or gods and no evidence could ever convince them that god or gods do exist, then one might be able to call this “dogma” or “fundamentalism.”

      But this isn’t what we see and hear out there. Most of the prominent atheists don’t say that god or gods don’t exist. They just say that it’s very unlikely based on what we know about the world and the evidence offered to support the “god hypothesis” has been lacking so far.

      Response:

      Although some atheists do seem doctrinaire, branding them as fundamentalists seems like gratuitous name-calling. Fundamentalism is a useful and fairly specific term, and we distort this word’s meaning when we start calling any cock-sure individual a fundamentalist. In God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero titles a passage about atheism “Fundamentalism by Another Name.” (P. 322) I wish he had used some other term.

      The term “dogmatism,” on the other hand, can legitimately be applied to someone who refuses to consider any evidence that contradicts his or her views. Steve, you indicated that prominent atheists merely say that the existence of god is very unlikely, rather than saying it is out of the question. To me, however, some of their comments do sound dogmatic, mocking theism as silly and childish, implying that God’s existence is as unlikely as that of Santa Claus.

      In addition, I was surprised to see strong evidence of dogmatic closed-mindedness in Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer’s book, Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers. Referring to two of their survey samples, they reported that “52 percent of the Alabama/Idaho atheists … said nothing could change their minds. Nothing. And the thirty-eight Manitoba parent atheists who encountered this question … were even more locked down, with 57 percent choosing the response, ‘No, there’s nothing.’” (P. 66)

      So are half of all atheists dogmatic? I don’t think so. One problem is that “atheism” is an extremely stigmatized term. Therefore many people hesitate to apply that term to themselves unless they feel very intensely that they are right. I think a lot of folks who are really atheists would rather call themselves agnostics, humanists, or just “non-religious.” So surveys of those who call themselves atheists may not accurately represent the opinions of those who do not think God exists.

      I am primarily familiar with atheists who attend Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is an admittedly non-representative sample, since these are atheists who are willing to sit side-by-side with (very liberal) theists. Some UU atheists do come across as quite dogmatic, but I think most would simply say that based on the evidence they have seen so far the god hypothesis seems far-fetched.

      Bottom line: It isn’t constructive to use smear-terms in characterizing those who disagree with us. Thanks for your comment, Steve.

      Roger

      • Roger wrote:

        The term “dogmatism,” on the other hand, can legitimately be applied to someone who refuses to consider any evidence that contradicts his or her views. Steve, you indicated that prominent atheists merely say that the existence of god is very unlikely, rather than saying it is out of the question. To me, however, some of their comments do sound dogmatic, mocking theism as silly and childish, implying that God’s existence is as unlikely as that of Santa Claus.

        Roger — I think it’s a bit more complex than atheists who appear to be “dogmatic” in their rejection of religious claims.

        First, “mocking” an idea or the use of humor (to use a less loaded description) is not the same as being “dogmatic.” After all, we don’t consider Jon Stewart on the “Daily Show” to be “dogmatic” even though is very good at deflating both ideas and personalities that are full of hot air. Maybe it’s just we’re not used to hearing religious ideas being subject to the same criticism that we accept in other realms.

        Second, some prominent atheists reject theism not just due to a lack of evidence. They also consider religious claims to be poorly formed and sloppy notions as you can see from this example from PZ Myers:

        “Eight reasons you won’t persuade me to believe in a god”
        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/eight_reasons_you_wont_persuad.php

        In other words, a coherent claim needs to be stated before evidence for or against the claim can be evaluated.

        This isn’t a universally held view. Atheist writer Greta Christina take a different tack here:

        “6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince This Atheist To Believe in God”
        http://www.alternet.org/belief/147424/?page=entire

        Greta’s examples of what would convince here are so counter-factual and so obviously not the world that we live in (which is why she is an atheist).

        And this lack of “dogmatism” in Greta is probably just as uncomfortable to the average theist as PZ Myers’ rejection of theism as incoherent.

    • Thanks for your clearly-stated feedback, Steve. The main issue seems to be whether atheists are often dogmatic rather than open-minded. I would answer “yes,” although I completely reject the common stereotype that all atheists are closed-minded. I’ve known many who are, and many who are not.

      In an earlier post I claimed that prominent atheistic writers often “sound dogmatic, mocking theism as silly and childish, implying that God’s existence is as unlikely as that of Santa Claus.” You replied that “mocking” is loaded term, and suggested using the word “humor” instead. However mockery and humor mean very different things, and many atheistic statements are classic examples of mockery.

      Looking back at my post, I now see that I was incorrect in implying that “rejecting an idea as being silly” is the same as “dogmatically rejecting an idea.” One can think an idea is silly, but be open to evidence that the idea is actually sound.

      I appreciated your sending links to two contrasting atheistic statements about religious epistemology. As you might expect, I was more drawn to Greta Christina’s comments than to P Z Meyers’ remarks. Meyers made some good points and I like his scrappy digs, but his essay contains several substantive fallacies. It might be interesting to discuss these errors in detail, either on this blog-site or in personal correspondence. Since Meyers seems quite bright, I suspect he was just tossing off some breezy jibes at theism, rather than trying to construct logically sound arguments.

      You suggested that “Greta’s examples of what would convince her are so counter-factual and so obviously not the world that we live in …” I agree that some of these examples are clearly non-credible — but some of them could turn out to be correct.

      Take, for example: “Inexplicably Accurate Information Gained During Near-Death or Other Supposedly Psychic Experiences.” In Bridging the God Gap I make it clear that I’m a skeptic about paranormal phenomena. But some people who are at least as competent and well-educated as I am have considered the anecdotal evidence about information supposedly gained through psychic experiences, and have concluded that it adds up to a convincing pattern. I think they’re wrong, and if I knew I was more competent than they are I would be almost positive that they are wrong. But I don’t know that. So when I find myself feeling certain that they are mistaken, I attribute this feeling to ego, emotion — and a degree of dogmatism.

      Roger

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