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.