on August 6, 2010
In my opinion, the introduction is the best chapter in the book. I was glad to have a book written by a professor of religion, for (during some parts) it felt like I was actually in his class.
In the intro Mr. Prothero outlines four basic criteria for a religion: a problem (addressed), a solution, techniques (for achieving that solution), and exemplars (to use as guides). Every other book on religion that I had read had focused mainly on descriptions and explanations; this book begins with the premise that religions are not all the same in the end because they address different topics, see completely different "ultimate problems", and instruct their followers to do things to fix the problem that often clash with other religions. It gives you an easy to understand formula to apply to religion, and promises that based off this formula all religions are very different.
So far so good.
The chapters in this book cover:
After the first chapter I was left with a feeling of disappointment. Sadly, that feeling never really went away. Although the author refutes the "perennial philosophy" of prominent authors (to include Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith)that all religions are basically the same, he does little to include and prove his argument in each chapter. The topics he does cover are communicated brilliantly, but they offer little more that what is covered in books by authors he disagrees with.
I fully expected the author to apply his four point formula to the eight religions covered, and through the use of that formula prove to us that religions are NOT all different paths up the same mountain. After all, Islam's solution of submission to the problem of human pride is nothing at all like Christianity's solution of salvation to the problem of human sin or Confucianism's solution of social order to the problem of societal chaos, right?
If you've read Karen Armstrong's book "The History of God", then chapters 1, 2, and 7 in this book give you nothing new. If you've also read her "Case for God", then chapters 2 and 7 in this book will probably bore you. If you've read her "Islam", or Rezla Aslan's "There is no god but God", then chapter 1 here is just a re-hash. If you've read Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God", then chapters 1, 2, 4, 7, and 9 here are useless to those who are looking for new information. I'm not here to plug Armstrong or Aslan or Wright; I'm simply pointing out that Mr. Prothero argues against most of their positions, then does almost nothing to back up his hypothesis.
Perhaps the best (and most useful) chapters in the book are the ones on Confucianism, Yoruba, and Daoism. I have not found another book on the Chinese religions that examines them in the way this one does, and if you go to your local bookstore you'd be hard-pressed to find a mainstream religious author that dares to travel farther east than Buddhism or farther into Africa than transplanted Islam. That being said, it seems silly to buy a book for only 27% of its content.
I'm not here to bash the book, insult the author, or downplay the importance of the basic message of the book. I do agree that not all religions are the same, nor are they taking us through different paths to the same end goal. I just really wish that Mr. Prothero had been more aggressive and forthright in his argument throughout the course of the book, rather than beginning with a spectacular introduction and following with what I've read over and over before.
This is an AMAZING book for people who want to start a collection on religious philosophy and need a good overarching text. For those of us who have a few years (and authors) under our belts, I recommend passing on this one.
on June 11, 2010
The initial premise is intriguing: Prothero want to disabuse us from the notion that all great religions are essentially the same--i.e., that Allah/God/Yahweh are just different names for the same deity, and "believers" are simply ascending different sides of the same mountain, but with the same ultimate goal).
The book does give a reasonably good overview of eight major religions, and I am thankful for some of his insights. For example, he discusses why a "Godless" religion (like Confucianism) deserves to be thought of as a religion and not just a systems of ethics. He also points out that someone can be deeply religious but in a quiet manner: A fire-and-brimstome evangelical preacher isn't necessarily *more* religious than, say, a quietly devoted Methodist.
But the book feels superficial. It reads like a professor giving an overview of religions for college freshmen, and wanting to keep it fun and fast paced: hoping to become their favorite professor. After each chapter, I found myself needing to turn to the Internet to read up on each religion for more information on the basic beliefs and practices of each.
Prothero writes in a chatty, "witty" tone which some may find charming, but I found annoying: as if he's worried the material will be too dry or too impenetrable for his audiences, so he funs-it-up and dumbs-it-down. Here are the first two sentences of the chapter on Buddhism:
"Buddhism begins with a fairy tale. Unlike Cinderella or Rocky, however, this is no underdog fantasy of someone who has nothing and gains the whole world."
Really? That's how we're going to begin an overview of Buddhism? And does he mean that Buddhism themselves think of the story of The Buddha as a fairy tale, or is that just his opinion?
The final chapter on atheism seems dashed off and dismissive. Take this sample sentence:
"After all, atheism is a religion of sorts, or can be. Many atheists are quite religious, holding their views about God with the conviction of zealots and evangelizing with verge."
After writing in depth about three non-theistic religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism), it's odd that he then writes a "coda" about atheism at all, and then jumbles up theism and religion as analogous concepts.
He also tends to weigh the merits of each religion against his own personal experience, as if he's shopping for the best religion and trying to figure out which is the best fit. I feel like I know more about Stephen Prothero now than I do about the major religions.
on May 5, 2010
I'm feeling a little bit conflicted on this. On one hand, I've had Steve Prothero as a professor. He's extremely intelligent and completely engaging - more so than any other college professor I've come across. Great human being in person too. I found the book to be fair and well-researched, definitely a clear and worthy introduction to many major world religions. His unique method of introducing the problem/ solution that each religion offers is fantastic. Christianity addresses sin through salvation, Islam addresses pride through submission, etc. For its content, I think this should be the standard introduction to world religions for any high school or undergraduate course. There is never a dull moment and he draws fascinating parallels and brings in interesting anecdotes. Further, the Professor makes a very valid point. In our politically correct world, people try to underplay important differences in doctrine, ritual, and worldview and paint all religions as one. Forget about disparity between religions, huge differences exist within religions: the God of Abraham is very unlike the God of Moses or the God of Second Isaiah. This is where the Professor makes a valid and important point - these religions are not the same, so we need to stop pretending they are! Not only is it false, but it's intellectually demeaning.
Now, here's where the conflict comes in. I completely disagree with the entire premise of the book, that "God is not one." In fact, the unity of Godhead is the one thing that all religions seem to share. The very definition of God itself presupposes an all-inclusiveness; if there is a God, God MUST be one. In the same way that Christopher Hitchens took on Islam's phrase "Allahu Akbar" with his book "God is not great" - Professor Prothero here seems to take on the Jewish phrase "Jehovah Echad" with this book: "God is not one." I noticed Huston Smith's biographer posted a defense of the perennial philosophy on here, which is a philosophy I find myself subscribing to on a very deep level. I think the issue behind the conflict is that people often confuse religion and God. God exists independent of religion. God may be one, but there is no doubt that the religions that attempt to reach God are very very different. However, just because particular religions have different opinions about God, does not mean that they are speaking about separate gods. Each person I meet has different opinions and conclusions about me, but that does not mean that there are multiple versions of me. I am one person. We cannot dismiss God's unity simply because various folks approach deity in unique ways.
All religions talk about two realms, the heavens and earth, matter and spirit, prakriti and purusha, etc. To truly understand God as he/she is we need to approach it on the spiritual realm, not the material realm. All that religions and rituals and even words can possibly discuss are in the material world. They are just the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. As the Tao Te Ching says "The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name." To the mystics, which were not deeply addressed in the book, there is a shared experience of a common underlying Reality because they reach God through the spiritual realms, not through material dogma, ritual, and myth. Jehovah and Vishnu are worlds apart, but the Kabbalistic Ain Soph and Vedantic Brahman are one in the same. So here, perhaps the better book title would have been "Religion is not One." Not as catchy, but perhaps more accurate.
- Informative about major world religions
- Unbiased in portraying the good, bad, and ugly of various traditions
- Fun to read and not a dull moment, very engaging
- Great problem/ solution method - simple but not simplistic
- Focuses on mainstream religion, ignores the esoteric/ mystical paths
- Assumes religious differences mean God is not one
Buy it. Even if you don't subscribe to the idea of "God is not one" - it will be a great and informative read, especially on lesser-known religions such as the Yoruba, Taoism, and Confucianism.
on March 11, 2011
Through the first 8 chapters I thought this was a very good book. I found it very informative, especially in the religions that I had little prior knowledge of. I thought the book got a little bit too much into the history of the religions and not quite enough into how they are practiced by the general population, but it was otherwise pretty good. Then I came to the section on atheism, which made me rethink the entire book.
The first problem I had was that, while Prothero seemed to take an unbiased observer's approach to the eight religions, giving a general overview and not completely ignoring the bad parts of them, but focusing on their positives, the atheism section was a different story. From this section it seems that he takes personal offense at the very existence of atheism, and so uses this chapter to vilify and caricature atheists. In this chapter he focuses on all of the negatives and none of the positives. He focuses on a few prominent atheists without much detail on the average Joe atheist. A major focus in this section is arguing that atheism is bad based on the fact that they believe all of the various religions to be wrong, however he doesn't do this with the other chapters. For example he doesn't spend the majority of the Christianity chapter discussing how they think followers of all of the other religions are going to hell. This made all of the previous chapters seem a little bit too light and fluffy in comparison.
The way the author injected himself into the final chapter seemed to tell more about his own insecurities than about atheism. He argues against atheism for things many religions do as well. For example, he says "every refusal of a person of faith to come over to the atheist side is viewed not as a principled disagreement but as evidence of stupidity or malice or worse...Why isn't the rest of the world exactly like us?" Christianity, the only other religion I can speak of from personal experience, however, feels exactly the same way about Christianity and the rest of the world, but he doesn't berate them for it. I'm betting at least some of the other religions are similar. He also talks about atheists using the metaphor of a war between science and religion, which is definitely a tactic that Christians (and some other religions, from what I can tell) have mastered all too well. He also states that most people of faith harbor some doubt, while atheists are very sure of themselves. From my experience, however, I've seen people across the spectrum of certainty and doubt in both Christianity and atheism, but as an overall pattern, the atheists tend to be a lot more willing to voice their self-doubt than Christians. All of this makes me think the author is just projecting his own religious uncertainties into this chapter and thus taking a cheap shot at atheism to justify his own feelings about religion. In his conclusion Prothero talks about the importance of needing to learn religious literacy from an objective stance, and were it only eight chapters long I would have thought this book was the answer, but he betrays himself in chapter nine to be not so objective after all. It is really too bad, because of the two groups in this book that are most vilified in the USA, he seemed to do a decent job dispelling some of the myths of the "evils of Islam", showing instead their common humanity, but with atheists he takes the opposite approach, choosing to play into the well-worn stereotypes.
Finally the blatant inaccuracies and vast oversimplification in this final chapter has led me to question the accuracies of the other chapters as well. I've seen from some other reviews that some of the other chapters (Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism) may have some big problems as well. This makes me wonder how much of what I read was actually about various religions and how much of it was Prothero's imagined versions of these religions.
on May 24, 2010
God is NOT one! Not all religions are striving for the same thing! Religious tolerance has condensed all of religious ideology into one format, and it has wrongly assumed that we are all climbing some imaginary mountain but taking different paths. The trouble is that we aren't all striving for the same goal. We aren't taking different paths to the same end! We are climbing different mountains! Prothero acknowledges that religions are DIFFERENT. Hallelujah! If there is going to be understanding and cohabitation, we need to grasp the fundamental differences in our world views and in what we believe happens at the end of life. That has everything to do with how we live, and how we live alongside others. This is a well-written book with very few biases. Where Prothero has opinions he openly states his self-perceived biases. It's easy reading and well, well worth the time.
on June 12, 2010
Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this book - as it fails on a number of fronts, some vital to the intent of the book. Its basic and broadest aim is to provide a corrective to the sweeping, and therefore academically sloppy, generalizations made about the world's religious traditions' basic unity. However, though the author sets the stage for a radical debunking of previous "all religions are one" hypotheses, the play itself never really gets going, so to speak. The author's interest in highlighting difference over similarity (a la J.Z. Smith) is indeed a laudable one, but he does not himself move meaningfully past generalizations about such difference.
Given that the author is trying so hard to move beyond the vague generalizations and essentializing of previous scholars he should have been more on guard in avoiding such scholarship himself. The way he classifies the world's religious traditions (Hinduism as "the way of devotion"; Buddhism as "the way of awakening"; Christianity as "the way of salvation" etc.) is both at times highly problematic and deeply ironic - for, though he is saying that all religions are NOT one, he is implying that Hinduism (e.g.), in all its great variety, is primarily about ONE thing, "devotion". Certainly, some headings are better than others, but the basic problem still exists and works to undermine his overall objective. There are also instances in which he uses anachronistic devices to "explain" religions - for instance, he uses the model of geologic layers to describe the rich religious history of Hinduism over time; but, such a model implies that each layer has its day and then is "overlain" or "replaced" by something new, thereby minimizing the potentially longer lasting effects of each layer and its true relevance to the tradition (this allows him to say that Hinduism is primarily about devotion etc. - it being the latest "layer").
The book would have been infinitely more useful if the author had unpacked some key concepts a bit better and used the book as a true forum for getting at the heart of how the world's religions really differ on key issues. It is not enough to say, as Prothero does, that Christians believe in sin, but Buddhists do not. At face value this is an interesting claim that could take us somewhere profitable, but in the end we are left only with this blanket statement - he does not unpack how the concepts of "sin" and "karma" are different and how that difference directs religions like Christianity and Buddhism on different paths. THAT would have been useful and made the book much more educational. So too, rather than dismiss Buddhism as largely atheistic, why not look at the concept of deity in Buddhism and juxtapose it against Islam's (e.g)? Instead of engaging in such work, however, the book essentially amounts to a mediocre primer of the world's religious traditions. Though difference is indeed highlighted, which is admittedly a plus, the superficial and incomplete manner in which that difference was addressed disappointed me. The nature of the material and the intent of the author's critique require a much more serious treatment than the book provides. In the end, most of the real work is left up to the reader, he or she must connect the dots that the author did not. Now, it is certainly all well and good to ask the reader to think and ponder on their own, but the point of a book like this should be to lead the reader somewhere - not leave them hanging.
The writing style was also off-putting to me. The author attempted to make the book "popular" by employing a more casual and anecdotal style of writing - however, I found it to be patronizing (both to the reader and to the traditions discussed), thus negatively affecting the book's overall quality. Like a previous reviewer, I found the initial few sentences of the Buddhism section curious at best, if not insulting, "Buddhism begins with a fairy tale. Unlike Cinderella or Rocky, however, this is no underdog fantasy..." Could the author really not think of anything more intelligent to say in his first TWO sentences on Buddhism, but to link that tradition immediately with movies or popular culture? or dismiss the Buddha's early life as mere "fairy tale"? It all comes off as very flip and disrespectful.
Oh, and next time include Sikhism! If you have time to make a special point about how much you regret NOT including it, why not just include it and give the tradition its due attention? I'm willing to bet that the average reader is more likely to come into contact with a Sikh than a practitioner of Yoruba religion - thus making the former tradition worth including.
on March 3, 2011
Prothero's Chapter on Hinduism
I found his chapter to be ill-researched and he seemed to treat Hinduism very lightly; I felt he treated other faiths with reverence that he did not show while writing this chapter. He is factually wrong in many places. It would have been advisable to have at least one Hindu scholar read this chapter for accuracy. Let me corroborate my critique with some concrete points.
1.Translation of the gana on p. 133 as gang is highly objectionable and insulting.
2.On p. 137, while discussing aims of life, for kama he mischievously inserts a reference to Kama Sutra!
3.On p. 137, he totally confuses karma kanda of Vedas with Karma yoga clearly defined in Bhagvad Gita. The former deals with rituals while the latter deals with the actions: the choice action based on moral code, the quality of action and how one reacts to results of actions. In other words, Karma Yoga is about mental attitude and has little to do with rituals. Karma yoga is described as a way of acting, thinking and willing by which one orients oneself toward realization by acting in accordance with one's duty (dharma) without consideration of personal self-centered desires, likes or dislikes.
4.On p. 138 he says that Hinduism began over 2,500 years ago! Siddharth Gautam Buddha was born a Hindu in 563 BCE. So clearly Hinduism is not as young as 2,500 years.
5.Hinduism being layered based on geology, Aryan Migration theory and Indus Valley Civilization being a precursor to Hinduism is at best a disputed and outdated theory. The discovery that the river Saraswati (prominently mentioned in scriptures) dried up around 1,900 BCE, the migration of Aryans never being mentioned in the Vedas are some of the key pointers. The whole theory was based on flimsy grounds. Yet Prothero states that anyone who disputes this theory is right-wing Hindu nationalists!! It is widely believed that there is no timeline associated with the development of different yogas or paths to Moksha but these different paths have existed simultaneously as people with different aptitudes need different paths. This idea known as Adhikarbhed in Sanskrit is a very important hallmark of Hinduism as it is believed that on a spiritual path "one size fits all" is not workable. But according to Prothero, these paths were developed sequentially in the order: Karma yoga, Gnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga! By the way he totally misses Raj Yoga (the path of meditation).
6.On p. 140 where he lists the names of Vedas, he misspells twice: Yahur instead of Yajur, Acharva in place of Atharva.
7.On p. 140, he strangely separates the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanisads from the Vedas. It is well known that each Veda has four sections: Karma Kanda, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanisads. In fact, because the Upanisads are the end portion of the Vedas, they are also known as Vedanta (end of the Vedas; also the aim of the Vedas). For each Upanisad we know which chapter of which Veda it is.
8.On p. 144, he compares different schools of thought (six darshanas; with 3 sub schools so totaling eight) of Hinduism to the historic sequence of three faiths of the family of Abraham. This is based his mistaken notion of time sequence attached to the six schools of thought. These have simultaneously existed and continual debates among these schools of thought go on even today (particularly three major schools of the Vedantic tradition: advaita, dvaita and vishishtadvaita).
9.On p. 145, he states that Hinduism now recognizes three aims (dharma, artha and kama) besides moksha... Hinduism has always recognized these four aims of life and not some strange historical sequence.
10.On p. 150, where he talks about devotional Hinduism, he has a strange twist that somehow this is connected with caste and gender. Note however, that Bhagvad Gita expounds upon all four paths (yogas): Bhakti, Karma, Gnana and Raja. It is true that in different periods of time different major personalities have come along emphasizing one of more of these paths. But this has been ongoing through eternity and not in any particular time sequence.
11.On p. 161, he says that Krishna was in disguise as Arjuna's charioteer. It was widely known and there was no disguise!
12.On p. 163, he is totally mistaken in that Rama had trust issue second time around with Sita. It was based on a citizen casting aspersions. This is actually a fascinating episode of a King having a dilemma regarding familial duty versus duty towards his citizens. Prothero clearly misunderstands.
In summary this is very poor scholarship.
on August 26, 2011
"Buddhism begins with a fairy tale." Well, all the religions begin with a fairy tale, or with the truth, or with both, depending on your point of view. There's nothing idiosyncratic about Buddhism in this regard. But that's how Prothero begins the chapter on Buddhism.
The best part of this book is the intro and the importance of questioning syncretism, questioning that religions are essentially the same. There are many important differences. As much as we as humans aspire to love and caring, and as much as our religions encourage this, they differ and can be divisive. To paper over those differences and divisions is to be untrue to the actual teachings of the religions.
The more you know about a particular religion before reading this book, the more you're going to be dissatisfied with how Prothero presents it. He not only gets things wrong, he emphasizes aspects that ultimately make for misrepresentation. Any scholar or even educated follower of any of these religions would at least quibble with and be puzzled by the chapter on their religion.
The chapter on atheism is completely unsympathetic and spiteful. He tries to throw a bone by saying that there are some friendly atheists. But his antipathy is glaring. He wouldn't have dared take such a position on any of the religions but is fine castigating advocates of science and reason.
The book hooked me with the intro but I finished it with disappointment.
on May 6, 2010
Professor Prothero pointed out very clearly in his previous book, "Religious Literacy", how lacking most of us are in our real understanding of religions, both our own and others. Happily, this book takes us on a wonderful journey through the "great religions" of the world in an interesting,knowledgeable and often fun manner. He is articulate and thought provoking without making one feel they are being lectured at or uninformed. Prothero speaks both of the similarities and the differences between all of these religions and makes us pause to consider all the possibilities they present us toward living and working in this multi-religious world.
We will each be ready and able to help find peaceful solutions to a great many of our world problems after first understanding what others believe and why.
This book is written for "everyone". I recommend "Read It".
on May 1, 2010
This is a thoughtful, thought provoking, and yes - even fun - follow up to Religious Literacy. Religious Literacy convinced me of the importance of understanding our world religions, and now this book has allowed me to do just that. I think this will be a useful, enjoyable read for just about anyone - students, academics, and people who just want to understand our complicated world better.