It has become fashionable over the past century among influential philosophers of religion, scholars of religious studies, interfaith dialogue activists and even many religious leaders to affirm what Dalai Lama once said: “The essential message of all religion is very much the same.”
This conventional wisdom is usually explained using the metaphor of a mountain. “At the base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structures, the religions are distinct,” writes the renowned philosopher of religion Huston Smith. But beyond these differences, at the top of the mountain, Smith states, “the same goal beckons.”
This universalizing tendency in approaching religions is challenged by Stephen Prothero in his 2010 book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, used as a required reading in the World Religions course at CRCS this semester. Despite having a generous intention to bridge the gaps and foster tolerance among followers of different religions, this essentialist way of understanding religion is, Prothero says, “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”
In the book, Prothero examines eight major religions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism. What Prothero tries to pursue is to understand each religion on its own terms and worldview—one that the essentialists often lack or ignore. He points out that each religion deals with a different kind of problem, and offering a different solution through a different method. In other words, each religion climbs a different mountain and, of course, pursues a different summit. He puts emphasis on the fact that for followers of each religion, differences matter and they are not just “foothills” of the same mountain—otherwise there is no point of embracing and practicing a particular religion.
Say to the Buddhists what Mohandas Gandhi once said that “belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions”—Buddhists would feel excluded as they have no concept of God. Jews and Muslims believe in a strict understanding of the One and Entirely Unique God; Christians believe in the one God manifesting in three hypostases (Prothero calls it “soft monotheism”); while Hindus believe in many gods. Elevating a human status into divinity as Christ might be said to be for Christians would be regarded as a big sin in the eyes of Muslims.
While for the Buddhists, the problem is human suffering and it offers the Noble Eightfold Path as the method to reach the solution (i.e. nirvana), it is sin that constitutes the problem for Christians and the solution can be obtained through salvation, by faith in Jesus, combined with good works for some denominations. This sin-salvation perspective is absent in the Buddhist and Confucian worldview, as is the concept of heaven and hell, which will be of no interest for those pursuing moksha or spiritual liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
While some religions talk much about death, Daoists see the highest value is life itself and the highest practice is the art of nurturing it. Daoists seeks to live life to the fullest: enjoying good health in a vital body for a long life—life in this world is the one that matters. The afterlife, which is important for Christians and Muslims, is not for Daoists and Confucians. God’s judgment in the Hereafter is not important for those believing in karma.
Given all these, for Prothero, the essentialist assumption that all religions are the same is a “denial for false peace sake”. For Prothero, it is unjust to treat religions that way by ignoring their differences, which matter very much for their adherents, let alone to look at other religions through one’s own religious worldview. The last would be as unjust as—using Prothero’s sport analogy—judging baseball, basketball, tennis, and golf based on which is best at scoring runs. In this case, “if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start,” writes Prothero.
Unfortunately, Prothero does not explain over the very questions that the trend he challenges (i.e. the essentialists) tries to address: why differences among religions should occur in the first place and, more importantly, what to do with these differences. The essentialists, universalists, or perennial philosophers have tried to seek for a common ground shared by all religions in order to bridge the gap of differences, judged by Prothero as not only “untrue” but also “dangerous and disrespectful”.
Prothero has not given sufficient elaboration on what to do after acknowledging the differences that indeed matter for religious people. One of the questions that will remain haunting: then what? What to do with the conflicting worldviews? What to do if on one hand, a group of religious people perform a religiously obligated mission to save the people who do not believe in the existence of heaven and hell? Isn’t this what has happened or triggered conflict in interreligious relationships? Do we have to only admit the differences and then stop at this point? Besides, Prothero’s narratives of each religion may not be fully confirmed by the practitioners themselves as Prothero seems to make simplification of them by pointing that for each religion this is the problem and that is the solution, while for the practitioners themselves, the case is more complicated.
While waiting for Prothero’s own answer to these questions, to be fair, his book contains a thoughtful and quite fresh way in depicting each religion through the lens of each own worldview and emphasizing each uniqueness, a move beyond the usual textbook on comparative religions that suffer from the essentialist tendency. For those looking for readings for a World Religions 101 course, this book is indeed a highly recommended one.
In the multireligious context of Indonesia, Prothero helps Indonesian readers to see the deep differences among religions that can stimulate the sense of complexity in defining religion and help them to gain insights into the incommensurability of religions. In turn, it helps students to be critical of the simplistic and narrow understanding of the state about religions as, in Indonesian context, religions are not only the six recognized religions or the eight Prothero talks about in his book, but there are more many, including indigenous religions. Doing research for Indonesian students of religious studies in the future should not therefore be in a hurry to look at other religions using the major, dominant religious paradigm, but carefully study each religion with its own uniqueness.