A couple summers ago I quickly devoured Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – And Why Their Differences Matter.
Prothero’s thesis, is that despite the best wishes of those beholden to the Perennial Philosophy, the world’s religions don’t all teach the same things or worship the same god beneath the surface. Belief in the unity of all religions is just that, it is a re-imagining of these religions as the Perennial Philosophers would like them to be, and not a description of what they actually are.
To investigate these eight religions, Prothero interrogates them with four questions: (1) what’s the problem? (2) what’s the solution? (3) how do we get from problem to solution? (4) who are some exemplars of this path?
Christians would answer these questions: (1) sin (2) salvation through Christ (3) faith and good works (4) the great saints of the church. A Buddhist would answer these questions: (1) suffering (2) nirvana (3) the Noble Eightfold Path (4) arhats, bodhisattavas, or lamas.
As this comparison makes clear, Christians and Buddhists aren’t just different embodiments of the same human response to the “divine” as the Perennial Philosophers say, they are different diagnoses of the deepest problem of humanity and how it can be solved.
Prothero’s four questions are quite useful. But there is one major problem he never addresses satisfactorily: what is a religion?
As the above comparison makes clear, Christianity and Buddhism are vastly different, so different in fact, that it is a wonder what purpose is served by lumping them into the same general category of “religion.” In the West we’re quite comfortable with this language, religion is a category that is distinct from economics and politics, etc. But this categorization of religion itself has a history, and is it acceptable to impose this history on all the worlds “religions”?
My thoughts on this have been stimulated by reading William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. In this work Cavanaugh demonstrates persuasively that the label “religion” only arose with the Enlightenment and was part of shifting power dynamics where emerging nation states sought to marginalize any other institution – like the church – that could lay claim to people’s ultimate loyalties. As the state sought to monopolize its coercive power, it created the sacred/secular, private/public divide, inventing the category of religion where rival institutions and allegiances could be located, marginalized, and controlled. Religion becomes a matter of the heart and conscience, free from the church’s or state’s coercive power, but also devoid of any public legitimacy. You are free to believe whatever you’d like – extreme religious liberty – but you’re not free to bring these beliefs into the public square – thus emptying these beliefs of any power to challenge the legitimacy of the state. The emergence of the category of religion isn’t simply a neutral description of the way the world is, it is part of re-imagining the world as some would like it to be.
The challenge with defining religion is that it seems nearly impossible to come up with a definition that will include all the things that those doing the defining want to include – like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Native American Spirituality, Confucianism Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. – while excluding the things that they don’t want to include – like nationalism, Marxism, secularism, materialism, free market capitalism. Why is Christianity a religion while Marxism is not? There seems to be no good reason for this, other than a desire to marginalize what is being deemed a religion and locate it within a private realm where the extent of its expression and influence can be legally circumscribed.
When it comes to defining religion, challenges abound. If you make it about beliefs in a God or gods, you exclude many forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. If you make it about beliefs and practices oriented around the transcendent, the definition becomes so fuzzy it is completely unclear why many so-called secular ideologies would be excluded from analysis under the rubric of religion.
The great weakness of Prothero’s book is that he wants to describe the Eight Great Religions that Run the World, but why he doesn’t include Free Market Capitalism and various nationalisms in this analysis is entirely unclear and seems completely unwarranted. Yes, Islamic terrorists kill scores of people every year, but how many people have died under the North Korean regime and its cult of personality which threatens nuclear conflict with the West? Yes, a billion Christians celebrate Christmas, but far more people fill shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving for the capitalist high holiday of Black Friday, than darken the doors of a church on Christmas. Why shouldn’t the North Korean regime and capitalism be analyzed as some of the world’s “greatest” (meaning most influential) religions?
Prothero assumes too much when he uses the term religion. But he himself knows that this is such a slippery category with a complex history itself, that he is completely unjustified in not starting the book – even one written for a popular audience – with a discussion of these issues. Prothero states: “religion is one of the greatest forces of evil in world history” (9). This could be true, but with all the problems around defining “religion” how is that even a meaningful statement? Replace the world “religion” in that sentence with politics, economics, or war and it becomes clear that discerning just what religion is and what role it has had in the evils of world history is something that can’t simply be asserted, but must be argued.
Prothero’s definition of religion is functionalist, his is no quest to find the essence of religion in something like the transcendent. Instead, he classifies religions as things that share several family characteristics of ritual, narrative, experience, institutions, ethics, doctrine, and material (13). These may well be useful for helping to categorize religions. But again, this list would in no way exclude things that Prothero doesn’t include in the book like American Nationalism, Maoism, or Free Market Capitalism. All of these are incredibly powerful ideologies, much more powerful and ubiquitous than Yourba religion which he treats in a full chapter. The exclusion of these potential religions from analysis as religions is part of Prothero participating in re-imagining the world from the perspective of the Enlightenment. Religions are strange phenomena that we must struggle to understand, but other ideological arrangements are just the way things are, and not subject to analysis as religions that would call their inevitability into question and thus threaten power arrangements within society and the academy from which Prothero writes.
Prothero is right: God is not one. There is no common core undergirding all of the world’s ideological systems that if we could just uncover we would all live in peace and harmony. But Prothero himself is situated within an ideology, one that allows him to identify and analyze things called religions, which he claims “run the world” when in reality it is his ideological location – within the Western academy and its liberal democracy, free market capitalism, Enlightenment rationalism – that runs the world and seeks to re-imagine it in its own image.