I found God is Not One mildly interesting, but not especially compelling. The main substance of the book is eight chapters describing in some depth the eight great world religions: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism, with an additional shorter “coda” on atheism. In the introduction and conclusion Prothero argues that these religions are not in fact all the same or striving towards the same thing, and that the way to live with diversity is to better understand it in all its glory.
I understand and agree for the most part with Prothero’s argument that the religions are not all the same, but I don’t think I ever particularly thought they were all the same, so I didn’t especially need convincing on this point. Prothero’s framework for describing the religions is this idea that each religion views some problem with the world and presents a solution; for example, Christianity views the problem as sin and the solution as salvation. I found this to be a rather simplistic perspective (which he does in fact admit himself) and, more significantly, not very useful in helping me better understand religion. Reading descriptions of the practices and beliefs of each religion is all well and good, but I don’t feel that I actually understand religious people any better now. Prothero’s descriptions of the religions were certainly thorough, but I found them a bit dry and abstract. I agree wholeheartedly that in order to peacefully coexist with people different from ourselves, we need to understand their context, including their religious context, but I don’t think that the knowledge I gained from God is Not One is sufficient for this. After all, each individual is different and unique in how they personally interpret, understand, and practice their religion, and therefore the only true way to gain understanding is to get to know individual people and hear their personal perspectives and experiences with their religion.
I additionally did not particularly like Prothero’s chapter on atheism. For one thing, he claims it is a religion, and for another, he spent the majority of the chapter on the “New Atheists” who are quite stringently anti-religious and very likely do not represent the majority of atheists. Overall, the chapter demonstrated to me a lack of understanding on Prothero’s part as to what it really means to be an atheist.
Through-out my reading of the book, I was reminded of a quote by F. Forrester Church that I read in another book: “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” For me, this quote does far more towards helping me understand religion than all of God is Not One. I finished this book realizing that what I really wanted to understand is the psychology of religion – how it is that so many people believe things that, to me, seem completely wacko. With this in mind, I went to the library today and found a book titled The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse. His premise is that there is in fact a distinction between religion and belief (which would mean my earlier sentence is incorrectly conflating religion and belief), and I look forward to reading what he has to say.