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Book review: 'God Is Not One' by Stephen Prothero

June 09, 2010|By Thane Rosenbaum, Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Associated Press )

In an age in which it has become fashionable to demonize those with whom we disagree, there is still a contradictory impulse to remain politically correct. This is particularly true when it comes to religion.

As Stephen Prothero, religion scholar and author of the bestseller "Religious Literacy," reminds us in his latest book, "God Is Not One," all the preaching about tolerance for other religions is necessary because most people believe in God, and social peace is best achieved when all religions are regarded as essentially the same.


FOR THE RECORD:
" God Is Not One" review: A review of Stephen Prothero's book "God Is Not One" in the June 9 Calendar section stated that Prothero says Islamic art has avoided images of Muhammad and has been limited to calligraphy and the Arabic letters of the Koran. The author in fact writes that Islamic art has avoided images of Allah, not Muhammad. —

After all, religions seek similar truths; they just have different ways of getting there. And the world is surely safer when rivals aren't fuming and proclaiming, "Our God is greater than yours."

Yet, Prothero argues that these feel-good, all-inclusive notions of religious parity have imperiled the world by ignoring the clashes among religions, and the idiosyncratic ways in which all religions, in fact, differ. Sameness is admittedly seductive, he says, but the blithe belief that all religions share the same values and want the same things is foolishly romantic and unreal.

"No fair-minded scholar wants to perpetuate stereotypes," Prothero writes, "…[b]ut it is time to grow out of the reflex to defend. After 9/11 and the Holocaust, we need to see the world's religions as they really are — in all their gore and glory."

And how different are they?

Christians regard sin as the problem and see salvation as the solution. Muslims define the problem as pride that can only be conquered by submission. Buddhists seek to overcome suffering while Christians regard suffering as ennobling, which is why Christians aren't trying to achieve nirvana. Buddhists, unlike Christians, aren't looking for salvation since they don't believe in sin. Neither do Confucians. And while Jews and Muslims speak of sin, they are not all that interested in salvation from their sins.

And there's more.

Jews believe in one God, Buddhists believe in no God, Hindus believe in many gods. Christ is regarded as a God among Christians, whereas for Muslims, Muhammad is very much a man who achieved perfection as a prophet, political leader, military general and family patriarch. And when it comes to the diversity in denominations among the world's religions, Christianity is king.

Got all that?

Prothero ranks the world's religions (he limits them to eight) in terms of impact. Yes, Christianity is still the largest, and annual sales of the New Testament in the United States alone total $500 million, but Islam is growing faster, and Prothero makes the case that Muhammad ranks higher than Christ in overall importance.

One thing is for certain: In modern times, Islam is in the news far more often. Just ask the creators of "South Park," who were recently threatened by Islamic extremists. With all the lunacy about death threats to British novelists, Danish cartoonists and now American animators, Prothero explains why Muslims simply won't tolerate any mocking of Muhammad — especially in a visual form. For Christians, the body of Christ as God incarnate has a long history in representational art, but in the 1,400-plus years of Islam as a religion and culture, art has been limited to calligraphy and the Arabic letters of the Koran.

For Muslims who have never seen the image of Muhammad re-created in any form, the depiction of their sacred prophet with a bomb on his head, or wearing a bear suit while stashed away in a U-Haul, reaches a form of desecration worthy of, well, yes, a holy war. Note to counterterrorism specialists and neoconservatives: Muslims, especially those who have submitted themselves, unreservedly, to Islam, are not afraid to die. No other religion has more tantalizingly described the seductions of the afterlife than has Islam.

Yes, killings seem to be commanded in the Koran, but the Bible isn't bloodless, either. Yet, curiously, suicide is prohibited under the Koran, and so is mass murder. Suicide bombers have obviously gone a la carte when it comes to Koranic teachings. And jihad has as much to do with the inner struggle to submit to Islam as it does with a holy war.

Throughout this enormously timely, thoughtful and balanced book, Prothero fears a world blinded to the consequences of religious ecstasy, but he is also mindful that religions have been forces for good as well, and that science has shown there to be evolutionary benefits that come from religion: Indeed, belief and practice may be fundamentally human.

It is in this way that Prothero debunks not only the fallacy of religious sameness, but also the "New Atheists" who have, lately, become so pervasive and culturally relevant. Atheism can take on its own religion, one dedicated entirely to disparaging the god-fearing, and, in doing so, become as nasty, hostile and ill-informed as the religious fanatics they so thoroughly condemn.

calendar@latimes.com

Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor whose books include the novel "The Golems of Gotham."

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