by Stephen Prothero,
Harper Collins 2010
Prothero, a professor of comparative religion at Boston University, wrote this book to refute the meme that at their heart all religions are the same at the core. He rightly points out that no one thinks difference political or economic systems are the same, i.e. capitalism vs. socialism or democracy vs. dictatorship. The approach he takes is to analyze eight major religions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Yoruba religion of Africa, Judaism and Daoism. Christianity is still the largest religion, in terms of the number of followers, but Islam is the fastest-growing religion, so it gets top billing.
Prothero discusses each religion in some detail. Most interesting to me was the way he identifies what each one sees as the central problem of human existence and the solution to the problem. These range from Christianity's emphasis on individual sin and salvation to Confucianism's insistence that the problem is chaos and the solution is order and social harmony. Here are the problems and solutions in brief, as I understood them:
Islam sees the problem as one of pride and self-sufficiency and the solution is submission to Allah
Christianity sees the problem as sin and salvation is the solution
Confucianism sees chaos as the problem and order and social harmony as the solution.
Hinduism sees the problem in the vicious cycle of death and rebirth; the solution is to find release from the wheel of karma, i.e. spiritual liberation
For Buddhism, the problem is suffering and the solution is escape via the Noble Eightfold Path. As Prothero says, "One of the distinguishing marks of the Buddhist tradition is its emphasis on experience over belief."
Yoruba, which also believes in reincarnation, identifies the problem as forgetfulness of one's destined purpose and the solution is remembering, i.e. recovering our destiny.
Judaism sees the problem as exile (distance from God) and the solution as return. This can mean going back to God or, more literally, the return to the Holy Land.
Daoism sees the problem as lifelessness and constraint as the problem and the solution is to live life to the fullest in harmony with the Dao.
In reading the book, it became clear that these religions disagree not only on the central problem of being human, but on such profound philosophical ideas as the nature of God, even the number of gods, the soul (if it exists) and the promise of an afterlife and what form it might take.
I think Prothero made his point that rather than focusing on the commonality of religions, we should explore and understand the differences. Only then can we be tolerant. I found the book readable and fascinating and I think it's a good introduction to world religions. Highly recommended.
I bought the Kindle version and read it on my new iPad, but it's also available in hard cover and your library may own a copy.
Click icon for more book review blogs @Barrie Summy