I listened today to an interview with Stephen Prothero, which outlined the argument in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World-and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University, and he certainly brings some heft to this argument. Not having read the book, but listening to his talking points in interview and discussion, he seems to have a problem as an empirical matter with the contention regularly made in interfaith circles that all religions fundamentally point to the same truth. The metaphor that Houston Smith used whereby religions are separate paths to the same mountain top is referred to repeatedly. Prothero suggests that this universalistic model denies the deep reality of sectarian difference in belief, practice and outlook, and tends to be favored by those of liberal bent at ease with multiculturalism. He also notes that the foundation of common unity can be traced back to the perennial philosophy. This philosophy lay at the heart of the Traditionalist School, of which Smith was arguably a member, as was Julius Evola. So the tendency that Prothero is putting into focus is not necessarily associated with liberalism, though in the American context it is because of the Right’s capture by low church anti-elitist elements.
An illustration of the problems which crop up when those of distinctive religions attempt to find common ground is that that commonality is often generated through an exclusion of an out group. Jews, Muslims and Christians all worship the God of Abraham. But of course Buddhists find the God of Abraham irrelevant to the central questions of religion. Prothero also observes that liberal universalism tends to put a premium on elite mysticism, a mode of religiosity which is notable for transcendence of sectarian distinctions. But the much more common mode of religious life is that of plain believers who take distinctive beliefs and practices rather seriously. Pragmatically this sort of consideration is critical when assessing whether a Sunni vs. Shia distinction will have any importance. At the level of Sufi mystics these distinctions may melt away, but the rest of humanity is still something one must consider if one is a more prosaic sort who does not expect to actively gain salvation before death.
And it is at the level of the rest of humanity that I think Prothero’s own methodological orientation may cause problems in interpreting the world as it is. From what I can tell he operates out of the framework of Religious Studies (which coincidentally in the United States was shaped by Mircea Eliade, who was strongly influenced by Traditionalism). Too often it seems to me that scholars out of this tradition operate as if religion is a concrete entity, distinct and unique, as opposed to being an emergent property of normal aspects of culture and cognition. It is scientists who start from a naturalistic perspective who I think can take a final step back, and see religion as but a piece of the painting. Prothero is correct obviously that adherents of different religions view themselves as distinct, as following different truths. Fundamentalist Christians are liable to dismiss Allah as an Arab pagan divinity, or even a demon, despite the widely held belief by many that Allah is simply a different name for the God of the Christians. But what if you don’t believe that gods exist except in the minds of believers? Then whether as a practical fact Allah and the Christian God Allah or Lord Buddha are distinct beings rests in large part on whether humans conceptualize them differently. It turns out that in general they do not. In other words religious believers tend to conceive of their supernatural agents very similarly, whose traits are rather interchangeable, with the main difference being semantic. The book Theological Incorrectness cites a wide range of literature in this area, with a particular reference to the religious landscape of Sri Lanka.
The disjunction between assertions and sincere beliefs of deep difference, and the reality that cognitively there’s little gap at all, shouldn’t be too surprising. Promiscuity of belief has been relatively normal for much of human history, as was evident in the pre-Christian Roman Empire, or is evident in Japan or China. The exclusive tribal aspect of Islam and Christianity combined with their universal ambitions are somewhat atypical, though this suite of characters has been highly successful in propagating itself. Additionally, religion is more than simply belief, it is about communal rituals and belonging, and the daily regularity of banal practices and customs. Prothero is correct that acknowledging the deep differences are important, but I believe to a great extent he is wrong as to what those differences are. That Buddhism emphasizes suffering while Christianity emphasizes sin is not particularly significant unless you’re a Buddhist or a Christian, and even then most Christians have no idea what soteriology means for example. Beliefs are shallow markers to group affiliations, not deeply held axioms which serve as starting lines for chains of inference. Religious elites construct many distinctive aspects of their brand, but it is the functional components which are essential in furthering community and human flourishing.
I think the Shia-Sunni split which Stephen Prothero gives as an example of the need to understand the depths of difference is a good case of how beliefs may be secondary. The division here began originally as a political dispute, whereby the partisans of Ali and his family dissented from the decisions of the Muslim majority in the succession to the position of Caliph. Over the centuries these partisans evolved into the Shia faction, while those who were not Shia or other assorted sectarians become Sunni. Some distinctions of practice and belief did arise across this divide, but in general those distinctions evolved after the original political division (because the Shia party was decentralized they have preserved more of the theological diversity of early Islam than the Sunnis).
On a deep level Huston Smith was right. Human psychology is universal, so human intuitions about supernatural aspects of the world exhibit deep commonality and intelligibility. But it really doesn’t matter, human tribalism is also a universal, and it co-opts these religious intuitions into its service. The fact that both tribes don tattoos does not elicit in them an appreciation of the universality of these sorts of markers, the importance of belonging. Rather, the markers often separate those who are your brothers, and those who you wish to kill. In other words, what you believe may matter less than what you believe about what you believe.