A few weeks ago I read an interview with the author of this book and that intrigued me enough to make this the first purchase through Apple’s iBooks application on my iPhone. During this last weekend’s dive trip, and I had enough free time to spend educating (and re-educating) myself on the world’s greatest religions. Stephen Prothero is a religious studies professor, and this book comes across as a basic college 101 survey course, albeit one that does have a thesis: that it is a mistake for people to claim that all religions are basically the same. Through chapters on Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Yoruba, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Daoism, Prothero challenges you to question your perceptions of what you think religion is, what people want from it and what they believe that get from it, and how that works in a world where any two people who meet on the street will very likely have incredibly different viewpoints, even if they grew up in the same time and same place. (I hold this truth to be self-evident, given recent experiences reconnecting to family and high school friends on Facebook.)
This is no self-help book. The goal here is not to provide a menu of religions so you can choose one to feast on for the rest of your life. Instead, it’s the classic college assignment of compare/contrast, and in every case Prothero does a great job of doing so, and doing so in the context of each religion. That is, he uses the terms of the religion itself when doing the contrasting, rather than always comparing with his own upbringing.
Prothero does insert himself in the book, and it is better for it. It’s important to know that he was raised in the Christian tradition, but also to know that he’s attended Seders and has friends and colleagues in all these fields. His goal, beyond the thesis, is that by understanding the beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case may be) of others, you are better suited to get along with them, and it certainly seems like he is a model example of this.
I come away from this book with as many questions as I went in, albeit ones that are different and more nuanced, more than likely. For one, I’m not sure that it is entirely possible that all these religions can co-exist peaceably, at least not under traditions that proselytize and seek converts, or where zealots seek to modify others’ behavior based on their religious convictions. In this sense I do side with the New Atheists who feel that by allowing religion to enter the public, political realm is a clear and present danger. But Prothero is spot on to point to New Atheists being as starkly fundamentalist as the worst of any of the extreme wings of any of the religions, and that’s enough to give anyone pause about their statements and goals.
This was the first book that I have read completely on my iPhone, and I very much enjoyed the experience. I didn’t use the ability to make notes on the text outside of marking one typo, but I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that feature in the future. One time I did “lose my place” in the book, but finding where I was again was as easy as with the paper version.
[Finished 6 July 2010]