Published in 2007, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, argues that most citizens of the United State are woefully illiterate about the world’s religions, to their own detriment. God is Not One is his latest contribution to remedy this ignorance, a survey text that drives a basic point countering a prevailing notion set forth by various writers, philosophers and religious leaders (among them William Blake, Huston Smith and Mohandas Gandhi)—that is, all religions are not basically the same. Prothero does not examine this idea by raising some obvious questions, such as if all religions are the same, why learn more than one? Isn’t the religion I was born into and nominally observe (perhaps) good enough? Yet, he does proceed to challenge this idea, and unfolds the major world religions in all their complexity. Prothero’s charge is to exhort individuals to examine religions in their own particular detail and location, particularly through religious adherents and their practices. “We need to understand religious people as they are—not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.” (pg. 7)
The text consists of nine chapters, surveying different religious traditions according to what he interprets as their current impact and influence on global affairs. Islam is considered first, followed by Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism. Buddhism begins the bottom half of religions considered, followed by Yoruba, Judaism and Daoism. A final chapter considers the atheism movement and its own religious tendencies. There is not great depth here; the reader is taken through these religious beliefs and practices in bob-sled like speed. For example, the “core practices” of the five pillars of Islam are explained in four paragraphs (pg. 33-34); the section on “jihad” is given two pages, and it comes before treatment of “Allah”, “Muhammed” and the “Quran” consisting of a total of twelve pages.
The chapters on these nine world religions (and he does determine that proponents of atheism participate in a “religion of sorts” pg. 318) are sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion articulating his main purpose—to educate and inform the reader of the complexity of world religious traditions. In addition to this purpose, Prothero outlines a simple framework through which to analyze each religious tradition. Each religion manifests four approaches to the world: a problem, a solution, a technique to traverse from problem to solution, and exemplars who have navigated this movement. Prothero suggests that this simple outline can benefit the novice explorer of religious systems, but care must be taken with such a schema, as comparisons will inevitably occur. According to Prothero, such comparisons serve his point—clear differences between religions are revealed, bolstering religious literacy.
One of Prothero’s major objectives is to implore individuals to understand the rich complexity of religions and religious individuals, and to begin to engage each as diverse or as individuals, where beliefs and practices are rooted in divergent visions and traditions. This knowledge, according to Prothero, puts us in a position of humility. “When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. Far more powerful is the reminder that any genuine belief in what we call God should humble us, remind us that, if there really is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most. This much, at least, is shared across the great religions.
God is Not One could serve as a companion text in a survey course on World Religions, or Introduction to Religious Studies course, although, there is scant attention paid to religious theorists or analysis. Thirty pages of end-notes are included, along with a thirteen page index.