Friday, July 06, 2007


I must be religiously illiterate.

Steven Prothero, author of Religious Literacy and chair of Boston University's religion department had an article in the July 2-9 issue of Newsweek. It was part of a true/false series of articles, and his was "True or False: the Major Religions are all Alike." Answer: False.

I was appalled.

Now, it isn't that I think the answer should be True, though if I were on a debate team I think I could defend that point. I'm appalled at the whole idea that someone with any depth of understanding in religion would answer the question either way. Even though I've never been Jewish, I somehow acquired an Inner Rabbi who answers questions with questions. And if there was ever a time to let him out, this is it. The right answer to "Are the major religions all alike?" is "Why are you asking?"

Anytime you look at another person, you can see either similarity or difference. Focusing on one or the other is a choice. Are you like Gandhi? Of course you are, and of course you aren't. Are you like Hitler? Same thing. Why are you asking?

Either choice -- similarity or difference -- can be used to enrich our understanding of the other person or diminish it. Which one am I trying to do? Am I focusing on similarity so that I can have a deeper sense of compassion, so that I can imagine the other person's motives in the rich, full way that I imagine my own? Or am I doing it to deny other people their separate identities, reject their uniqueness, and make their point of view go away? It makes a difference.

Conversely, I can pay attention to differences in order to envision other people more fully and treat them better. (I like cheeseburgers, but my Hindu friend is offended by them -- don't offer him one.) Or I can do it in order to demonize them, to project Evil onto them and claim Good for myself.

And you can't answer this question without noticing that the subtext of any discussion of Major Religions these days is the Western Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. And the subtext of any Christianity/Islam discussion is Iraq.

The Bush administration's rhetoric includes both similarity and difference, but uses both of them to diminish our vision of the Iraqis rather than enrich it. The Good Iraqis are just like us: They want freedom and democracy and capitalism just like we have in America, and they trust American motives the same way we do. The Bad Iraqis are totally other: They hate freedom and they love death -- their own or anybody else's.

So, Dr. Prothero, what if it's President Bush coming to you and asking: "Are all major religions the same?" Do you want to say True and reinforce the notion that the Good Iraqis are just like us? Or do you want to say False and endorse the idea that the Bad Iraqis are totally other?

Or do you want to push back and say: "Why are you asking?"


PeaceBang said...

But come on! If it's not divisive, we can't read it and feel smugly superior from the position of "our" side! (whatever that side is)
And then how can Newsweek sell lots of issues?


That said, I need to read the article. Because I'm interested to know if it debunks the happy-clappy pre 9/11 fantasy that all religions are essentially the same -- a fantasy perpetuated, I'm afraid, by small-u universalism.

Robin Edgar said...

and narrow-minded fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins and "like-minded" big-U U*U "Humanists". . .

Doug Muder said...

PB: I don't have a legit link, but a guy at Street Prophets reprinted the whole thing here. It does pretty much what you're hoping it will, though I don't think it does it very well.

Anonymous said...

"I somehow acquired an Inner Rabbi who answers questions with questions."

Inner Rabbi?

I thought the Irish did that too. They never just give a straight answer to anything. LOL