Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and an accomplished author. He has made a name for himself over the last decade writing about religious illiteracy in America (of our own faiths) and religious ignorance worldwide when it comes to other faith-systems. His latest book is called God is Not One and explores the “eight major world religions” and how they differ from one another. Prothero’s main argument is against those who argue that all the major religions are basically the same below the surface. The goal of his book is to demonstrate that the major world religions are not only different in practice and expression but also in doctrine and worldview. Anyone who has spent significant time reading in the world religions or actually talking to people of different faiths would agree with Prothero’s proposition. The world religions are not the same. They don’t teach the same things about god, about man, about the world, or about hope for the future. Because they have different basic theological views, they have different conclusions about what men and women need to do to experience full life here and forever (if they even have the forever category).
But as Stan Guthrie so eloquently describes in his review of Prothero’s book in Books & Culture, the attempt by a western academic to give equal validity to every religious system (even in the name of education) actually demonstrates the worldview of the writer. This is not surprising (as Guthrie points out) because it really is impossible to write apart from the presuppositions you bring to a discussion. The only way to fairly write about a topic like religion is to explain your presuppositions before you begin. In this way, you are honest that you are not only writing about a topic but you are also evaluating different positions. In an attempt to be fair and unbiased in order to present every religion in the best possible light, the author is actually presenting a western agnostic worldview position. This view says that we should understand all religions, but not critique any religions – that would be intolerant. Of course, this sounds good in theory but is impossible to actually live in.
What I mean is Prothero is advocating a position of educated agnosticism – learn but don’t make value judgments. But people can’t live without making value judgments. We make decisions every day about how we use our time, our money, our energy, our mind, our parenting, our careers, our hobbies, etc. in light of what we actually believe about the world. My point is that objectivity is an illusion. True agnosticism (an epistemological position that says real truth is unknowable) is popular because it allows the individual to deflect commitment to one worldview and seems genuinely humble. But to hold a position that I am above all other worldviews and can therefore see the good in all religions is not actually listening to what the religious systems themselves are saying and is therefore arrogant. The different religious systems are not just different, they are mutually exclusive. You cannot believe God is Trinity (Christianity) and God is Unitary (Islam) at the same time. And you don’t handle either religion fairly to simply explain how these two positions are different while acting like you are on the outside of the discussion. As Guthrie says in his review, the question in discussing religion is not just pragmatics (does this faith system work) but is ontology (is this faith system true in describing what actually is).
I appreciate Prothero’s goal of wanting everyone in the world to be more informed about the differences between world religions. This would especially help in loving our neighbor and in global politics. But we cannot be fair and generous in our description while ignoring our own convictions. To talk about worldview without discussion of our own is to buy into the illusion of objectivity.