Category Archives: Other Religions

The Illusion of Objectivity

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.

Book Review: What Hath God Wrought (5/5)

Daniel Howe’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of antebellum America (pre-Civil War) is a massive read (850 pages) which took me three months of periodic reading to complete. I started off strong, pushing through 300 pages in a couple weeks, but then took time off as my interests turned to other books. However, each time I came back, I immediately jumped back in to the story line and got lost in the history.

Howe’s work is so helpful and impressive for three different reasons.

First, this work is one of the best researched history books I have ever read available for a popular audience. Each page is meticulously footnoted to show Howe’s sources, and the book ends (after 850 pages) with another 50 page bibliographical essay where he interacts with sources at a critical level. This may be one reason that this book took me so long to read – every page has three or four footnotes with insight from Howe into their usefulness in studying that topic. In topics that especially interested me, I found myself looking through Amazon for his footnoted resources. The span of this book is massive (covering 1815 to 1848), and the amount of research available on this period is overwhelming. If you want to get your arms around this little-known period of American history, start with Howe’s book.

Second, and seemingly contradictory to my first point, Howe’s book is extremely readable. I have read many history books over the years and while some have mastered the facts of their era, they have obviously not mastered the English language. Howe’s book is unique in his ability to not only master the relevant information (see point 1), but his ability to make the history come alive on paper. I appreciated that Howe’s was not uncritical in his approach to the period, giving his opinions along the way. I know that historians are supposed to just give the facts and not share their personal views, but in reality this is impossible to do and makes history extremely boring to read. Howe walks the line well between telling the story and analyzing the story. With so much up-heaval during this period, he has plenty of material to work with.

Finally, I appreciated Howe’s work because of the significant space he committed to discuss the impact of and changes in the religious fabric of American life. I have rarely interacted with a scholar of Howe’s pedigree who is so conversant in religious history. He gives several chapters to looking at the impact of the Second Great Awakening (occurred during these years) and the impact of religious creativity (Mormonism and other sects were born during these years) on American culture. It would have been easy to write about this period simply from a political perspective, covering the great expansion of the United States, the interesting presidential elections, and American involvement in war. Instead, Howe gives us the street-level view of life and especially of religious life.

In closing, please note that this book is one volume in a series of American history books called The Oxford History of the United States, where each volume is written by a different author. The only other work in the series that I have read is James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, the history of the Civil-War (the book picks up right after Howe’s ends). McPherson’s work is also amazing in it scope, though the number of years it covers is less because the details of the Civil War take up so much space. I currently have another volume from this series on my nightstand called Freedom from Fear, the story of America in depression and war (1929-1945). I really want to read it (to see the parallels with our economy today), but I’m working myself up to starting another 800+ page book on American history.