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Stephen Prothero, God is Not One; The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 388pp.Stephen Prothero, God is Not One; The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 388pp.

           In his book World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), David Barrett identifies 10,000 distinct religions, 150 of which have a million or more followers. Many people today believe that these 10,000 distinct religions pretty much all teach the same thing. Although it's not fashionable to say so, give Stephen Prothero lots of credit for calling this bluff. To argue that all religions teach the same thing is patently false; that's precisely what they don't do: "This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue."

           Prothero wants to exchange this "miracle of the imagination" for a hard-headed realism. "What the world's religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point." They all agree that something is wrong with our world. Just what is wrong with the world, and what will make it right, are subjects of wide diversity in the world religions, and even vast differences within a single religion. After a brief introduction, Prothero devotes one chapter each to what he calls the "great" religions of the world. He even presents the chapters in order of their "greatness" — Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, Daoism, and then a short but helpful "Coda on Atheism." By the end of the book it's clear how much the eight religions diverge in what they teach and prescribe.

           Prothero admits that much is missing here by limiting himself to eight religions (eg, nothing on Sikhism and its 25 million adherents). I found it curious that he felt compelled to "rank" and then present the religions in order of their "greatness." His style is at times overly casual, as when he describes Anne Boleyn as a "hot young thing." My biggest disappointment, though, is that his book does not explore the point raised in his introduction about how deeply religions diverge. Instead, it's a solid and reliable overview of eight major religions, much like you can get in many other books.

           If it's not true that "all religions are beautiful and true," how do we identify those that are ugly and false? Do those that practice child sacrifice or mass suicide deserve equal respect? I appreciated Prothero's insistence that religions do not teach the same thing, but I kept sensing that in his view this didn't ultimately matter. Maybe all the religions are false, but it's hard to see how they can all be true. I sensed in Prothero a pluralism that demands a radically egalitarian perspective that grants parity and equal validity to all religions, even though this seems to be what he denies in his introduction and conclusion. Do differences matter or not?! Perhaps this question was not his purpose, but I would love to see him devote his considerable talent toward that obvious question in a subsequent book.

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