Sunday, May 9, 2010


In Córdoba, Spain you'll find a roman catholic cathedral called the Mezquita (Spanish for "mosque"). The mosque-turned-cathedral was once a roman temple; that is, before it was a Visigoth church. After a few double takes at the minaret-bell tower, you may be inclined, as I was, to mutter something like: "oh, religions...aren't they all essentially the same thing?" And it would be exactly this sentiment that BU professor Stephen Prothero condemns as wholly mistaken (and quite dangerous)

In his recent article, Prothero describes what he sees as a pervasive notion of religion that "resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture." It's the notion that, when you get down to it, religions are just different paths to the same truth. But he warns that this is false (there are significant differences between religions that can't be glossed over), condescending (denying these differences is just like saying they don't matter) and a threat (only by taking religious differences seriously can we understand the religious conflicts that plague the world).
This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.
I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.
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. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. 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.

I think Prothero raises a good point denial of religious differences may be comforting, but it moves from naive to pernicious when it leads to overlooking real problems or incorrectly analyzing a situation. More importantly, any kind of religious "lumping" (favorable or otherwise) skims right over the real complexities and nuances of the various beliefs, doctrines, rituals, social interactions, and institutions that we already lump together in the term "religion."  

Nevertheless, I still think there is a value in emphasizing religious similarities call me guilty of being drawn to that "reimagination" of the world. Maybe it's possible to reimagine, un-naively...

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