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God is Not One

It’s easy to say that all religions are one. It’s easy to say that we all believe in the same God. It’s easy to say that we all want to be in Heaven. It’s also false, argues Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero in his new book, God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne: 2010).

Unlike the William Blakes, Mohandas Gandhis, Huston Smiths, and Karen Armstrongs of the world, Dr. Prothero says that the essence of each religion is profoundly different.

What religions do have in common is a conviction that there is something wrong with the world. For Christianity, the problem is sin. For Islam, it is pride. For Buddhism, it is suffering. For Judaism, it is evil.

Each religion offers a solution to what ails the world. In Christianity, the solution to sin is faith in Christ, which brings individual salvation to Heaven. In Islam, the solution is submission to Allah, which brings paradise. In Buddhism, the solution is awareness, which brings nirvana. In Judaism, the solution is God’s law, which brings justice in this world.

Each religion offers a technique for moving from problem to solution. In Christianity, it is faith and good works. In Islam, it is the five pillars (submission to Allah, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage). In Buddhism, it is the Noble Eightfold Path (which includes meditation and chanting). In Judaism, it is practice of God’s Law (including the laws of the Sabbath, diet, and sex).

Each religion offers examples of how to live. Seventh-Day Adventism has Ellen G. White. Islam has Mohammed. Buddhism has the Buddha. Judaism has Moses.

Each religion has sacred texts but the texts play completely different roles in each of them. Hindus have the Vedas, but few Hindus care about their contents. Protestants believe in sola scriptura but no other religion has this “the Bible and the Bible only shall be our creed” dogma.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam affirm belief in one God but followers of the Buddha and of Confucius have no such belief while Hindus worship thousands of gods.

In my 44 years on earth, I’ve frequently found that what is of vital significance to me is of no interest to those around me. For instance, I might want to watch the ball game alone in bed while my girlfriend might want me to go to a movie with her. I might want to read while she wants me to dine with her relatives. I might want to stay home all day to blog while she wants me to get a job.

So too with religion. While the theme of salvation from sin is central to Christianity, it is absent from all other religions. Yes, Judaism and Islam, for instance, believe in sin, but not as this vast existential burden we’re born with and are unable to conquer. In Christianity “sin” often means “defiance of the Lord.” By contrast, the Hebrew word for sin, aviary, means “missing the mark.” Thus, in Judaism, there is no need for an other-worldly savior to die on a cross to rescue one from missing the mark.

Dr. Prothero writes: “When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation. Only Christians seek salvation.”

  “If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ. But that will not settle as much as you think, because the real question is not which religion is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. Should we be trudging toward the end zone of salvation, or trying to reach the finish line of social harmony? Should our goal be reincarnation? Or escape from the vicious cycle of life, death and rebirth?” (Pg. 21-22)

Different religions are good at different things. If you need assurance of your place in Heaven, then Christianity – and only Christianity – can deliver that to you in an instant.

If you want to govern as much of this world as you can, then Islam is best. While Christianity says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Islam makes no such division. Its founder was a great political and military leader.

In The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History: Revised and Updated Revision (Citadel, 2000), Michael H. Hart placed Muhammad at number one, with Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Confucius following him in this order. He explained that Mohammed “was the only man in history who was extremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.”

Though Christianity has almost twice as many followers as Islam, Muhammad accomplished more in this world for his religion. While Jesus left behind no writings, Muhammad left the Koran. While Jesus died on a cross, Muhammad conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. While Jesus led twelve disciples, Muhammad ruled tens of thousands. While Jesus had no wives and no children, Muhammad had nine wives and countless children.

If you want to influence the world rather than to rule it, then you’ll want to be Jewish. All world-transforming movements have come from the Jews, be they Christianity, Islam, communism, socialism, the greens, labor, feminism and peace. But If you just want to quiet your mind through physical movement, then yoga is the gift of Hinduism.

Editor’s Questions

  1. If different religions are good at different things, would it make sense to belong to more than one of them?
  2. Is it also true also that the different denominations within one religion are also good at different things?
  3. What is Roman Catholicism especially good and not-so-good at? Methodism? Quakerism? Pentecostalism? Presbyterianism?
  4. What about Seventh-day Adventism?
  5. If different religions are good at different things, is there any standard by which tell which religions are better or worse overall? Or are they all equally valid and valuable?

Luke Ford lives in Los Angeles and blogs about religion, entertainment and politics at He has been interviewed by publications such as USA Today, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News. He has also been interviewed on television by 60 Minutes, Entertainment Tonight, Fox Files, KNBC News and ABC News.

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