Paths Up The Mountain

Hello philosophy foosballers! I hope your summer break is going well. Here's some philosophical food for thought as you mow the lawn, drive to work, sip a slurpee, fire up the barbecue, or head to the beach on a sunny day. The topic: religious pluralism. Are all religions just different paths up the same mountain? Or can only one be ultimately true? Is salvation attainable for those outside my religion? Why do so many religions exist? How can I know which is really true? These are questions we ask ourselves sometimes, and Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, thinks they're perennially important and still worth discussing in contemporary Western society. So he has written a new popular book called God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World And Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010).

In a recent interview Prothero says, "The world is furiously religious" and so thinking and talking about religion is still very important, even in our postmodern, secular day and age. In the book's trailer he adds, "It [religion] is something that motivates people militarily, economically, politically. We need to know something about the great religions of the world in order to make sense of the world that we live in." In the interview he goes on to say that the two approaches to comparative religion that dominate our Western society currently -- lumping all religions together and labeling them as bad, as the New Atheists do, or saying that all religions are basically the same, as relativists do -- aren't fair to the world's faiths because these approaches fail to appreciate the important differences between religious traditions.

So what does all this have to do with us? Well, for we philosophically-inclined foosballers, what is important about this book is not its ridiculously long subtitle, but the ideas behind it, i.e., the ongoing philosophical debate about religious pluralism and the current social milieu into which this book is being released. In this book Prothero aims to question some of the dominant assumptions that many people in our society hold about religions. In a culture in which "tolerance" is highly prized, Prothero's book risks being misunderstood as intolerant and narrow-minded, when in fact it is trying to broaden people's thinking by clarifying the debate and fostering constructive interfaith dialogue.

In my mind, this is an issue where philosophy directly intersects with current events, ethics, and the public sphere. Religious pluralism isn't just an idea debated in classrooms. As Prothero points out, what we think about the world's religions will have an impact on how we relate to one another individually and on a societal level: "How do we get along with one another? It's not by pretending we're the same. It's by acknowledging the differences we have and then coming to understand them and respect them." This necessarily involves some careful philosophical thinking and religious literacy (the latter being a topic that Prothero has also written on).

I don't know about you, but I think this book will stir up some much-needed public dialogue about religious pluralism. I hope it will also foster some critical thinking about comparative religion, atheism, and relativism. Anybody thinking about reading Prothero's book this summer? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book, on religious pluralism, or on the dominant way people think about religions today. Is there a certain way of thinking about religious pluralism that you have found helpful? Are there certain points which you feel are often missed in these discussions?

Ok, I'll let you get back to your summer activities now. Happy thinking!

Plantinga retires

Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has retired. Read the full story here.

- Dr. V