Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Like Easter in Mecca

Stephen Prothero has advanced the provocative thesis that behind the cosmetic differences of the various world religions lie consequential differences:

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.

So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.
I am with Susan Jacoby in chafing at the word folk when used this way, and with LarryNiven in objecting to the weird inclusion of Hamlet amid all these religions.

As Prothero is not standing on a rickety front porch thumbing his overalls whilst dispensing good ol' boy banter, folk is a distracting affectation. And since he seems a little at sea on this point, I'll note that Hamlet is a play, not a faith tradition, devotional practice, or body of rituals. He never gets to explaining why Hamlet makes his list, so I suspect him of aiming for the tired tu quoque that counts modernist humanism -- its scripture being, of course, Hamlet(??!) -- as just another religion. Hamlet is not scripture and Shakespeare is not its prophet, m'kay?

So much for cavils, at least for now. I do think there is something worth salvaging in his remarks, especially these:
We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. False rumors of weapons of mass destruction doubtless led the United States to wade into its current quagmire in Iraq. Another factor, however, was our ignorance of the fundamental disagreements between Christians and Muslims, on the one hand, and Sunni and Shia Islam, on the other. What if we had been aware of these conflicts as of 9/11? Would we have committed 160,000 troops to a nation whose language we do not speak and whose religion we do not understand?
Apparently Prothero is as new to contemporary American politics as he is to literary history if he really thinks a clearer understanding of comparative theology would have altered the Bush-Cheney junta's march to Iraq, but as I say, he does have something of a point here: a better-informed executive branch -- better-informed about world religions and much else -- might have blundered less stupidly into the high-stakes sectarian mosh pit of Iraq. Or not. It may be that oil outranks theology, history, diplomacy, and other facets of truth in the scheme of geopolitics, but there I go stepping into unspeakably troop-hating, flag-soiling, baby-Jesus-saddening heresies.

Prothero is right: it sounds inclusive, tolerant, high-minded, and well-meaning to say that all religions are paths to the same lofty destination (enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, righteousness, super powers, whatever). However it strikes the ears or indulges the hopes, it is false. Religions differ in cosmetics because they differ in substance (inasmuch as there is substance to them).

If Prothero's testimony is not convincing -- and for all my cavils, I think it's undeniable -- just take a quick look at the history of really-existing interfaith relations. Or consider relocating the Hajj to the Vatican the next time it overlaps with Christmas, or the idea of the Pope organizing a huge Easter Mass in Mecca, or the prospect of "Hindu Day" at the Wailing Wall during Yom Kippur.

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