The single most insidious modern assumption about religion is probably the conjecture that they’re all identical, that all lead equally to salvation. This supposition confounds secularists, who don’t bother separating conflicting claims, and also religious people, especially Christians who want to resist their religion’s universalist assertions. But as Boston University religious historian Stephen Prothero writes, all religions can’t possibly lead everyone equally to salvation, since salvation is a uniquely Christian claim. All religions aren’t interchangeable.
Contra this feel-good globalism, Prothero posits a need for familiarity with humanity’s many religions. Toward that end, he conducts overall looks at the eight religions he considers most influential in today’s international milieu. (Remember, it’s Prothero’s eight.) The three Abrahamic religions, the four most widespread “Eastern” religions, and the Yoruba tradition, which became global owing to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These eight religions, in distinct ways, exert diverse pressures on politics, economics, and lifestyles daily.
Many outsiders often assume certain transcendent claims describe all religions. Not so, says Prothero. Many precepts absolutely necessary to Christianity, like God or an afterlife, don’t exist in other religions. Some religions, like Confucianism, are entirely this-worldly, while others require some separation from this world, like Buddhism and Daoism. And even seemingly unitary religions like Judaism disagree wildly on important points: not all Jews agree on an afterlife, or even God’s literal or symbolic existence.
Prothero isn’t a theorist. But he postulates a simple heuristic for understanding how religions work: they identify a problem, offer a solution, construct a path to achieve that solution, and offer human or superhuman exemplars of how to follow that path. This theory isn’t airtight—it could apply to the Marine Corps, for instance—but he makes a persuasive case that, to understand various religions’ incompatible claims, we must see them on their own terms.
This text isn’t simple reading. Prothero, a serious scholar, cites many sources, offers occasionally incompatible evidence, and drops so many names, I recommend taking notes. However, if you hope to understand religion as a humane phenomenon, he provides plain-English introductions to world religions which often aren’t explained in ordinary language. And he includes enough source notes to continue self-guided beyond the introductory level. He raises more questions than he answers, but they’re good, important questions.