Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions, by Stephen Prothero

Robert A. Segal questions the assumptions behind a wide-ranging survey of world religions

August 27, 2020
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This book could scarcely be more reader-friendly. It is written pellucidly and contains an almost endless number of charts, maps, vignettes and lists of terms. The colour is so splashy that I would not recommend it to the colour-blind.

Stephen Prothero, a well-known populariser who teaches at Boston University, discusses nine religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Daoism and Navaho Religion. He has a final chapter on atheism. He classifies the first three as religions of “release”, the next three as religions of “repair” and the last three as religions of “reversion”. Religions of release seek escape from the present world to a better one. Religions of repair seek to undo the damage done by past and present practitioners. Religions of reversion seek to return to a pristine age of long ago.

Prothero concentrates on religions as living. He writes about contemporary adherents, though he also discusses founders. He emphasises changes in practices and, though less centrally, in beliefs. Indeed, he distinguishes his approach to religion from that of others by his stress on practice rather than on belief, which he considers especially Protestant. (That the greatest modern theorist of religion, the staunchly Protestant William Robertson Smith, made his name by deeming at least ancient and “primitive” religions ones of practice rather than of belief seems to have escaped him.)

The author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions Which Run the World (2010), Prothero vigorously asserts that religions are all different and that taking them as one, for which he wrongly uses the term “perennialism”, is simplistic. But nobody maintains that all religions are the same. What is maintained is that all religions are similar – and sufficiently similar to be categorised as religions and explained similarly. Even if one is interested in what makes the French Revolution French, one can do so only by first figuring out what makes it a revolution. Prothero does not even try to find a common explanation for all religions.

When Prothero objects to the “essentialising” of religions, he is misusing the concept, which is not about finding commonalities across all religions but about finding the metaphysical heart of them. Scholars who generalise about religion are not essentialising it. They are proposing important similarities but not anything philosophical.

The title of the book is also misleading. Religion matters, we are told, because there remain so many societies that are religious. The vaunted process of secularisation, which goes back at least to Marx, has occurred in certain countries in Europe but not worldwide, and certainly not in the United States. But Prothero confuses appearance with reality. Those who deny that religion matters are asserting that religious beliefs and behaviour cannot be understood on their own terms but can be best explained by psychology or anthropology or sociology or economics.

Furthermore, Prothero misses the main current trend in the study of religion: finding religious forms of thinking not just in traditional religions themselves but also in seemingly secular phenomena such as nationalism and science. As a result, his approach to religion bypasses many of the central issues raised by present-day scholars.

Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen and professorial research fellow at the University of Vienna. He is also the author of Myth Analyzed (forthcoming).


Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions
By Stephen Prothero
W. W. Norton & Company, 640pp, £68.00
ISBN 9780393912852
Published 1 July 2020

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