Stephen Prothero: All Religions Are Not the Same

Religion scholar and bestselling author Stephen Prothero has written a new book called “God is Not One,” in which he takes issue with those who argue that religions are all just different paths up the same mountain. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly managing editor Kim Lawton spoke with Prothero about how religions are different and why people, including adherents within each religious tradition, need to acknowledge the importance of those differences.


  • Clifford Yeary

    This is a very intelligent, provocative segment. I greatly respect Prothero for telling us that religion matters, that religions are different and their differences should be respected and most of all for warning us that we have to examine our own theologies for dangerous strands that lead to violence and abhorrent behavior toward others.

  • Jack Hilift

    Religions developed in local cultures according to the psychological and perceived spiritual needs within those cultures. Religious solutions did not necessarily evolve in the same way in all these diverse places. And so, we have different religions and different definitions of God. Remember, ” Man makes God in man’s own image” . I said that.

  • Sally

    Stephen Prothero makes some very good points, chiefly that we must examine our own religion for the causes of evil by some of adherents. I was puzzled by his reference to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” because I had thought the genius of Jesus’ answer was that everything belongs to God. I don’t believe all Christians think they are Christians only on Sunday.

  • Mohan Sagar

    Excellent. I am deeply impressed with Mr. Prothero’s position that religion is an important part of the human experience. And I would also concur that to suggest that all religions have the same goal would dilute each religion’s value. I am of the opinion that if each of us recognized the value of our own religion in a way that it defines us and shapes our world view, we might be able to better empathize with others in how they view theirs.

  • Kathleen Baird

    Excellent, intelligent commentary on religions and religious differences. As Wiccan for more than 35 years (Protestant till my late 20′s), I feel strongly that there are differing religious faiths because that is what people need. Some need the structure of being told what to eat and when. Some need to be told they have a list of rules/commandments to follow. My faith is simple; “and it harm none, do what you will”. This means that you can follow every letter of the law, but if you buy a company, rape the pension fund, sell off pieces of the company and turn the workers into the street to make the big bucks, you are evil! If you choose not educate or treat fairly half the world’s population because they are women, you are evil! The greatest of Wiccan laws says harm no one.To follow Wiccan laws, you live a life of considered choices; is this hurting someone? always remembering that YOU are a person, too, so don’t do something that will destroy you, either. People are raised in the faith of their parents, but if they make a choice on the religion they will follow, they choose what meets the degree of structure they need.

  • Catherine Rogers

    Excellent discussion. Religion(s) should neither be swallowed uncritically nor taken lightly. I’d be interested to know by what criteria Dr. Prothero judges the good or evil within each religious tradition; it seems to me that they would constitute the “one mountaintop” that he claims doesn’t exist.

  • Holly

    Please post a transcript as Mr. Prothero is difficult to hear.

  • Curt Steinmetz

    Stephen Prothero is engaging in a straw man argument. His two main targets are the Englightenment philosopher, artist and poet William Blake (who inspired the title of Prothero’s new book), and contemporary religion scholar Huston Smith (whose 91st birthday is in less than two weeks). But neither Blake nor Smith come close to the sweeping denial of religious differences that Prothero imputes to them.

    For example, Huston Smith, in his book “The World Religions” states quite clearly that different religions express themselves “in the most disparate ways possible.” Rather than claiming that all religions are the same, in fact, Smith states that “Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities.” Smith also states that it is an “illusion” to think that the commonalities are more important than the differences. Whatever universalism there is in religion, according to Smith, is a direct reflection of “what is generically human in us all.” All of these quotes are found on pages 2 and 3 of the Introduction to Smith’s most well known book (first published over 50 years ago), which makes me wonder whether Prothero has even bothered to read it.

    As for William Blake, his brief 250 word poem, “All Religions Are One” also deals fully with both the variation and the commonality of human religions.

  • Ron Krumpoa

    Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  • Daniel

    Good video, an interesting related article about this topic:

    Does Hinduism Teach That All Religions Are The Same?
    A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism

  • Megan

    While he brings up some interesting points, a lot of what he says in this interview reflects an incomplete understanding of the religions he refers to. Given that he is a college professor I find this highly disturbing. To say that Christians “only are Christian on Sunday” is insulting as well as ignorant, as is the misunderstanding of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. To say that “Judaism hasn’t been so great in the way of cultivating spirituality” completely ignores Hasidism and the study of the Qabbalah. I think he also completely misunderstands the entire ecumenical or Universalist view that many people hold. It isn’t ignoring the cultural context of a religion–it is examining and focusing on the commonalities, the meeting grounds, of all religious systems. Focusing on the differences only increases conflict, in my opinion. Examining one’s religion to see what has “worked” and what has “not worked” is valuable…but this guy seems to be doing so in a very trite and uninformed way. Which again is highly disturbing considering that he is being paid to teach young adults about religion.

  • June

    He needs to study a lot more.

  • Peter

    I concur: he needs to study more. The scope of his insights into religion could be broadened by a fuller understanding of the differences within religions. His assessment of Christianity, for example, is evidently biased in the typical Western, individualist, ‘all I know is Protestantism and maybe a little about Catholism’ sort. Look up, Prothero, Orthodox Christianity, read about Eastern Christian theology and mysticism. Overall, however, it is refreshing in these pluralist, politically correct times to hear a scholar declare that all religions are not one.