"God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter" (HarperOne, 388 pages,$26.99), by Stephen Prothero: Christianity, Islam and Judaism all insist that God is One. So prospective readers may think that Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, must be proclaiming polytheism in a book titled, "God Is Not One."
He does that, in a way, describing many different gods objectively and with touches of irony that the devout may find irreverent.
A subtitle outlines the large territory covered: "The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter." He ends his account with a quiet agnosticism: "(I)f there really is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most."
His rebuttal of the idea that all gods are basically alike starts with "All Religions Are One," written by English poet William Blake. Prothero sees Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" as embracing the mistake.
"The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century popularized the idea of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it," he writes. "But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide."
He cites the religious element in wars, clashes, murders and atrocities from a morning in lower Manhattan to 30 years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka.
The book's dust jacket summarizes the problems that Prothero considers as preoccupying five of the eight religions: Islam deals with pride, Christianity with sin, Confucianism with chaos, Buddhism with suffering and Judaism with exile.
The book also covers Hinduism, Daoism — sometimes called Taoism — and the Yoruba religion of West Africa, more familiar to North Americans as Voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba. Prothero makes ironic fun of tales about Ganesha, god of good fortune in the unnumbered pantheon of Hinduism. Ganesha starts as a boy, unjustly beheaded by the destructive god Shiva.
"Hindu gods are not constrained by the virtues," the author remarks. Shiva repents and revives the boy, using an elephant's head for a transplant. Ganesha now has four arms but only one tusk, having broken off the other to write "The Mahabharata," the Hindu epic.
"A pen-and-ink (picture of) Ganesha, his belly as plump as a Chinatown Buddha, greets visitors to my Cape Cod cottage," says Prothero, himself a prolific writer.
But first place in this book goes to Islam, because of its impact on today's world. "Islam is the greatest of the great religions. In terms of adherents, this tradition of justice and mercy and forgiveness and submission is growing far faster than Christianity," Prothero writes. "To presume that the conversation about the great religions starts with Christianity is to show your parochialism, and your age. The 19th and 20th centuries may have belonged to Christianity. The 21st belongs to Islam."