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Is Universalism Harmful To Interfaith Dialog?


Neon Genesis
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In this weekend's episode of the State of Belief podcast, Rev Gaddy had an interview with Professor Prothero, who has written a new book about the problems with religious universalism. Professor Prothero's main argument is that the belief that all religions worship the same god and everyone gets saved is an insult to the diversity of religion and that all the major world religions are completely different from each other. He claims that if everyone went to heaven when they died, Hindus would be disappointed that they didn't wind up in the afterlife they were expecting to go to and that this belief is really condescending to believers. He argues this belief will actually hurt interfaith dialog because its disrespects the unique aspects of each religion by downplaying their differences. He thinks it's through the promotion and understanding of our religious differences that will lead us to a more productive dialog. I personally disagree with his arguments.

 

I think it's more condescending to believe that anyone who doesn't agree with your beliefs is somehow sub-human and I'd be more upset that I wound up in eternal torture in hell than I would if paradise didn't turn out the way religious people said it would. And wouldn't religious liberals be just as disappointed that their universalism afterlife wasn't real, too? I also don't see how universalism means religious believers have to ignore their differences. I think he's making a false dichotomy where you have to either focus 100% on the similarities or either 100% focusing on the differences but I think it's possible to focus on what makes your religion or philosophy unique while not letting the differences get in the way of what we share in common. I think that many church schisms begin when someone thinks their belief is the one true way and everyone else is wrong and sinful. Frankly I think there's enough division in the world as there is and the world needs to focus more on finding common ground but it doesn't mean we have to give up on diversity all-together. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think it's the differences in religion that will produce greater interfaith dialog than the similarities? Do you think it's insulting to believers to emphasize the similarities? Here's the episode for anyone who wants to listen: http://stateofbelief.com/show-archive/236-may-15-16-2010

Edited by Neon Genesis
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I think Prothero raises some valid objections; part of me wonders if he isn’t attacking a straw man: are we not already aware of religious differences; are we not bombarded with them every day? But then I’m reminded that there some out there who are rather naïve about it. Huston Smith, God bless him - but I just don’t see how a person can consider himself an active practitioner of all the world’s major religions. Seems a bit of an overload.

 

I look at it like this: there is one reality. All religious are seeking deep, true connection with that reality. All religions are seeking to alleviate a problem in the human condition, even Prothero acknowledges this. But each religion conceives of the problem differently; of course they do. However, it isn’t exactly correct to say that each religion asks one question or has one answer. Religions just aren’t that monolithic. Some schools of Christianity ask questions similar to Buddhism, and some Buddhist schools asks questions similar to Christianity. There is a crossover, because the human condition itself doesn’t vary from religion to religion, and ideas are changeable and multifaceted things.

 

I don’t see interfaith dialogue being a one-way endeavor. That’s why it’s not called interfaith monologue. It is not that liberal Christians are telling other people what their religion means; rather, thinkers and practitioners of other faiths are arriving at similar conclusions. I have read Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, all speak of the unity of religions. Granted it may not be a very thorough unity, but I think it is a unity that needs to be emphasized if we are to get along. Dialogue presupposes that each group has something to learn from the other. Dialogue, I think, only works if each group is willing to admit the incomplete nature of their knowledge, and acknowledge an essential ineffableness and mystery in existence. In other words, everyone has to admit for there being enough room in reality for more than one concept of what is true. This means ultimately that words cannot do justice to reality. Otherwise, one has to suppose that his or her idea of God really is God, and God becomes a mere word, an object of thought. If this seems ambiguous, that is because it is. But people, religious or not, have to learn to live with ambiguity.

 

Compassion does not break down to mere ethics. It is a metaphysical statement: in compassion 'self' and 'other' are united. A greater identity is glimpsed by transcending the narrow ego-self. That identity is entwined with the divine. Therefore, all healthy religion shares in this very basic, metaphysical experience and teaching. That is what Armstrong was arguing, and that is all I have seen her ask the different religious leaders to acknowledge. If all religious people took that one, simple common element seriously, wouldn't that make a big difference?

 

Perhaps Prothero is right that we need to acknowledge our differences before moving forward. But I think we've been doing that - acknowledging our differences (to understate) - for all of recorded history. And we do need to move forward lest our differences become obstacles to peace and unity. Common ground must be attained; relationships are founded not on ignoring our differences - Prothero is right - but the very notion of relationship is grounded upon unity nonetheless. This is a natural and inevitable process that stems from pluralism. Difference only makes sense, difference is only workable, in light of unity (and vice-versa), in my view.

 

I think you're right Neon that ultimately Prothero is presenting a false dichotomy. His argument seems contrarian, but it makes me scratch my head, really, because I'm not seeing a point to it, or where he's going with it. We all know religions are different; we all know they are unique. For whom is he writing, and why is he writing it?

 

Peace to you,

Mike

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Guest billmc

I'll give a listen to Prothero's presentative a little later today. But I think it is important to point out that the term Universalism has typically referred to at least two religious paradigms:

 

1. The universal human condition that we all seek love, meaning, and fulfillment on our lives. If this could be said to be the goal of religious, for us to experience the greatest love, meaning, and fulfillment, then most enduring world religions could be said to lead to this universalism. The focus is more on this life than an afterlife.

 

2. Biblical universalism which attempts to answer the question of where does everyone go in the afterlife. This kind of universalism tends to be of the fundamental, conservative branch of Christianity and asserts that because Jesus' atoning work on the cross was so effectual, he ontologically reconciled all of humanity to God there. But we experience this reconciliation at different points in history and in our lives. Some, who have rejected Christ in this life, will see him as he truly is in the next and accept him then. This kind of universalism, at its heart, is about the afterlife and essentially says that everyone will someday be a Christian.

 

Of course, there can be overlap between these two forms of universalism as well as other forms of metaphysically universalism (which I find interesting). But, as usual, I think it is helpful to try to define the terms before entering dialog.

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Are we not confusing Universalism with Pluralism?

 

The way I have always understood the two is if one is a Christian Universalist he/she feels the Christian faith is the "true" faith but everyone goes to heaven. A pluralist feels God shows in a variety of faith paths and no one path is any more true than the other. There is a significant difference between the two. Which is being talked about?

 

steve

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You ask a fitting question Steve. In the interview Prothero himself seems to make no meaningful distinction between them. Or perhaps he just lumps them all into the same category of 'wrong'.

 

Universalism on the one hand is not necessarily pluralism, as you point out, and I can see how it can be considered condescending (though not nearly as offensive as 'hell'). I can also see Prothero's point if applied to rather overzealous forms of syncretism, which propose that all religions really are the same. However, pluralism I think is the reality we have to move into, and that requires finding common ground and appreciating the differences. I don't think any serious student of religion is going to say that it's all the same; however, finding themes that resonate inter-religiously have the power to tie us all together.

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Guest billmc

After listening to Prothero, my sense is that he makes the mistake, in his analysis, of comparing the most fundamentalist forms of the religions to illustrate their, supposed, irreconcilable differences.

 

For instance, he portrays Christianity has being completely about how sin is taken care of and how someone goes to heaven, a view of Christianity that, IMO, most progressives have moved past long ago. That’s why we are progressive. Yes, the symbols, the rituals, the liturgies, the stories of the world’s different religions are going to be as diverse as the people and cultures they come from. But the more progressive these religions get (if they pursue that path), the more they see that these specific symbols, rituals, liturgies, and stories point to deeper truths that are common to all of humanity.

 

His use of the husband/wife metaphor illustrates my point. He says that in marriage, the distinctive traits of the different sexes are not eradicated. The man does not insist that the woman become a man, nor the woman insist that the man become a woman. Granted. I’m glad for the differences myself. At the same time, the differences are not so great that I think her totally unlike myself. Despite the fact that my wife is a woman, she is still human, still shares the same need for love and meaning that I do. She values family and friends as I do. She fosters a relationship with God that, though it may not look exactly like mine, leads to compassion and good works. Despite all our differences, we are still human, with everything that goes along with that.

 

And his use of the sports metaphor again illustrates my point. He says that if the point of football is to make a touchdown and the point of baseball is to hit a homerun, these are obviously not the same goals and not the same game. Granted. But, IMO, he can’t see the forest for the trees. If the goal of football and baseball is to provide friendly, physical competition in an entertaining matter, then, yes, on a certain level these activities can be considered to be similar and classified under the term “sports.”

 

He says, near the end of the interview, that allowing the world’s different religions to retain their distinctiveness helps us see the beauty in them. I agree with this. But then he asserts something that negates his whole point, IMO. He says that the beauty of these distinctive religions help them to each deal with the human predicament. Notice that he does not say ‘predicaments’, plural, but ‘predicament’ singular. So even his own language reflects that he believes there is something universal at some point.

 

So my thoughts on his critique of the ecumenical or humanitarian movements is that he is picking the most fundamentalist, literal understandings of these religions to show that they are irreconcilable. He’s right, if all we do is to look at the differences, we can’t reconcile them. But if we look for the similarities, which progressives have done for a while now, reconciliation is not only possibly, but perhaps necessary for the continuation of our species.

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His use of the husband/wife metaphor illustrates my point. He says that in marriage, the distinctive traits of the different sexes are not eradicated. The man does not insist that the woman become a man, nor the woman insist that the man become a woman. Granted. I’m glad for the differences myself. At the same time, the differences are not so great that I think her totally unlike myself. Despite the fact that my wife is a woman, she is still human, still shares the same need for love and meaning that I do. She values family and friends as I do. She fosters a relationship with God that, though it may not look exactly like mine, leads to compassion and good works. Despite all our differences, we are still human, with everything that goes along with that.

 

 

Respecting your partner's differences is important in a relationship but when your differences result in conflict, you have to find common ground to reach a compromise in order to resolve the conflict. A relationship can't survive if you're just arguing your differences all the time and condemning your partner for their differences.
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Guest billmc

Respecting your partner's differences is important in a relationship but when your differences result in conflict, you have to find common ground to reach a compromise in order to resolve the conflict. A relationship can't survive if you're just arguing your differences all the time and condemning your partner for their differences.

 

Exactly. Common ground must be found (hey, I'm a poet and don't know it!). This is what progressives such as Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith, people Prothero in this interview derides, are doing -- seeking common ground (or common spirit) in the world's major religions.

 

Prothero tries to make his point using a hypothetical situation of a Hindu waking up in heaven, angered that his afterlike is not what he had hoped for. For one thing, the charicature that Christianity is all about heaven is the exact thing that most progressives are against. Prothero's view of Christianity is a fundamentalist one in which no Hindu would go to heaven anyway. Prothero makes the same mistake regarding progressives that many conservatives do, thinking that what progressives believe is that everyone goes to a literal heaven. No doubt some do. But my chats with my progressive brothers and sisters have shown me that for the most part we are much more interested in bringing something of the metaphor of heaven to a reality on earth.

 

One of the benefits that I see in PC is that we do allow for the distinctives of different religions to exist in all their beauty and wonder. I believe in my heart of hearts that if we ever do realize something of what I as a Christian would call the kingdom of God on earth, it will consists of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, and maybe even a couple of token Southern Baptists thrown in just to show how all-encompassing grace really is. :) Prothero's thinking is, IMO, analogous to how Baptists doubt that Episcopalians and Catholics could ever be in heaven because there are simply too many doctrinal differences -- and Baptists know for sure that they have all of their doctrines correct. :D

 

But we will always have those who stand against progress, often in the name of religion because religion often serves to preserve the past instead of creating the future. So let Prothero rant on about how there can be no commonality between the religions. We have heard this same rhetoric used before to support the supposed irreconciable differences between blacks and whites, men and women, and gays and straights. There is, IMO, Something in this universe leading us towards a unity of compassion. I call it God. But you can call it anything you like. :)

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Prothero wants us to believe that all religions are entirely different from each other yet at the same time, he fully admits there's enough similiar doctrines among believers that he can claim to know what "true" Christianity is. It sounds like Prothero wants people to respect all differences in religion expect for those wishy-washy universalists. Given that none us know fer certain what happens when we die, if there is an afterlife, I think all of us are going to be shocked to find out the afterlife isn't exactly like our preconceptions. But if this new approach to interfaith dialog helps conservative believers to be more open minded and tolerant of people from different faiths and non-believers, I guess it can't be all bad.

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I like Bill's: The universal human condition that we all seek love, meaning, and fulfillment on our lives. And I would add: in the face of death. Mike said that there is one reality and religions are about relating to that one reality. Universal realities aren't my thing. :D In my mind, religions are about "...seek[ing] love, meaning, and fulfillment." in the face of death. Each religious person/group develops their own inward and outward manifestations. These include beliefs, rituals, worldview, etc., and values.

 

Many who attend my church have amorphous sets of beliefs, ill-defined, unstudied - I am being too harsh. In an inter-religious dialog often their goal would be sentimental - to be friendly. That is their highest value really. This may be too simple an example but Prothero isn't the only person with his charge against an easy Universalism which would smooth over differences in religions. IF ... I want to talk about my religion to a person of a different religion I had better learn about mine without the sentimental pressure to be like the other guy.

 

Is it time to get over our differences? Is it time to confront them? Some of us only play at religious differences. Bill and others have lived with it. Each of us I think are on a different part of the inter-religious journey none of which should be glossed over sentimentally. Hustin seems like a religious tourist. Of all the differences among religions the only one I think matters is values. Do we share any that will help us, together, respond to our universal human condition in seeking meaning and learning to love. Certainly the Charter for Compassion, a project of the heart. For a heady approach, and wordy, see, DECLARATION OF THE RELIGIONS FOR A GLOBAL ETHIC, Parliament of the World's Religions in 1993. http://astro.temple.edu/~dialogue/Center/kung.htm

 

Religious Pluralism just describes the fact that there are many religions, a plurality of them. Bill pointed out the inclusive pluralistic view of the Christian "Jesus will save all in the end." The exclusive pluralistic view of many is "no one but us will ... (have a heavenly experience)". The phenomenological pluralist says they are all really the same beneath the surface; it is a kind of universalism. The ontological -- well there is a plurality of pluralistic points of view. :D

 

Take care

Dutch

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Guest billmc

I got carried away with Bill's prose. Seeking meaning would never be an enterprise in which we would find common ground. Seeking meaning is very divisive.

 

Maybe. Maybe not. :D

 

I don't think there is a magic bullet that will kill off all the harmful sides of religion or cultural identities, but I do think that conversation is key.

 

There are, IMO, limits to what can be tolerated. As much as we here at the forum for TCPC like to espouse how true other people's paths and faiths are for them, even if those ways don't look like our ways, would we condone the faith of someone who believed in animal or human sacrifice? Would we say that their path is true for them? Or, as another thread here has demonstrated, what if there is a path of faith that believes in subjugating some humans under other humans, based on ancient texts written by people who had no understanding of how humanity actually came about? Would we confirm their faith as viable, as healthy, as being, not only "meaningful" for them, but beneficial for all?

 

I think there are limits to universality and that we need to be wise and discerning as to what they are. We can't simply adopt an "I'm okay, you're okay" policy without knowing what a particular religion or cultural identity strives for. But I would hope that we would seek out the highest, best, and most humane ideals in each religion and cultural identity and say, "Here is where we agree, let's not forget this, now let's talk about where we disagree."

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I like Bill's: The universal human condition that we all seek love, meaning, and fulfillment on our lives. And I would add: in the face of death. Mike said that there is one reality and religions are about relating to that one reality. Universal realities aren't my thing. :D In my mind, religions are about "...seek[ing] love, meaning, and fulfillment." in the face of death. Each religious person/group develops their own inward and outward manifestations. These include beliefs, rituals, worldview, etc., and values.

 

Hi Dutch,

 

For all practical purposes I can agree with what you say here. We are all definitely seeking meaning in the face of death, impermanence. And I tend to think that we are, on some level, looking for experiences to validate that meaning, in order to unite that meaning with our life or our reality. Robert Aitken defined metaphor as "the presentation of one thing in terms of another, expressing their unity."

 

From my own perspective I see no meaningful distinction between particular, experiential reality and universal reality: our experiences carry an abundance of truth that we almost automatically filter through; but if we are observant and creative, we can find jewels which nourish us existentially.

 

Peace to you,

Mike

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Mike,

 

I see no meaningful distinction between particular, experiential reality and universal reality

 

hmmmm An interesting collapsing of the gap between the two. My personal particular experiences are experiences of the universal? Attractive.

 

Dutch

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Mike,

 

I see no meaningful distinction between particular, experiential reality and universal reality

 

hmmmm An interesting collapsing of the gap between the two. My personal particular experiences are experiences of the universal? Attractive.

 

Dutch

 

Perhaps Hegel was right about every thesis-antithesis opposition leading to synthesis.

 

I remember reading that it is a general rule in Zen that when a student asks about something pertaining to the absolute/universal, the teacher answers in terms of the concrete and particular, and vice-versa. I tend to agree with this kind of non-duality, because I personally see no reason to pit the objective against the subjective and the absolute against the relative as if they were different realities. Really the only reality of which we can speak, is experience. If you think about it, experience is both particular and universal, and it is neither. To reference Aitken again (sorry but I just happen to be reading him lately), experience is simply intimate; perhaps if we pay attention to that intimacy, we can find a surplus of meaning there.

 

Peace to you,

Mike

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A long time ago I read a book by Arthur Koestler titled "The Sleepwalkers". It was basically an historical introduction to humanities changing/evolving picture of the Universe, concentrating upon Cosmology. It began with the Egyptian Ptolemy and ended in the mid twentieth century, but most of the pages were devoted to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.

 

It was a real eye opener for me, as until then I understood science as some sort of pure theoretical way of making progress in knowledge, and those who I associated with such progress were seen as whiter than white, head and shoulders above the "pigmies" around them, who I saw as sunk in superstition, creed and outdated dogma. As I say, an eye opener, and why the book was called "The Sleepwalkers" - the steady progress of knowledge came across more as a stumbling in the dark, and those "whiter than white" virtually as blind in many ways as all those around them.

 

But I waffle (whats new?). The main point, regarding this thread, is that there were basically two assumptions that dictated nearly all Cosmological theory up until Copernicus and Kepler. First, that the Earth itself was the centre of the whole system, rather than the sun, and second, that the heavenly bodies (stars/planets/moon) being "heavenly" must therefore move in perfect motion, perfect meaning circular - when in fact, as Kepler finally demonstrated, their movement was elliptical.

 

One of the astonishing things about all this was the fact that charts used by seafarers, based upon the false assuptions, were actually perfectly useable as far as navigation was concerned. Given the actual movement of the planets, as observed, and as then charted, sailers were actually able to cross the world and navigate accroding to the charts then in existence. This so, because in order to "justify" the actual observed motions and positions of the planets a thing called an epicycle was introduced. Basically, as the planet moved in its perfect heavenly circle around the earth, in order to account for its rather strange movements when observed for long periods, it was also deemed to moved in another circle as it circled the earth.

 

Epicyle after epicyle was added as the observations mounted. One strange phenomena is that even after Copernicus published his book "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs" that theorised that the sun was in fact the centre of our solar system, his theory - because it still assumed that the movements of the heavenly bodies was circular - actually demanded more epicyles than the previous idea that the earth was at the centre. Strange indeed, and perhaps justifying those who spoke against it to begin with.

 

The point I am making (and my apologies to those, probably most, for whom this is all familiar) is that some of the story seems to me to be applicable to our Universe of Faiths. Many assume - or it has been assumed - that Christianity stands at the centre, and that the heavenly Bible (because perfect) circles it. I think it was the theologian John Hick who actually proposed that the Divine should in fact be seen as the centre, and that the various faiths circle round "Him". Sadley, those who hope to cling to the old ways need to - and seem to - add epicycle after epicycle to the whole scenario to try to hold it all together and save the appearances!

 

Anyway, myself, I really don't see why we should lose interest in dialogue with other faiths merely because we offer them mutual respect. Though in theory we can claim our own faith is all sufficient, it seems to me in practice that it is not so. While I feel that eclectic picking and choosing can lead to confusion, for myself I feel that a strong reliance upon Grace and living within its light can be the ground for an openess to others - even allowing us to retain a degree of vulnerability that acknowledges that we too just might learn something, and perhaps need to grow and change ourselves.

 

For me, that is the firm ground. Grace. Unconditional love. Infinite Compassion.

 

And perhaps we have to accept that we shall be sleepwalkers at times, stumbling here and there, yet hopefully always in the light.

 

Which I suppose will allow me to quote again......If we wish to be sure of the road we tread on we should close our eyes and walk in the dark (St John of the Cross)

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When I think of religions gathered around a center I tend to think the center is no-thing; but I question whether they are pointing the same way. I think all (religious) people are walking the same ground, the human condition universal to all as Bill suggested, but the differences in their responses, I believe, must be considered ontological, fundamentally real. There we can start a dialog.

 

I couldn't find a source for an article on interfaith experience in a community in New Zealand. The part I remember is that one faith might a have "better" ritual for blessing new buildings and another faith for welcoming new people to community and so on ... The community chose the "better" ritual for "ecumenical" events. A striking image for interfaith dialog. Perhaps a communal syncretism. Participants would have to be well grounded in their own faith or an easy sentimental universalism or tourism will prevail.

 

I have doubts about any ultimate universal reality, unless it is the intimate experience; there being no distinction between the universal and the intimate experience, no reference, no comparison, no qualitative difference, no representation, no one-within-the other, no two-in-one.

 

Thanks Mike

 

experience is simply intimate; perhaps if we pay attention to that intimacy, we can find a surplus of meaning there.

 

 

Take care

 

Dutch

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Dutch,

 

I have doubts about any ultimate universal reality, unless it is the intimate experience; there being no distinction between the universal and the intimate experience, no reference, no comparison, no qualitative difference, no representation, no one-within-the other, no two-in-one.

 

Very well stated. I think this is what non-duality is all about. The 'universal' is not to be made an object held over-against 'normal' reality. Intimacy is truth.

 

Peace to you,

Mike

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  • 1 month later...

I'm officially turned off from reading anything by Prothero. First he argues universalists are harming interfaith dialog by being too pluralistic. Now he's turning around and arguing atheists aren't pluralistic enough. Not only does he completely misunderstand what atheism is, but he has the gall to insult all atheists as being intellectually dishonest and stereotypes all atheists and insults atheists by claiming atheists hate reading novels. Does Prothero have anything to say that isn't insulting somebody else? He seems to enjoy accusing everyone else that disagrees with him for hurting interfaith dialog but doesn't take a step back to examine how his own comments are hurtful to atheists or universalists: http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/07/01/why-is-stephen-prothero-so-hard-on-atheists/

It’s not easy to defend Stephen Prothero when he writes about atheists. I wrote before that he knows a lot about our “community” even if he wrongly calls atheism a religion with our own brand of fundamentalists.

 

His new book is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter and he’s still doing interviews all over the place for it. But the more of those he does, the more I want to keep my distance.

 

Take this interview with Nicole Neroulias, for instance:

 

Why are you so hard on atheists?

 

I think they’re intellectually dishonest, and I think it’s the hardest religious position to take up. With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world. With atheism, you have to reject every single god. There’s a lot of gods out there. I think many atheists are not actually atheists; they’re just people who’ve rejected the Jewish or Christian God, more specifically the god that their parents taught them. They don’t know anything about the Hindu divinities. How can you reject a god that you’ve never even heard of?

 

That’s like asking how we could dismiss the existence of all unicorns when we’ve only rejected two species of them.

 

The same arguments that made us lose faith in our family’s god apply to other gods all the same. They’re all fictional. You want us to believe in your god? Prove to us that your god exists. It’s that simple. And it’s a challenge that no religious person has ever met.

 

And for what it’s worth, Christians reject all the same gods atheists do… with one exception. Prothero never faults them for that.

 

Even the interviewer didn’t seem to like his explanation:

 

Perhaps they just feel committed to scientific evidence rather than mystery?

 

Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels! But, even rejecting the supernatural, not all religions have gods, not all religions necessarily have the supernatural. Confucianism and Buddhism might be the religion for them.

 

Isn’t Prothero the religion expert? Many forms of Buddhism buy into the concepts of karma and rebirth — are those not supernatural? And if you don’t believe in those, what exactly makes it a religion? Same deal with Confucianism, which seems more like a philosophy that a deity-centered faith, which is really what atheists have a problem with.

 

You can label your belief system whatever you want. Atheists don’t see evidence for any god and that eliminates most religions. To say that we could be Buddhists (or whatever) is missing the point.

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