March 11, 2013
The Biggest Rivalry

For those of you who thought I was going to name Indiana vs. Kentucky as the biggest rivalry, you may have to think bigger.

This blog deals with the third in a series of books on rivalry that I found through a catalog search at the Indianapolis Public Library. Its title: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero (NY: Harper One, 2010).

I think it could be argued that more people follow a world religion than follow a given sports team or political party. But how are these religions “rivals” and what are their points of conflict?

Stephen Prothero has come up with an ingenious way of distinguishing between the great rival religions. Each religion, he says, articulates a problem, a solution (to it), a technique (for moving from problem to solution) and an exemplar who shows the way. For example, Buddhism sees the central problem of human existence as suffering; the solution is nirvana; there are a number of techniques, the best-known being meditation; and the exemplar is, of course, the Buddha.

The interesting part of this formulation is that each religion identifies a different problem as key. Their rivalry, then, arises from the fact that they are not trying to solve the same problem; therefore, the solutions they prescribe necessarily differ. Rivals for the attention and loyalty of people on a global scale, these differences in worldview matter a great deal.

As Prothero points out, “The world’s religious rivals are clearly related, but they are more like second cousins than identical twins. They do not teach the same doctrines. They do not perform the same rituals. And they do not share the same goals.”

We need to understand these differences because, according to Prothero, “What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. Approaching this volatile topic from this new angle may be scary. But the world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.”

In February and March, Indiana Humanities is exploring the topic of “rivalry,” as part of its Spirit of Competition theme. This post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants and coordinator of Novel Conversations.

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