June 15th, 2010
03:42 PM ET

Stephen (Colbert) v. Stephen (Prothero) on Religious Truthiness

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

It’s probably not the best venue for promoting religious literacy, but I managed to get a few words in edgewise during my brief border crossing into “Colbert Nation” last night. In our mini-battle of the Stephens, Colbert was his usual staccato self, but he allowed me to make a few points about my new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

Colbert came out swinging, insisting on the superiority of Christianity as the one true faith. I got in a few jabs of my own, however, including my argument that the atheists (who say all religions are one and bad) and the liberal multiculturalists (who say all religions are one and good) both have it wrong.

The world's religions aren't different paths up the same mountain, I said. They are “going up different mountains with different techniques and different tools.”

The best line of the night belonged, however, to the truthy Stephen. As I was struggling to say something coherent about how Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism try to solve very different problems, he delivered classic Colberesque non sequitur: “Adam and Eve were Jewish. Check under the fig leaf, my friend.”

Oh, and Stephen Colbert (the man, not the character) was a gracious host backstage. He told me he used to teach Sunday school in his Catholic parish, and he made the day of my star-struck cousin by having a picture made with him. 

All in all, great fun. I hope it was just round one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Interfaith issues • TV

soundoff (655 Responses)
  1. Jim Walker

    Religion is a defense mechanism humans create to cope with their fear of death and the fragile nature of our existence. Personally, I choose to believe that there a god, or a supreme being, or an architect of our universe and that there is a purpose behind all the chaos. However, I do not believe that we are capable of knowing god's true nature or what He/She/It would have us do here on earth. I reject out of hand all the world's religious texts as instruments of Man and not the word of God. Rather, I content myself with knowing that I am a good person, in the context of what I understand good to be, and that I harbor no one ill will. If eternal slavation can be earned, then I believe it is probably best earned through good thoughts and conduct everyday.

    June 17, 2010 at 3:46 am |
    • Gary

      Jim Walker you are very correct, As an agnostic I agree we should not, kill,steal,covet neighbors wife, I just dont need a religious text to explain it to me. I love the Golden rule. again its common sense and obvious. forgiveness and merciful are no brainers for a civil society. love thy neibors ...no kidding! ....All these things create great karma but have nothing to do with religion. I am glad that many minorities and poor folks in this country are religious I think if they lost their fear of a God or being punished they would be even more criminal and more disruptive to society.

      June 17, 2010 at 8:53 am |
    • jmb2fly

      Jim, just curious; how do you know what good is? In other cultures good can be very different from ours. Who get's to choose what "good" is? Some societies practice cannabalism and head hunting. If your god's character is unknowable then what defines good?

      June 19, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  2. mmi16

    Religion is the practice of arrogance, wherein the leaders of whatever following one desires to name believe they know the 'True God(s)' better than the mere believers and this arrogance permits them to boss the mere believers around.

    June 17, 2010 at 12:58 am |
    • Gary

      mmi16, well said ...religious "leaders" and many religious folks use the religion to instill fear in followers and new recruits. They pretend to be saying they are meek and inteceding. They use religion to control and have dominion over their followers. Many religious fanatics have no real talents to earn a honest income so they use religious texts and "charisma" to be in control.....example Jim Bakker , Jimmy swaggert,Ted Haggerd,Osama bin Ladin,many priests,Oral Roberts,Benny Hinn,Pat Robinson,Td Jakes ,David Koresh,Jim Jones and many more..

      June 17, 2010 at 8:57 am |
    • AndaLi

      Religion was invented for social control. Good idea to have morals, ethics, and socialization of human animals in large groups. Seems its been taken too far and too literally by some, and disregarded by others. Maybe we're due for some balance.

      June 17, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
    • AndaLi

      By balance i mean within ourselves: spirituality (faith and practice of your choice) plus intellect, reason.
      By others disregarding I mean: greedy self-serving cheat anyone you can get away with taking money from shysters and billionaire wannabe's with no sense that other people matter.

      June 17, 2010 at 11:11 pm |
  3. jmb2fly

    I can believe that the Moon is made out of Cheese. I believe it with all my heart, soul and mind. But if I do like Wallace and Gromet; build a rocket ship and fly to Moon with a bunch of crackers I will run into something called the truth. The Moon's made out of dirt. If Truth is really relative then the Moon should be what ever I want it to be. If all truths are equal then the moon could be marshmellow, baked potatoe, cheese, a cookie. If I believe it then that is what it is and if you believe something else then it will be that to. Sounds crazy to me.......By the way, there is trip we will all make one day. When we leave this world we will run into Truth, Reality. I don't believe that reality is going to be whatever you want it to be. It's going to be what it is. Hope your ready......

    June 17, 2010 at 12:41 am |
  4. Michael

    Mr. Prothero, do you realize that Colbert was mocking you when he insisted that Christianity is the one true religion?

    June 17, 2010 at 12:36 am |
  5. jmb2fly

    Is Truth Absolute or does it depend on your point of view? Jesus doesn't give us much wiggle room on this one. He said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no man may come to the Father except by me." He didn't give us room to say well that's an O. K. way for you but I'll go this other way. Either you accept that He is the Truth or you reject him as Truth. You have to choose.

    June 17, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  6. jmb2fly

    Creation may have occured 10000 years ago or it may have been 4.5 billion years or longer when you consider that creation involves the whole universe. I don't know and it doesn't matter because I know who the Creator is! The purpose of God's Word is not to explain creation or evolution. It is primarily that we come to know God and the salvation He has provided for us. If you believe creation occured 10000 years ago and took 7 days including the day God rested, great. If you think the seven days signifies the completeness of God's creation and not necessarily 7 literal days, I'm O.K. with that to. But I personally don't feel that the when or how is what is really important; its the who.

    June 17, 2010 at 12:04 am |
  7. Brian

    I just have one small quibble with you stating "atheists (who say all religions are one and bad)". There are plenty of examples of Buddhists who are also atheists. There's also atheists who are in the closet so to speak within Christian clergies, who simply lost their faith, but still believe religion is overall a good thing. I suspect this is the case for much larger percentage of the population than is currently accounted for.

    Point being, it's not a requirement for atheists to make a moral judgement on the whole of religion. As an atheist, I don't say all religion is bad, and certainly not equally bad.

    June 16, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
    • Gary

      Brian you are correct I practice Buddism as a philosophy but not as a religion. Meditation and other budist practices help me in all aspects of life.

      June 16, 2010 at 11:25 pm |
  8. Tena

    righteous in Christ;
    Have you ever heard; (As Christians) "God calls us to be bearers of the true, not enforcers of the faith. Remember Matthew 7:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

    June 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  9. righteous-in-Christ

    @ Lord save me from the Holier-than-thou – I guess that is the only thing you know? I sure hope not. What are you doing to help those whom Satan has set in captivity?

    June 16, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • Lord save me from the Holier-than-thou

      Ahh, that good ole judgmental tone. Some can't help but thump the Bible, ideally onto an unbeliever's head. Such is religion(s).

      June 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      Wow, I would have expect for you to give me a Word of God for encouragement. You sound like the rest of the Anti-Christ here, but than have Lord as your ID.

      June 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
    • William Bergmann

      Satan!?! Now that is maybe the most ridiculous tale you people try to sell. No, wait! I think Noah's Ark might be even more preposterous! No, wait again! Virgin birth? There are so many, I give up.

      June 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Mark B.

    Wow people really try to overcomplicate religion. It has nothing to do with government other than individuals whoare the people persue it. It has to do with on'e PERSONAL relationship with God. Jesus said "I am the Truth and the Light, no one comes to the Father except through me." There is no mistaking the meaning of that phrase. It either is the truth or is not. He is either the ONLY intercessor to God and our salvation or he is a liar and a charlatan. No middle ground, no gray area, just so or not so. He either died and rose from the dead or didn't. You can hem and haw all you want but in the end, we'll all face His judgement if He indeed is what He and others proclaim Him to be. But it always comes down to just you and Him. What church you belong to doesn't matter at all. It's where you are with Him.

    June 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  11. Ana44

    Organized Religion is the problem. I don't believe in a 'santa claus' god, nor am I an atheist. If we need any proof of heaven or hell we can find them co-existant right here on earth, right now. Deliver us from the 'true believer' who is talking to god so the rest must be talking to the devil.
    I'll read Prothero's books because I'm hoping to learn something broadening, and I've already bought them. But I think his thesis is narrow; he's learned to talk in sound-bytes for modern "Cliff Notes" bred audiences, so my expectations are lower than before. There are more than 8 significant religions on the planet–or it all about control of money?

    June 16, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      Oh, so you read a book from a man that also needs salvation, if of course he isn't, but doubt the Word of God that is the voice of God?

      June 16, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
    • Ana44

      No, I don't doubt the word of God. Where do you get that? I doubt the words of men.

      June 16, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      You doubted that Christ is our Maker/Creator. It is very risky and deadly to trust the word of a man.

      June 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
    • Lord save me from the Holier-than-thou

      Whoa, self-righteous-Christ, judge not, lest ye be judged!

      June 16, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
    • Dan, TX

      Ana, lot's of us agree with you.

      June 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  12. cherib603

    Am I an Atheist? I do not beleive all religions are one and bad – I believe that there is no God who created Heaven & Earth. That there is no "higher power". However, I respect the beliefs of those who choose to participate in a religion. I just ask that those beliefs not be shoved down my throat. I do not need or want to be "saved". I am content in the knowledge that this life is "it" and that I need to make the most of it while I'm here, while trying to leave the world a little better than how I found it.

    June 16, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      How is it that anyone can possible shove the Word of God down your throat if you still remain an Anti-Christ? That is pretty ignorant for you to claim that you are being forced, because to my knowledge, you are still an unbeliever. You don't have to believe if you don't to. If God Almighty will not force you to believe, how will we make you believe? That is nonsense to say or think. You are a grown person and no one tells you what to do, you are responsible for your life and actions. We don't have a hell or a heaven to place you in. That will be between you and God, though you may not believe. It is your choice, not ours. I appreciate your respect to allow us to believe, we harm not one by doing it. If the Anti-Christ’s (Atheists) have a problem reading a spiritual comment, why bother commenting or searching an article that has to do with God? They are best known as argue mental people.

      After all: Matthew 7:6, we are not to “cast our pearls before swine.” One of the implications of this is that we are not to waste our efforts with people who are interested in nothing but rejecting and blaspheming God.

      June 16, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
    • cherib603

      I came for the Stephen Colbert reference, not the God one. I stayed to participate in a thoughtful and intelligent discussion. No, you cannot FORCE religion down my throat, but you try. My point (let me simplify it for you, dear) is that I choose to believe, based on my own research and life experience, that there is no God. YOU choose to believe there is. I did not make fun of you for what you chose. I did not call you names. I am a nice, kind, civilized person. I treat people as Jesus preaches we should – and I do that because both Jesus and I share those beliefs in good character – not because I believe in Jesus. I believe in the Bible. I read it quite often. I also believe in Einstein & Hawking – and read them quite often. What I DON'T do is rant and call people "anti – Christs". I am respectful. How many wars have been fought over religion? How many wars have been fought over Hawking? Think about it.

      June 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      @ Cherib603 – Anti-Christ are those who are against the Christ and that believes that they don't need salvation. How can you claim that you and Jesus share the same thoughts if you have rejected the free gift of salvation He lovingly gave us. You need to go back and re-read my comment as I have stated that how can anyone force you to believe.

      BTW: Religions is nothing compare to Relationship. God isn't seeking for us to have a religion, but a relationship.

      Religion are humans trying to work their way to God, but fail.

      Christianity is God working His way to men and women through a RELATIONSHIP in Christ Jesus. JOHN 3:16 This is what I preach.

      June 16, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
    • Dan, TX

      One thing that always bothers me about people who claim to believe in God is that if you really believe in God, why would you do anything other than devote your life to serving God? From this I conclude that most people really do not believe in God, they just say they do to fit into society and gain social status. I don't think most "believers" spend much time contemplating their belief. That leads me to be somewhat less than impressed with religion in general. I conclude that most people believe in God as long as it doesn't get in the way of them doing whatever they want, whenever they want!

      June 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  13. righteous-in-Christ

    ALL of the Anti-Christ ( ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, CULTS), really know how to enlighten me with your ignorance and foolishness. As far as I am concern and confident, you, Zeus, and all false RELIGION (idol worshipers) will do according to the Word of the Living God, Jesus Christ, you Maker:

    Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Isaiah Chapter 45, Verse 9

    Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? Bible Book 45, Chapter 9 (Romans 9:20f)

    June 16, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
    • Ana44

      Jesus never said he was your maker!

      June 16, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      @ Anna44 – Maker is the same as Creator:

      Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Isaiah Chapter 45, Verse 9

      Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? Bible Book 45, Chapter 9 (Romans 9:20f)

      June 16, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
  14. banjodan

    A man who wears his religion on his sleeve has all the dignity of a man who wears his pants around his ankles.

    June 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  15. Bill the Science Guy

    To Andrew and Verify: Free will is the ability to make choices that are not controlled by prior causes or correlations. On the other hand scientists explain the interaction of natural phenomena based on prior causes and correlations. If a human choice could be explained by prior causes and correlations, it would not be free. Thus by definition, free will cannot now or ever be a natural phenomena. That is what the scientists I listed, and others, confirm in The Science of the Soul. Read it for yourself. they are not taken out of context. When prominent scientists make such statements you should be willing to at least read them before you dismiss them.

    To Robert: I did not say anything about animals so I do not understand why you think the above is not logical. if you have evidence that animals have free will, you can conclude they have supernatural souls also.

    June 16, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
    • Robert

      Your definition of free will is suspect - choices can be free but still correlated. Human nature is an issue that affects free will, and it will show in correlations between choices and outcomes. As to my animal analogy, in the face of attacks, some animals choose to fight, some animals choose to run, and some animals choose lure the attacker in and accept injuries in order to counterattack. These are choices based upon what they have observed from the other animals in their community. All of these actions happen within the same species, so they are not genetically predisposed. It is learned behavior, and therefore a choice.

      June 16, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • Andrew

      See, the problem is, I HAVE read the words of those prominent scientists. I'm a physics major, I've gone out of my way to study Einstein, Schrodinger, Hawking, Pauli, Dirac, Feynman, Heisenberg, Lorentz etc in depth. I do so out of respect for the physicists, I know their stances on the supernatural because I bothered to study them outside of a book with a very specific agenda that will quote mine the likes of Schrodinger. I sincearly doubt you have, I sincearly doubt your knowledge of those physicists extends at all beyond a few passages you've read in books like that. And I ask you again, why should the positions of Einstein be taken over Dirac or Feynman? Why only physicists who you can quote saying things that agree with your beliefs?

      Either way, gotta go, got a far more pleasant thing to deal with now, cheers.

      June 16, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
    • verify

      Why is it then that this free will only evidences itself as the brain matures? Do newborns choose to cry? Or choose to do anything, for that matter? Physical growth of the brain connections as well as input from life experiences are necessary to make choices.

      June 16, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
    • bullfeathers

      All animals (including humans) have free will in a manner of speaking. Generally speaking, an animal creates a list of possible actions in relation to a given situation and then chooses the action which it believes will provide the best outcome. If the animal makes a choice not controlled by prior causes or correlations the outcome is generally not optimal and could have a good degree of chance to cause death. Humans who make choices not controlled by prior causes or correlations often get institutionalized either in prison or hospital.

      June 16, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
  16. bullfeathers

    A living breathing expanding unvierse is easily observable and can be modeled mathematical, however, both my point and the example I am using seem to elude you. I don't espouse religion, God(s) or science. I simply point out the laughable similarity of the athiest belief system with that of the religious and the folly of the athiest in putting their faith in science without understanding what they believe in, just as the religious but their faith in God(s) (as evidenced by this statement ".and what I don't understand I have evidence to support from the hundreds of thousands of scientists who devote their lives") As an aside, once the truth is discovered it is easily proven. Disproving that which is false but reasonable is what takes time. Let me close by using some of your own words, People like you have no use for the truth – you let others make up half-finished answers and call them the truth. People like me cannot respect that; you are within your rights to choose to be ignorant, but those of us who live in the world of reason will never respect those who have no use for the provable truth

    June 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  17. Robert

    Luke, your comparison does not hold up - it is easy to find evidence of the existence of your wife. Proving her existence would take a matter of minutes at most. People have been espousing the belief in various gods for thousands of years, and there has not to date been one single piece of evidence offered to support the existence of any gods. It is not only reasonable to assume that such gods do not exist, it is natural. Anything in existence leaves a trace - your wife undoubtedly spends money, leaving evidence of transactions, bills, tax forms, etc. You choose to believe in god and that is your right. I choose to require evidence before believing in anything supernatural, and that is my right. I will never regret being a man of reason.

    June 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • jmb2fly

      Robert, fair enough. However, reality doesn't depend on whether you have enough proof to believe in it. Try asking God if he's real. See what happens........ Just remember God answers in His own time and His own ways. Have a good one.

      June 17, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • Dan, TX

      One thing that always bothers me about people who claim to believe in God is that if you really believe in God, why would you do anything other than devote your life to surving God? From this I conclude that most people really do not believe in God, they just say they do to fit into society and gain social status. I don't think most "believers" spend much time contemplating their belief. That leads me to be somewhat less than impressed with religion in general.

      June 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  18. Tena

    To Robert; Apology accepted.

    June 16, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • Robert

      Thank you Tena. 🙂

      June 16, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  19. Darwin Rules

    IActually, Bill Maher has it right.

    June 16, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  20. J Lincoln

    I don't know why anyone even watches this Colbert clown. He tries to make "serious" points by being offensive in the name of entertainment. It is not entertaining or enlightening, it is just obnoxious. Jon Stewart at least is good for a few laughs. I couldn't even make it through Colbert's show the couple of times I tried to watch. What a horrible show.

    June 16, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • bullfeathers

      First, you have to take both at their word that they are entertainment and not news. Yes, you can see they are trying to make varous points but their ultimate goal is not to educate or inform but to entertain. There are several distinct styles of comedy and, as you have obviously noticed, the two choose to use different styles. They aren't as extreme as Bill Cosby vs. Andrew "Dice" Clay but the are quite different. One of the more entertaining aspects of Colbert's show is when he slips up and invites a guest on who is both more intelligent and wittier (sp?).

      June 16, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
    • William Bergmann

      Stephen Colbert is the singular most creative entertainer on television today. He is quick witted, intelligent, thoughtful and above all- open minded. If you cannot find his show fun to watch- you are doomed.

      June 17, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
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