But to say these things requires an account of what I mean by “religion.” Instead of offering his own account, Hitchens’ strategy seems to be this: if it is good, noble, or tends to inspire compassion, then it isn’t “religion.” It is “humanism” or something of the sort. With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Bonhoeffer and King. When “religion” is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that “religion poisons everything.”
Imagine an author who sets out to prove that music glorifies violence but who spends most of the book fixated on gangsta rap and then attributes the vices of the latter to music in general. As already noted, this kind of mistake is called equivocation. Dawkins’ rhetorical excesses and inattention to nuanced differences do not just make him susceptible to this fallacy. When he tries to make the case that religion is pernicious, Dawkins moves willy-nilly from an attack on particular religious doctrines and communities to conclusions about religion and belief in God generally. And this, of course, is entirely typical of religion’s cultured despisers.
If you consider a wide sampling of the reactions to Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’ Religulous, two distinct themes emerge. On the one hand, reviewers consistently note that the filmmakers were deliberately manipulative in their survey of religion: in whom they chose to interview and feature, in asking baited questions, and finally, in their merciless splicing and dicing in the editing room. And so, not surprisingly, religious people come off as goofy, gullible, and worse. On the other hand, a number of reviewers note what they take to be an earnest search by Maher to understand people of faith. As Maher puts it himself at the outset, his quest is to understand how otherwise intelligent and rational people can continue to believe in fantasies like talking snakes and a virgin birth. It’s a worthwhile question, and there are moments in the film when Maher displays some genuine curiosity about it. Nonetheless, these two observations about Religulous are incompatible. And regrettably, by the end, it is clear that Maher and Charles set out not on a quest for understanding, but rather to proof-text their presumptions. Religulous is funny enough, and at times thought provoking. On the whole, however, Religulous is a “mockumentary”. A hit-piece. It is a quest that begins with a predetermined destination in mind and manages to arrive there by scrupulously avoiding any detours that might have derailed the script.
Life is short. Nevertheless, billions of people invest incalculable hours making fruitless pleas to nonexistent gods, participating in lavish rituals with no tangible effects, and whittling away tight budgets to support extravagant religious institutions or “spiritual advisors.” Worse still, antiquated religious ideas lead people to impose needless hardships on themselves and others, to rationalize discrimination and other forms of mistreatment, and to hasten environmental destruction because they believe that “the end of the world” is imminent anyway. And for every outward manifestation of wasteful, counterproductive, and even downright harmful activity motivated only by religious belief, there are countless instances that are not nearly so obvious. Religious belief has exacted a toll on people’s emotional well-being as well. Just how much energy has been drained searching for meaning where none is to be found, or been squandered on false hopes and unwarranted fears? How many believers have agonized over the uncertain destination of their loved ones after death? How many have struggled to discern exactly what they did to displease God after falling victim to a natural disaster? How many have been tormented trying to make sense of why God allows terrible things to happen to good people? In the absence of any clear revelation about what God wants us to do, how many have fretted about whether their own actions or beliefs, or those of the people dearest to them, are enough to avoid hellfire? How many of those who have lost their faith in old age have looked back at all the missed opportunities, the roads not taken, the life that could have been, had they not been born in a religious household, or had they abandoned religion in their younger days!
I confess, I’ve never been a fan of Bill Maher’s shtick. To me, smugness is just about the most annoying human personality trait. It’s why I have a hard time enjoying any movie featuring Kevin Spacey … unless he’s the villain, which suits me just fine. Maher has long had the temerity to insert himself into forums where serious political and cultural issues are at stake. Kudos for that. But, no matter how sincere or thoughtful the arguments put forth there, Maher seems to think they can be dismissed with a witticism and his famous smirk, dripping with self-satisfaction. Some think these retorts incisive. They’ve always struck me as evasions. Rarely does Maher bother to engage the logic of an argument, which is fine as a comedian, but it hardly merits his apparent self-appraisal as a beacon of reason. It appears from the trailers that Maher has taken a similar tack in his new film, Religulous. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, so I’ll refrain from commenting until I do (Read My Film Autopsy now that I’ve seen it). In the meantime, the reviews and responses popping up around the Web are plenty interesting. Here’s a sampling…
What if there was a religion, asks comedian Bill Maher, in which an all-powerful god from outer space decided to send his unborn son on a suicide mission to planet Earth? So this space-god impregnates a human female in some mystical, not-quite-physical fashion, and she gives birth to a baby who is both a human being and a divine incarnation, simultaneously the space god’s spawn and the space god himself. (Oh, space god also has a third manifestation, one that’s totally invisible.) So space-god junior is born on Earth destined to be killed, even though he’s a space god and therefore immortal. As you’ve picked up by now, the religion Maher is describing is not imaginary, and in various forms and guises is professed by most people in the United States, including every president we’ve ever had or are likely to have in the foreseeable future… In the acerbic late-night talk-show host’s new movie “Religulous,” made with “Borat” director Larry Charles, Maher keeps bludgeoning you with stories like these to make the point that the central story behind mainstream Christianity, when considered at face value and taken literally, sounds every bit as loony as the oft-derided tenets of Mormonism or Scientology.
A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists helps readers — both secular and religious — appreciate their common ground. For those whose thinking has moved from the religious thesis to the skeptical antithesis (or vice versa), Myers offers pointers to a science-respecting Christian synthesis. He shows how skeptics and people of faith can share a commitment to reason, evidence, and critical thinking, while also embracing a faith that supports human flourishing — by making sense of the universe, giving meaning to life, connecting us in supportive communities, mandating altruism, and offering hope in the face of adversity and death. ~ Publisher’s Description
Paul Froese explores the nature of religious faith in a provocative examination of the most massive atheism campaign in human history. That campaign occurred after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when Soviet plans for a new Marxist utopia included the total eradication of all religion. Even though the Soviet Union’s attempt to secularize its society was quite successful at crushing the institutional and ritual manifestations of religion, its leaders were surprised at the persistence of religious belief. Froese’s account reveals how atheism, when taken to its extreme, can become as dogmatic and oppressive as any religious faith and illuminates the struggle for individual expression in the face of social repression.
It would be a safe but sad bet that someone, somewhere in the world, is killing someone else at this very moment in the name of religion or ideology. ¶ Currently, the world’s newspapers give us each day our daily read of the Sunni Muslims ferociously slaughtering Shia Muslims in Baghdad, and of Shia Muslims ferociously slaughtering Sunni Muslims in revenge. Elsewhere it might be Muslims and Hindus killing each other in Kashmir, or Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, or Muslims and animists in Sudan. Earlier it would have been Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, and Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics in the Balkans. … But before anyone drifts off into the well-rehearsed litany of blaming it all on religion, we should remember that modern “terror” began in France in 1789 in the name of secular Reason, killing several million in its wars and committing a near genocide in the Vendée on its first outing. Nearer our own time, close to a hundred million people were slaughtered in the twentieth century by secularist ideologies — far more than the deaths from all the religious persecutions and repression in Western history combined.
In spite of the difficulties in defining and applying the term “religion,” we need a tentative, working definition. For our purposes, religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality which inspires worship or total devotion.
An Apology for Apologetics argues that a vigorous apologetics is a vital component of any sound effort at interreligious dialogue. Griffiths shows that a spirited defense of each religious tradition must be made by people who are both committed to their “truth” and open to serious criticisms by members of other faith traditions. He demonstrates why and how such a recognition of the necessity of interreligious apologetics (the “NOIA principle”) runs counter to the underlying presuppositions of many proponents of interreligious dialogue. Griffiths raises the specter of an unacceptable price that will be paid if the apologetic enterprise is abandoned. Religious traditions, he shows convincingly, will face relegation to the realm of purely private opinion and religious people will be denied the minimum plausibility they need to engage in public discourse. He argues ultimately that if basic doctrines cannot be defended against alien claims, religious tradition cannot survive. This book will without a doubt stimulate the debate it seeks to introduce: it unapologetically issues a challenge to teacup ecumenists and lazy pluralists. An Apology for Apologetics is for all who are seriously concerned with their own religious communities. It shows how to think about (and communicate with) those whose practices and convictions seem to differ significantly from one’s own.
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
Is Christianity obsolete? Can an intelligent, educated person really believe the Bible? Or do the atheists have it right? Has Christianity been disproven by science, debunked as a force for good, and discredited as a guide to morality? Bestselling author Dinesh D’Souza (What’s So Great About America) looks at Christianity with a questioning eye, but treats atheists with equal skepticism. The result is a book that will challenge the assumptions of both believers and doubters and affirm that there really is, indeed, something great about Christianity. Provocative, enlightening, a twenty-first-century successor to C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity is the perfect book for the seeker, the skeptic, and the believer who wants to defend his faith. D’Souza argues…
Recent Barna research indicates that less than one in ten evangelical Christians hold a biblical worldview. A World of Difference seeks to change this disturbing fact by educating readers on how the Christian perspective is uniquely reasonable, verifiable, and liveable. Author Kenneth Richard Samples faced a profound test of his own belief system during a personal life-and-death crisis. In A World of Difference, he uses nine distinct tests to compare the Christian worldview with current religious and philosophical competitors, including Islam, postmodernism, naturalism, and pantheistic monism. Samples tackles tough issues through this in-depth study of Christianity’s history, creed, and philosophical basis. An excellent resource for readers who want their view of life and the world to make sense. ~ Product Description
Hitchens, one of our great political pugilists, delivers the best of the recent rash of atheist manifestos. The same contrarian spirit that makes him delightful reading as a political commentator, even (or especially) when he’s completely wrong, makes him an entertaining huckster prosecutor once he has God placed in the dock. And can he turn a phrase!: "monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents." Hitchens’s one-liners
bear the marks of considerable sparring practice with believers. Yet few believers will recognize themselves as Hitchens associates all of them for all time with the worst of history’s theocratic and inquisitional moments. All the same, this is salutary reading as a means of culling believers’ weaker arguments: that faith offers comfort (false comfort is none at all), or has provided a historical hedge against fascism (it mostly hasn’t), or that "Eastern" religions are
better (nope). The book’s real strength is Hitchens’s on-the-ground glimpses of religion’s worst face in various war zones and isolated despotic regimes. But its weakness is its almost fanatical insistence that religion poisons "everything," which tips over into barely disguised misanthropy. ~ Publisher’s Weekly
In the providence of God, why are there other religions? Was the God of the Bible wise in allowing for them? Can they serve any purpose? Gerald R. McDermott explores teaching from the Old and New Testaments and reflections from a number of key theologians from the early church to suggest an answer to this intriguing but perplexing question. In the end McDermott provides considerable insight into the troubling clash of the world religions and offers a helpful Christian response. "Dr. McDermott has written extensively on the world religions from the orthodox Christian perspective. God’s Rivals sets forth to answer the questions of whether or not there are other gods, and more importantly Why? Past that the questions really flow, and I personally love his style of giving enough facts from the Bible and historical writings to let the reader begin to form his or her own opinion. The "continuous red thread" is a helpful concept guiding this reader through a difficult forest." ~ William A. Fintel at Amazon.com
AAppiah, a Princeton philosophy professor, articulates a precise yet flexible ethical manifesto for a world characterized by heretofore unthinkable interconnection but riven by escalating fractiousness. Drawing on his Ghanaian roots and on examples from philosophy and literature, he attempts to steer a course between the extremes of liberal universalism, with its tendency to impose our values on others, and cultural relativism, with its implicit conviction that gulfs in understanding cannot be bridged. Cosmopolitanism, in Appiah’s formulation, balances our “obligations to others” with the "value not just of human life but of particular human lives" — what he calls “universality plus difference.” Appiah remains skeptical of simple maxims for ethical behavior — like the Golden Rule, whose failings as a moral precept he swiftly demonstrates — and argues that cosmopolitanism is the name not "of the solution but of the challenge." ~ The New Yorker
Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the "meaning" of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religion or denounced by them. And yet — the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what "he" demands of us — from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction — itself composed of warring factions — has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need. Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough on its own to exclude "belief" from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
Needless to say, there is a long history of horrible events whose causes are or were almost entirely religious; without faith (i.e. belief without evidence) many of these conflicts may never have happened, or might at least have taken on a less violent form. Examples: Abortion clinic bombings; the American revolution; the Arab/Israeli conflict; the Aum Shinrikyo poisonings; Aztec religious sacrifices; the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco; the Catholic/Protestant conflict; the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide; the Huguenots and the French Wars of Religion; the Inquisition; the Indian/Pakistani conflict; the Ku Klux Klan; the Sunni/Shi’ite conflicts in Iraq, the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka; the Thirty Years War; and witch trials.
Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti religionists such as Harris assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression — and, in the form of Muslim extremism, continues to do so today. Yet the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by totalitarian states armed with ideologies that were either explicitly atheist (communism) or non religious (Nazism). What’s more, in the past and at present, religious fanaticism has often served as a vehicle and a cover for other tribal allegiances, such as nationalism. ¶ Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don’t believe in good and evil anyway. Pat Tillman, the football player tragically killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan, was an atheist who joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 because he wanted to fight for his country against the barbarians who attacked it. Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and a secular humanist, stood up to the Soviet regime in the 1970s, at great risk to himself, in the name of human rights. ¶ A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. In America, some people used the Bible to justify slavery, but Christians were also in the forefront of the battle to abolish it. Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.
It is a commonplace to think of Christianity and rationalism as opposite historical and philosophical forces. In this stimulating and provocative study, Stark (The Rise of Christianity) demonstrates that elements within Christianity actually gave rise not only to visions of reason and progress but also to the evolution of capitalism. Stark contends that Christianity is a forward-looking religion, evincing faith in progress and in its followers’ abilities to understand God over time. Such a future-based rational theology has encouraged the development of technical and organizational advances, such as the monastic estates and universities of the Middle Ages. Stark contends that these developments transformed medieval political philosophy so that democracy developed and thrived in those states, such as northern Italy, that lacked despots and encouraged moral equality. Stark concludes by maintaining that Christianity continues to spread in places like Africa, China and Latin America because of its faith in progress, its rational theology and its emphasis on moral equality. While some historians are likely to question Stark’s conclusions, his deftly researched study will force them to imagine a new explanation for the rise of capitalism in Western society. ~ Publishers Weekly
Although he lacks the glibness, arrogance, and fame of best-selling antireligionists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, Ward neatly cuts the ground from under such global-village atheists. He points out their definitional haziness about the key terms religion and the paltriness of the evidence for their claims, and their reliance on outdated, unverifiable anthropological and psychological speculations. And that’s only in the introduction. Religion and violence, religion and irrationality, religion and morality, and whether religion does more harm than good are the topics of the short book’s four parts proper, and in each Ward demonstrates that clear, consistent, and logical relationships between ill effects and religious motivations cannot be established. If religion is violent, how to explain Quakers and Buddhists? If irrational, then those philosophical reconcilers of reason and faith Kant, Descartes, and Aquinas must be refuted. Religious belief seems immoral only when scripture is cherry-picked, and whether religion harms more than helps the person and society has yet to be demonstrated. Ward argues with the findings of social science research and philosophy rather than scripture, and he concludes with boilerplate ecumenism only after having reassured readers that God-bashing celebs don’t, perhaps can’t, know what they’re yakking about. ~ Ray Olson for Booklist
What characterizes the postmodern condition, then, is not a rejection of grand stories in terms of scope or in the sense of epic claims, but rather an unveling of the fact that all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth… The result, however… is what Lyotard describes as a “problem of legitimation”… since what we thought were universal criteria have been unveiled as just one game among many. If we consider, for instance, the reality of deep moral diversity and competing visions of the good, postmodern society is at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims. There can be no appeal to a higher court that would transcend a historical context or a language game, no neutral observer or “God’s-eye view” that can legitimate or justify one paradigm or moral language game above another. If all moral claims are conditioned by paradigms of historical commitment, then they cannot transcend those conditions; thus every moral claim operates within a “logic” that is conditioned by the paradigm. In other words, every language game has its own set of rules. As a result, criteria that determine what constitutes evidence or proof must be game relative: they will function as rules only for those who share the same paradigm or participate in the same language game. The incommensurability of language games means that there is a plurality of logics that precludes any demonstrative appeal to a common reason. Recognition of the incommensurability of langauge games and the plurality of competing myths means that there is no consensus, no sensus communis. Many ? especially Christians ? lament this state of affairs… But is the problem as bad as we think? … In the face of this problem, we must not lose sight of the fact that what constitutes the postmodern condition is precisely a plurality of language games ? a condition in which no one story can claim either universal auto-legitimation (because of the plurality of “the people”) nor appeal to a phantom universal reason (because reason is just one myth among others, which is itself rooted in a narrative). And this plurality is based on the fact that each game is grounded in different narratives or myths (i.e. founding beliefs).
What has Christianity ever done for us? What value is there in seeking to preserve its influence today? In this book, Jonathan Hill answers these questions with some questions of his own. For instance, why do we seal wine bottles with cork? Where did musical notation come from? How did universities get their start? And why was the world’s first fully literate society not in Europe, Asia or North America? As Hill tells the story of the centuries-long entanglement between Christianity and Western culture, he shows the profound influence that Christianity has had–from what we drink to how we speak, from how we write to how we mark the seasons. Employing a rich, narrative style packed with events and people and illustrated throughout in full color, he describes the place of Christianity both in history and in the present day. What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? is an enlightening and often humorous tour of culture and thought, the arts, the landscape, education, society, spirituality and ethics, and social justice. Here is a rich, entertaining and informative read. ~ Book Description
No, to find real blasphemy, we have to look to ourselves and our forebears — those of us who have taken upon ourselves the name of Christ, and then, in the name of Christ, perform acts that make him weep. When our Christian forbears used the name of Christ to justify slavery, used the name of Christ to justify the history of anti-semitism and the long line of pogroms. When we used the name of Christ as the reason for apartheid and Jim Crow. When we use the name of Christ to kill the Irish Catholic or the Irish Protestant. Or the Serb or the Croatian or the Bosnian. When we use the name of Jesus as the banner under which we picket the funeral of President Clinton’s mother, or someone who has died of AIDS. When we get upset because the homeless are littering the sidewalk that leads to our church. When we expend more political effort toward getting a cut in our taxes than we do in making sure that the children of our country have decent food and shelter, and do it in the name of Christianity. When we do these things ? that’s when we should raise the cry of “Blasphemy.”