Religion: Reality Behind the Myths by Jonas Atlas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I am not sure what I was expecting here (this wasn’t it so this review probably reflects that). While I am not a relies scholar, I have a fair amount of experience with several different religious traditions, to the point of at least reading the scriptures that are generally believed to define them as well as engaging comparative studies of them (in fact I am a fan of Dr Campbell’s work). This is specifically true for the three (3) religions chosen by the author to make his point: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (which are actually community cohorts and not specific cults or sects like the author seems to imply). This makes his seven (7) rants on how we just don’t understand religion (because there is not common definition that applies to all religions) really strange … especially given that he doesn’t seem to offer any positive representations of what religion is … only what it is not. And from my experience, he was almost entirely incorrect with his critiques that mostly rely on showing that specific sects within a religion don’t agree with each other therefore there is no common definition … additionally he seems to have no concept of what a credal religion actually is, since he confidently states no such thing exists (despite evoking this term later on in the book).
Then we get to myth 2 about hierarchies where, after a rather twisted and confused examination of the orthodox churches, declares that they are not hierarchical because they can’t force their interpretations and dogmas on each other (ignoring the hierarchies within each). To be fair, there ARE non hierarchical christian churches … organized by a congregational governance … but even they have a pastor and elders. Still … there were certainly better examples out there that could have been revealed with a little more extensive research (perhaps the reform tradition). Additional his critique of Myth #3 seems to be entirely ignorant of how acculturation/appropriation and syncretism actually work within a religious context. The main premise here appears to be that since many religions share certain elements, it is difficult to distinguish one religion from another (a completely untenable position for the examples provided). About the only concept I can agree with the author on is his comparison of religion to language (I would go further and say that religion IS a language). Regardless … in each of his attempts to debunk common myths about religion, the author basically fails to identify areas of commonality and thereby illustrates either a lack of understanding of the example religions, or is an intentionally misdirecting the argument based on multiple logical fallacies, common biases or misapplied tropes.
That is not to say that there are not any interesting facts here (which saves this book some being completely panned); only that they are selected and curated to support (or at least not undermine) generalized, and often rather dubious, opinions with regard to how we understand religion. I was especially entertained by the author’s attempt to use the etymology of the word religion to support the idea that the word has racist elements in its current usage. The chapter on contracting spiritualism and mysticism with religion was also quite strange to me … having engaged in all three at one time or another and being familiar with Venn Diagrams, I don’t struggle with this nearly as much as the author appears to do. There is also some decent information regarding the presumed conflict between religion and science … although this is primarily an issue in some sects of the abrahamic religions … so I would have used the term faith vs science instead; however, this is a position that I, and most folks around me, have held for quite some time.
The last two myths discussed actually represent ongoing debates that I have recently witnessed and the author does bring up some solid points with respect to what is uniquely an element of religion and what is simply human nature. Where previous support had a decided wag the dog approach, here the argument tries to look at the nature of humanity and illustrates how religion, or more appropriately religious elements, are appropriated to rationalize and justify abhorrent social behaviors targeting outsiders. The underlying theme here is that a secular society in not inherently better or worse than a religious society … which, while true is still an odd point since in most societies that I am aware of, there is an overlapping spectrum for both and the author just finished explaining why they are actually not opposed to each other (and can co-exist with each other).
Myth #1 - Religions Are Determined by a Series of Dogmatic Beliefs and Well-defined Rules of Conduct That Adherents Must Follow
Myth #2 - Religions Are Structured Hierarchically
Myth #3 - Religions Can Be Clearly Distinguished, Based on Their Beliefs, Rules, and Structures
Interlude - On the Definition, Origin, and Racists Dimensions of the Word :Religion”
Myth #4 - Spirituality and Mysticism Contrast with Religion
Myth #5 - Science and Religion Are at Odds with Each Other
Myth #6 - Religions Are Dangerous Because Their Irrational Truth Claims Inevitably Provoke
Myth #7 - A Secular Society Is Completely Different (and Inherently Better) That a Religious Society
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.
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My Ratings Explained ...
- [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
- [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
- [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
- [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
- [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.