Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus “was The Christ” and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

New “Conservative” Translation Of The Bible

http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_BibleApparently the Bible is not conservative enough for some people.

The folks who brought us Conservapedia – the alternative online encyclopaedia free from all that pesky liberal bias and concern for what’s actually true – have started a new project. It’s the imaginatively-titled Conservative Bible. Presumably Deutronomy 13 wasn’t conservative enough for them.

In reaction liberal Christians and some more knowledgeable atheists have been enthusiastically quoting all those “Don’t change the Bible” verses. One favourite being:

“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2

The many comments in response to WorldMag.com’s article on the new translation are along the same lines: “Leave the Bible alone”.

No doubt the conservatives behind this project will argue that theirs is the more accurate translation, while liberals have, over the years, polluted the original meaning of the Bible.

They’re not the first and will probably not be the last. For example, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, translated and authorised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses includes some subtle but important changes. When I spoke to them last year, the JWs played down the differences and claimed it was just a slightly more accurate translation. Here are a couple of examples – what do you think?

In the KJV of the Bible, 1 Chronicles 16:30 reads:

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.

While the same verse in the New World Translation favoured by Jehovah’s Witnesses reads:

Be in severe pains on account of him, all YOU people of the earth! Also the productive land is firmly established: Never will it be made to totter.

It looks like the NWT was translated with an intention of making the Bible say what they’d like it to say. In the first case, the original KJV translation “stable… not moved” is clearly at odds with modern science which tells us that the Earth not only rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, but orbits the sun once a year. The NWT tries to hide this glaring inaccuracy by translating the Hebrew to “productive land” rather than “earth”.

In the KJV Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Which the NWT translates as:

Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating calamity, I, Jehovah am doing all these things.

Again, the idea of God creating evil is completely at odds with other parts of the Bible and subsequent theology which describes him as good in every way.  I’ve even heard that “god” and “good” have similar etymological roots. The NWT use the alternative translation of “calamity”, which is still not exactly benevolent, but not quite as clear cut as “evil”. Ebonmuse discusses this discord in detail as part of his Little Known Bible Verses series.

I’m not claiming to know what the original authors of the Bible really intended. But whatever the truth about these kinds of claims there’s a danger inherent in any kind of investigation, be it scientific or linguistic which aims to “discover” a particular, predetermined outcome, rather than work out what is true. It’s a kind of wishful thinking. I can imagine Conservapedia translators saying, “We’d like the Bible to be more conservative, so when we re-translate it, we’ll make sure that is what we find!”.

Review: 50 reasons people give for believing in a god

I stumbled upon Guy P. Harrison‘s book in an online bookshop, knowing very little about it. When buying some other books I added it to my shopping basket on impulse hoping that it would give some insight into the psychology of belief. However, psychology isn’t really what the book is about so in that respect I was disappointed. 50 reasons people give for believing in a god is instead a series of responses to the most commonly cited reasons for god-belief, intended to promote critical thinking. Despite the above misunderstanding, I’m glad I shelled out for it because it is, in many respects, an excellent book.

What 50 reasons is not is a book of complex theology. You’ll find little discussion of apologetics, no mention of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, nor any discussion of, for example, what text was or was not interpolated into Josephus’ writings. The author aims to treat all religions equally and so doesn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on any one belief. Each chapter is prompted by the justifications that ordinary believers across the world have given Guy on his travels, so the book is accessible and relevant to the ordinary person. Examples of the 50 reasons include, “My god is obvious”, “Our world is too beautiful to be an accident” and “Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong”. I’m sure these are all arguments that those of us who frequent atheist blogs or debate with believers will have heard before, perhaps many times. In which case, the brief discussions in 50 reasons probably won’t be particularly new. What is noteworthy is the tone of this book.

It’s not that Guy Harrison compromises with regard to evidence; he never seems to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well maybe your religion is true”. Instead he makes simple observations and encourages the reader to make comparisons with other beliefs from around the world. The book is clearly intended to speak to god-believers and to get them to think more critically about their beliefs. With that in mind the author goes to some effort to avoid insulting them. For example, when interviewing a believer who claims to feel his god when he prays, Guy describes the problems faced by a skeptic.

“I asked the believer who said he had heard a god how he can be sure that he did not imagine it. It was at this point that I began to sense his rising irritation and decided not to push any further. So how does one question this amazing but common claim of personal contact with a god?”

The answer he comes up with becomes a reoccurring theme in the book. There are thousands of gods that people have believed in. Those believers have had similar experiences and present the same arguments as you – so why should these arguments work better for one god than any other? By treating all religions with equal skepticism and making reasonable comparisons, the arguments for belief are shown to be weak and often flawed.

The book’s simple approach has obvious benefits – 50 reasons is very readable. Probably the most readable book I’ve read on religion or atheism. The author is an accomplished journalist rather than an academic and the style of language is as accessible as you would expect. There are some great insights in the book, many of which will be familiar, but they are expressed with such simplicity and clarity that I found them sticking in my mind. One of my favourite quotes is in chapter 41, “Science can’t explain everything”.

“Gaps in our scientific knowledge are not shortcomings or failures. They are shining examples of why science is better than religion. Science can’t answer everything because science doesn’t cheat by providing answers without evidence.”

Noting the simple style is not to say that the book lacks real content or research. To his credit, Guy Harrison has obviously done his homework and 50 reasons contains some good examples, research and anecdotes to illustrate his points. A good example is in chapter 10 – “Believing in my god makes me happy”. Guy cites research surveying some eighty-thousand people worldwide to discover the world map of happiness. As it turns out, some of the happiest countries are also the least religious.

Superficial?

Critics of 50 reasons have accused it of being superficial and lacking the detail of other similar books. It’s true that others can and have written entire books discussing the points which Guy Harrison covers in short, roughly 5-page, chapters. However, that’s not what this book is about. To thoroughly debunk all religions ever would require many volumes and probably amount to several lifetimes’ work. In any case, as the author points out, the vast majority of believers don’t believe because of convoluted apologetic arguments; they may not even be aware of them.

Conclusions

In my opinion, 50 reasons is the ideal book for a non-believer to swap with a believer as part of an attempt to understand each other’s points of view. I’ve previously taken part in book swaps with believers and found them worthwhile. So I look forward to lending 50 reasons to my religious friends; I’d even consider buying additional copies for this purpose.

But is it worth reading, even for the well-read atheist who isn’t planning a book-swap? Well, such a person may not learn much about the arguments against religion from the book, but the concise insights, style and tone are worth experiencing. It demonstrates a different approach to debating with believers – one which I think is more suitable to discussions with friends and colleagues, especially in person. In these situations it is more important to keep things simple and amicable, whilst encouraging critical thinking. I must confess that several times I’ve made valid arguments which were insensitive and relationships have suffered as a result. I think the approach Guy Harrison uses in 50 reasons is a good example which I’d like to emulate in future.

Review: Godless by Dan Barker

Dan Barker is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but what makes his story interesting is that he was once an evangelical preacher. His latest book, published only last year is godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Barker’s earlier book, published in 1992 was Losing Faith in Faith and from the few online excerpts I’ve seen, it seems to have a lot in common with godless. However, as the more recent publication, godless appears more polished and up to date with plenty of additional content.

Godless is organised into four sections, the first describing his experiences as a preacher and his growing doubts. The second and third sections discuss the arguments for atheism and the problems with Christianity, while the final section covers some of his work with the FFRF.

Rejecting God

For me, the first section is the most interesting part of the book as it offers in insight into the mind of a sincere believer, detailing his lifestyle and thought processes during his five-year journey out of Christianity. What is notable from the introduction onwards, is that Barker was perhaps more rational about his reasons for believing than some. He didn’t believe it because he found it comforting, or because he wanted to fit in. He simply thought it was true.

I was always in love with reason, intelligence, and truth. I thought Christianity had the truth. I really believed it. I dedicated my life to it.

I seems to me that Dan’s desire for the truth was a factor in his de-conversion, as often seems to be the case. I am impressed by the honesty and modesty with which he describes his thoughts and actions as a believer. Some of these are no doubt embarrassing to him in retrospect, but he manages to have a laugh at his own expense. Of particular interest are the reactions of his Christian friends to his loss of belief. These range from total shunning through confusion, to amicable acceptance. My only criticism of the first section is that there’s not enough of it. At only 67 pages out of around 350, it is not the main focus of the book. This is partly because he avoids going into any theological arguments in the first section; it’s entirely about his experience.

Why I Am an Atheist and What’s Wrong With Christianity?

The largest part of the book is taken up by the two middle sections, in which the author covers in detail the arguments for atheism and against Christianity. I’m not entirely convinced by the approach of splitting the book up into personal story followed by the philosophical arguments. Sometimes I think technical, precise writing can become more readable when interspersed with human anecdotes – see for example Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the other hand, the volume of philosophy included would be in danger of drowning his personal experiences, so I can see why he did it this way.

Together, these two sections fill nearly 200 pages, which is perhaps justified. If they’d only been touched upon during the biographical first section, some of the finer points would have been lost. As it is, he thoroughly covers common theistic arguments, biblical contradictions and questions over gospel history in surprising detail. Additionally, one chapter titled “Dear Theologian” takes the form of a letter from God. This has a rather different style, asking questions rather than providing answers. At first this seems out of place, but I found it an interesting piece of philosophy and questioning things is exactly what free thought is all about.

In terms of arguments for atheism there is only a little in this section that will be new to a moderately well-informed atheist.  Nevertheless, he makes a comprehensive and convincing case for atheism which is as clear and relevant as any atheist book I’ve read.

Life is Good!

Appropriately, the book’s final section covers Dan Barker’s work with the FFRF trying to maintain the separation of church and state, fighting cases against organisations which use supposedly secular tax dollars for decidedly sectarian purposes. This is reasonably interesting, although there were no anecdotes which stood out as particularly memorable. Perhaps it would seem more relevant to those living in the US.

Overall I found the book an enjoyable and edifying read. I was a little disappointed by the briefness of his de-conversion story, but to be fair he probably wasn’t keeping a diary or holding a tape recorder during conversations, so it may be difficult to go into more detail without misquoting people. To some extent godless may be seen as a jack-of-all-trades – part autobiography, part philosophical debate, so may be unsatisfying to those who are not interested in reading both those things. For those who are however, it is both entertaining and informative. I would highly recommend this book to the recently de-converted or to Christians wanting to understand a different perspective.

Review: Why Truth Matters

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom addresses how, in recent times, truth has often been put aside for the sake of other concerns and discusses why this is a problem.  It covers the postmodern view that many different truths are in some way acceptable and that there are useful “ways of knowing” besides science. I hoped and expected that Why Truth Matters would provide insights into many dubious claims and show how harmful woolly thinking can be in the real world.

My expectations were only partially met.

I can’t say I disagree with the authors’ aims. In the course of writing and researching this blog, I’ve certainly found plenty of people who, whether knowingly or not, see the truth as a secondary concern. Why Truth Matters provides some fascinating examples of this, many of which were new to me, for example the historical revisionism that has been associated with Afrocentrism and the widespread dislike of certain ideas within sociobiology.

Others, such as the creationist dilemma of nineteenth century naturalist Philip Gosse, were more familiar, although the commentary frequently added some fresh insights. For example.

This is the crux of the dispute… What should trump what. Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not…

What’s wrong with the book is not so much the content and the thinking behind it, as the way it is presented. Yes, there are some intriguing quotes and reports and the book certainly has a naturalistic theme, but you never get the feel of an argument being constructed. The examples, while interesting, are arguably too long and I found I often lost track of the thread of the chapter’s argument. The book  is billed as being “accessible and exciting” and at under two hundred pages I hadn’t expected to have to do any extra homework to follow it. However, much of it seems to rely on knowledge of previous philosophical writers that I would consider outside of the mainstream.  The style of writing varies from the lucid to the impenetrably convoluted. There are some sentences “so clear you could swim in them”, as the Independent review described, but there are others which frankly, made my brain hurt. For example, chapter three “The Truth Radicals” opens with

Neopragmatism, a postmodernist view of pragmatism which sees truth variously as, in the words of its best-known exponent, Richard Rorty, ‘a rhetorical pat on the back’ or ‘whatever one’s contemporaries let one get away with’, began in the backwash of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Morris Dickstein points out that the revival of pragmatism is a complicated phenomenom with a lot of cross-currents; among them he cites a ‘new impetus to radical thinking’ in the 1960s, the shift of that impetus to the universities after the New Left collapsed, and the renewed disappointment with Marxism which caused apocalyptic thinking and ‘the grand narratives of earlier systems’ to go out of fashion, at which juncture the work of Rorty ‘formed a bridge between a Deweyan faith in liberal democracy and a postmodern antifoundationalism’.

Erm… what?

To be fair this is probably the worst example in the entire book, but there are lesser incidents where names are dropped in without introduction and unfamiliar schools of philosophical thought are referenced with little explanation. I’m not sure if these are examples of philosophical showmanship or merely a difficulty empathising with dilettantes such as myself. Either way, it makes parts of the book almost incomprehensible.

To conclude, Why Truth Matters is a mixed bag. It contains some insightful content cleverly disguised in a confusing structure and overly-academic prose.

[BPSDB]

One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course

I don’t often write posts waxing lyrical about something I found on the interwebs. There are plenty of freethinking blogs out there who do an excellent job of covering topical issues that are of interest to the non-religious.

However, this case is of particular interest to me.  I have toyed with the idea of going along to a local Alpha Course and asking all sorts of awkward questions. For a while I’ve been badgering yunshui to come along with me, you know, to hold my hand. I thought it would provide an insight into the psychology of believers, both new and old.

Then, a few weeks ago yunshui came up with the perfect excuse. He sent me a link to Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed” blog. This is a detailed account of the author’s time as a curious skeptic on the Alpha Course. He was granted permission to make audio recordings of their sessions including the DVD presentations featuring Nicky Gumbel and the group debates which followed. Much of the conversation is transcribed word-for-word, with exception of the other attendees’ names. As a result the 11 blog posts are each rather long, however I found them compulsive reading. The blog shows how thin the arguments presented on the course are, and how nonsensical Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will.

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”

What is especially impressive is the Stephen’s patient questioning, even when he is forced to repeat himself or listen to lengthy heartfelt testimonies. He seems to get along pretty well with the other members of the group – most of whom were already Christians.  He manages to avoid antagonising the other attendees while pressing his points and picking apart their rationalisations.

For those who aren’t Christians it’s well worth reading to understand the Christian mindset. For those who are, Stephen’s questions may help you to understand why so many people find it hard to accept your beliefs as true.

Review: Why People Believe Weird Things

http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/id/Why_People_Believe_Weird_Things/9780285638037

Michael Shermer’s skeptical book, Why People Believe Weird Things has been around since the late nineties. I should probably have read and reviewed it sooner; so much of the content is relevant to what I write about here. I’ve had the book a while now, but a few weeks ago I managed to wrestle the book back from my wife and actually read it. I’m glad I did.

Shermer starts the book by explaining what he means by a weird thing, the difference between science and pseudoscience and how skepticism works. He also gets my respect for admitting to the weird beliefs he previously held, which included a variety of unusual treatments alleged to enhance the performance of athletes. He cites their complete failure to improve his competitive cycling as one of the reasons he became a skeptic.

The majority of the book is devoted to covering a wide variety of weird beliefs. These include paranormal abilities, alien abduction, creationism, Ayn Rand’s objectivism and even holocaust denial. Shermer has certainly done his homework on all of these, providing some fascinating quotes and an 18-page bibliography for those looking for further reading. In several cases, the author has had direct experience of debating with those who believe weird things, on radio and television. These accounts are candid and modest – he spends more time noting his frustrations and failures to get his message across than he does celebrating great victories for reason. I found this to be all the more enlightening.

I found myself shaking my head in wonder and horror at some of the ridiculous and repugnant ideas described. However, Shermer carefully describes, dissects and debunks each of the weird beliefs without resorting to ridicule or personal attacks. Furthermore, the explanations are easy to follow and the book as a whole is pleasingly free of unexplained scientific or philosophical language.

Only in the last section does the book really address the question of its title. The harder question this leads to is why smart people believe weird things. Shermer concludes that, being of above-average intelligence is no guarantee of being free from weird beliefs. It seems that great minds do not necessarily think alike. He summarises his explanation for this as follows:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

I found this to be a surprising revelation, but one which Shermer has arrived at after much study across the diverse range of beliefs described in the book. Too often it seems that people take it as an insult to their intelligence to say that they believe something weird. To accept that even the most intellectually gifted amongst us have blindspots in our understanding of the world is a step in the right direction.

I had, perhaps naïvely expected the book to be entirely about the psychology of belief. I found the descriptions of weird beliefs to be very interesting, although I would have preferred more discussion of the successes and failures of his debates and the thought processes behind the beliefs.

Going bonkers over a bangle

Readers from the UK may have heard about a recent discrimination case in which 14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.

The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery. There have been quite a few similar cases over the years. Predictably, any concession to non-Christian religions in these matters yields cries of “Political correctness gone mad!” as can be seen from about half the comments on the BBC News Have your say page.

My first thoughts were in support of Sarika. I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off. In fact I’m all for freedom of belief, up until the point it infringes on other people’s rights. For example if people were carrying real daggers, I think this presents a danger (as much to the wearer as anyone else) and directly contravenes the law regarding offensive weapons. I don’t think bangles like this are hurting anyone. In fact I don’t see the problem with any kind of jewellery in schools.

That is, in fact, my point. It’s certainly not fair if only religious jewellery is allowed. I don’t see anything special about a religious belief over any other kind of belief. If someone wanted to wear their grandmother’s necklace simply because of the sentimental value it had for them, that should be considered equally important as religious jewellery and treated with the same respect. Not to do so is in itself a form of discrimination on the grounds of belief (or lack of belief).

I understand that the school wishes to “create a community ethos” (according to a quote in the Guardian) by enforcing uniform rules. Perhaps the worry is that if jewellery is allowed in schools it will encourage expensive bling and a separation of the haves from the have-nots. I don’t work in a school, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this might be, but I don’t see the harm in letting pupils express their individuality. There are plenty of other things they can do to foster a sense of community, such as inter-school competition, sports, debating, etc. Expressing their individuality is a good thing. It’s what people in real communities do. I don’t see how pretending or insisting that everyone is the same is at all helpful. Children should leave school with at least the inkling that different people believe different things.

So I support Sarika in wearing her kara, just as long as the same rules are applied to everyone regardless of whether their symbols and beliefs are religious or not.

Enigmatic Hinduism

Very Short Introduction to HinduismI’ve recently got around to reading the excerpt from the “Very Short Introduction” on Hinduism that came with the Independent a while ago. The headline is that I don’t feel any the wiser.

I can only speculate as to why Hinduism is so diverse and eclectic, it could be its long history or the plethora of religious texts relevant to Hinduism. In any case, it seems quite difficult to sum up what Hindus believe. To show what I mean, here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia:

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.

Which seems to cover most things.

Prominent themes in (but not restricted to) Hindu beliefs include Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).

Which is the good-sounding stuff that seems to crop up in most religions. Unfortunately, the Dharma bit  leads some of its followers to insist that the caste system is an essential part of ethics and duties.

There have also been a number of purported miracles within the Hindu world. The VSI book describes the miraculous consumption of milk by statues of Ganesh in September 1995. Ganesh is usually depicted as half-elephant and presumably drank the milk through the trunk. As an aside, I mentioned this to a friend who suggested hooking up a Ganesh statue to one of the Virgin Mary which was crying milk. The two could be locked in a milky embrace. I like that image!

Figs on a treeHinduism seems to be tightly bound up with Indian tradition, so much so that it is hard to tell one from the other. The religious traditions identify both Hindus and Indian people equally. Like most religions Hinduism has its fair share of stories, some more insightful than others. One of the more interesting examples from the VSI involves a young man “Shvetaketu”, being taught by his father about how the same essence is in everything. He takes the example of a fig, whose essence exists in the fig, the fig tree and the seed. In one sense this is insightful as the genetic code of the fig is indeed in all three things, however as often happens the insight is extrapolated in some less helpful directions:

“And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu!”… It expresses the idea that the truth which underlies everything and is its essence is also identical with Shvetaketu’s own self…

This doesn’t make any sense to me. All of which reminds me how much complexity there is in all religious traditions – something that’s easy to forget when thinking about the more familiar religions.

Perhaps this Very Short Introduction was not as well written or thought-out as the others, or maybe Hinduism is just very complex and ill-defined, but I still don’t feel I understand Hinduism properly.

Review: Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness by Diane Wilson

Awakening of a Jehovah's WitnessI was motivated to read Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness – Escape from the Watchtower Society after meeting some Jehovah’s Witnesses in a predictable situation; they came to my door. My conversations with them aroused my curiosity to find out more from a knowledgeable but (now) external source.

The author, Diane Wilson was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 25 years and her book describes her experience as a Witness, her personal struggle to escape and the discoveries she made along the way. She describes specific incidents which demonstrate the invasive controlling influence of the society. For example, at one time she was forced to redecorate a piece of her own furniture after some other Witnesses visited her house to discover apparently paganistic heart symbols on it. The fact that the rules for behaviour and dress are so strict and members are encouraged to inform on one another makes for a deeply unpleasant environment. The punishment for violation of these rules is either humiliation in front of the other Witnesses or in the worst cases disfellowshipping. In effect this means cutting the person off from the only social group they have – Witnesses are strongly discouraged from having friends outside of the society.

The book is highly readable and gripping, although the subject is obviously quite disturbing. Individuality is squashed and truth is spelt with a capital ‘T’ – always a bad sign in my opinion. Most notably she describes the reaction of the Witnesses who were members during the failed 1975 apocalypse prediction.

For the reader who has never been part of a cult-like religion, it’s hard not to hop up and down yelling, “Just leave them! Get out! You don’t need them! They’re crazy!”. At first it’s frustrating and difficult to understand, but the author does a fairly good job of explaining how she’s feeling and why – despite being desperately unhappy – she feels unable to leave. Lacking in confidence from the outset, she blames herself for not “Getting it” and continues to put up with the emotionally abusive Watchtower Society. The parallels with a person trying to leave an abusive partner are apparent, if not explicit.

Diane includes accounts of conversations with her therapist, whom she had to visit in secret, as external counselling is strongly disapproved of. This adds much insight and clarity both to her thoughts and the reader’s understanding.

The latter part of the book shows some of the research the author did in the process of examining her beliefs. There are some very interesting comparisons of Watchtower publications and their flip-flopping doctrines. Particularly eye-opening were the apparent changes relating to medical practices such as accepting organ transplants or vaccinations.

Reading this book I got the impression that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ branch of Christianity is like many other religions, only concentrated. Many religions encourage their members to behave in an insular way, socialising mostly within the group, not questioning the religious leaders or conforming to group behavioural norms. Few take it to the extremes of the Watchtower Society.

Overall the book should be essential reading for any Jehovah’s Witnesses – perhaps it should be published in a mock-bible binding to aid with secrecy. For everyone else it provides a valuable insight into both cult-psychology and the running of the Society.  She mentions that other Kingdom Halls (JW equivalent of a church) were less strict in some respects. However, judging by the numerous positive reviews from former Witnesses, her experience seems likely to be typical.