Tag Archives: religion

Book Review: The Koran – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read the Koran once when I was a teenager, but did so with no guidance and just went through it cover to cover. It seemed rather disjointed, with some oddly worded concepts and what I considered to be perversions of stories from the Old Testament. The one that stuck in my mind was a re-telling of the story of the garden of Eden, where the serpent of Genesis became Satan (or Shai’tan as I think it may have been rendered) and prompted me to wonder whether this was the impetus for christian theologians to make that identification or whether it was earlier, even if it is commonplace in most expressions of christianity today. Yet I haven’t touched the book since then. At some point, I may come back, though I wonder how one might review it on this blog.

In approaching this book, then, in the hope that it will go someway to filling a hole of ignorance. Already, one may think it wrong to refer to the Koran as opposed to the Qur’an. In his introduction, Cook states that while Qur’an is the more faithful rendering, Koran is readily recognised as an anglicised form that lends itself to a correct stressing of the syllables. As this is the way Cook refers to it, then so shall this review.

The manner in which Cook approaches the book is unlikely to be one that people expect. He works roughly in a sort of anti-chronology, looking at the modern usages of the Koran, moving back in time to tell its story. Though at times, this timeline gets a bit jumbled, that seems to be in order to avoid the exposition itself becoming jumbled. In case it needs highlighting, this is the VSI of the book of the Koran, it is not a VSI of Islam. If that it was you’re looking for, then this is not the right book for you.

We begin by considering what the notion of ‘scripture’ is and what the overall message of the Koran tries to tell us. The emphasis Cook brings out is that of the straight path and the nature of God (though I did wonder why Cook referred to God, rather than Allah).

After this introduction, we get to see how the Koran is used today and its influence, which is quite evident to many if you either live in an area where there is a high Muslim population or by putting on the news. Yet the disparity between these two is clear and not a little confusing for the non-Muslim. Such misunderstanding can give birth to Islamophobia.

After looking at how the Koran is communicated (both as a written text and as a self-contained oral tradition in and of itself), there’s a general discussion as to what it means for any text to be regarded as “scripture”. Of course, any writing is, etymologically scripture. Even this blog is; but that’s not the common usage of the word, which tends to denote some sacred text of a religion. Contrasts are drawn between the Koran and some of the Vedas, though to many a reader, especially christians like me, the comparisons to the bible are rather thin and it left me feeling a little flat.

One of the bits that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense was the idea of coloured text. There is talk of it, but as the book is published in black & white, apart from the cover, then one cannot tell about the red and gold punctuation marks. It was only when I visited the British Library’s collection of Koran’s that this became clear.

What we don’t get is one clear story of how the Koran is said to have come about. There are hints here and there, but the whole story of Mohammad being told to read is rather lost in amongst the other chapters, partly as the story of where he was when various bits of the Koran were revealed.

Overall, it is a useful VSI, though I can’t say it was particularly memorable. I’m publishing this review some time after having finished it and find myself having to keep opening it to remind myself of the book’s contents. It’s one to keep and refer to, yet I couldn’t help but think there are better introductions available.

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Book Review: Socialism – Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels

This is the third and final work in a single volume which also contains The Communist Manifesto and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. This work was written much later in Engels’ life, and as such represents his more mature view, having noted that his contribution to the earlier two works took place when he still relatively young.

One might be hard pressed to call it a book in its own right, as it is more of an extended pamphlet, running to a little under 70 pages long; even then the introduction takes up over a third of its entire length! For the sake of familiarity, I will choose to continue to call it a book.

So what of its content?

The lengthy introduction is largely about materialism. Specifically, it is a statement of materialism’s superiority as an idea than anything that any religion has produced. It is not an argument as such, as there is no real reasoning put forward other than an appeal to a few named philosophers (including Hobbes and Hegel). If we put that aside for a bit and look at the points Engels is trying to make, it becomes clear that his idea of religion is little matured from when he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto. It remains a caricature of (predominantly) christian belief that is asserted, but not evidenced.

Getting onto the main substance of the book, Engels looks at what he refers to as Utopian Socialism. In particular he looks at the style of socialism advocated by Robert Owen, whose influence upon socialism, communism, the early labour movements and the trade unions cannot be understated. Engels states that Owen’s motivation, that of creating a better society, is flawed, that it is utopian and that instead another model must be sought.

I’ve yet to read any of Owen’s work, though what little reading I have done around him (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!) indicates to me that his motivations were far more similar to those that I knew when I lived and worked around the old mining towns of the north-east, whose input into my life have helped shape my socio-economic-political views. It is a socialism that is borne out of compassion, where all people are seen as and treated as equal. But Engels will have none of this.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the other half of the title: Scientific Socialism. Though this is a rather idiosyncratic use of the word ‘scientific’. It is rather dependent upon dialectic materialism, though Engels is at a loss to say what dialectic means, let alone his (and Marx’s) particular interpretation of the word. So Engels comes back to the opening The Communist Manifesto by stating that it was a great “discovery” of Marx’s is that history can be boiled down to a statement of class struggle. Opposed to the idea of all being equal, Engels maintains his view that there exists two distinct classes and that one is better than the other. That the working classes must rule and that the bourgeois must be smashed. This is not a view of socialism that I can agree with. I pointed out in my earlier review how flawed this historiography is, but its place here confirms it as one of the pillars upon which communism rests. Its unreliable analysis is one reason why I could not be a communist.

Another reason is Engels’ reliance on materialism. Again he asserts that is the right view, superior to others, but he does not engage in a critical argument, but merely assumes that he is right. Or rather, he assumes that Marx is right, as the main evidence for it seems to be in Das Kapital which, when referenced, is given all praise and no critique. There is no serious consideration for non-materialistic viewpoints, and as such there is no engagement with this. The argument, such as it, stands alone, in a vacuum. In other words, Engels urges us to adopt his point of view because there is no other. There is a place for putting forward one’s views in such a manner, as it might be impossible to take into account all relevant views, but it left me no more in favour of Engels’ flavour of socialism than I was before.

Ultimately, the book is lacking in arguing for a point. Engels relies too much on telling his readers that his points have already been proved instead of actually trying to prove them. In this sense, it is an attempt at persuasion by repetition. If you say something enough times, in uniformity, then that ingrains itself in your head. Such is the method by which shamanistic chanting, or liturgy, works.

This concludes the single volume work which contained this and the other two works of Engels noted above. In trying to educate myself as to the origins of communism, there remains one major lacuna my reading. The work reviewed here references it repeatedly, so it is to that work which I must turn next. It of course, Marx’s Das Kapital.

Is religion evil? An analogy with water

This evening, I was watching a short interview on channel 4 news with Stephen Hawking. One of the questions asked whether religion was a force for good or for evil. I can’t recall the precise wordings of the question & answer, though I hope I am faithful to the gist. If anyone has a transcript, that would be most helpful.

The answer he gave was very scathing. He rightly cited a number of wrongs that have been committed in the names of various religions. Yet he overlooked all the good that has been done in the names of the sane religions.

Aside from the difficulty in defining what one means by “religion”, which makes the question at once simplistic and possibly misleading, a thought came to my mind.

To ask such a binary question about a myriad of complex beliefs and practices might be likened to asking whether water is a force for good or evil. If one has a particularly prejudiced view, one could point to the millions (billions?) of human deaths caused by water. Countless floods have led to the loss of life and diseases that have been transmitted by drinking dirty water continue to claim lives every day. You could similarly look at the erosion that water causes, with landslides also claiming lives and causing many to lose their homes.

All this, though overlooks the good of water, as a sustainer of life, a source of energy and all sorts of other things.

If I may extend the analogy, without extending it too far, one might say that one of the big killers is, effectively, “poisoned” water. I.e. it is not the water itself that kills but the chemicals, viruses and bacteria that live within it (and often thrive in that environment) which do the damage. So, with various different religions, the elements that do the damage are carried the religion, but are ultimately poisons. They may do little damage to the religion itself (except for reputational) but they will hurt the unwary who drunk the dirty water, unable to distinguish the pure from the impure.

I don’t know if anyone has come up with a similar analogy; I’m just thinking on the hoof here. Is that a wholly unfair analogy? I don’t ask ‘does the analogy fall down at some point?’ – every analogy does at some point. I hope that makes some sort of sense.

What do you think?

Book Review: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion by David Hume

A word first on the precise book I read, as I am aware that the works of David Hume have been published under various similar titles but with different contents. This version was published by Oxford University Press and has an introduction written by John C.A. Gaskin. The bulk of the book is made of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. It also contains Hume’s My Own Life, section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and a letter dated 10/03/1751 concerning the Dialogues.

As a freethinking christian, I am advocate of reading views that contradict one’s own. You can see some examples of other such books I have read, including those by Marcus Borg, Christopher Hitchens and Ben Whitney. When I asked Simon Clare for a recommendation of such a book, he mentioned Hume in passing, but ultimately recommended Whitney. Though I thought it would be worthwhile having a read of some of Hume’s work.

The inclusion of section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a little odd, as the notes reference other sections which weren’t included in this volume.

The bulk of the book is made up of the Dialogues, which I confess came as quite a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting a classic work of atheistic thinking to be quite so good. The thing that struck me most was the format. I’ve not read a work like it since I did Plato’s Republic quite some years ago. Instead of a straightforward exposition, Hume has created several characters who enter into a protracted discussion. In so doing, the notes to the book state that Hume somewhat disguises what his own view is. The two main characters are Cleanthes (who dominates the early part of the discussion) and Philo (who dominates the latter part). There is also Demea who interjects occasionally. Though Demea is not cast as a simpleton, as Galileo did in a similar dialogue which got him in an awful lot of trouble, he is regarded as an earnest believer and is not as nuanced as Cleanthes.

In setting up a dialogue as he has done, Hume somewhat disguises what his own view was. Cleanthes is, roughly, the reasonable believer while Philo is the extreme sceptic. Which of these represent Hume’s voice? The notes attached, and a few comments I’ve seen when looking into it, say that Philo represents Hume’s true view. Given the body of the other writings in this volume, that is an understandable point of view. Though in the letter about the Dialogues which is included, Hume explicitly states that he sides with Cleanthes. The notes try to dismiss this by stating it was a typo, though I’m not so sure.

As for the contents of the Dialogues themselves, they can be roughly divided up into two parts. In the first, the existence of God is assumed and then the question is posed as to what we might discern about the nature and character of God by mere observation of the world around us. In so doing, Hume deliberately blinkers the conversation by limiting it to “natural religion” and excludes any consideration of history. In this first part, the ultra-sceptic Philo puts in his objections occasionally but is typically well-countered by Cleanthes. However, having started with the fairly narrow premise of what might be inferred about God, it is of little surprise that the answers which emerge are very limited. An interesting point raised in the notes in that this first half is meant to be a counter-argument to the argument from design, though it was written before William Paley’s famous, influential and nowadays disregarded work, Natural Theology. I say it is meant to be a counter-argument rather than it is a counter-argument as it seems to me that Hume and the participants in his fictional dialogue rather side-step the issue and merely present other, reasonable possibilities so that one could only conclude that natural theology is not compelling, rather than showing it to be false.

The second half of the Dialogues turns the question around and Philo takes to the fore. Instead of taking the existence of God as obvious, this is now called into question and instead, the participants look at whether the existence of God is necessitated by what we observe from the world around us. Crucial to this is the classic question attributed to Epicurus, the question of theodicy. In so doing, Hume examines four “sources” of evil and there is a discussion on each in turn, though I did feel that a proper definition of ‘evil’ was somewhat lacking, making the discussion amenable to the prejudices of the participants (i.e. the different voices in Hume’s head which he wrestles with). Consequently, the conclusions of the discussions may be somewhat skewed away from the rational objectivity for which he strives. It is interesting to note that at this point in the dialogues Demea departs, though no particular reason is given; it seems to me that Hume is saying something along the lines of, “given that all has been said, the devout believer has no choice but to concede defeat and leave.” Though I admit, that is just my interpretation. Yours may be different.

I also admit that I used the word ‘conclusion’ in the preceding paragraph rather loosely, as Hume does not really come to any succinct verdict. He certainly doesn’t go so far as to say that he has disproved God, which is what I was expecting, given the book’s reputation as a classic work of atheism. Instead, he merely goes so far as to demonstrate reasonable doubt.  Yet this is, as I said earlier, reasonable doubt on a single strand of theological thought, that of natural theology. If anything, he well demonstrates that this strand alone is insufficient to base a belief of God on. In this, I would agree with him. Though it is Hume’s own limited scope that leaves open much more to be explored. My own faith, for example, though I am fascinated by the fine-tuning question in physics, do not hurry down the path of teleology which tends to lead to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, I take fine-tuning as a possible indication of the providence of God, but I hold it tentatively, aware that it might be wrong. The rock of my faith, however, is the person of Jesus, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not get a single mention in the Dialogues. If he does, then he is certainly not a central figure. Neither is Abraham or David or the Buddha or Muhammad.

So what then, of the follow-up, The Natural History of Religion? The introductory notes states that it was unusual for it to be partnered with the Dialogues, as the Natural History was considered an inferior work, though the editor of this volume wished for them to be paired. In this respect, I would agree with the prevailing view as the Natural History contains far fewer points of relevance.

As an aside, if you read the Natural History (and to some extent, the latter parts of the Dialogues) one may see why the so-called “New Atheism” is really not all that new. The starting premise, though unstated, is that all religion must be untrue. This is assumed, without reason or evidence. The question which then arises, and which this book attempts to answer, is “Where did religion come from?” The answers which Hume gives are, sadly, all too frequently echoed today by the internet atheists one meets on discussion forums whose knowledge and understanding of any religion is shaped predominantly from a few years of attending church as a child, followed by confirmation bias of listening to and reading the naysayers as adults. So we find here an attempt at understanding the evolution of monotheistic thought out of polytheism. There is a discussion likening beliefs in gods to belief in elves and pixies. Yet nowhere does Hume draw on any historical evidence for his assertions. They are stated as though they should be taken at face value, which I doubt even his arch-sceptic, Philo, would have done.

It was a disappointing end to the volume, as I must admit I really rather liked the Dialogues. They have much to offer and much to mull over. Certainly, anyone who wishes to delve into the idea of teleology should only do so if they pay heed to Hume tapping on their shoulder, warning them of fruitless alleyways of thought. Yet to include the Natural History of Religion without tackling the very real historical figures of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, to name just three, is to miss the point entirely. That said, I would recommend that anyone who might regard themselves as a christian, a catholic, a Jew or a Muslim, should read Hume.  Though he does little to challenge the specifics of faith, the philosophical musings on what we might know about the nature of God and how we know it is of great value. His case for the reasonableness of doubt is well made and is one that I agree with, even though I do not go so far as some readers of Hume might to do allow doubt to fester into disbelief.

Book Review: Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

This was Huxley’s follow up to his much lauded The Doors of Perception. The volume I got actually contained both books, though I decided to review them separately. I hope you don’t think that’s cheating. The book carries on very much in the same vein as Doors, with its mix of visual experience, mysticism and mind-altering drugs. As with the earlier book, it’s difficult to write an ordered review as the book is not all ordered. It would be unfair to characterise as a stream of consciousness, though that would be at the end of the road which Heaven and Hell starts to walk down.

What it is, is fascinating and thought-provoking. The fact that it meanders around without making any points may frustrate many readers, myself included. It’s a bit like walking around a landscape without any paths with a guide who keeps pointing out random features. Some you will find interesting, some you won’t. So in spite of its brevity, the book is a rich source of material that one could take and write about. Because of this, I cannot write at any length for to do it justice would require taking every third paragraph and writing an essay dissecting it and exploring the avenues it points down.

Some of its most interesting points are, in my opinion, those relating to ‘religion’. Anyone who has read Charles Foster’s Wired For God may recall a few references he made back to Huxley’s work. Indeed, anyone who has read and enjoyed the more ‘religious’ aspects of this may well want to read Foster as a follow-up. One point to emphasise (perhaps unfairly) is that Huxley points out the shamanistic origins of liturgy, a point I have often made but which has fallen on the deaf ears, or otherwise aggressive defensiveness, of high church traditionalists. But I’ll let you discover that for yourself, along with a host of other well-articulated, thought-provoking insights. You might not agree with it all, but it’s well worth having a peek.

Book Review: The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

It is hard to find anyone serious who dislikes Tim Keller; I am frequently recommended his books and various quotes of his regularly crop up in my Twitter timeline, possibly only behind direct bible quotes, CS Lewis and Nietzsche. To date, the only book I’ve read of his was the excellent ‘The Reason for God‘ to which The Prodigal God is the follow-up. Effectively, having established the groundwork that one may rationally believe in God, Keller is here laying out what he sees as the heart of the christian message.

Keller acknowledges in the notes a debt he owes to Kenneth Bailey, upon whose work, amongst others, Keller has leant on heavily. So those familiar with Bailey’s take on the Prodigal Parable may well find themselves on familiar territory. He is also quick to clarify the use of the word “prodigal” in the book title does not refer to a God who has abandoned us and gone away, but rather it is to someone who is “”recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left.” So his reference is here to God’s extravagant grace.

His focus is on the parable known as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’ – which Keller points out is a bit of a misnomer, in that it is really the story of two lost sons – but lost for different reasons. As such, much of the book explores the roles of “younger brother types” and “older brother types” – with a quite pointed critique of the latter. His point is that the older brother of “religion” has missed the point and wrongly views the younger brother in a loveless way. It’s a marvellous exposition on why christianity should not be regarded as a religion, but acknowledging that religiosity has the capacity to alienate both christians and non-christians alike.

As a basic introduction to the christian faith, this is right up there with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or Tom Wright’s Simply Christian. As with the others, I don’t agree wholly with the author’s outlook. Though considerably more liberal than a lot of American evangelicals, Keller’s reformed orthodoxy is a still little too conservative for my taste. But this only comes to light towards the very end of this short and highly readable book.

Having finished it a little over a week ago, I have had a little time to reflect on it. I was thinking who I would or wouldn’t recommend it to. While I thought of plenty in the former category, the latter was virtually empty. As a long-time christian, I found the book shone light on the object of my faith with a fresh angle. For those wanting to explore the basics of christianity, then I would happily give them a copy, though I’ll hold on to mine for future reference!

Book Review: Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller

Almost as a follow up to The Selfish Gene, I wanted to read this for a little bit of balance. It’s been a fair while since I’ve engaged much with the creationism-evolution wars as they can be pretty exasperating. While I favour good science over second-rate rhetoric, some of the pro-science writers I have read come across a little too strident and ungracious. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book.

The book is quite decidedly broken into two halves. The first 5 chapters are very much focused on biology. This section is a real page turner. Although the proof reader wasn’t up to their job, as there numerous typos throughout, the writing style of the author shines through. Miller gives a stout defence of evolution, building very much on his expertise as a biology professor.

He looks at some of the schools of thought that are opposed to the acceptance of the evidence for evolution and provides a cutting critique into creationism and intelligent design. Along the way, we are given some great examples of how evolution has occurred throughout at the ages, and how the theory has developed, with some interesting pages on Stephen Jay Gould (much missed) and the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Unlike some writers, Miller does not resort to name-calling or insulting those who object to evolution. Instead, he is quite gracious, doesn’t disparage their intelligence and simply shows them why they are mistaken. If this approach were more widely adopted, then I think that much debate on internet message boards and discussion forums would be far more civilised than they are now.

The pertinent question that is then asked by Miller is this: Why does evolution raise the hackles so much? Or rather, why do some choose to become creationists or ID advocates in the face of the evidence in favour of evolution? This marks a sea change in the tone of the book where Miller then steps away from strict biology and veers more into sociological and religious territory. His great expertise in the former is thus contrasted with his lesser expertise in the latter two, which, though interesting, do not make for as good a reading as the first half of the book.

Having drawn out and exposed the fallacy that a correct understanding of evolutionary biology would necessarily entail an atheistic outlook on life, Miller spends the rest of the book giving his reasons for why he thinks that not only is evolution perfectly compatible with a belief in God, but that his understanding of God fits particularly well with evolutionary understanding, rather than being something dissonant which requires a lot of reconciliation.

The 2nd half of the book does drag on a little bit. I hadn’t expected this from the early chapters, but by the end I was really just wanting to get it finished, as there was little being added by way of meaningful discourse.

That final criticism stated, they are relatively minor in light of the book as a whole. As an antidote to creationism/ID it is scientifically acute, gracious and incisive. As for being an apologetic work for christianity, it is fair, but doesn’t quite the mustard. But it still well worth reading.