BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Religious Ideas by Rachel S. Mikva

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and IslamDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

If you’ve only read this book’s title, it may not be the book you think it is, but I would argue that that’s a good thing. The first thing one might expect from the title is that it’s by an atheist or skeptical agnostic, someone in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Michael Shermer. Not that there is anything wrong with such books or authors, but there are a ton of books of that nature, and I’m not sure how much value-added is to be found in new ones. (And more importantly, if one is interested in what is dangerous about a thing, taking into account only views of outside critics presents substantial risk of misconstruing the insider’s perspective.) This book, however, is by someone “on the inside,” a Rabbi and scholar of the Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It’s worth noting that Mikva deals only with the Abrahamic traditions in this book. The degree to which the ideas discussed apply to other traditions varies greatly.]

One might be thinking that the book plays Nerf-ball, a religious individual explaining the faults in religion will surely be like “greed is good” Gordon Gekko explaining a market crash, making end-runs around reality to justify a point of view and to minimize the role of one’s belief system in the tragedy. However, when Mikva was elucidating the dangerous ideas of religion, I felt she was candid in her criticisms and that she carefully balanced criticism among the three Abrahamic traditions. The main difference between Mikva’s arguments and that of those mentioned above isn’t so much seen when she’s laying out the dangers, but rather when she discusses the theologians who’ve historically tried to mitigate said dangers.

A second mistake that one might reasonably make about this book is to think that is focuses on the usual suspects of outrage about religion — honor killings, sanctioning of slavery, misogyny, etc. I think Mikva made a wise move in focusing on a few ideas that are deeply engrained in a broad cross-section of religious followers. The central theme of this book is that the danger lies all around, not only, or even primarily, in the hateful ideas of a few extremists, those who misinterpret scripture or who hold onto interpretations that maybe accurate to authorial intent but that are still horrifying to our present-day notions of what is appropriate (e.g. treating all humans like human beings, which was not so much a thing in Biblical times.) Instead, Mikva proposes that dangers lie in ideas that are often not given a second thought, such as followers’ beliefs that they are part of the one and only true faith.

The book’s thirteen chapters can be thought of as taking on three major dangerous ideas. First, in chapters 2 through 6, the book considers the idea of scripture as the literal word of god. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the scriptures of the Abrahamic religious were as vaguely benign as those in some Eastern religions, but the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran all have some cringeworthy ideas in them. Still, it’s hard for a large number of religious followers to accept that these are just books written by humans who may not have had as great of insight into the divine mind as they claimed. So, what to do? Does one accept that it’s alright for a man to sell his daughter into the sex slave trade if he’s cash-strapped?

The second major dangerous idea (Ch. 7 through 10) is that of “otherness.” This is described in different ways, depending on the nature of the religion (i.e. “chosenness” in Judaism or “election” in Christianity,) but it’s essentially the idea that one’s religion is the one and only true religion and everybody else is wrong and immoral. This is the kind of widespread idea that poisons human interaction. [It doesn’t really matter if you’re a smiling missionary or a Semtex-strapped suicide bomber, if you’re approaching other people from the perspective that they are inherently wrong, immoral, and inferior, then you don’t have any basis for a relationship of peace, respect, and understanding.]

The last idea, addressed in a much more compact space, is that there are pitfalls to religion being too fundamentally entwined in what we normally think of the sphere of governance – i.e. lawmaking, crime and punishment, etc. One issue is that ideas about justice were relatively draconian in Biblical times. However, a bigger problem may be that of foisting one’s beliefs on others in an underhanded way, using the State’s monopoly on force to do so.

It should be pointed out that this book is written in a scholarly fashion. This means that readability isn’t has high as it could be. It will send even well-read readers who aren’t theologians or experts in religious studies to the dictionary now and again to learn the jargon of religious philosophy.

If you are interested in the impact of religion on the societal landscape, this is a worthwhile book to check out. If one has read Dawkins, Hitchens, or the like, this book is worth rounding out one’s understanding by seeing how the problems of religion are seen by those on the inside, those who choose to reflect upon the problems, but who aren’t willing to throw it all out to get rid of said problems. I felt the book was balanced and it pointed out some important ideas that are not necessarily readily apparent to everybody.


View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Shoe Memorial

Taken in December of 2014 in Budapest.

Taken in December of 2014 in Budapest.

On the bank of the Danube, Pest-side just south of the Parliament building, there is an eery memorial consisting of an irregular row of shoes. The shoes are made of metal, but their brown rust looks like worn, brown shoe leather. It is in remembrance of the victims of the Arrowcross Militia who were shot there and left to topple into the river.

The Arrowcross Militia were Hungary’s Nazis. Hungary was allied with Germany at the beginning of World War II, but at one point (in 1944, as I recall) Hungary tried to break this alliance. Germany responded by taking over Hungary, and giving the Arrowcross (their fellow hardcore fascists) greater power and influence.

IMG_2176

The Bullets that Bore no Name: or, the Burden we all Bear

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-334 / CC-BY-SA

Mauthausen                     Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-334 / CC-BY-SA

Thanks for joining me on the veranda. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this post flows from a book review I did on Elie Wiesel’s Night, which can be seen here. But don’t wander off just yet.

I married into a family of holocaust survivors.

Being sufficiently narcissistic, I haven’t been able to avoid thinking of the profound impact this had on my life.  I am married to the most extraordinary woman in the universe [my apologies to all other women, I’m sure you’re someone else’s most extraordinary woman] by virtue of the strength of a man who wrestled his way to the top of a pile of corpses, bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds, clawing his way out of a pit, and cleaning the gashes with his urine. That man was married to a woman, tiny of body but colossal of mind, who was in the group force marched from Budapest to Mauthausen. After the war, they had a child–my mother-in-law. Yada-yada-yada. I have marital bliss.

Not being completely narcissistic, I’m reminded that every one of our lives have been shaped by strong people who lived through close calls. Each of us comes hither as a gift from men and women who passed through a hail of bullets that bore no name. Some, like my wife’s grandfather, were riddled by bullets bearing their name, and still refused to heed their deadly whisper.  Every holocaust survivor survived by a thin margin. Every battlefield veteran’s life is an execution order rescinded. Every prisoner of war was one germ away from an unmarked grave.

No pressure or anything, but that sounds like a heavy debt we  all bear.

Telling this story in greater detail is one of my bucket list tasks. It’s a project I’ve had on the back burner for far too long. There are several reasons for this. The most feeble of which is a hope to find the right timing. Sadly, there are so many such stories that I fear it will be lost amid a sea of sorrow.  Then there is my need to develop grace with language sufficient to do the story justice. In a way the two novels I have drafted, and whose mess I am now painstakingly trying to dance into shape, are practice exercises.  Wish me luck.

On the plus side, my wife’s uncle had the foresight to have her grandfather speak his story onto about 20 tapes before he died. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for anyone’s life-altering story to go untold.  So I guess if there is a moral to my rambling post it’s this: don’t let anyone in your life with a spectacular story pass from this world without it being heard.

BOOK REVIEW: Night by Elie Wiesel

Night  (The Night Trilogy #1)Night by Elie Wiesel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon Page

Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, tells his story as a boy caught in the Holocaust. A Jew from Sighet in Transylvania, Wiesel was evacuated from the ghetto as a teenager and shipped off to Auschwitz–later to be moved to Buchenwald.

At little over 100 pages, this thin book is tragedy distilled and condensed.

A few of Wiesel’s experiences stick with one because they are just so gut wrenching. One such story is about a woman in the train car who hallucinates fire and flames. Her insanity no doubt spurred by hearing of the massive crematoria. Her delusions were prophetic for all too many of those packed in that cattle-car.

Another key moment came after their train rolled into Auschwitz. Both Elie Wiesel and his father followed advice to lie about their ages, he to make himself older and his father to become younger. This got them both directed to the left; the people who would live for the time being– though they didn’t know that at the time.

The climactic portion of the book deals with the boy’s attempts to cope with his father’s severe illness. On the one hand, his father was all he had. On the other hand, he feared that he would not survive if he had to keep looking after the ill elder. Wiesel is quite frank about the dilemma that clouded his mind. His father’s death would make his own survival more likely. The guilt caused by these thoughts tormented him. This kind of guilt is a prevailing theme in genocide literature. It reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s comment in Man’s Search for Meaning in which he says that the sad truth survivors must live with is that, “the best of us did not return.”

I will end my review by suggesting that you read this book. It’s quick and–while not painless–insightful. I’d intended to ramble on with some personal experiences and observations, but have decided to make that its own post entitled <em>The Bullets that Bore no Name: or, the Burden we all Bear</em>.

If you’re just here for the Night review, thanks for visiting and Godspeed in your journeys through cyberspace.

If you’re at all curious about what I have to say, grab your mint julep and join me on the veranda. The veranda is this way.

View all my reviews