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 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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Teachings of the Buddha ed. by Jack Kornfield

Teachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded EditionTeachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded Edition by Jack Kornfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This is a collection of excerpts and short writings conveying Buddhist teachings. The pieces range in length from about a stanza of verse to a few pages in length. Each lesson tells what book it comes from and who the translator was, which can be a nice feature if one will be comparing different translations.

Unlike Walpola Rahula’s similarly named “What the Buddha Taught,” which focuses entirely on what Gautama Buddha taught while he was living, this book includes many teachings from long after the life of the Buddha. Which is to say, this is more a book of Buddhist teachings than an elucidation of what the Buddha, himself, taught. [Not to offend, but religious teachings seem to inevitably shift and evolve over time, and so what is taught by various sects of Buddhism today is by no means a perfect reflection of what the Buddha, himself, taught.] That said, the writings toward the beginning of the book tend to be closer to the Buddha, himself – i.e. from the “Dhammapada” and other early Pali works. While the teachings toward the end of the book tend to be more from much later (e.g. from the Zen tradition.)

I found the book to be quite readable and to feature some intriguing food for thought. If you are interested in an English translation of Buddhist sutras, scriptures, koan, etc., this is a good work to check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Witchcraft: A Very Short IntroductionWitchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.

There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.

Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.

The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.

Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.

Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.

I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dhammapada trans. by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita

Dhammapada: a practical guide to right livingDhammapada: a practical guide to right living by Acharya Buddharakkhita
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Dhammapada consists of 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha. There seem to be numerous versions of the Dhammapada as translated by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita in circulation, so your results may vary for good or bad from what I report here. (Not to mention there are many other translations which may vary tremendously)

The 423 sutras or maxims included in the book are arranged into twenty-six topical chapters. The version I have presents no analysis, it’s just the text of the verse in Pali (i.e. the Roman / English language alphabet spelling out the phonetic Pali words) with an English translation below.

First, the pros of the edition I read: There are some explanatory notes offered as necessary (38 of them,) there are a few graphics (drawings and photos in B&W,) and there are two indexes. The first of the two indexes wouldn’t be of much use to me, but it would be for the Pali literate because it indexes the Pali verse. The second index is in English and is organized by analogies (i.e. analogies employed in the verses,) and that could be a tremendously useful feature. For the Pali literate, having the original phonetic Pali included must be an excellent feature. (There’s also a page in the front matter that shows how the pronunciation works.)

As for the cons of this edition: First, there were a few typos (mostly of the type that wouldn’t be caught by spellcheck – though this translation was pre-spellcheck — so I’m referring to the kind of typos that aren’t easily caught.) Second, while all the verses are translated, there is some text that remains in Romanized Pali [I suspect prayers, but can’t say for sure.]

This is the second translation of the Dhammapada I’ve read, and I found it worthwhile. It’s easily readable, not too flowery, and not bogged down with needless analysis or exposition. I can’t say how it compares among all translations (either in terms of skill of translation or in accurately capturing the Buddha’s meaning,) but it reads pretty fluidly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader

Pilgrimage: A Very Short IntroductionPilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Reader compares and contrasts the ways and motives of pilgrims around the world, from Muslims on hajj to Elvis fans going to “Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee” [name that tune.] The author’s specialization is Japanese pilgrimages and so trips such as the circuit around Shikoku’s eighty-eight Buddhist temples are well-represented among the examples used. However, he also visits and revisits popular Hindu pilgrimages such as Kumbh Mela and Amarnath, Christian pilgrimages to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, and even secular pilgrimages to locations such as the Vietnam War Memorial.

The book consists of six chapters. Chapter one offers a fly-over of the topic in the context of it being a worldwide phenomena. Cultures from around the world engage in similar behavior when it comes to spiritual travel. Chapter two investigates forms, themes, and meaning in pilgrimage, and how they vary across different religions. This helps one define the topic and differentiate pilgrimage from similar activities – to the degree that that can be done. Chapter 3 delves into the pilgrimage as a search for the sacred, and it uses many examples from around the world to consider the varying perspectives.

Chapter 4 reflects upon the differences in modes of transport, motivations, and how the latter influences the former. Obviously, technology has radically changed the face of pilgrimage. There usually remain purists who wish to continue in the old ways (i.e. traveling mostly on foot) and others who’d just as soon use jet airplanes and air-conditioned buses. This leads to conflicts in the pilgrim community where walkers see those who travel in comfort as lacking commitment, and those who travel in comfort may see the old-schoolers as hikers who are more interested in walking than praying.

The penultimate chapter examines pilgrimage as a form of tourism. While it may be considered sacrilegious to some to equate the two activities, they certainly share in common not only the activity of travel but also such behaviors as the collection of souvenirs (e.g. relics, scrolls, and amulets.) The final chapter looks at how pilgrimage has spread into the secular domain with war memorials, nature trails, and the birth or death homes of popular personages from politics or entertainment.

The book contains many monochrome photos and a “further reading” section in the back.

I found this book to be interesting. As a secular traveler who often crosses paths with pilgrims, I was fascinated to gain insight into their head-space and to reflect upon the role that religion and spirituality played in the dawn of travel.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva

The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the BodhicharyavataraThe Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara by Śāntideva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A bodhisattva is one who achieves enlightenment but sticks around to help others pursue the path. Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who lived [mostly] in the 8th century in the part of India that is today in the state of Bihar. Shantideva’s lesson on how to be a good bodhisattva is delivered via 10 chapters of verse, mostly in four-line stanzas. This instructional poem makes up almost 240 pages of the edition of the book put out by Shambhala as translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, and the rest is front matter, appendices, notes, and a bibliography.

The chapters of Shantideva’s poem are: 1.) The Excellence of Bodhichitta (lit. “enlightened mind”); 2.) Confession (fear is a major theme in this statement of modesty); 3.) Taking Hold of Bodhichitta; 4.) Carefulness (discussion of what to avoid.); 5.) Vigilant Introspection (on the need to keep one’s attention concentrated, and to not let the mind roam.); 6.) Patience (on not being focused on self, but on all those suffering.); 7.) Diligence (on avoiding hedonism and being industrious.); 8.) Meditative Concentration (avoidance of getting caught up in the material / physical world.); 9.) Wisdom (karma, illusion, and, particularly, the illusion of self.); 10.) Dedication.

As mentioned, there’s a lot of ancillary matter in this edition of the book. There’s a forward by the Dalai Lama, an extensive introduction (which is helpful as even a modern translation requires background), three appendices (a brief biography, a discussion of equalizing self and other, and a meditation on exchanging self and other), notes (which are also necessary give the nature of a 21st century global reader spoken to by an 8th century Indian monk), and a bibliography. There are no graphics (except a single line-drawn panel) but none are needed.

I had mixed feelings about this work. There was a great bit of wisdom, and the meditation described in the final appendix (based on Shantideva’s discussion) seems to be tremendously valuable. One the other hand, there was a lot of degradation and abasement of the physical body. Granted, I know that Shantideva is talking to an audience of primarily monks and he’s trying to keep them from being horn-dogs or otherwise being distracted by physicality. However, I’m always turned off by those who fail to recognize the tremendous awesomeness and beauty of the human body. There’s also the pessimism. Buddhists are often accused of being pessimistic. Starting with an opening statement of “life is suffering,” this might not be a surprise. Of course, Buddhists counter by saying that they aren’t pessimistic because they are offering a solution to the fact that life is misery, to which non-Buddhists tend to say, “Yes, but the defining characteristic of life need not be agony in the first place.” I won’t weight in on that debate, but the reader should be prepared for a certain dismal tone here and there.

I found this book to be loaded with food for thought. The introduction and notes are extremely beneficial, and this is one of those few cases in which they don’t just feel like padding to hit a desired page count. The verse is readable, and can be understood by a general audience.

I’d recommend this for those interested in Buddhist philosophy.

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