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

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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: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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DAILY PHOTO: Mosque Trees, Ahmedabad

Taken from inside Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad

 

Taken at Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad on September 30, 2017

DAILY PHOTO: Ashura Parade, Ahmedabad

Taken on October 1, 2017 in Ahmedabad

 

Fireball

 

Red float

 

Camel-drawn cart

 

Mini-Taj Mahal