Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape is the personal story of the author, the niece of the church leader, and what a story it is! Separated from her parents (who were themselves, at a time, high-ranking members), forced to live in very meager circumstances with what can only be described as slave labor for children, brought up to navigate the queer un-reality of the church, she finally leaves it, with her husband, but not before creating quite a stir. The story reminded me most of insane totalitarian regimes (as told, for instance, In the Shadow of the Banyan, about the Khmer Rouges of Cambodia), and not so much of My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru or Arcadia, memoirs of other children brought up in sects.
The book itself, despite its professional writer coauthor, is full of repeats and Valley Girl-toned “he said-she said” stories that are quite tedious, but I still found the facts very compelling.
The author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion is a sociologist who is presenting the outcome of dozens of interviews with people who once believed but no longer do, and it’s an interesting tapestry of individual experiences, but I felt that the stories could use some deeper analysis to tie them together and make sense of them in a more global manner. In particular, the United States, which is the focus of the study, is still very religious compared to other developed countries. Is the rise in the number of non believers a sign of convergence or a blip? Is the loss of community reported by non believers a natural result of their leaving the faith of their families of origins or is it something more essential, as so well described in Religion for Atheists? The author doesn’t make much of an attempt to go beyond the interviews, unfortunately.
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots reminded me of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress for its insider’s view at an ultra-conservative religious community, in this case Hasidic, in which the author grows up abandoned in various ways by her parents and raised by her grandparents. The list of what is not allowed is long, starting with reading books, which she borrows from the library anyway and stashes under her mattress. Her role as a woman is to be married and have lots of children so her education is painfully curtailed. After dutifully marrying and bearing a son, she escapes her marriage and her community — so no funny stories as in the Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and no tenderness towards or from her family, making for a sad and even bitter story.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is a delightful respite from the spiteful attacks of books like The God Delusion and focuses on the special talents of organized religion to create community, educate the young, and create lasting institutions. The chapter on education would be a good addition to any teacher-training program, with its emphasis on theater, repetition, and the inclusion of ethics and emotion into all teaching. The author chooses his examples from Christianity (with especially kind and insightful views of the most successful aspects of the Catholic Church), Buddhism, and Judaism — and somewhat mysteriously not from Islam, although many chapters could easily include references to it.
The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age describes the world of US Evangelicals and opened my mind to the fact that there are many subgroups within the movement, only a small subset– albeit the most vocal — advocates such mind-boggling ignorance as the young-earth idea, taking creationism to its silly extreme.I feel bad that it took me so long to figure that out.
Perhaps because the two authors wrote different chapters there’s a large amount of repetition in the book so I found it a little wearisome, but not so wearisome as not to wonder about why so many people choose to believe “facts” that are completely unsupported by evidence. Perhaps a better way to understand the movement is that people like the ability to cling to a unique and unchanging truth, too bad if it makes dinosaurs contemporary to humans — or if it dictates that wives should obey blindly and children be spanked into obedience, or worse, that racist undertones are completely acceptable.
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing is a valiant effort to explain the basics of Islam to the uninitiated, and to that extent it succeeds, aptly distinguishing the fanatics from the believers, cultural practices from religion, and I also liked how the author adds her personal opinions to the discussion together with recollections of her childhood in Southern California, the lone Muslim, or so it seems, in her high school.
Alas, some arguments seem circular. For instance, we can’t understand the Qur’an because we can’t read 13th-century Arabic and any translation is by definition an interpretation. Fair enough, but please explain how Muslims, even those with Arabic as a mother tongue, understand 13th-century Arabic — and no clear description is given of how Muslims as a group can adapt their interpretation of the Qur’an to suit modern concepts of gender equality. Other arguments seem absolutely fantastic. Stating that wearing a hijab (and the author, tellingly, does not wear one) is liberating boggles the mind; I can see that a hijab can be a lifesaver if the alternative is not to be allowed to leave home, but it’s not exactly an instrument of liberation! Finally, the book seems draped in righteous indignation about the oppression of Muslims, quite understandable in the contemporary context of the US, but not exactly welcoming to the open-minded, the very people who, presumably, will want to read the book. So I was disappointed, but this could be a good introduction to the topic.
I greatly enjoyed Inside Scientology, a lively and opinionated history of the Church of Scientology starting with its business-minded founder (who, we learn along the way, was a bigamist for some time and uses his middle name rather than the lovely Lafayette his parents assigned as his first name). For me the best part of the book is the author’s analysis of how Hubbard structured scientology as a business, modeled after McDonald’s of all choices. He skillfully weaved together the themes of the day, self-development, technology, and UFOs, with a dollop of eugenics (oops!) and a strong pyramid scheme that brought the riches to him. The dictatorship aspects came later, when the troops started to rebel and revenue was at risk, and are reminiscent of Kim Il-sung et al.
I found the middle of the book weaker, as it retraces the sad stories of some of the members who were caught in the purges and exploitation at length rather than abstracting to a more general level, but the saga of how the organization won tax-exempt status is breathtaking since it is structured, first and foremost, as a profit-making venture.
Intriguingly packaged as an alphabetical encyclopedia, God’s Lunatics presents the weird stories of religions (and also a large dash of simply weird religions!) There are wonderful stories of Catholic saints, with all their bizarre mutilations and behaviors that reminded me in a most pleasant manner of books I used to read at my great-grandmother’s house on stifling summer days. And there are stories after stories of power-hungry cult leaders.
Best taken in small doses for the entertainment value. If read in longer stretches, the stories start to meld together into a meanacing whole where religion is just another avenue to grab and hold on to power — and nothing else.
In The Faith Instinct, the author attempts to demonstrate that human beings are genetically programmed for religion and that we, as a species, evolved over time to become more religious. The problem is that he does not quite do that. He manages to make a good argument that ethical behavior helps us survive — at least if you can believe that group selection occurs alongside individual selection. He also shows that evolution has made us ready to love night-club dancing along with belonging to the Rotary club. Religion? maybe not so much.
The Unlikely Disciple tells the story of a college student who decides to attend Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) for a semester’s break from Brown and as a reporting opportunity, a la Racing Odysseus but from a 20-something’s eyes. The disingenuous aspect of the stunt (since, unlike the author of Racing Odysseus, the author does not need to explain his presence in the university, and does not) made me squirm a bit, and to be fair it also makes the author squirm, although never enough to fully explain himself to his colleagues. But the story is interesting. Strictly segregated by gender and having to follow a strict code of conduct, Liberty students take classes that emphasize beliefs over facts or science. Infractions are punished by a predetermined schedule of reprimands and fines (hugging your sweetheart for more than 3 seconds is worth more than swearing, for instance) that eerily reminded me of confession penances. Heterosexuality and marriage are heartily pushed and promoted, with the goals of marrying off the students before they leave.
There are positive aspects of the learning experience (no more hangovers on Sunday mornings, an excellent knowledge of the bible) and others that are a bit frightening. How can “young earth” extremists undertake honest studies in biology? (Liberty has an Engineering college, which I assume believes in gravity; but how can biologists function without evolution?) How will the students function post-graduation, when the reprimands are no longer meted out when they swear, or worse? And how will they hold their own in a world that expects debate rather than blind obeisance to an established rule? Surely universities should be a place of debates, of forming one’s own ideas, or appreciating the value of a solid argument.