Together with her unloved husband, the author of Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life goes to China, undercover, to proselyte for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organization that is banned by the Chinese government. There, she finds herself with a job as an unlikely podcast host, new friends, and an illicit correspondence with a Californian man that make her question her faith, and drag her away from it, and her family and old friends, who must shun her. I found her descriptions of living in Shanghai as a foreigner are delightful and her earnest description of losing her faith is arresting, although she could have excised the long exchanges with her Californian penpal.
Written by an Episcopal priest and former professor of religion, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others describes her experiences as a professor along with her own private musings about discovering other religions. You won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite parts of the books are the stories about the students, some worried about losing their own faith by learning about others, and the many field trips she undertakes to all kind of religious gatherings, with the students, where she manages to meet people who welcome them in the warmest ways, including when they visit a mosque just days after 9/11.
Perhaps a religion course should be a prerequisite for all college grads? The ignorance not only of other traditions, but even the students’ own, is staggering and must get in the way of understanding others, let alone accepting them.
The author of In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult grew up in an evangelical cult that kept its members separate from the world, which they saw as controlled by Satan and harshly shunned anyone who broke rules that became more and more restrictive. Her father eventually left the cult and the book reflects on a child’s experience of living in a closed community and then breaking out of it. It’s a very hopeful book, since the author was able to build a successful life and even reconcile with her father, but a great reminder of the danger of communities where absolute power is held by a handful of men.
The author of Educated grew up in a survivalist family in Idaho, toiling in the (highly dangerous) family junkyard or helping her mother concoct homeopathic compounds — but never studying, either in an organized school or through any kind of home-schooling. Still through grit, ingenuity, and some luck, she managed to matriculate at BYU and from there pursue graduate education. The book describes her often shocking upbringing and how she painfully and slowly extricated herself from it, becoming estranged from a big part of her family in the process. It’s a harrowing tale.
The book is put together with intricate flashbacks and considerable skill. But there are some strange passages, in which pivotal scenes are tagged with footnotes explaining that different family members have very different recollections of the same events. Do they betray the care of a historian or on the other hand a fanciful delusion? And the assertion that her father is simply mentally ill seems rather generous: how about simply violent, controlling, and egotistic?
It would be wonderful if many atheists read The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, as it kindly views religion not as some kind of primitive delusion, but rather as a mix of a human need for transcendence and the equally human need to belong to a group. We are very far from the screeching Richard Dawkins (and close to The Dawkins Delusion).
My only point of disagreement with the author is when he undertakes to “prove” that no conflict is actually provoked by religion because the combatants are not, in fact, using theological arguments. Try telling that to the Serbs and Croats of his example: nothing about the religion of each side may spark the conflict, but certainly the combatants are clearly identifying the other religious group as “enemy”.
Haroon Moghul’s autobiography, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, is at its best when it keeps to the personal story, how the author describes being thrust into the role of professional Muslim as an undergraduate (because of 9/11) — even as he struggled with his faith, his relationship with his family, and his American-ness, not to mention his mental illness.
The more sweeping historical and political descriptions I could have done without, but the personal struggle is engaging and a reminder that a carefully composed public identity can hide much suffering.
I’m not sure many readers of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America have managed to read all 650 pages of it carefully. I certainly did not, and I found the detailed stories of the various political machinations and scandals very tedious.
That said, I found it most interesting to see the how some of the themes of the early start of the movement, during the Great Awakening, sound quite modern. The author also does a great job of showing how the thirst for political influence shapes the values that are put forth — abortion restrictions rather than anti-poverty campaigns, for instance. We are quite far from religious values and