Most helpful critical review
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Demons in the Name of Religion
on October 27, 2010
I've watched taped lectures by Michael Parenti, and rather like his bombastic style. He does not pull punches on sacred cows, is colorful, and backs up his line. He is a formidable intellect.
"God and His Demons" is a tough read for anyone with a religious allegiance. As an evangelical Christian, I waded into this book with a critical eye. And my overall appraisal is that the subject and thesis of this book is one that is imperative for people of faith to know about. The upshot is that terrible oppression, violence, injustice have been perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated in the name and cause of God or the gods.
I started writing this on Columbus Day, a national holiday celebrating who in reality was among the worst genocidal, barbarous, gold-lusting, murderers that has set foot on this planet. Columbus justified his conquest on Christian grounds. And our nation celebrates this villain?
I debated whether my rating would be a 3 or a 4. Parenti digs deep to find the dirt, but glosses over the contributions of religion. He does, admittedly, make a few side gestures of approval to religious groups that support his own leftist agenda. However, he does not delve into their theologies. An example is his negative treatment of Jesus. Parenti would probably lambaste fundamentalist Christians for taking the Bible literally (such as on a 6000 year old universe), yet he does the same. One way to see what Jesus meant is to see how his early followers behaved. While problems and issues abounded, essentially the early church was pacifist, liberating of women and slaves (with exceptions, but the trend was present), and caring for the poor. (I realize Parenti has written a diatribe against the early church, but numerous documents abound that show a positive light).
Parenti, rightly so, exposes the horrific anti-semitism and violence perpetrated for centuries upon Jewish people. Yet he strangely leaves off mention of the violence and discrimination some Jews (not all) perpetrate upon Palestinian people via the Jewish nation, Israel.
I would have also been interested in Parenti's thoughts on non-theistic "ideological religions" and their violence. For in a sense, communism in its various national permutations has been officially atheistic, cultic and worshipful toward its leadership, and massively oppressive and violent.
Finally, I feel Parenti does not offer a sufficient analysis of why violence and religion are so concomitant. For this I strongly recommend the masterful work of Rene Girard. His mimetic/scapegoating theory is an explanation for the formation of culture and religion, concurrently, from the beginning of hominization. All cultures are founded on violence, while religion re-enacts the founding myth in a cathartic manner that brings peace to a social group. I won't go further on this, but suggest the Colloquium on Violence and Religion as well as numerous books and other writings on or by Girard.
I live in an area that until recently was infiltrated by racialist white supremacists. One of them developed and disseminated a newspaper, perversely named "The Thunderbolt of Truth." Basically the editor found crime stories on the Internet perpetrated by Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Jews, and copied them into his newsletter. His idea was that folks would become a racialist after reading story after story of horrific crimes perpetrated by nonwhites. This thought came to me, of course in a different context, as I read Parenti's relentless assault on institutional religion and some of its heroes. Parenti, of course, is the polar opposite of being a racialist. But the inductive tactic of pushing forth example after horrible example can fuel prejudice against religion. Is this Parenti's motive? (answer?)
A balanced reader will also ask about possible positive influences of religion. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by the highly reputable sociologists, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, "identify religious Americans as more generous, more civically engaged, and more neighborly than their secularly minded peers."
The Bible itself is a powerful critique of oppressive religion. The Hebrew prophets including Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Elijah, were scathing in their condemnation of religious and political leaders and their institutional oppression of the poor and their violent ways. The most scathing words from Jesus were to religious leaders. It is a plausible hypothesis that their introspective and cultural critique has paved the way for our modern democratic societies and modern cultures to examine ourselves critically. I do not see critical self-examination in the militantly atheist societies such as Cuba, China, or North Korea. Parenti himself might obliquely owe debt to the biblical prophetic stream in his own formidable ability to expose evildoing.
Having put forth this critique, I nevertheless appreciate Parenti for bringing forth this book. Religious people should not be in the dark or in denial about the violence, oppression, manipulation, and self-aggrandizement that has been and continues to be perpetrated in the name of God or the gods. It should call forth anyone with religious sentiment and belief to sorrow and repentance.