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Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Uncommonly Good and Uncommonly Useful Reference Book, February 23, 2010
This review is from: The Handy Religion Answer Book (The Handy Answer Book Series) (Paperback)
This author begins with a general background that defines not only what religion is and how it has come about, but also about how it is structured as systems of disparate beliefs by varying societies. He then proceeds with an analysis of each of the eight major religions using the same template across religions: The template includes their historical sources, the body of their main beliefs, common signs and symbols and their meanings, membership requirements for each, their holidays, customs and rituals, and the makeup of their leadership; and finally, the source of their organizational authority, powers and key religious personalities.

The only drawback to the book that I could find is that it makes only a passing reference to Native American religions. I would have been happy if the author had spent at least a few paragraphs of general comments and references to Native American religions, or at the very least, to have told us why he had elected not to include even a general introduction to them?

Despite this, there is much to like about this book. It is balanced, non-polemical, and thus, generally very scholarly. His warning in the introduction to people like myself, (who believe that on balance religions are a net negative, that is to say more harmful than useful) is to suspend judgment until the survey is complete. It turns out this is good advice. As for once the complexity of religion - as it sits at the intersection of personal, cultural and traditional modes of thinking, learning and believing -- is explicated, plenty of room is left to fashion a more nuanced opinion and assessment of both the overall utility and value of religion to a particular society and to humanity as a whole. To his credit, he does not take sides in this important issue, leaving it entirely up to the reader's discretion.I am grateful to him for this suggestion and for his stance.

But also, in addition to the excellent structured survey of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism, the introduction deserves special praise as it provides one of the clearest and most succinct analysis of religion as a general social phenomenon I have yet seen (and this includes the books of religious scholar Karen Armstrong, a couple of which I have also reviewed on Amazon.com).

Basically the author's take is this: Religion is a shared search via a common set of beliefs by various societies for the answer to a host of perplexing questions, among which are the following: How did life begin? What does it mean to be human? Are there forces greater than human ones responsible for the shape of things? How do good people live their lives? And the mother of all such questions: What happens to us after we die?

The author provides one additional piece of very useful advice. It is that when we allow cultural norms to dominate our quest for answers to these questions, we can then mistake our own conformity to the status quo, for religion itself. And in this piece of advice, the author does more than just allude to the fact that perhaps that is what has been done with the "American way of life." He strongly hints that what we have fashioned out of our own comfortable cultural materials (based mostly on traditions that fit our deepest fears and prejudices) is a complacent kind of "civil religion."

In the end, this kind of self-style "de facto religion" is little more than a form of "soft totalitarianism" based on social psychological bullying by the majority; one that subtracts from the subjectivity of the individual and especially of those of various targeted groups, and substitutes in their places "warm and fuzzy but often morally questionable societal groupthink." I agree with the author, we Americans seem to have perfected the science of making whatever we believe in as "our universal religion:" otherwise known as the religion of "American Exceptionalism." Five Stars
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