Rethinking Religion: A Concise Introduction
Deming, Will. 2004. Rethinking Religion: A Concise Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA.
I don’t recall if I received this book directly or if it was given to me by a professor in my sociology department because he knew of my interest in religion. Either way, I think it is quite understandable why they are giving it away for free – this is an extremely problematic and biased book. I had relatively high hopes for it… until I read it.
The book claims it is presents a new way of thinking about religion for college students, “The purpose of this book is to demystify religion” (p. 1). Unfortunately, it is only new in the sense that no right-minded scholars have produced such an unabashedly apologetic work on religion that they have tried to peddle to the mainstream for probably at least 70 years. By “new way of thinking about religion” the author apparently means a convoluted and distorted perspective that overlooks hundreds of years of scholarship and instead claims all religions are good and science is bad. Really, that is the new perspective!
The book begins with the author dismissing literary criticism of religions (see page 88). The author also claims that they only way to understand religions is to understand their beliefs but completely disregard their origins. In other words, Deming does not address how religions developed the beliefs they did, which is extremely informative, but instead focuses on their beliefs. The one useful element of this book is a series of chapters in which the major world religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam – are discussed. Unfortunately even this small section is tainted by a perspective that takes the beliefs at face value and almost seems to accept that Vishnu, Allah, and Jehovah all actually co-exist. Don’t ask me; it doesn’t really make sense to me how the gods of all of these exclusive religions can exist at the same time, but such is the perspective used by the author. The remainder of the book is a rather pathetic discussion of why it is actually okay to still practice religion in light of the criticisms leveled at it by skeptics and scientists. These justifications range from: science is only one way of viewing the world to claiming that the need for religion is genetic. The last 80 pages or so read like watered down apologetics that are absolutely not appropriate for a book marketed as an objective, college-level text on world religions.
At the beginning of the text the author claims, “By “demystifying” religion, then, I mean making it more accessible to Western analytical thinking” (p. 1). If anything, Deming tried to convince readers that religion is better than “Western analytical thinking” and, therefore, that Western analytical thinking is not applicable to religion. He kind of shoots himself in the foot if you ask me.
I normally try to be fairly objective in my summary of the book, but I could only find one positive thing to say about it. Other than the decent summary of the beliefs of the major world religions, the book is subtle apologetics and convoluted attempts at justifying religious belief in light of the further light and knowledge provided by science.
The problems with the book begin early on. For instance, the author attempts to provide a definition of religion that he seems not to realize is inherently biased, “Religion is orientation to ultimate reality” (p. 14). The problem with this is that it implies two things about religion that are unknowable and, in all likelihood, untrue (almost by definition). First, he claims that religion is an orientation to a “reality.” But by reality in this sense he is talking about the supernatural. By definition, supernature is beyond reality. Then, to add insult to injury, the author claims that this (non-)reality is actually the “ultimate” reality. While “ultimate” has many definitions, the one I think he is using here is “maximum”; in other words, according to the author, religion is orientation to the highest form of or maximum reality. Maybe I’m just thinking like a rational person here, but that would seem to imply that supernature is actually more real than nature, the reality most of us exist in and experience every day. Is it just me or is that completely illogical? After all, supernature, by definition, is beyond our ability to “sense” it. From a scientific perspective, religious beliefs don’t actually even exist. Even so, the author uses this unintelligible idea of “ultimate reality” throughout the book to refer to all things supernatural. It almost seems as though the author has taken a page out of the Republican spin machine handbook and re-branded supernature as something else – “ultimate reality.” I wonder if he actually conducted a focus group to see if it tested better than what he is really referring to – supernature. (Oh, and by the way, if you do decide to read this book, you can thank me for deciphering what the author really means by “ultimate reality”, because he never explains it and I only realized what he meant by it at around page 130.)
As if convoluting one concept was not enough, the author proceeds to do the same thing with several additional concepts. For instance, the author has a very unique understanding of what symbols are, “Likewise, when a radio evangelist asks his listeners for their prayers and financial support, he is using the symbols of prayer and charity to orient both himself and his audience to God” (p. 17). Unless I’m mistaken, a prayer is an action that does not symbolize anything. Likewise with charity, it is an action (or, alternatively, a noun that could potentially symbolize people’s good will, but used here it is an action). Where this gets really confusing is when the author then claims that a thermometer is a tool and is not at all symbolic (p. 133). The last time I checked, the definition of symbol was “something that stands for or suggests something else” (Merriam-Webster). A thermometer is, depending on the type, mercury and some numbers grouped together in a specific fashion to represent something else – the temperature. Certainly it is a tool, but it is also a symbol of the temperature it is measuring. What do prayer and charitable acts represent? Nothing. They are activities, not symbols. The author does not seem to have a clear understanding of what symbols are (see page 95 for another example of this).
Also in this vein, the author very intentionally convolutes fact and truth. While this ties into a different criticism, I think it is worth noting here. The author claims that truths do not have to be facts. For instance, he argues that there are “artistic truths” that are clearly not facts. While I have never heard someone say “that song is truth” or “that ballet is truth”, I guess it is possible someone could describe art that way. But I would also submit that doing so would make absolutely no sense. How can a song or dance or painting be “truth” in terms of its expression? It may express a truth (e.g., some roses are red or ballet can be beautiful), but the song itself is not “truth.” The real kicker here is why the author convolutes these two words, “My point here, simply, is that in the West, as elsewhere, truth is not confined to reason or to data. Rather, it is determined by meaning. This is why even scientists in the West — rational, objective men and women of science — are routinely drawn to the “truth” of music, philosophy, metaphysics, and religions” (pp. 131-132). In short, the author claims that religion is just as much a truth and fact as is science. Call me crazy, but how, then, do you reconcile the fact that there are thousands and thousands of religions claiming they have the truth but scientific inquiry is actually able to resolve disputes over facts?
Additionally, Deming claims religion is more of a truth than science is, “In sum, it appears that certain disciplines of science are in need of a dialogue with religions, while most religions have no need at all for a dialogue with the sciences… it is incumbent upon certain disciplines of science to come to terms with the claims of the world’s religions. Scientists cannot dismiss a religion as untrue in the way that a religious adherent can dismiss science as untrue. No scientist, using the methods and data of science, can claim that the Buddha did not achieve enlightenment, that Jesus is not the Son of God, or that Muhammad is not the prophet of Allah. These matters are simply beyond the purview of scientific inquiry. Religions, however, can and do brand the sciences as superficial or insubstantial, and this is well within their purview” (pp. 135-136). Shocking, isn’t it? The author actually believes that religion is in a position to dismiss science and astonishingly thinks that science must reconcile itself with religion. I’ve heard some pretty stupid things in my lifetime, but this is probably right up there near the top. I don’t mean to demean the author, I just have the hardest time believing he actually wrote this. Science is the only pursuit that has actually achieved some degree of consensus in the thousands of years humanity has been in existence. And here he is dismissing it as though it were a nuisance to the more important aspect of social life – religion. With all due respect Mr. Deming, this is absurd!
Another apologetic approach touched on in the book is the idea that the “religious experience” is unknowable to the outsider, “orientation to ultimate reality — involves an element that is inscrutable to an infinite degree” (p. 102). Strangely this criticism doesn’t seem to be applicable to this book… But this is a point often raised by religious people to argue that there is something “special” about religion that cannot be discerned just by studying it. Well, I disagree, at least in a certain sense. It is true that I can never experience the exact “religious/spiritual” experience of one individual. That is his/her experience. But I can certainly understand religion, theology, cosmology, and even claimed mystical experiences without having to live them. I believe claims that religion is outside the purview of science are feeble attempts to claim that there really is a supernatural component to religions. What the religious adherent is over-looking is the fact that almost all religions claim spiritual/religious experiences. If they all claim them but are different and even contradictory, then in all likelihood they are not experiencing anything religious but simply something that is universal to humans – an ability to deceive ourselves into thinking something outside ourselves is acting upon us when, in fact, it is just self-deceit and the power of our mind. This is precisely why placebos are required to determine if medication has any effect – our minds our powerful tools. Deming’s claim, which undermines the need for his book, is extremely misguided (see also p. 103).
My final major criticism involves the author’s claims about the reasons why religion exists. The author posits that religion exists for one of two reasons (or a combination thereof): (1) we have a religion gene and are biologically pre-disposed to religious belief; (2) god(s/esses) really exist and therefore religion is authentically real (see pages 114-115). The way the author presents these options, he is basically removing the ability to choose religion from the equation. If it is biological, you can’t help it. If it is authentic, then you should embrace it. He obviously overlooks the third and most obvious explanation – that religion fulfills certain needs (i.e., providing a sense of certainty in areas where life is inherently uncertain; addressing metaphysical concerns, etc.) but is a social construction and only one of many social constructions that exist to fulfill that need. I believe the author presents his false dichotomy because he wants to believe his compunction to believe goes beyond self-delusion. That’s fine if that is what he wants to believe, but presenting a false dichotomy where science clearly presents and advocates a third alternative is dishonest.
In conclusion, this is, in my opinion, a text written by a Christian (p. x) that is only suitable for use in sectarian institutions where religious practice is encouraged. The book clearly takes the perspective that religious people in the U.S. are picked-on (see p. 9) and demeaned, especially by science (this is, of course, a lie as the majority of people and even scientists are religious). So, any religious people with an inferiority complex (which, as a sociologist, I recognize is a useful tool for building in-group camaraderie) will likely appreciate the approach taken by this text. However, this book is not at all suitable for use in public education – especially given its unabashedly apologetic tone. Having read the book, I’m not really surprised they were giving away copies for free. Even so, I think Oxford University Press should be ashamed they published such a terrible book; this does not shine positively on their good name.