The Raving Theist

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Religion by Dummies

April 7, 2003 Comments Off

Somehow I missed the book party last August for Religion for Dummies, by the God Squad (see below) Rabbi/Priest team of Marc Gellman and Tom Hartman. Austin Cline of About.com’s Atheism/Agnosticism category gave it three stars (out of five), primarily for its informational value. Here is an excerpt from the review in which he discusses the book’s anti-atheism, pro-religion orientation:


There also isn’t much about atheism — just a mistaken reference to atheism being the denial of the existence of God rather than simply disbelief in gods. Such a lack of coverage is perhaps good, however, because in their regular column, Gellman and Hartman have evinced a strong prejudice against atheism. In August, they wrote to a mother that she should be glad that her son “is only an agnostic and not yet an atheist,” even going so far as to argue that without God, “there would be no reason to do good.” Sadly, they have bought into the common prejudice that atheism and morality don’t mix — a problem I wrote to them and questioned them about, but I never heard back.

In the book Gellman and Hartman explain their goal as an attempt to provide an “honest” accounting of religion, but that honesty suffers from their (understandable) prejudice in favor of religion, arguing that the “true nature” of religion is only good and never really bad. According to Gellman and Hartman, those who commit violence in the name of religion pervert that faith – their definition of “cults” is particularly revealing in how they try to separate out the “bad” and pretend that it isn’t “real” religion:

Cults are not religions at all. They are not ancient, and they are just scams pretending to be a religion. Cults are brainwashing and moneymaking centers run by groups of power-seeking, money-hungry leaders who are merely working to increase their own power and wealth. Cults use the laws in the United States that protect religions as a cover for their corrupt and unspiritual activities.

Aside from the fact that the characteristic “ancient” is quite irrelevant to the definition of “religion,” what they describe could easily apply to many leaders of mainstream religious groups. Not a few people have observed that many Christian televangelists have been more concerned with their own wealth than with the spiritual development of others, but does that mean that Christianity is just a “cult”? The term “cult’ is often used simply to denigrate the religious groups someone doesn’t like, and that appears to be the case here, I’m sorry to say.

They don’t even accept honest criticism of religion, objecting when people cite problematic and violent aspects of religious beliefs. For example, in a recent column they claimed that there are only two reasons for quoting the “bad parts of our traditions” — to use religion as a weapon to hurt others or “because your own hatred and prejudice is so strong that it’s perverted your faith.” The possibility that citing the bad portions of their faith might serve as a useful reminder that religion isn’t always good and that religious people need to take responsibility for all aspects of their traditions doesn’t seem to occur to them.

I, in turn, reviewed both of the columns to which Cline alludes. The review of the “agnostic son” column is here; the one regarding “religion as a weapon” is here.

You’ll note that Cline bemoans their failure to reply to his query regarding why atheism and morality don’t mix. Not surprising — had they admitted that morality doesn’t really need religion, they’d have talked themselves right out of their day jobs.

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