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SOMEONE ONCE SAID, “I think of myself as a flying buttress, supporting the church, but from without.” Another religious adage I like is “Lord, protect me from zealots.” These two are not unrelated.

Three recent books reinforce this stand and offer other thoughts on religions. (I purposely choose the plural for this last word.)

The New York Times Book Review. Elaine Pagels’ review in The New York Times, December 1, 2019, is titled “Faith and Reason.” Nicholas Kristof writes an accompanying review.

Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story, by Jack Miles, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Jack Miles is a former Jesuit seminarian, a teacher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (of God: A Biography, 1996), and an editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, 2015. His latest work explores religion and its separation from secular life.

“Finding this separation problematic,” reviewer Pagels writes, “Miles then offers a quick, sophisticated dash through world history, especially Western history, to account for it.”

Pagels cites one of the book’s conclusions: “… that what is often termed the disappearance of God, or the disappearance of the sacred, in modernity, is actually the integration of that aspect of human experience into the rest of modern experience.”

Believers: Faith in Human Nature, by Melvin Konner, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Melvin Konner is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory University’s primary undergraduate division. Also an M.D., Konner is the author of seventeen books ranging from one on the paleo diet to a study of sex, evolution, and the end of male supremacy.

In her review of Believers, Pagels writes, “Konner sets out to investigate the persistence of religious belief. At the onset, he identifies himself as an atheist who, after adolescence, left behind his own religious upbringing, and draws upon his experience as an anthropologist living among hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Then, in each of the following lively chapters, he explores an astonishing range of perspectives.”

No Simple Answers. Just as there is a multiplicity of faiths, Konner offers no simple answer as to why one or the other of them exists. “Instead,” Pagels writes, “like Charles Darwin, he notes that ‘such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.’ ”

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Karen Armstrong, OBE, FRSL, is a British author and former nun. Her books, of which this is the latest of more than 40, discuss comparative religion. She writes, “Too many believers and nonbelievers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality.”

Scripture as Performance Art. In his review of Armstrong’s book, Nicholas Kristof says, “She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual, and more like performance art than a book.”

One example of this is in religious dietary restrictions: They’re often explained in the context of one group boycotting the agricultural products of adversarial neighbors.

Inconsistencies in Scripture. Fundamentalists are seemingly trapped by, and non-believers scoff at, scriptural inconsistencies. Kristof cites one: “Religious traditions condemn incest, but a literalist must believe that we are here because Adam and Eve’s children slept with each other. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: If Scripture contradicts itself, so be it. Scripture is large; it contains multitudes.”

On Zealotry. Kristof writes: “The ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi complained about an early version of what today we might call religious blowhards. ‘The learning of a petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth,’ Xunzi protested, adding that the words have affected only ‘the four inches between ear and mouth.’ Instead, the aim for a wise man should be that learning ‘enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions.’”

A Mathematician’s Comment. Pagels concludes with “a story—apocryphal or not!—that some physicists love to tell of the great physicist Niels Bohr: A colleague, visiting him at home in Denmark, was startled to see a horseshoe nailed over the barn door, and exclaimed, ‘Surely you don’t believe in that stuff, do you?’ Bohr answered, ‘Of course not! But it works whether you believe in it or not.’ ” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

2 comments on “ON RELIGIONS

  1. Monica
    February 26, 2020

    Dear Dr. Simanaitis, In one of your posts you discussed fig trees and sycophants. I don’t have the title of the original post or time to locate it. Please forgive me. I am writing a book on the wholeness of God and I’m using the European conflict of WWII to show the hubris of man. When I began researching Hitler’s subordinates, sycophant kept coming up which lead me here, there and everywhere. Then I saw your post. I don’t understand but want to!!! Care to share another clue?

    Thanks so much!!!!!

    • simanaitissays
      February 26, 2020

      Hello, Monica,
      This was one of my early Etymology for our Times pieces. To find it, I Googled “simanaitis sycophant fig” and it popped up. Alas, it seems even more relevant today than it was back in 2017.
      Good luck on your project. —Dennis

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