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Featured Book: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett argues that “society must overcome its ‘spell’ against studying religion as a natural, evolutionary occurrence,” Kirkus Reviews says of this book. The atheist author, “seeks to expose religion to the systematic tools of modern science,” and “presents material from various researchers regarding how religion has evolved in human cultures.” Not surprisingly, Scientific American fancied it as “a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological, and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, who found the work to be “crystal-clear [and] constantly engaging,” mentions that, “For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why, and how, it has shaped so many lives so strongly. …Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel Dennett charts religion’s evolution from ‘wild’ folk belief to ‘domesticated’ dogma….”

In this sampling, Dennett maintains that the “three favourite purposes or raisons d’être for religion are (1) to comfort us in our suffering, and allay our fear of death, (2) to explain things we cannot otherwise explain, and (3) to encourage group cooperation in the face of trials and enemies.”

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett
Penguin Books, 2006

Featured Book: The Case for God

The Case for God—which Britain’s The Daily Telegraph called Karen Armstrong’s “best, most lucid book to date”—“wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism,” according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. …a former nun turned prolific popular historian, [she] wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultural despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike.” 
 
True, “she stands squarely on the side of ‘God,’” The Globe and Mail reports, “but the ‘God’ for which she has sympathy is not knowable, as we generally assume ‘God’ to be…. …The case being made in The Case for God is for mystery.”  
 
In The Daily Telegraph, critic George Pitcher, referencing atheist Richard Dawkins and his The God Delusion—our last “Featured Book”—has it that she succeeds in “blow[ing] Dawkins away….” How? “…by demonstrating that religion is not what he and the atheist caravan think and claim that it is”; theirs is “an irrelevant argument…. For Armstrong…religion is like art—‘an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life.’” “…discover its wonderfully suggestive thinking for yourself,” The Globe and Mail urges.
The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

Featured Book: The God Delusion

When Penguin issued the 10th anniversary edition of The God Delusion, the publishing house began its pitch by recalling how the book had “caused a sensation” when it was first released. In its critique, The Guardian, referencing its author, Richard Dawkins, reckoned that “believers in God are right to see him as their arch-enemy.” The Darwinian scientist and essayist on popular science, in “dissecting the arguments for the existence of God”—this is reviewer Joan Bakewell’s take—“comes roaring forth in the full vigour of his powerful arguments….” She explains, “He is an out-and-out atheist, and this is his testimony.”
 
This seems to have caught Publishers Weekly off guard: “For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins [at Oxford University, he’s Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science] has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe.” It points out how he “insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force….” What he has produced in this book is what the British Columbia publication, The Tyee, calls “a most impassioned, endearing, articulate, and heartening secular-humanist call to arms.” Bakewell concludes her review with this presumption: “…it will, I trust, offend many.” 
 
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Featured Book: The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life

“…Today people all over the world are abandoning their religions in disgust and anger,” Thomas Moore reckons in this long-awaited companion volume to his 1992 bestseller, Care of the Soul. “Still, everyone has an instinct for the transcendence. People know intuitively that some kind of spiritual life is necessary, and so many are searching on their own….” 

Once a monk in a Catholic religious order for a dozen years, a psychology professor, and a practicing Jungian psychoanalyst, Moore, in The Soul’s Religion, provides “a thoughtful guidebook for [just such] seekers,” according to Publishers Weekly in a starred review. In it, he “delves into religion as a way of enhancing the life of the soul,” reimagining it “not as a set of beliefs or a strict moral code, but as a romantic adventure.

In fact, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, writing for the website Spirituality & Practice, point out how, “At one point, Moore describes this book as ‘a trip in a tiny sailboat across an ocean of passions and mysteries’. That’s an apt description, and a cordial invitation to all adventurous seafarers who are yearning to ride the waves….Booklist calls it, “A rich, nuanced reflection on what it means to be human.”

The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life
By Thomas Moore
HarperCollins, 2002

Featured Book: Why Religion? A Personal Story

Elaine Pagels, who wrote the last of the SSUC Library’s Featured Books—her foundational work, The Gnostic Gospels— “is a hard person to describe in a word,” though the Washington Times reviewer of Why Religion? tried: scholar, author, historian, heretic. But Philip Kopper concludes, “‘hero’ fits best, namely an individual who faces ordeals of indescribable agony, and prevails….”
 
According to Publishers Weekly, Pagels, in Why Religion?, “addresses the titular question by recounting her life story.” It is “a raw and often moving autobiography,” Kirkus Reviews affirms, for it tells how a fatal heart condition took the life of her only son while he was still in kindergarten, and then, just a year later, how her husband fell to his death while mountain climbing in the Colorado Rockies. 
 
In the face of such travail, Pagels, America’s “most popular historian of religion,” The Washington Post reports, delved into the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Gnostic texts, and Buddhist and Trappist monk insights, “until she understood that suffering is an essential and common element of human life.” Kirkus Reviews ends its critique by stating, simply and truly, “A meaningful tale of pain and hope on the edges of faith.” Read it, with tissues handy.  
 
Why Religion? A Personal Story
By Elaine Pagels
HarperLuxe, 2018
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