Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Book Review

The Heresiarch has been sent a book, The Heathen's Guide to World Religions, by the Canadian writer William Hopper. It's available from this website, and possibly elsewhere.

Hopper takes the historical approach, telling the stories of how the five biggest religions were started and developed historically - to be more specific, retelling the accepted narratives with injections of cynicism and jokes. He calls Jesus Josh and Buddha Sid; for some reason he doesn't call Mohammed Mo. Jesus and Mohammed were both OK, he thinks, but Paul was "psychotic" and St Augustine was a "two-bit despotic hypocrite who single-handedly ruined puberty for generations of Christians." He likes Gnostics and Sufis. He doesn't like the Wahhabis (who does?) but shows unexpected enthusiasm for the Nation of Islam, mainly because they "strive at every opportunity to piss off the white-bred Christian groups in the States." The Dalai Lama "genuinely seems to be a nice guy". It's the basic western liberal line that "all these great teachings were corrupted and misinterpreted", in other words, although conveyed with less than PC irreverence.

There's plenty here to offend the easily offended, which is fine by me, although Hopper usually seems more amused than angry by the idiocies perpetrated in the name of God. The section on the Mormons is quite funny unless you happen to be a Mormon. Ditto the Jehovah's Witnesses. He makes a reasonably good fist of explaining the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites; he also has Calvinism bang to rights ("predestination... and a bunch of intellectual rambling mixed with capitalism"). And I like Hopper's paraphrase of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the first of which is "Life is shit". He gets a bit confused by Hinduism, but then I suppose it is a rather confusing system, possibly even to Hindus. The general mood is one of good-natured derision.

All in all it's quite amusing and informative, if rather heavy-handed. At times, the effect is like being stuck at a bar with a slightly inebriated know-all determined to tell you everything he's learned on the Internet. Hopper effectively conveys the contingent nature of religious history: how the Christianity we know today depends on decisions taken at the Council of Nicaea, for example, which itself was set up to produce a creed amenable to the emperor Constantine, and how different it would have looked had the ideas of the Gnostics prevailed. On the other hand he has a distinctly shaky grasp of both history and geography, informing us at one point that by the time he died Mohammed had conquered the entire Byzantine Empire and at another that 19th century Iran belonged to the Ottomans. He even seems unaware that Paul was Jewish. It says in the back that he has a degree in world religions, so it's possible some of the mistakes are deliberate, or are meant to be jokes. Otherwise they would be just embarrassing.

There's not enough information in the book to win an argument with a thoughtful religious friend (especially one able to spot the mistakes), but as feelgood therapy for nonbelievers it has its moments. There are some great quotes scattered throughout. A couple that sum things up nicely. From Jules Renard, "I don't know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn't." And from Star Trek's Mr Whorf: "Our gods are dead. Ancient Klingon warriors slew them millennia ago. They were more trouble than they were worth."


valdemar squelch said...

You're getting distinctly antitheist, lately. Have you been reading that Andrew Sullivcan chappie?

Mind you there are so many books mocking, dissecting and condemning religion that only the wishy-washy brigade could fail to address the issue.

William Hopper said...

By way of Explanation from the Author:

Buddha is Sid, short for Siddhartha. Jesus is Josh, short for Joshua… the proper translation of the Hebrew. This was all explained in the book. I did call Mohammed “Moe” in the first edition (1997), but it was later edited out after I was informed that the translation from Arabic didn’t work with the “Moe” thing.

And no, I did not learn everything I know from the internet. In fact, the internet did not exist when I was at university, studying for a Ba.Hons in World Religions and a minors degree in Classical studies from Queen’s University. I do, however, take credit for a lot of the info your described being on the web. I’ve been at this for a long, long time now.

Don’t like Gnostics or Sufis… I merely find them less offensive because they (unlike the orthodoxies) did not hold political power.

As for not knowing that Paul was Jewish, he wasn’t really. Not enough to be relevant to his narrative. He lived in a Jewish area, but his writings are absolutely critical of Hebrew and Judaic tradition. He was far, far more influenced by the Greco-Roman (Hellenistic) influences prior to his conversion.

William Hopper