Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/11

18

Religion Reading List

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrShare on Google+

As someone with minimal religious intuitions and nominal indoctrination it’s been a long hard slog for me to understand religion as a human phenomenon. Books have been important. Not newspapers. And not just the words of believers. I’ve expressed irritation and exasperation at some readers who talk about things which they clearly have only a superficial grasp of. This is becoming a bit more common, so I’m going to have to take two steps. First, I’m going to actually start paying closer attention to comments on my threads. Second, below is a reading list which explains where I’m coming from. You don’t have to read any of these books, or try to understand where I’m coming from. Life is short. But in that case, don’t comment. I don’t know much about cars, so I don’t talk about cars. I am a fan of the Boston Celtics, but don’t follow the game closely enough to comment intelligently, so I don’t comment. I try to shy away from superficial conversation about serious topics in my day to day life (though I’m game to talk about Jersey Shore in a flip fashion), so I understand that this is a blog, but it seems we’d all benefit more from depth than not (this is not aimed at the transient visitors who arrive via periodic spikes from other websites, and will come & go at will). I’m not interested in winning arguments, I’m interesting in learning more through discussion. I don’t feel that I’m learning a lot in the repetitions of superficial conventional wisdom. This includes both the Islamoskeptic commenters (I count myself as a very strongly Islamoskeptic) and the partisans of pluralism. I accede to substantive disagreement more easily than I do to unintelligent or uninformed concurrence.

The list below is Abrahamically oriented, mostly because readers of this weblog have a stronger interest in these faiths as expressed by the comments they leave. Though I can recommend books on Chinese religious philosophy, and to a lesser extent Indian religious philosophy, if you are curious. Quite often the generalizations people make about human societies are uninformed by any deep knowledge of the broader swath of societies, so a cursory familiarity with all cultures is probably best unless you want to make yourself a fool by ignorance.


-Cognition
In God’s We Trust
Religion Explained
Theological Incorrectness

I’d say Theological Incorrectness is the thinnest of the three, but most general and elegantly argued.

-Evolution
Darwin’s Cathedral
The Faith Instinct

-Social science
A Theory of Religion
Marketplace of Gods
One Nation Under Good
American Grace

-Religious history
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
The Rise of Christianity
The Reformation
The Lost History of Christianity
New History of Christianity
The Great Arab Conquests
Divided by the Faith
Barbarian Conversion
Making of the Christian Aristocracy
God’s Rule – Government and Islam
The Sacred Chain
American Judaism
Catholicism & American Freedom
Rome & Jerusalem

-Religious text analysis, etc.
How to Read the Bible
Who Wrote the Bible?
The Bible with Sources Revealed
Misquoting Jesus
The Unauthorized version
The Essential Talmud

-History with religious significance
God’s War
Rise of Western Christendom
A History of the Byzantine State and Society
The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Classical World
Alexander to Actium
Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300
A History of the Arab Peoples
A History of Iran
Sailing to Byzantium
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
What Hath God Wrought
Albion’s Seed

I think that’s it. If you read only one book on the list, Theological Incorrectness is the one I would recommend. Even well read people who have discussions in good faith get confused and thrown by the fact that I immediately make assertions predicated upon an understanding of the cognitive foundations of any cultural phenomena. This is especially important with religion. When it comes to specific historical detail or interpretation, I can’t say anything more than just assert that this list is a start, not the end. To give an example of what I’m talking about, I recall having a discussion with several readers years ago about whether the victory of Charles Martel during the Battle of Tours was necessary to prevent the Islamicization of Europe (as Gibbon asserted). To be able to offer a non-useless opinion on this topic one has to immerse oneself a bit in the history and historiography of this period. I did do that in mid-2003 because I was curious (I lean against the proposition that Tours was determinative in whether Europe became Muslim or not, though my confidence about these sorts of things is modest at best). If you have a casual above-average knowledge of history I’m not interested in your opinions or interpretations, because they’re going to be shallow and thin for my taste. Entering unadorned facts into the record is fine, though the more ignorant or unintelligent often have an unfortunate tendency of allowing implications to slip in which indicate a total lack of proper contextual comprehension.

Also, if you are curious, I did not put a book of theology on the list because I find theology generally unmemorable and of almost no use insofar as modeling religious behavior is at issue. The last book on this topic I read was Alistar McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. I found it to be readable, but as usual with theology for me (as opposed to the history of religious institutions) it did not end up to be useful enough to me that it “stuck” in my head.

Do note that the recommendation via the list obviously doesn’t entail an endorsement of any of these books. I am, for example, broadly in agreement with the thrust of the books on cognition, but have become more and more skeptical over the years as to the general applicability of the rational choice model of religious phenomena which Rodney Stark outlines in A Theory of Religion. But lack of general explanatory value does not necessarily mean lack of total utility (I think it’s a good fit to the American religious marketplace, which I over-weight obviously), and even if you believe a model false it is important to engage it quite often.

Recommendations for other books, and questions about specific books or the nature of the list are welcome. And if you want to see some of my other opinions on books, you might be curious about my books website, which I’m slowly growing, Razib on Books.

28 comments

  • Eoin · March 19, 2011 at 3:34 am

    For Catholicism in England prior to the reformation – Eamonn Duffy. His point is that Catholicism was strong in England prior to Henry Viii, not weak – the Stripping of the Altars.

  • Eoin · March 19, 2011 at 3:47 am

    To be clear – he is a Catholic apologist, so take that with a grain of salt, but he has done a massive amount of original research, the real mark of a historian.

    I have read some of those books, and they are all apologists of some stripe or another. There is no neutral.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 19, 2011 at 4:56 am

    I have read some of those books, and they are all apologists of some stripe or another. There is no neutral.

    agreed.

  • Matt · March 19, 2011 at 4:57 am

    “The Christian Tradition” is a wonderful 5-volume set by Jaroslav Pelikan. It’s a history of Christian doctrine, with an emphasis on what churches collectively believed and taught (thus comparatively less on individual theologians). It’s pretty comprehensive, but I think the most valuable work is his discussion of important disputes in the early church as they relate to Judaism, neo-Platonism, and Paganism.

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=pelikan+christian+tradition&x=0&y=0

    (Pelikan tries hard not to be an apologist, but he converted from the Lutheran church to Eastern Orthodoxy when he was writing this history. Orthodox voices are underrepresented in American political writing — Daniel Larison is a good exception.)

  • Clark · March 20, 2011 at 1:59 am

    Glad you mentioned American Grace. I was listening to an interview with the author the other day and it sounded quite interesting. I was surprised, for instance, that so few are willing to outright identify as atheist despite not believing in God. (According to the author)

    Regarding Stark, it seems like lots of people have become more skeptical of his approach. (I think you can see that with his more recent approach to early Christian history)

    I’d second Jaroslav Pelikan’s stuff too. Very nice at grounding the theological evolution within an historic context. I like Alistar McGrath’s as well. What I’m weakest on are the protestants around the time of the colonization of America – especially early major American figures.

  • Lorenzo from Oz · March 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Agreed about Theological Incorrectness (which I review here). Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath is the single most enlightening book I have read on the Reformation, precisely because it is just an in-depth study of a particular parish.

  • Mercer · March 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I did not see anything about Mormons on the list. Fawn Brodie’s book on their founder, No Man Knows my History, is one of the most engrossing biographies I have ever read.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Man_Knows_My_History:_The_Life_of_Joseph_Smith

  • Maciano · March 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    All,

    Here’s a pdf to “Theological Incorrectness” online. (Warning: pdf-alert)

    http://tinyurl.com/6jtfjtn

    @Razib: Nice post, interesting list. Thanks.

  • Sam Schulman · March 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    What I think you are missing in your education is any account of the phenomenology of belief – what it must feel like to be religious, which is particularly important for someone like you who believes that religion is false. Without a sense of what it is that drives religious belief, how can you adequately contest religion with believers who are not simply stupid or uninformed (as most believers, and most nonbelievers, are)? You need to understand some of the charm of religious belief, not just all of its errors.
    Of course, having said this, I also admit that reactions to such books are highly personal. CS Lewis, in any number of his books, is masterful, but it is forgivable to find him loathsome. I find novels better for the purpose than apologetics – but again it’s a matter of taste. I am not a Christian, but I adore and can reread endlessly Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. There’s a wonderful Italian novel of WWII called The Red Horse, by Conti, in which most of the protagonists are believing Catholics, caught between fascism and communism.
    Slightly off-subject – another book worth looking at is the philosopher Alisdair McIntyre’s book “The Religious Signfificance of Atheism,” which is not at all a rejoinder to atheism, but a consideration of it from a religious point of view.

  • Clark · March 21, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Sam, what do you think of Mircea Eliadi’s stuff? I find his writings interesting albeit limited due to his writing during that period of scholarship when structuralism ruled the academy. Even though they are quite dated and perhaps problematic on psychological grounds I still get a lot out of them. Even for an atheist I’d think they’d be interesting since many rituals and the like continue to reappear. Of course that era of structuralism had a lot of psychologists doing those religious studies. Typically the investigators were atheists. Unfortunately too much of that era of writing was still tied to Freud directly or through various “apostates” to his style of psychoanalysis.

    What’s so nice about Atram in In Gods We Trust and related works is that in effect he’s updating a lot of that phenomenology of religion that was so popular in the 50’s and 60’s but doing it through the lens of modern cognitive science. Thus you don’t have to tread carefully wondering was quasi-Freudian assumptions are behind some analysis. What I wish someone would do is take cognitive science ala Atran for granted and then try to write in that broad scope that Eliadi did. I think it all cries out for a modern analysis.

    Mercer, Brodie is still rightly praised for starting a lot of scholarship on LDS thought. Although she is a bit of a mind reader at times. For two modern biographies that are better (albeit not so easy to read or well written in terms of a quick flow through) check out Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling or for a more atheistic take that tries to modernize Brodie, Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. Both are quite good. Bushman (a Mormon) tries to bracket the religious truth question which some don’t like. (He’s trying very hard not to be apologetic though despite his believing status) Vogel is much more a naturalist trying to find naturalistic explanations for Joseph Smith’s actions and the works he produced. As such he takes Brodie’s path only more so. Although as I said despite Brodie being so dated she really is a good writer.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 21, 2011 at 6:29 am

    What I think you are missing in your education is any account of the phenomenology of belief

    that’s what the cognitive science books are for. have you read that domain, and if so, why do you find them insufficient?

  • John Farrell · March 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Razib, I’m slowly making my way through Christianity the First Three Thousand Years as well. Enjoying it so far. BTW–I didn’t see an RSS feed at your book site. Is there one, or do you plan to add one?

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 21, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    john, i have razib on books folded into my total feed:

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/RazibKhansTotalFeed

    but here’s the separate feed:

    http://www.razib.com/books/feed/

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 21, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    btw john, *the reformation* is a far better book IMO. tightly focused.

  • Clark · March 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Razib, I think those doing a phenomenology of religion like Eliadi simply cover a much broader consideration of phenomena than any of the cognitive science books I’ve read. As I said I think Eliadi is dated in terms of approach but not in terms of breadth. I look forward to someone taking on his project using the much more robust psychological and cognitive knowledge of today.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    clark, can you say more? what areas does he cover? i tried reading him years ago, but found it unrewarding initially, so i switched to other things. i might revisit.

  • Polichinello · March 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I’d second the Fawn Brodie recommendation. The Mormons are an interesting phenomenon because in them you have a religion arising in the full light of modern history.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    yeah, i’ve read brodie. i didn’t include that mostly because it is so specific. but you’re right. mormons probably give us an insight into the rise of most religions. or at least specifically confessional forms which derive from a prophetic tradition.

  • Polichinello · March 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    There was a South Park Episode where Butters was playing Professor Chaos, and he was constantly checked in his search for originality by the cry “The Simpson did it!”

    I use the Mormons in the same way when dealing with Christians citing Christ’s miracles and the apostle’s faith. Pretty much, point by point, you have the same track of messiah, miracle, martyrdom and apostles.

  • Ryan · March 21, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    I would strongly discourage readers from taking Eliade’s work seriously. The academic field of religious studies is working assiduously to expunge his influence. His methodology was suspect and his past is even more so (he was connected to an ultra-right organization in Romania called the Iron Guard.) His work, while attractive to many for its Romanticism, has been largely discredited according to modern standards of scholarship. Eliade cherry-picked his data in order to verify the specious claims he made about myth and ignored historical truths that worked against him. Sorry, I get a little worked up about Eliade. Also, for a good overview of American Religious history i’d say: A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. A good primer on modern Islam is: Globalized Islam by Olivier Roy.

  • Sam Schulman · March 22, 2011 at 1:32 am

    I am halfway between Ryan and Clark on Eliade – he does romanticize, and he did cover up his past, but he was not the worst of the worst among the Romanian fellow-travelers, his turnaround was sincere – if dishonest in retrospect – and his work has a feeling for religiousness that is real. The fact that modern religious studies scholars feel that they have discredited him – sorry, Ryan – tells in his favor. There is something too easy about his books on religion – they fit so perfectly into the 1960s “visionary” lit crit moment – but I’d prefer them anytime to postmodernist bs, which itself is due to be discredited. I knew too many great men and women who knew Eliade well to believe that he was wholly the shit that Norman Manea says he is – though he was evidently all-but-wholly a shit (I have read Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-44 and am a sadder but a wiser man).
    Dear Hume, I should perhaps not have used the word phenomenology – the difference between the cognitive books you know and what I am trying to describe is the difference between reading Nagel’s classic essay “What is it like to be a bat” and reading a book by a bat, even though in translation. It’s the difference between description/analysis and participation. That’s what I think is so instructive about books Lewis, his weird friend Charles Williamson, and, along the even weirder line, the Rudolf-Steinerist Owen Barfield. “The Voices of Morebath” almost gets there, but it is too scrupulous to step over the line. Of course you may find the notion of believing so repellent or so foreign that you are immune to such books – but I can hardly believe that.
    A wonderful new book that should also be mentioned – more than mentioned, sacrificed to – is “Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Village,” by an anthropologist called Juliet du Boulay, who had written what I am told is the best anthropoligical study of Greek village life in the 1970s – then was injured, and published nothing between then and now. Great review in TLS in the last few months.

  • Ryan · March 22, 2011 at 3:29 am

    Sam, would you describe people like Jonathan Z. Smith, Peter Berger and Victor Turner as post-modernists? If not, who are you referring to? If so, what about them do you find objectionable? I find their brand of scholarship much more compelling and responsible than that of Eliade and his ilk (Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstron, etc.)

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 22, 2011 at 3:44 am

    Eliade and his ilk (Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, etc.)

    i have read more campbell and armstrong than eliade. i don’t find them totally unredeemable, though generally i think they’re more useless than useful. re: eliade’s politics, i am aware of that because of my interest in the ‘traditionalist’ movement (as a intellectual interest, not a personal one). what’s the point of objecting to his politics? (or his past politics) does it intersect that much directly with his scholarship?

    the difference between the cognitive books you know and what I am trying to describe is the difference between reading Nagel’s classic essay “What is it like to be a bat” and reading a book by a bat, even though in translation. It’s the difference between description/analysis and participation. That’s what I think is so instructive about books Lewis, his weird friend Charles Williamson, and, along the even weirder line, the Rudolf-Steinerist Owen Barfield. “The Voices of Morebath” almost gets there, but it is too scrupulous to step over the line. Of course you may find the notion of believing so repellent or so foreign that you are immune to such books – but I can hardly believe that.

    well, i think generally i find non-fiction in this vein rather uninteresting, though if i think it is useful i’ll still work my way through that sort of material. but i generally do find religiously inflected works of fiction often engaging, and less ponderous. though i don’t see the main upshot of your argument. how much do we need to understand about what draws people to religion in terms of concrete experience? most of us experience religion and religious people a great deal at some point in our lives in the USA as a background condition of living (i have never been religious, but prior to adulthood my milieus were all predicated on strong religious beliefs, whether in the home, or in the community). though on some fundamental level someone like me lacks some which allows for visceral comprehension (this is not true of many atheists, who come to religion through other cognitive means).

  • Sam Schulman · March 22, 2011 at 4:03 am

    Oy – please don’t say that Eliade’s ilk includes Campbell and Armstrong. If he is to be condemned, then let him have his own room in Hell. And no, of course Turner and Berger are not pomo, wasn’t aware of their view of Eliade. But Eliade is really a man of literature and life, not a scholar – which made him the semi-villain he turned out to be (I confess I was deeply shocked by Norman Manea’s first piece in the New Republic so long ago).
    Hume, my first list was fiction, but I think that for a variety of probably historical/emotional reasons, something about the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic mentality in England has lent its adherents a particular kind of rhetorical/dramatic power to represent and make real the experience of belief to nonbelievers in a particularly vivid and intimate way (and I am no Anglo-Catholic or even Christian). I haven’t really lived “among” them – in fact I would say I’ve lived among atheists for my whole life – but their ability to represent the “oceanic feeling” Freud said he lacked is in my experience of reading without rival.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 22, 2011 at 4:49 am

    something about the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic mentality in England has lent its adherents a particular kind of rhetorical/dramatic power to represent and make real the experience of belief to nonbelievers in a particularly vivid and intimate way

    i can agree with this as far as it goes. but i wonder how far it goes in capturing the spirituality of the masses.

  • Clark · March 22, 2011 at 5:05 am

    Campbell is a waste. He plays fast and lose with his sources in attempting to make the big parallels he wants. Plus his Freudeanism is pretty blatant. Eliadi is much more historical than Campbell or most of the myth-criticism figures. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his own big problems. Just that I don’t think they are of the same magnitude as Campbell who is just one step away from Jung in my opinion.

    Of course my real gripe with Campbell is in ruining George Lucas and thereby the Star Wars prequels. But that’s a whole other topic…

    Anyway, I’m hardly defending Eliadi. I think he’s valuable but very, very flawed. he does tend to downplay historic evidence which undermines the structures he proposes. (That’s why I noted his tie to the structuralist milieu) Which is why I’d like someone to take on the topic in a much more rigorous way. I think Atran is a great start but just too narrow in breadth.

  • SuperSnail · March 23, 2011 at 5:14 am

    Hey Razib, could you compile a list of Chinese and Indian religious history/philosophy books?

  • Marcel · March 24, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Under evolution the best book to help readers understand it these days in my view would be The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins would you consider adding it to give your readers a solid insight into evolution?

<<

>>

Theme Design by devolux.nh2.me