Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review: "The Illustrated World's Religions"

The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions
By Houston Smith.

This book was given to me by a friend a couple months ago. I had other books ready to read, but I decided to put this one ahead of the others because I had heard that Houston Smith was the "go to" guy about the world's religions. A few different versions of this book have been published; this one is the illustrated one. It includes a lot of art inspired by the different religions and contains many photos of adherents "in action".

Smith starts out this book by making it clear that this book is not meant to be a "comparative religion" text. He also made it clear that his intent was to avoid any negative information about the different religions. He wanted to present each religion in the best, yet accurately representative, light. He also stated that it was not his intention to attempt to provide a defense for the historical, doctrinal, or over-all truth of any of the religions presented.

Smith covers (in this order) Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the Primal Religions. He spent from 14 to 41 pages (including illustrations) on each, so he didn't have a whole lot of room to go into much detail. But the detail that he did provide was quite fascinating.

I must say that Smith's discussions of the eastern religions were fun to read. I can't really say that he included a whole lot that I didn't already know, though. Since a great deal of my knowledge has been obtained from Wikipedia and other sources on the internet, I can't say that Smith's coverage would provide anything more.

I was not that impressed with Smith's coverage of the western religions, though. I'll discuss my reasons later.

When I read the chapters on Hinduism and Buddhism, I had to keep reminding myself that he was including information even if the statements or doctrines were contradictory or logically fallacious. He had stated at the beginning that he was not going to promote a certain conclusion or help the reader come to a certain conclusion about the religions. Smith was doing great at keeping that through the first chapter (Hinduism), but failed in the second (Buddhism). The information about Hinduism provides many problems, but Smith did not attempt to draw conclusions from the info- so, I'll let it go in this review. However, a couple of his conclusions about Buddhism need to be addressed.

Smith made two discernments of his own about Buddhism. The first, "It (original Buddhism) was empirical. Never has a religion presented its case with such unswerving appeal to direct validation. 'Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument. A true disciple must know for himself,' " (pg 68). The quote that Smith appeals to is from Gautama Buddha, himself. This jumped out as painfully obvious that Smith's belief that Buddhism appeals to direct validation is clearly false. Reason and argument are required in order to validate anything to be true. Inference is also a tool of validation. It appears that the Buddha said to avoid those things (attempts to validate what he was saying). "A true disciple must know for himself," is an appeal to the emotions rather than logic. People can believe something for emotional reasons rather than logical ones, and that seems to be what Gautama Buddha is promoting in that quote.

Smith made another statement about Buddhism that seems quite contradicted by the quote he provided as support: "Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition...'Do not go by what is handed down, nor by the authority of your traditional teachings...'," (pg 68). The Buddha is pulling the rug right out from under himself. He's telling his followers to not go by what is handed down by those before them. What he failed to realize in this teaching is that his teachings would, one day, be "handed down" to the next generation. So, any generation living now (especially, since we are the farthest removed from Gautama Buddha), should not be paying any attention to Gautama's or his teachings. If we are to become "enlightened" or "awake" as Gautama Buddha claimed to be, we must start from scratch- like he did. Unfortunately, that is now impossible, since we are aware of his teachings- and they may influence us (we may "go by what is handed down").

The chapters on Confucianism and Taoism were all new material for me. They were quite fun to read. Smith did make it a point that these aren't really "religions" per se, more of "ways of life". I don't remember any obvious logical errors in these sections.

The next chapter was on Islam. Smith takes a few pages to detail out how the Prophet obtained the Qu'ran. I had heard bits and pieces, but this account was much more detailed. Smith talked mainly about the traditional side and the new-age/mystical side of Islam. I was starting to trust Smith again (after getting past his obvious conclusions about Buddhism) when he knocked me down again. This time, he specifically mentions Islam's accusations and sentiments toward Christianity due to the wars between the two. Smith provides some of the Muslim's reasons for holding animosity. I wasn't too happy with the fact that Smith went against what he told us in his first chapter, again, but I figured that it would be okay if he, at least, provided a balance in the chapter on Christianity...he didn't- that really irritated me.

After Islam, Smith discussed Judaism. Here's where he departed from his pattern of discussing the origins of the religion (quite disappointing). The majority of the chapter was sections of "Meaning in..." I know that is important, but I would have liked to have the origins described, the same as the previous religions, also. Once again, Smith found himself going against what he said in the first chapter. In his section about Israel being "The Chosen People", he defended the doctrine and showed why it was not to be seen as arrogant. I don't have a problem with him defending (I think did pretty good), but this gets Smith in hot water in the next chapter.

Christianity...I was not impressed even the slightest with this chapter. The very first thing that caught my eye was on his introduction page to Christianity. On the introduction page of each of the chapters, he provides a quote that is indicative of the religion or something good about the religion that someone had said. Most of the quotes were quite lengthy for the space. However, he got short on his quotes for Judaism and Christianity. For Judaism he used their creed "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one". That one is no problem. But for Christianity he used, "For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son..." The ellipsis (...) is in the quote- he did not include the rest of John 3:16, "...that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life." Considering the fact that Smith had just defended Judaism's particularism (exclusivism) made me wonder why he would not even acknowledge Christianity's. I got past that, and read on. I later realized that he could not include the full quote of John 3:16 and have his short blurb about Christian exclusivity being debated in the Church. What really got me was that while he was willing to defend Judaism's exclusivism, he was unwilling to defend Christianity's or even provide the second half of a quote from the Bible that supports it.

Moving on...Smith split the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith (as if there's a difference). These two sections were not enjoyable even in the slightest because I have been exposed to top-notch scholars who have investigated this issue and provided a compelling argument for them being the same without special pleading (cherry picking of the evidence to fit a worldview). I recommend Dr. Gary Habermas' The Historical Jesus for more on this.

Smith spent 4 pages discussing Roman Catholicism, 3 on Eastern Orthodoxy, and 2 on Protestantism (these all include the illustrations). These were definitely too short. What really caught my eye was the fact that Smith portrays all Protestants as holding that the Bible is immune to being tested (if you have read my blog for any length of time, you will understand that that is not true). He also portrays all Protestants as holding that emotional experience is superior to any other experience and must be believed to be true (once again, false).

The final religion that Smith describes is the primal religions. I don't have a whole lot to say about this chapter except that it was the shortest of the chapters (excluding the intro and conclusion) at 14 pages (including illustrations), and that there seem to be so many around the world that they are difficult to summarize accurately in such a small space.

The conclusion was pretty much the same as the introduction. Smith stated that he wasn't trying to push the reader one way or the other, and that he was not trying to defend or offend any of the religions. He ended the book on a note of moral equivocation among the religions.

One thing that I noticed that Smith did throughout the book was use the word "God" without any qualification. I have no problem with him using the word; however, since the different religions have different beliefs about who or what "God" is, then qualification is necessary. Without this qualification, Smith leads the reader to believe that when every religion uses the word "God", they all mean the same thing.

What did I think of the book as a whole? The overall spirit of the book was extremely universalistic. Smith seemed more interested in bringing all the religions to the same "validity" level, than an actual objective description of the religions. He also seemed like he completely disregarded logic and reason in this book. The fact that he had so many issues in the chapters on Buddhism and Christianity makes me doubt the validity of the rest of the chapters.

I cannot, in my right mind, recommend this book if you think critically and logically or if you adhere to any form of a religion discussed. If you are critically and logically minded, your brain will be in pain and you will find yourself analyzing and shouting more than actually reading. If you adhere to any of the religions mentioned, then you are likely to find grotesque misrepresentations of what you believe due to either the brevity of the chapters or the agenda of the author to equivocate all religions. I also don't recommend this book if you have investigated the religions discussed in depth (you will find the info either repetitious or incorrect). Many better sources exist, even on the internet.

I can only recommend this book if you do not fit any of the descriptions in the paragraph above.