Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? Rupert Shortt. London: SPCK, 2019. 88 pp £7.99/£9.99 ISBN: 9780281078714
As religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Rupert Shortt has his finger on the pulse of religious thinking today, not only in academe but in the wider world. Hence this timely book in a time when religion is routinely (and lazily) blamed as a source of violence. Along with other authors such as Karen Armstrong he sees religious violence as wrapped up in other tensions, such as national or ethnic rivalries.
Before tackling the main question, Shortt feels it necessary to clarify the nature of the divine-human relationship. He rejects the view of God as an arbitrary dictator, whom human beings must obey unquestioningly. Rather, he sees God as a creator intimately involved in the ongoing shaping of the world. In return, by participating in the divine life, believers find their seeking and desiring are all open to an affirming power that challenges them to aim higher and to live more generously. He writes: 'At their best, the spiritual paths concerned offer an overarching vision of wholeness encompassing the ethical and emotional spheres, as well as the rational' (p 39). Human transcendence is empowered by divine transcendence.
This could seem hopelessly idealistic, but his analysis is accompanied by an honest assessment of religion's tendency to get enmeshed in power structures. In a brief - indeed Procrustean - survey of world religions, he teases out some of the reasons why they can be seduced by the lure of power and violence. But, as he points out, secularism can also fall victim to worshipping what is false and failing to question its own assumptions. Science and technology, like religion, are capable of great good - or of being perverted to evil ends.
Shortt's conclusion is that religion does more harm than good when it fails to respect mystery and becomes intolerant. Counterbalancing this, religion inspires an ethic of care for the other and respect for human dignity. The clincher, as he sees is, is quite simply that we need religion, because without religion life is truly mundane and impoverished. Religion allows us to ask the bigger questions about life's purpose and meaning.
For a book that is modest in size it manages to encompass a wide field of thinking. I think its author sees the book as a sustained argument, whereas I found it to be more like a provocative survey. On this occasion the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. I relished the breadth of literature cited and wanted to pursue some of the references out of interest. So it may be churlish to complain of an absence, but I wondered why there was no mention of the work of René Girard. Girard has drawn our attention to the importance of mimesis, or imitation, in shaping our desires. From children imitating their parents to fans breathlessly following the tweets of celebrities, we find ourselves wanting to do what others do. People like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero, draw us after them. Just as, alas, suicide bombers can inspire others. This is what religion offers us: examples of how to live - sometimes with good and evil being confused. Perhaps that controversial doctrine, original sin, has a place after all.
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