Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists (edited by Victoria Zackheim)

First published:- February, 2015

Star rating:-


There was a time when I was still an optimistic seeker of doctrinal wisdom blissfully entertaining the certainty that there would at least be one religious doctrine fashioned by humans in the whole wide world which would not delight in depriving members of one half of the human race of any political and social standing. I was naive then. My ardor in this regard cooled considerably once I came across information that even Buddha helpfully classified seven kinds of wives (as recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya found within the Sutta Pitaka) of which the wife who meekly takes a beating from her husband, never argues back and remains as slavish as possible is defined as the ideal one. 

So is there any organized religion in the world which does not cheerfully preach, propagate and advocate misogynistic ideas and practices? If there is, do let me know. Meanwhile, I delight in evolving my personal belief systems to deal with pangs of short-term nihilism and remaining as religion-free as possible even though, to my dismay, every time I'm required to fill a government-printed form, I am hard-pressed to tick the 'Hindu' box. 

Organized religion has all the elements of organized crime, except for compassion. If you offend a crime boss who has no compassion, he will have you beaten up and sometimes killed. If the crime boss wants you to go to hell, he will have you killed after you have committed a sin so you have had no time to repent (i.e. you get yours as you leave a whorehouse or have just eaten pork, or have neglected to kill a female relative who has disgraced the family). Organized religion, however, does show some compassion. Still, in my mind, crime bosses and the guy called God have a lot in common: revenge, rage, and punishment are essential to their mission.

I requested this collection on Netgalley expecting to discover other, disparate ways of viewing faith and institutional religion and maybe challenging discussions on the intersection between religious philosophy and recent developments/intelligent speculation in the domain of astrophysics and the cosmo-sciences but nope. Instead what I got was a collection of maudlin musings on life and its trials and tribulations. It doesn't help either that most of the writers were raised in a Judeo-Christian tradition which means most of the articles lose their sheen of novelty after a while with similar anecdotes of childhood rites of initiation into a state of knowledge about organized religion re-appearing time and again. Catholic school, baptism ceremonies, obsession with collecting Virgin Mary statues, bar mitzvah experiences, traumatic memories of having to endure indoctrination at an early age and so on and so forth. A majority of the believers narrate experiences of dealing with life-threatening situations and losing loved ones to cancer and other terminal illnesses which is perfectly understandable because nobody really seeks out 'God' unless hardships and despair wrestle their way into life but after a while these reminiscences just wore me out. 
And then there are the more ridiculously cringe-worthy interpretations of faith - one contributor literally going on and on about her miserable love life and the fact that no man wants to be with her for the long haul. 

For believers, Faith is a remedy; for atheists, it's a smoke screen obscuring as shameful the essence of being human: our fallibility.

The only essays which made any impression were by Tamim Ansary, Amanda Enayati, and Aviva Layton. All of them are secular humanists/decriers of institutional religion of course but that does not mean their writings do not showcase a keen interest in giving the benefit of the doubt to all sides of the debate. Ansary, who identifies as a secular mystic, refreshingly does not go into saccharine-flavored tales of personal woes and triumph, instead choosing to recount a simple anecdote about a few moments spent in the heart of nature with his youngest daughter which helped him appreciate the fact that to be alive, for however brief a blink in the unending spiral of time, is to be close to the mystery of all creation. Amanda Enayati's touching piece documents her tryst with a most harrowing period in the history of Iran in an almost Marjane Satrapi-ish fashion except her voice is devoid of the latter's signature humor. Another plus was getting to know about the surprisingly liberal tenets of the Bahá'í faith, a minority monotheistic sect whose members were ruthlessly persecuted during the Iranian Revolution of '79. Aviva Layton's ruminations held nothing special unless one counts her wonderfully unsentimental description of the aftermath of personal loss and her logically argued repudiation of superstitious ideas about heaven and hell.

To conclude, it's not like all the other remaining essays were completely unpalatable or anything but the very fact that I scarcely remember anything about them speaks for itself.


Also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.

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