It might be unfair to include William Hopper's The Heathen's Guide to World Religions with reviews of works by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (covered in part I and part II of this series respectively). That's because Hopper's work is a Marxist manifesto. Marx as in Groucho Marx.
Yet that may be what is ultimately required when it comes to advocating atheism. Religious faith and belief are not founded on concepts of logic, reasoning or the scientific method. As a result, perhaps humor is the only way to draw believers in and educate them.
Farce is not Hopper's sole approach to his "secular history of the One True Faiths." It is actually two-fold. The serious side examines the precepts and contentions of various religions in the context of what history actually reveals. The other is to approach it all with biting satire and flat out humor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Hopper, a Canadian who pursued a college program in world religions, turns a skeptic's eye toward the largest of the world's religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. One thing is certain. When Hopper offends, he does so on an equal opportunity basis. Thus, Jesus is referred to as "JC" or "Josh" (short for Joshua, his actual Hebrew name) and Buddha as "Sid" (short for his real name, Siddhartha Gautama).
People like me who tend to look askance at religion likely will find The Heathen's Guide far funnier and less offensive than believers. And, certainly, believers will find that shots Hopper takes at other religions far more palatable than any shots he may take toward their own. But Hopper is also intent on trying to educate people about what history really says.
Thus, in his examination of Christianity, Hopper takes an honest and serious look at what a messiah was insofar as Judaic tradition meant. That is a wholly acceptable approach since that is the only religious tradition in which the term had meaning at the time. Likewise, Hopper seeks to belie some of the gloss put on the religions, such as the view of Jesus as this bearded, long-haired, fairly attractive white man.
He quotes a description of Jesus that appeared in the work of 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:
His nature and form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits high [about five feet], hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose and meeting eyebrows, so that they who see him might be affrighted, with scanty hair with a parting in the middle of his head . . . and an undeveloped beard.
Not quite the image with which most people today are familiar.
While Hopper's work is replete with such information, it is within a satirical setting that, once again, does not discriminate based on religion or creed. A few examples:
- His description of the Essenes, a Jewish sect in which Hopper believes Jesus was a member: "They're the nutbar, genuinely certifiable Jews; the ones who would have been in the Waco, Texas standoff if they'd lived today."
- The Christian concept of the Rapture "is basically like being beamed up to the Enterprise, except you end up in Heaven instead of the transporter room."
- His description of when Mohammed first saw the archangel Gabriel: "There's nothing scarier than being half-asleep on a mountain and having an archangel show up out of nowhere with a silk scroll and commanding you to read. Unless, of course, it's being half asleep on a mountain and having an archangel show up out of nowhere commanding you to read when you're illiterate – which, as luck would have it, was what Mohammed was."
- His description of the death of the caliph that caused the split between the Shi'a and Sunni sects of Islam: "[T]he orthodoxy got together and removed Hussein from his position as head of the faith. They left the rest of him, mind you. They just took his head. It was mounted on a stick and taken back to Damascus, where it was paraded around the streets[.]"
- His version of "Suffering," the first of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths: "Life is shit."
This tongue-in-cheek approach pervades Hopper's exploration of these religions. Unfortunately, while there's plenty of information here, there are items that cause you to wonder about either Hopper's knowledge of the tenets of the religion he examines or his attention to detail. Having been raised with a Roman Catholic background, I can only truly comment on his explanation of some of its doctrines. Here he makes at least two fundamental errors that require pause in evaluating his explanation of other denominations and faiths. This is particularly so since Hopper's biography at the end of the book indicates he was born Catholic.
For example, Hopper refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the "Immaculate Conceptee" and indicates it was the conception of Christ that was immaculate. Roman Catholics (particularly those of us who attended Catholic schools named "Immaculate Conception") should immediately recognize that is erroneous. The dogma of the immaculate conception stems from Catholic obsession with original sin, the "hereditary stain" all humanity is born with because Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden. Seeking to avoid Jesus being born of someone afflicted by original sin, the church came up with the doctrine that when Mary was conceived she was "preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." Thus, the concept refers to Mary's conception, not the supposed virginal birth of Jesus.
Similarly, while Hopper explains how the Nicene Creed came about from the doctrinal debates over the concept of the trinity in western Christian faiths, he says that Catholics will recognize the prayer "as being the first words said in the mass." That, too, is wrong. Instead, the Nicene Creed is said in the Roman Catholic mass after the homily and immediately before the Eucharist services.
Adherents of other religions or creeds might find equally egregious errors in the discussion of their faith. Then again, they may not. It is that uncertainty that causes the most harm to an otherwise enjoyable work. Also undercutting The Heathen's Guide is something that rankles me about books issued by any number of very small or vanity presses — the proofreading is horrible. This book is no exception. In comparison to the factual errors, this is minor but it never helps an author when the reader is forced to stumble over various sentences.
That said, as long as the reader is aware that it is possible that not every fact in the book should be taken as gospel (pun intended), Hopper's blend of cynicism, humor and history make this a top notch "Dummies Guide to World Religions." It also provides an enjoyable counterpoint to traditional "heathen" views of religion.