Friday, April 06, 2012

Handy but not Dandy

a book review by Edd Doerr

The Handy Religion Answer Book, by John Renard. Visible Ink Press, 2012, 526 pp, $21.95.

This two-pound, over 500-oversize-page tome purports to explain the world's major religious traditions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Conficianism, Shinto. It does so only imperfectly. Readers are immersed in a vast sea of abstractions and trivia, sometimes interesting but too often boring or muddled. Missing from the book are the insights that could be and are provided by serious history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Or anything about how these religious traditions affect the lives of real people in the real world.

Obviously, even a book this large could not begin to cover all of the religious traditions, such as those of native Americans or Africans. But particularly absent is any reference to the traditions, whether "religious" or philosophical or "lifestance", that stemmed from the Enlightenment in Europe and America.

If this book teaches any one thing, it that it is enormously difficult for anyone to really get a grasp on the astonishingly complex subject of world religions, or even just the religious traditions of Europe and America of the last few hundred years. And this is why it is both foolish and dangerous for our public schools to try to do so, why the very idea scares teachers and school officials. The Religious Right in the US, of course, is keen on having public schools teach the Bible, or, as the SCOTUS has put it, teach "about" the Bible or religion. No serious, objective course for high schools could ever get in, but schools in religiously conservative states, like Texas, could be and are prodded to try. The admirable Texas Freedom Network ( has been fighting such efforts for years.

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