A recent edition to the New Internationalist’s “No-Nonsense” book series, Symon Hill’s short guide to religion is a readable introduction to an often controversial and misrepresented subject.
Hill, a Quaker Christian who is the co-director of the Ekklesia thinktank and former media spokesperson for Campaign Against the Arms Trade, argues: “For every example of a link between religion and oppression, there is a link between religion and liberation”.
To illustrate the former he includes a shocking quote from the Bishop of London in 1914: “Kill Germans. Kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. Kill the good as well as the bad, kill the young as well as the old, kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded.”
Throughout Hill is keen to emphasise the complexity and contradictions inherent in any discussion of religion. He clearly supports the strengthening of what he calls “the bridge between religion and progressive politics”, and the book’s highlight for peace activists is likely to be the absorbing chapter exploring the concepts of “just war”, “pacifism” and “holy war”.
However, as with other “No-Nonsense” guides I have read, I found there to be something slightly bland and lacking in his analysis.
For example, although he concedes he was forced to leave much out due to space restrictions, the omission of any in-depth discussion of organised religion’s relationship to schooling, homosexuality, abortion, HIV/AIDS and women’s rights is baffling.
Furthermore, I found his caricature and critique of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins to be wholly unconvincing.
For Hill, this group has much in common with religious fundamentalists, including a literal approach to religious texts and the denial of “the complexity of truth” – that is they do not recognise “the validity of non-factual truth”.
It all sounds like deliberately esoteric tosh to me but this could be because I myself am an atheist with a simplistic understanding of the truth.
With its brief survey of the world’s major religions and accessible tone, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion will undoubtedly be a thought-provoking read for young people who are beginning to think about this unwieldy subject.
However, I suspect more experienced activists and people who have spent time mulling over this topic will struggle to find any new information or arguments here.