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This is a very disappointing book. 'Why is this book disappointing?', one could ask me. 'Is it because the author is an atheist and you are a Roman Catholic?' 'Honestly', I would have to answer, 'no -- and this notwithstanding the fact that this book consists of 90% pure religion bashing' (true, Power states in the preface that his intention is not to sound patronizing or sneering, but I fear this intention has not been lived up to at all). Power's being an atheist, and me, the reviewer, not, obviously makes for it that we have different 'convictions'. I, however, have never disliked or disapproved of a book or theory because written by an atheist (to the sadness and misunderstanding of some of my religious colleagues and friends). However, before I will attempt to explain why I find this a very disappointing book -- there is actually more than one reason -- let me offer a brief résumé of it.
Clinical psychologist Mick Power's Adieu to God is divided in 7 chapters. After a short history of religion (chapter 1) our author confronts, in the 2nd and 3rd chapter, respectively normal and abnormal experiences (death, loss, family, good and evil, and rules for the normal experiences and visions, hallucinations, miracles, glossolalia, etc. for the abnormal ones) and considers the possible psychological and religious explanations of these experiences. Chapter 4 confronts the social aspects of religions (covering topics such as the family, mega churches, and religious wars, etc.) and chapter 5 deals with religion and power (that is, it covers religion and abuse of power). The second to last chapter deals with religion and health, and topics like prayer, meditation and pilgrimage are confronted just as suicide, and placebos. The final chapter claims to offer a way (an attempt, as our author admits -- cf. p. 172) for a happy and healthy atheist life.
Let me now turn to the reasons why I consider this book a disappointment. Basically there are two fundamental reasons and a whole series of smaller ones that surely did not help me in changing my mind. The first fundamental reason regards the structure of the book. There are 179 written pages in this text; but only at the end of page 172 does our author think it wise to propose something instead of continuing his 'criticizing' of religions. What is more, however, is that the concluding 'propositional' part (how to be a happy and healthy atheist) basically consists of the advice that the atheist should take what is good from religion while avoid what is bad in religion (as if religious people want to keep what is bad?). After 170 pages of blaming religion for almost all the dirt in the world ("[…], you have to wish that Abraham and his bloody religions had never been born." (p. 111)), this does sound a bit farfetched and rather absurd (besides being completely void of any meaning whatsoever). The only examples of possible content our author gives to this atheistic life is the importance of education, living a healthy life and the practice of meditation (cf. p. 177-178) -- all things religions, obviously, have done nothing for in the past (yes, this is intended to be understood as irony!).
The second fundamental reason why this book is simply not good, regards the notion of religion and the arbitrary abuse the author makes of it. First of all, Power refuses to diversify between religions. Christianity is, for example, considered at the same level as Jediism (a new 'religion' that has risen from Star Wars) and Jesus and Buddha are considered gurus just like Jim Jones or Waco's infamous David Koresh (their 'charisma' is, furthermore, also compared to that of Stalin and Hitler). (cf. p. 123) Besides these demonstrations of bad taste, this intentional 'one size fits all approach' goes, I believe, against some basic social and psychological aspects that should have mattered to our author -- living, or being brought up, in a closed and small sect in some rural setting far away from everything or in a world religion and living in a largely 'secularized' big city will make some difference I believe. Besides the risk of hasty generalizations that this refusal to diversify the manifold of 'religions' mentioned in this book produces, our critique goes even further. In fact, when our author in chapter 6 (religion and health) is obliged to acknowledge a possible positive impact of religion on a person's health, it is quite surprising to read: "there are also problems with understanding what 'religiosity' actually is and how it should be defined." (p. 144) True, Power is not talking about 'religion' but about 'religiosity'. The point is, however, that it seems that the 'one size fits all approach' is applied only when it suits our author.
These are the two fundamental reasons. There are many more unfortunately. For example, some affirmations made in this book are simply wrong (describing the pope, correctly, as "God's representative on Earth" (p. 1) does, however, by no means at all signify, as our author hints at, that he is a (near-)deity. True, the pope is vicarious Christi or vicarious Dei, but the 'vicariousness' of the pope's function is related to the messianic expectance (the return of Christ), as such the pope is the 'vicar' (representative, if one wants) because of the temporary absence of Christ), and others have the clear intention to mystify (the small chapter on man's position in the universe (cf. p. 23-25) that starts with the sentence "The climax of challenges to the Catholic Church from science came with Charles Darwin […]" (p. 23) immediately goes to the dating of the creation of the earth (4004 BCE) by a Calvinist (which is not the same as being a Catholic, but this is not said by our author) in the 17th century (that is roughly 2 centuries BEFORE Darwin published On the Origin of Species), and after a small intermezzo on the hesitant Catholic reaction, the chapter concludes by referring to some creationist movement's refusal of Darwin's theory). Other sections in the book consist of speculations based on very little 'evidence' (Moses being an Egyptian priest or senior figure loyal to the 'monotheistic' Pharaoh Akhenaten (cf. p. 14-15) belongs, according to me, more in a book written by somebody like Erich von Daniken and not in scientific literature), and, I have to admit, it is the first time that I have found Holy Blood, Holy Grail mentioned as something like source material in a scientific study (cf. p. 45) -- the multiple references to Dan Brown are not improving the scientific merit of the book either (the author correctly, I believe, questions Scientology and its 'foundation' in science fiction literature, but an invented story in a somewhat historical novel on Jesus is different how?).
I could mention some other perplexities I had during the reading of this book, but I believe this can suffice. Let me, to conclude, also mention some positive aspects of this book. First of all, it has to be admitted that this text is written well. The rather short chapters make for it that this short book (another plus) is particularly easy to read. Secondly, in the, unfortunately few, occasions our author is not belittling all religions at the same time but is actually discussing religious phenomena that are similar to other phenomena that can psychologically be explained, the text is very interesting. Although our author seems to be confusing similarity with identity (twins are similar but not identical -- even when they are called identical twins), this type of research could prove to be able to help understand some (I repeat: some) religious phenomena.
© 2013 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
Dr. Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Invited Professor of Philosophy, Pontifical University Antonianum, Rome, Italy