Book Review

Michael Parenti, in his 2010 book, God and His Demons, joins Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in critiquing what all three would characterize as dangerous superstition. Dawkins and Parenti are careful to clarify that their subject is fundamentalism not all religion. But they do express puzzlement over the appeal of religion even on the less literal level. Dawkins suggests that the comfort, if that’s what is provided, is hardly worth the sacrifice of intellectual honesty required. Parenti takes it a bit further by dismissing even the oft-reported mystic’s feeling of ONENESS as so much self-delusion. So such “spiritual” teachers as Eckhart Tolle, according to Parenti, are at best delusional and at worst preying on the gullible. He does however acknowledge that many so-called people of faith constitute a positive force in promoting a more humane world. But they are not who he’s talking about in the book.

Like Hitchens, Parenti spends a great deal of time gleefully deconstructing biblical passages. His social concerns, beyond both Hitchens and Dawkins, are evident in one of his examples where he claims that the bible mentions homosexuality only 8 times but in one form or another offers numerous injunctions against unfair distribution of wealth. So why then is it commonplace for preachers to rail against homosexuality but nary a tribunal has been appointed to ferret out greedy landowners and financiers? The bible doesn’t mention abortion nor same-sex marriage yet these are the central issues for the majority of fundamentalist Christians. And in the new testament, family values don’t come up. In fact Jesus is a bachelor, by most accounts, hanging out with a dozen guys and in several instances is quite rude and dismissive of women and children.

Logical lapses occur in the great book, something the faithful apparently can skate right over without notice. Jews for instance are often hatefully called “Christ Killers” yet very few Jews of the time could have met nor even have heard of Jesus. Why should all Jews be blamed? After all, Jesus himself was a Jew. Yet the formal church, once it came to power, more than occasionally burst forth with deadly pogroms, culminating in the 20th Century holocaust. Pope Pius XII was silent during World War II yet excommunicated all communist party members, world wide, in 1949. Parenti cites examples of wide-eyed individuals spared in natural disasters crediting God with intervening to save them, proclaiming that, “God is great” or such. Yet those who didn’t make it are not mentioned. Many Christians have prayer sessions for those with cancer or other terminal diseases. Do they think that the divine being can be swayed from his “plan” by sucking up? In fact studies by the American Health Journal to ascertain the efficacy of prayer do not support the belief and in some cases actually contradict it. Yes, those prayed for fared worse. The con artists, for what else can we call someone like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson etc; have proclaimed that natural or other disasters show the deity’s displeasure with human behavior, 911 and Katrina for example being punishment for the tolerance of homosexuality (again) or maybe voting Democrat. The Onion did a lampoon, where God holds a press conference announcing that a recent tsunami was part of his longtime moving-in-mysterious-ways policy.

Speaking of fraud, Parenti has a devastating, for the uninitiated, chapter on Mother Teresa. It seems that she made claims in her fund-raising that turned out to be just a little bit untrue… numbers of schools, hospitals and orphanages her organization supported etc; Seems she spent 8 months of the year jetting around, in a private plane, fleecing the faithful, staying in luxury accommodations and lying about what she was doing in India. After her death her diaries revealed that her professed catholic beliefs were far from how she actually saw things. Never the less, she’s on the fast track for sainthood being as how she was such an effective fund-raiser. Of course she is hardly alone. The Catholic church is wealthier than any corporation you can name. But there’s plenty of competition for those believer dollars. The mega-church con-artists who populate our Sundays and public airwaves may not be in the same league but they’re doing all right. Sometimes they get a little overzealous. A Villanova University research project found that 85% of Roman Church dioceses in the U.S. had been hit by embezzlement over the 2001-6 time period. Jim Baker we all remember, was sentenced to 18 years (served 6) for diverting church funds to personal use. Msgr. John Woolsey of New York City was convicted for stealing $8 million. Even Billy Graham was revealed to have a “slush fund” of $23 million that his flock didn’t know about. Ag Khan, Iman of Islami Muslims owns 600 race horses, several factories, and over 600 “prayer and business” centers. Rev. Moon (why do we call these guys reverend?) was convicted in 1982 of conspiracy and tax fraud serving 13 months (seems when they do get caught they tend to get off kind of lightly… I mean we’re talking about millions bilked from gullible souls). The Moon daughter-in-law wrote a book exposing the family as extremely dysfunctional with drug use, infidelity and the usual lavish life style. In the 1980s 11 top Scientologists were imprisoned for infiltrating, burglarizing and wire-tapping private and government agencies, attempting to stop an investigation. Hundreds of adherents have left, reporting psychological and physical abuse, Some have successfully sued the church.

A section on cults documents abundant instances of serious abuse. The Jim Jones People’s Temple massacre may be the most spectacular but is hardly alone in sadistic psychological and physical practices, usually targeting women, always children and as often as not the men too. Parenti highlights the Mormon church for its sexist and racist beliefs but concludes the section with the thought that maybe the mainstream churches are just cults that have been around a longer time.

The book goes on to demonstrate how secular and religious authorities have worked hand in hand to advance their privileged positions in the social order but that is for my next post.

Illustration: by Tom Ferguson.
Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

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