Religion Under Attack: Getting Theology Right!

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Religion is being bombarded from every quarter—by scientists, spiritualists, agnostics, ex-believers, non-believers and even those who had never bothered with it in the first place. But most religions remain blithely (and perilously) unaware of the prevailing mood of unbelief, disdain for religion, and the growth of alternative spiritualities that has resulted from fundamentalism and dogmatism. They do not seem to understand what the objections are, nor why they should respond in a reasonable way. In this groundbreaking book, Nigel Leaves analyzes the current debate about the value of religion and proposes a unique theological response to the crisis of belief.

“A brilliant analysis of the issues facing organized religion today.”—John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop Emeritus of Newark, New Jersey

“Nigel Leaves mines down through the emotional and exclusive claims of those drawing battle lines to describe a dynamic, holistic and inclusive vision for the future of humanity.” —The Very Rev’d Dr. Peter Catt, Dean of Brisbane, Australia

“A sweeping overview, a splendid synthesis of the current literature attacking religion . . .” —Bob Semes, Founder and Executive Director of The Jefferson Center, Ashland, Oregon

“An important and unique addition to current literature on progressive and constructive religious thought.” —Val Webb, author of Like Catching Water in a Net

Review & Commentary

4 thoughts on “Religion Under Attack: Getting Theology Right!

  1. Review

    Leaves is the Canon of St. John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, Australia.  Bishop Spong believes this is “A brilliant analysis of the issues facing organized religion today.” Leaves’ books deals with his primary hypothesis: “It is my claim that in the absence of a major theological revolution, traditional religions will continue their further decline into either obscurity or fossilized fundamentalism.”

    Nigel Leaves covers a lot of territory here in a relatively short book. He is concise and precise in his description of the plight of organized religion under attack from every direction.  The best part of the book offers a realistic and unique response to the crisis we find ourselves in today. This book will be helpful and maybe even inspiring for clergy, denominational leaders, people in the pews and even those who have given up.  

  2. Review

    Book Review: “Religion Under Attack: Getting Theology Right” by Nigel Leaves; Polebridge Press Salem Oregon 2011; ISBN 978-1-59815-027-8; 243 pp.

    This wide-ranging book begins with the observation that, in the face of today’s full-blown secularism, there is a sincere search going on “for something more”, which has traditionally been found in the adoption of a spirituality or a religion. The problem arises that religion has often assumed political and militant overtones and has become associated with fear and suspicion. Hence, it now tends to be described by increasing numbers of 21st century citizens of our Planet Earth, in a very negative and often hostile manner. The word “Religion” tends to be avoided like the plague.

    The book’s contents elaborate this wide-spread negative attitude towards Religion, as this polemical attitude appears in the writings and actions of various present-day critics. These include the increasingly vocal publicists for the “New Atheism”, positivistic Scientists and the increasing number of brave critics of oppressive or intolerant religious ideologies. It also includes people following their selected Spiritualities, which are carefully distinguished from Religion, clergy-persons who renounce religion and also people who are losing their traditionally-held and denominationally-based faith in their “Family’s Religion”.

    Many Books in One
    A feature of the books of Nigel Leaves is that he reads very widely, draws on the writings and ideas of many authors and allows them through his books to present their particular points of view and their perspectives. Leaves thus presents to his readers many books within the one book.

    Apart from this useful feature, Leaves likes to present a mini-book or a summary of his chapters in his Introduction, where ideas are mentioned which we are promised will be explored more deeply in the main chapters. For example, the important issue of the connection of religion with God is presented early, with Richard Holloway’s observation that “Faith has become an implausible minority option” and that there is at present an erosion of the plausibility of belief in God. (p.9)

    Jumping next to the end of this book, it is not surprising that 163 interesting books, which are mostly wrestling with the place and role of Religion in our 21st century, are listed in the Bibliography. A handy Index is included.

    Evangelical Atheists
    New Atheists are dealt with is a wider historical and philosophical frame-work, in which Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov warns that “if God does not exist, everything is permissible” and Philosopher/Theologian Don Cupitt affirms that the word “atheism” has historically been used as a “quasi-political smear word to brand innovators”. (p.22) Atheists in turn have chosen their own labels such as the “Brights” and the “Humanists”, clearly in the tradition of Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Marx. (p.23) Such freedom of thought and opinion was certainly not appreciated by the Late Medieval and Renaissance Roman Catholic Church, which from 1559 to 1966 was quick to place such free-thinking and rational enquiry on their “List of Prohibited Books”. It also certified suitable reading for the faithful with its “nihil obstat” or “nothing forbids”.

    Atheism was given boosts in the 1800s by the Theory of Evolution, as formulated by Charles Darwin and by Friedrich Nietzsche’s now famous declaration through his mad-man that not only is “God is dead” but that we ourselves have killed him. When Don Cupitt eventually declared his theological anti-realism, his 1980 book “Taking Leave of God” created problems for him in relation to him holding on to an academic or church-related career. (p.27) Other important Atheists are also mentioned and reasons behind this atheistic view are seen to lie in the desire for “intellectual honesty” and for the avoidance of the ill-effects of religion, experienced by so many who, during their early years, were forced to attend traditional and repetitive Christian worship services, to recite incomprehensible and abstract creeds and even to experience sexual and other abuses by Christian priests and other ecclesiastical officials.

    In today’s world, Atheists widely declare that “the God hypothesis is redundant”, that effective ethics and a morality are independent of God’s existence. Likewise, some religions are quick to practice violence towards other members and other people, including writers and that religions which claim to receive divine revelations and have “infallible prophets” are, under “the intellectual or academic scrutiny of their creeds, Scriptures and dogmas”, to be found intellectually bankrupt. (p.45) At the same time, the renegade and apostate adherents, who are critical of their religion’s abuses, are leaving their Faith and producing the “Why I am not a….” genre of books.

    The relationship between Science and Religion is another large and long-standing issue. There was accommodation between them in the first century when the idealist world-view of Plato and the more empirical and pragmatic world-view of Aristotle provided the intellectual frame-work for early Christian doctrines and theology. (p.55) Heavenly Reality and its Absolutes were contrasted with the mere shadows, which are displayed in terrestrial reality. During the Medieval Period, some of this learning was preserved by Middle Eastern scholars, which included Moslems. Leaves unfortunately has not mentioned the many Syrian and Mesopotamian Christians and their scholars, who had been conquered by the Islamic armies and who also were involved in the preservation and transcribing of ancient documents. Leaves is not alone in omitting these important Christian scholars later living within the Moslem’s conquered territories. (p.56)

    The Brutal Burning of Bruno

    After the era of Thomas Aquinas and by the Age of Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo, the accommodation between Science and Religion was turning into antagonism, as Bruno was burned “as a martyr to human hysteria expressed ecclesiastically” (p.57) and Galileo was directed to recant his empirical astronomical observations. By the 1850s, Charles Darwin’s Evolution was promoting the process of natural selection, which called into question the need for a Creator, although Darwin personally may have remained a “Deist”. (p.61) Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung then enter the scene with their view that religions are “natural phenomena that could be analysed as having human origins and were culturally conditioned”. (p.65)

    Science is given further attention in the form of “militant atheism”, which is a feature of the ideas and work and of Socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson, Biologist Richard Dawkins and Geologist Stephen J. Gould, especially as he developed his proposal of the “non-overlapping magisterial” (or NOMA) of Science and Religion. (p.86)

    Leaves’ next devotes 43 pages to “Islamic Voices of Dissent”, which present the heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories of some very brave Islamic critics, reformers and revolutionaries, including some influential female writers. Issues addressed include both the conflicts between the branches within Islam, and the wider “clash of civilizations”, as proposed by Samuel Huntington. (p. 137) Leaves wants us to remember and become better educated about the many very brave Islamic critic, reformers and revolutionaries, who are trying very hard to replace acts of terrorism with peace, of intolerance with tolerance, of oppression with freedom, of domestic violence with love and compassion and acts of militant, murderous jihads with positive paths to enlightenment and wholeness. This is clearly a huge task.

    God-talk in Today’s World

    There is a thought-provoking chapter on why many people today are claiming to be spiritual, but not religious”. They like to point out that the continuing patriarchal, other-worldly, hierarchical and pre-modern thinking still exists in many Christian denominations and churches. These spiritual questers have preferred the spiritual vitality of smaller, egalitarian groups and an expressive and arts-infused form of devotion. They also stress the importance of exercising intellectual integrity and truthfulness, especially in relation to their God-language, their God-talk, their God-theology and their Concepts and Constructs of God, in relation to our post-modern consciousness and to the ongoing turbulent relationship between Science and Religion, particularly in the minds of the conservative biblical literalists, when they are also affirming their faith in a divinely-revealed, infallible and inerrant Bible.

    The book concludes with case studies of two male clergy-persons, who stated that they had faced problems over such issues as the factual status of the Bible, the historicity of Jesus, the appropriate attitudes to adopt towards other spiritualities in our multi-religious world and the supposedly infallible doctrines, such as “the ineffable abstraction of the Trinity”. (p.187)

    Looking ahead, there are several possible future trends already apparent, namely an “Emerging”, conservative and evangelical Christianity with the theologian N.T. Wright as one of its religious guides and the “Emergent” and more liberal Christianity being proposed by Brian McLaren in Maryland. (p.203) Dogma is here replaced with conversation and under discussion is the ongoing issue of the actual nature, essence or form of the God-concept being used by the churches and by ordinary people. For example, who or what is the God who is being proclaimed and worshipped? Who or what is the God, whom Karen Armstrong depicts as being in the “apophatic” tradition of God being an unknowable and ineffable reality? (p.211). Nigel Leaves appears to be sympathetic to this view, which in his words, “affirms the mystery, transcendence and the unknowability of God”. (p.228)

    Semi-theism and Semi-atheism

    However, in a private email to me, Author Nigel has agreed that a one-dimensional concept of God appears to be too simplistic and that the concept of “Semi-theism”and “Semi-atheism” are useful for all of the various expressions of God used in the past, which relate to his conceptual expression and his source in material reality. Hence a Triple GRIM analysis would be appropriate and would include at least three different aspects of such a God, namely, God’s Reality apophatically as Ineffable Mystery, God’s Reality spiritually as Immanent Mind or Soul and God’s Reality materialistically as Identifiable Matter or realities which appear to be behind many of the God-related, abstract and meta-physical concepts such as the sun in the sky. It is this sun or solar disk which sheds and bestows upon our Planet Earth its life-creating heat and its bright and shining light. This bountiful bestowing of life and light can also be experienced as a gracious gift, granted to everybody in its realm. Perhaps these attributes could also indicate love.

    The New Vision
    The author indicates that he shares his “New Vision” with Greta Vosper. Her book titled “With or without God: how to live is more important than what we believe” stresses the need for churches to be “open, welcoming, honest, self-critiquing, dogma-free, values-based, spiritually engaging communities”. (p.216) Peter Carnley then adds his suggestion that religions cease from “introspective self-definition and self-reference” and instead adopt “a theology of cross reference”. (p.218)

    We finally reach the Conclusion, with its advice that the traditional churches can “no longer simply retreat into a “holy huddle”, claiming sacrosanct status for their beliefs; rather they must welcome and join the debate begun by atheism and science”. (p.224)
    In addition, the spiritual quest needs to continue, since “for most people, the spiritual search is genuine, honest and sincere”. (p.226)

    This book’s topic and themes continue to constitute a work in progress for the author and his willingness to articulate these topics and to publish his explorations and conclusions are commendable. This summary, as well as the above highlights, should show clearly that this book is a worthy addition to the ongoing exploration of the relationship between spirituality and religion, between science and religion, between the supernatural and religion and between God and Atheism, as well as exploring various other perplexing issues and conflicting perspectives for all Religions, including Christianity. Readers interested in science, spirituality and religion and their inter-faces, will therefore be greatly enriched both intellectually and spiritually by reading and inwardly digesting the important and interesting contents of this very informative book.

    John Noack, June, 2012. Email: johnnoack@yahoo.com.au

    John Noack B.A., Dip.Ed., has been a Lutheran clergy-person at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia. He has been a Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne Victoria and he has been a Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, Victoria. He has conducted archaeological research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology and he has produced book reviews, which have been published in its Journal “Buried History”. He is at present engaged in an academic investigation into the many enigmas in the Gospel according to St Mark.

  3. Review

    This book needs to be, as a wonderful Anglican collect puts it, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. And the word about it should be propagated. Nigel Leaves has performed a real service in this in-depth and often sympathetic survey of the various forces that are increasingly on the march against traditional religion, especially Christianity and Islam. Those enemies are many and range from the expected atheists and agonistics, to particular critics of Islam, to both fundamentalist and progressive Christians.

    Leaves’ spiritual and intellectual heroes include a familiar list of today’s prophetic voices that are slowly edging in from the wilderness—among them Bishop John Spong, Don Cupitt, Karen Armstrong, Bob Funk and Marcus Borg. They are regularly pilloried by those narrow and persistent conservatives both Christian and Islamic, who cling to outmoded beliefs. After all, “The work of transforming an inadequate and antiquated faith into a new radical vision is not easy and for those who attempt [it] there is much hostility from those who wish to keep the status quo.” But the effort must be undertaken, for around us “ecclesiastical survival has replaced theological integrity.”
    His goal is to flesh out– in considerable detail, and with large swaths of quotes–the positions of these various voices who either reject religion, or reject the particular faith in which they were raised. It is either a credit to his thoroughness and fairness, or an indictment of my own rather inarticulate skepticism, that the arguments he puts forth from these men and women prove so seductive. Indeed, some of them voice insights I have often thought, but could never so well express. I share Joseph Levine’s perspective, an Orthodox Jew: “We must face our own death without comfort of an afterlife; we must endow our projects with significance from within; we must find it in ourselves to fight for justice though the odds may be against us.”

    Leaves himself reflects some of the atheists’ protests. After lambasting an Australian Muslim clerk for indicting the way young women dress, or attacking our own fundamentalists’ absurd “Rapture” prophecies, he insists “all attempts to exempt [religions or religious beliefs] from accepted social academic and scientific norms must be actively opposed. Religions must be held accountable for what they teach their followers.”

    He does a particularly thorough job (it’s his longest chapter) on contemporary Islam and on three brave writers (two of them women) who have spoken out against it cruel actions and misogyny: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasrin, and Reza Aslan. The chapter alone is worth the price (a quite reasonable one, like all Polebridge Press books).

    Leaves provides a good definition of postmodernism, a philosophical movement (which, incidentally, my conservative side finds irresponsibly narcissistic). He perceives “a global civilization” where “people freely mix religious and cultural allegiances, … where multi-variant discourses vie among several fields of knowledge and religion.” Undiscriminating, cafeteria believers.

    In a sympathetic chapter on “spirituality” Leaves gives a very handy and incisive list of objections (I can relate to them) to traditional religion: patriarchal; supernatural (“fixated on life in another place’); hierarchical and elitist; imposes a “big story” that discounts our own personal experiences; and “based on a pre-modern understanding of God and an archaic notion of reality.”
    So what does Leaves recommend after taking these many objections (some of them thoughtful) to heart? He argues for what he calls the “apophatic tradition” that “values God’s mystery and unknowing.” Such a theological stance is hard to articulate, but possibly that is the point. Leaves seeks a more transcendent vision that goes beyond trying to define “God.”
    He calls that analytical approach, rather remarkably, an unfortunate modern tendency bequeathed us by the Enlightenment and its celebration of reason. I myself revere that liberating intellectual movement and hate to hear it disparaged. But no, we must try to get back to a sense of the indefinable mystery that lies behind all human appearances. As he puts it in conclusion, we need to bring “a renewed sense of humility and of gratitude for our existence” and let that stance lead us (this is vital) “to grapple with the God beyond the god that has been revealed to us in the religious tradition we find ourselves in.”

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