50 Great Myths About Religion by John Morreall and Tamara Sonn (book review).

Last year, I reviewed ’50 Great Myths Of Popular Psychology’ by Scott Lilienfeld, so I wasn’t that surprised to see another book in what must now be considered the start of a series of books from Wiley. The ‘50 Great Myths About Religion’ should give you a big clue as to what authors John Morreall and Tamara Sonn are writing about.


I should point out from the start that no religion is ignored, although when you consider that there are some 10,000 different religions practiced in the world, they have concentrated on the main seven and I’m sure there will be similarities to all. If there was one almighty deity he or she must be very confused as to how his or her supporters believe in him or her. I think when I’m talking about a God, I’ll just stick to the royal ‘he’, if only to conserve words. Interestingly, many languages don’t even have an equivalent word to the English word ‘religion’. The word itself only came about as a contrast to politics and focused on social obligations rather than the deity himself.

Where better to start than Adam and Eve and how many people believe that this is where reality began, despite the fact that the Bible has two creation stories and no one has questioned, including these authors, who wrote it down in the first place. Even if it could be considered true, can you see the story being told to each generation’s children of their forebears’ biggest mistake. ‘Hey, son, we did a big bad in the Garden of Eden, ate an apple, got expelled and took to wearing clothes. It’s lucky we didn’t do anything more serious than that.’ I’d love to have known how Adam explained that Eve was created from one of his ribs any why procreation took a different path after that.

There is a lot you can learn from this book. Did you know that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are not equivalent? Faith is all to do with confidence, so if you have faith in me, then you’ll believe that I’m telling you the right thing. Interpreting that, ‘faith’ has more in common with conning people than belief.

The strength of religion in the USA in the 1950s was to discourage people from the atheist Communism that existed back then in the Cold War period. In some respects, there should be a better balance than this and it’s a little weird how religion and politics became linked across the pond in a way that it didn’t in the UK.

The brief examination of the gods before Judaism took over points out that the likes of Baal were harvest gods and yet although Yahweh replaced him, they still maintained some of its ceremonies that we still have today. Finding that the alleged monotheistics still have more than one god shouldn’t be that surprising. I mean, look at the confusion of the Trinity where God is both father and son.

Some information isn’t new. I mean we all know the Jewish priests wanted Christ killed and occupying Roman governor Pontius Pilate just wanted an easy life from political pressure from them. If anything, all Christ-backed religions carry the taint of guilt about them because of this, despite the apparent resurrection. An interesting point raised later on is that the Catholic Church is more cult than you would realise as they use Mary as the intermediary than directly pray to Christ.

Speaking of which, the contrast of detail regarding the resurrection in the four gospels provides the information that the accredited writers of them weren’t and was written much, much later. This did make me think that the information given wasn’t even witnessed by these writers and therefore hearsay which would hardly be the kind of thing that would stand up in court today. As I commented in another review this month, considering that the apostles were fishermen that like Christ, they were also probably just as illiterate. Cross-checking this to another point later on is that in recent surveys, the religiously inclined on both sides of the pond couldn’t even name the gospels’ titles which must surely say something about their own beliefs.

Going back to Christ’s birth, I do wonder why the authors didn’t do these things in chronological order? They make a very valid point that even with censuses back then, no one had to return to their town of birth to be counted. If that’s true, then it makes the rest questionable as well. They also make a hash of the supposed lineage from King David to Christ as well, although my objective eye tends to think this was done to point out that Jesus wasn’t really a commoner but someone who had the capability to rule by right. Why would that be needed if he was the son of God? Reading behind the lines here, one can’t help compare it to the PR jobs we see being done today to show someone is worthy.

Contradictory bigotry exists. They point out the number of wives significant religious leaders have had and was indeed quite legal back then. The same applied to other sexual practices. If anything, I wish they pointed out the date of the change to when this was frowned on, including not working on the Sabbath or eating pork and shellfish because of what these animals eat. You would have thought the pig taboo could be beaten simply by changing their diet rather than blight the entire species for its value of being able to eat anything edible.

An interesting fact about the American Constitution is that its First Amendment states that the USA doesn’t have an official religion. If you didn’t know before, Muslims are not confined to the Arabs, as they only comprise less than 20% of its followers. The chapter on Muslims is very revealing. Years ago, I was curious about the Koran, and looking through its pages, it told the same stories as that in the Bible, so both religions are closer than most people believe. There is a lot of evidence given pointing out that the Koran never incites violence or has 72 virgins waiting for those who go to heaven. Oh, and ‘Taliban’ means ‘students’. It did make me ponder that so many people over the years have used religion to incite was because it’s a lot easier to persuade people to do things than political persuasion.

There’s an interesting implication that the three wise men from Christ’s birth being Magi were thus Zoroastrian, from a really old religion, and yet the authors don’t see this as a means to create a unity between the two religions.

Just in case you thought some religions were ignored, the look at witchcraft makes the point that as bad people go to Hell then the Devil must be working with God because he doesn’t want the riff-raff. Oh, the ‘apocalypse’ has nothing to do with the end of the world but means ‘revelation’. I guess it could be seen as a shocking revelation that the world is ending but I see their point. I wonder if Wiley should consider doing a book called ‘50 Words People Get Wrong’. The depiction of Hell has relied on paintings by Hieronymous Bosch and Dante. Let’s not even talk about the fact that angels are the lowest of God’s assistants and cherubs aren’t little boys with wings.

One of the oddest facts that I didn’t know was that Rastafarians refer to themselves as Ras Tafarians, named as followers of Tafari Makonnen. I was less surprised that atheists know more about religion than those inclined that way. As I tend to heavy sway that way myself, I would add that you’re not going to reject something without knowing a lot about it. They gave a link to a quiz to test religious knowledge on the Net compared to the average American, www.pewforum.org/quiz/u-s-religious-knowledge/ that I tried and scored 87% on so it affirms I do have some knowledge on the subject, even over sixteen questions and the answers I got wrong were largely because a couple of the answers were awfully similar.

As you can tell by the length of this review, I learnt a lot and I’ve only touching on some of the things here. The strongest thing I learnt from this book is how much about religion has gotten distorted over the centuries and no one has corrected. The reliance on fear is a strong contention but then, this is a common problem across religions when you are relying on people to interpret the word of any god than get your own personal apocalypse. Notice how I’ve already adjusted myself to its proper meaning. I think people ought to find another word for the end of everything.

It’s unfortunate that I doubt if it will be the religious who will buy this book because the insights are really for them to see and question. For the non-religious amongst you, this book will provide to hand a ready set of information to counter the door-to-door religion sellers.

GF Willmetts

May 2014

(pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 248 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-470-67350-8)

check out website: www.wiley.com/

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