The Great Transformation: Thoughts and Reflections
So I guess I'm a pretty crappy atheist. And by that I mean I'm wishy-washy in my condemnation of religion. But the truth is I am only more fascinated by religion the more I learn about it. While I think as a system of facts its all just wrong, wrong, wrong; as a window into cognition and as an example of a spectacularly contagious mental virus it never ceases to amaze.
Karen Armstrong has been high on my reading list ever since reading her "History of God". The first couple of chapters on proto/early-Judaism alone were just amazing. This book goes into even more detail on the Jews and does a similar job on the Chinese, Indians and Greeks. As just a historical reader on a fascinating span of history it's already worth reading. But even more compelling is her overall argument that all religions are basically the same at the core and responsible for moral advance in our world and are reacting to a real "otherness" in the universe and not just purely a figment of the imagination.
Honestly when I hear something like "all religions are the same" I definitely start rolling my eyes. I had yet to ever hear a cogent argument that this is the case. Usually this is something gushed by some new age type based on nothing but wishful thinking. But Karen knows here stuff and makes an excellent argument that this is indeed the case. Of course you have to keep in mind that the world religions as they exist today don't seem to bear much resemblance to the ur-religions of the Axial Age. So you are forgiven for not seeing the inherent sameness of Buddhism and Judaism in modern times. I'm willing to grant her this as a fact. All the big religions in existence from today are surprisingly similar at their core.
It gets a little more speculative to say that religion is responsible for moral advance and that there really is a spiritual dimension that these sages were responding to. As far as their really being a god or something, what can you say? If there is I'm either spiritually tone deaf or other people are imagining things but for now I'm thinking that I'll stick with my default skeptical stance
As far as whether religion has been making the world better or not, this is not obviously true at all to me and she never really makes a very strong case for this. In fact I think you can make a pretty good case that our moral compass is completely independent of religion. With respect to violence I recently came across this great little blurb by Steven Pinker on his thoughts about why violence is on the decline (and without too much of a stretch, why other unethical behavior is also declining). In summary his picture goes like this: (1) with a growing power of the state with a monopoly on violence there is no need for (and an inability to) indulge vendetta like behavior (2) before growing standards of health, life was perceived more cheaply (3) with increased peace there are more non-zero-sum games in town, so in other words you are worth more to me alive than dead and (4) Peter Singer's "expanding circle" shows that more and more of the world is becoming part of our perceived village that we would naturally expend resources on.
In any case it's not obvious that religion has been making the world better over time. And for that matter it's not obvious that religion has made the world worse. It's easy to point out particular nasty little episodes but I haven't ever sat down with a list of all the good things and all the bad things that are directly attributable to religion, weighted each by some utility factor and then summed it to see whether the world is better or worse off in the long run for there having been religions. It seems pretty obvious to others but I don't know how they do this particular calculus or if they are just going with their gut. Maybe I'll never know but it seems like a pretty interesting question but certainly one that is still open.
So in the end I know a little more about world history and some important religious trends. Truth be told I thought this book was completely engrossing and would recommend it for your short list if you are interested in trying to understand religions. But I must confess that my biggest question is how can Karen still be religious knowing all that she knows about various religious histories? Is it simply the fact that she has epilepsy and that this predetermines her affinity for religious thinking? I look forward to reading her biography someday to learn more about this "freelance monotheist".