on 16 March 2012
This attractively produced book unfortunately contains several inaccuracies, some of which are trivial, but some of which constitute a serious misrepresentation of the religious views under discussion.
In page order:
1) On page 6 the man in the illustrative photo is clearly not `standing in the middle of a white horse' as the text proclaims. He is standing on the hill above the white horse! This is a trivial but annoying mistake.
2) On Page 7 we are told: `Those people who belong to a religion... say there is a clear purpose to life. Nothing is random or chaotic. Everything has been created for a reason... Followers of all the different world religions believe we have been created by a higher being.'
There are several falsehoods here:
a) Many religious believers do not believe that `nothing is random or chaotic'. Indeed, they can and do believe that many things are random and/or chaotic. For example, quantum physicist turned Priest Dr Sir John Polkinghorne FRS is a Christian who believes that there are random and chaotic elements to the creation. From the theistic viewpoint it would certainly be true to say that life is not random or chaotic overall; but page 7 doesn't say this. Rather, it implies that any religious person must reject indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics, chaos theory and the existence of unplanned coincidences - none of which is true. Of course I understand that for a young audience one doesn't want to get into such complexities; but it is false to simply assert that `people who belong to a religion... say... Nothing is random or chaotic'. Why not say something like: `Religious people who believe in a creator think that there is an overall purpose to the universe's existence'?
b) The statement that `people who belong to a religion... say... Everything has been created for a reason...' is false. First, there are religious believers who do not believe in creation, since they do not believe in a creator. Some Buddhists are atheists. An atheist cannot believe in creation. Hence, unless we say that Buddhists are not religious, it is false to state that `all the different world religions believe we have been created by a higher being.' Second, even if one does believe in a creator, this does not necessarily mean believing that `everything has been created for a reason', a highly ambiguous statement which might be taken to imply either the false belief that nothing has been created by anyone except the creator, or the false belief that being religious means believing that the creator has directly created each and every individual created thing (i.e. that the creator employed no secondary causes in creation, such as evolutionary mechanisms). Again, going into detail is no doubt inappropriate for the audience of this book - but these ambiguities could have been avoided by stating that 'some religious believers think that the universe as a whole was created for a purpose by a higher being.'
3) Page 28 attempts to outline the bare essentials of Christian theology for the beginner. Unfortunately it seriously misrepresents central Christian beliefs in an entirely unnecessary manner. The concept of `Judgement' is represented as follows: `After a person's death, God will judge them. God will look at everything that person did, said and thought in their lifetime. Those judged good will be rewarded; those who have been evil will be punished.' Martin Luther is metaphorically turning in his grave at this point. What about the doctrine of the innate sinfulness (original sin) of humanity; that humans are all judged `not good enough' for God by nature, irrespective of the things we do in life? What about the doctrines of divine forgiveness for sin and salvation by faith or grace? There is nothing here about the fundamental role of one's attitude towards God/Jesus in judgement and salvation. In sum, Page 28 seems to confuse the Christian understanding of judgement and salvation with the ancient Egyptian view of the matter (cf. Page 41), weighing scales (pictured) and all! Page 28 also informs readers that according to Christians `Although the body stops, the soul carries on forever.' This is at best a half-truth, there being no mention here of the resurrection of the body! Christianity is confused with Platonism!
4) There is an apparent discrepancy in this book between the treatment of certain historical claims fundamental to Christian and Muslim beliefs. When it comes to the discussion of Jesus' resurrection on Page 31 we are simply told about `accounts of Jesus appearing at various times' and presented with a discussion point about whether these reports might be explained away in terms of grief hallucinations; whereas when it comes to discussing on Page 114 how Muslim's received the Qur'an readers are simply told that `In the year 610CE Muhammad saw an angel. The angel said...' It's if Page 31 had simply informed readers that after Jesus death on the cross `Jesus appeared to them alive again, having been resurrected from the dead' - and this statement was not put up for any form of sceptical discussion. I would expect a textbook like this to be even-handed in its description of different religious beliefs.
5) In the Glossary, `Big Bang Theory' is inacurrately defined as `A scientific theory which states that the earth was formed as a result of a cosmic explosion. This is widely accepted.' This is not what Big Bang Theory says, except in the most indirect sense. The Big Bang Theory is a scientific theory about the origins of the cosmos, not the origins of the Earth.
6) In the Glossary the `New Testament' is inacurrately described as `A section of the Bible which contains the Christian scriputres.' Of course, `the Bible' is itself a specifically Christian notion, a book composed of the Jewish scriptures that are considered by Christians to be the so-called `Old' testament, as well as the `New' testament; both testaments are considered to be scripture by Christians.
7) I doubt many Jewish readers would be delighted to read the Glossary's definition of the `Old Testament' as containing prophecies about the coming of Jesus. It certainly contains prophecies that Christians interpret as being about Jesus, but non-Messianic Jews would beg to differ.
8) It is surely inadequte to define a `Supernatural experience', as the Glossary does, as: `Something that can not be explained by any known scientific theories.' Why should human failure to know about the scientifc theory that explains something render the experience of that something a supernatural experience? This definition would mean, for example, that seeing lightening was once a supernatural experience but that it no longer is. It would mean that any subjective conscious experience is currently a supernatural experience, although it may stop being such one day if science can produce a theory that explains consciousness! Why not simply define a supernatural experience as an experience of something that is supernatural?
On the one hand, I would admit that some of these points are open to the charge of nit-picking (e.g. point 1). On the other hand, Point 3 draws attention to what is clearly a serious misrepresentation of perhaps the most basic element of Christian theology: salvation from sin by divine grace received by faith.