This is the first book review on this site. It’s a book that’s timely and truly worth reading.
In Why Religions Work: God’s Place in the World Today, Eleanor Stoneham tackles the large issue of organized religion’s actual and potential roles in meeting global human needs and in solving global problems. Her thesis is that organized religion has a unique capacity to mobilize for good because of the enormous social capital represented by religious organizations, their resources, and their adherents. With stable organizations, religious groups can take a long, multi-generational approach to social and environmental issues. Moreover, the ethical underpinnings of religious teachings predispose followers to be relatively selfless and willing to offer assistance where it is needed.
Although the author approaches her subject from a Christian perspective, her approach is highly eclectic, and she repeatedly emphasizes the great amount of common ground (~80%) between and among the great world religions:
- loving and caring for others
- respect for God’s creation (the environment)
- human interconnectedness and the “ceaseless quest for something …eternal.”
- ancient wisdom texts that offer ethical guidance.
Throughout the book, she uses examples and quotations from all the major world religions. Indeed, this book is a tremendous resource for information on religious organizations, books, websites, and social and environmental justice activities, as well for the new spirituality movement. The author speaks from strong personal religious conviction, but acknowledges that there are obstacles to understanding and cooperation among those with different belief systems. The two barriers she identifies as being most difficult to transcend are the ones between:
- biblical literalism vs. the scientific worldview
- Christianity vs. Islam
In overcoming these impediments to cooperation and understanding, the author suggests learning about different religions (‘religious literacy’) and getting to know others of disparate backgrounds and points of view. Thus, she recommends an attitude that goes beyond passive tolerance to include “forging peaceful dialogue between religions.” She emphasizes that “we need to understand that we simply do not know what we do not know.” She claims that education and active tolerance are crucial to a peaceful and livable future. Moreover, she notes that, when women are educated, society as a whole benefits economically and socially.
In the last half of the book, Dr. Stoneham explores the connection of religion and spirituality. She deplores the rigidity of Christian churches that has caused a continued drift away from institutionalized religion. She hopes for “the survival of all religion…with promoting respect and understanding between different religious and spiritual traditions.” She envisions a “true spiritual oneness of humanity, a global spiritual interdependence available to everyone,” and she suggests that an “indefinable global consciousness is presumably of the same character whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jains, atheists, agnostic…” She decries religions “creating power struggles between their own sacred empires,” and even suggests abandoning the term ‘Christian.’
As the author explores the psychological and social sources of religious thought, she urges ‘earth-consciousness’ and ‘spiritual literacy.’ She asks us to see each other as divine and to view the long-term effects of our actions over at least a generation. She asks: “Do we save the world or do we save our souls?” and answers: “We need to do both,” but worries we are in danger of doing neither.
This book is a call to social and environmental action for the religious, a plea for tolerance between and among religions, and a great resource for those interested in what is happening at the forefront of interfaith activity.