Charles W. Meister,
Religion: Bane or Blessing?
(New Falcon, 2000)

If you enjoy nonfiction books with heavy topics that force you to read very slowly so that you don't miss anything, then I have the perfect book for you. Religion: Bane or Blessing? by Charles W. Meister is one of the toughest books I have read in a long time. As the title suggests, Meister takes a look at both the good and the bad that the major world religions have brought to humanity.

Much of the book takes a look at how each of the major religions has been both divisive in nature as well as unitive for the benefit of mankind. In other words, Meister explains how the same religions that bring people together in peace and harmony have also segmented and fragmented the world into warring, distrusting factions.

I am not going to pick on any one religion here; Meister does a good job of that in the book. Plus, like Meister, if I mentioned Christian examples, I would feel compelled to talk about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus as well. This review could go on forever (much like the book).

What I will do is pull out a quote that particularly hit home with me. In one of the first paragraphs of chapter 9, Meister writes: "Human hatred and killing are not genetic components of human beings, but are learned reactions. Mass murder was unheard of around 10,000 B.C., before religion got organized on a large scale. It is ironic that religion which is supposed to be based on love, has fed many conflagrations of hate."

By the end of the book, Meister has done a pretty decent job of pointing out that the world's major religions were designed with getting along with your neighbor in mind. It should not matter which path humans takes to reach their god, since most religions have more major similarities than minor differences. For example, all religions share a major component that is a variation of the Golden Rule: treat others in the same way you wish to be treated. Earth would be a much better place if we truly loved one another and celebrated our differences. We should focus on our own spirituality and let our god(s) take care of judging others -- a heavy burden we were never asked to assume.

Unfortunately, humanity has taken the easier route. It is easier to say one interpretation of religion is the only correct belief instead of being open to the possibility of more than one path. It is easier to hate than to love. It is easier to commit violence in the name of religion and say your god sanctions your actions rather than reading your own spiritual books that focus on peace, love and harmony. In simple terms, it is easier to be religious than to take a spiritual path in life.

In many respects, Religion: Bane or Blessing? is a very intriguing book. It can be a fascinating read. However, while Meister quotes the likes of Joseph Campbell quite a bit, he does not have the same flare for writing. This book can be difficult to read in spots because it reads like a dissertation. In many areas, there are so many quotes from different authors strung together that the writing styles do not flow together well at all. The topics might be in the same vein, yet it comes across as choppy and forced. More than once I had to backtrack and read even more slowly to try and get Meister's point. On the other hand, towards the end of the book, Meister synthesizes a lot of what he has been talking about in his own words. This is a huge improvement and is actually pleasant to read.

A World War II veteran, Meister received his Ph.D. in 1948 from the University of Chicago. He has written other books including The Founding Fathers and Year of the Lord. Meister also spent time as a professor of English at various universities, serving at some as dean and president.

Religion: Bane or Blessing? is not for the faint of heart. The book gets fairly graphic on occasion when describing some of the atrocities done in the name of religion. The book also is not an easy read. While only 357 pages, it took me the better part of two months to get through it. I had to be in the right frame of mind in order to "listen" to Meister explain his views on the major religions of the world. In the end, I liked what he had to say despite the occasional stumbling in the way the material was presented. If you have any interest in religion in general or would like to expand your knowledge a little beyond your own religious views, this might be a decent book to pick up.

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 20 July 2002

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