IT IS always a pleasure to get a new book from John Bowker. He writes so lucidly and knowledgeably across a wide range of different religions, languages, and academic disciplines. The intellectual and spiritual passions of this scholar and Anglican priest, now in his eighties, still flourish. He is not saying much more than he has said many times before — and, indeed, set out very clearly in Why Religions Matter (CUP, 2015) — but those new to his writings will gain much from this short book.
But first a warning: do not be put off by the title and subtitle. His use of “hurts” and “harm” suggests that this is yet another diatribe about the need to abolish religions because they “poison everything” (as the late Christopher Hitchens used to claim). Actually, it is not. It does recognise that many religions have violent features, but its overwhelming message is that religions are important carriers of altruism, co-operation, virtuous practices, and sense-making in a complex world. At the outset, Bowker acknowledges that he was asked to write the book to address the questions “Why are there different religions? Do the differences make a difference?” Frankly, these questions would have made a less misleading title and subtitle.
There are five main chapters and three short appendices. In the first chapter, he sets out the difficulty of defining “religion”, opting to talk about “religions” that have family affinities but no single shared feature. He points out later that definitions of “love” share the same problem, as does “human nature” . . . or, one might add, pretty much anything that is personally important. Next, he explores human altruism, arguing, as many others have, that it can be explained only by genetics or game theories if it is reduced to self-interest. For him, altruistic co-operation beyond self-interest is a crucial feature of many religions.
Turning to human rights, he argues that they are largely social products (owing much to specific religions) rather than givens within human nature. Following this, he claims that “religions are organized systems that protect the transmission of accumulated knowledge, belief and practice.” Finally, he sets out how religions, despite internal and external tensions, can become peacemakers in the modern world.
The book does have some quirks. Bowker quotes repeatedly from his previous books and lists them at length in his bibliography. He also remains firmly committed to phenomenology and to a functional understanding of religions — despite many critics. And some of his examples from cybernetics or Bayesian probability are more complicated than the simple point that he is attempting to illustrate. Yet we all have our quirks, and his do nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this engaging book.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent ,and Acting Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar.
Religion Hurts: Why religions do harm as well as good
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