Even the most ardent non-believer can't help but wonder how it is that religious belief is so widespread, has so long been an important part of human culture and takes on such an astonishing variety of forms. And persists in spite of advances in science that undermine many of the early foundations of religion.
Any book that sheds light on these questions and gives us a framework to understand the evolution of religious thought would be a truly worthwhile read, but unfortunately this book isn't it. I see that many other reviewers found it fascinating, but despite being very interested in the topic, I found it very hard slogging and the reward for sticking with it to the bitter end just wasn't there for me.
The author is obviously extremely well versed in the minutiae of religious history, and the breadth of his knowledge is certainly impressive, but that is likely the problem. He is fascinated by the details but the reader easily loses sight of the forest for the trees. Again and again, after pages of story-telling with no discernible context I found myself wanting to ask the author, "And your point is...?" If he had stated a clear thesis for each chapter and then backed it up with the historical data, that might have worked.
The topic of this book would probably make a really interesting one hour lecture. And maybe the book itself would be a good text for a comparative religion course. But for the average reader, even if sympathetic and attentive, I can't recommend spending the 18+ hours it takes to hear it through.
This book will make you feel more optimistic about the prospects for humankind than you might have thought possible. The author does this, not by ignoring the many very real problems that we face, but by taking a broad historical perspective. His conclusion, which is very convincingly argued: the human condition has improved dramatically by almost any measure and there is every reason to expect it will continue to do so. The reasons why are intriguing and the analysis draws from a broad range of economics, history, science and technology.
I wish my activist friends would read this book and re-assess the focus of their concerns. We all want to make the world a better place and surely the most effective way to do so is to assess, rationally and without ideology or dogma, what has worked in the past as a guide to what might work in the future. It won't be an easy exercise for many because it leads the author takes a contrarian view on many currently fashionable topics including world trade, alternative energy, genetically modified food, global warming, etc.
The author makes a strong case for rationalism and it is a nice, but not inevitable, outcome that rationalism leads to optimism. If that sounds promising to you, you will find plenty of material here to bolster your hopes and inform your views of where we should be going from here.
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