Tamas Pataki could be accused of misleading advertising. His title should have been Against Christianity or Against Monotheism. And his cover image, with its implicit hard-science associations, is misleading too, because he argues against religion primarily on the basis of Freudian theory.
To be fair, Pataki does warn the reader in his introduction that he is going to focus on the monotheistic religions. Christianity (the religion of about 33% of the world’s population) is his main target, while Islam (20%) and Judaism (a mere 0.2%) are often caught in his field of fire but less often singled out. He barely mentions Hinduism (13%) or Buddhism (6%), and in fact his prime argument applies to them poorly or not at all. My use of ‘religion’ for the rest of this review follows his, misleading though it is.
Reasonably enough, Pataki feels that examining faith where it is central to the individuals’ life will reveal its essentials most clearly, so fundamentalists get more attention than moderates. But (almost incidentally) he is even more scathing about wishy-washy postmodernist interpretations of Christianity than about mainstream beliefs, finding that they make no sense even in religious terms.
Psychoanalysing monotheism, Pataki concludes that the real reasons people commit to religious beliefs are to satisfy unconscious narcissistic needs to belong, to feel loved and to feel superior. Then, he says, they build elaborate rationalisations around their religion which prevent and protect them from ever honestly examining their beliefs. Finally, since it is so delusional, religion is dangerous to both its adherents and the wider community: it is intrinsically authoritarian, bullying, defensive, conservative, anti-intellectual, anti-rational, paternalistic, infantilising and misogynistic.
Christians’ claims that our western civic and legal system are built on Christian foundations are, according to Pataki, historically inaccurate. In fact, he says, religion’s stance is that law must always be subject to faith, and he sees worrying similarities between Islamic law and the legislative agenda of the Christian Right. Reason and science suffer the same relegation to second-class status, ‘wrong’ whenever they contradict Authority.
There is surprisingly little overlap between this book and Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Pataki chooses not to consider attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God, he spends little time on the conflict between science and religion, and he presents quite a different – if even less flattering – explanation for the foundations of religious belief.
Pataki is an academic philosopher and Against Religion is as clearly and logically argued as one would expect from such an author. That does not guarantee that he is right, of course, and in fact the Freudian psychology he relies upon has all too many of the characteristics of the religions he attacks. However, Against Religion is a worthwhile contribution to a debate which is increasingly important as resurgent Christian fundamentalism pushes its way into mainstream geopolitics.
Review published in slightly different forms in TB (2007)
and The Australian Rationalist (2008),
and added to this site in Feb 2021