George Walsh
The Role of Religion in History
Transaction Publishers, 1998
196 pages, $34.95 hb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1998 by Gary McGath

Up to now, there have been no books on religion in the Objectivist literature. George Walsh's The Role of Religion in History partially fills this gap.

I say "partially" because it is a book specifically for an Objectivist audience, not a presentation of Objectivist ideas on religion for a general audience. According to Walsh's preface, the book originally appeared in the form of a set of lectures, and has since been revised and expanded. This shows in a certain lack of polish; there are many in-jokes and asides of the kind which are better suited to a spoken presentation than a written one.

This is unfortunate because the basic material is very worthwhile; with some careful editing, it could have been suitable for a much broader audience. As it stands, it's likely to be of interest mostly to those who are already familiar with Objectivism.

To a large extent, the theme of Walsh's book is the tides of opposing cultures and ideas in the development of religion. Within religious belief in general, he notes two different types of belief in supernatural power. One of these is the magical approach -- the idea that the supernatural is impersonal and can be controlled by the use of certain formulas. The other is the personal approach -- the idea that there are gods, demons, angels, and so on, whom humans may be able to persuade by worship, prayer, or sacrifice.

Walsh discusses the impersonal, magical view primarily in connection with primitive societies. The magician, says Walsh, "is a supernatural engineer who has graduated from engineering school -- instruction by another magician." The magician believes in an objective reality, even if its basis is pseudo-scientific. The impersonal form of religion continues in Eastern religions, particularly in Buddhism, and Walsh gives a chapter to these religions. The larger part of the book, though, covers the personal view of the supernatural which is found in the monotheistic systems that came out of the Middle East.

One of these systems, of course, holds a dominant position in Europe and the Americas, and its ancient threats of eternal torture for sinners are still widely heard. A question which puzzles many people is why the hellfire-and-damnation religions, the ones which demand unquestioning obedience to alleged divine edicts, continue to have large numbers of adherents in our supposedly rational and scientific age. Walsh offers a very interesting explanation.

One part of this explanation is that religion, or turning to the supernatural, is the result of anxiety about the things which are beyond our control. As science advances, our control over many things increases; but there is always the unknown, the possibility of chance catastrophes, the inescapability of death.

The most advanced physicist, the most sophisticated statistician or seismologist, cannot predict the moment when an earthquake may wipe out his institute and reduce him to a paraplegic. The facing of these unavoidable slings and arrows is the supreme philosophical test for the individual.
Second, Walsh notes that the more primitive, less "liberal" forms of religion claim more supernatural power, and resolution of all the unfulfilled needs of childhood. "No Unitarian minister," says Walsh, "can claim that his vestry is full of supernatural power or he would be laughed out of the pulpit." The hymns of evangelical Christianity promise God as the perfect father and Jesus as the perfect friend; the hymns sung by a UU choir may sing of many things, but will not make such sweeping promises.

The history which Walsh provides of various religions, particularly of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is valuable in showing the way that these systems evolved. Many people today think of these religions as having started with a set of scriptures and built their belief systems through time, though various points of doctrine changed. But as Walsh shows, the scriptures themselves were written as the Jewish and Christian worlds developed. (Islam is a different matter, as the Qur'an was written entirely by Muhammad; but Walsh shows that its doctrines, too, have changed over time.) The development of what we regard as Biblical Judaism was a process which covered centuries, with one of the most important phases being created not in Israel but in Babylon, where a few thousand of the upper classes in exile developed a new theology and legal system. Walsh does not go in detail into the separate threads of writing which were combined into the currently used scriptures; there are a number of other books, such as Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorized Version, which provide more details on those matters.

In the centuries immediately preceding Jesus's time and for some years following, Walsh notes a conflict between the Judaic and Hellenistic systems of thinking. The Greek view of philosophy was this-worldly; the gods were fallible and limited in power, and ethics was a code of action for civilized living. The Jewish view was faith-oriented, subordinating life in this world to worship of a perfect, all-powerful God and obedience to his commandments. The Greek influence affected the thinking of many Jews, pushing them to a more philosophic view; and, of course, when Christianity began to spread outside the Jews, it had to contend with the Greek worldview.

Walsh sees Philo of Alexandria as a major agent in the introduction of Judaic ideas into the larger European world, calling him "the Jewish Plato." He introduced the idea of God as ineffable, unnameable, and incomprehensible, challenging the Greek idea of a knowable God with specific attributes. He also introduced the idea of creation ex nihilo. The influence of these ideas on later Christianity is obvious.

The last chapters of the book discuss the effect of Judaeo-Christian ideas in ethics, politics, and economics, with a full chapter on sexual ethics. He draws a distinction between the Jewish view, which holds that people have a "good inclination" and an "evil inclination," and the Christian view that people are inherently trapped in sin. Both views, though, set practical living in opposition to alleged virtue; the "evil inclination" is regarded as paradoxically good, since it includes the self-interested, productive actions which are necessary to life. In Christian practice, this opposition has led to the idea that living a truly virtuous life is an ideal not to be reached by most people; after all, few Christians actually turn the other cheek when assaulted, or give away everything they own to the poor.

Walsh's critique of the ethics of Judaism and Christianity is made from an Objectivist standpoint, and assumes the reader understands the Objectivist ethical system, as well as the Objectivist critiques of certain other philosophers. Other readers may find value in the book, but will need to remember that it was written for a specific audience.

For that audience, though, Walsh provides a readable and intriguing book. Whatever we may think of people such as Jesus and Buddha, we must recognize that they have had a huge influence on the world. With the help of this book, we can understand the nature of this influence, and the reasons why it continues even today.

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