Must-read books about belief, the importance of myth, the origins of the world's religions, and why God might not be so great after all
Belief lies behind the best and worst of human history. Faith in something larger than the self—or lack thereof—has shaped our societies for millennia, so we thought it about time to take a survey of the topic. Given the rich and faceted nature of the subject, it's practically impossible to produce a list that is exhaustive, conclusive, and universal, but we've narrowed it down to six absorbing and provocative books, plus one documentary, about the human quest for existential meaning. 1. THE POWER OF MYTH
The Power of Myth is considered a classic of the faith canon, and for good reason. In a 1988 six-part PBS series of the same name, host Bill Moyers and folklore and mythology expert Joseph Campbell place belief within the perspective of human history. The Q&A format makes for a fun read, and allows Campbell to weave a comprehensive picture of faith across cultures and from prehistory to the present moment.
From ritual sacrifice to the symbolism of Star Wars, the transcript of Moyers and Campbell's sessions articulates fundamentals of our value systems so widely accepted as to be taken for granted.
"The source of life—what is it? No one knows. We don't even know what an atom is, whether it is a wave or a particle—it is both. We don't have any idea of what these things are. That's the reason we speak of the divine. There's a transcendent energy source. When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he's seeing a trace on the screen. These traces come and go, come and go, and we come and go, and all of life comes and goes. That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that." ~ Joseph Campbell
Like a fascinating post-dinner conversation with your fabulously erudite uncle, The Power of Myth is a great survey of the spiritual stories humans have held to be self-evident throughout time.
2. DISCOVERING GOD
Author Rodney Stark set himself an ambitious agenda in Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. From primal belief during the Stone Age, through the so-called "Axial Age" of the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Zoroaster, to modern Christian missionaries and the rise of Islam, Discovering God surveys every major form faith has taken in the last 2.5 million years. Even more remarkably, Stark does so in under 400 pages, including maps of various religions' births and images illustrating how belief was reified by culture. Ultimately, the book even pushes beyond an anthropological, historical, and sociological study into whether there is, in fact, a there there.
"Thus we reach the fundamental question: Does God exist? That is, have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so many similarities among the great religions because God is really the product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or have people in many places, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?"
Leaving no stone unturned in its quest to draw a map of mankind's belief, Discovering God will satisfy those looking for deep background on pre- and post-modern ideology, and everything in between.
3. THE BELIEF INSTINCT
Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes a very different tack with The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, posing the salient question:
"If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral 'eye in the sky' that judges us, and so forth?"
Referencing the latest in cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology, this engaging exploration of faith touches on the concept of an afterlife, whether animals too have existential needs, and how the movie Being John Malkovich plays on a philosophical puzzle most succinctly formulated by Descartes. Read the full Brain Pickings review from earlier this year here.
4. THE TENTH PARALLEL
The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam takes you on a riveting tour across the real-life middle earth, with gorgeous language as a guide. Its author, award-winning investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, spent the last seven years traveling along the eponymous tenth parallel—the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator—where more than 60 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians and half the world's 1.3 billion Muslims reside. The Tenth Parallel unfolds across the enormous canvases of Africa and Asia, in deserts and megacities, and shows how completely theology, culture, and politics intersect. Griswold places faith into geographical context, or perhaps the other way around—her discovery being how much land influences what we think about how to live.