Book Review: The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions

(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Entertaining but plagued with inaccuracy.

William Hopper’s The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions is intended as a satirical survey of the world’s major faiths, written from an atheist perspective with sarcasm, humor and irreverence aplenty. I hadn’t heard of the author, but his biography at the back of the book says he’s a former Catholic and one-time candidate for the priesthood who deconverted, traveled the world, and ultimately got an academic degree in world religions from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada.

There were plenty of places in this book that made me laugh (the section on Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, was hilarious). He also has some clever and telling observations, such as pointing out that the survival of Gnostic Christian gospels like the Nag Hammadi manuscripts – buried in the Egyptian desert for centuries, and discovered by chance by a Bedouin – is far more plausible evidence of divine intervention than the propagation of orthodox Christianity through secular force and theocracy. Another good observation is that, while the Jews never even came close to controlling all the territory that God allegedly promised to Abraham, the Muslims did conquer all that land and more besides, and ruled it undisputed for several centuries. Should they be considered the chosen people?

But those points, clever and amusing as they are, are overshadowed by two major criticisms I had after finishing this book.

First: Although this is a minor thing, there were spelling and typographical errors throughout the book, and it got to the point where it was a constant distraction. I winced at mentions of the “Garden of Gethsemani” or the “Dali Llama”, but even those are forgivable. The one that really grated on my nerves was a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s character “Golem” (burn the blasphemer!).

Second: Spelling errors are annoying, but they can be overlooked. But there were other errors in this book that were far more serious. For instance, the author’s inexplicable praise of Martin Luther:

I kinda liked Luther because the guy was just trying to figure things out… Luther was known for being amiable and easy-going (once he was free from the Catholics)… Luther had concentrated on divine grace and forgiveness… [p.109]

He must be referring to a different Martin Luther than the one I’ve read about, because that one wrote polemics like On the Jews and Their Lies which argued that all synagogues should be burned down, all copies of the Torah burned, and all Jews enslaved for forced labor. He wasn’t any kinder to his Christian opponents either, writing, “Heretics are not to be disputed with, but to be condemned unheard, and whilst they perish by fire, the faithful ought to pursue the evil to its source, and bathe their hands in the blood of the Catholic bishops and of the Pope, who is a devil in disguise.”

There were errors of commission as well as omission, such as when Hopper writes: “This whole story is found in The Hadith, a book of the life of Mohammed” [p.134]. No! The hadith are sayings in a collected oral tradition, not a book! (If I were a history teacher, I’d be reaching for my red pen right now.) Another one that made me cringe was when he said the territories conquered by Mohammed were known as the “Byzantine Empire” [p.142] – which was, of course, a Christian empire formed from the eastern remnants of Rome. There’s also some ad hoc hypothesizing that’s just bizarre, such as when Hopper asserts that Hasidic Judaism was copied from the beliefs of Hindu yogis [p.40]. He presents no evidence at all for this wild claim.

But maybe the biggest single blunder is in this excerpt:

The average person would say it’s impossible to know what [Jesus] looked like because the Bible never told us. Well, the Bible never did lots of things. Again, we turn to Josephus to fill in the blanks. Here’s what he had to say…

“At this time, too, there appeared a certain man of magical power, if it is permissible to call him man, whom certain Greeks called a son of God, but his disciples the true prophet… His nature and form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose and meeting eyebrows…. and an undeveloped beard.” [p.80]

Since I wrote a three-part essay on the historicity of Jesus and had never heard of this passage from any source, pro or con, I was rather surprised by this. I did some digging, and it turns out this quote originated with an eighth-century bishop, Andreas Hierosolymitanus, who attributed it to Josephus. But there’s no passage even remotely like this in any of Josephus’ surviving works, and none of the second- and third-century Christian apologists who cite Josephus extensively ever mention it. It’s most likely a late fabrication – and what’s really damning is that Hopper invites us to “read the original Josephus” to see this passage in context. Since it doesn’t exist, this can only mean that he never looked up the primary source for himself, which is inexcusably sloppy scholarship. (He cites a book called The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist by Robert Eisler as his source.)

It really is unfortunate that this book had so many glaring errors, because it presents some genuinely interesting stories as well – such as its account of how Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was implicated in a scam selling fraudulent “miracle wheat”, or the bizarre affair of the Mormon “Salamander Letter”. These are things I’d like to know more about, and I intend to look into them on my own, but I wouldn’t trust this book to use as a reference.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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