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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Katie M

    I looked up Gethsemani, and I found it on a Catholic site. I guess it’s just another way to spell it. Hopper IS a former Catholic, after all.

    Dali Llama, on the other hand . . . is that a Surrealist pack animal?

    “The one that really grated on my nerves was a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s character ‘Golem’ (burn the blasphemer!).”

    *gets torch and pitchfork*

  • http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com Mandrellian

    Well, I can understand his “Gollum” confusion. The “em” spelling is from an old Jewish fable about a man who builds a slave out of mud – a golem – and has it do his bidding and destroy his enemies. Eventually though, the golem turns on its creator. It’s a fair bet Tolkien was aware of the golem fable, considering how his Uruk-hai were created. Ditto Mary Shelley!

    It’s disappointing the rest is so sloppy though. We heathens do take some pride in knowing what we’re talking about & not believing in!

  • Ruana

    Nah, I’m with Katie. This insult must not stand! We must demonstrate that he weighs the same as a duck, then BURN ‘IM!

  • Charles

    The average person would say it’s impossible to know what [Jesus] looked like because the Bible never told us.

    An interesting question – what did Jesus look like? (presuming he actually existed, of course) Nearly every depiction of Jesus I’ve seen shows him as a handsome man. (And with long hair, despite what it says in 1 Corinthians).
    In William R. Harwood’s Mythology’s Last Gods: Yahweh and Jesus however, on page 263 he quotes (among others) Celsus, Tertullian, Cyril of Alexandria, and Isaiah and came to the conclusion that Jesus was “misshapen”, “ugly of countenance” and
    “so stricken with imperfections as to be contemptible”.

    Maybe Jesus wasn’t so handsome after all.

  • http://heathensguide.com William Hopper

    Just read the review. Had to reply to so many factual criticisms.

    You are correct in saying that the Hadith came from an oral tradition, but they are, indeed, books. Specifically, Sahih Al-Bukhari, (the book referenced in your complaint) IS a book and it is about the life and background of Mohammed.

    As for Luther, I said he was known as an amiable guy, which is true. He went from being a hermited, monastic stick-in-the-mud to a beer drinking social guru. Granted, he had his problems with Jews and Catholics, but as a person he became far more amiable after his supposed Tower Experience. (Unless you were a Jew).

    What I really have to take issue with, though, is what you called my “Biggest Blunder”. You said that the description of Jesus cited in my book is not found anywhere in Josephus (and therefore I must never check my primary sources). Having spent 5 years in university studying religions, my many hours of reading old dusty books balks at this assertion. The quote is from Josephus; specifically, the Slavonic Josephus manuscripts. The citation and background of these texts are all in the secondary source, which is why I cited Eisler instead of Josephus. (Simply sending you off to read the Slavonic Josephus would not have illustrated the murkier aspects of these texts.) But yes, it is in Josephus’ writings.

    Last, but not least, the golem. The term is a transliteration from Hebrew, and is written in English in different ways, including GOLEM, GOLLUM, and GOLLEM. (Check the Wiki for both GOLEM OF PRAGUE and GOLLUM OF PRAGUE and you will see that the terms are interchangeable and legitimate). As I am far more acquainted with Judaic mysticism than Tolkien, I seem to have erred in applying the term to Smegol. I just assumed that he was, in fact, a golem. (He has all the traits of a classic Judaic golem).

    As to the typos, most of them appeared after the full edit, when some moron scanned pages into the master instead of typing them in. L’s became I’s, etc. A re-edit was done to correct the majority of this, but yes it is a problem. It’ll be fixed by the next edition.

    Really the only thing that drew me to respond here was your assertion that I don’t do primary source work, but I thought that as I was responding I should do so in full.

    Wm. Hopper
    author, The Heathen’s Guide.

  • http://heathensguide.com William Hopper

    Having now read the other comments, I see that folks had already figured out some of the ‘errors’ you mentioned. Good stuff.

    Wm. Hopper
    http://www.heathensguide.com

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello William, just a couple of things:

    You are correct in saying that the Hadith came from an oral tradition, but they are, indeed, books. Specifically, Sahih Al-Bukhari, (the book referenced in your complaint) IS a book and it is about the life and background of Mohammed.

    Bukhari’s book is a collection of hadith, yes, and it’s generally viewed by Muslims as one of the most trustworthy of those collections. However, I maintain that by any reasonable standard, it is inaccurate to say that there is such a thing as “The Hadith” which is “a book of the life of Mohammed”. For one thing, Bukhari’s book isn’t called The Hadith; its full title is al-Jaami’ al-Sahih al-Musnad al-Mukhtasar min Umur Rasool Allah wa sunanihi wa Ayyamihi.

    Second, your phrasing clearly gives the impression that the hadith are a book first and foremost, and moreover a single book, which is wrong. The hadith are a large body of oral traditions about Muhammad of varying reliability, and individual chroniclers have chosen subsets of them to compile into various books. You should have said this clearly to convey an accurate impression. As it stands, anyone who didn’t already know what the hadith were would come away with a completely wrong idea from reading this passage.

    As for Luther, I said he was known as an amiable guy, which is true. He went from being a hermited, monastic stick-in-the-mud to a beer drinking social guru.

    A “beer-drinking social guru” who called for the enslavement and killing of everyone who belonged to a different religion than him. I’m really amazed that you, an atheist, are still trying to defend this.

    You said that the description of Jesus cited in my book is not found anywhere in Josephus (and therefore I must never check my primary sources). Having spent 5 years in university studying religions, my many hours of reading old dusty books balks at this assertion. The quote is from Josephus; specifically, the Slavonic Josephus manuscripts. The citation and background of these texts are all in the secondary source, which is why I cited Eisler instead of Josephus. (Simply sending you off to read the Slavonic Josephus would not have illustrated the murkier aspects of these texts.) But yes, it is in Josephus’ writings.

    Well, this is a controversy that should be easy to settle, don’t you think? Several sources I checked, such as this one, state clearly that the exact passage you quoted is not in any surviving manuscript of Josephus, not even the Slavonic manuscript. If this is wrong, it should be easy to show. Just give an exact citation for the passage – not of someone else attributing these words to Josephus, but Josephus himself saying them – in some existing translation. I’ll be happy to withdraw my criticism if you can do this.

    However, again, don’t you think you’ve given naive readers a totally wrong idea here? The Slavonic text of Josephus is extremely obscure, is probably much later than the far more common Latin and Greek manuscripts, and contains an enormous number of textual changes, deletions and additions. From what I’ve read of the matter, most scholars consider it heavily edited and redacted from the original, if not an out-and-out original composition. Anyone who follows your invitation to “read the original Josephus” and does the most likely thing, namely looking up a translation of one of the Latin or Greek manuscripts, is going to be unable to find this passage. Do you not feel that you’ve misled your intended audience? Why doesn’t an explanation of this merit even a footnote?

    See also Earl Doherty, who discusses the Slavonic manuscript at length and agrees that the physical description of Jesus you cite isn’t found in that text. According to Doherty, Robert Eisler got it from another ancient apocryphal document, the Letter of Lentulus, which Eisler simply assumed was derived from a passage original to Josephus but which was later removed from the text by Christian censors. Even more bizarrely, the Letter of Lentulus contains a rather flattering description of Jesus, which Eisler assumed was the product of Christian interpolators who took it upon themselves to improve Josephus’ (also assumed) unflattering original description – and by more or less just inverting all the positive adjectives, Eisler claims to have reconstructed what the no-longer-existent and entirely hypothetical original Josephan text said! (Dizzy yet? Me too.)

    OK, I think I’ve given this more than enough attention for now. Further feedback is welcome, as always.

  • http://heathensguide.com William Hopper

    re: Slavonic manuscript

    Your response is exactly why I referred the reader to Eisler and not the prime source. To me, as the author, the entire paragraph was basically a throw-away comment that the reader could follow up on if they wanted to. Interesting reading they could make their own decision on. (You’ll note that the sub-title where the comment is found is called LOOK THIS UP.) Wasn’t trying to be sneaky… it just wasn’t that big a thing.

    re: Hadith. The Wiki says Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections during the 8th and 9th centuries. “They are a ‘book’ in as much as a “1001 Smartest Things Ever Said” by Steven Price is a book. [In my experience, most Muslims would call their copy of the Hadith a 'book' as well].

    re: Luther

    I would gladly put an extra sentence in the Luther section to let people know that he became an easy-going guy to those around him unless they were Jewish or Catholic. But I maintain that, as a person, he became far more relaxed after his break with Catholicism. The intolerence of other faiths was, imo, a holdover of his Catholic days. But it was Calvin that turned the tide of the reformation into a full-scale witchunt, not Luthor.

    Most importantly, though, you seem intent to show that I have no clue what I’m talking about, and that the book is seriously flawed. While I may be flippant at times and gloss over things (I did the entire rise-and-fall of the Roman Empire in 2 short pararaphs), I maintain that the facts are defensible. I know… I’ve spent many hours debating this book with imams, ministers, and rabbis. It’s what I do for a living.

    Certainly there may be errors. (Took me days to figure out how the Byzantine error got into this edition of the book. It was not in previous editions.) If there are, I find and correct them. But the book’s been out there for 14 years. Trust me, it’s been skewered and attacked by tons of folks, and I hope this continues. But you seem to imply that the book is wrong on so many facts as to make it useless and untrustworthy. That is simply not the case. It’s been vetted by a lot of folks who hate me for writing it (including the Vatican). Trust me…these guys tend to find the errors-in-fact quickly.

  • http://heathensguide.com William Hopper

    You’ll find the Italian-langauge edition HERE

    The French-language is due out next year, or whenever the French publishers get it to the bookstands.

  • ildi

    /begin LOTR-geek rant/

    As I am far more acquainted with Judaic mysticism than Tolkien, I seem to have erred in applying the term to Smegol. I just assumed that he was, in fact, a golem. (He has all the traits of a classic Judaic golem).

    No, no, no! Gollum was not an animated clay monster puppet! Gollum was Sméagol’s nickname (he made disgusting noises in his throat – don’t we all have office mates like that?) and his alter ego. Gollum’s life span was artificially extended by the ring of power, but otherwise he was as ‘real’ as the other hobbits (distantly related to them). He wasn’t a manufactured creature like the Uruk-hai. Gollum was an object lesson to Frodo as to what would happen if he possessed the ring too long, which is why he felt such strong empathy for the wretched creature.

    /end rant/