“Why Religions Work” by Eleanor Stoneham – Book Review 5 February 2013

The Oxford Centre for Islamic StudiesThe immediate response by theists to the criticisms of religion made by ‘The Four Horsemen of New Atheism’ was disparate and rarely had any notable impact. In the years that followed however, many theologians, philosophers and faith leaders began addressing the questions posed by New Atheism with greater consideration. ‘Why Religions Work: God’s Place in the World Today’ (published in 2012 by Circle Books) is the latest to address these questions.

The author, Eleanor Stoneham, is a retired scientist, businesswoman and member of the Anglican church. Her previous work, ‘Healing This Wounded Earth’, examined the nurturing and compassionate nature of various world religions. The scope of her second work is somewhat different. In ‘Why Religions Work’, the author seeks to defend religion from the onslaught of New Atheism by discussing the contribution religion makes to the world.

Unlike others responses to the works of Harris and Dawkins, Stoneham does not seek to enter into theological debate about the nature of God or His existence. Rather she decides to present the contribution that all world religions make on a daily basis. In this regard, I found her work refreshing and innovative. Those who are part of a religious community are well aware of this contribution, yet it is often (perhaps intentionally) overlooked by militant atheists.

She begins her opening chapter with a narrative, detailing how Christian churches provide care and provision to orphaned children in India and how Muslim Imams successfully reduced the use of harmful fishing methods in East Africa (where governments and NGOs had failed).  This provides the context for her apologetic. Religions, with an ethical focus and long-term vision, are often at the forefront of charitable endeavours and environmental campaigns. Organisations such as Islamic Relief, Anglicans in World Mission, Jewish Care and a host of others work in some of the poorest, more inaccessible and most overlooked parts of the world addressing the needs of the people and planet. Key to their ability to do this, Stoneham argues, is social capital. The access to networks and the ability to influence people in a way most secular organisations could never hope to.

In this way, Stoneham responds with a critique of religion that few apologists have engaged with. Regardless of the presence or absence of a Creator, religions are still forces for good in the world. This argument is developed further as Stoneham looks at the shared values of world religions. She identifies values such as love, respect for creation, hospitality, the equality and unity of mankind and of course the well-known ‘Golden Rule’ as issues that bind a multitude of religions together. For Stoneham, these issues mean that all religions are moving in the same direction, especially with regard to visions on what humanity should be doing on Earth. The shared values of religious traditions also undermine the arguments of Dawkins and others that religious intolerance is a source of conflict and suffering in the world.

‘Why Religions Work’ continues further however, it looks briefly at the criticisms of religion made within the works of Dennetts and Harris and tackles the science and religion dichotomy. Stoneham’s contributions here are more reflective, drawing upon her own experience as a scientist who grew increasingly active with her religious community through her life. Stoneham also builds on themes touched upon earlier and asks how religions can foster understanding between one another. She cites the work of Charles Bonney of the World Parliament of Religions and more recent figures such as Eboo Patel, an American Muslim who works on interfaith projects in the USA as examples to follow.

Her work shifts gears towards its conclusion. After setting out her defence of religion, Stoneham begins to articulate an agenda for the future, particularly drawing upon recent developments in science and areas of convergence with religion. Stoneham is confident that science will soon be able to establish some understanding of the religious and spiritual experience, and in some ways already has begun to do so.  She argues that redesigning and rethinking education, returning to scriptural and religious values and having greater confidence in merging science and religion, humanity can move forward and begin to repair the damages of global injustice, poverty and the environmental crisis.

As a whole, the work successfully argues that religion still plays an important role in society today – and while there may be a sideshow from New Atheism that seeks to diminish its presence – religion is here to stay and with good reason. The innovativeness of Stoneham’s work is her confidence in defending faith in general, rather than a particular theological approach.  While speaking as a devout Anglican, Stoneham’s view of religion is not sheltered and she is able to speak about the diverse work of a variety of religions. I was disappointed that Stoneham did not explore this contribution further, as it certainly could have expanded to be the sole topic of her work.

Her contribution is worthwhile, and Why Religions Work is an enjoyable and well written defence of religion in the modern era.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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