In “The Quest for Power: Religion and Politics,” Samuel Slipp sets out to show that it is not religion that is the cause of the world’s ills, as some recent writers, who maintain that it is little more than a mass delusion, would have us believe. Rather, says Dr. Slipp, the problem is the combination of religion and politics to create seemingly absolute power.
Dr. Slipp is an emeritus clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and a supervising and training psychologist at the New York Medical College Psychoanalytic Institute. He is the author of more than 150 articles and six books, including “Curative Factors in Dynamic Psychotherapy” and “Healing the Gender Wars.”
He uses an interdisciplinary approach in the book, and does so through a wide range of viewpoints, including anti-Semitism in its many forms throughout history, the Gnostic Gospels, Paul’s “creation” of Christianity in the first century, Emperor Constantine’s use of Christianity to claim absolute power, the 17th-century Enlightenment, and parallels between Jesus and Freud in trying to stop abuses of power in religion and politics.
He also talks about present-day terrorism and the rise of fundamentalist religions, but his emphasis is on the broader historical perspective.
Dr. Slipp takes on Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) and Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great”). Both, he says, have diagnosed religion as evil and “responsible for slavery, wars, genocide, racism, and tyranny,” and have said religious belief should be eliminated and replaced by “reason as a solution to the world’s problems.”
“However, blaming religion for the violence is like blaming gasoline for a car crash,” writes Dr. Slipp. “Gasoline fuels the car to operate, but it is the driver and the car that cause the violent results. Religions can be used to inflame passions, but the ultimate goal is to gain power.”
One way he counters those who claim that “by eliminating religion, terrorists will no longer kill in the name of God” is by pointing out how state-sponsored atheism has of course not stopped violence or misery, but has caused or increased it, as evidenced by the Communist regimes of North Korea, the Soviet Union, and China, or Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. In fact, he says, in those regimes the leaders were worshipped as gods and atheism itself became a fundamentalist religion.
“The Quest for Power”
Samuel Slipp, M.D.
Pitchstone Publishing, $24.95
Dr. Slipp brings his own contribution to the discussion, using his knowledge of psychoanalysis and neuroscience and highlighting his own work and hypothesis on the synchrony between mother and child and the later synchronous actions of rituals in adults.
To explain this complex idea simply: The infant’s early attachment to the mother becomes the template for adult group attachment, especially in religious rituals, such as prayer, singing, movement, gesture, and meals, which bond people together, provide social attachment, and lead to a system of morality.
Whereas, according to Dr. Slipp, Freud compared the repetitious nature of people performing religious rituals to “individuals suffering obsessional neurosis,” Dr. Slipp says that since the rituals are voluntary and performed in a cultural setting as part of a group, they facilitate group cohesion and establish emotional attachment. Such positive benefits, the author says, are not recognized by Mr. Dawkins or Mr. Hitchens.
Some other interesting topics include how the use of pictorial or visual images (such as the crucifixion) and icons helped the spread of Christianity, how Paul’s gospels led to Christianity’s becoming a hierarchical institution, and how historical, cultural, personal, and biological contexts affect belief.
Indeed Dr. Slipp makes a notable contribution to the timely debate with his enthusiasm and abundance of ideas. But the book also has shortcomings that might make the careful reader wary.
Although Dr. Slipp criticizes others for making incorrect, broad generalizations about religion, and does so quite fairly, he unfortunately does the same himself. One example: “The advances in medicine may eventually eliminate faith healing, which believes that diseases are due to God’s punishment for sins or from evil spirits entering the body.”
In fact, there are numerous varieties of faith healing, many having more to do with the belief in the power of a divine or supernatural intervention for healing than with concerns about God’s punishment, sins, or evil spirits.
Another example: He says that Jesus “substituted the communal meal for individual Baptismal immersion,” but certainly many Christian denominations do not subscribe to such a doctrine.
The book has more than its share of editing problems: “. . . if you do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.” The expression “as mentioned” is used nine times in seven and a half pages.
There are unintended non sequitur sentences: “The Roman emperors could not stamp out the spread of Christianity despite centuries of their being brutally slaughtered in the arena.”
And factual errors: “. . . Jefferson wrote the Bill of Rights and the American Congress signed it in 1776.” Where does one begin?
Dr. Slipp includes a wide range of subjects related to the one overarching central theme; there are many more than highlighted here. It is a tall order for 175 pages. While that could be a strength, it is also a weakness. “The Quest for Power” has abundant supporting ideas and numerous details but is much less adequate on tying it all together neatly or forcefully.
One might have hoped for a stronger ending. Though he seems in the last chapter to be countering Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Dawkins by drawing from such towering, diverse figures as Buddha, Gandhi, the 20th-century American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope Paul II, two paragraphs from the end the narrative inexplicably lapses into “Our Constitution begins with ‘We the people.’ ”
He makes a sweeping statement that in the U.S. religious and racial discrimination have been decreasing, but the “outside world still cannot accept a world that is pluralistic. . . .” The last sentence of the book is politically correct pablum about respecting diversity, addressing individual needs, and cooperating for peace.
Nevertheless, since Dr. Slipp brings such a broad academic knowledge to his writing, the book warrants the attention of those interested in an in-depth look at the interrelationships, for good or ill, of religion, politics, and power.
“Quest for Power” is a book that needs to be digested and revisited, and perhaps viewed more as a springboard for dialogue rather than as definitive.
Samuel Slipp has a house in Sag Harbor.