Losing Their Religion 

These days, it's open season on deities.

It's a dodgy time to be Lord of the Universe, what with all the bloodshed, the nihilists, the Ten Commandments lawsuits, and Jesus boinking Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, whose devout are sexist freako pervs such as "the hulking albino named Silas," limping down the rue in Chapter Two, spiked band jabbing his thigh, thinking, "Pain is good" after murdering four unbelievers in an act he calls Holy with a capital H while whipping himself bloody with a scourge. What with newspapers lowercasing "he," "his," "him," and "you" as pertaining to the deity, it's not looking good for God. Sam Harris leads the -- oops, almost called it a crusade! -- with The End of Faith (Norton, $13.95), a fact-packed antireligion roast. "There seems to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs," writes the Stanford neuroscience scholar, whose potent concision lances piety and leaves it panting on the sand. "They are leading us, inexorably, to kill each other." Tolerance is suicide. Pluralists and moderates are lying hypocrites, as three major religions' holy books demand to be taken literally and demand that infidels be slaughtered. The solution? "Words like 'God' and 'Allah' must go the way of 'Apollo' and 'Baal,' or they will unmake our world." Afterlife fantasies are particularly lethal. We lack empirical evidence of God: Harris wonders why millions believe in deities but not "that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible."

Scary-smart Harris could talk an angel out of believing. Monotheisms, polytheisms -- they all irk him. But in America, it's particularly open season right now on Christianity. Christians are a soft target because they're everywhere. (Harris cites poll results: 35 percent of Americans deem the Bible the "inerrant word of the Creator.") Indicting the mainstream's heritage is like reaching that age when everything your parents did seemed so embarrassing that you pretended not to know them. Christianity is a known quantity. It has blood on its hands but mainly dried blood, thus easier to examine and it won't splash in your eyes.

Authors oblige. In Dogs of God (Doubleday, $27.95), James Reston Jr. paints the Spanish Inquisition in all its stake-burning, ethnic-cleansing horror, noting that 2004's Madrid train-station attack was meant as payback for the Christian-led "final defeat in 1492 of the glorious, lost culture that was the Caliphate." In American Massacre (Vintage, $14), Sally Denton revisits with pulp-fiction fizz the 1857 slaughter of 140 innocent pioneers in a wagon train in Utah by out-of-control Mormons. In Lost Christianities (Oxford, $15.95), religious-studies professor Bart Ehrman deftly exposes the New Testament's randomness, detailing dozens of books that didn't quite make the cut -- in which Jesus was divine, was a phantom, felt no pain, didn't die. In his nasty, bitter little short-story collection Beware of God (Simon & Schuster, $19.95), Shalom Auslander depicts a bitchy Yahweh who runs over New Yorkers with his car, sick of being worshiped like "some great big Fonzarelli in the sky."

Every day is a day of atonement now.

Jesus Land (Counterpoint, $23) is journalist Julia Scheeres' memoir about being a blonde teen with evangelical Calvinist parents and two adopted African-American brothers. All the modern-memoir essentials are here: Cold mother. Child-beating father. Incestuous (though adopted) brother. Racist yokels. Repulsive Midwestern food. Adolescent alcohol binges to blot out the pain. Plus a bonus: vicious Christians. Scheeres brings a lithe knowingness to teen angst and her younger brother's identity struggles -- he makes monkey faces and buys blue contact lenses. But she forgets that less is more when straining to expose Mother and Dad's daft sadism and that of some creeps operating the Christian reform school she attended. Memoirs are all about memory, but quoting the full text of letters and postcards glimpsed briefly twenty years ago messes with the credibility button. And if Scheeres writes for Wired, shouldn't she know that the past tense of "lie" is "lay"? She likes that verb. So again and again, "I laid there," "we laid in bed," she felt "his arm laying" on her shoulder. It's just sad -- but then again, she went to reform school. Or maybe it's God, that sneak, making those who dis his followers look dumb.

Gentler memories propel Yom Kippur a Go-Go (Cleis, $14.95), in which poetry slammer Matthue Roth weighs being rad and young and an Orthodox Jew who loves his stripper girlfriend and tranny party pals and a Lord whose law forbids premarital hand-holding. In Anosh Irani's astounding novel The Cripple and His Talismans (Algonquin, $22.95), a Bombay amputee pursues the vengeful god who severed his arm. Irani works alchemy with uglygorgeous images: Blood "could spurt from my mouth and make the city brighter"; a leper whose "breath captures the essence of an entire hospital ... feels the juice of life in his sores." Streetwater "feels dirty, as though truckloads of children with runny noses have bathed in it." The god waits, packing a butcher-knife.

Allah is in the dock too. Novels with Muslim-terrorist protagonists such as Slimane Benaïssa's Last Night of a Damned Soul (Grove, $24) and Yasmina Khadra's exquisite Wolf Dreams (Toby, $19.95) -- both authors are Algerian -- do him no favors. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris dubs Islam "a thoroughgoing cult of death." Deploring moral-equivalency endorsers such as Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, whom he calls "grotesque," Harris asks why "so many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs," then replies: "Because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity." He fills three solid pages with Koranic quotes demanding that infidels be damned, subjugated, battled, and killed. Anyone who can read these, Harris writes, "and still not see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim violence should probably consult a neurologist." He mocks the very concept of moderate Muslims, yet UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft (Harper San Francisco, $21.95) is a moderates' manifesto. Tracing the history of Wahhabist extremism in radiantly clear prose, El Fadl traces recent landmarks such as a Saudi judge's ruling that slavery is lawful in Islam and a Lebanese scholar's book of directives forbidding women to dance, attend funerals, and chew gum. Risking fitna -- the sin of divisiveness -- El Fadl begs fellow Muslims to turn "this transformative moment" into a reformation.

Harris argues that unless we trade religion for reason, and do good purely because it's good, faith will kill us. Yet faith paints such pretty pictures. Just ask Michelangelo. Or whoever built the Alhambra. In Doorway to Eternity (Mandala, $45), Arjen van der Kooij and photographer Ramon Dekkers capture flower-decked Krishna shrines and rapt worshippers in lush heaven-and-earth shades of black and white. Coproduced by Heyday Books and the Oakland Museum of California, El Corazón de la Muerte ($24.95) makes Day of the Dead altars look resplendent and good enough to eat. It's easy on the eyes, until the Apocalypse.

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