If you're looking for a break from the overheated political race, some new books on religion and spirituality might offer a bit of solace.
The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, is a scientist at heart. He also is a jokester, an enthusiastic reader and a democrat, small d.
In "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama" (Knopf, $24), journalist Pico Iyer has great access to the surprisingly open spiritual leader. Iyer is a family friend of the Dalai Lama's, and the intimacy he shares is appealing, the tidbits revealing.
The Dalai Lama arises at 3:30 a.m. each day to meditate for four hours on compassion. He makes a point of thanking everyone in any hotel in which he stays - from the busboys to the owner. And he is an ardent ambassador for his people, the Tibetans. This is a deep and well-written biography by someone who knows the public man most privately.
¢ As an adult, Suzanne Strempek Shea left her Roman Catholic faith but was uncomfortable outside her pew, so she began a yearlong journey to visit a new church each week.
In "Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith" (Beacon Press, $24.95), Shea writes about praying with spiritualists in Brookline, Mass., (and being surprisingly moved) and a disappointing Sunday-school lesson in Georgia with former President Carter (he spoke against gay marriage).
Shea is a skeptic who is often forced to a faith. The folks at Trinity United Church of Christ (Barack Obama's former church) embrace her and wake her up; the Shakers make her settle down and listen - although she finds the service disappointingly simple.
The best parts are the writing and diversity into which Shea throws herself.
¢ Although Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have dined out on their arguments against the existence of God, David Berlinski, a writer and professor of mathematics and philosophy, is more than capable of advancing the notion that the answer cannot rest entirely in science.
"The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions" (Crown Forum, $23.95) is a cogent and lively argument written by a man who knows his subject.
Berlinski is not a religious man. He is a self-identified secular Jew: "My religious education did not take. I can barely remember a word of Hebrew. I cannot pray." But someone had to write an answer to Hitchens' and Harris' arguments, summed up by the author as "because scientific theories are true, religious beliefs must be false."
¢ Quick: Name the last time you laughed out loud while reading a book. Try "Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture," by Daniel Radosh (Scribner, $25).
Radosh, a humanist Jew, wanted to know more about the parallel universe of Christian pop culture, where Christian rock/metal/emo bands make music much like what's found on the radio, except without the sex and drugs.
He delves into dealers in Christian fare, known quietly as "Jesus junk," including T-shirts (some better than others) and Christian romance novels (no bodice-rippers here). Meet Christian disc jockeys and thrill to Radosh's volunteering as an extra in the historically anti-Semitic Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Ark.
Radosh could easily go off on a tear, making fun of people so different from his friends. Occasionally he takes a few easy shots, but mostly this is a thought-out, interesting approach to a culture that's hardly beneath the radar.
What Radosh (and his readers) discover is that things aren't quite what they seem, that even the most hide-bound believers have a soft spot and not everyone's out to drag the world to their altar.
¢ What's a Jew to do? When a Reform rabbi looks around and realizes her flock is disconnected with the natural world, she starts Adventure Rabbi, an organization to move people who have lost their spirituality into the great outdoors, where it's usually waiting.
Rabbi Jamie Korngold details her treks in "God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi" (Doubleday, $11.95). Neither preachy nor ponderous, this former ski bum treats the great outdoors as her temple - and God's. She has led Shabbat services on ski slopes and reminds us religion started outdoors.
¢ Not all conservative Christians think alike, just as not all liberal Christians walk in lock step with one another. Adam Hamilton, pastor of a 14,000-strong Methodist church in Leawood, wants to call believers turned off by the infighting to the middle ground in "Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics" (Abingdon Press, $21.95). People who labor under labels, who want something more personal and a lot less fractious will enjoy this book.
"I believe this will be the great hunger of the 21st century," he writes, "a faith that doesn't require suspension of the intellect but draws upon it, while at the same time remaining a faith in which God's presence is experienced."