God debate puts faith in courtesy
For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion
RELIGION, as a topic, has made a comeback. Not a positive one, it has to be said. Two factors have jerked religion into our ongoing consciousness: the bushfire spread of a repellent Islamism and the sexual abuse scandal of Catholicism. We’ve been careful, even selective in our reaction. Homegrown ill will has largely confined itself to targeting Christianity. After all, the Christian churches are old Australia and self-flagellation is OK — to say nothing of being an honoured Christian tradition.
In the past half-century there has been a major realignment in the terms of religious debate. Once it was all-out war between the sects. Embers of this might still twinkle occasionally: the ‘‘ Catholic mafia’’ now supposed to exist within the NSW Hunter region police force recalls the days when popular wisdom was that the state’s force was divided equally between Catholics and Masons, each of whom took turns as commissioner. But all sects are now in retreat and the ecumenical movement has made them see the sense of alliance against the common foe — godlessness. That challenge, best typified by Richard Dawkins’s 2006 atheist manifesto The God Delusion, is the third factor that has reinvigorated religious discussion — albeit often in the low-grade form of sniping and polemic.
So within that context we now get a strikingly courteous debate on the God question between two atheists and two believers — all Australians. For God’s Sake has an original and successful arrangement. Twelve issues are listed for individual discussion. Each contributor has a turn at going first or last, and so on. Jane Caro, the best known of the quartet, represents cheerful By Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock Pan Macmillan Australia, 298pp, $32.99 inherited atheism, Antony Loewenstein secular, shakily atheistic Judaism, Rachel Woodlock enthusiastic-convert Islam, and Simon Smart benevolent, earnest Protestantism. The participants start with ‘‘ What is the nature of the universe?’’ and work their way through virtue, right and wrong, conscience, hope, religion and conflict, the challenge of science, suffering and evil, the oppression of women, and end up with ‘‘ What has religion done for us anyway?’’
No participant gets converted in the course of the debate, and I doubt whether any readers will either. Not in the way that I suspect some believers might have been by the blitzkrieg of The God Delusion. No one here is looking for the killer blow, and I think that’s a novelty in argument on this topic. It’s certainly far from the antagonism set up by ABC program Q&A last year when it pitted Dawkins against George Pell, and courtesy and any degree of openness were manifestly absent.
The arguments, which are all pretty well timeworn, rise and fall, and no major new philosopher or theologian is unearthed. One phenomenon stands out above all, however. The intellectual standard of today’s religious thought seems to me to be low. Smart and Woodlock are both believers and also professionally involved in the teaching of their respective creeds. Caro and Loewenstein follow careers that have nothing to do with their atheism. And the two believers are wedded to a discursive routine where their essays read as a litany of quotations sewn together by passing commentary. This is a practice that may have some validity in academic discourse where the enforced punctilios of citation and authority loom large. But definitely not in a personal essay where a