God de­bate puts faith in courtesy

For God’s Sake: An Athe­ist, a Jew, a Chris­tian and a Mus­lim De­bate Re­li­gion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor

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

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