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 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 pro-fessionally 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 writer is giving an account of their soul.
Leaping from one foothold of a quotation to another suggests a lack of personal conviction, a failure to digest and make one’s own the stuff of belief. A similar failure in self-appropriation was embarrassingly on display in the Q & A program, where Cardinal Pell was mouthing the terms and theses of his seminary training more than 50 years ago. There was no sense of a creed that had been thought through in an individual way.
If you’re going to lace your prose with other men’s and women’s dictums, you have to pick the memorable ones. Yet Smart and Woodlock introduce numerous variations of “the Yale philosopher” or “modern Turkish theologian”, and what these worthies have to say rarely rises above personalist banality. Woodlock ends her essay on what religion has done for us with: “The Qur’an calls such a person [a good one] ‘God’s representative on earth’ (Q2:30) and, as Ibn ‘Arabi describes it, we become al-insan al-kamil, ‘the locus for the manifestation of God’.” Hardly a crowd-puller of a final sentence.
Of the atheists, Loewenstein has his own tic. No matter what the topic, he manages to introduce his conviction about the infamy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He is the most openly perplexed of the panel, and this is winning, but there seems something curiously restricted in his sympathies and world view. Quite blithely, for example, he appears to equate love with sexual love. More than the others he betrays a personal context that must play into his thinking, but is unexplored – not least a longstanding alienation from his father.
Caro is the standout performer. I say this although I consider myself a struggling Catholic and she’s a chirpy atheist. But she speaks entirely in her own voice and has the ring of authenticity. Her easygoing straight-talking, her secular down-to-earthness, somehow seem to make her a more natural fit as an Australian. And the believers even seem self-conscious that their language and outlook make them alien, and they make folksy jokes to try to validate themselves as dinky-di.
Yet the book’s modus operandi seems to have had an effect on Smart. When he comes to the problem of evil he gives us perhaps the best pages in the symposium. His contemporary gurus are ditched and he claws his way through what he says is “the most problematic thing for me as a believer”. Amen to that. If “the Lord is loving and full of compassion”, as the Good Book tells us, how can he not grieve over his creation? But an all-powerful yet unhappy God? Surely not. Then again, the wholly divine, wholly human Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. On the questions revolve.
For God’s Sake: An Atheist, A Jew, A Christian And A Muslim Debate Religion
By Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart And Rachel Woodlock
Pan Macmillan Australia
Gerard Windsor‘s most recent book is All Day Long the Noise of Battle, a nonfiction account of an Australian infantry company in Vietnam.