Religion: what is it really good for?

The Auckland Writer’s and Reader’s Festival was a blast, ending yesterday. So much interest to talk openly about Israel/Palestine and audiences literally crying out for their corporate media to allow a wide range of views, including Arabs, anti-Zionists and skeptics.

This New Zealand blogger reported on my event yesterday, a conversation about religion with Economist journalist Adrian Woodridge and author Mike Otterman:

Over breakfast this morning, today’s session titled Religion: What is it good for? led… inevitably to impassioned discussion regarding… Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen, and the (mis-)appropriation of pop music for literary purposes.…  Sadly, our lot failed to reach consensus, unlike the panelists in the real Festival session.…  Adrian Wooldridge, Michael Otterman and Antony Loewenstein were remarkably united on several fronts, not the least being their disdain for Richard Dawkins.…  I’ve already outlined some of the main points about these three guys here, and for Michael Otterman’s session, here, and told you it’s impossible to cover their topics in a short blog post, so won’t revisit, but I will attempt to… provide… a bit of the flavour of this combined session, before you rush off to find the books.

Chair Sean Plunket… led off with a request… for each speaker to make his own personal declaration of their beliefs.…  In their own words – Antony Loewenstein… identifies himself as a Jewish atheist who is agnostic about whether religion is good or bad; Michael Otterman… is an agnostic… cultural Jew from New York, which means he loves Seinfeld and eats bagels on Sundays; and Adrian Wooldridge, having been born C of E,… is therefore… an atheist who is relatively sympathetic to religion, and who also enjoys Seinfeld.

Whether or not you believe in God, Wooldridge says, current research shows that religion itself is a force for good in the world, for three reasons:…  1. it affirms the bonds of community, and therefore… is good for the individuals… who embrace these bonds, making them healthier, wealthier and longer-living.…  2.…  it provides a set of social services for those in need, picking up those people who ”˜fall through the cracks’.…  and 3.…  it persuades people to do what are otherwise irrational things (he gave here… an example about a pastor who tackled and expelled an entire neighbourhood of violent drug-dealers).…  Following on from this, he also notes that religion is “a peculiarly powerful source of social capital”:… at a time when secular governments cannot continue to sustain current levels of social aid, religious-based organisations are the ones that are willing and ready to aid, and in many cases are the only ones left still working when everyone else has packed up and gone home, New Orleans being a case in point.

However, he does caution that there are also opposite forces at work, and that the fusion of… religion with certain forms of power is one of the most worrying trends in the world today.…  At this point, Michael Otterman comments, “Yes, you wouldn’t say that being a Sunni Muslim in Iraq is good for your health, wealth, or long life.”

All three agree that the separation of… church and state is an absolute imperative, and Otterman… notes that a hugely bad precedent was set… when the US supported Iraq’s new constitution recognising Islam as the only law.…  And Loewenstein… draws parallels with Israel’s stated desire… to be a “Jewish state”.…  It was also noted that France’s current push to ban the burqa is a huge negation of its status as a secular nation – if church and state are truly separate, the state should have no power to alter people’s religious freedoms.

A long discussion followed regarding… the mainstream media (MSM), and its impact on people’s perceptions of religion, tolerance and terrorism.…  All agree that the MSM are very good at finding the extremes of any religious group, or…  individual, and then making… the only reportage available “scandals, caricatures and stereotypes” (think… shoe bomber,…  paedophile priest,… Times Square terrorist,… or pentecostal Christians), while both ignoring all the good that is being done… in the world by religious groups, and also creating what Otterman refers to as “the silent space” – the wide open area which should instead be filled with debate, discussion and information.

Likewise, lots of Western governments dismiss, ignore, or don’t take seriously religion, which in turn leads to huge problems when they have to deal with other governments or states who do.… …  And there is also the tendency among some governments or peoples to have what Loewenstein describes as a “fundamental exception policy, or blind spot”… …  towards their own behaviour and actions.…  He uses Israel as en example of this, noting that “unacceptable things become acceptable when done by Jews”.

So much more was discussed that it is impossible to do justice, and even the questions at the end could have each led to another session in themselves.…  If you are dead keen to know more, give me a shout and I will wave my pages of scrawled notes at you; and as I have repeatedly said, go read the books!