The Age/Sydney Morning Herald reviews For God’s Sake

The following review by James Grieve appears today:

By Jane Caro, Anthony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock. Macmillan. 314pp. $32.99.

Here is the latest contribution to the debate on organised religion and the existence of God, started about seven years ago by the so-called new atheists, notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Of the book’s four authors, two are atheists (Caro and Loewenstein), one is a Christian (Smart) and the other a Moslem (Woodlock).

Loewenstein actually defines himself as an “atheist Jew”, though the bone he picks with Judaism has less to do with its theology than with Zionism and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. And that, though it is heartfelt and enables him to lambast the Jewish state, it has little to say on Godness as reality or fiction. Also, do I sense in his “Jewish atheism” a hankering after supernatural figments that sits ill with usually accepted definitions of atheism? Is he perhaps a semi-atheist? If so, he is not alone, for the two theists, Christian and Muslim, by disbelieving in each other’s God, are semi-atheists, too.

The book resembles a courteous conversation, in which the debaters in turn express themselves on each of the 13 aspects of the matter of religion that they see as important. Mind you, most of this agenda seems to have been drawn up by Simon Smart; so it has a built-in bias towards things that appear, presumably, self-evident to him, but that may seem less so to non-Christians. The topics include, as one might expect in such a debate, the nature of the universe, the relation between “the supernatural” and science, the existence of suffering and evil, seen as inconsistent with the alleged all-goodness of God, and so on. One chapter, predictable in its content, is on harms wrought by religious believers (and unbelievers). History does tend to show that theists and atheists alike have perpetrated atrocities. More to the point might have been a section, not on the past evils of wars of religion, persecutions and inquisitions, but on the future, on how civilisation, possibly even the planet, can survive, now that men with Bronze Age convictions about doing the will of “God” may soon also have weapons that could destroy us all. At one point, Jane Caro says she finds it revealing to see “what we all agree on”. Perhaps a chapter could have been devoted to that, by way of identifying points of real disagreement. Just because there is no agreement on what “God” means, it does not follow that there need be disagreement on why annihilation may impend. And that is probably a more urgent problem for the 21st century than whether “God” enjoys bacon or deplores contraception.

To say that four people of different beliefs discuss the existence of “God” is, of course, only a manner of speaking. Each of them, after all, puts into that vocable a meaning that, if pressed ever so slightly, shows they are talking of different things. To some, “God” means a manlike entity demanding unquestioning obedience; to others, it has become a threesome, whose main concern is love. To two of the discussants, it is a fiction in any form. These variable meanings of “God” are as irreconcilable as the pairs of words known to philology as… faux amis, false cognates: in English, “groin” is a part of the abdomen (or even a breakwater), but the French word… groin… denotes the snout of an animal. This shows not only that there is no necessary link between signifier and signified, but also that, if all use the same monosyllable for things as unalike as chalk and cheese, sooner or later cheerful consensus will stand revealed as false. This is what makes semi-atheists of the theists, who, while using the same word, reject each other’s “God”. The rules dictated by “God” to Jews about what to eat, whom not to sleep with, what clothes to wear, whose hair shall be cut, who shall be stoned to death and which children should be massacred are not those by which even strict Christians abide, despite theirs being also dictated by “God”.

If human beings had never invented speech, God would not exist. Before words, there was existence, a reality of needs, fears and urges, probably also thought; with words, meaning was invented. As was its bedfellow, credulity. Existence came to be seen as a system of symbols, purpose, magic stones, hobgoblins. This illusion of design was effected by the arbitrary attribution of significances to sounds made by breath and vocal organs. With meaning came three implicit fallacies, handed down to children through language: there must be a reason for things to exist; if there’s a word for something, that something must exist; and the word is the thing. All three confuse thought, by inspiring that most misconceived of questions: What is existence for? This is a circularly-reasoned query, since it presupposes a problem where none exists and seeks an answer to a “puzzle” (Simon Smart’s word) which is self-engendered. It feeds the illusion that it is a question to which religion is the answer. “Religion,” Smart says, “is about finding meaning”, by which he means that meaning inheres in phenomena and pre-exists its discovery. But meaning is only our own heady cocktail of carbon dioxide and imagination. So, the real meaning of “finding meaning” is creating it.

If you agree (or disagree) with statements such as the following, perhaps this is the book for you: “There’s a hidden angelic realm”; “the world God truly intends”; “We are all bound up in a fallen existence”. To me, they neither consist with common sense nor help us to live in the observable world better than their opposites would. They show how superfluous premises do not just contradict the parsimony principle (that, in explaining anything, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary) but lead to ever more cock-eyed, question-begging and convoluted conclusions, as every objection, every new insight that contradicts the premise, has to be fitted into a system of thought not made for it, such as “God created religious diversity for a reason” etc. The more arguments that must be mustered to support such ideas, the more likely both are to be fallible.

This is a book for the young, the immature, the insecure, the undecided. The ignorant, like me, can learn much from it about the practices and mentalities fostered by belief, and disbelief, in organised religion; the unsure may discover, via its dialectical, adversarial structure, reasons to become surer, to embrace a faith or fortify a doubt.