December 17th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Much food for reflection in a single Christmas carol

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition limps through year of frustrations

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The left's whitewash of Fidel Castro

THE MEDIA Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

WA LEGISLATION Foetal homicide reform a very small step forward

SOCIETY A proposal to assist the victims of sexual abuse

AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT The financial and social costs of cramming ourselves into just five coastal cities

MUSIC What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP

TAIWAN POLITICS

CINEMA Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

BOOK APPRAISAL Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue

BOOK REVIEW A continuing analysis

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BOOK APPRAISAL
Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue




News Weekly, December 17, 2016

WHAT SHOULD I BELIEVE?

by Dorothy Rowe

Routledge, London and New York
Paperback: 312 pages
Price: AUD$41.90

 

Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch

 

This book is now several years old, but age should not excuse it from the kicking it richly deserves. Many of its propositions seem perennial and are evidence of the fact that really bad ideas are very hard to kill.

The author was, according to Radio National, voted one of the 50 wisest people in Britain by Saga Magazine in 2004 and was recently picked in another British poll as Number 72 among the top 100 living geniuses in the world (Osama bin Laden, who has since ceased living, came somewhat higher at number 43).

Like many other basically anti-religious writers, the author, a well-known Australian-born (“divides her time between London and Sydney”) psychologist and teacher of psychology who had, when this was published, written 13 books, does not show great knowledge of church doctrine. She ventures, for example, into the area of theology known as theodicy without suggesting that she has heard of the term, which does not occur in the index.

The Mungo Forest quillbird (Quillius acerbus)
looks harmless enough but is capable
of producing up to 10,000 words
of poisonous drivel in a single day.

The blurb claims: “It is possible to create a set of beliefs, expressed in the religious or philosophical metaphors most meaningful to us, which allow us to live in peace with ourselves and other people.” But is “creating a set of beliefs” so as to “live at peace with ourselves” actually the purpose of existence? There is a strain of thought, from Socrates to Solzhenitsyn, which actually holds Truth to be important, even if sometimes leading to uncomfortable consequences.

Cliched contemporary political and cultural mythology is confidently stated as fact: “The religion of most Australians continues to be sport. The greatest sin an Australian can commit is to fail to mow his lawn and to keep his car shiny clean, even when there is a drought.” Not that one again, perleeeze! Or is a weed-choked lawn (like mine!) and a car dropping rust a sign of spiritual greatness? Thank you for the compliment, if so.

This passage continues, with hectoring, mythologising, self-righteous whine: “By concentrating on how their team is faring, many Australians turn their minds away from the gigantic problem facing Australia right now – climate change … But none of this matters, does it, if you’re sure to go to heaven when you die?”

Still, when it comes to clichés, it’s hard to beat: “Jesus was a remarkable man.” (Certainly it seems he could carve loaves and fishes very delicately. Had he lived today he might even have got his own celebrity chef program). Clichewise, this even eclipses such efforts as: “Gordon Brown was a son of the manse.” We are also told things hardly surprising, such as the fact that most people believe that their own values are in accordance with God’s, and at least one fact that I for one could have done quite well without knowing – that an institution exists called the Religious Experience Research Unit.

While this book is filled with sweeping judgements, this in no way inhibits the authoress from stating that: “The judgemental in all religions brings out the very worst in us.”

We are informed that anti-evolutionary “fundamentalism” (correctly, I think, “literalism”) and/or “creationism” and belief in “Intelligent Design” are identical: “Christian Fundamentalists developed their own theory, Creationism, which states that the world was created by God a few thousand years ago … from 4,000 years to around 6000 … In an attempt to avoid the derision that Creationism has attracted in the past, the name has been changed to Intelligent Design.”

Actually, most believers in Intelligent Design accept that the universe is as old as modern astronomy indicates. What Intelligent Design holds is that this is not enough time for intelligent life to have evolved by chance, and also that the universe is too “finely tuned” to support intelligent life on Earth for this to be the product of chance. This cannot, I think, be called a scientific theory because it cannot be proved or disproved, but it is not literalist “Creationism”.

The Big Bang, incidentally, was first postulated by an astronomer who was also a Catholic priest. This is not mentioned here and it seems implied or taken for granted that a monolith called “religion” and another called “science” are opponents, just as various simplistic anti-religious 19th-century texts had it. Actually, the Catholic Church was the major patron of science, especially astronomy and of course medicine, until the modern period.

Evangelical members of the Anglican Church, we are told, “regard homosexuality as the greatest of sins”. Actually, Christian doctrine holds spiritual pride as the greatest of sins.

While the author quotes Holocaust survivor Primo Levi at some length, she betrays little knowledge of the historical background: “Levi wrote about those who tried to survive in the Lager by being totally obedient. For some unknown reason they were called ‘muselmans’.”

Actually the reason is not unknown at all: “muselman” is a word for Moslem, that is, a follower of a religion whose name translates as “submission”, and which was supposed at the time, rightly or wrongly, to be predicated on fatalism: what happened was fate or God’s will.

Further, those in concentration camps who “went muselman” did not try to survive by becoming totally obedient. On the contrary, they lost the will to live and became apathetic as to whether they survived or not. This is not exactly esoteric knowledge.

Then we are told: “In the USA the Jewish vote is carefully cultivated by both Republican and Democrat politicians, not just because the Jewish lobby is very powerful but also because Israel plays an important part in the widely held Evangelical belief in being enraptured into heaven before the world comes to an end.”

The actual evidence cited for this claim? Well, “According to the website www.biblebell.org, rapture will occur when Jesus returns to resurrect the dead.”

Oh yes, and “[Fundamentalists] approve of the massive help which successive American governments have given to Israel in order to expand its defence forces”. If she had read Primo Levi with more attention she might have grasped that there was a reason Israel wanted strong defence forces.

Weird stereotyping and the usual cultural self-hatred abounds: “Perhaps English speakers would prefer to deny that they ever experience glee and satisfaction when someone they know and perhaps envy suffers a reversal of fortune, whereas German speakers acknowledge this with their word Schadenfreude.”

Actually, English, which has a much larger vocabulary than any other language, has phrases like “malicious glee”, which means the same thing and in this case takes the same number of letters to print.

For sheer ludicrousness it would be hard to go beyond: “Until the 1960s Australian society was divided into Protestant and Catholic just as in Northern Ireland.”

Huh? In Northern Ireland the death toll from sectarian violence (with some KGB encouragement) was in the thousands. In Australia it was nil. In Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants could not live in the same districts. In Australia Catholic and Protestant police would sometimes divide up the gaming and vice squads as their respective patches.

She doesn’t like psychiatrists, who practise “power-crazed cruelty”. As evidence of their badness, she first quotes a description of a character in a biography in which the author claims: “Once, on the verandah, I saw his eyes wide with terror, his body trembling because he believed he could see a sheet of flame rise from the concrete and threaten to engulf both of us. He made wooden and iron crosses of wood to ward off evil spirits and, when he cut the bread, he first crossed it with a knife. He questioned me without respite about the meaning of almost everything I did – why I had put the fork, the matches, my shoes just there, why did I stand or sit here rather than there, why did I write or say or wear this rather than that, and so on, relentlessly.”

Then, she says, this character “met psychiatrists who, like all psychiatrists then (and many now) thought he had a mental illness”. Good heavens! Why do you suppose they could possibly have thought that?

Then, ticking another box, we have her version of an episode in recent Australian history: “By then, racists had other objects for their hatred. [Australians] now could despise refugees from the Vietnam War and other worldwide conflicts which followed. The then Prime Minister, John Howard, did not extend his Christian charity to those who were not already Australian.”

This is far beyond mere inaccuracy. When Vietnamese refugees were arriving in Australia in the 1970s it was the Coalition government (and Malcolm Fraser, not John Howard, was Prime Minister) which admitted them.

It was leading ALP and other left figures – former Immigration Minister Clyde Cameron (“War criminals”), Labor Immigration spokesman Senator Tony Mulvihill, who claimed they were brothel-keepers and black-marketeers, Brian Burke, Bob Hawke and of course Whitlam himself (“f***ing Vietnamese Balts with their political and religious hatreds against us!”) who, with the various communist parties, the Darwin watersiders’ union and Nation Review, attacked them and attacked the government for admitting them.

Australia’s refugee intake after Vietnam under a Liberal government happened to be one of the highest in the world. But perhaps this is part of creating a set of beliefs, expressed in the religious or philosophical metaphors most meaningful to us, which allow us to live at peace with ourselves.

The author was a speaker at a Melbourne Writers’ Festival. I am not surprised.




























All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99


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