A Dialogue for Our Time, by John Holroyd, a review
The idea that religion is a bad thing and does more harm than good is very familiar, especially if one is aware of the work of militant atheists and their followers. It is a mainstay of argument against religion and offered with the same confident, and unevidenced, assertion that people of faith use to tell everyone that their particular religion is the answer to all human problems. In short it is an argument that goes nowhere, leading to hardening of opinions instead of dialogue, ever more intemperate comments and even hatred. It could be said that the religious and the atheists deserve this, if they fall into this trap, as they feed each other’s bad karma. No one is listening and nothing is achieved. Enter John Holroyd.
This is a particular area of interest of mine as through my involvement in inter faith, especially through the Christian Muslim Forum, I have delved deeply into inter-religious encounter and pursued that rare beast religious-atheist dialogue. In its time, in the early years of this decade, I know that we were the only inter faith organisation opening up this particular dialogue, informed by two of the Forum’s key principles — collaboration and listening. I’d like to say that John’s book is unique and I think it might be, though I have not researched the field of publications. However the books written in this area, or arena (because they are confrontational), are inevitably seeking to condemn religion, or to push it and blast the atheists, especially the misnomered ‘evangelical atheists’. Yes, no one is listening. This is where academia comes in, hopefully, although one wonders, as polarisation seems to contaminate all areas of life and work.
Holroyd begins by opening up the moral questions of how and why religion should be morally evaluated, or ‘judged’. Religion should be open to this and even invite it. Of course reality is somewhere else, as religion so often seeks to make moral judgements, or followers of religion are prone to do so. This is despite sacred texts, the Gospels and the Qur’an, pointing out that this is unwise and uncharitable. In fact we must make ethical evaluations of religion, not to do so, i.e. giving it a free pass, or letting it get away with murder (literally, on occasion) is immoral. So anyone can and should do this, but we have never actually seen anyone do it using an evidential approach, and it is best done by someone who is not partisan, this is what Holroyd brings to his survey. Inevitably this leads to the ‘way of dialogue’ (p. 30), which is where the best of everything is located, the Bible and the Qur’an (like me, Holroyd focuses on Christianity and Islam) both have key texts appealing to the way of dialogue as the recommended road for both divine-human and inter-religious encounter. In case this is not clear, Holroyd’s way of dialogue involves listening to practitioners and taking the trouble to appreciate what religion means to them, rather than to, unethically, pre-judge it. We can see the dark side of this at work in the books of the campaigning atheists, religion looks very different when viewed through the lens of those who have a problem with it. We know that we are in safe hands when we read these words, ‘I am not suggesting at all that the believer’s account of meaning, salvation or ethics is the end of the story. But without it we shall never be able to understand nor judge religion’ (p. 31).
Holroyd opens by illustrating how popular media is not up to the task of a fair evaluation of religion as it is driven by simplification and sensationalism. Simplification is a good thing in the context of clear communication but is unhelpful for subjects which are contested and contentious, as it rules out the important grounding qualities of nuance and context. This can be tested very successfully when reading controversial media stories where the full context can literally only be imagined. Thus, he concludes that religion cannot get a fair hearing in the media, particularly in a post-Christian society where the basics of Christianity are scarcely familiar to most journalists, and we should not blame them for this, it is simply outside their area of expertise, Holroyd highlights this very strongly in his chapter on the media. He observes wryly, ‘Understanding doesn’t sell as well as judgement (p.47)’, in one of the many potential soundbites in the book.
To ask at this point, ‘Where do people get their ideas about religion, and especially Islam?’, is somewhat redundant. The typical content of media, and other popular criticism of religion, become areas for ethical evaluation in the later chapters, first Christianity, mostly (55 pages), and then Islam (95 pages). It should probably not surprise us that the section on Islam is significantly longer.
The question Christian readers will be asking is, ‘Does he give Christianity a fair hearing?’ Holroyd himself remarks that unfairness towards Christianity is a key complaint that Christians make of the treatment of their religion in the media. He offers four historical contexts for ethical evaluation of religion (p. 49, 50) — Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the American civil rights movement, liberation theology and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Unsurprisingly, he highlights anti-semitism as ‘a basic thread throughout much of the Churches’ histories’, even though ‘many Christians are not particularly aware of the vast history of anti-Semitism within their faith’ (p. 51). His conclusion is that religion is on both sides of this moral problem, and series of atrocities, both causing it and challenging it, it is a multifaceted picture. He reaches the same conclusion on both civil rights and liberation theology. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a particular blend of religion and politics, though religion creates a special kind of intransigence.
Having looked at history he moves on to ‘Elements of Religious Life’ (chapter 4), examining initially questions of mental health (does religion help?) before moving on to the four themes of prayer (does it work?), Buddhist meditation, mission and charity work to determine whether religion delivers benefits. The ethical outcome in relation to the mental health question is contested. However, he makes a positive assessment of prayer, though noting, as I would, that petitionary prayer seems morally dubious (p. 93). Similarly meditation is regarded positively, though his discussion gives him the opportunity to state, ‘in order to gain self-understanding, religion(s) should always actively seek sociological and psychological critique, rather than defend itself against this’ (p. 98). Mission does not fare so well and he criticises the failings of missionary behaviour and rightly, in my view, highlights the shortcomings of the Alpha course. Finally, as a matter of fact, he highlights the very philanthropic nature of religious charity work and donations, saying that the world would be poorer without it, while observing that the religious individuals who are so committed to charitable giving might be equally charitable were they not religious. His overall positive conclusion to the chapter nevertheless points out that too often neither atheists nor the religious have a full picture of both the good and bad aspects of religion.
For me, the strongest characteristic of his treatment of Islam is his constant reminder of its integral plurality, both in core texts and its various manifestations. ‘Islamic’ militancy (my quotes) and hardline literalism do not fare well in his evaluation for this very reason. Hence this observation, ‘Sticking closely to the Qur’an it seems to me is not at the heart of moral problems within Islam’ (p. 142). I loved his following line, ‘Some readers might be extremely irritated at this point thinking the Qur’an clearly discriminates against women and espouses militancy especially against unbelievers so the idea that there isn’t a causal connection here is absurd’ (p. 143). This is backed up by very welcome Qur’anic quotations — ‘God is with those who exercise restraint’ (2. 194, p.144); ‘Those who seek to please God will be guided by God to the paths of peace’ (5.16, pp. 145, 146). Holroyd also does well to include peaceful and challenging contributions from my friends, imams Qari Muhammad Asim and Amina Wadud.
The ‘world’ of Islam and of British Muslim communities, which I have been privileged to sit, and pray, alongside contain all kinds of perception-shattering aspects which are entirely at odds with some media portrayals. Worthy of special mention is Anabel Inge (p. 182) and her research on the lives of Salafi Muslim women in the London area, she found ‘not one case where a woman was compelled to wear the veil.’ This is almost unimaginably far from popular tabloid media discourse and, of course, the rude extremism of the comments of the current British Prime Minister. Similarly, after much diligent work challenging the Islamic credentials of so-called contemporary ‘jihad’ and suicide bombing, he concludes, ‘The most effective counters to Islamist militancy today come from within Islam’ (p.225). He goes on to quote Professor Scott Atran who states categorically, ‘the only organisations I have found that have actively enticed significant numbers of voluntary defections from the ranks of would-be martyrs and jihadis … are Muslim religious organisations’ (p. 225).
One of the most powerful parts of this book is on ‘Problems of Evil and Suffering’ (chapter 9). I had many thoughts when reading this of how best to popularise his very telling ethical judgements against morally irresponsible theodicies, responses to the problem of suffering. Theodicies can create their own moral jeopardy and my reflection — believing the improbable (as a solution) is morally irresponsible — does sum up his criticism. Or, in his own words, in another of those great soundbites, ‘to dismiss [great suffering] with some theoretical construct in the shape of a theodicy seems to me both callous and metaphysically and socially inept’ (p. 242). This leads him to a really important, and impressive, resolution, ‘the challenges to human life are often too great for believer and unbeliever to afford to be divided’ (p.245). Sadly, as he observes, this division is the norm. My own judgement of religion, at this point, is that it should welcome being judged to see if it is achieving this, and to keep it humble, because it so patently does not have all the answers.
In the final, surprisingly short, chapter, rightly titled ‘Beyond Conclusions’ he writes, ‘ethical evaluations of religion are going to be ever-more relevant to our lives’ (p. 247). He proposes sympathetic imagination (positive dialogical regard for the contrasting views of others) as a way ahead for shared moral evaluation. This is a challenge for religion to be what it should be and ends the book with the same appeal for dialogue with which it began. It is also a strong and necessary challenge for ‘militant’ atheism and campaigning secularism to do a whole lot better too, at embodying their own distinctive values and open up humanistic dialogue with theists. In his closing pages he introduces one more example of religious requirements in the secular world as a case study to illustrate that theological pronouncements in themselves are not moral arguments, i.e. they must be ethically evaluated jointly by the religious and the non-religious. This flags up how intruding absolute truth claims in the secular space do not recognise their moral limitations — ‘claims to absoluteness by definition concern everyone’ (p. 253). The making of absolute claims is an invitation to exercise the right of judgement.
Inevitably, the judging of religion and the exploration of its place in a shared society leads to the realisation that ‘reaching conclusions can appear far more satisfying than the graft of pursuing an understanding that will almost certainly never be complete’ (p. 255). This is his final appeal for an ongoing dialogue and is a suitably encouraging, open-ended conclusion to a book that invites us all to explore the ethical value of religion.