TONY JONES: Good evening. Welcome to Q&A. I’m Tony Jones and answering your questions tonight: the director of Griffith University’s Islamic Research Unit, Imam Mohamad Abdalla; Singer, songwriter Deborah Conway whose latest recording draws on stories of the Old Testament and her Jewish heritage; atheist, comedian and star of Please Like Me, Josh Thomas; Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge; and an Australian-raised Catholic whose spiritual journey led her to Tibet and to Buddhism, the Venerable Robina Courtin. Please welcome our panel.
There was much that was good about this episode. I was particularly struck, as I often am, by the robust good sense of the Buddhist. Mohamad Abdala is a plus for harmonious relationship between Australian Muslims and the rest of us. Archbishop Coleridge is an attractive personality.
All went well until the two prime representatives of the Abrahamic revealed religions ran up against the fundamental absurdity of the book-writing God. For example.
TONY JONES: Let me – can I – I will just interrupt you there.
MOHAMAD ABDALLA: Yeah.
TONY JONES: And same question really that I asked to Mark Coleridge: does your God create humans fully formed or does Islam accept evolution: that man evolved from apes?
MOHAMAD ABDALLA: The Islamic world view is that God created Adam and Eve and he created humans as we know them. The Islamic understanding is that…
TONY JONES: So no evolution or…
MOHAMAD ABDALLA: Evolution within species, not from species. So Islam accepts the idea that evolution from within species, we adapt, we reform, we evolve in various ways, but not from a totally different species to a wonderfully amazing perfect human being.
On the other hand:
TONY JONES: Mohammad, look, I don’t know whether Judeo Christian values are totally compatible with Islam, or there are crossovers obviously. Do you feel a kind of push back from the community against religion?
MOHAMAD ABDALLA: First, there are, of course, many commonalities between Islam and Judeo Christian moral, ethical, spiritual values and teachings and very much a lot of commonalities, in fact, with Buddhism, when you talk about mysticism and spirituality, which many people are unaware of. It is the unfortunate nature perhaps of secular modern societies that religion does not necessarily play a role in their lives. And that doesn’t mean that religions do not have core values, as Deborah has mentioned. There are core values in all faith, traditions and all religions and in every time and every place and every society these core values are necessary for the enhancement of our humanity. You don’t have to be a Muslim, and you don’t have to be a Jew or a Buddhist or a Christian to have these innate good nature and to have these wonderful human values that can enhance our societies. So the concentration should not be on whether a particular faith, tradition or religion, but rather to examine the commonalities, the human essence, that is in all of us to enhance our society; a secular modern society wherein one religion cannot dominate and will not dominate and must not dominate.
ROBINA COURTIN: That’s right.
TONY JONES: Okay.
ROBINA COURTIN: Very good.
And as you might expect things did rather fall apart as Coleridge and Abdalla got into gay marriage. (Perhaps I should rephrase that!) But read the transcript yourself, or watch online.
JOSH THOMAS: So you can understand when this man says why are we fighting against religion in this square, why people get a bit annoyed when you challenge us wanting to change the law, which is completely irrelevant to your life. It is completely irrelevant to everything you do.
MARK COLERIDGE: No, it’s not. See, Josh, it’s not irrelevant to my life because it’s not irrelevant to the basic functioning of society as a whole. It is not irrelevant to the common good.
JOSH THOMAS: What common good? What is happening?
MARK COLERIDGE: Because I…
JOSH THOMAS: When I kiss my boyfriend goodnight and I tell my boyfriend that I love him and he says, “I love you too” and we fall asleep hugging each other. What about that is hurting you?
MARK COLERIDGE: No, nothing is…
JOSH THOMAS: I don’t understand.
Related items that have come my way lately:
1. After God: What can atheists learn from believers? This is a series of essays published in New Statesman written by Alain de Botton, Francis Spufford (author of “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense”), Jim Al-Khalili (president of the Humanist Association and the author of “Quantum: a Guide for the Perplexed”), Karen Armstrong (author of “The Case for God: What Religion Really Means”) and Richard Holloway, bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000, author of “Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt.” I find myself rather drawn to Holloway, not for the first time:
So far, so inconclusive. It is the next move in the religious enterprise that gets interesting. This is where theologians introduce the idea of revelation. “Revealed” theology is the department where we try not to figure out whether there is a god, but to work out the meaning of the messages that the god has sent us from beyond to answer the questions we are unable to answer. This is where sacred texts come into play, as well as the institutions that accrete round them to protect and promote them. Revelation is what you get when you go to the synagogue or church or the mosque – all those instructions from God to do this or abjure that – and it is where things can get both frustrating and interesting for unbelievers.
The big frustration is how to deal with the circularity of the claims that are made by the exponents of revealed theology. If you ask them how they know that the words they quote came from God and not just another human being, the answer comes back, “Because the Bible or the Quran or the Whatever tells us so” – and we are no further on.
A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us. All these sacred texts are creations of the human imagination, works of art crafted by us to convey meaning through story.
So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales and thereby deprive themselves of a rich resource for exploring the heights and depths of the human condition. The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.
The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition. That is why, among all the true believers in church this Easter, there will be thousands of others who are there because they need, yet again, to express the hope that good need not always be defeated by evil.
The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it…