A quibble or two

Allow me to run down a few of the claims in Sholto Byrnes’s review of our book that are not true.

Actually, first, let me start with a plain oddity, since it appears in the first sentence.

The question of whether God hates women is not one that can be answered with certainty; not least since, by the time any of us dared ask a putative deity such an impertinent question, we would be in no position to communicate the response to our fellows.

Ah – so he admits it. The putative deity is one that we cannot question or otherwise address until after we’re dead – by which time it is too late to ameliorate anything the putative god’s putative rules might have done to fuck up our lives while we had them. Yes, quite so; and this is part of the problem. We’re supposed to obey the rules but we can’t appeal them to a higher court until after we no longer need to. Ding ding! Bad arrangement!

Now, for the falsehoods.

Benson and Stangroom don’t really have religion in general in mind – there’s one in particular they’re after. True, a few pages deal out blame to the Christian, Jewish and Hindu deities for the misogynistic activities of some of their more extreme devotees.

Not true. It is considerably more than ‘a few pages.’ It is true that Islam gets the most pages (for obvious reasons) but it is not true that the others get only a few pages.

[A]mid the torrents of invective, they allude to many matters worthy of calm examination, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to his favourite wife, Aisha, when she was only nine.

There are no ‘torrents of invective,’ and there is a considerable amount of calm examination – including that of Aisha.

This could have been the starting point for a thoughtful discussion about textual literalism and modernity. Instead, Benson and Stangroom attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong, a respected religious scholar who believes that “the emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart” and then quote, without qualification or disapproval, the view of an American Baptist leader that Muhammad’s marriage means that the Prophet was a “demon-possessed paedophile”.

1. There is such a thoughtful discussion. The ‘instead’ is absurd, because there is a whole chapter of thoughtful discussion.

2. We don’t attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong, we dispute her scholarship, which is a perfectly routine and legitimate thing to do.

3. Armstrong is a respected religious scholar only among people who are not themselves religious scholars or historians. She is referred to that way by radio presenters and similar, but not otherwise.

4. The ‘and then’ is incorrect because we quote the Baptist preacher before the extended examination of Armstrong’s work, not after it, and we quote it simply to indicate that the subject has been in the news; the suggestion that we passively endorse what he said is absurd.

This is inflammatory in the extreme. But that appears to be the point. Self-proclaimed champions of the secular right to challenge and insult others’ beliefs, Benson and Stangroom show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion.

1. Since it is not what we wrote, it is not inflammatory in the extreme. I consider the review itself to be considerably more inflammatory than our book is – and a kind of inflammatory that is directed at particular people (us), not at religions or their beliefs or practices.

2. Since it is not what we wrote and not inflammatory, that can’t be the point. We’re not self-declared champions of anything, and in particular we’re not champions of the right to ‘insult others’ beliefs.’ (How do you insult a belief?) I at least have argued for a general right to challenge ‘others’ beliefs’ – but does Sholto Byrnes really want to claim that there is no such right? Let’s hope not.

3. It is flatly and blatantly untrue that we show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion. That simply dismisses the whole book – via distorted name-calling, ironically.

Other than that (and a few more details) it’s all very reasonable.

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