About that book

Meanwhile, there is this book we wrote. Bunting purports to be criticizing it, but in fact what she is doing is yanking out particular sentences that caught her attention and flailing at them in isolation, as opposed to understanding them in context. This is stupid, and uninformative, and misleading. That’s why I call her reckless. It’s so easy to point out how thoroughly she misrepresents the book. (How does she square that with her Catholic conscience, one wonders?)

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar. How about this from the conclusion to her book: “religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide…” ?

The page in question is 177, the penultimate page of the book; it’s the peroration. The final chapter is intense, but it is intense in a context. It starts, as mentioned, with the public murder of a raped child by people who said ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. It goes on to point out that that is a kind of God that all too many people believe in, and that that’s a terrible thing. It then says

Religion doesn’t necessarily originate ideas about female subordination and male authority, but it does justify them, it does lend them a penumbra of righteousness, and it does make them ‘sacred’ and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them. It does enable and assist and flatter moods of intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power. It does turn reformers and challengers into enemies of God.

Used in this way religion is like a matrix, a nutrient, a super-vitamin. It doesn’t necessarily invent, but it amplifies, and nourishes, and protects. Religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide that destroys some insect species only to let others, freed from predators and competition, explode. It’s like an antibiotic that kills some strains of bacteria only to help resistant strains thrive and flourish.

You see? Bunting ignored the first paragraph and thus distorted what was being said.

Or from the same page, “Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals.”

Again (and on the same page, too) she has left out the paragraph that precedes the line she doesn’t like. The preceding paragraph leads into the whited sepulchre bit.

It’s also a kind of protective colouring. There is no very compelling reason left to treat particular groups of people as inferior. It used to be possible (just barely) to think that human groups were literally and essentially different in some way profound enough to justify inequality, but it isn’t possible any longer. All that’s left is a literalist idea of God’s will along with a conviction that God’s will must not be disputed or disobeyed. Without that, a defence of unequal rights just looks like what it is – a frank defence of injustice. This puts religion in the uncomfortable position of being that which puts lipstick on a pig.

That is uncomfortable but it is exactly the position religion is in. Religion, in the hands of the literalist defenders of God’s putative will, is in the business of dressing up what would otherwise obviously be tired old prejudices and hatreds and plain exploitation, and making them seem vaguely respectable. Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals, the executioner in white tie and tails.

One could still think and say that that’s too strong or harsh or intense, but with the context at least it’s clear what is being claimed. Bunting’s quote-mining just makes it look like vulgar abuse, which of course was the idea.

It’s not that Benson doesn’t have a point, it’s that she overstates it with such crudeness and lack of insight that I’m staggered anyone wants to publish it. Except that I know publishers with a keen eye on the bottom line will publish anything and atheism sells – it feeds a public appetite for outrage. I just think it’s profoundly intellectually dishonest to feed that kind of outrage – there is no attempt here to open people’s minds, only fuel their indignation.

Publishers will publish anything, and so will newspapers, apparently. Be that as it may – the significant point here is that we did indeed want to arouse, if not feed, public outrage. You bet we did. That was the goal. That goal is not at odds with opening people’s minds – we wanted to open people’s minds to some neglected facts and to some connections among things. Bunting perhaps means by ‘open people’s minds’ something more along the lines of ‘persuade people that all religions are kind and compassionate really and all the cruelty and injustice is just a superficial dusting on top that can easily be swept away’ – but we don’t see it that way, so we didn’t want to open people’s minds in that particular way. But then Bunting doesn’t seem to want to open people’s minds in the sense we mean it, either. We did and do want to arouse outrage, and we do not think there is anything remotely intellectually dishonest about that, and I at least would love to know why Bunting thinks there is.

I think, rather, that she is the intellectually dishonest one. I think she is intellectually dishonest for instance when she says of course religions can change, the Anglican church has begun ordinating women – when she herself is a Catholic and the Catholic church not only does not ordinate women, it treats the ordination of women as a crime deserving excommunication. That’s intellectual dishonesty if you like.

I just wanted to set the record straight. Of course Bunting distorted the record on a large forum and I’m setting it straight on a small one – but we do what we can do.

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