Bunting expands on her point

Madeleine Bunting returns to her claim that I am strident, adding a good deal more abuse for good measure.

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar.

No, it isn’t. It isn’t peculiar at all. I think theism and theistic ways of thinking do real and terrible harm. I think it’s Bunting’s blindness or indifference to that which is really peculiar. In order to be so mystified by my intensity, she has to simply ignore or disbelieve the horrors in the book which are explicitly and avowedly done in the name of a god. She has read the book, apparently, since she quotes some bits that she considers ‘strident’ – so she can’t claim that she was unaware of the incidents. To take just one – the one that leads up to the bits she quotes – there is the stoning to death of a 13-year-old girl who said three men had raped her, in Kismayu, Somalia, last October.

A witness told the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme that the girl had been crying, pleading for her life, and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning.

“When she came out she said: ‘What do you want from me?'”

“They said: ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’

“A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.”

The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.

So – in light of the fact that the executioners said ”We will do what Allah has instructed us,’ what exactly is it that Bunting finds peculiar? How would she like people to react to that? Casually? Ironically? Temperately?

I don’t know. I don’t understand Madeleine Bunting. I don’t understand her show of incomprehension. I don’t understand what she’s playing at.

But the most extraordinary claim was “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up”. Really? Surely the “last great prop” is overstating it? Injustice is rife all over the world and much of it makes no reference to religion. Take North Korea: where’s the religion there? Or Burma last autumn: there, religion, in the form of hundreds of Buddhist monks were leading the protests against the rule of the Burmese generals. It was precisely the opposite of what Benson is claiming: religion proved the most effective inspiration to resist arbitrary injustice. And that has been true of many other places in the world – does Benson not study her history books? – how can she make sense of the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Archbishop Desmond Tutu without the religions which inspired them to campaign against arbitrary injustice? I simply don’t understand how someone can claim to be a serious philosopher (as Benson does) and who writes books on subjects such as Why the truth matters can make such preposterous statements.

It would help if she had kept in mind the sentences that immediately precede the one she quotes –

It is true, of course, that sometimes good things are done in the name of religion. There were religious motivations for opposing the slave trade (although that required ignoring many instructions in the Bible, New Testament as well as Old), and no doubt people get something out of going to church once in a while…Nevertheless, religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up.

In other words we make exactly the point she accuses me (us) of failing to make immediately before the passage she takes exception to. I simply can’t understand how someone can claim to be whatever it is that Bunting claims to be and still distort a quotation in such a flagrant manner. I especially can’t understand how someone can do that in the process of defending the indefensible.

She misunderstands what is being claimed in the guilty sentence. It’s the ‘prop and stay’ bit and the ‘arbitrary’ bit. The sentence doesn’t say ‘religion remains the last great example of injustices’ – it says it remains the last great prop and stay of them. The Burmese generals don’t have any such prop and stay; all they have is naked power. North Korea has a kind of ghost of Marxism, but it doesn’t convince anyone. Religion convinces people. That’s the difference. The book is full of reeking examples of people convinced by religion that it is okay for them to do horrible things. Bunting should re-read the story of Rand Abdel-Qader.

Are religions corrupted by their patriarchal history – yes of course, as I’ve written on this site before. Does much of that patriarchy still survive – yes, in many places but in many others it is being challenged. Does it sometimes become misogyny – yes. So there is much common ground between Benson and I. It’s just that I would argue that the root of this problem is men – and they have used religious traditions to restrict the freedom of women.

Yes…that is rather the point. I won’t say more, since Bunting’s failure to get the point is obvious enough. (I will say it should be ‘between Benson and me’ though.)

In the debate, Benson didn’t sound as hysterical as her prose but it’s odd listening to someone who has created a caricature of religion and then pours her scorn on it. She talks about the nature of God a lot with a confidence that is bizarre – as if she had inside knowledge yet she is an atheist so all she is really talking about is her image, her understanding of God. And this is where I heartily agree with her final sentence “That is the God who hates women. That God has to go”. Hear, hear Benson.

I didn’t, actually. I don’t (of course) think ‘God’ has a nature. What I talked about was the fact that God is not available or accountable and that therefore God’s laws are fundamentally arbitrary in a way that secular laws are not. This isn’t my image or understanding of God – when’s the last time the pope reported God chatting with him about the new encyclical?

There’s another, less substantive aspect to this. Bunting in general presents herself, I think it’s fair to say, as a consciously ‘nice’ gentle ‘feminine’ kind of person – but in practice, at least in this case, she’s been strikingly aggressive. At one point on Night Waves she interrupted me in the middle of a sentence and the middle of a thought – when she had already done a lot more talking than I had, and Rana had cued me to go ahead, and I fairly obviously had a point I wanted to make – and she didn’t just say one thing and then let me go on, she simply grabbed the conversation away from me and kept on talking. I could have followed suit, but I hate shouting heads discussions; I’m willing to break in during pauses, but I’m not willing to cut people off in the middle of a sentence. But Bunting is – despite the sweetly girly voice and despite the conspicuous Christianity, she’s perfectly willing to cut people off. And she’s also willing to use quite strong language. ‘Strident…preposterous…crudeness and lack of insight…profoundly intellectually dishonest…hysterical…bizarre.’

I find that interesting.

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