Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Of Tony and Terry

As I said a post or two back, some time ago Nato told me I ought to read ‘Islam in Our Backyard’, by Tony Payne.

Which I did. The book is only small, and is a reasonable introduction to Islam coupled with a fairly standard evangelical Christian apologia. Like the Pope’s Regensburg speech, the real target of ‘Islam in Our Backyard’ is not Islam or Muslims, but the lazy cultural relativism that says one religion is as good as another- meaning, one religion is as bad as another.

The main recommendation of the book is simply that religious topics should not be placed off-limits for discussion: Islam makes claims that are either true or false, and these claims should be allowed to fend for themselves in the great marketplace of ideas. Tony is confident that in this marketplace other ideas will be able to compete effectively with Islam, but the examples he chooses to illustrate the conflict between his own ideology and Islam are curiously unconvincing.

Exhibit 1: Tony says that Islam claims that God is both All Just and All Merciful, and that when pressed to explain how this can be, can only reply that it is a mystery. He finds this unsatisfactory. Tony contrasts this with Christianity, in which the perfect justice and prefect mercy of God are reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ. This is doubtless satisfactory to someone steeped in Tony’s ideology from birth, but to outsiders I am sure it will fall rather flat. After all, if you were to ask me to explain how Jesus Christ reconciles the perfect justice and perfect mercy of God, I would have to say- based on extensive reading of Christian theology over a few decades- that it was, er, a mystery.

Exhibit 2: Tony points out that Islam and Christianity cannot both be true because of their conflicting claims about the historical Jesus. Islam says that he was not really crucified, but that his followers snuck him away and that another man was crucifed in his place. Christianity says that he was crucified, died and was buried, but rose again on the third day. Now, it is easy for me to make the imaginative leap to put myself in the shoes of the average irreligious man or woman in the street, and ask: which of these two scenarios is intrinsically more plausible? Hmmm?

Exhibit 3: There is no exhibit three! These are basically the only two instances in the book- which is rather too short- where Tony explicitly contrasts the claims of Islam and Christianity.

It appears to me, then, that Tony might almost be an agent provocateur for Islam, advancing deliberately poor arguments for Christianity. In this he is similar- though he appears to be a very much nicer chap- to Terry Eagleton, a soppily left-wing literary critic who has attempted a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’.

Look at the sentence where Terry metaphorically stabs his allies in the back:

Dawkins’s Supreme Being is the God of those who seek to avert divine wrath by sacrificing animals, being choosy in their diet and being impeccably well behaved. They cannot accept the scandal that God loves them just as they are, in all their moral shabbiness. This is one reason St Paul remarks that the law is cursed.

So limited by the horizons of his own narrow culture is Terry that he cannot imagine any other interpretation of the personal relationship ‘master:servant’ but ‘bully:victim’. Terry isn’t really defending God at all. He is defending his God. He is tacitly assuming that Dawkins is perfectly right about the God worshipped by all those towelheads and rednecks.1 In the guise of defending religion, he is acting as an agent provocateur for atheism, attacking every religion but his own- like in the old truism about atheists merely having to go around gathering up all the arguments religions have already made to tear each other down.

I intend to attempt a rebuttal of Dawkins myself, of course, when his book gets in at the library, but I will accept the record of the Abrahamic religions warts and all, and proudly stand beside Osama bin Laden and John Calvin in opposition to Richard Dawkins.

1: Elsewhere, Terry has had a startlingly nasty go at the late Pope.


Anonymous said...

On reflection, I think the word 'proudly' was a bit over the top. Following my longstanding policy, I'm not going to go back in and remove it now, though. Adverbs, bah! I hates 'em.

Marco said...

I can't wait for the rebuttal. I flipped randomly to read pages here and there when my father proudly brandished the book. The self-righteous and triumphalist tone of the bits I observed meant I could not have read more than a few pages without feeling I had to burn it.