Review — Jihadists And Televangelists

It’s the most pernicious religious conflict of our lifetime. I refer of course to the Irish troubles. Violence between Catholics and Protestants lasted 38 years and left 3,300 dead. I knew Canadian Catholics whose families were generous donors to Sinn Féin, political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Today they’d call it “terrorist financing”.

In Canada, still 43 percent Catholic, nobody asked: do Catholics have a predilection for violence? Nobody devoted call-in radio shows to Catholic customs — how we treat women, or claim to drink Christ’s blood every Sunday. Our understanding of Catholicism and the Irish was more nuanced than that.

In Canada, only 3 percent Muslim, all nuances went out the window after 9/11. As Judge Vic Toews, former public safety minister, used to say: ‘You are either with us, or with them.’

Are we incapable of any fresh, subtle discourse on religion and conflict? Professor Phil Ryan tries. After The New Atheist Debate is a lively primer on the “warring camps” of the 9/11 era, as Ryan puts it: atheists who point to religion as evidence of the dangerous simple-mindedness of spiritualism, and Christians who point to atheists as argumentative degenerates.

The world is “a messy place in which a cacophony of norms competes for our attention”, Debate concludes. Prof. Ryan, of Carleton University’s School of Public Policy, is a talented author. He writes with humour and subtlety.

“It is too simple to claim that wild-eyed jihadists and corrupt televangelists are responsible for all that ails religion,” Ryan notes. “The German clergy who managed to make their peace with Nazism were neither fundamentalists nor Muslims. Nor were the Chilean bishops who thanked Pinochet for responding to a ‘wish of the majority’ by overthrowing a democratically-elected government, or the Argentine bishops who accepted the naming of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an honorary ‘captain general’ of the armed forces.”

Ryan writes, “Evil does not require religion. It does not even require unreason.”

Debate is timely. It arrives as Canadians are told there is something wrong with Muslims; that Islamic youth are a hair-trigger away from depravity; that on the list of suspected money launderers and terrorist financiers, Mississauga realtors with four-syllable names are right on top.

The result is a caricature of religion, Ryan writes: “believers are violent and intolerant”; “believers are not terribly bright”; “believers are dishonest”; “nonbelievers are absolutely open-minded”, though “the atheist is also morally adrift.”

Debate is no defence of Islam; Ryan himself is a Christian, and Debate cites no evidence that atheism is on the march. Some 4.9 million Canadians have no religious affiliation, and 1 in 3 tell Census takers they’ve never attended a religious service of any kind – but a good number of these would be Christmas Catholics, those people with a mild faith in “goodness” who just can’t be bothered.

Yes, religion can be warped to justify barbarity, writes Prof. Ryan. But so can economics or art or sports.  “We must acknowledge that neither religion, nor science, nor the zeitgeist, nor knowledge of our own mortality; nor ‘innate human solidarity’, nor, I believe, anything else that might occur to the reader, can provide us with a shared ethical foundation,” Ryan explains.

Some people go to temple, and some people don’t. This is a lovely book.

By Tom Korski

After The New Atheist Debate, by Phil Ryan; University of Toronto Press; 196 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-26874; $22.95

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