The author of Does Religion do More Harm Than Good? talks to Greg Daly
In a way, Rupert Shortt admits, the central question posed by his new book Does Religion Do More Harm than Good? Is a ridiculous one. As has been pointed out, he says, religion is an aspect of culture, and it shouldn’t be hard to see the futility of asking a similar question about culture in general. This struck Shortt as a crucial insight, because religion can’t really be isolated from culture.
“We’re always being reminded – as with Brexit – that it’s not like leaving a golf club, it’s more like trying to remove the egg from the omelette,” he tells The Irish Catholic. Asking what society would look like without religion is, he says, “a counter-factual speculation too far; it’s too deeply interwoven into the fabric of human culture”.
Born and raised in Spain by Anglo-Irish parents, Mr Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the author of a range of books including Rowan’s Rule, a 2009 biography of Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury which gave Shortt what he calls his “five seconds of fame” when it prominently appeared as the bedtime reading of Tom Hollander’s beleaguered vicar Adam Smallbone in the hit BBC sitcom Rev.
Dr Williams in turn wrote effusively in praise of God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, Mr Shortt’s 2016 riposte to the so-called ‘New Atheists’, which the author describes as him “trying to explain in 100 pages how you can be philosophically and scientifically literate and still go to Church without leaving your brain at the door”.
Does Religion Do More Harm than Good? was originally planned a part of a series of – in effect – long pamphlets on various religious themes by a range of writers, but it ran slightly overlong and was published instead as a freestanding book, opening with an impressively astute and somewhat inflammatory observation.
“The world swarms with self-appointed experts on religion,” it opens. “A leading sociologist such as David Martin has noted that few matters are as heatedly debated – and pronounced on at a moment’s notice – as the relationship between faith and culture.”
Shots fired, one might say, yet Mr Shortt goes on to wheel out a litany of familiar responses to the question before pointing out that the question is, if not a futile one, at least one that’s difficult to properly engage with. Even defining religion can be tricky, of course.
“This is looking at mainstream sociology of religion,” Mr Shortt says. “Practitioners there would remind us that human beings don’t merely investigate the naturalistic world at a scientific level; we also seek to make sense of our lives via all sorts of evolutionary adaptations, agriculture, dance, literature, that have emerged from animal play, animal empathy, ritual and myth during the long history of tribal societies without much sense of a beyond, through supernatural king-god monarchies, to more recent societies with their religions of value transcending the great givens of existence.”
Whatever else religion may be, it is of course a human practice, and as such is as open to abuse as any other human practice – everything from medicine to art can be put to nefarious ends, after all. Often, Mr Shortt says, religion can be wrongly identified as having been the cause of atrocities. He cites the example of the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s.
“That has been cast in religious terms, but somebody like Milosevic wasn’t motivated by religion – he was a former communist apparatchik who for reasons of political expediency draped himself in the mantle of Orthodoxy,” he says.
“So often, although it’s really easy to blame this or that conflict on religion,” he continues, “where what we’re really looking at is a complicated tangle of social, political, ethnic, linguistic factors, and religion is just one more badge of identity which of course can be put to evil use as well as good.”
Isn’t this a kind of special pleading, though, where religious people are happy to take credit for good deeds done in the name of religion, but will rationalise away wicked ones supposedly motivated by faith?
“I hope I don’t do that, because there’s a huge amount in this book about toxic religion,” Mr Shortt replied. “I do not doubt for a millisecond that Paschal is entirely right in saying that men never commit evil with so much enthusiasm as when they are acting in the name of God. That is obviously true, and if you look around the world at the moment there is obviously a particular problem with violent Islamism.”
Part of the problem with how people can sometimes see religion as – overall – a force for harm is down to the way news is reported, Mr Shortt says.
“I am a journalist – I know a thing or two about the corruptions of my trade – and there is something about bad events that make them by definition more newsworthy than good events,” he says. “A plane exploding is news, a huge rail crash is news. The fact that thousands upon thousands of trains reach their destinations on time without the slightest problems for any of the passengers is not news. A volcano erupting is news, but underground streams supplying irrigation and livelihoods for large numbers of people across the generations is not news.”
News favours not just bad events, but unusual events, of course, as famously codified in how ‘dog bites man’ isn’t news, but ‘man bites dog’ is, and Mr Shortt says these tendencies to favour the unusual and the appalling do distort our understandings.
“I think that very much applies in the religion sphere,” he says. “When somebody blows themselves up screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’, obviously that’s on the front page the next day. When the mosque or the church across a huge belt of the world is the hub for the distribution of aid, medicine, and education for vast numbers of people, that is overlooked.”
It wouldn’t be hard to point to how Catholicism is reported upon in Ireland’s media as an example of this, of course, but as an example of this which most Irish Catholics would probably be utterly unfamiliar with, he cites the example of the growth of Pentecostal Christianity.
“I think a very, very concrete example of that would be something like Pentecostalism, which has been called the Christian counterpart to Islamic revivalism,” he says. “Now that has spread like wildfire and it claims the allegiance of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
“Honeycombing around the edge of the global megacity you have got thousands upon thousands of very democratic lay-led Christian communities in which women assume positions of leadership and men are forsaking promiscuity and the bottle etc.
“Whatever the truth or otherwise of the claims of Pentecostalism, the social capital generated by that Christian movement among many others is vast,” he says. “Does the western media want to know about that? Of course it doesn’t, because among other things they are resolutely non-violent. They’re just getting on with it.”
None of these changes the fact that religion can be put to hugely corrupt use, he stresses, pointing out that his latest book takes in the likes of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as Christianity and Islam, but the fact remains that despite the best efforts of 20th-Century totalitarian states and the ‘new atheists’ of the 21st Century, religion isn’t going away.
“We appear to be moving into what have been called post-secular times,” he says. “There might be fewer bums on seats at Mass in Ireland and the UK, but in the world as a whole Christianity and Islam are both growing strongly, so given that there isn’t the slightest prospect that religion is just going to fade away, we might as well try to accentuate the positive and the ways in which religion can provide the antidote to its own poison.”
This is the sort of thing that British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says to great effect in his 2011 book The Great Partnership, where he maintains that the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, and Mr Shortt is convinced that Islam, every bit as much as Christianity, is capable of tackling its own more dangerous manifestations.
“In the same way that Christians wouldn’t read every verse of the Old Testament literalistically, and indeed Jews don’t either, especially those passages that represent God as bloodthirsty and vengeful, there arose within Islam quite a sophisticated tradition of interpretation whereby a distinction was drawn between verses that were considered relevant for all time and other verses that were considered context-specific,” he says.
“The problem with violent Islamism in a way isn’t that it’s too Islamic, but that it isn’t Islamic enough because it’s leapfrogging centuries of tradition in the same way that – I don’t know – reconstructionist Protestants in America who perhaps want the Ten Commandments to be enacted in statute and want you to be sent to prison if you commit adultery or whatever, those fundamentalists like-wise leapfrog over the fact that classical Christianity developed very sophisticated mechanisms for reading the Bible in context,” he continues.
“The trouble with contemporary Islamism is that it’s as though the Southern Baptists in America had suddenly found that they were sitting on the world’s largest supplies of oil, that overnight they’d become colossally wealthy, and were in a position to export their version of Christianity across the whole world.”
Admitting that this analogy doesn’t quite work, for historical and other reasons, he nonetheless maintains that it helps explain what has happened with Islam in recent times.
“The Islamic world has been shaken to its foundations in the 20th Century with all the invasions by western powers and what have you,” he says, “and Saudi Arabia has stepped into the breach and provided what I would see as a rather questionable strand of the faith which has been exported here, there, and everywhere, and other forms of Islam have been marginalised. That’s the sadness of it for me.”
So if good religion is the key to tackling bad religion, how then can we define and identify good religion?
“I think it needs to be self-critical,” he says. “I say at the end that conviction and dogmatism are not the same. There’s a difference between having seen some truth and claiming to speak in the name of all truth, between knowing what one believes and refusing to respect the beliefs and experiences of others.”
In this Mr Shortt appears to be echoing G.K. Chesterton’s line that while it is not bigotry to be certain that we are right, it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong, and it seems he thinks that a suitably self-critical conviction can be invaluable in dealing with people of other creeds.
“I suggest that people of faith can speak with a humble authority, combining real knowledge with an awareness of the limitations of that knowledge,” he says, adding ruefully: “Heaven knows that that model has hardly been observed in the Christian world at all times.”
The Church reacted very fiercely against the French Revolution, he says as an obvious example. “Catholicism pulled up the drawbridge and adopted a siege mentality for a couple of centuries after the Enlightenment, but it has now recovered a strain of humanism that was always there, albeit dormant. There are the resources there for pluralism.”
Genuine pluralism is, he insists, vital, recommending that anyone with time should take advantage of YouTube to listen to Rowan Williams 2016 lecture on Religious and Civil Liberty at Oxford’s Las Casas Institute, in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the 19th-Century English Catholic historian Lord Acton.
Acton, Mr Shortt says, said “some very prescient things about an era when the State was trying to claim ownership of the consciences of minorities like Catholics”.
“But now I think you could argue that it’s trying to take ownership of the consciences of religious believers and to behave as though the State is the only actor that matters. Religious liberty really matters because it’s a way of keeping in check the potentially totalitarian claims of the State,” he continues. “It’s a subtle and very interesting argument that could sort of reframe the whole way one looks at this situation.”
France is a country where thinking about religious liberty in this way could make a real difference, he says.
“You can see it in what’s been called a rather secular authoritarian atmosphere like contemporary France, where they try to sweep religion out of the public square,” he says. “And what you get then is not some marvellous tolerant neutral space, but rather on the contrary you get groups of rather angry believers consigned to the sidelines, sharing their grievances among themselves without being brought to account, and without being brought to the bar of sort of public debate.”
Banishing religion to the private sphere, as certain hard secularists would try to do, does seem a dangerous game.
“It’s much better,” Mr Shortt says, drawing again on Rowan Williams, “certainly not to have religious groups imposing their views on others, but just to be allowed to voice those larger visions of what the good life consists of, bring them in to the public square and be defeated perhaps by argument but maybe some of the time persuade some of your interlocutors that maybe some of what you’re saying is reasonable.”
The importance of this is really brought home when Mr Shortt explains just how ill-equipped a purely secular morality can be when it comes to tackling serious moral questions.
“When you turn to a topic that rests on some of what have been called ‘thick’ values – rather than ‘thin’ values like tolerance – a strong sense of the dignity of the human person – for instance, where does that come from? Can secularism, by its own resources provide that?”
Most obvious case studies for that kind of discussion tend to evoke strong feelings that cloud our judgment, but taking the kind of example that’s so removed from us that we can discuss it dispassionately, Mr Shortt says it’s hard to define Gladiatorial combat – which didn’t die out until after the adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire’s official religion – as the abomination it surely was without a theological basis.
“If you are a strict secularist, how is it possible to say on purely naturalistic grounds that gladiatorial combat is wrong? I think it’s very, very difficult myself,” he says, adding: “So banish religion, and you may be careful what you wish for.”
Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? by Rupert Shortt is published by SPCK Publishing.