Towards Better Disagreement

Religion and Atheism in Dialogue

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Paul Hedges
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    Jessica Kingsley Publishing, Ltd.
    , September
     2016.
     200 pages.
     $14.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781785920578.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul Hedges’ Towards Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue offers very much what one would expect from his title—namely, an attempt to sift through debates and conflicts between religion and atheism, and in the process, show how rancour is not only the product of distortion and caricature, but that it is ultimately unnecessary. 

Towards Better Disagreement is broken up into eight chapters, and approaches its subject “agnostically,” while focusing mainly on Christian and atheist claims from the Enlightenment to the present, with Anglo-American philosophy of religion serving as the primary methodological lens (9). Some treatment of Islam and Buddhism are considered, with mention of other traditions here and there. Hedges’ does not include footnotes since the book “is not primarily academic in nature” (10), and instead, offers suggestions for “Further Reading” at the end. 

Chapter 1, entitled “Setting Debates in Context” attempts to historicize science vs. religion debates in order to show that the binary distinctions between these categories are modern inventions, and that “religious belief is not a special realm that should be treated differently” (33). Examples include certain Hindu schools of thought (21), the Confucian philosophy of Xunzi, which tends toward the atheist spectrum (24), and how Christian conceptions of morality and science were not separated from natural philosophy until the modern period (26).

Chapter 2 introduces readers to hermeneutics and “the way humans use books and sources of authority” (36), attempting to show that methods of interpretation change over time and are contingent upon the interests of those doing the interpreting. Here, Hedges turns to Mahatma Ghandi’s well-known reading of the Bhagavad Gita (1946), and to Origen’s Christian hermeneutics in order to highlight the idea that all readings are “acts of interpretation by a community” (40). Crucially, this includes atheist communities, which often exalt figures like Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins, despite denying them any supernatural attribution (50). 

Chapter 3 continues with questions of Christian origins, introducing the concept of the “historical Jesus” (58), while also touching upon the historical Buddha (62-67), and the well-worn controversy over whether Muhammad was a warmonger and a paedophile (68).

Chapter 4 takes a different tact by introducing readers to a variety of concepts, including monotheism, polytheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, non-theism, and atheism-agnosticism. The remainder of the chapter addresses such topics as the “Ontological Argument” (79), religious experience (81), and the problem of evil (83), ending with a discussion on uses of the term spirituality (93).

Chapter 5 tackles the question of religious violence and how it is used by atheists like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne as a case against religion. Chapter 6 turns to the question of gender and religion, with an emphasis on Islam, while chapter 7 returns to science and religion debates, with a particular emphasis on the claims of atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (154-59). The final chapter, “Living in a Religiously Diverse, Post-Christian and Post-Secular World,” stresses the inevitable diversity and diffusion of beliefs, citing the proliferation of “new religious movements” (169), while making the case that compassion is one concept that can be seen in all traditions, including atheist humanism. 

All in all, Hedges book is clear and well written, with useful “boxes” in each chapter that help to contextualize various concepts (e.g., Ockham’s Razor), controversies (the historical Jesus), and perennial philosophical questions (can you have morality without God?). Ultimately, however, this book does not offer anything new to these arguments. Moreover, Hedges tries to have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too by claiming to ground his arguments in “a fact-based academic account” (180) that contextualizes “religion” [Hedges often puts this term in brackets to highlight its contingent nature], while at the same time leaning toward liberal interpretations of certain theologies that belie this more academic aim. 

Despite his laudable interest in promoting a “better disagreement,” Hedges consistently cautions his readers against essentializing religious ideas and identities, while falling into this very trap on several occasions, as when he argues that “it is fair to say that the answer as to why religious people go to war, or religion is invoked for violent purposes, is basically summed up by one word: politics” (104). This, to my understanding, is the definition of essentialism—claiming that religion is a separate and distinct realm that can be parsed-out from such quotidian affairs as “politics.” While Hedges does provide some useful analysis of Christian origins, and relies on careful distinctions in order to show the unfamiliar reader that biblical claims rest on very shaky historical ground, he occasionally slips into unsubstantiated claims, such as when he notes that the Buddha died of food poisoning and “very likely” espoused the Four Noble Truths (62). 

Ultimately, Hedges leans toward liberal scriptural interpretations as his preferred way forward, and offers little engagement with scholarship on atheism (e.g., the recent and important work by Peter Harrison, Tim Whitmarsh, and Stephen LeDrew), instead settling on a basic overview of the usual suspects (e.g., Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche) rather than continuing with the scholarly tradition laid out by Samuel Preus in Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (Oxford University Press, 1996). 

While there is, of course, nothing wrong with engaging in interreligious dialogue or advocating for a particular theological position, by blending a soft form of contextualism with apologetics, Hedges falls short of offering anything new that could be engaged with beyond a variation of the world religions paradigm. 

To end with a positive suggestion, I was intrigued by the following statement: “[l]iberal or progressive theologies are in accord with the way religions have always adapted to changing cultural and scientific world views. This history of religions shows us that this is the constant pattern” (178). In my opinion, this premise would make for a much more interesting book than the standard overview that Hedges applies. Hedges clearly has the chops and writing ability to take on this task, and if there’s a nudge to the author here it would be to spend his talents and energies on something novel like this rather than updating old terrain. 

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matt Sheedy is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of North American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. 

Date of Review: 
September 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Hedges is associate professor in Interreligious Studies at the Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Keywords: 

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