Good Reading : April 2016
GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU GOOD READING APRIL 2016 58 BEHIND THE BOOK 2 insights you get from attentive listening! Over the course of three months, I accumulated more than 100 hours of rich conversational material that I then needed to refine, analyse and interpret. The book, inevitably, was shaped by that material and, although I have disguised the identities of my respondents, their stories figure prominently in Beyond Belief. That’s the way I have always liked to work. Long before I began to write books for the general reader, my research reports were always liberally laced with verbatim quotations from the conversations (conducted either one to one or with small groups) that had generated my raw data. In qualitative research, ‘verbatims’ are the equivalent of statistics in quantitative research: they illustrate and support our conclusions. But Beyond Belief goes well beyond mere reportage. There is plenty of interpretation, reflection and speculation, as well. I explore, for instance, one of the greatest of all the religious conundrums: how can there be such bitter prejudice, conflict and even violence between different sub-groups of the same faith – especially if that faith is supposed to promote peace and love? And another: How can people who dismiss some of the wilder aspects of religious belief as ‘irrational’ then embrace astrology and superstition? And why are we so ready to accept – and to teach our children – the value of myths about Santa Claus, King Arthur or the legendary Greek heroes, while dismissing the central myths of the Christian tradition (like miracles, resurrection and virgin birth) as pointless or, just as unwisely, treating them as if they are literally and histor ically true? Beyond Belief begins with these words: ‘Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the human mind in its quest for answers.’ Reason supplies some of those answers for some people; faith does it for others. In both cases, plenty of imagination is called for – and that’s another thing that struck me in wr iting the book: since God is a work of the imagination, it’s no wonder we have so much trouble agreeing about what we mean when we say the word. It’s tempting to say that morality – a code of ethics – lies at the heart of all religions, and most non-religious Australians would say they broadly agree with ‘Christian ethics’.Yet when you take a clear-eyed look at the teachings of Jesus and many other sources of ancient wisdom, you find they are not about ‘being good’ in a simple, moral sense. That’s because there’s nothing remarkable about ‘being good’: it is actually the default position for a species of social beings like ours. For our very survival, we need to respect each other, live co-operatively, and nurture and sustain the communities that nurture and sustain us. But beyond morality, there are some very attractive, rather noble possibilities we can aspire to, with or without religion. So the book concludes with a chapter that asks: what dreams of a better world can we all dream? The breakthrough comes when we realise that commitment to a life of kindness and compassion can take us – and our society – to a whole new level of existence and fulfilment. It’s that beautiful prospect that lies beyond the boundaries and strictures of dogmatic belief, and it’s that same prospect that drove me to write the book. Hugh Mackay’s new book, Beyond Belief, will be published on 26 April by Macmillan Australia, rrp $32.99. ... almost 90 per cent of non-churchgoers say they like having a church in their local suburb ...