Terry Lane prefaces his book with a warning and a plea, and it is only fair to repeat them here: the contents of his book, and therefore of my review, may disturb those who are content with their deeply held Christianity. That was not his wish, nor is it mine, and we would ask such people not to continue.
Lane is widely known in Australia as a radio interviewer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Once casually asked whom he would most like to interview, he said, 'God.' The idea took root and this book grew from it.
The God who turns up for Terry Lane’s interview is God the Creator, not (and He explicitly rejects the role) God the Father. He set everything going, or words to that effect, but now does not intervene in any way – no prayers answered, no miracles carried out, no babies rescued from earthquakes, no instructions (aka 'divine guidance' or 'revelation') issued to prophets, religious leaders or politicians – because, as He explains at some length, divine intervention is logically incompatible with divine morality. He looks on with interest as we go about our daily lives and is pleased when we do kind and sensible things, disappointed when we do cruel and stupid things, and affronted when we do violence or evil in His name.
Jesus? Neither more nor less God's son than anyone else. He did have lots of good things to say but was treated abominably for saying them and, to add insult to injury, has been systematically misrepresented ever since. And, by the way, the miracles attributed to him (including that miraculous birth) make his message less, not more, plausible.
The church? Entirely a human invention. God doesn't like it at all because it has instigated or encouraged so much that is evil in our in history, from the Albigensian crusade to official support for Hitler, and has (falsely, of course, in the light of his non-intervention) claimed to act on His direct authority all the way.
Death, the Devil, miracles, abortion and other issues are discussed in a similarly forthright manner. Religion as an inherently dangerous and divisive force in political life is a recurring theme. 'As long as there are religions,' God says, 'there will be wars of religion.'
Lane says that his intention in the first edition of God: the Interview in 1993 was simply to make his own religious position clear in response to listeners' questions. His position then was tolerant secular rationalism but it has gradually changed: an indulgent tolerance towards religious faith, which seemed reasonable enough ten years ago, has looked increasingly unwise to him as Islam, Christianity and Judaism have become ever more radicalised. This new edition reads as a sustained attack on religion in general and the Christian church in particular. 'Religious belief is illogical and churches are dangerous to society,' might be a fair one-sentence summary.
The subject, then, is religion, not God, and that subtly undermines the formal structure of his book.
As a radio interviewer, Lane is highly professional and takes care to let the interviewee speak for himself. However, casting an attack on religion in the form of an interview with a God who refuses any responsibility for religion forces 'interviewer' and 'guest' to spend most of their time on the interviewer's preoccupations rather than the guest's unique knowledge and experiences. That failing is exacerbated by the fact that 'God' sounds so much like 'Terry Lane' (both deserve quotation marks in this context) that the liveliness of genuine dialogue sometimes disappears.
'God' and 'Terry Lane' are both rationalists, so the framework of the discussion favours rationalism over faith, but the historical content is also unbalanced because neither 'speaker' tries to find evidence in favour of religion. Lane presents much that is unfavourable to the church but little that is positive. The church-run charities of today get barely a mention; neither do the good deeds of individual Christians or the art-works created as acts of worship. His evident bias weakens his case somewhat but does not invalidate it.
The conversational form does allow Lane to write entertainingly and lucidly about important and potentially disturbing topics which concern him and should, he feels, concern all of us. It is essential for the well-being of the whole world, he argues, that 'rational atheism becomes the dominant belief system.' The fundamental obstacle to its acceptance lurks, apparently unnoticed, in his own phrase: a 'belief system' is, by its nature, not readily amenable to change through rational argument.
ABC Books, second edition, 2004
Review added December 2006
(written 2005, unpublished elsewhere)
Page updated May 2008