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  • A Muslim, a Buddhist, a Catholic and two atheists walked into the ABC

A Muslim, a Buddhist, a Catholic and two atheists walked into the ABC


Josh Thomas and Archbishop Mark Coleridge on the Q&A panelMany must have wondered if it was an April Fools joke. Could the ABC really be planning to broadcast an episode of Q&A worth watching? One without a single pompous pundit or partisan politician? Were we really going to discuss topics relevant to here and the hereafter instead of gasbagging about taxes, polls and overseas conflicts?

It certainly was the case. Even the audience composition at this week's Q&A was presented not as ALP or Coalition voters but as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Atheist.

The great thing about having a discussion about religion without politicians is that so many of our politicians love to preach about Judeo-Christian values. We get told that asylum seekers aren't very Christian, as if Jesus and his mum should have waited in the queue instead of rushing to Egypt illegally to escape Herod.

And why limit ourselves to Judeo-Christian values when the fastest growing faith in Australia is Buddhism? It seems our pollies only embrace religion when they think it gets them votes.

But the members of this week's panel didn't need anyone's votes. They were interested in ideas of faith and love. And what a cryptic bunch they were.

Judaism was represented by Deborah Conway (the atheist lead singer of an '80s rock group), Islam by Dr Mohamad Abdalla (a Brisbane academic sporting a beard and skullcap, perhaps unconsciously representing the rabbis as well), Buddhism by Robina Courtin (an Aussie Tibetan nun), atheism by Josh Thomas (a hipster comedian) and Christianity by Archbishop Mark Coleridge (a Catholic archbishop with no dog collar).

There were some intriguing insights to be gained. Apparently Buddhism is an advanced form of atheism. Courtin said the idea of a creator is superfluous. If anything, we are our own creators. Clearly I didn't do a very good job.

Despite the presence of two atheists, religion dominated the debate, perhaps because the most articulate spokesperson for atheism was herself representing a faith. Conway spoke with real passion and feeling about celebrating Jewish festivals, about Jewish music and about how much she loved Jewish food. I agree with her. Kosher salami beats the halal equivalent hands down.

The high point of Thomas's contribution was when he addressed religion in the public square. He spoke of the Catholic and other Christian churches making 'some pretty odd choices' in the past. He then told viewers how angry it makes him when religious lobbies try and push their values on 'us'.

I too get peeved each time some horny Muslim moron calls for the decriminalisation of polygamy. But the fact is that each and every legislative, regulatory and policy decision of government represents an imposition.

Thomas cited the Australian Christian Lobby, hardly a body representative of Christians. Yet the ACL has every right to lobby decision makers and pretend it has influence, just as do think tanks (left and right), newspapers, media moguls, chambers of commerce and the odd contributor to Eureka Street.

That phrase Judeo-Christian makes me sick. White Western Protestants have been running the show since 1788. The notion that Judaism played a key role in the development of Western and Australian culture is strange considering it's only in the last 60 years that Western Christendom has faced up to the reality of anti-Semitism.

It disturbed me that Conway didn't point this out, and that Abdalla took it for granted that Judeo-Christian values were somehow separate to Muslim values.

It's always fun to hear religious folk talk about sex. There was a difficult discussion however about institutional child abuse, with Thomas claiming (in my opinion correctly) that churches have tried to actively hide perpetrators. But it hasn't just been churches involved in all this. Conway would be aware of incidents in Jewish institutions, with high profile victims such as Manny Waks coming forward to make serious allegations against religious elders.

I'll end with a few words on a topic that deserves many thousands. A Muslim youth worker asked if homosexuality was an Achilles heel for Christian and Muslim congregations. Many Catholics must have been slapping their foreheads when Coleridge said homosexuality represented a glitch in God's creation, or something like that.

Abdalla said being gay doesn't take you out of the faith. We should show mercy to gay people. Yes, thanks for that. Please tell that to your colleagues on the Australian National Imams Council, and to a number of prominent Muslim psychologists who preach the notion that homosexuality is a disease which can be cured.

Anyway, enough cynicism from me. I have to go and download some Deborah Conway songs.


Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, ABC, Q&A, Robina Courtin, Mark Coleridge, Josh Thomas, Islam, Deborah Conway



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Existing comments

I watched this particular Q&A offering with a mixture of bemusement, amusement and abashment (in no particular order). I thought the Imam Abdalla was well-spoken (if a little intense) and the tweets appearing at the bottom of the screen about him were mostly complimentary. Deborah Conway's almost as impressive as her music and I liked her down-to-earth approach. The atheist comedian Thomas seemed overwhelmed (with annoyance and acerbity) by his neighbour, the jolly Coleridge. I was too much taken with Thomas' hairstyle to drag my attention to his words but he did speak with some intensity (and sense) about his worldview. Coleridge started off ok but even without the dog-collar his dogma shone through, especially when 'discussing' homosexuality. And what to say of Courtin, the fast-talking Buddhist - I had to concentrate really hard just to keep up, phew. I really think it's better entertainment to stay as an odd contributor to Eureka St where I have profound, or should I say pretend, influence!

Pam | 02 April 2013  

What on earth does anti-Semitism have to do with anything? Being against Israeli apartheid is nothing to do with being an anti-Semite, a word kidnapped by jews.

Marilyn | 02 April 2013  

Does anyone agree that Tony Jones should be told by his ABC superiors that he should make a serious effort to somewhat mask his aggressive aethistic leanings .Did he not give his leprecorn comedian mate a considerable number of free kicks ? It seems to me he often slips out of his role as host to become a panel member .

john kersh | 02 April 2013  

It was a Zen joke Irfan and quite an enlightening one at that. Which is, paradoxically, why Zen jokes can be seen as "deadly serious" and need to be intuited rather than understood. I'm not sure if all its viewers understood the points made. Including at least one commentator on your article. You raise (obliquely) but leave unanswered the point as to whether or not there are basic Judaeo-Christian-Islamic (I hate the buzz word "Abrahamic") beliefs-in-common. I think Sheikh Abdalla would probably answer "Yes". That question is, as they say in Zen, a "real" one. The correct answer may save many lives. Sadly there are many self-elected Muslim spokespeople out there who do not have the depth of understanding someone like Sheikh Abdalla would. This is the time you need intelligent comment from places like Al Azhar rather than the Wahhabi/Deobandi centres of learning in Saudi Arabia and South Asia.

Edward F | 03 April 2013  

Of course the ABC is biased towards Atheism just as it is biased towards Communism. However so was Catholic Archbishop Coleridge. He lacked the courage to put his faiths view on Homosexuality. It took a Muslim man to come closest to a Christian view on Homosexuality. WE need a return to Catholic Bishops who do not give a damn if they offend the Chattering Classes. Without doubt Imam Abdullah was the shining light of the show. It should be remembered that Islam is not anti Semitic. The great majority of Muslims are Semitic.

Andrew Jackson | 03 April 2013  

To be fair, a group of religious people all trying desperately hard not to offend a dubious public is always going to be difficult to watch.

Steve | 03 April 2013  

There are several things worth remarking on here. The first is, how come Muslims are Muslims and Jews are Jews but Christians transmogrify into Catholics? Do Catholics have a problem with being thought of as Christians? Why the sudden distinction? Irfan Yusuf does well to question what is often called the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially as many Jews and Christians themselves have no such understanding of their respective faiths. It is sometimes a term of convenience in public debate, and it is crucial that the religious conversation continue between these two great faith traditions, but it is a mistake really to define Judeo-Christian tradition as an actual movement. Politicians often use the term without really thinking about what it actually means. Deborah Conway and her husband Willy Zygier have been celebrating Jewish culture for years, which is great, but the idea that they represent orthodox Judaism is just nonsense really. To be Jewish does not necessarily mean you practise the religion or even believe any of it much, which is why it’s probably a mistake to ask Deborah to speak authoritatively on such a panel. Like Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, Judaism is richly cultural: to complain about Jewish cooking is a bit like protesting against motherhood. Irfan needs to broaden his knowledge of Australian religious history. Judaism and Islam have been part of Australian religious life from early on in the European phase, though of course minorities beside the majority Anglo-Celtic Christianity. And of course Christianity comes out of Judaism. Last, I must agree with the critics of Tony Jones. He has become an embarrassment. Not content to let experts explain things better than he can, he seems always to want to have the last word and he shows his colours in every panel discussion. He fails to grasp that he is insulting his guests and all intelligent viewers with his intrusions and dismissals.

TV EYE | 03 April 2013  

The term Judo-Christianity does not refer to some harmonious political entity or tradition but aptly refers to the Christian integration of 'The scriptures of the Hebrews' into the Old Testament. Obviously this part of the bible was written prior to Jesus Christ's presence on earth with the Christian 'New Testament' and ensuing religion developed after his death...making his true purpose ambiguous. But again this is where the notion of orthodox tradition falls apart for me...Many of the stories, myths and legends of the Bible stem from Judaism, which owes much of its lore to Egyptology which in turn is based on Sumerian mythology. Not to even mention the appropriation of numerous pagan (Roman, Greek, Phoenician & others) celebrations. And what about someone to represent us Agnostics...we are all too often lumped in with Atheists or merely dismissed as 'undecided' and therefore not informed or opinionated.Philosophically the Agnostic response acknowledges the absolute profound mystery of the universe and the living experience whilst simultaneously refusing to constrain it by human conceptions of 'religion'

JefBaker | 03 April 2013  

Hearty thanks.Your style and content surely hit the mark for me, Irfan...how I long for the day when inspired and key thinkers of all religions promote inter-religious dialogue..which may help to bring us a kinder and more peaceful world.

Pauline Kennedy | 03 April 2013  

I found this episode disappointing, particularly having seen the Opera House debate on church and state last week. It featured A. C. Grayling and Sean Faircloth, both articulate atheists and proponents of secular government. Grayling made the point that 'Judeo-Christian' ethics are, in fact, a product of the Ancient Greeks, incorporated into Christianity during the enlightenment. Prior to that the Christians had some seriously unethical practices. Many would argue they still do. The presence of either would have made Q&A a better program. Perhaps we could have had a serious debate about the strong arguments for secular government; people should be free to practice whatever religion they choose but when it comes to matters of legislation and public policy they should be required to support their decision on ethical grounds and not by citing 'religious differences.' Secular is not the same thing as atheist and comments during Q&A about Christianity under threat did nothing to further this important debate.

Meg McGowan | 03 April 2013  

To Meg McGowan: If A. C. Grayling seriously puts forward the proposition that 'Judeo-Christian' ethics are, in fact, a product of the Ancient Greeks, incorporated into Christianity during the enlightenment, then his grasp of Western ethics is much poorer than would be expected of such an eminent scholar. No one is in any doubt that Hellenistic Christianity of the early Common Era was a creative formation of the Gospel messages, Jewish ethics and the Platonic ideals circulating in the Roman Empire. It was the synthesis of these three major Mediterranean movements that gives us Christianity and the ethical teachings that go with it. A. C. Grayling appears to have a superstitious belief in the manifold benefits of the Enlightenment, such that it blinds him to some simple facts of history. We also have to remember that it is thanks to the Christians and the Muslims that we know so much about the Ancient Greeks, as they were the scholars who transmitted the Greek and Latin texts. A. C. Grayling should be grateful for small mercies. He could also read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity, with its sub-title ‘the first three thousand years’. The first thousand years refers to the millennium before Christ. The author is good on that other movement late in time, the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

PHILIP HARVEY | 03 April 2013  

Good on ya Irfan. British Protestants have run things, but are losing their grip. A lot of the noise in politics relates to that recession. Catholics are no much stronger institutionally and numerically. But the fastest growing faith in Australia is no longer Buddhism, but Hinduism along with Sikhism due to recent migration from South Asia. With the rise of those declaring 'no religion' Australia has become both more and less religious at the same time. Hang on the ride is likely to be a bit bumpy.

Gary Bouma | 03 April 2013  

I perceive Q&A as an unfortunate meld of serious discussion and show biz (I usually reconfigure my TV format to rid myself of the distracting, irrelevant and often stupid "Tweets"), hence the frequent casting of a panel member who can be prevailed upon to sing a song for the play out credits, which might explain Ms Conway's multi talented presence. I was very impressed by Imam Dr. Mohammad Abdalla's contribution as many in the studio audience (and many Tweets, I forgot to exclude them this time) appeared to be. I imagine that both of these groups are selective due to space and time constraints, but I hope that many viewers in the wider audience have come away with a better idea of Islam in Australia, as well as can be conveyed in part of an hour on television.

Ross Chambers | 03 April 2013  

Thorough enjoyable viewing, though the Muslim representative stole the show as someone who was articulate, educated, moderate, and well-versed in his faith. Though one may not agree with all the teachings of Islam, one had to praise his even-handed, though unequivocal, description of Islam's ethical teachings. Archbishop Coleridge unfortunately has become a bit of a media-tart. I think that he offended many viewers with his rather uninformed views on gays as a "glitch in god's creation." What in heaven possessed him to make such a derogatory and hurtful statement? Overall he danced around the issue of celibacy and sexuality and left many viewers rather confused about what he actually meant. The Buddhist seemed to be representing her views on Buddhism rather than the teachings of Buddha or the Buddhist tradition. She made no distinction between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions - and seemed somewhat out of depth in responding to set questions. Josh Thomas's hair-do stole the show... as a fashion statement. However, his best perspective only began to emerge when he questioned Coleridge on issues of abuse within the Catholic Church. The Jewish atheist made a massive contribution by distinguishing between Jewish cultural traditions and Jewish religious beliefs. A very positive presence. Tony Jones is a fun-"compare" - I don't think that severe criticism of him is justified. he does his best, and I actually like the fact that he is not afraid to give his own views on the program. Why shouldn't he? He may not be the best "moderator" but he does add a perspective that is often refreshing.

Yuri Koszarycz | 03 April 2013  

We might all do well to realise that Q&A is not a serious commentary that should mould our thinking or serve as an important educator. It is entertainment, sometimes missing the mark, but time-slotted late on Monday night when there is bugger all else to entertain on the box.

john frawley | 03 April 2013  

Thanks John Frawley, but for many viewers Q&A is the only encounter they might have with some of these debates. Q&A, let’s face it, treads a fine line between serious and flippant, informative and ignorant. Remarks that come across as light or ironical on Q&A can in fact mould some people’s thinking about these subjects. We only have to read the sometimes steep criticisms of things said about last Monday’s show by Irfan Yusuf to see that we are looking at a lost educational opportunity. Like many other viewers, he clearly does not treat Q&A as simple entertainment. If it is just entertainment then the religious convictions of many genuine people are basically being made light of and even held up for ridicule. People finish up with their prejudices reinforced, or if they have strong beliefs feel let down by the superficial crappy ho-ho commentary that passes for expert opinion.

TV EYE | 03 April 2013  

Andrew Jackson "Of course the ABC is biased towards Atheism just as it is biased towards Communism." We are all Atheists,(anti-theists) in the sense that we reject the forms of Theism that differ from our own. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all been regarded as Atheists in their time, when they rejected the theism of dominant societies. We are also all Pracical Agnostics, since, due to the limitations of the human mind, we can never fully grasp the nature of God, or the ramifications of what should ensue when we embrace our particular form of theism. The earliest Christians practiced an idealistic form of Communism, such as won million of adherents, and lasted for hundreds of years. Even the brutal atheistic form that was spawned in Russia left many lamenting its collapse. Religions combine two elements, the idealistic belief system, and the tribal or community expression of it, usually distorted by the cultural experiences and degree of development of the group. Only when all learn to cooperate like the limbs and organs of the human body will we see true human development, peace and harmony.

Robert Liddy | 03 April 2013  

The ABC TV program Q&A is described in TV guides as an "interactive public affairs program in which panellists (not Tony Jones) answer questions posed by the studio audience (not Tony Jones), viewers (not Tony Jones) online and by SMS. Hosted (not orchestrated/adjudicated/pontificated over) by Tony Jones." Rarely does the program live up to this succinct description. It would be more honest to describe it as A Public Affairs Circus with Tony Jones as The Ringmaster. As in any circus different animals have different skills and have little in common with one another. It would be grossly unfair to expect a balancing elephant to leap through a flaming ring like a lion does. There is such a disparity in learning, experience, emotional maturity, spiritual development, political leanings, etc., between the different panellists assembled that it is no wonder that rarely do any questioners receive coherent and relevant answers to their queries - even when Jones (helpfully?) interprets them for the benefit of the panelists. But I've missed the point, haven't I? The aim of the program is primarily to entertain, then to raise questions that Joe and Jill Citizen will raise at morning tea, or smoko, or the water cooler the next day. And, I should add, in media such as Eureka Street. To that extent Q&A has been a success. By the way, TV Eye has expressed my sentiments very clearly and precisely.

Uncle Pat | 03 April 2013  

Thanks Irfan; nice article and some very good comments to it andf "the show"...and Q&A is of course entertainment, so one reaslly cannot expect too much of it. Tony Jones is an entertainer and does the job well.It does however, give an opportunity for politicians , or in this case "the religious" to get their message to the world...but you have to be very good, well prepared and slick to do it creatively and positively. Th atrchbishop started well, but as others have sdaid faded badky when sex appeared. It illustrates perfectly the effect of cutting the Church off from dialogue on such issues for so long...since Pope Paul and the Humanae vitae disaster in fact. As the Church integrated the best of Jewish and Greek thinking and insights , it now needs to do the same with the 20th and 21st century or it will continue to look foolish. Finally, Mrs Conway was allowed to get away with a terribly furffy...that you can be Jewish but not religious; that is proving to be very dangerous and racist rubbish (something vaguely cultural you inherit!!).

Eugene | 03 April 2013  

I don't watch Q&A expecting serious debate. It's entertainment, and an opportunity for people to contribute a few bytes to the conversations going on out in the community. At least this episode was generally civil, with participants appearing to listen to each other! My take on Mark Coleridge's contribution is a bit more positive than some. OK, he did sound like a 'Big Teacher', but that's what he's paid to be, after all. He did give the official and accurate version of Church teaching on homosexuality, Andrew Jackson, as you'll see in the Catechism. I definitely don't agree with the definition of homosexuality as a 'glitch in creation', but it's not the same as defining a homosexual person as a glitch. Neither the Church nor the Archbishop do that.

Joan Seymour | 03 April 2013  

In response to Eugene, there needs to be one important correction. Tony Jones is not an entertainer, he is a journalist. That people treat Jones as an entertainer is indicative of how far our society has shifted in its understanding of the basic role of journalism. Some of us expect more, a whole lot more, from our best journalists. Also, when Deborah Conway says you can be Jewish but not religious what she means is that being Jewish is not a choice if you are born Jewish. One Jewish friend of mine likes to remind me that you are Jewish if your mother is a Jew, which says something about the identity of the father (how can you be sure who it is or if he’s a Jew?) and the fabled patriarchy of Judaism. This is in fact at the heart of the Jewish identity problem: the Jew’s relationship to his or her religious inheritance. We would have been better enlightened if Deborah had made this clear in her comments, but she is living with it from the inside. She effectively disqualified herself on air as the right person to talk about Judaism. If Jones was more knowledgeable, he would have been aware of this.

TV EYE | 04 April 2013  

Let's get the term Mark Coleridge used correct. He said homosexuality 'can be a warp in creation' and 'impossible from my point of view to be part of God's plan.' A warp in my dictionary is defined as a perversion. Josh Thomas' response that he had never thought of himself as 'a warp in God's creation' pretty much sums up what most people thought was the insult and arrogance meant by Mark Coleridge. Up until then he had been compassionate and reasonable in his comments.

Maureen | 05 April 2013  

Great article! Loved it.

small "c" catholic Val | 05 April 2013  

One of the best Q&A programs ever!! great to see intelligent people listening to each other with respect!

Terrie | 05 April 2013  

It is difficult to get a representative group from Religions and impossible to get one from Christian religions. Within Christian denominations differences are almost as great as between denominations. But have acknowledged this we have to recognise that most Christians in Australia were not represented on the recent Q & A. Clerical celibacy is not an issue for non Catholic denominations. And had there been one of the leaders of the Uniting Church on the Panel he could have illustrated how one denomination has enabled homosexuals to be part of the Ministry. Thus it was mainly Catholic not Christian problems discussed The main problem however that Christianity faces is that the press portrays the ACL, which represents about 3% of Christians at most, as representing all Christianity when this is clearly wrong. Thus the Public are left with the impression that mainstream Christianity is narrow, bigoted and focussed on sex. Some may well be, but most Christians are not,

David Goss | 05 April 2013  

It is difficult to get a representative group from Religions and impossible to get one from Christian religions. Within Christian denominations differences are almost as great as between denominations. But have acknowledged this we have to recognise that most Christians in Australia were not represented on the recent Q & A. Clerical celibacy is not an issue for non Catholic denominations. And had there been one of the leaders of the Uniting Church on the Panel he could have illustrated how one denomination has enabled homosexuals to be part of the Ministry. Thus it was mainly Catholic not Christian problems discussed The main problem however that Christianity faces is that the press portrays the ACL, which represents about 3% of Christians at most, as representing all Christianity when this is clearly wrong. Thus the Public are left with the impression that mainstream Christianity is narrow, bigoted and focussed on sex. Some may well be, but most Christians are not,

David Goss | 05 April 2013  

I was interested in some comments people made after Q&A about the fact that Josh Thomas challenged Christian teaching on homosexuality but not the similar teaching in Islam. (ie he ear-bashed the bishop but ignored the imam) At first I agreed with comments that it was a bit inconsistent and a bit hypocritical, but after some reflection and seeing a few replays on ABC promos, realised it was a fatherhood issue that Josh Thomas was grappling with - and the Catholic bishop represented the father figure in Josh's culture (and islam was not his culture). It's not a rational/legal/moral issue so much as an issue of acceptance and wanting to be validated by one's father - both in the genetic sense as well as cultural/spiritual sense. I felt that Josh was really calling out for acceptance and understanding from his father - something I think all homosexual people struggle with. It's not so much the religious doctrine - but the sense of belonging and not being treated as "intrinisically disordered". Religion still doesn't have the language tools to talk about homosexuality - which was evidenced by Archbishop Coleridge's rather clumpsy attempt to explain the homosexual predicament as a "warped" state. I don't think he meant it to be interpreted in the negative the way Josh saw it - but that the bishop was struggling to find the right words to explain a complex and mysterious issue (sexual identity). Can anyone think of a better word than "warped"?

AURELIUS | 09 April 2013  

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