Sunday Sydney Telegraph (Jan 09)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:53

January 11, 2009

An Aussie expert's guide to the eternal quest for a more benign God

She's rated among the UK's smartest 100 people, but this Aussie-born woman has ideas to reshape the world, writes Paul Pottinger

Consider this: without life's one great certainty - death - there would be no need for religion. Without religion, Dorothy Rowe might not be in business. And if she wasn't, she wouldn't have spent the morning after her 78th birthday last month discussing her 22nd book with us.

As a clinical psychologist of world standing, whose books are among the bestsellers in that increasing portion of major book store space give over to religion/self-help, Rowe has listened to reasoning a lot less coherent than that above.

Likely this pixieish, but relentlessly logical, woman would merely see this as further evidence that "this is the way we're constructed, the way our brains work. Every person sees in their individual way".

Which is why the unyielding nature of monotheism just doesn't work: except, of course, in terms of supplying a stream of clients. It's why her new book - What Should I Believe? - examines beliefs about the nature of death and the purpose of life dominate our lives. 

"Fundamentalists see people in binary terms" she writes. Yet a decade into century 21 "their actions have conspired to make religion a political power that affects us all."

Unless you tune into Radio National, it's possible in this country to have little notion of Dorothy Rowe. In the UK, she's an altogether more mainstream figure. In one pool she was rated among the 100 living geniuses. Another considers her one of the six wisest people in Britain. 

The Poms either assume she's one of their own, or she's so smart that they're prepared to overlook the fact that she isn't. Rowe was born in Newcastle - NSW, not on Tyne - in 1930. Most northern winters, since 1968, when she joined that decade's exodus of Australian intelligentsia, she's come back.

Best-known for her bestseller, Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, she infuriates psychiatrists by asserting that listening and talking to depressed patients can be more useful than prescribing pills. 

The new book stems from her second work, The Construction of Life and Death. "While I've used some of the original material, when I wrote the 1982 book, religion was something that was never talked about," Rowe says. "Some people were religious. Others weren't. But now, no-one can escape the politics of it."

Hence, those best-selling ripostes to the fervid: Richard Dawkins' The Good Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' polemic, God is Not Great.

"They're both written in an interesting way," says Rowe, whose mother was devoutly Presbyterian and whose father was a World War I veteran, who defied the maxim about there being no atheists in the trenches by becoming one.

"But there wasn't anything in there that was new. My father was full of all the things that are wrong with religion," she says. "But what I thought was wrong with Dawkins and Hitchens is (that) they're almost saying: "How can people be so stupid?' I decided to take that question, not rhetorically, but seriously. So, my book is explaining why people believe impossible things." 

Yet the book isn't necessarily for secular, humanist crusaders.

"I'm against (religious practice) that causes pain," Rowe says. "How dare anyone think, just because they hold a certain ideal, that they're entitled to kill people.

"I wouldn't ever try to persuade anyone to stop believing in God. All I would suggest is that the person think about a more benign God…Jesus, as he is in the New Testament, is a very pleasant person, and, if you felt the need of God, why not someone like him?"

Rowe writes: "If there were no death, there would be no need for religion; all religions promise to overcome death."

"What none of us can bear is the idea that you stop being and just disappear," she says.

"You can't imagine not existing. We find it very, very difficult to think of us not existing. We rather like to do things that mean a part of us continues.

"That's one of the reasons we have children," she chuckles. "They're very expensive and hard work, but you continue on."

Equally, Rowe recognises that life would be unendurable, or at least unpalatable, without some sustaining fantasy.

"The problem is that whatever belief we have, has consequences," she says. "All religions think that we live in a just world and it's alright to believe that, so long as nothing bad happens to you.

"When someone suffers disaster, it's always, 'Why did this happen to me?' There are only three possible answers: it's my fault; it's someone else's fault; or it happened by chance.

"Now if you believe in the just world, nothing happens by chance. I have people saying, 'If I'd been really good, I wouldn't have lost my job'. That's how you turn ordinary sadness into depression.

"I think it would be a good idea if we all became less stupid. This terrible financial crisis is the result of stupidity and greed. It's entirely man-made.

"We need to develop for ourselves a set of beliefs in which we accept uncertainty. (Religion) expects you to believe without questions. It's seriously strange because if Gld did make us, he made us infinitely curious and we've got the capacity to create altenative hypotheses.

What Should I Believe? By Dorothy Rowe (Routledge) is out now; $34.95