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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Voicing our disbelief

Voices of Disbelief, the book that I am co-editing with Udo Schuklenk, is going off to the publisher in the next few days. Our formal deadline is 1 December, and we'll go very close to making it. We now have all the essays, and there's only one that one of the authors (a late recruit to the book) is still tweaking a little bit over the weekend.

On the way, we lost a few people who'd been lined up, since some had personal difficulties or overwhelming professional commitments, but we made up for it by accepting some essays that were quite a bit longer than we'd originally envisaged. The result is 50 essays ranging from about 500 words to about 6000 words. Two are collaborations, so we have 52 authors in all, including the two editors. Udo I have each contributed an essay, and we've also collaborated on a brief introduction. Overall, the book will be a bit over 120,000 words, maybe more like 125,000.

Thanks again to all contributors. Here's our final roll call of essayists in alphabetical order. They can take a bow:

1. Peter Adegoke
2. Athena Andreadis
3. Julian Baggini
4. Gregory Benford
5. Ophelia Benson
6. Russell Blackford
7. Susan Blackmore
8. Damien Broderick
9. Lori Lipman Brown
10. Sean M. Carroll
11. Thomas W. Clark
12. Austin Dacey
13. Edgar Dahl
14. Jack Dann
15. Margaret Downey
16. Taner Edis
17. Greg Egan
18. Nick Everitt
19. Prabir Ghosh
20. A.C. Grayling
21. Joe Haldeman
22. John Harris
23. Marc Hauser
24. Philip Kitcher
25. Miguel Kottow
26. Stephen Law
27. Dale McGowan
28. Sheila A.M. McLean
29. Adèle Mercier
30. Maryam Namazie
31. Kelly O’Connor
32. Graham Oppy
33. Christine Overall
34. Sumitra Padmanabhan
35. Tamas Pataki
36. John P. Phelan
37. Laura Purdy
38. James Randi
39. Michael R. Rose
40. Julian Savulescu
41. J.L. Schellenberg
42. Udo Schuklenk
43. Michael Shermer
44. Peter Singer
45. J.J.C. Smart
46. Victor J. Stenger
47. Peter Tatchell
48. Emma Tom
49. Michael Tooley
50. Ross Upshur
51. Sean Williams
52. Frieder Otto Wolf

That's an exciting and extraordinarily diverse group of people. They have not been expected to agree with each other or to follow any particular line ... and there will, indeed, be some disagreements. And yes, the book should be all the stronger for that. As Udo says, we are not the Vatican- it's not up to us to set out a body of dogma that our contributors must subscribe to. We have neither the power nor the inclination to do that. We will not be offering a substitute for the Bible - although that compilation of many documents has its own contradictions - but rather an anthology of thoughtful essays by clever and reasonable people who agree about some things (none of them subscribes to belief in the Abrahamic God or any other gods marketed to us by the world's religions) but disagree about others. They have varied attitudes to the historical role of religion and what role it should play in the future.

Our best estimate at the moment is that the book may be available about August next year: for various reasons, modern publishing involves fairly long lead times. When it appears on the shelves, you'll see that it has something for everyone, from austere philosophical articles to relatively lighthearted biographical pieces - to some not-so-lighthearted ones! Some authors have encountered religion at its best; some have encountered it at its worst; none actually sees any good reason to believe its supernatural claims.

Personally, I have some good memories of my younger days when I was involved in the local Anglican youth group and the Evangelical Union on my university campus, and indeed I trace some of my very closest involvements with people I love dearly from those days. I don't doubt that local churches can provide community and much else that is of value, and my good experiences among the bad undoubtedly make me less hostile to religion than some other atheists whom I encounter. Nonetheless, I think that the intellectual and moral credentials of religion must be challenged at a time when it demands too much in the way of political influence and social "respect" (for which read immunity from satire or criticism).

Contrary to the once-common view that all the heavy lifting was done by the Enlightenment philosophers, Darwin, 1960s social iconoclasm, and so on, and that religion was on the way out, it is not only persisting but in many ways actually resurgent. As I argue in my own essay, the struggle of ideas is far from over, and this is a good time to dispute the unwarranted prestige enjoyed by the many variations of orthodox Abrahamic theism ... not to mention other religious systems that demand "respect" and political deference.

There's no time like now to voice our disbelief.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Loose end!

It's funny to find myself actually at a bit of a loose end. With the teaching semester over, including the examiners' meeting a couple of weeks ago, and with my thesis not only completed but now accepted for the award of my shiny new Ph.D, that's some big projects over.

Voices of Disbelief is due with the publisher on Monday. That's been a huge project over the past year, from the preliminary stages of getting it off the ground at all to now having the manuscript close to final form. I'm sure there will be some last minute frenetic activity over the weekend, but not right now: I'm waiting on various crucial emails before Udo and I can make the last additions/alterations to the manuscript and declare it complete.

I've also been mopping up smaller projects and issues, including some to do with JET - and in fact, there are still some current issues with JET that I need to get on to. All the same, I'm now looking at a situation of needing to find a big new project. I guess trying to convert the thesis into a book could fill some of that gap, but I'm not quite ready to face that yet ... and anyway I mean something really new that I can begin in parallel to the work on that.

I guess I should go and see some movies, read some actual novels ... even watch television (whatever that is). It's not as if I have no social life, exactly, since I do see friends and share the occasional bottle of wine, but I never seem to do those ordinary not-very-social things anymore. Jeeze, it's hard to make the mental shift that I'm now allowed to do them, at least a little bit.

I think I've forgotten how.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Jenny joins Facebook!

Well, she couldn't hold out forever ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A plug for Ronny's blog

While I'm having a quiet few days here, finding more and more finishing touches to put on the Voices of Disbelief manuscript (Udo and I are now working on the introduction and the notes on contributors, while chasing a couple of last people whom we're still hoping are going to deliver essays at the eleventh hour) ... here's something a bit different.

Go and have a look at Ronny Restrepo's blog. Ronny is a wonderfully talented photographer and will be a fine philosopher as well (not that I know just what he's planning to do with the rest of his life: feel free to comment here, Ronny).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Some euphoria of my own - my PhD is accepted!

I just received the news this morning that my PhD thesis has been accepted with no requirement for any rewriting.

This is, of course, fantastic news. I'm incredibly happy and relieved about it. As I was just saying to Udo Schuklenk, the last year of the candidature before I submitted in August was a very difficult one for me in many ways. For now, however, I'm celebrating. Tomorrow I can start thinking about the daunting prospect of trying to turn it into a book.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama euphoria

Over the past week, I've been slightly bemused by the euphoria from many of my friends in the US over the predictable and expected victory of Barack Obama in the American presidential election. Perhaps I've been impatient because a lot of them seem to have had nothing else on their minds lately. Yet, life goes on, and yes there are other things we need to talk about.

Or perhaps I've become too old and cynical.

It also hasn't escaped me that, at the same time as Obama was elected president, the electorates of a number of US states voted to reject gay marriage. The reasons appear to involve a mixture of stupidity, ignorance, and outright hatred of gays. Don't think that the US is doing a U-turn yet into acting like a genuinely liberal, secular society. These outcomes are ominous, and they could put a big damper on any celebrations.

Meanwhile, I well remember the amount of euphoria (a much lesser amount, but still ...) that surrounded the election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister, here in Australia last year. I was going around at the time warning that Rudd is a deeply conservative man and that he may not be all that much better than Howard was. Many people I encountered in work corridors, at parties, or whatever, poo-poo'ed this.

In the event, I've proved to be correct - we've seen Rudd joining in the attack on artistic freedom in his comments about Bill Henson, and we have the spectre of a Labor government going much further than the conservatives parties ever suggested in trying to build a Great Wall of Australia around us to keep out nasties from the internet. Rudd is, of course, a devout religionist, just like Howard before him. His support for gay rights is, at best, half-hearted. His voting record on such topics as therapeutic cloning is dismal. For Poseidon's sake, he was never someone to trust in such a position of power as prime minister of Australia. At this stage, my estimate is that Rudd is almost as much a threat to our liberties as Howard was; indeed, perhaps more so. It's not even obvious that we can expect much more compassionate policy from the Rudd government on such issues as refugees. Welcome to Howard-lite.

That's not to claim that Rudd has been a complete failure. He's taken at least one action that applaud, in signing the Kyoto Protocol. But the euphoria that surrounded his election was never justified. The most that could be justified was relief that a truly backward government had finally been swept from power ... and there was the faint hope of something a bit better. I guess that hope still lingers, but the more I see of Rudd the more I distrust him.

But maybe I'm unfair in seeing the US situation in similar terms. Reactionary and hard-hearted as the Howard government was, it was never a puppet of the religious right to an extent even remotely like the Bush administration in the US. What's more, it at least had the virtue (like the Hawke and Keating governments before it) of basic economic competence. That can't be said of the spendthrift Bush administration with its misguided, open-ended, and hideously expensive "wars" on drugs and terrorism. All in all, the Howard government may have been pretty bad in numerous ways, but the Bush government was a dystopian nightmare.

America has now elected a moderate, intelligent, seemingly reasonable and good-hearted man as its next president. He will have strong support from Congress, and will be free to act. There's every prospect that Barack Obama will finally lead the US in a positive direction, after it's been dragged down by the lead-weight Bush administration for the past eight years. With any luck, the US will soon no longer seem to the rest of the world like a rogue superpower.

Perhaps that really is something to be euphoric about. Celebrate for all you're worth, my American friends. Don't let me rain on your parade.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Website revamp for Jenny

Jenny has revamped her website over the past couple of days. I think it's looking pretty cool.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Never, never say "sci-fi"

No serious scholar of the science fiction genre ever uses the term "sci-fi" as an abbreviation for "science fiction". The abbreviation is always "sf" or "SF". The use of "sci-fi" (or any variants such as "sci fi") is still considered annoying or even offensive by many people. Perhaps that is passing, as the term takes over in the popular media, but I for one find it horribly grating whenever I encounter "sci-fi" in print. I particularly hate it when editors change my own use of "sf" or "SF" to "sci-fi" wihout consulting me - so I find out only when whatever I've written is actually published that I have (seemingly) written something that grates my own ear.

This has been happening to me quite a bit of late. Well, at least twice in important publications in close temporal propinquity.

Stop it!

And publishers, for Zeus's sake, employ editors who know something about science fiction - enough to be aware of this not-very-obscure sensitivity - if they are going to edit the work of science fiction scholars without first clearing page proofs.

(Of course, actually getting proofs is a bit of a luxury these days; even in book publication, it seems to be less and less to be taken for granted ... while editors of newspapers and magazines have always treated the author's text as something to chop around however they damn well like. What are proofs?)

Jenny Blackford named as a judge for World Fantasy Awards

At the 2008 World Fantasy Convention - in Calgary, Alberta, Canada - next year's judges for the World Fantasy Awards were announced during the awards ceremony on 2 November. The judge will be Ellen Klages, Delia Sherman, Chris Roberson, Peter Heck ... and Jenny Blackford!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Death of Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and many other books, most of them popular techno-thrillers, has died at the age of 66. Funny, just the other day I was contemplating reading his latest novel, Next, as I looked around the bookshop at FACT in Liverpool. (I'm obviously a couple of years behind in my reading.)

I feel some ambivalence about Crichton's work, which has a strong anti-science, technophobic element running through it. But at the same time, I'm surprised by the way his novels are so often dismissed as if they were wooden and worthless. That's not my experience at all: I've always found them suspenseful and engaging, and have often devoured a long Crichton thriller in a single day, even when cursing at some aspects. My own handling of Kong Reborn was obviously patterned, to an extent, after the Jurassic Park series of books and movies, though without the strong streak of technophobia.

You can love Crichton's work or hate it - or you can gulp it down hungrily at the same time that it infuriates you. For me, his death is a sad loss.

Internet censorship - the Great Wall of Australia

I am sick of attempts by governments to censor the internet. Sure, there is material out there that I am not going to defend - even someone as much a civil libertarian as I am will not defend child pornography (but I mean genuine child pornography, not whatever the prudes and panic merchants want to smear with the association).

There's the rub. The social conservative Rudd government has taken to implying strongly that anyone who opposes its massively paternalistic and potentially oppressive plans to censor the internet is somehow favouring child pornography. Senator Stephen Conroy has become particularly virulent in that regard.

I'll doubtless have more to say about this issue in future posts, but go and read the Labor election policy for yourself. Maybe you'll think it's harmless, but I think it's very worrying.

The upshot seems to be that an enormously expensive and powerful technological and bureaucratic structure will be set up to censor the internet in Australia, creating a so-called "clean feed" that individuals can opt out of (but many institutions cannot) and a second layer of censorship that is compulsory. The second layer will presumably be limited to censorship of very extreme material, but I am nervous about giving a government this kind of power at all. However benevolent the current government may be (haha), and however much it shows restraint in what it censors, it is building something monstrous - an electronic Great Wall of Australia. This could be used by future governments to suppress a wide range of material that they don't like for whatever reason (whenever they can win populist support, of course ... but that's not necessarily difficult in Australia, as the recent Henson debacle demonstrates abundantly).

Judge the issue for yourself, but follow it carefully as it unfolds; make up your own mind whether you trust this government (and future governments) with the power that it is attempting to gain over the content of the internet. If you're as nervous as I am, speak up about it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

There and back again

I've just returned to Melbourne from a quick trip to the United Kingdom, where I spoke last Thursday at a symposium in Liverpool, held at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). This was in honour of the new book Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty, edited by Andy Miah and published by Liverpool University Press. The FACT symposium went brilliantly, and the book looks like it will be a beautiful production - though copies were not available in time for the symposium, alas.

A couple of days later I also had a chance to sample the BBC Free Thinking Festival, also held at FACT. I had a great time all round, met many wonderful people, had some long and absorbing conversations, and was well looked after throughout. Thanks to all who were so kind and helpful.

It's nice to be home, though, and I'm hoping my life (and this poor, neglected blog) will now settle down for a while into something more like normality.