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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So ends a huge year in my life

Here we are at the end of 2008, which turned out to be a huge year in my life. I'd have to go back a long way to find a more eventful one.

Sadly, it began with the loss of my mother in hospital early in January - ironically enough with just me and a nurse present, as my father and sister who'd been keeping long vigils were both getting some much-needed and overdue rest. Given what Mum had been through during the previous year, it was almost a blessing when the end came, but of course that kind of cliched talk is little consolation to those of us left behind, especially my dad, who lost his life partner after a marriage that lasted well over 60 years. Since then, I've spent a lot of time with my family, travelling frequently to Newcastle ... where Jenny and I will very likely return permanently at the end of next year.

I've been further afield twice, with short trips overseas to New Zealand early in the year, for a long-overdue holiday with Jenny, and to the UK late in the year, funded by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool.

This has been a big working year. I had light teaching loads in both semesters, which is just as well when you add up the rest of what had to be done. I'd written a first draft of my PhD thesis in 2007, but this had major structural problems and was far too ambitious. In 2008, I produced a second version that was completely different, considerably shorter, much more tightly focused, essentially a new work. This means I have tens of thousands of unused material lying around from the first version, waiting for me to get back to it some time, to see what I can do with all the metaethical argument and fundamental normative theory that never made it into the new version of the thesis.

After various ups and downs, I finally submitted the thesis in late August. My examiners were very quick, and I found out in November that both had given it the thumbs-up with no revisions required. Save for the formal graduation, I now have the long-awaited second PhD, and now have to work out if I can find a publisher for it.

At the same time, I've been working on the Voices of Disbelief project with Udo Schuklenk. This went surprisingly smoothly but still had its own ups and downs. Editing an original anthology like this is a job comparable in size to writing a book of similar length, though in some ways it's more like managing a small business. For a start, intense effort went into finding high-profile people who were prepared to contribute to such a book. While we've ended up with 50 contributors in addition to ourselves, we actually wrote to a vastly greater number. Some of our emails were probably never received. Some people ignored us. One or two were dismissive. Many were gracious, but apologised because they were too busy. In retrospect, it's perhaps surprising that so many took us as seriously as they did, since quite a few of the people who ended up on board would never have heard of either of us.

In March, if I recall correctly, Blackwell came on board as publisher. We settled a list of about 60 people, but as the year went on the line-up changed slightly. Some folks had to drop out with illness or for other personal or professional reasons. In one case, one of my dearest friends had to drop out because of very serious illness. If she reads this, I send her my love. Udo and I ended up taking some essays a fair bit longer than we originally planned. After some to-ing and fro-ing we only added one name to our original list to balance those who had to leave the project, but with those longer pieces the manuscript we've ended up with is over 120,000 words.

The actual editing was a great privilege but also a challenge. Some essays, of course, scarcely needed editing at all - the authors sensed exactly what we had in mind. Others took quite a bit of work, though always the aim was to make the voice of the author as clear as possible, rather than to impose the views of the editors. Bear in mind that we had a great diversity of authors, some far more experienced as professional writers than others, some of them writing in English even though it is not their first language, some of them with impressive careers as professional novelists, some as academic philosophers, some as journalists, some as activists in the world of sceptics, humanists, and secularists. They all produced excellent essays, but sometimes the essays needed some tweaking or even rethinking. Then blending all this into the best book we could all make it was not always straightforward. Once Udo and I decided to accept essays of well over 3000 words (sensing that we were likely to end up with more like 50 than 60 authors), we were constantly worried that we'd end up with something too long overall and be forced to go back and ask some authors for cuts.

But I must add immediately that the authors were wonderfully responsive whenever we made suggestions or raised issues for them to consider, and the whole exercise was an amazing learning experience. The final mix of essays ranging from about 500 words to about 6000 words is more interesting than what we originally had in mind (with everything between 1500 and 3000). Best of all from my viewpoint, I've made some friendships out of the exercise. I certainly hope to work again with all these fantastic people.

We were able to submit the manuscript only one day after our 1 December deadline, and we now await proofs from Blackwell. We'll need to do a final layer of proofing and then, alas, put together an index (a task that some people enjoy, but I can't say that it's my cup of tea). Based on our best information, the book will actually be published in about July or August. Thanks to all the authors, once again.

Meanwhile, I took over in January as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. During the year we published three substantial issues and have started on a fourth. Almost all of the material we've published so far had been accepted before I came on board, so it'll be some time before I really make my mark on the journal. However, it all required editing, or further editing, and in this case quite a lot of what we'd accepted was from authors whose first language is not English. We needed to work closely with them to help them express themselves as clearly as possible for an English-speaking audience. My aim as an editor is always to help the authors express themselves with the maximum accuracy and clarity, not to impose my own beliefs, and I like to think that the partnership with the JET contributors has been pretty successful so far.

Another challenge with editing JET is that it's an interdisciplinary journal. Whatever claims of polymathy I might have, I can't possibly be expert across the vast range of displines that have something important to contribute. That means I need help, and I'm still at a relatively early stage in building up the network that I need to rely upon. Submissions are not getting reviewed as quickly as I'd like, and I must take some of the blame for this, as I haven't always found it easy getting the right reviewers quickly. Hopefully, that will improve. We're certainly working on it. Meanwhile, we've pretty much cleared the backlog that had been building up, and are well placed to continue the journal's flagship role.

Thanks especially to Marcelo Rinesi, whose work as managing editor has been invaluable.

While working on those projects, I've spent far too many hours at the computer wasting my time playing games (often in the form of Facebook apps), engaging in unproductive net surfing, and generally sitting here in my office getting unfit and fat. I must do something about that next year.

Jenny has had a breakthrough year, with the publication of her highest-profile story to date - "Trolls' Night Out" in Jack Dann's Dreaming Again anthology (which also contain my story "Manannan's Children"). She has her first solo book coming out next year, having sold her brillant standalone novella The Priestess and the Slave. This has been backed up by several other sales. To cap it all, she now has a daunting task ahead as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards - a great honour, but not an easy job.

One thing that I've failed to do in 2008 is get much reading done. I normally read over 100 books each year. This year, the final count was 74. Note to self: Must do better. I also haven't done much getting out to see movies. My workout schedule faded away completely, but that's partly because I've been carrying a minor shoulder injury all year and having a lot of trouble getting it 100 per cent better despite hydrodilatation and lots of time at the physiotherapist. No sooner have I got it back to about 95 per cent than I've somehow hurt my right hand.

Ah for the days when I used to get some minor injuries if I worked out too hard, but could actually recover from them. In that sense, middle age sucks. All in all, I've spent too much time in 2008 locked away in front of the computer.

But I've also managed to spend quite a lot of time enjoying the company of friends and family. What with losing one of my parents, I've had much reason to think about what I really want to achieve during this limited life. Obviously, I'm ambitious in many ways, if you haven't noticed, and I'm constantly looking out for partners in worthwhile projects ... since I (like to think that) I work well in a team, whether I'm contributing as a writer or as an editor. I have certain talents and skills, modest as they be, and I like to use them. But I've realised over the past 18 months that the most important thing of all is that the small group of people I love never doubt that I love them. I hope you don't, those of you who happen to read this, and I'll do my best to make sure you don't.

On that note, Happy New Year everybody! May 2009 be a better year for those who found 2008 tough going. May it be a good year for us all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Big year - or two - for science

Charles Darwin, undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in science of all time, was born in February 1809, meaning that his 200th anniversary is coming up very soon. At the age of 50, after much thought and delay, he published On the Origin of Species in November 1859, so next year is also the 150th anniversary of that monumental event.

In fact, I scarcely need to remind my friends of these anniversaries. A lot of fuss is already being made about them in scientific circles - and also in sceptical circles, fueled in the latter case by the obvious conflict between Darwinian theory and some of the cruder forms of Christianity that deny the well-corroborated facts of biological evolution.

But while we're celebrating Darwin, let me put in a plug for a book that's almost as important as The Origin of Species, and which was published in the same year. I mean On Liberty, by Darwin's contemporary John Stuart Mill - the book that is the nearest thing to a bible for liberal thinkers, and still the greatest argument ever made not only for individual liberty in general but more specifically for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.

Then there's, arguably, an even bigger anniversary coming up in 2009/2010. Modern science was given its kick-start 400 years before in the 17th century, when Galileo challenged the certitudes of the time by taking an instrument that extended the human senses - the telescope - and pointing it at the heavens. There is no one date when the modern methods of science first crystallised, separating out from the broader methods of rational inquiry, with which of course they are still continuous. But it is difficult to find a more dramatic point in the process than Galileo's initial observations and his dramatic reports of them.

Though Galileo was demonstrating his telescope as early as August 1609, his most critical observations were those in early 1610, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter - this shattered the geocentric assumption that all heavenly bodies must orbit the Earth. He published his early findings in March 1610, and later in the same year he demonstrated that Venus orbits the Sun. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that 1610 was the beginning of modern science; it's close enough to the truth for us to declare science, in something like the form we now know it, to be pretty much 400 years old, with Galileo as its greatest originator.

So let 2009 be the anniversary year for Darwin and biological evolution (and don't forget John Stuart Mill, the defender of our liberties). Then 2010 is the year to celebrate Galileo and more generally the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. These are big years coming up to celebrate science ... and more generally the life of freedom and reason.

Friday, December 26, 2008

It seems like I'm writing a book

Okay, this wasn't intentional.

I said a few posts back that I'd write some sort of submission to the human rights consultation headed up by Frank Brennan. Well, here I am; I've written 27,000 words already, with no end in sight for the reading and writing that I feel I need to do. I'm going to have to stop at some point and wrestle it into some kind of workable structure, etc., to send off to Brennan and his team, but even when I do I'm sure there'll still be much that needs to be said.

This suggests that the submission is actually going to be the core of a new book. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea who is likely to publish such a book - it will have to be an Australian publisher unless I find a way to make the topic much more general (hence losing a lot of good material) because it's very much about how Australia should protect individual rights and freedoms. However, I really don't know whether any Australian publisher might be interested in such a project from me: I don't have an "in" with any publisher that would actually be right for it. It's going to be a matter of "write now, try to work out how to get it published later even if it has to be chopped up into articles" ... which is not the way I like to work. I'm more a "get a contract signed first" kind of guy, though of course I'm now also looking for a publisher (in this case an international one) for my PhD thesis.

If anyone can help me, I'm happy to buy you the ice cream, winsome flute girl, fancy pair of shoes, or other small reward of your choice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Latest from the Cult of Misery - Udo nails it


What can I add? I think Udo has nailed it in his comments on the Pope's latest pronouncements. By the way, I love these photos ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Taking power from the legislature and giving it to unelected judges ..."

How often do we hear this expression? I'm sick of it, not only because I now see multiple references to it every day, as the debate about a Bill or Charter of Rights for Australia gets going, but because it is so simplistic and misleading.

Take a situation where a constitutional Bill of Rights provides that the legislature may enact no law suppressing a religious viewpoint. Perhaps there's an override clause that such laws may be enacted if demonstrably necessary in a free and democratic society ... just in case we find ourselves threatened by a bunch of neo-Aztec fanatics who want to use the rest of us for human sacrifices, and the practical point is reached where we have no choice but to send in the army to try to suppress the entire cult. But imagine that, subject to the override clause, the legislature doesn't have power to go around enacting laws to suppress particular religions (or religion in general, or viewpoints that are sceptical about religion). Imagine that it would have this power, but for the particular constitutional provision.

Now, has the constitutional provision taken power from the legislature and given it to unelected judges? Well, perhaps in a contrived sense. It has certainly taken power from the legislature: the legislature no longer has the power to suppress religious viewpoints (except in certain pressing circumstances). Arguably, the provision has also given power to the courts: after all, they now have the power to strike down laws that are made beyond the power of the legislature in the relevant respect. If the override clause exists (or if something like it is considered to be implicit) courts may also need to consider whether, in the circumstances, a certain law really is demonstrably required, etc.

Still with me?

Then note that the power given to the court is merely that of ascertaining when a law has overstepped the line and when it hasn't. The court adjudicates this against a superior law, namely the constitutional provision. But this is exactly the sort of exercise that judges carry out all the time, and that they are trained for: interpreting laws, teasing out situations of inconsistency between laws, determining which prevails in the case of inconsistency, and so on. I actually like the idea that this task is delegated to highly-trained and (usually) highly-skilled professionals.

And also note this: while a power has, in a sense, been conferred on the courts, it is not the very same power that was taken away from the legislature. Judges are not empowered to do what the legislature could previously do, i.e. make laws that suppress a religion. In the new world, no one has that power anymore (subject to extreme situations or whatever). The citizens are free to believe, worship, etc., as they wish, knowing that the state has no power to suppress their religion even if it wants to. If the legislature enacts a law that attempts to do so, the citizens can challenge it in the courts. The judges are then simply adjudicating between the rights of the state and those of the citizens making the challenge. They may, alas, occasionally err - and end up letting some laws through in ways that are open to criticism. They may even err the other way. After all, the cases they are actually likely to be confronted with will probably be borderline ones, especially at the highest judicial levels. But they have no power to initiate and enact such laws themselves.

So, there is no power that has been transferred from the legislature to the judges. A (huge and dangerous) power has been taken away from the legislature, but the effect is to give the citizens an enhanced area of freedom from government power. Yes, the judges have a new jurisdiction, or function, or you can call it a "power" if you want, but it is no more than the "power" to do what they are trained to do, i.e. adjudicate the rights of the parties who appear before them in court. Those rights are found in legal instruments that may conflict - they are not created by judges. To say that power has been taken from the legislature and given to unelected judges is an incredibly misleading way of representing the situation. To see this, you don't have to believe that judges are infallible.

In short, we have a meme whose power to propagate itself is far out of proportion to the small grain of truth that lies somewhere in its vicinity.

Although I've analysed this at some length - and could do so at far greater length still to introduce appropriate caveats and so on - the gist of it should be obvious. I hope most people instinctively understand that the language I am objecting to is a kind of trick, but judging by its popularity I guess that's a forlorn hope. Sigh.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I feel sorry for Frank Brennan

Okay, I've been nasty about the choice of a Catholic priest to head up a consultation into the protection of human rights in Australia. The choice worries me because the Roman Catholic Church takes many stances that are in opposition to human rights (however defined). Currently, it is opposing a UN resolution against what should, on any definition of the term, be considered a crime against humanity: the use of the criminal law to persecute homosexuals. The Church hierarchs claim that they do oppose the criminalisation of homosexuality, but they fear pressure for acceptance of gay marriage.

I hardly know where to start with that kind of reasoning - surely there is a huge gap between the state ceasing to persecute homosexuals with criminal laws (with the death penalty attached to them in seven countries!) and the state going further and recognising particular kinds of intimate relationships as "marriages". Indeed, my own position is that the state should, ideally, get out of the marriage business altogether and simply provide adequate laws for the protection of children and the distribution of property when relationships involving mingled property rights break up. Meanwhile, and subject to such exceptional issues as people knowingly putting each other at risk of contracting the HIV virus, all sexual conduct between consenting adults or sufficiently mature minors should be perfectly legal.

Brennan himself is on the record as saying that heterosexuality is preferable to homosexuality - or at least he would prefer his friends to have a heterosexual orientation - but let's give the man some credit. He also favours gays having strong rights to protect them from state persecution. His position on all this leaves a fair bit to be desired, but it's about as mild as possible for someone who does not actually wish to leave the Church, and I must always remind myself that (genuinely) moderate religionists are not my enemies even if I think they are sadly mistaken on important issues.

Unfortunately, Brennan also manages to find ways to deprecate the importance of free speech, to oppose the availability of euthanasia, and to limit abortion rights (though even here his view appears to be quite moderate, at least by the standards of Catholic religionists).

Overall, he deserves respect as a person of intellect and good will. It's unfortunate that his commitment to the teachings of the Church biases him in certain directions, but he is no religious fanatic or narrow dogmatist. His general approach is very far from that of other prominent Catholics in Australia such as George Pell. Let's cut him at least a bit of slack.

I've been criticising him as someone who opposes a constitutionally-entrenched Bill of Rights, something I have long supported (though I would want it to focus tightly on guarding our fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech, not to give us Orwellian "rights" to have the government control us for our own good or to protect us from being "offended" by other people's free speech ... my main worry about a Bill of Rights is that it could end up being a horribly wrong Bill of Rights).

I do stand by this criticism of Frank Brennan. It seems anomalous and unsafe that Australia does not have broad constitutional protection of rights as fundamental as the right to freedom of speech. The limited constitutional protection of free speech that we do have is not justified by principle and is far too narrow. To me, Brennan is too dismissive of the value of a Bill of Rights, and his arguments against, in particular, constitutional entrenchment of freedom of speech strike me as far-fetched and contrived. Still, this may not matter in practical reality because I accept that there is no prospect of obtaining an amendment to insert entrenched and enumerated rights in the Australian Constitution. In the real world, we need to look for other approaches, at least for now.

Which brings me to why I feel sorry for Brennan. He can't win. While I berate him on this blog for his settled opposition to constitutionally-entrenched rights, he is continually attacked from the political Right as a proponent of mechanisms (such as a non-entrenched charter) that would give some additional protections to our rights. The way The Australian carries on, you'd think this gentle, rather conservative, but reasonably open-minded, religious scholar was some kind of raving nutjob dedicated to undermining the constitutional order. Give it a rest, guys!

Meanwhile, I'm planning to spend much of the Australian summer working on a detailed submission (I'm envisaging 20,000 words or so) to Brennan's human rights consultation. This will be tersely-argued, and could easily be loosened up and expanded into a book (though I have no idea who would publish it). I'm groping my way to some thoughts about what rights need protection and how this might best be done short of a constitutional amendment. I'm not a big fan of non-entrenched charters, since they can be overridden so easily, but perhaps they have their place. Anyway, I welcome your ideas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Check out Jenny's website

She's given her site a general update, including the final cover art for The Priestess and the Slave (quite different from, and even better than, the cover that was used for the advance reading copies).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Celebrating our past, imagining our future

The Journal of Evolution and Technology has just published the first three items for its new 2008-2009 volume (Volume 20 of the journal).

The first of these is my editorial, entitled "Celebrating our past, imagining our future". Here, I take the opportunity to set out my vision for the journal ... and for some mild celebration of its first decade:

Prior to my appointment, in January 2008, as JET’s editor-in-chief, I’d had four distinguished predecessors – Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson, Mark Walker, and James Hughes – who had established the journal as a leading forum for discussion of the future of the human species and whatever might come after it. Articles that they'd published in JET were – and are – frequently cited in discussions of the human or posthuman future. With a decade of history behind the journal as I commenced my watch this year, and with JET’s fifth year with IEET now underway, we have much to celebrate. I'm personally delighted to have taken up my position with a journal of ideas that has such a rich history and so much promise.

JET is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal. The material that it publishes may or may not be submitted by scholars and scientists currently working within the academy, but it must certainly meet the standards of well-established academic journals. Most submissions received are rejected because they don’t reach the required standard, but we are always looking for appropriate articles and reviews. We require only that they be (more-or-less directly) relevant to the human or posthuman future and that they meet our high standards of scholarship, originality, and intellectual rigor. We welcome submissions on a wide range of relevant topics and from almost any academic discipline or interdisciplinary standpoint.

Central to our thinking at JET is the idea – increasingly familiar and plausible – that the human species is about to commence, or has already commenced, a new form of evolution. This is something quite different from the slow Darwinian processes of survival, reproduction, and adaptation. It is powered, rather, by new technologies that increasingly work their way inwards, transforming human bodies and minds. According to this idea, technology can do more than merely giving us tools to manipulate the world around us; it can alter us far more comprehensively than by shaping our neurological pathways when we learn to handle new tools. This idea of a technologically-mediated process of evolution remains controversial, of course, and even if we grant it broad acceptance there is still much to debate. Just how the process might be manifested in the years to come, and just where it might take us or our successors, are both unclear. Nonetheless, the idea merits careful study from many viewpoints, whether scientific, philosophical, historical, sociological, anthropological, legal, artistic … or even theological.

Among writers and thinkers who take the idea of a new form of evolution seriously, there are bound to be disagreements. To what extent is technologically-mediated evolution already happening, bearing in mind the considerable extent to which we are currently using technology to alter our bodies? If the process accelerates or continues over a vast span of time, will this be a good thing or a bad thing – or is it a phenomenon that resists moral evaluation? How dramatic a vision of technologically-mediated evolution is really plausible? Reasonable answers to such questions range from radical transhumanist visions of sweeping, rapid, entirely desirable change to various kinds of skepticism, caution, or concern. JET welcomes a spectrum of views on all this, as long as they meet its standards, though we will never cater for the same audience as a technophobic journal such as The New Atlantis. Though we welcome many viewpoints, we are unusual in providing a forum for radical proponents of new technology to develop their visions in detail, and with a rigor seldom found elsewhere. Their ideas are then available in their strongest form for scrutiny from admirers and critics alike.


In addition to my editorial, we have published two contrasting articles, one by Eric Steinhart, which relates transhumanism to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and the other a thought experiment in the form of a dialogue by Colin Farrelly.

As mentioned in my editorial, throughout 2008 we have been clearing a backlog of (excellent) material that had built up at JET (during a transitional period in the editorial team). This is now proceeding successfully, and we'll soon be fully up to date. We've also had some teething troubles in obtaining appropriate reviews/referees' reports on some submissions. We've not always been as quick as we'd like, but we're working to improve and the problems have largely been solved. While I apologise for these delays, we're now pretty much on top of things - and we're actively seeking out material for 2009.

If you have something to say that falls within JET's remit, and you believe you can meet our standards, please don't hesitate to submit an article to us. We are also accepting reviews and other forms of writing, such as brief commentaries on previously-published articles (though it's best to get in touch if you want to submit something other than a standard article.

I'll look forward to future submissions and to another distinguished decade in JET's history.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Human Rights Consultation - terms of reference

The terms of reference for the Human Rights Consultation headed by Frank Brennan are as follows:

Terms of Reference
The Australian Government is committed to the promotion of human rights—a commitment that is based on the belief in the fundamental equality of all persons.

The Government believes that the protection and promotion of human rights is a question of national importance for all Australians, and for this reason has appointed a Committee to undertake an Australia-wide community consultation for protecting and promoting human rights and corresponding responsibilities in Australia. The Government has given the Committee Terms of Reference to guide their work.

The Committee will ask the Australian community:

Which human rights (including corresponding responsibilities) should be protected and promoted?
Are these human rights currently sufficiently protected and promoted?
How could Australia better protect and promote human rights?
In conducting the consultation the Committee will:

consult broadly with the community, particularly those who live in rural and regional areas
undertake a range of awareness raising activities to enhance participation in the consultation by a wide cross section of Australia’s diverse community
seek out the diverse range of views held by the community about the protection and promotion of human rights
identify key issues raised by the community in relation to the protection and promotion of human rights, and
The Committee will report to the Australian Government by 31 July 2009 on the issues raised and the options identified for the Government to consider to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights. The Committee is to set out the advantages and disadvantages (including social and economic costs and benefits) and an assessment of the level of community support for each option it identifies.

The options identified should preserve the sovereignty of the Parliament and not include a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights.


I love the last bit of this, which rules out the obvious solution right from the start. The most obvious approach of a having constitutionally-entrenched Bill of Rights is not even to be one of the options in this exercise! The most we can hope for is some kind of weak charter that may make legislatures think again when contemplating actions that further abridge individual rights (before going ahead and abridging them anyway, at least whenever doing so has populist appeal).

Personally, I doubt that there is any prospect of getting a referendum through to produce constitutional change, so I concede that we do need to think hard about second-best solutions. That, however, is not a reason to rule it out constitutional change from the very beginning.

It gets the whole exercise off to a dismal start.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Cult of Misery strikes again - Dignitas Personae

The Cult of Misery has stuck again with the release (on 12 December 2008) of a new Vatican instruction on bioethics, Dignitas Personae. This reiterates the misery cult's irrational opposition to just about every development in reproductive and genetic technology involving human beings. As usual, the actual or possible secular benefits take a back seat to ridiculous ideas of natural law: the cult's religious morality, which it is so fond of trying to impose on the rest of us using the state's ample resources of policemen, prison cells, and guns.

Once more, we see why the Roman Catholic Church is a pre-eminent threat to reason, science, and freedom. I stress that I do not want to see any religious viewpoint suppressed by the power of the state, and I don't think anyone should be intolerant in the sense of advocating this. Let Pope Benedict and his fellow cultists believe whatever superstitious nonsense they like. I don't like it, but I think it should be tolerated in that sense.

But if open mockery and denunciation amount to a form of "intolerance" then it strikes me that this kind of so-called "intolerance" of the intolerant is justified. At the personal, rather than political, level, we have every reason to work against the Cult of Misery and other arrogant religious cults, no matter how large they may be. Perhaps one day we'll be rid of the scourge of religious belief entirely, and the world will surely be better for it.

I am writing this in New South Wales, safe from Victoria's uncertain, dangerous, and (ironically) divisive laws on religious vilification. That legislation should be repealed; meanwhile, sometimes there's merit in travelling to another jurisdiction.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Blog break - Christmas visit

Off for a Christmas visit to the folks back home, so any blogging over the next week will be intermittent.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Death of Forrest J. Ackerman

It's been announced that legendary science fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman died from heart failure on 4 December. He was 92.

Unfortunately, Ackerman will be memorialised mainly for inventing the horrible term "sci-fi", which seems to have won the memetic war as an abbreviation for "science fiction". There was, however, a lot more to him than that. He was a great collector of science fiction and science fiction memorabilia, and a long-time leader in the community of science fiction fandom, dating back to the early decades of last century. He was an incredibly active editor and agent - helping the early careers of many of the genre's biggest names, among them, Ray Bradbury (not to mention the notorious L. Ron Hubbard). He had many publishing credits as a creative writer (often in collaboration with others), and made cameo appearances in a large number of science fiction movies. Ackerman's enormous productivity made him the most important and famous fan in the entire history of the genre; there will never be another like him.

I didn't know him personally, but he will be greatly missed by many, many people. My sincere condolescences to his loved ones.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Priestess and the Slave - Advance reading copies

Some advance reading copies of Jenny's book, The Priestess and the Slave, received here today. It looks rather handsome, though the cover used for this version is different from the one that will appear on the published book, which should be even better.

We're looking forward to publication early next year.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Great Firewall of Australia - express your anger now

Even mainstream child welfare groups are now coming out against the federal government's proposed Great Firewall of Australia.

This misguided initiative must be opposed with all our vigour. Leave aside the growing consensus that it is unlikely to have any beneficial effects in protecting children from genuine dangers, and is therefore useless (but horribly expensive) legislation. Leave aside that this useless legislation may cause a dramatic further decline in the speed of the internet in Australia. Important as those points may be, the essential point is that such legislation would hand the government a power that should never be entrusted to it. Once it starts providing a clean feed that cuts out some unspecified range of ... well, I assume the appropriate word is "dirty" ... content, who defines what is "clean" and "dirty" in the future? I realise, of course, that there would be an ability for individuals to opt out of the clean feed, but there is a second tier of restrictions proposed that you won't be able to opt out of, one that compulsorily excludes a harder core of material (essentially this is supposed to be about child pornography).

Despite the fondness that Senator Conroy has shown for smearing every critic or opponent as a friend of child pornographers, this is not the real concern. Once you provide for massive, technologically-enabled suppression of websites on secret grounds, you give the government and its agencies a power that could be exploited, even in the relatively short term, by moral panic merchants of all kinds (for example, it's easy to imagine the suppression of sites that discuss, advocate, or advise upon such things as euthanasia). We already have wingnuts in the Senate wanting to block gambling sites and hard-core porn sites that don't include child pornography. In the longer term ... are we really going to trust the diverse and unknown governments of the future with this kind of power to control what we can and cannot view on the internet?

The only way to respond to such a proposal is to oppose it every single step of the way - every bloody millimetre - as forthrightly as possible, and starting at the earliest possible time. Don't leave it until it's too late, as so often happens with oppressive or ill-advised laws. Once the Great Firewall of Australia has been built, it may be politically impossible to tear it down. Don't let our ever-so-benevolent masters build it in the first place. Join me, and express your anger now.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

VoD submitted!

The consolidated manuscript of the Voices of Disbelief book has now gone to the publisher. I've just emailed it to the people involved at the Wiley-Blackwell office in Oxford.

We now await the production process - Udo and I should have page proofs in about April, and can look forward to correcting proofs and producing an index (not the most fun part of writing or editing a book, but still ...). Actual publication will be later in the year, maybe around July-August. The final title of the book will probably be a slight variation on the working title to give it a bit more marketing edge.

We'll be writing out to all the contributors to let them know that the book has gone to the publisher - and to thank them - more officially, but I'll take the opportunity to give public thanks to them all once again. In addition to the two editors, we have ended up with fifty great contributors from all over the world and with many perspectives on religious belief, experiences of it, attitudes toward it, and reasons for rejecting it. My previous post on this blog shows the full line-up.

As the production process moves along, we'll also be needing to find ways to help publicise the book. This will include trying to identify high-profile people who are not actually included in the book but might be prepared to read it ... and endorse it if they like what they see. We'll be writing to various individuals, but if you fall into that category and happen to read this, please do get in touch.