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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Big move approaches

We're kind of living at two addresses at the moment, one in Melbourne and one 600 miles away in Newcastle. Most of our stuff is still in Melbourne, but this will all change within two weeks when we move it all up.

Tomorrow we have a housecooling party for the Melbourne place. See some of you there ... er, here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Greta Christina on converting the religious

Greta Christina has an excellent piece on AlterNet. She argues persuasively against the silly idea that there's something inherently intolerant about attempts by atheists to persuade the religious to become atheists. While this should go without saying, it's useful for her to put the detail of the argument. Basically, it goes like this: religion is one hypothesis - or, rather, a set of numerous hypotheses - about how the world works; and there is nothing wrong with testing such hypotheses, arguing about them, and attempting to reach agreement on their epistemic status.

I totally agree, and I add that there is no great benefit to diversity if it means a diversity of false beliefs. Diversity of art forms, cuisines, literary traditions and so on can be aesthetically pleasing, but it's rather different with beliefs. We should look kindly on diversity of beliefs insofar as it is evidence that no one belief is being imposed by political power, something we all have reason to fear. However, this kind of diversity is not something to be pursued for its own sake. We should prefer true beliefs to a diversity of (mostly false) beliefs.

Where I do have a quibble is that I think Greta goes close to something like a logical positivist position, with all its inherent paradoxes. Once you start saying that hypotheses are unacceptable unless they are empirically falsifiable, the obvious rejoinder is to ask whether what you just said is itself an empirically falsifiable hypothesis - if it's not, what is it? It doesn't, for example, look like an analytically true claim (something that must be correct as a matter of logic). You need an epistemological position that is at least rich enough to accommodate its own claims.

But I don't think she needs to go down a path that involves any paradoxes. All that needs to be said is the following.

The senses of human beings are limited, so there are many truths about the world that we can't observe directly. Indeed, our senses often mislead us. When it comes to events that happened a long time ago, or which are very distant from us, or which take place on a very small scale, it is extremely difficult for us to obtain knowledge. Direct observation won't do the job.

However, for the past 400 years science has become increasingly able to obtain robust knowledge about very ancient, very distant, and very small-scale events. In principle, its methods can be useful in assessing many kinds of hypotheses about events that are hidden from direct observation. The techniques it uses involve, among other things, the rigorous application of an everyday method of reasoning, namely hypothetico-deductive reasoning. By combining this with mathematical modelling, arguments from consilience, and instruments that extend the senses (telescopes, cloud chambers, geiger counters, etc.), science is able to develop powerful lines of convergent evidence to support hypotheses that would otherwise be no more than arbitrary speculations.

Some religious claims - for example those about the Earth's past - can be tested and falsified by these distinctively scientific means. Others, however, are left in the category of arbitrary speculation, since we have no way to tell whether they are true or false. They are not like logical principles (such as modus ponens) or epistemological principles (such as "prima facie, believe what you see with your own eyes under good conditions") that are widely and inter-culturally accepted and can be discussed, clarified, and refined, as happens in philosophy. They are more like speculations that were made about very distant events at a time in history when human beings had no real evidence to ground such speculations and no real way to test them. Religious claims fitting in this category are, indeed, useless, because it is possible to imagine an infinite number of them without having any reason to believe that any particular one is true, or any way at all to choose among them. It would be freakishly unlikely for any particular one of these arbitary claims to be true.

No paradoxical epistemological principles are required here, just the true observation that it is arbitrary to believe in any particular one of the infinite number of claims that could be made about unobservable and unevidenced events.

With that caveat, I'll send you off to read Greta Christina's wonderful essay.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Does anyone reading this live in Higgins?

If so, I urge you to vote #1 Fiona Patten in the by-election on Saturday, 5 December. I don't know her personally, and I realise that the name of her party, the Australian Sex Party, makes it sound as if she's a loopy one-issue candidate. But her party's platform looks as sensible as anything I've ever seen from a political party. We certainly do need a voice in Canberra against the unremitting wowserism that has become so prevalent in Australian politics. I don't support every single item in the party's platform, but it makes good sense overall. I agree with the general direction it indicates.

If Patten and her group seem too "out there", consider the Australian Democrats. They can really do with some votes.

Whatever you do, don't vote for Clive Hamilton, even if (like me) you agree with him about the urgency of responding to climate change. Send a strong message to the Greens by putting him last when you mark your ballot. It is a very disappointing act by the Greens to field a social conservative candidate who is, among things, a leading proponent of internet censorship. We expect the Greens to be among the guardians of free speech in Australia, not among its attackers. It doesn't matter how articulate he may or may not be about environmental issues, the choice of Hamilton as a candidate was a monumental misjudgment. I hope the Greens will be made to answer for it, and that they'll be wiser next time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In the bolshevik cabaret - John Gray

I'm not usually a big fan of the depressing, pessimistic philosopher John Gray, but I do like some of his individual observations from time to time - and I relished this review of a couple of new books by adherents of the secular religion of Marxism.

I haven't read the particular books, so I can't say whether or not Gray is on the money with his opinion of them. But he's certainly right to worry about Marxism making a comeback. As a matter of fact, I think he should be a bit more worried, because his attitude seems to be that no one serious (or with real social support) actually wants a communist revolution, and that such books as those he's reviewing provide an irrelevant spectacle for our amusement, something like a cabaret act. Perhaps ... but, then again, maybe not. Marxism is at best a distraction from the real job of building truly liberal and rational societies - societies in which individual freedom replaces conformity to any conventional template for living our lives. It would be better if Marxism withered away, much like the state is supposed to do in Marxist fantasies about the future.

It's unfortunate that this religion-like belief system, with its in-built apocalypticism, authoritarianism, and allegiance to dogma, and its quasi-God of History, still persists. The need for critique of Marxism (and its various flavours) has been less urgent in recent times than the need for critique of more clearly supernaturalist religions, such as Christianity and Islam ... mainly because the latter are still deferred to in Western countries: for some reason, it's widely imagined that religious leaders are our moral leaders and have something of value to say about how we ought to be governed. By contrast, Marxism is thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most people in the West.

But Marxism is every bit as much an irrational, comprehensive belief system as Christianity or Islam, and its tendencies to totalitarianism and apocalypticism make it especially dangerous. Of course, Marx may well have had some genuine insights (such as the way economic circumstances can shape beliefs and values). In a trivial sense, we are all Marxists now, in that we've absorbed whatever is of lasting value in Marx's writings. But that doesn't justify treating those writings - or those of Lenin or Mao or others of the sick crew - like holy books.

Marxism as we've known it over the past 100 years or so - as a sort of political religion espoused by fanatics such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - has been a disaster. People of reason should regard revolutionary Marxists with the same horror that they feel for fundamentalist Christians, or radical Islamists, or nutjob followers of Ayn Rand. Sure, there are some important distinctions to be made (in favour of the Randians, they are usually not inclined to personal acts of violence; in favour of the fundamentalist Christians, at least some of them are prepared to live within a liberal state side by side with people who disagree with them). But really, they're all pretty much as bad as each other.

If they are sometimes each other's enemies, that doesn't make any of them our friends.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Muslim countries seek blasphemy ban

This story by Frank Jordan for Associated Press is well worth reading.

GENEVA — Four years after cartoons of the prophet Muhammad set off violent protests across the Muslim world, Islamic nations are mounting a campaign for an international treaty to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery — essentially a ban on blasphemy that would put them on a collision course with free speech laws in the West.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that Algeria and Pakistan have taken the lead in lobbying to eventually bring the proposal to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly.

If ratified in countries that enshrine freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a treaty would require them to limit free speech if it risks seriously offending religious believers. The process, though, will take years and no showdown is imminent.


Go to the link above to read on.

I don't know what extra documents AP may have, since it is widely known that Pakistan has been taking the running in pushing for a UN ban on "defamation of religions", but the analysis looks pretty good. The issue will grind on over time, but it is clear that the nations forming the Organization of the Islamic Conference have long-term plans - plans which they will pursue tenaciously - to gain the moral high ground in their own draconian restrictions on freedom of speech, and to obtain what further restrictions they can, even in the West, on speech that criticises or satirises religion. The aim is to silence serious criticism of Islam, and if that means silencing serious criticism of other religions, too ... well, the OIC nations are happy to make common cause with anyone who is prepared to support their aim.

This is an issue that we should not lose sight of. Deep concern about the implications for freedom of speech - especially for freedom of speech that criticises religious doctrines, practices, leaders, organisations, etc. - is totally appropriate. This is not just paranoia on the part of some scattered free speech advocates; it's very serious.

The push to ban "defamation of religion(s)" was the topic of my talk at this year's Atheist Alliance International convention (in Los Angeles, back in October), and I'll continue to come back to it. It's easy even for civil rights activists to overlook the importance of this issue, and we must do what we can to make sure there is never any acquiescence from the West.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Radio Australia Interview

For those who missed the live interview, the podcast is available here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Interview coming up on Radio Australia

Feel free to listen in on Thursday at 11.50 am, Melbourne time, to Radio Australia, where I'll be doing a live interview about 50 Voices of Disbelief.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reminder about IEET seminar: biopolitics of popular culture

I really wish I could get to this, and indeed take part in such a spectacular program. Don't miss it, if you can be in sunny California early in December:

SCHEDULE:
8:00 AM - Doors open, sign-in and continental breakfast

8:45 AM - Mike Treder, IEET managing director - Opening remarks

9:00 AM - Dr. James Hughes, IEET executive director
“Is There a Pro-Mutant Trend in Popular Culture?”

9:25 AM - Alex Lightman, executive director, Humanity Plus
“The Future Engine: How Science Fiction Catalyzes Technology and Transforms Society”

9:50 AM - Professor Michael LaTorra, New Mexico State University
“The Ultimate City: Urban and Rural Values in Science Fiction”

10:15 AM - Break

10:30 AM - Richard Eskow, Huffington Post
“Zero-Sum Superheroes: A Marketing Plan to Counter Centuries of Cultural Programming”

10:55 AM - P.J. Manney, writer for television and film
“How Yucky Got Yummy: The Evolution of Empathy in SF”

11:20 AM - Kristi Scott, IEET intern
“Constructing the Future through the Cinematic Lens of Dystopic Science Fiction Futures”

11:45 AM - EON Reality Facility demonstration

12:10 PM - Lunch (provided)

12:30 PM - Moderated group discussion

1:00 PM - Panel - “Immersion: The Coming Fusion of Life and Entertainment”
Natasha Vita-More, media artist/designer and theorist
Jeannie Novak, founder of Indiespace
Matthew Patrick, director of feature films and TV movies
Michael Masucci, writer, producer, director, photographer, editor, musician

2:10 PM - Edward Miller, Network for Open Scientific Innovation
“Beyond Utopia and Dystopia: A Critical Examination of the Ecology of Science Fiction”

2:35 PM - Richard Kadrey, science fiction and fantasy author
“New Flesh A GoGo”

3:00 PM - Jess Nevins, expert on comic book culture
“Those Who Cannot Remember Doc Savage Are Condemned to Repeat Him”

3:25 PM - Break

3:40 PM - David Brin, best-selling author
“Myths That Help the Enlightenment … and Others That Tear It Down”

4:05 PM - Brian Cross, co-founder of Posthuman Studios
“Talking Transhumanism at the Table: Designing Games for Non-Transhumanist Audiences”

4:30 PM - Annalee Newitz, editor of i09
“Will Mind-Controlled, Genetically-Engineered Sexbots Want to Play Videogames?”

4:55 PM - Jamais Cascio, IEET Senior Fellow - Closing remarks

5:30 PM - Conclusion

Melbourne!!

Okay, back in Melbourne for the next three to four weeks. This is getting a bit crazy, but never mind. The time in Newcastle, with our first days in our new house, went pretty well. Now for the arrangements to move everything up, including Felix ... while juggling a few other things.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Normblog profile published

Voila!

Russell Blackford was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up near Newcastle, 100 miles north. He will be returning to Newcastle at the end of 2009, after 30 years in Melbourne. He is a philosopher, literary critic, and (sometimes) creative writer. His books include Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (1999, co-written with Van Ikin and Sean McMullen); 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (2009, co-edited with Udo Schuklenk), and several novels. Russell is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. He blogs at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
Read on ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Between states

Well, here's the deal. We've just spent most of a week in our new house, here in Newcastle. We've managed to do quite a few things this week, including getting ourselves NSW drivers' licences and picking up the new car that we had on order. I was a bit sad to farewell the trusty old Honda Integra, which has served us well for over two decades and is still a great little car to drive. OTOH, the new Civic Sport that we've picked up is a thing of beauty and I'm certainly enjoying driving it around to visit people or on errands.

But there's still a lot to do in Melbourne. We'll be driving back on Sunday (in our new car!) to start sorting things out, where "things" includes the main moving (furniture, cat, and all). It's going to (continue to) be pretty volatile at our end for the next month, but we'll soon be here in Newcastle on a permanent basis (well, except that some of our dearest friends live in Melbourne ... so we'll still be travelling there frequently).

I'm crunching through various things (articles, book reviews, referee reports, etc., etc.) that I owe people; I'm really, truly doing them as quickly as I can. Really I am! If you are one of the people concerned, I probably haven't forgotten you. It's just that I've taken on a lot of tasks (because people will ask me to, and I say "Yes" if I reasonably can), and I'm not in the best position to get them all done quickly. I am, however, managing to do stuff each day, thanks to the miracle of the internet and a laptop computer, so don't despair of me. Feel free to drop me a note if you fear you're sinking too far down my list of priorities, but you're probably on my conscience already.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Civility, civility, there's nothing like civility

In our article in Comment is Free, Udo and I say this:

In many situations, it is better to be civil, as Paul Kurtz has pointed out, but satire and mockery have traditionally had a legitimate place whenever absurd ideas are joined to power and privilege. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire often used mockery to show the absurdity of ideological stances — including religious ones — that were considered sacrosanct. Mockery is one way of saying that a view does not deserve to be taken seriously. Religious views are fair game if one can also show, on a more serious level, why the view in question does indeed not deserve serious respect.

Perhaps some rationalist or humanist organisations, such as Kurtz's venerable Center for Inquiry, do have good reason to maintain a scholarly and dignified brand image. But there is also room for the younger, brasher atheists whom Kurtz inaccurately brands as "fundamentalists", and, in any event, there is a world of difference between appropriate civility and keeping quiet.


I would have thought that this was fairly clear.

* We are not denying that civility is often "better" or "appropriate". We say that it is.
* We are denying that we should have to shut up or engage in self-censorship, as opposed to engaging in appropriate civility.
* We think that there's a place for mocking absurd ideological stances, and we define what that place is: where it could be shown, on another level, why the stance is absurd. I'll add that comedy, parody, ridicule, etc., are often useful to get people to look at something from another angle, when they are used to seeing it in a way that makes them blind to the absurdity.

Nowhere in the article do we defend merely insulting people with whom we are engaged in debate, or mocking ideas merely for the sake of hurting feelings. (To be fair, though, I'm not above making fun of powerful opponents such as the pope. This is less defensible, but it's mostly harmless when fun is being made of powerful authority figures, rather than of the powerless.)

Good Christian apologists don't refrain from mocking ideas that they disagree with and consider (rightly or wrongly) to be absurd. Anyone who is at all familiar with C.S. Lewis knows that he did this all the time. Some of his mockery of what he considered absurd naive views of progress, in Out of the Silent Planet for example, is very funny even if not entirely fair. Lewis also had no qualms about making fun of powerful opponents such as Wells and Haldane. In short, we don't suggest that atheists do more than is already done by people who defend religious positions. So why is what we are suggesting not almost uncontroversial?

What I would never defend (and I'm sure Udo would agree here) is referring to opponents by dehumanising epithets such as "rats", "vermin", etc. There is a huge difference between parodying or mocking an idea, or even the eccentricities of a powerful individual, and referring to opponents as if they are sub-human. I thought that the thread a couple back might have led to some thoughtful discussions of these kinds of important distinctions.

Religion and science

I see that y'all are debating this issue in response to my previous post. That's fine, though not the topic of the post as I saw it.

As far as I'm concerned, to say "Religion and science are compatible" is simplistic and misleading. There is something true that can be intended those words, but they suggest a lot more that is not true. At the very least, some religious positions are plainly incompatible with well-established science.

It is also simplistic and misleading to say just "Religion and science are incompatible." Doubtless, occasions can be found where I (or people I see as intellectual allies) have used this expression as shorthand. But we've also spent a lot of time elsewhere, or even in the same places, discussing the more complex ideas involved. Let me be clear, though, at least some recognisably religious positions are not in conflict with science. That's because there are some positions that are very thinned out in their epistemic content - in the extreme, they make no supernatural claims at all but merely suggest that there is wisdom to be gained by studying certain traditions or holy books, or psychological value to be gained from participating in certain rituals. I don't think that we are in position where claims such as those are incompatible with well-established scientific findings. Put that broadly, the claims may even be true.

Of course, there may also be wisdom to be gained from studying Shakespeare and psychological benefit to be gained from participating in many purely secular activities (sport, sex, whatever).

Furthermore, I see no conflict between science and a range of religious positions that are thinned out to the point of resembling deism. It's also possible for religious positions to be changed ad hoc to conform to well-established science (although when that happens I think it is rational to reject such a position, whether or not the reasoning is labelled "scientific" or "philosophical").

The interesting question is whether certain traditional or popular claims made by Abrahamic theologians are difficult to reconcile with well-established science. It is when accommodationists seem to suggest blithely that there's no problem, or that even if there are problems we should not say so, that I comment (sometimes trenchantly). There are many problems, IMO. If you want to know what some of them are, well one good place to start would be Philip Kitcher's essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I get mail

"Just read the article that Udo Schuklenk and you wrote about standing up and even mocking Christianity. Go ahead. Christianity can take it and always has taken crap from vermin like you. Now, I want you to look between your legs and see if you have the balls to do it with equal passion to Islam. I bet you won't. Don't give me the line that it hasn't affected governments like Christianity has. Britain is being taken over as we speak. So, big fella, do you got the balls to attack it, well, do ya?"

Nice people, these Christians. You know them by how loving they are.

No, that's not fair. Some of them really are nice. My regular readers will recall that one of the long-running sub-themes of this blog is that genuinely moderate religious people are not the enemies of secular people like me. My Point of Inquiry podcast elaborates on what I mean by that. You have to ask what a person is actually moderate about.

Meanwhile, I must say that in my day as a local youth leader in the Evangelical Union it was not normal for us to refer to opponents as "vermin". We were more likely to pray for them that they'd be touched by God's grace. There seems to be a nastier kind of evangelical Christian around these days.

As for the substance, well ... the article referred to made some fairly nuanced points about the place for mockery of absurd ideas. I think that even my critics, or at least the honest ones, will acknowledge that.

However, for the record, I think that Nazism, traditional forms of Islam, fascism, serious kinds of communism, and all other authoritarian, apocalyptic systems of dogma, of which there are so many, are fair game for mockery and ridicule (in the circumstances that Udo and I discussed).

They all have crazy doctrines and terrible crimes to answer for. I've always said that I see these systems as similar to each other, whereas I see liberal theological systems and tolerant syncretisms as not so bad. You'll never see me defending fascists and you'll never see me shy away from saying that the literal claims traditionally made by Islam are as bad as those traditionally made by Christianity (though doubtless both religions have highly liberal forms, theologically and politically, that I have no terribly urgent problem with ... and I do not see every single Christian and Muslim as an enemy of freedom and reason).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

AC Grayling on the university system

AC Grayling has a superb article at Comment is Free in defence of the traditional values of the university system (he is thinking of the humanities in particular, but surely some of this is more widely applicable to the sciences and other areas).

University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses, but the very opposite. It is not about maximising contact hours, but about autonomy in thinking, researching and writing. We once used to ask, "What are you reading at university?" In those words lies the clue to what a university education is supposed to involve. People who get into university change educational gear and direction on doing so. They read and attend lectures, they write essays and discuss them with their tutors and peers. To do this in a knowledgeable and intelligent way, they have to do a lot of thinking, studying and discovering, the bulk of it for themselves, because no one else can do it for them.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Point of Inquiry interview

My interview with D.J. Grothe is now available.

From the intro on the site:

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Russell Blackford explains the need for 50 Voices of Disbelief. He argues that there can be no more important question than whether religion and faith deliver on their promises. He explores whether religion will persist. He contends that religious leaders are not our society's moral leaders. He discusses a number of contributed essays in the 50 Voices collection, such as James Randi's, entitled "A Magician Looks at Religion," which explores how a background in magic may inform one's understanding of religion, and Peter Adegoke's essay, which argues that religion is impeding Nigeria's social, economic and scientific progress.

He talks about how the book includes contributions from people all over the world and from every continent, except Antarctica. He discusses essays by Sumitra Padmanabhan and Prabir Ghosh that explore the harms that religion cause in India, and alternatives to religion, such as humanism. He talks about how the diversity of views in the essay collection show that there is "no party-line of atheism." He comments on essays by psychologist and parapsychologist Susan Blackmore ("Giving Up Ghosts and Gods"), and philosopher Philip Kitcher ("Beyond Disbelief"). He discusses recent controversies over CFI's International Blasphemy Day, and opposing views of Paul Kurtz and Ron Lindsay regarding criticism of religion, and whether "moderate religion" should be criticized or viewed as an ally to advance secular, pro-science values. He talks about the relationship between atheism and progressive social values. And he argues that religion should not be allowed to remain private, and therefore beyond public scrutiny and critique.


Just one point of qualiifcation that I'll make, as somebody raised it at RichardDawkins.net. I think that DJ in the last sentence above, means "religion should not be allowed to hide from public criticism"; i.e., he doesn't mean "religion should be allowed to exercise political power". I'm sure he doesn't believe the latter or think that I do.

It was an enjoyable experience doing this interview, and a great opportunity to communicate to a different and larger audience. My thanks to DJ Grothe and others at Point of Inquiry. I hope the result is enjoyable and illuminating.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Article in Comment is Free

Ta-dah!! Here it is, published under the title "Stand up, stand up, against Jesus!" It begins:

Religious teachings promise us much — eternal life, spiritual salvation, moral direction, and a deeper understanding of reality. It all sounds good, but these teachings are also onerous in their demands. If they can't deliver on what they promise, it would be well to clear that up. Put bluntly, are the teachings of any religion actually true or not? Do they have any rational support? It's hard to see what questions could be more important. Surely the claims of religion — of all religions — merit scrutiny from every angle, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or any other.

Read on ...

Friday, November 06, 2009

IEET's "Biopolitics of popular culture" seminar

This seminar on 4 December looks fascinating:

Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.

Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.


Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend, but if I were based in the US I'd certainly make the effort. The list of speakers is fascinating - Natasha Vita-More, Annalee Newitz, and many others (including a host of IEET luminaries).

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The supposed atheist schism (article coming up in Comment is Free)

This week, The Guardian's Comment is Free site is running a series of brief pieces addressing the following questions about a supposed atheist schism:

In recent months there have been signs of clear disagreement within the atheist movement about what its proper attitude to religion should be. One of the leading lights of the older generation, Paul Kurtz, has complained about the recent celebrations of "blasphemy day", enthusiastically embraced byPZ Myers. Others, derided by Daniel Dennett as "atheists but" have also complained. Is this a real division in the movement?

One possibility is that there is no movement to divide, and that atheists merely are people who don't believe in God. But in that case, how should they spread their views? Should they be attempting to extirpate religion? Must they believe the world would be better off without it?


The first piece in the series is by Michael Ruse, who claims that there is indeed a schism and that he is on the "unfashionable" side. Udo Schuklenk and I have co-authored a piece in the same series, and this will be published soon. Ophelia Benson is one of the others involved, but we'll await the series of articles as it takes shape over the next few days.

Ruse's arguments seem to come down to (1) not all religion is evil and corrupting (surely a straw man argument); (2) the claim that Dawkins' The God Delusion was not as sophisticated as it could have been in dealing with traditional issues in philosophy of religion (true, but of limited relevance in a book that was focused on other issues and was written at a popular level); and (3) some of his best friends are religious.

As to the latter, Ruse informs us that he would gladly take advice on everyday matters from Rowan Williams, Alvin Plantinga, or Ernan McMullin:

I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men.

Well, that proves it! Like most people, I often need advice on everyday matters. Today, for example, I needed some advice on an efficient and reasonably priced shuttle service from San Jose to San Francisco Airport. The friendly staff at the hotel where I'm staying helped out, but what a pity I didn't have Rowan Williams near at hand to offer me his advice. I'm sure that he is a more seasoned traveller than I am, and that his advice on such an everyday matter would be sound.

Similarly, I need some advice about minor work on my new house to make it more cat-friendly (the current cat door is not ideal, and I'm thinking of taking a different approach). Where's Alvin Plantinga when you need him? He'd no doubt have much to say that could save me from going down the wrong path. I'm serious. I'll be needing good advice on just this issue, and I'll definitely appreciate it if I'm given any. You can't get too much good advice on everyday things like that, so someone please send Plantinga around to help.

I'm not so familiar with McMullin, the Catholic guy, but if he knows a thing or two about planting and nurturing a vegetable garden ... well, give him my new address.

I don't doubt that Williams, Plantinga, and McMullin have much to say about everyday matters that is quite useful. It's their advice on not-so-everyday matters that I'm more wary about: matters of sin, redemption, and the Last Things. Frankly, I'd rather take my cat's advice on these things - it might be cryptic and lacking in scholarly support, but at least it won't lead me seriously astray. Furthermore, Mystical Prince Felix has exactly as much access to supernatural wisdom as the three men named by Ruse, i.e. none at all.

But Ruse's worst howler is when he suggests that, if there is a contradiction between evolutionary science and certain religious belief, then it follows that teaching evolution in public schools is unconstitutional in the United States:

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

Ugh! Where do you start? Fortunately, Jerry Coyne has already dealt with this, so let me quote him and not say much more:

Although Ruse loudly and constantly praises himself for his perspicacity and deep understanding of philosophy and politics, he seems unable to comprehend this simple fact: the erosion of one’s faith by the facts of biology, astronomy, geology, biblical scholarship and the like does not mean that these fields are equivalent to atheism. Is that so hard to understand?

So here’s my “good argument,” Dr. Ruse: lots of things that we teach students make them question not only their faith, but their fundamental values. This is GOOD. Questioning your principles is one of the main aims of education, as Socrates knew well. As biology teachers, our job is to teach evolution, for that is the true account of the history of life. If that account leads some people to question or leave their faith, that’s just too bad. But it’s not the same thing as telling students that there is no god.


Exactly. Evolution is not taught with the purpose of undermining religion, and nor is that its primary effect. The primary effect is simply to impart an understanding of (one important area of) science. That's a perfectly good secular goal for the state to pursue, given its interest in the flourishing of children and the development of their natural talents. If some religious beliefs are contrary to the picture of the world that science gives us, then that is something that students need to reconcile for themselves. And it should be clear that at least some religious beliefs are, indeed, contrary to robust elements of the emerging scientific picture. The only question is which ones?

The argument that Ruse puts is contrary to the entire body of US constitutional jurisprudence on the issue, as well as being wrong in principle and leading to absurd results if any attempt were made to apply it as a new legal doctrine.

Finally, no argument of this kind can alter the facts: either some (perhaps many) religious views are at odds with the scientific picture - or not. It's outrageous to suggest that Dawkins (or anyone else) should cease pursuing the truth as he sees it just because Ruse sees a possible constitutional consequence that no actual judge in the American court system has taken seriously to date.

Ruse appears to support the "framing" approach to selling evolution to the American public, which avoids linking it in any way with atheism. On this approach, you say what you think will please your audience (or its various sub-demographics), rather than engaging in a sincere quest for truth.

This strategy is not going to work. Thoughtful Christians who accept the scientifically-measured age of the earth (about 4.6 billion years) can nonetheless see for themselves that evolutionary theory raises deep questions for their faith. It's futile, and rather insulting, to try to hide this from them. In most cases it is just as futile trying to coax hard-line fundamentalists, who believe that our planet is less than 10,000 years old, to convert to a more science-friendly kind of religion. For such people, the age of the earth and the special creation of each life form are doctrines that sit near the core of an integrated theological system; they are not optional extras. In any event, the framing strategy stinks of opportunism and intellectual dishonesty.

The piece that Udo Shuklenk and I were commissioned to write for Comment is Free was completed prior to publication of Ruse's article, but it will make the essential points about why we feel the need to speak out against gods and religion. The eradication of religion is not a realistic aim, but confronting the more egregious claims to authority of religious leaders and organisations certainly is realistic and worthwhile.

And we'll go on doing it.

I just did an interview for Point of Inquiry

I just did an interview with DJ Grothe at Point of Inquiry , focused on 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. This turned out to be an enjoyable experience, and hopefully the results will be available online in the next day or so.

Monday, November 02, 2009

World Fantasy Awards 2009

As announced today, here in San Jose.

2009 World Fantasy Awards Ballot
The World Fantasy Convention 2009 was held in San Jose, California.
Judges were Jenny Blackford, Peter Heck, Ellen Klages, Chris Roberson, Delia Sherman

Life Achievement
winner Ellen Asher
winner Jane Yolen


Novel
winner The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford (Morrow)
winner Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin; Knopf)
The House of the Stag, Kage Baker (Tor)
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury)
Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory (Del Rey)

Novella
winner "If Angels Fight", Richard Bowes (F&SF 2/08)
"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel", Peter S. Beagle (Strange Roads)
"The Overseer", Albert Cowdrey (F&SF 3/08)
"Odd and the Frost Giants", Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury; HarperCollins)
"Good Boy", Nisi Shawl (Filter House)

Short Story
winner "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss", Kij Johnson (Asimov's 7/08)
"Caverns of Mystery", Kage Baker (Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy)
"Pride and Prometheus", John Kessel (F&SF 1/08)
"Our Man in the Sudan", Sarah Pinborough (The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories)
"A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica", Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 5/08)

Anthology
winner Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy, Ekaterina Sedia, ed. (Senses Five Press)
The Living Dead, John Joseph Adams, ed. (Night Shade Books)
The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Del Rey)
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: Twenty-First Annual Collection, Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, & Gavin J. Grant, eds. (St. Martin's)
Steampunk, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Tachyon Publications)

Collection
winner The Drowned Life, Jeffrey Ford (HarperPerennial)
Strange Roads, Peter S. Beagle (DreamHaven Books)
Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link (Viking)
Filter House, Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct Press)
Tales from Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan (Allen & Unwin; Scholastic '09)

Artist
winner Shaun Tan
Kinuko Y. Craft
Janet Chui
Stephan Martinière
John Picacio

Special Award—Professional
winner Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant (for Small Beer Press and Big Mouth House)
Farah Mendlesohn (for Rhetorics of Fantasy)
Stephen H. Segal & Ann VanderMeer (for Weird Tales)
Jerad Walters (for A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft)
Jacob Weisman (for Tachyon Publications)

Special Award—Non-professional
winner Michael J. Walsh (for Howard Waldrop collections from Old Earth Books)
Edith L. Crowe (for her work with The Mythopoeic Society)
John Klima (for Electric Velocipede)
Elise Matthesen (for setting out to inspire and for serving as inspiration for works of poetry, fantasy, and SF over the last decade through her jewelry-making and her "artist's challenges.")
Sean Wallace, Neil Clarke, & Nick Mamatas (for Clarkesworld)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Jerry Coyne's position statement

Jerry Coyne summarises his position on the never-ending, tiresome, but seemingly unavoidable, accommodationism debate. I don't see anything to object to in what he says here, but - *sigh* - I'm sure various others will.

Hopefully, we can soon move on, since this debate is a waste of time. People are quite entitled (not just legally but in any other sense of "entitled" that you like) to criticise even so-called moderate religious positions (which are often not very moderate at all). They are also entitled to base some or all of their criticisms on facts that have become known to us through scientific investigation of the world over the past 400 years or so. End of story.