In today's Sunday Age, Michael Bachelard has a feature article on the world-wide trend towards outspoken atheism (the so-called New Atheism that we hear so much about), which he relates to the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. (I am scheduled to speak at the Melbourne Convention along with far more celebrated writers and thinkers such as A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins ... and many others from Australia and elsewhere.)
Human faces of atheism
Most of Bachelard's article tells the stories of various individuals who have turned away from religious belief: Damian Coburn, who was raised in an extreme offshoot of the Catholic Church; Anne Robinson, who began as a Christian but went through a spiritual quest that included dabblings with Buddhism, New Age magic, and Wicca; "Aam" (a protective pseudonym) who comes from a Bangladeshi Muslim family; Leanne Carroll, who was schooled by nuns, but had an atheistic moment of epiphany at the age of 12; and Joe Kilgour, who lapsed from the faith of his very religious Uniting Church family.
These are all interesting stories, and I'm grateful to Bachelard for making them public. I could recommend the article just for these stories, which give contemporary atheism not just one but several human faces.
However, some of the other commentators quoted in the article make observations that require a response. Strangely enough, I am more concerned about a couple of reactions from fellow atheists than the more-or-less predictable ones from various theologians and religious leaders.
Guy Rundle and "missing the point"
I'm most concerned by the comments from hardline political leftist Guy Rundle, who seems of late to have become a walking, talking cautionary example of how not to be guided by reason and reality. Not content with his naive, illiberal, and spectacularly wrong comments about the Bill Henson debacle a couple of years ago, he now blunders in - just as crudely - on the topic of contemporary atheism:
WRITER and former editor of Arena magazine Guy Rundle, an atheist, believes the Dawkins-Hitchens version of atheism is "the most shatteringly empty creed to come along for many a year". It misses the point, he says, goes out of its way to hurl insults, misunderstands how belief systems work, uses straw man arguments and is boring because it "takes the least sophisticated form of theism and beats it around the head". It also fails to grapple with sophisticated theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth; and it is blind to the fact that, when science (quantum physics and cosmology) try to explain the origins of the universe, its materialist, atheist account is as mysterious and improbable as that of any religion. New atheism also, he says, refuses to concede that many people have feelings of transcendence that must be expressed.
This is so ill-informed and thoroughly wrong-headed that it's hard to know where to start in straightening it out. How do you unscramble an egg? For someone who accuses others of missing the point - suggesting that he imagines he knows what the point is - Rundle appears awfully obtuse.
For a start, the trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide ... rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.
The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions - but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.
In the scientific context, of course, "theory" does not mean "conjecture" or "speculation" - as it tends to in most everyday situations. It refers to a body of explanatory propositions, usually involving entities and other phenomena that can't be observed directly with the naked senses (since science deals with the very small, the very distant, and the remote past). Sufficiently well-evidenced theoretical propositions can quite rightly be accepted as facts.
To somebody who is untutored in the relevant evidence, and ignorant of the rest of science, it may be far more plausible that diseases are caused by the activity of evil spirits than that they are (often) caused by micro-organisms. But that is in no way an argument to abandon the micro-organism theory of disease in favour of the evil spirit theory. Nor is it a reason to respect the rationality of someone who lives in a modern Western society, yet still favours the evil spirit theory. The micro-organism theory is superior, not because it is more the sort of explanation that human beings find plausible when considered in isolation, but because it has survived all attempts at falsification, proved highly fruitful in scientific and medical practice, obtained support from observations with scientific instruments, cohered successfully with other scientific findings, and so on.
In all, it is Rundle's comments about the implausibility of science that are beside the point. Yes, science is implausible to untutored human common sense. It was already so 400 years ago when Galileo argued that the Earth rotates. That in no way casts doubt on the correctness of well-established scientific findings.
What Rundle does not admit is that only the most non-literalist kinds of theology – together with rarefied views such as eighteenth-century-style deism – are readily compatible with such parts of the scientific picture of the universe (and ourselves) as are now well-established. Obviously there are many religious claims that are plainly incompatible with well-established science, among them the claim that our planet is only six to ten thousand years old (the kind of age that can be deduced from the Old Testament genealogies, when calibrated against well-established dates in the secular historical record). However, even more sophisticated and supposedly "moderate" theologies (moderate about what?) are difficult to reconcile with the emerging scientific picture. When theologians make claims about human exceptionalism, divine providence, contra-causal free will, and so on, they paint a picture contrary to anything in the scientific one. Scientifically-minded atheists who point this out are not attacking a straw man. Rather, they are challenging mainstream Abrahamic theology - with all its centuries of accumulated prestige and influence.
It may well be true, as Rundle notes, that "many people" have "feelings of transcendence" (whatever, exactly that means; Rundle, of course, doesn't tell us), but no one is arguing that the expression of these "feelings" should be suppressed. Most modern atheists are all for freedom of speech and expression (unlike Rundle, who would have been happy to restrict Bill Henson's artistic freedom). It might, however, be beneficial if more people recognised their feelings of transcendence for what they are: i.e, they are feelings. As such, they have no capacity to reveal truths about a world external to the people who have them. Express away with all your heart, but don't be surprised if you're disbelieved when you attribute your feelings to contact with an unseen spiritual agency.
Of course, Rundle totally omits the central point - that religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns. Here in Australia, we are confronted by the pathetic sight of our Boy Scout prime minister, Kevin Rudd, sucking up to the sanctimonious killjoys of the Australian Christian Lobby.
The situation is even worse - far worse - in the religiose US, where the popular forms of religion have nothing especially subtle about them. I hate to break the news to Rundle and his fellow accommodationists of religious faith, but the names of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth are not household words in the American Bible Belt.
In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don't find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out - supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument. Which brings me to the comments attributed to David Nicholls.
David Nicholls and the herd of cats theory
Bachelard reports Nicholls' view as follows:
But it's to the accusation that they are establishing a new, fundamentalist faith called atheism that the unbelievers react most strongly. They are free thinkers. Individualists. They will change their mind if the evidence changes. The only thing atheists agree on, says David Nicholls, the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, is the lack of a God, "everything else is up for grabs". "Atheism itself doesn't say what it's got to do … there's no push, or movement or anything like that - it's certainly not anything like [the] women's liberation movement. ... [Atheists are] not good joiners, they don't mass on ovals and wave copies of Darwin around."
To this, Bachelard responds:
This makes for an odd lobby group. The most pressing questions regarding religion and society in Australia are political ones - tax exemptions for the religious, school funding, exemptions from discrimination law, public funding, religion in state schools. The Atheist Foundation of Australia and other humanist groups have long made their views known on these subjects, but there's no evidence that more and louder atheists have made any difference to their power - they could not, for example, secure public funding for the March convention, even though the Parliament of World Religions was given $4.5 million.
Here, I totally see the point. Nicholls is absolutely correct that contemporary atheists are not "fundamentalists". Indeed, this word and its cognates are thrown around by opponents in a manner that is both inaccurate and irresponsible. A fundamentalist atheist would be one who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text – perhaps The God Delusion or God Is Not Great – even in the face of results from rational inquiry. However, no such people exist. There are no contemporary atheists who display the equivalent of a Young Earth Creationist's insistence, against all the genuine evidence, that the Earth is only six to ten thousand years old. Or if there are, their fundamentalism relates to something other than mere atheism - perhaps to a political quasi-religion of some kind (with Das Kapital or Atlas Shrugged as the holy text).
Sometimes when I make this point it's replied that I am using an unreasonably narrow definition of the word "fundamentalism", but that's a specious argument. You cannot legitimately use a word in some broad or extended sense while at the very same time relying on connotations from the word's so-called "narrow" sense. It's an equivocation; it's an anti-rational and unfair style of argument. What makes fundamentalism so wrong in the first place is a certain kind of literal-minded, irrational dogmatism. This may be shared by some Marxist or Libertarian idealogues who happen to be atheists, but it is not a feature of contemporary scientifically-based atheism such as espoused by Dawkins or Grayling. If you are going to use the word to mean something like "forthright" or "outspoken", or even something like "interested in persuading others", you have to put up with the fact that there is actually nothing wrong with being "fundamentalist" in those senses. Of course, the effect of using the word in these ways is to destroy its usefulness (in some cases, no doubt, that is the desired effect).
So far, I'm with strongly with Nicholls, but is it really true that there's no atheist "push" or "movement", however loosely structured? I think that's going too far. Atheists may be freethinkers, more like cats who walk alone than like herd animals, but it seems obvious that something of an atheist movement really has developed in the past few years. It may not be an internally-coherent movement, or a hierarchical one, or one with a rich body of structured dogma - and the latter, especially, is all to the good. But there's a strong feeling among many non-believers, tapped into by Dawkins, Hitchens, and others - and now becoming widely identified, shared, and discussed - that, well, we've had enough.
If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them - live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society - whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.
Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers ... and when they involve large sums of public money. An obvious topic for discussion at the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention will be exactly what should be done to counter this political deference to religion.
Bachelard is, of course, correct, that Australian atheists and humanists have been weak, to date, as a lobby group. As he says, one might well judge by the failure to obtain public funding for the Global Atheist Convention itself. Still, it's very early days, and this is the first such large-scale convention for a nascent and ill-defined movement. My hope is that broad consensus will be achieved on at least a lowest common denominator of goals. In particular, we can agree that our freedom of speech and expression is constantly threatened in Australia, usually with religious morality lurking in the background - whether it be attempts to suppress Henson's photography, religious vilification laws, or the federal government's dangerous plan to censor the internet. Our colleagues in other countries have similar problems.
A good start for future lobbying would be cohesive, active agreement that free speech and artistic expression are non-negotiable, and that we cannot trust governments to legislate wisely on what we may lawfully say, hear, and see. Except in absolutely compelling cases, freedom of speech should not be abridged.
This is a good time for atheist cats to gather and voice their disbelief, but it's more than that. We should not accept intrusions on our freedoms, based on antiquated, often irrational, religious moralities ... and it is oppressive when these are imposed on us in such forms as extended government censorship. Atheist cats are not herd animals - that's true - but we do need freedom to live the lives we choose, based on reason. In particular, we need guaranteed freedom to express ourselves, including through satire of religion and so-called blasphemy.
On something as important as that, we can have a collective voice, and we should be proud if we get it heard loudly this coming March, in Melbourne.