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

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sydney Morning Herald article on Global Atheist Convention

Today's Sydney Morning Herald contains an article by religion reporter Jacqueline Maley on the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention (12-14 March, in Melbourne).

Maley starts off well:

Something you will never see: an atheist boarding a plane with a bomb strapped to him, waving a copy of On The Origin Of Species, before he blows himself up in a violent attempt to further his cause.

So says David Nicholls, the head of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the man at the increasingly pointy end of the reinvigorated and freshly vocal atheism movement.


Quite so. Atheists tend not to be fanatical people - at least not unless caught up by some kind of comprehensive quasi-religion such as Stalinism. Neither the lack of belief in God nor a commitment to good science is likely, in itself, to lead to fanaticism and violence. For that, you need a worldview with some kind of apocalypic content, something that makes you think you are doing the work of God or History, and that the lives of ordinary people may rightly be sacrificed in a great cause. Like the Marxist-Leninist political tradition, the traditions of the Abrahamic religions contain much to encourage that sort of worldview.

Good for Nicholls in making that point, and good for Maley in leading with it.

However, the headline "Atheism's true believers gather", is already off-putting. This was probably chosen by a sub-editor rather than by the journalist, but its condescending suggestion that there is something paradoxical and funny about the convention is reflected in the article itself, with such barbs as the reference to Richard Dawkins as the atheist movement's "supreme deity". Why not just say, truthfully, that he is the most prominent figure in contemporary atheism? Dawkins provides leadership of a kind, but he is not the equivalent of a pope or a patriarch, or even a priest or a bishop, let alone a deity. His leadership comes from the power of his ideas and his ability to present them lucidly.

Yes, it probably does no great damage to insert such wording, but the cumulative effect of this sort of thing is to make the article seem like smartarse journalism.

That's unfortunate because it could have been better than this. Maley appears to be fair in the way she treats the people she interviewed, so why spoil the effect? The quotes attributed to me, from a phone interview earlier this week, seem to be correct, and she allows Nicholls, Tanya Smith, and me to come across as sensible people. I don't think the article is damaging to us, in the sense that we will look bad to unbiased readers, but for all that I do find much of it annoying.

Take the following:

As atheists organise and unite, they increasingly face the criticisms they are used to levelling against their faithful counterparts - that they are extremists, skewed fundamentalists. Others warn that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads logically to social Darwinism.

Hitchens is often accused of recycling arguments and of demolishing his marks with one-eyed fervour. His targets include Mother Teresa, a woman well on her way to canonisation.

Dawkins has been criticised for his ignorance of Christian theology, and his inability (and that of science in general) to disprove the existence of God.


The bit about recycling arguments is odd: is he really supposed to come up with wholly original arguments or with new ones each time? But the sentence about Mother Teresa is especially tendentious.

Mother Teresa may be on her way to canonisation, but there is much controversy as to whether her work genuinely ameliorated suffering among the poor of India or had the opposite effect. Within the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, suffering is not loathed as an unmitigated, radical evil, as it is by most people who simply respond with healthy human sympathy to those who are in pain. For the Church, suffering is accepted as a mystery, and sometimes even valorised for bringing us closer to God. Conversely, birth control and the emancipation of women from traditional roles are considered morally problematic. The sort of figure who is likely to be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily the sort who does the most secular good in helping people attain their freedom and in carrying out good works that really do help those who are suffering from illness and pain.

However, Maley skips over all this by hinting strongly that Mother Teresa is, of course, an inappropriate target for criticism by a public intellectual such as Christopher Hitchens - and thus that Hitchens himself merits criticism for going there. But there's no of course about it. Mother Teresa was, at best, a problematic figure, even though (or, rather, because) she conformed to the dubious values of Mother Church.

Similarly, it is unfair to refer, as if it is unproblematic, to Dawkins' (or science's) supposed inability to disprove the existence of God. It is highly controversial just how far the Christian image of the universe can be reconciled with the image arising from science. Dawkins, along with many other atheists, argues that the two do not go together well - in the light of science, the Christian picture does not make sense. I realise that many people disagree with this - and I will doubtless attract arguments about it even though it's not the topic of this post - but it is not reasonable to refer to Dawkins' "inability" to disprove the existence of God as if this is uncontroversial, or as if this way of putting it is uncontroversial: talk of "disproof" is very tricky here, since there are many kinds and standards of proof.

And there's more in the passage quoted. Do "others" really "warn" that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads to social Darwinism? That's not an argument that you often hear except from the nuttier US religious zealots, and surely there's a better word than "warn" for a proposition that is not only contested but almost certainly untrue. The English language has the perfectly good and useful word "allege", which might have come in handy at this stage. The fact is, there's no reason at all to think that "strict" adherence to evolution leads anyone to support social Darwinism; on the contrary, the countries with the most widespread acceptance of biological evolution are precisely those which do not have dog-eat-dog social Darwinist societies, but are conspicuous in pursuing egalitarian policies.

The kinds of things that I find annoying will not do much good to Maley's reputation as a fair journalist with no axe of her own to grind. I repeat, however, that she has been fair to me personally. The views attributed to me are my real views: e.g. I have no problem with individuals being religious, as long as it's their private belief, not something they try to impose through public policy; I do see enormous influence being wielded by the churches, and I think it's time for secular people to have more of a say; and I certainly do contest the idea that high-profile atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens are fundamentalist or extreme. When that claim is made, they are judged by a ridiculous standard of open-mindedness and civility that is never applied to their opponents or to anyone else in public life.

Overall, my attitude is that almost any publicity for the convention is good publicity, and this article is not one of the exceptions. David, Tanya, and I, as portrayed here, seem like sensible people ... who actually have a point.

I do hope, though, that we can get some media coverage from journalists who are not religion writers and will be more critical about the virtues of religion or the likes of Mother Teresa, and less credulous about the more naive criticisms that are sent the way of Richard Dawkins and company. If you're a journalist who matches that description, and if you have an "in" to get articles like this published somewhere, why not contact the organisers?

31 comments:

Greg Egan said...

Russell, did you see the bizarre article in the Weekend Australian a few weeks back, blaming "Darwinism" for school massacres?

I just roll my eyes and give up when journalists are so vacuous. You don't get anyone alleging that a detailed understanding of the physical processes behind hurricanes and earthquakes is tantamount to advocating human actions that cause similar mass casualties -- nobody blames meteorologists or seismologists for the nuclear arms race. But gosh, why not? By claiming that a tragedy like Haiti was just the product of natural forces, surely seismologists are dehumanising us and creating a chilling, materialistic culture of death.

frankcornish said...

I don't know why educated people don't bother to look up the word "fundamentalist" before they use it in an article. How can strict adherence to doctrine, or strict interpretation of scriptural literature be in any way applied to atheists?

Our one "fundament" I suppose is that even if we allow for they very small probability that god(s) exist(s) and direct the universe, we find no reason that live that way.

While we seek a secular world in which people are free to practice their religion for themselves, the most important struggle we enjoin is the freedom for all people to act on their own conscience rather than be coerced into following a moral code imposed by the state and society which is mandated by religious authority.

That's it! Why to writers and journalists find this so hard to understand?

David said...

frankcornish,

"How can strict adherence to doctrine, or strict interpretation of scriptural literature be in any way applied to atheists?"

I would say casting aspersions with snark and derision and employing perjorative labels like faithiest, appeaser and accomodationist at other scientists who merely disagree with the approach that should be taken toward coexisting with religion is textbook fundamentalism.

Of course fundamentalists rarely admit they are fundamentalists. They always, be it Jerry Falwell or Jerry Coyne, have a narcissistic "yeah but it's different, I wouldn't draw this line in the sand if it weren't really important" argument.

Lisa said...

"Fundamentalist" seems to have long since become one of those all-purpose pejorative term to be used of anybody the speaker doesn't like, often in total disregard of the original meaning of the term. This usage is so common that it may not even be worth arguing over anymore, though of course a good case can be argued otherwise!

Blake Stacey said...

Using snarky and derisive words is now fundamentalism? How remarkable. I guess, then, that the folks who accuse the "Don Imus atheists" of being part of the "New Atheist Noise Machine" must be fundamentalist accomodationists.

Ophelia Benson said...

Here's a helpful hint - 'fundamentalist' doesn't mean just 'something I don't like.' Nor does it mean just opinionated, or outspoken, or explicit, or lively, or energetic, or determined; nor does it mean all of those in combination. It has a quite specific meaning.

Keith Logan said...

To Lisa...
EXACTLY! When people list such athiests as somehow 'fundemental' what fundementals do they exactly follow; for being an athiest means that it is a statement of non-belief.

It is a statement of what we DON'T believe in, not what we do.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, words have meanings even if there is some fuzziness at the edges. "Fundamentalist" means clinging to a holy text - interpreted literally where it allows - as inerrant, even in the face of well-founded secular knowledge. Even more precisely it means clinging to a certain body of "fundamental" doctrine, derived from such a text, as beyond rational challenge. An atheist fundamentalist would be someone who treats a text such as On the Origin of Species or The God Delusion as if it were an inerrant holy book.

An extremist is someone who does or advocates things that are, like, extreme, such as killing people. That's not a difficult concept.

There are plenty of followers of Marx and Lenin, and plenty of followers of Ayn Rand who could be described as "fundamentalist" without too much distortion of the meaning. There are also plenty of followers of Marx and Lenin who are extremist. There are some extremist anti-government libertarians around as well, though I'd need to know more before branding any of them as followers of Ayn Rand. Randians tend to be peaceful, if opinionated.

But in any event, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc., are neither fundamentalist nor extremist. They may use humour, satire, even mockery, but that is not a bad thing up to a point and has never been the definition of "fundamentalist" or "extremist". By that definition we are expanding these terms to include Aristophanes, Voltaire, Swift, and anyone who has ever used satire against what strikes them (rightly or wrongly) as absurdity.

We have words in the English language for people who use satire. These words include "satirist" and "satirical". Jerry Coyne's approach is, indeed, often satirical, and no worse for that.

Russell Blackford said...

Greg, I missed that article, which is just as well for my blood pressure. And I join you in rolling my eyes.

Lisa said...

This might be going a bit afield, but if we're going to insist on a specific definition of the word "fundamentalism," then there's the related issue of whether it can actually be applied to any religion outside of certain Protestant Christian denominations, much less to atheists or secularists, as I've read arguments to this effect when the term is applied to e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or other groups.

In any case, I wish people would actually define the term before hurling it around, or risk falling into the fallacy of equivocation!

Lisa said...

Ah, I see Russell did provide his own definition. Still, it gets annoying when people use their own special definition of a term -- e.g., "Enlightenment fundamentalist" (which still baffles me).

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Lisa, I sort of agree with you. You can apply it by analogy (maybe there are Hindu "fundamentalists" who treat the Vedas as inerrant, but you certainly can't apply it when there just is no analogy.

I think the word "fundamentalist" is thrown around far too much, even when applied to religious people, and it should come with a definition and disclaimer if it's used to describe anything that's not closely analogous to the views of those Bible-based Protestant Christian. Otherwise, we forget what was wrong with fundamentalism in the first place, and it becomes just an all-purpose insult.

Sean Og said...

It was a wholly bizarre article. I understand your point about Maley's use of "fundamentalist" and "supreme deity"; she was just trying to be provocative, in a really shite smart-arsey journo way. However if Maley thought that she was masking the negative intent of the piece, the quality of the writing totally let her down.
In a sham attempt at balance she writes that she sought advise on the so-called 'new-atheists' from a "theologian". The syntax from that point in the article onwards indicates that the theologian in question had more than just a consultative influence on the article. A simple linguistic analysis shows that from that point in the text onwards descriptions of atheists and atheist leaders are loaded with negative finite verbal groups and loaded nominal groups, ie. it becomes observably pejorative and hostile.
Maley should just have correctly labelled her theologian as an "Apologist" instead of opting for a more 'high-falutin', respectably academic decription.It sort of makes more sense when you re-read the article with this in mind, Maley has completely adopted apologist characterizations of the issues.
The "Dawkins can't disprove God's existence" bit is stock standard apologist garbage. The onus surely is on them, it is they who've made the initial untestable claim. But it doesn't stop Lane-Craig et al from trying to disingenuously sculpting the debate in this fashion, which is where I believe that Maley got the direction for the piece from. Apologists vociferously claim (and some atheists concede) that L-C "slaughtered" Hitchens in their BIOLA debate (April '09). In the blogs their reasoning goes something like: "Hitchens didn't specifically address L-C's "points, so he either lost by default or capitulated".
The fact that L-C's 'points' are ridiculously circular and that all the supposed points have/had been substantially dealt with earlier doesn't stop L-C from mendaciously re-using them, now that's a better example of recycling.
Additionally, I didn't notice any atheists being brought in to consult on journalistic articles about last month's "Council of Churches" meeting. I'd imagine that most people would have felt that to be inappropriate, but when it comes to rational atheists it's a given that we are held to a much "more rigourous" examination, and a few "low-blows" if it can be got away with.
I think it's fair to say that Maley either intended from the start, or was instructed to write, something that would make believers fell secure in their state of finger-wagging denial.
Did any of you guys read today's Shelby-Spong article in Sydney's Sun Herald? I think that this particular "theologian" might have had a somewhat different opinion for Maley, and I dear say a more academically and journalistically credible one too.

Hugh Caldwell said...

The " theologian and philosopher at Moore College" who is called in as a sort of independent expert sounds as if he might be going to give a disinterested academic opinion on the Global Atheist Convention. When you discover that Moore college is actually a vocational training school for Anglican priests that puts a different light on things. Then, you get a glimpse of the sort of 'fundamentalist' the Rev Dr David Höhne is,and you wonder why his opinion was asked for. Wasn't Jacqueline Maley able to write the article without the help of the reverend doctor who is "currently working on the Lord’s prayer and what this teaches us about the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus.(and) .... rejoices in the opportunities to serve our heavenly Father in the College community" ?

ColinGavaghan said...

Look at it this way, Russell: if the best retort our opponents can muster is 'you're almost as bad as we are', then the argument is surely halfway won!

Llewellyn said...

David,

"I would say casting aspersions with snark and derision and employing perjorative labels like faithiest, appeaser and accomodationist at other scientists who merely disagree with the approach that should be taken toward coexisting with religion is textbook fundamentalism."

And all the theistic and non theistic apologists who refer to us as extremists or militant, merely because they disagree with our approach to science/religion? By your definition they must be fundamentalists too.

And if I were to call you an idiot because I merely disagree with your gross misuse of the English language, I'm guessing that makes me a fundamentalist as well?

My Penguin Reference Dictionary defines fundamentalist as: n (adherence to) a belief in the literal truth of the Bible

Now I'm willing to accept that this was probably written from a judeo Christian western bias, but I hope you don't label me a fundamentalist for being unable to interpret that as meaning "uncivil" or "dismissive".

Rorschach said...

My view on the articles I have read in our newspapers so far is that clearly, Australians are fairly new to the degree and intensity of debate on religious issues that has been going on in the US for a long time, and that those of us who either have contacts over there or follow american publishers or bloggers kind of have an unfair advantage, in that we are familiar with all the fallacious arguments that get thrown at atheists all the time.
It seems pretty clear to me that journalists like Barney Swartz, or that catholic Uni president( I forget his name)say, were pretty surprised by the number and quality of the dedicated and firm responses their creeds received.
So I agree with Russell, at this point any coverage is good coverage, and I reckon Aussies are in for a treat and a wakeup call in 4 weeks time !

David said...

Llewellyn,

And if I were to call you an idiot because I merely disagree with your gross misuse of the English language*, I'm guessing that makes me a fundamentalist as well?

Of course not. But if like Jerry Coyne you send the message: you are not a member of our club because you disagree with me as to how we should deal with the religious—and so important is this point that I am going to make my name outing people—even fellow skeptics like Michael Schermer because they don’t obey my catechism—and so important that I am going to hold a contest to find a new name with which to refer you in a derogatory manner, --then you are a moronic fundamentalist in the tradition of Jerry Falwell.

*Of course, as one who is arguing, independently of whether or not I am correct, that “fundamentalist” is restricted to religious fundamentalist, you should probably be careful about charging people with "gross misuse of the English language."

RichardW said...

David seems to be a humptydumptyist:
http://www.wordspy.com/words/HumptyDumptylanguage.asp

Or should that be a fundamentalist humptydumptyist?

David said...

I'm using "fundamentalism" like the third definition on dictionary.com

strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

Or is their example "humptydumpty-ism" because they applied it not to religious fundamentalists, but to conservative fundamentalists? Or, perhaps, the term can only be used for religious fundamentalism with the sole exception of political conservatism?

Anonymous said...

@David:

"...outing people—even fellow skeptics like Michael Schermer because they don’t obey my catechism..."

How can stating factually the outspoken position of another be considered "outing"? It's not like Coyne had to break into a bank vault to find Shermer's blog post.

"I'm using "fundamentalism" like the third definition on dictionary.com"

Well, I know that when I'm trying to determine the meaning and etymology of an often abused word "ask.com" is my first choice of reference. It's based on Random House doncha know.

Tip on dictionaries: the first entry is usually the most correct usage, in this case specifically referring to American Protestantism. Number two is "the beliefs held by those in this movement," i.e. the doctrine of American Protestant Biblical fundamentalism.

Then number 3 is as David states. Of course, we must assume that entry 3 is a less correct usage than the first two. And in this particular case, it seems pretty clear to me that entry 3 got into the dictionary through repeated use of "fundamentalism" in the pejorative sense, i.e. using Biblical fundamentalism as a cheap and easy metaphor for anyone with an unwavering sense of moral and epistemic clarity.

Anyone else see the humor in this? David is insisting that he is correct in using "fundamentalist" to disparage atheists, essentially by comparing their rigidity in their beliefs to the rigidity of his own theological tradition. David, you are of course justified in denigrating atheists by comparing their beliefs to your own, but it's not a terribly great way to advocate for the validity of your own beliefs (regarding Biblical inerrancy).

-Dan L.

(Sorry, I'm not being quite fair. Your views on Biblical inerrancy are a great deal more sophisticated than most. Still, I had to comment since you ignored everything about the term "fundamentalist" that actually gives it any meaning.)

David said...

David, you are of course justified in denigrating atheists

I'm not denigrating atheists. As in all atheists. I'm denigrating New Atheists with views similar to Jerry Coyne's. That is a very tiny, almost negligible minority of atheists. Most atheists, for example, would not view the NCSE as outside the pale of orthodoxy. Most atheists would not view Micheal Shermer as a sell-out.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not denigrating atheists. As in all atheists."

I didn't say you were. I didn't mean to imply you were. I was simply pointing out that it's ironic for a fundamentalist (in the sense of the #1 dictionary.com entry for the word) to use the word as a metaphor (with negative connotation) to describe the behavior of any atheists, or anyone else for that matter. It's as if Pot said of Kettle, "Can you believe this guy? He's almost as bad as I am!"

This:

"I would say casting aspersions with snark and derision and employing perjorative labels like faithiest, appeaser and accomodationist at other scientists who merely disagree with the approach that should be taken toward coexisting with religion is textbook fundamentalism."

Is very Humpty Dumpty. "Fundamentalism" as used here has a simple etymology that is nearly completely contained within the 20th century (as I explained above). There is no need to for you to make up definitions to suit your own purposes.

-Dan L.

David said...

Dan L,

What about "conservative fundamentalist"--do you believe the term has meaning?

SC said...

Good grief, heddle. I post on my blog thanking you and Russell and link to his in the process. Then I follow my link here to find you talking nonsense. You're killin' me.

What about "conservative fundamentalist"--do you believe the term has meaning?

You didn't ask me, but you would have to be more specific about which individuals or groups you're talking about. I do think "market fundamentalist," used by Soros and Stiglitz to describe certain people, does. I would further describe some of them - whose activities, particularly in their work and support for the Pinochet regime, have been chronicled by Naomi Klein among others - as dangerous extremists. They are very similar to the Marxist fundamentalists in adhering to economic dogma and a teleological scheme independent of factual evidence, and also willing to undertake or accept drastic measures to make their vision a reality.

I can't believe that you seriously consider Jerry Coyne a fundamentalist. He has a position, and thinks those who have a different view are wrong and their efforts misguided for reasons he's described. In your view, it appears, anyone who argues a position strongly is a fundamentalist. You'd have to be mad to see "faitheist" as it's used as anything close to "heretic" or "wrecker." Come on. I know you don't like Coyne, and you've acknowledged that evidence doesn't play a role in forming some of your social beliefs, but this is quite ridiculous.

David said...

SC,

I think the term fundamentalist is applicable to someone who is not just sure he is right and others are wrong (lest we all be guilty) and not even someone is uniformly snarky and insulting toward those with whom he disagrees (could be just curmudgeonly) but someone who can’t tone down the nastiness even among allies—simply because they are outside a tiny-radius circle of orthodoxy. I think of his not-just-disagreement-among-friends ridicule of the NCSE, for example, an organization that leaves him in the dust in terms of their service to science education.

To me, that is the hallmark of a fundamentalist.

From what I have read of this blog's host, he would be in agreement with Coyne 99% of the time. But he gives no signal of behaving like a fundamentalist, as I described it, but rather like a reasonable person who would listen to counterarguments.

On a lighter note, SC, it’s good that we disagree. The fact that we agree once in a while is indicative of the breakdown of some fundamental symmetry—like parity violation, which is cool and interesting. If we agree too much—that would indicate the laws of nature are unraveling, and possibly lead to a tear in the fabric of spacetime.

SC said...

I think the term fundamentalist is applicable to someone who is not just sure he is right and others are wrong (lest we all be guilty) and not even someone is uniformly snarky and insulting toward those with whom he disagrees (could be just curmudgeonly) but someone who can’t tone down the nastiness even among allies—simply because they are outside a tiny-radius circle of orthodoxy. I think of his not-just-disagreement-among-friends ridicule of the NCSE, for example, an organization that leaves him in the dust in terms of their service to science education.

To me, that is the hallmark of a fundamentalist.


That's absurd. First, because internet nastiness has nothing to do with any meaningful definition of fundamentalist. Second, because your characterization of his writings and interactions is way off. In fact, I'm surprised at how he's been able to remain as calm as he has when his position and the very nature of the issues under discussion are distorted repeatedly by those with whom he's arguing. Third,..."orthodoxy"?

Also, it's not at all relevant to any weak-ass argument you're trying to make, so I have no idea why you would be throwing it in (not to mention that it's not exactly a fair comparison between an individual and an organization), but "the NCSE, for example, an organization that leaves him in the dust in terms of their service to science education" is potentially debatable in the long term. But of course even opening that debate - and I don't know why anyone would want to - would require a shared definition of both "science" and "education," and you refuse to admit any but the narrow ones fitted to your evasive arguments.

On a lighter note, SC, it’s good that we disagree. The fact that we agree once in a while is indicative of the breakdown of some fundamental symmetry—like parity violation, which is cool and interesting. If we agree too much—that would indicate the laws of nature are unraveling, and possibly lead to a tear in the fabric of spacetime.

:D

Llewellyn said...

David,

Of course, as one who is arguing, independently of whether or not I am correct, that “fundamentalist” is restricted to religious fundamentalist

You're missing the point. I didn't mean to claim that fundamentalist should be restricted to religion (though if it appeared that way, it was my own fault for being unclear), my point was it has nothing to do with civility! Your own definition doesn't support your assertion that using mean words like "faitheist" makes someone a fundamentalist. You said your chosen definition of fundamentalism was:

strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles

not

use of mean insults and taking a snarky tone with people you disagree with.

And by the way even if you correctly charged someone with fitting the third definition of fundamentalism on dictionary.com (which you seem to have trouble with), so what? I'm a strict adherent to many basic ideas, like basic human rights, or that the sexual conduct between two consenting adults is there own business etc. Other things I'm not so strict, free speech is all very well until someone yells bomb on an aeroplane.

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