About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, November 04, 2010

An extract from my piece in The Australian Book of Atheism

Just to whet your appetites, here's an extract from near the end of my article/essay, "Atheists for Freedom of Speech":

Atheists and religious sceptics have good and urgent reasons to challenge the authority of religious organisations and leaders to pronounce on matters of ultimate truth and correct morality. None of these organisations can speak for a superior being, such as a god, with a claim to our obedience or deference. The emperor has no clothes, and we ought to say so. In particular, religious leaders are not moral leaders, much as they might pretend to be. Their non-existent credentials ought to be exposed. This will require persistent, cool argument, but also moments of outright denunciation or unashamed mockery of religion's most absurd actions and truth-claims. In particular, we should not flinch from expressing the view that no religion has any rational warrant, and that many churches and sects promote cruelty, misery, ignorance, and human-rights abuses.


Blamer .. said...

Beautifully said, Russell.

Religious leaders often need reminding that wherever their Truth and morality cannot be reconciled with other faith traditions, the religiously neutral can humanely arbitrate.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Spoken with confidence. It makes all the sense in the world, but millions choose otherwise. What on earth is the attraction?

John said...

Beautiful. I will be quoting that paragraph everywhere. Thank you.

Arizona said...

It doesn't sound courageous to me because, as a general rule, atheists mainly kick the dead horse of Christianity and leave the jihadis alone. They are not likely to express any outrage over the Baghdad massacre of 58 Christians.

It takes a lone Muslim voice to do that:
Disgusting silence on church bloodbath

Anonymous said...

"In particular, religious leaders are not moral leaders, much as they might pretend to be. Their non-existent credentials ought to be exposed."

In what sense? While I'd agree that religious leaders should not be taken to be able to simple pronounce on moral questions and have us all nod our heads sagely, many of them are parts of traditions that have examined moral questions for hundreds if not thousands of years, and that represent the moral beliefs of a large number of people. That they have a different basis for morality than you or any other secular view shouldn't exclude them from the party. They, I think, deserve to be invited to the party, and get listened to like anyone else.

If they have non-existent credentials, what do humanists have? Or, to put it better, if they aren't moral leaders, why should we think, say, Sam Harris is?

"In particular, we should not flinch from expressing the view that no religion has any rational warrant ..."

I have no problem with this ... as long as you add this caveat: "at the same time, listening to those who disagree with us on that to see whether we're wrong."

Russell Blackford said...

Who says that Sam Harris is a moral leader? Or that I am? Our arguments about moral issues stand or fall on their merits.

Anonymous said...


Then I admit that I'm genuinely puzzled by what you meant when you called out the "non-existent credentials" of religious leaders. To do what? I did state that you're right if all you meant was that we shouldn't just take their view as if it was, in fact, absolutely true, but I do think their views on morality must be taken as seriously as yours or Harris'. Their credentials are at least as good.

Russell Blackford said...

I have no idea why you'd think anything remotely like that. As religious leaders, they have no credentials whatsoever to tell me what to do.

As for Harris, he doesn't particularly claim such credentials as far as I know. He has to rely on his arguments (some of which might be good, some not so good).

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure that you understand my question. I'm not suggesting that they have any credentials to tell you what to do (on morality, since that's what we're talking about in that section) any more than any other commentator on moral issues has. But they have credentials enough so that when people start asking "What really is moral?" they ought to be invited to the party, even if we don't take their views as necessarily true. They have a different basis for their moral views than you do, but that doesn't make them wrong.

I think looking at Harris might be the best way to clear this up. Harris relies heavily on the idea that the views of moral experts carry more weight than those of those who aren't. He doesn't, however, outline who should count as moral experts, even as he dismisses the views of those who aren't moral experts. I argued in my review of the book that based on strict credentials, it would be reasonable to say that if he's a moral expert, so am I, and vice versa. Religious leaders are trained in and have a tradition of hundreds if not thousands of years of studying moral and ethical issues; by strict credentials, they would seem to fit any plausible criteria for moral experts.

What this means for Harris, in my opinion, is that he still needs to handle disagreement, because moral experts will disagree, and disagree with his principles. He doesn't really give any mechanism for settling such problems.

But, at any rate, I think that's what my main concern is: that you might use the "non-existent credentials" line to get them excluded from moral debates in advance, which I can possibly think justified or reasonable. And I'm a theist who, when he does morality, does it strictly philosophically.

Russell Blackford said...

The fact that you've studied a moral theory might make you expert in the content theory concerned, but it doesn't make you an expert in how people should live their lives, which is roughly what I mean in context by a moral expert. Not unless the theory in which you are so steeped is actually the correct moral theory.

Even if I am expert in the content of many moral theories, it doesn't ipso facto make me a moral expert in the requisite sense. Sure, I may be able to teach undergraduate courses - or even postgraduate students - moral philosophy. But they shouldn't defer to my opinions on how they should live their lives unless my actual arguments are good.

Anonymous said...


So ... do you think that your statement here is limited to religious leaders? Because it doesn't seem to me like it should be, and that is probably my biggest objection: there's no reason to single out religion in this, and doing so risks excluding religion unfairly from discussions of morality.