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

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I seem to have spent the day embroiled in debates about political theory and related matters on three different sites at once. That's not a productive way to use my time, so I must stop doing it. For the record:

1. I don't think the "New Atheists" want to ban religion, as opposed to criticising it. If they did, I'd be on the front line defending the rights of the religious.

2. I'm not disturbed at the idea of a bogan wearing a combination of pajama bottom, T-shirt, and slippers in a supermarket. I find it mildly amusing as a style of dress, but I don't think it's a breach of the social contract that should be punishable by law. Nor do I approve of supermarket owners banning this sort of attire on their own private property, though I acknowledge their legal right to do so (and don't wish to remove it).

3. I don't think that polygamous (including polyandrous, communal, etc.) relationships should be banned by the state, but I don't necessarily think that they should be able to be registered as formal marriages. Admittedly, I don't necessarily think that any sexual relationships should be able to be registered as formal marriages. I'd prefer the state to get out of the marriage game entirely. But if the marriages of heterosexual couples are to be eligible to be registered in this way, with a standard package of associated legal rights, there's a compelling argument of fairness for doing likewise for homosexual couples. Groups larger than two are too varied for a one-size-fits-all set of legal rights, so there's probably good reason to leave their entitlements to the flexibility of the general law. OTOH, I would be fiercely opposed to any attempts to prohibit such relationships outright.

All these positions seem reasonable to me, but it's marvellous how I can get tied up in defending them against people who see things differently.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Currently reading: Chained to the Alien

My author's copy of Chained to the Alien turned up recently, and I've put aside a bit of time to read it (I'm over halfway through). This book is a selection of material from the relatively short-lived, but nonetheless legendary, zine, Australian Science Fiction Review (Second Series) published from 1986-91. I was one member of the editorial collective, which consisted, in addition, of Jenny Blackford, John Foyster, and Yvonne Rousseau. Lucy Sussex was also on the team for about the first two years, while Janeen Webb joined for the last four years or so.

Much of the material was written by members of the editorial collective, but we also had input from a wide range of people from around the world, and we influenced other zines including The New York Review of Science Fiction. The ASFR(2) days were weird and wild, and I'm astonished as I reread some of the material that Damien has selected - the intensity of the analyses and the passion of the debates were really quite extraordinary. Looking back, we created something special. One highlight is a symposium on George Turner's The Sea and Summer, a.k.a. Drowning Towers, in which several of Australia's best sf critics examine Turner's Arthur-C.-Clarke-award-winning novel from all angles, creating a composite work that is almost as interesting as the novel itself.

I put a huge effort into the first couple of years of the zine in particular, as a result of which almost 30,000 words of my 1980s literary criticism is reprinted in Chained to the Alien. Again, when I read this material by my younger self, I am surprised at its intensity and passion. This applies especially, but not at all solely, to my long discussion of Samuel R. Delany's Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which won me an award the following year, and attracted an appreciative letter from Delany himself). I don't think I could write in that way about literature any more, partly because my 1980s work has a hint (fortunately, no more than that!) of influence from then-fashionable literary deconstruction ... something I've left well behind me in the following two decades. But it's mainly because I don't think I can summon the same focus and energy when talking about works of fiction as I had back then. If I was, in some ways, a little bit naive, that may even have helped my energy level.

Damien is working on a companion volume of selections from ASFR(2), with more emphasis on the shorter pieces that appeared in the zine and on some of the more fiery debates that arose as time went on. I'll look forward to seeing this second book later in 2010. Meanwhile, okay ... ASFR(2) was, I realise, a fairly obscure little corner of Western culture. But this is good stuff. I'm obviously biased, but if you have an interest in science fiction as a literary genre, and in what happens when bright, geeky people discuss the genre with a kind of intellectual obsession that sometimes rises to fury, you just might like to have a look at Chained to the Alien.

Or maybe you'd like to pass on the word.

Manifesto of Liberation of Women in Iran

The very existence of the Islamic regime of Iran is incompatible with freedom of women. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a misogynist state, architect of gender apartheid and perpetrator of three decades of the most odious forms of abuse, discrimination and violence against women in Iran. A society cannot be free if women are not free. Without the overthrow of the misogynist Islamic regime, women in Iran will not achieve their rights. The Islamic Republic must go! This is the message of Neda Agha Soltan, the symbol of the ongoing revolution in Iran; it is the decree of the brave women who at the front lines of people’s protest have been challenging the entire Islamic state for the past seven months.

Thirty years ago on March 8th, 1979 in Iran, we freedom-loving women and men stood up to the reactionaries who had just come to power, with shouts of No to compulsory veil! Today, with the painful and bloody experience of three decades of gender apartheid, gender slavery and nonstop suppression of women behind us, we state even more clearly and forcefully, along with the young and progressive generation of today, that the Islamic Republic, as a misogynist state, as a regime of gender apartheid must be overthrown. We say that the leaders of the Islamic Republic must be arrested and put on trial for systematic crimes against millions of women, for crimes against humanity. This is the decree of the revolution in Iran. With the overthrow of the Islamic Republic we will lend a helping hand to millions of women in Islam-stricken countries who are prisoners of terrorist Islamic states and gangs and honour-worshiping, male-chauvinistic Islamic traditions.

Today, support for the ongoing revolution in Iran can and should become a vast international movement. March 8th is International Women’s Day, which this year bears the mark of solidarity with women and people in Iran in the struggle to topple the Islamic regime. We call on women’s rights activists and organisations to express their solidarity with the women’s movement in Iran, while remembering Neda Agha Soltan as the symbol of the revolutionary movement against the Islamic Republic. March 8th this year is the day of solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran for freedom!

We issue the following Manifesto of the Liberation of Women in Iran, and call on all women’s rights’ activists and secular and progressive forces to support this Manifesto and join up in solidarity with the people of Iran in the struggle to overthrow the Islamic regime of gender apartheid:

1.Prosecution of the leaders and officials of the Islamic Republic for crimes against humanity, including for thirty years of the vilest abuse, discrimination and violence against women in Iran

2.Abolition of all misogynist Islamic laws and all laws that discriminate against women; complete equality of women and men in all economic, political, cultural, social and family spheres

3.Complete separation of religion from the state, the educational system and all laws

4.Abolition of segregation of the sexes and gender apartheid

5.Prohibition of sighe (Islamic ‘rent-a-wife’) and polygamy; unconditional right of separation (divorce) for women and men; abolition of all laws which make women’s civil rights (such as the right to travel, social intercourse, participation in social activities, etc.) conditional on obtaining the permission of the husband, father or other male members of the family; complete equality of women’s and men’s rights and duties in the custody and care of children following separation

6.Abolition of compulsory veil (hejab) for women; prohibition of hejab for children; full freedom of dress

7.Abolition of all the barbaric laws of stoning, execution, retribution (qesas) and other Islamic punishments

8.Unconditional freedom of expression, protest, strike, assembly, organisation and forming parties

9.Immediate release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience

10.Freedom of religion and atheism and freedom to criticise religion.

Mina Ahadi
Mahin Alipour
Shahla Daneshfar
Maryam Namazie

22 January 2010

To sign up to the manifesto, please go to: http://equal-rights-now.com/IntWD/IntWD649.php?nr=63719093&lang=en

To see Maryam Namazie’s call to show solidarity with the people of Iran, click here:

To see how you can support the people of Iran, click here:

For more information on the manifesto or March 8 events, email manifestzanan@gmail.com or iransolidaritynow@gmail.com; call 0049-1775692413 or 0044-7719166731 or visit http://equalrightsnow-iran.com/ or http://iransolidarity.org.uk/.


I've put this here to assist people who might want to sign it, or might otherwise be interested in its content. Please give it your consideration as it's generally a worthy cause.

However, I have not signed it because there are parts of it that I don't fully agree with, and it's my policy not to sign any document unless I'm in total agreement. Of course, that raises questions about whether this is a good policy to follow or whether we should be prepared to sign off on things like this if we agree with the spirit and most of the detail, without quibbling too much about relatively minor points of disagreement. Still, although I'm open to discussion, I'm unlikely to change my policy on that.

- Russell

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blame it on Nietzsche

In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong notes that atheistic ideologies can lead to atrocities as readily as theologies. But then she smears Nietzsche by repeating the falsehood that he was somehow an inspiration for Nazism, and that his atheism somehow contributed to Nazi atrocities. The accusation is an insult not just to Nietzsche but to the victims of the Holocaust.

Armstrong says:

Like Hegel's, Nietzsche's theories were used by a later generation of Germans to justify the policies of National Socialism, a reminder that an atheistic ideology can be just as cruel a crusading ethic as the idea of "God."

Now, I don't doubt the last bit. If you think in apocalyptic terms, it doesn't much matter whether you think you have a personal God on your side or whether you "just" think you are doing the will of History or some kind of impersonal Providence - or some other abstraction that mandates your actions. An apocalyptic, all-encompassing ideology can drive people to commit atrocities whether or not the ideology is theistic. All such ideologies, theistic or otherwise, have the potential to drive their followers to horrible conduct that is deemed to be justified and necessary. Various non-theistic forms of revolutionary communism have been like this. Unfortunately, the greater the technological power that can be employed in the service of such a worldview, the larger the scale of atrocities that its followers can commit.

All the same, Nazism, unlike revolutionary communism of the Marxist-Leninist varieties, was never an atheistic system. Whereas Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others may have thought they were somehow doing the work of History, the Nazis were convinced that they were doing God's work. Whatever the Nazi leaders may have picked up from Nietzsche, it wasn't his atheism. Indeed, atheists were among those whom the Nazis hated. Moreover, Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic; he was contemptuous of anti-Semites. But the most horrifying of the Nazi actions - the death camps that were used to kill millions of Jews and others in the most cruel and atrocious ways - were a result of the extreme anti-Semitism pervading Nazi thought. Wherever the Nazis got this from, and it's not that hard to guess, it wasn't from the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche.

There's something repellent about these sentences in Armstrong's A History of God, something sinister in the way they gloss over the complexity of events to create an impression almost the opposite of the truth. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not come from Nietzsche's thought and had nothing to do with Nietzsche's style of atheism. Yes, there can be apocalyptic, comprehensive belief systems that are non-theistic, and which lead to atrocities, but Nazism was never such a system, and nor was Nietzsche's own (relatively unsystematic) thought. There can, of course, also be peaceful forms of religion that are not likely to commit atrocities. As far as I'm aware, no Quaker has ever massacred helpless victims in a ditch or burned them alive, or tortured them with insanely cruel instruments. For any atheist to deny this would be churlish.

There are many sensible things that could have been said in the vicinity of the passage I've quoted from Armstrong, but she doesn't say those things; and when she tries to make a point of her own, she does it over the cruelly abused bodies of Nazism's victims, all the millions of them.

I'm sure there's a name for what Armstrong is doing here, but if so I can't think of it. It's something worse than intellectual dishonesty, something more callous than ordinary cynicism. It can't be simple clumsiness. Maybe you can think of what it should be called ... better, at least, than I can. A passage like that makes my jaw drop. It leaves me more or less lost for words. Whatever it's called, this sort of writing has a peculiar nastiness about it, a kind of oblivious cruelty. It's not the sort of passage you'd look for from the high priestess of religion as compassion.

Or maybe it is.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More on freedom of speech

On the previous thread, relating to the Dawkins on Wilders post, Colin Gavaghan asks a good question:

Thought-provoking as always, but I'd like to ask a vit more about the nature of the relationship between speech and harm. Would it, for you, be sufficient that a particular exercise of free speech would, with something close to certainty, be causally implicated in serious acts of violence? Or would there have to be a 'reasonableness' component, along the lines of 'no reasonable person would be driven to violence by this'?

Of course, I'm thinking of the assorted 'provocations' of violent Muslims (the Verses, the Danish cartoons, etc), but closer to (my former) home, various football players have been accused - and in one notorious recent case, investigated by the police - for 'provocative' gestures on a footbal field, esp in the context of volatile derby matches.

My thinking has always been that the fan who throws a bottle because a player made a gesture should bear legal and moral responsibility for his actions. But is there - and if so, when is there - a plausible harm-based justification for outlawing gestures/comments that would, to a reasonable person, be innocuous, but which will, predictably, in the real world of irrational people, lead to violence?

I'm tempted to answer the main question here by saying that near certainty is enough. Having thought about it, I'm not so sure. If the speech has some kind of social value, I think it should be allowed even if there's a near certainty that it will provoke violence. After all, the case for free speech goes far beyond the fact that the harm done by speech is always indirect (which leads the rejoinder that the direct/indirect distinction breaks down in marginal cases, and that there's at least a grey area where legislative discretion is appropriate). There's also a strong positive case for freedom of speech, which is a theme in Mill's On Liberty.

I certainly would not ban the Danish cartoons. But sometimes we have to make a value judgment and say that certain speech has no social value. Its only value is in allowing the speaker to let off steam. Conversely, it is highly likely to provoke immediate violence. So, if I get in someone's face, harassing and abusing him with the most hurtful comments I can think of, it's not surprising if he retaliates with violence. I think the state can do something about this for two reasons: first, this is a case where the sort of offence I am causing shades into harm (my expression is high impact, and is being inflicted on this person against his will ... and he has no easy way of avoiding it once it starts, not like turning a TV off or closing a newspaper); and second, it is predictably likely to provoke violence and disturb the peace.

I have quite deliberately broken with my usual practice here, and have written the presumptively sexist "he" and "him", because the violence is more likely if I'm picking on a man than a woman - though women can respond violently, too, of course. I'd prefer to settle this one on the blurring of harm and offence, as I'm (even) more motivated here to protect people from this kind of harassment than I am to keep the peace, but either way I'm happy for the state to have, and use, some discretion to ban the use of "fighting words" in people's faces.

In the fan-throwing-a-bottle sort of case, I'd prefer to leave it to the sports association concerned to make it a disciplinary offence for the player to make such gestures. That prevents the real legal system getting clogged up with such cases. Though the case may fall in the grey area, I think it's at the end where I'd prefer the law not be involved. In general, though, we needn't ignore what we know from history, psychology, etc., about the likely outcomes of certain provocations.

As I've said in the past, I'm not an absolutist about free speech. If someone can tell me why there is an exceptional and compelling need to prohibit a certain kind of speech, within the state's secular role of protecting its citizens and visitors to its jurisdiction (as opposed to enforcing morality or religion), I'm open to argument. In the past, I've seen the possibility of a compelling case to ban highly offensive "in your face" behaviour, especially of a racist kind where the degree of provocation is extreme and the social value is in the negative zone. I've also defended banning Nazi-like campaigns of racist propaganda that depict members of a certain "race" as vermin to be exterminated. If a country has reached a point where the society is getting like a powderkeg over racial intolerance, there may well be an exceptional and compelling need for the state to do something long before there are incitements to immediate violence. In theory, it doesn't have to be race: it could be another group such homosexuals, or a religious group, or whatever.

(Perhaps there's a case for Jamaica banning certain forms of rap music that relentlessly promote gay-bashing, but I don't know the facts on the ground there - I'll leave that one to Udo, who knows a lot about it.)

However, if we are going to make exceptions such as these, or whatever others may be the correct ones, we need to be very careful to ensure that there really is some compelling need in the situation of this particular society, and the compelling need is one that relates to protecting life, limb, physical liberty, and property - the sorts of worldly things that the state should concern itself with - and not to protecting (for example) belief in a religion or a traditional morality or even the "correct" morality, whatever it is ... or catering to populist sentiment. If we're not careful about that, we'll be back to burning heretics, banning Lady Chatterley's Lover, conducting the McCarthy trials, and on and on. As I said in a comment yesterday, there is always the prospect of disaster when the state thinks it's in the business of banning speech for its real or imagined indirect effects.

We also need to be careful that we don't enact laws that actually make things worse, by providing a new forum for mutually antagonistic elements to express their antagonism. Broadly-worded hate speech laws can certainly have the effect of making some minorities more despised, if they are seen as enemies of liberty. We've seen that recently in Australia, where the state of Victoria's religious vilification laws have probably increased, rather than decreased, anti-Muslim feelings in the community. If Wilders is convicted, it will probably make things worse, not better, for Muslims in the Netherlands. If the society is not already turning into a powderkeg, acting as if it is will likely be counterproductive as well as unnecessary.

With Wilders, this question could be asked: Is Dutch society such a powderkeg of hatred between Muslims and others that the country needs laws broad enough to make anything he's done so far a crime? Well, I'm not an expert on the Netherlands or its various social tensions. I can't give a definitive answer. I'll just say, though, that if that's going to be the excuse for putting him on trial merely for saying things, well ... I'm deeply sceptical.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dawkins on Wilders

Over at RichardDawkins.net, Richard Dawkins has a long comment on a thread about the trial of Geert Wilders (the thread involves three articles on the subject: a piece in the New York Times, my post from a few days ago, and Jerry Coyne's earlier post, which tipped me off and to which I tipped my hat).

Dawkins concludes, at comment 75:

Why is this man on trial, unless it is, yet again, pandering to the ludicrous convention that religious opinion must not be 'offended'? Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

The entire comment is worth reading. Dawkins praises Fitna for its artistic choices and relative restraint when dealing with horrific material. See also comment 77, by "Drosera", who is critical of Dawkins: "You seem to think that the enemies of your enemies are your friends. Maybe that is not a very rational thing to do."

Dawkins replies to this at comment 81,commencing: "I did no such thing. I explicitly stated that my endorsement of Wilders should be withdrawn if he turned out to have made racist or otherwise objectionable statements." He concludes: "In Fitna, taken on its own, I have found no cause to put Wilders on trial or even to censure him in any substantial way."

I wholeheartedly agree with that final sentiment. Leaving aside any other accusations against Wilders, there is nothing in Fitna itself that should result in any sort of criminal prosecution, and nothing there which, taken out of the context of other statements, policies, and so on, by Wilders, merits any significant moral denunciation. Again, I don't suggest that Wilders is a nice guy or a good role model or that his proposed policies are in any way defensible or even workable. But he should still have a robust right to freedom of speech. That right should end with direct and specific incitements to violence that are likely to create immediate lawlessness (or at least with incitements that cannot practically be replied to in any way short of legal prohibition). I remain totally unconvinced that anything Wilders has said even goes close.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Does a child need both a mother and a father?

Does a child need both a mother and a father? Apparently not, according to this report in ScienceDaily, which summarises a new article in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The study suggested that "... the science shows that children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well."

All of which pulls out the rug from the already-incoherent claim that a child somehow has the "right" to a standard set of heterosexual parents. Of course, there was never any real evidence that there's any harm in children being born into non-traditional family situations. From the beginning, this was a scare tactic by moral conservatives, usually grounded in their religious socialisation. The only possible harm that makes sense is that children from such families will be discriminated against, or harassed or victimised, by those very same moral conservatives.

This research should also make you wonder whether children from even less conventional families would suffer any harm from it. Once again, there is the possibility of harassment, discrimination, and victimisation of various kinds, but that doesn't seem to have had a huge impact on the children of gay couples. I'm sceptical that it would have much (or any) impact on, for example, children born as a result of reproductive cloning. Admittedly, it might depend on the social milieu. Many choices are dangerous in an especially nasty and discriminatory social milieu, but that's not a reason to have a public policy that discourages such choices. If anything, it's a reason for a public policy of discouraging irrational discrimination.

Friday, January 22, 2010

One for the German speakers ... Edgar Dahl on atheism and religion

Edgar Dahl writes about atheism and the current debates over religion. He talks about the "Four Horsemen" - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris - and about 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. He opens as follows with references to The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and 50 Voices of Disbelief:

Seit der Veröffentlichung von Richard Dawkins’ „Der Gotteswahn“, Christopher Hitchens’ „Der Herr ist kein Hirte“, Daniel Dennetts „Den Zauber brechen“ und Sam Harris’ „Das Ende des Glaubens“ gibt es wieder einmal eine erbittert geführte Debatte über die Religion.

Der Streit darüber, ob die Annahmen der Religion wirklich glaubwürdig sind, scheint dabei kein Ende zu nehmen. Mit dem kürzlich erschienenen Buch „50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists“ ist sogar noch einmal zusätzlich Öl ins Feuer gegossen worden.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maia Caron interviews Ophelia Benson ... plus some bonus words about Does God Hate Women?

Another great interview by Maia Caron - and while I'm talking about Ophelia Benson, I seriously recommend her book, co-authored with Jeremy Stangroom, Does God Hate Women?

I read this punchy little book recently, and could not stop turning the pages. I stayed up until I'd finished it. Apart from anything else, it's an excellent corrective to the many broad-brush defences of traditional Islam that you'll encounter. For example, the authors dig deep down into the Muslim literature to contest glib defences of Muhammad's marriage to Aisha when she was a very young girl. In doing so, they make Karen Armstrong's sentimentalised account look evasive, unscholarly, and intellectually dishonest. Likewise, they painstakingly destroy the easy claim, and associated specious arguments, that Islam has no causal connection to female genital mutilation. They explain the problem with indiscriminately throwing around a silencing term such as "Islamophobia."

These are all tough subjects to write about clearly and honestly, during a tense period in community relations in most Western countries, but the authors approach them with a pleasing intellectual rigour. As their example reinforces, we should not shy away from unpalatable truths in the name of social harmony - it's dishonest and, in the long run, not likely to be productive.

Back to the interview, here's a good sample:

[...] groups are not people; groups don’t suffer, groups aren’t conscious, groups don’t have feelings. It is the individuals who make up the groups who are and have and do all that – and each one does it separately, one at a time. The feelings of all those individuals do not add up to one big feeling that the group has – they remain separate. That’s not a reason for people to act as selfishly as possible, but it sure as hell is a reason for people to remember that group prosperity does not automatically translate to happiness for every individual in the group. The same of course applies to families. People who focus all their concern on groups or families or ‘communities’ risk simply forgetting that some members of groups have more power than others, some have different interests and needs from others, some see the world differently from others. How this cashes out in practice is of course that the men of a particular ‘community’ are taken to represent the whole community when in fact the women of that community may have radically different wants and needs from the men.

Geert Wilders goes on trial, and so does the Netherlands

(H/T to Jerry Coyne.) The New York Times reports that the long-awaited criminal trial of Geert Wilders begins today.

Love Wilders or hate him - I have plenty of reservations about him and would certainly not vote for him - he should not be convicted of a criminal offence for making the short movie Fitna or for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf. The latter is doubtless offensive to Muslims, but it's his opinion ... and no one should be given a right to go through life without being exposed to opinions and ideas that she finds offensive. Fitna is open to interpretation, of course. Perhaps it contains an unsavoury message, though the main message seems to be that the holy texts of Islam contain material that can inspire terrorism. I would have thought that was obvious.

The Koran itself is also open to interpretation. Its own most unsavoury passages may be exhortations by Muhammad that related only to specific times, places, and circumstances when his forces were at war. However, when the Koran is held out as a holy book of timeless application, it's not surprising that some Muslims, and of course some non-Muslims, interpret those passages as God-backed calls for ongoing violent struggle against Jews, Christians, pagans, and the non-Muslim world in general. Muslims have a responsibility to do something about this: at the very minimum they must ensure that all young people brought up in their faith are taught that the passages concerned do not apply today. That's a big challenge, so how about they get on with it?

They do themselves no favours when they lobby governments to suppress the speech of someone like Wilders. That fails to take the real problem seriously; it will make Islam even more commonly feared and despised in the West, since it will appear even more to be an enemy of individual liberty, particularly if Wilders is convicted; and even if Wilders is eventually acquitted, it turns him into a martyr for liberal freedoms. He already looks like what he is - a man who is being persecuted by the overwhelming power of the state just for saying something.

However you interpret Fitna, it is not the kind of thing that should be banned, much less punished by the criminal law. It is legitimate expression of ideas. But don't take my word for it. Go and watch if for yourself.

Whatever you think of Fitna, once you've seen it and reflected on it, its message can be opposed by further speech, e.g. by speech that freely and honestly acknowledges the problematic passages in the Koran and explains the historical context - then urges that these passages not be acted upon today. Coming from Muslim jurists and community leaders, that could be a socially valuable contribution to debate in a free society. For whatever reason, it's a contribution that they all-too-seldom seem prepared to make. It seems, all too often, that they'd rather suppress other people's viewpoints than put forward useful views of their own. Come on folks, why not rise to the challenge? Don't complain about a lack of access to the media; Muslim leaders in the West have plenty of media access if they want it.

In any event, Fitna is not the kind of immediate incitement to violence that John Stuart Mill spoke of when he said it is acceptable to ban the speech of a demagogue addressing a mob outside the home of someone it is likely to lynch. More precisely, his example is an enraged mob outside the home of a corn dealer, and the demagogue telling them, "Corn dealers are starvers of the poor." In the latter case, there's no time for any other response, and a ban is needed. There may be other cases where it is futile to respond even to less immediate incitements of violence, and there will be grey areas where a line has to be drawn. The place to draw that line is somewhere within the field of incitements to violence that are at least clear and direct. Mill made the point that it should be acceptable for the sentiment that corn dealers are starvers of the poor to be published in a newspaper, where the context is very different.

Make no mistake. It's not just Geert Wilders who is now on trial. The Netherlands is now on trial. If it convicts Wilders of a crime, then it will have demonstrated to the rest of the world that it is now a country where freedom of speech, as Mill understood it, has gone. Watch the developments in this case carefully.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Danger: Teleologist at work! Robert Wright's The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God is a fascinating account of the development of god-concepts over time, from pre-agricultural societies to the spread of Christianity and the rise of Islam. Before I go any further - into some serious criticisms - I should say that I enjoyed the book very much. It is written in vivid, page-turning prose that is cunningly woven into a fascinating narrative; I had no trouble reading 300 of its large-format pages in one day, even though I was quite busy with other things that day, and I was never slowed down by the density of the information and argument that it presents. No doubt about it - Wright can write. Better still, the scholarship is serious and impressive. As H. Allen Orr acknowledges in his review in The New York Review of Books, the discussion is "surpisingly erudite." He goes on:

The Evolution of God is full of footnotes and the literature cited in them is consistently the literature one would hope for: heavy on scholarly studies and light on popular treatments. In a climate in which discussions of religion, and especially of the intersection of religion and science, often seem superficial or rushed, Wright is to be commended for his close study. He is also to be commended for his refreshingly dispassionate tone. All this combines to provide an absorbing (and rant-free) tour of Western religion.

I second this: as a history of religion up to a certain historical point, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, helpfully structured, rich in information, and highly readable. If it pretended to be no more than that, I could stop here and simply recommend it highly.

However, there's a problem, or perhaps two or more problems. The author is not content to offer a (mostly) rant-free religious history from animism to Islam. He attempts to develop a theory as to how religion evolves, apparently he thinks inevitably, over time. More ambitiously still, he repeatedly suggests (though in a somewhat tentative, having-a-bet-each-way manner) that the narrative of religion's cultural evolution may be evidence for something divine behind it all.

As to the theory of history, I am not sure I ever totally grasped this. However, it is clear enough that ancient polytheistic civilizations were able to operate with different cities or city-states mutually recognising each other's gods. Polytheists do not necessarily limit the number of genuine gods at work in the world, and they are typically prepared to accept the reality of gods worshipped in other places. Often, gods with different origins come to be identified with each other - same divinity, different name - and sometimes entire pantheons are cobbled together from gods with disparate origins.

Polytheists' intrinsic tolerance of alien gods, and polytheism's strong historical tendency towards syncretism, become even more pronounced when multi-ethnic empires arise, such as the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. What this seems to reveal, however, is merely that polytheism has certain internal resources that make for a kind of religious tolerance, and that this was called upon historically by the economic integration of early states, through trade, and by the needs of large empires. It might be argued that civilizational integration and large-scale empire building more or less forced ancient religion to be relatively tolerant, and I have no doubt that there's some force in this. At the same time, it was the built-in logic of polytheism itself that made this possible in the first place. No deeper law or regularity seems to be responsible for that fact.

The next historical stage, after the formation of empires characterised by syncretism, is the development of monotheistic religions with universal aspirations and multi-ethnic appeal. This development contrasts with the idea, in early monolatrous and monotheistic systems, that the true god is the god for one people only. Again, however, monotheism seems to have its own internal logic: if there is only one true god, and if human beings from many racial or ethnic backgrounds are accepted as genuinely human (difficult to deny in a large multi-ethnic empire), it makes sense to extend access to the "true" god. It may not always work out in that way, since there are isolationist sects and cults even in modern times, and we cannot be sure what the tape of history would show if we replayed it. But still, it is at least not crazy to expect that some monotheistic cults would adopt universal pretensions, and that these might do well in the context of a multi-ethnic empire or a local "world" (such as that of the Mediterranean basin) intricately connected by trade and other contacts.

These are, however, rather modest, tentative, and local conclusions. Yes, socio-political circumstances may affect what kinds of religions do well, and the resources of some kinds of religion may be more advantageous than others in a particular socio-political setting. That seems hard to deny. In antiquity, this perhaps encouraged polytheistic syncretism and prodded monotheisms towards universalist pretensions. But even assuming that all this is correct, I see no reason to go further and postulate a more abstract law, such as that religion inevitably arises then evolves through a series of transactions that are mutually beneficial for those involved (such as the citizens of different states with different gods). That might sometimes happen, but sometimes it might not, and there certainly seems to be no reason to postulate a law that religions inevitably become more "moral" over time (in the sense of more willing to expand the circle of human beings who are regarded as moral equals).

It may even be that this expansion of the moral circle happens frequently as trade, improved travel and transport, empire-building, and so on produce a degree of cosmopolitanism. However, even that doesn't seem to be anything like a law of logic or nature - it certainly did not prevent massacres, slavery, dispossession, and exercises in racial and cultural supremacy when European nations came into close contact with the very different peoples of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Oceania, and the Americas. Since the early centuries of Islam, where Wright stops, there has been plenty of religious intolerance. Even if a monotheism offers its god to everyone, it may be less tolerant of rival religions than the syncretic polytheism of antiquity ... in which case things can go backwards as religions arise and develop. How, exactly, all this pans out in one situation or another may well depend on a blend of factors, perhaps including the degree of difference in military power between peoples that meet and interact. Perhaps, too, one factor is the perceived foreignness to each other of the peoples involved.

In all, I am totally unpersuaded that any kind of deep, abstract law applies to the development of religions. It is possible that attitudes and manners tend to be softened when (some) people gain a certain amount of leisure, and are free from the everyday struggle just to survive. Perhaps, too, as Hume thought, we do develop better understandings over time of what social arrangments are beneficial, so morality becomes less harsh. Those, however, are different points; they may suggest the possibility of (limited?) moral progress, but they do not entail a logic or principle that drives the evolution of religion.

I am even less attracted to the thesis that the history of religion is evidence for some kind of divinity acting in time to lead humankind (or, I suppose, other intelligent creatures in the universe) to higher and higher levels of morality. If there are familiar social conditions that historically encouraged syncretism and/or universalist monotheisms, the explanation as to why that is so appears to be a material one all the way down. We can suggest why monotheists might (in some or many cases) want to claim that worship of their god is available to everyone, and why polytheism seems to have tolerant and syncretic tendencies. But there seems to be no deep mystery in any of this that needs a further - supernatural or otherwise extraordinary - explanation. Therefore, these facts do not stand as evidence for the existence of any sort of teleology or quasi-teleology, much less the existence of God, a god, or even a "god" (something that is godlike in a sense that needs to be specified, but not necessarily a being with intellect and personality).

And yet, Wright frequently pauses in his narrative to explore the possibility that the historical development of religion points beyond itself - to something that could meaningfully be considered purposive or divine. Alas, it is never entirely clear what might count for the purpose. The orthodox Abrahamic deity would, presumably, but Wright hints that this unidentified "something" might be no more than an unexpected scientific principle or natural phenomenon.

In particular, he retells the well-known story of William Paley's attempt to prove the existence of God by referring to the functional intricacy of living things. Rather than drawing the moral that the appearance of design was an illusion - faux design produced by millions of years of evolution - Wright claims, surprise!, that there is a sense in which Paley was correct. It turns out, so Wright intimates, that there really is a "designer" of sorts, but that Paley misidentified it. Natural selection, a process unknown at the time, can produce the observed functional intricacy; therefore, natural selection was the unknown designer whose existence Paley insisted upon and sought to prove. We might think, along with most mainstream biologists, that evolution just is; but Wright wants to hold it out as a teleological process.

The suggestion here is that the "divine" or "purposive" "designer" that allegedly produces moral evolution in religions is not a personal god ... but just something unknown to us, something of great significance that stands in relation to us, who are ignorant of it, much as natural selection stood to Paley's contemporaries. What awaits our discovery, if so, may not be a divine revelation in the usual sense. It is not - or not necessarily - an onstage appearance from a supernatural person. Rather, it could be some dramatic breakthrough in intellectual understanding, analogous to what Darwin achieved in the nineteenth century.

This thought is confirmed in the final endnote to Chapter Eight, where Wright discusses the notion of purposiveness. He defines this so broadly as to include the functional adaptedness of lifeforms, the operation of natural selection itself, or the operation of some sort of larger scale natural selection (such as a cosmos-level process that might favour the origination of whole universes containing life and intelligence).

Unfortunately, the deep pattern of moral evolution that Wright seeks to explain, that he sees as pointing beyond itself, does not even seem to exist. There is no phenomenon crying out for a deeper explanation that involves purpose or design or divinity. Any tendency towards expansion of the moral circle can be explained in terms of more down-to-earth phenomena, such as the readily-understandable tendency for polytheists to tolerate each other's gods and rituals under certain circumstances. And even if something more did remain to be explained, it is simply confusing to use traditional religious language, suggesting that the explanation just might be the Abrahamic God - you never know.

Why make a big deal of this while at the same time acknowledging that the unknown "something" might be purely material and impersonal? This kind of hedging, as if someone is looking over the author's shoulder, is the most frustrating aspect of what could be a very good book with all the wild metaphysics and quasi-theological speculation ripped out of it.

Despite all that, I recommend The Evolution of God for its scholarly synthesis of much that we know about religions' historical development, up to the early days of Islam. But be prepared: all the metaphysical huffing and riffing should be taken with a lot, as it were, of salt. Order in an entire pillar.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading ... Unmasking the Bible by Leopoldo Hernandez Lara

This book, published in Mexico City, is a translation of the author's original text, which appeared in Spanish in 2008. For reasons that I'll get to in a minute, you may be better off with the original if you actually read Spanish (which, alas, I don't).

Unmasking the Bible is a very detailed critique of both the Old and New Testaments, identifying many contradictions, errors, absurdities, and atrocities. The author is not, as this might suggest, an atheist, but seems to be something like a deist or pantheist who is appalled by what he finds in the Bible and much religious practice. He is more anti-clerical than anti-supernaturalist. He states his position with respect to God in a poem, "I Believe", in which he claims to believe in a God with, among other things, "no revealed books ... no rewards or punishments ... no clergy ... no Church ... no Temple ..." (page 397). Still, whatever exact position he is coming from, he has produced a comprehensive attack on the fundamental texts of Christianity. If you are building a reference library that contains such material, or simply want to see a book that develops it in almost unprecedented detail, you might want to add Unmasking the Bible to your collection. It's perhaps the nearest thing of its kind to an encyclopedia.

I wish I could say more than that to recommend the book, as it shows an enormous amount of work and thought, and much of it could be useful. Well, I can: the additional good news is that the translation is in English prose that can be read quite quickly - translator Alexander Milenko Tomich has rendered it in a clear, unpretentious style.

Unfortunately, however, the text also contains many distracting errors. For example, the word "prophesy", as a verb, appears throughout as "prophesize", and there are many other points of awkwardness, such as (opening the book at random) a heading that says: "Criticisms to Yahweh's cruelty in the Bible" (obviously, this should be "Criticisms of ..."). In fact, there are so many of these errors in English prose that it detracts seriously from the experience of reading the book, and (no doubt unfairly) from its credibility. More damage is done to the credibility of Unmasking the Bible by heavy use of passages in bold or italics or both - so much so that these cease to have much effect in creating emphasis and simply clutter the page. This is the hallmark of a publication from a small press that has not provided professional editing. It is not only distracting - it looks amateurish.

My greater concern, though, is that a book like this really needs to engage with the latest mainstream biblical scholarship. Lara is not in the position of somebody like Richard Dawkins who can (at least arguably) dismiss the importance of Bible scholarship to his project, since he is criticising belief in God on scientific and philosophical grounds, and need not bother with too much detail about the holy books, their provenance, or what they can reasonably be taken to mean. Lara, by contrast, is engaged in a fine-grained reading of biblical verse against verse, often reconstructing what happened historically during the development of ancient Judaism.

But it's just not good enough to do this in isolation from the theories and findings of mainstream textual scholars and historians of the period, as he tends to do. A deeper engagement with the scholarship might show that some of the events recorded in the biblical text are not as absurd as they appear, but it might also help Lara's case: for example, I didn't pick up any awareness that the current state of biblical archeology suggests that there was never anything remotely like an Egyptian captivity of the Jews such as narrated in the book of Exodus. It would have been better if Lara had showed more familiarity with the rich body of scholarship that compares the biblical text as we have it with the secular historical and archeological record.

In all, I'm pleased enough to bring this book to the attention of my readers but I must warn that it would need to be used with care. The long chapter on the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), in particular, would need to be triangulated with other sources to get a clearer and fairer picture of the emergence of Judaism and the construction of the sacred text itself. Even a relatively brief account of mainstream scholarship, such as the synthesis in the relevant chapters of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, would provide a useful corrective.

Speaking of which, I plan to get back to The Evolution of God tomorrow. There's a lot more to say about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

As promised ... some more on Sunday Night Safran

As promised, here is a bit more reflection on my appearance last Sunday on Sunday Night Safran. Once again, the podcast is available for the next 9 or 10 weeks on the program's website so you can listen in for yourself if you haven't already. My interview starts at about 36 minutes, following an interview with the author of a book about exorcism (after which John Safran and his sidekick Father Bob Maguire discuss that interview - they discuss their interview with me at about 50 minutes).

So, my impressions. First, I don't think it particularly comes across unless you've been told, but I was feeling a bit more nervous for this interview than in some of the other gigs I've done recently, such as an interview on Radio Australia and the program on Radio National's Life Matters just before Christmas. It mainly reflected itself in a couple of silly mistakes when I started to call Susan Blackmore "Susan Blackburn" (I was doubtless thinking of Elizabeth Blackburn for some reason) and then had to keep talking over John to correct myself. I also had a blank about the CFI which I ended up calling "Committee for Inquiry" rather than "Center for Inquiry". Then again, people make these sorts of small mistakes quite often - it's just that I don't usually do it and I kick myself quite hard when I do. John himself made one even before me when he called Michael Shermer "Michael Sherman".

The other thing is that this interview was conducted by phone, not in the ABC studios. Not that long ago, I was intimidated by radio studios, with a microphone in my face and headphones on, but I've "done" them often enough now that that's no longer the case, and I think it's preferable. The sound quality is better for my own voice, and the sound from the interviewer is also clearer. I missed some of John's softer comments where he was reacting to things I said - when I heard it on the podcast, he was making quite encouraging noises which were generally not that audible over the phone, so the interview actually sounded better than I thought it was sounding at the time. I also missed his crack about an Opus Dei plot (when I said that the book should in theory be in all good bookshops, but in practice you may have to ask for it), so I didn't react to it. Still, it's not always possible to get into a radio studio, and this was a fairly minor issue. It's just that I advise others to use the studio if you can. I'll be doing another interview (this time with ABC Adelaide) on Tuesday, and again it will be by phone - not a big deal.

John was certainly not an aggressive interviewer, but he did keep things going along quite quickly and asked some of the hard questions. The line of questioning about how we pick and choose what religious views on political matters to criticise or accept was a good one, and well worth pursuing. One of the things I was pleased about was that I managed to explain, fairly cogently, I thought, my support for the Millian harm principle: the criminal law, in particular, should not be enforcing a religious morality, or some other specific morality, but should have the relatively modest aim of deterring significant harm to others (the principle is bit more complicated than this, but it would have been a mistake to try to explain the nuances in a radio interview). Thus, we should not give credence to religious leaders when they want, say, their specific morality on homosexuality or contraception enforced, but there will be times when they say things that we can quite properly agree with from a secular viewpoint.

More generally, I thought that I came across as calm, friendly, and well-meaning. There are times when it's appropriate to sound self-righteous or angry or dismissive, but not in an exploratory interview like this.

As mentioned above, the trick about the show's format is that John and Father Bob get to discuss each interview after the interviewee has left. Father Bob took no part in the interview with me except to ask me whether Damien Broderick came from the Broderick family that he knows in Melbourne (answer: "Maybe"). He also took no part in the first interview with the guy who'd written the book on exorcism. However, he panned both of us - quite rightly, I think with the exorcism guy. He dismisses me - or, when John presses him on it, advocacy of atheism - as "boring". His reason is basically that the problem of evil imagines a "little God" who "pulls levers" and so on, when the God he knows is somehow beyond that.

A couple of observations here. First, the book deals with a heckuva lot more than the problem of evil. Second, it would have been nice if he'd put this objection to me in the interview. I actually find the objection rather bizarre: "My God is too big to prevent evil!" I would have thought that "My God is too small (i.e., not omnipotent) to prevent evil" would be a more plausible answer. It seems that Father Bob believes in a God who only looks after the big picture and does not intervene in the details of how the universe works - hence, evil. That doesn't really answer anything, because it gives us no idea why a benevolent and all-powerful God would create a universe where there is inevitably so much suffering (surely the universe could have been set up better) or, if it comes to that, so much, apparently inevitable, disobedience to His own will. If this is the best theodicy that Bob can manage, I'm not impressed. I imagine that a lot of listeners would be similarly unimpressed, though I'm sure a lot of others would have nodded along happily.

Given the format, nothing can be done about this. All you can really do is seem like a good, friendly person with some cogent and interesting points, so there isn't a lot of scope if one of the announcers does want to pan you afterwards; people in the audience can then make up their own minds. No matter what arguments you bring up (and of course the interview wasn't about the specific arguments against Christianity), it's still open to John and Bob to raise other issues when they talk about it. That said, I was actually pretty pissed off with Father Bob's approach to this when I listened to the podcast ... but what feedback I've had suggests to me that he probably sounded a bit foolish if anything.

It was also a bit annoying that they got into the "no atheists in foxholes" theory without putting it to me first, but I guess it came to John's mind afterwards, and of course you can't cover everything in a short interview. It would have been a good question to have been asked, though, since there's plenty of evidence that there actually are atheists in foxholes, and one of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief (by Vietnam war veteran Joe Haldeman) addresses this explicitly.

There are some final comments by the hosts - or John, at least - right at the end of the program. He sums up by saying that he liked 50 Voices of Disbelief:Why We Are Atheists but Father Bob didn't. That's fair enough, of course - they are entitled to their respective opinions. Overall, the program probably did what I really wanted it to achieve, namely making the book sound interesting enough that somebody seeing it in a bookshop might pick it up. To be blunt, interviews like this are all about sales. You're there to sound reasonably interesting and to distinguish your product (lots of people from all continents, looking at the issues from many angles, etc.), not to try to put a knock-down argument against religion.

Overall, I thought that I could have been a more scintillating - I was better on those other programs that I mentioned - but that it was okay. My greater concern is that the book is not getting picked up by Australian Borders stores except as a special order (from feedback I've had, and checking with my local Borders up here in Newcastle a few days ago). That means that customers are not going to see it there even if they are sensitised to it by interviews like this one. There's little I can do about this - I'm sure that the Wiley reps are completely competent and doing their best, and it's their job and area of expertise rather than mine - but there is probably some resistance to it as an "academic" book, and it does mean we're losing some potential sales.

On the other hand, 50 Voices seems to be doing well wherever it is actually sold, and the Amazon rankings have been consistently better than we expected. The latter is only a very rough indicator of demand (and Amazon is still only a small part of the book market), but it's cause for some optimism. The way book contracts work, we won't know for a long time how sales are really going, but I'm hopeful that they'll be high enough to make the project worthwhile. I'd encourage Australian readers to prod their local Borders stores - and I'd be grateful if you did - but you might find the price is inflated for special orders and be better off ordering directly from the Wiley site (or buying from a shop that you know has it in stock, such as Embiggen Books on the Sunshine Coast or Readings in Melbourne).

On to the next interview on Tuesday morning at 10.30 am my time. The guys at ABC Adelaide look interesting, and this will probably be a quite different experience again.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reading: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

I have almost finished reading Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, and I am going to add writing a full review of it to my lengthening list of things I've promised to do on this blog. I'll try to get to that task sooner rather than later while the book is fresh in my memory.

I have to say that I (1) enjoyed this book very much, but (2) experienced a larger-than-usual number of "I-want-to-throw-this-thing-against-the-wall" moments. I hope to explain why in a reasonably cogent way as soon as I have time to do a proper review. Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, I've tracked down Jerry Coyne's review of the book back in August (in The New Republic). Wright, in turn, took issue with much of this, and there was some intellectual biffo between them thereafter. H. Allen Orr has also written an interesting (and largely persuasive) review.

Since Jerry was being paid - as was Orr - whereas I won't be, I may not opine at quite the same length, but my throw-against-the-wall moments were for reasons not remote from their reasons for scepticism. Still, I'll give the book the fairest, most objective review that I can. Despite my frequent moments of read-rage, I do recommend The Evolution of God in this sense: it contains a lot of fascinating historical and anthropological information, and it is written in page-turning prose that is cunningly woven into a fascinating narrative (I had no trouble reading 300 of its large-format pages yesterday, even though I was intermittently quite busy with other things).

Wright has a gift for clear, interesting exposition, even when his prose is dense with information and argument, and he certainly knows how to structure and pace a long, complex discussion. But, to be blunt, he really ought to cut out the wild metaphysical speculations. They are not at all convincing, and only detract from what is otherwise an interesting tale of changing conceptions of deity from pre-agricultural societies, through the ancient pagan empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome ...), to the rise of Christianity and Islam.

Anyway, I'll leave it at that for the moment. Feel free either to comment now or hold your fire until I say more.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Udo Schuklenk interviewed

Great interview with Udo Schuklenk conducted by Maia Caron.


The UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution decrying religious defamation as an affront to human dignity, is controlled mostly by countries that are among the most prolific violators of civil rights, including the right to speak one’s mind.

The blasphemy document itself is remarkable in its scope and deliberate vagueness. Notorious civil-rights violators like Iran and Saudi Arabia will now be able to claim with some confidence that the UN is on their side when they clamp down on liberal-minded or secular Muslims. Western countries will also be happy to note that the council thinks the human right to free speech is not violated when they enforce their own, less draconian, blasphemy laws. The UN has firmly established itself as a body that is not even prepared to defend the basic principles enshrined in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

McKillop, McSchmillop ... James Bradley tells it like it is

Over at City of Tongues, James Bradley asks how uncritical anti-science nonsense ends up on the front pages of major newspapers.

Rather than fulminate at length, I’m going to confine myself to a few questions. How is it even remotely okay for major newspapers to be publishing uncritical articles about "miracles" on their front pages in 2010? Have we really lost the fight against the anti-science mob that comprehensively? If such claims were made by another, less established religion or belief-system (let’s say Scientology, or perhaps the Exclusive Brethren) would they be allowed to go through to the keeper so easily? And what does that tell us about the power and influence of the big churches, and the Catholic Church in particular? And finally, and perhaps most pertinently, why are editors who are so resistant to the scientific evidence surrounding climate change so uncritical when it comes to this sort of religious claptrap?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Table of contents for Worlds Next Door

Here is the table of contents for Worlds Next Door, a forthcoming anthology of speculative fiction for 9-13 year olds, edited by Tehani Wessely.

Angela Slatter "Genevieve and the Dragon"
Michael Pryor "Horror Movie"
Rowena Cory Daniells "Tabitha"
Dirk Flinthart "Best Dog in the World"
Dave Luckett "Disobedience"
Kaaron Warren "A New Rat in Town"
Thoraiya Dyer "Sir Pesky Poos-A-Lot And The Pony"
RJ Astruc "Enid and the Prince"
Felicity Dowker "The House on Juniper Road"
Edwina Harvey "Rocket and Sparky"
Launz Burch "The Trouble with Fifi"
Geoffrey Hugh Miller "The Guardians"
Jenny Blackford "Slugs and Snails"
Tansy Rayner Roberts and Karyn Landelius "Nine Times"
Aidan Doyle "Inksucker"
Leith Daniel "Old Saint Nick"
Jen Banyard "Through the Break"
Sue Bursztynski "Mega Wombats and Demon Ducks"
Pamela Freeman "Ghost Town"
Angie Rega "Philomena Plaitbinder"
Martin Livings "Welcome to Deathtown"
Joanne Anderton and Gaston Locanto "Graffiti"
Bren MacDibble "Moonchild"
Matthew Chrulew "The Nullarbor Wave"
Paul Collins "A Wizard in Trouble"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oh no! "Licentiousness breeds extremism"

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a worrying column in The Independent. It is not worrying because of the concerns she raises about "licentiousness", "social nihilism", "debauchery", etc., but because it is another example of blaming the victims. Somehow the blame for Islamist terrorism is to be sheeted home to the relative sexual permissiveness of Western (in this case, British) society. It is also worrying because Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be an example of a moderate Muslim, but when you see someone writing so emotively about the evils of sexual freedom you have to ask the usual question where "moderate religion" is concerned, "Moderate about what?"

Her supposed moderation does not extend to acceptance that teenagers and young adults are (quite rationally) largely focused on sexual pleasures, and will inevitably engage in various forms of sexual display - such as wearing revealing clothing - if they are allowed to. Moderate she may be about some things, but she still writes in the way you'd expect of someone who has been socialised into a prudish kind of moral vision that irrationally condemns sexual expression and understands the naked human body as shameful.

Let's be clear about this. Alibhai-Brown does not merely offer the descriptive sociological conjecture that there's a causal nexus between the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies and some Islamist extremism. She could have said something like the following: "In contemporary Western societies, many young women engage in a great deal of sexual display, in particular by wearing clothing that reveals much of their bodies. Some young men from Muslim backgrounds find this frustrating because it arouses them sexually, yet they are taught not to engage in sex outside of marriage. Some of these young men may react by becoming religious extremists."

If she'd just said that, we could guess that at least some young men, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, really do match this description. We could then consider whether the alleged causal connnection applies to more than a small number of isolated cases. Is that claim supported by any sociological data, and if so what policy response, if any, is required?

However, that is not how Alibhai-Brown presents her thesis. Instead, she uses highly emotive language to condemn the degree of sexual permissiveness that she finds in the UK. She obviously considers it repugnant and morally outrageous.

Early in the article, she writes sympathetically of how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "tried to hold on to Islamic Puritanism in a country of no shame, no restraint." She then adds: "Millions of Britons of all backgrounds are alarmed by the dissipation and debauchery that now defines Britain." It might be thought that when she writes of "no shame, no restraint", she is merely representing how Abdulmutallab perceived things, but not so. The following sentence is clearly in her own voice: she actually does see Britain as now defined by what she calls "dissipation and debauchery". This kind of language continues throughout the article. She speaks of "social nihilism", of a nation that "has gone from Fifties uprightness to public striptease", of "libertine excess" and "a state of perpetual abandon". Make no mistake, Alibhai-Brown is not merely describing a clash between Muslim ideas of sexual modesty and the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies. She is condemning the latter in strong and angry terms.

Some of her examples are silly. She writes:

A list was sent home to the parents of girls at a middle-class school in London last week sternly reminding non-uniformed sixth-formers that there were still rules of decorum to follow. A list followed of garments henceforth disallowed: no tops that show the midriff or cleavage, no tight mini-skirts, no underwear showing, no clothes with holes in them, etc, etc.

Now, there might be something to the idea that high school is a place to wear fairly modest clothing, to help everyone in concentrating on studies - though, frankly, I rather doubt this. First-year university students wore "immodest" clothing in the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, and they still do, though the fashions have somewhat changed (the thin see-through tops, with no bra underneath, that were commonplace among young women in Australia in the 1970s are not so socially accepted now). Undergraduates are not very much older than high school students (especially those in sixth form, i.e. Year 12), yet their attire doesn't seem to have any adverse effects from a purely pedagogical viewpoint. At least I see no evidence of this. Alibhai-Brown is probably barking up the wrong tree here, as elsewhere.

But even if we grant for the sake of argument that high school is different, that tight mini-skirts, etc., are not a good idea within school grounds, this doesn't justify the emotive description of "tops that show the midriff or cleavage ...tight mini-skirts ... underwear showing ... clothes with holes" as "wanton wear" or "public striptease". I can think of many outfits that have holes or show midriffs, or whatever, but are smart and edgy rather than blatantly sexy. But even if young women do choose to show their bodies to the world in unequivocal sexual display ... so what? It obviously upsets Alibhai-Brown, but she gives absolutely no reason why anyone else should find it upsetting or oppose it on moral grounds. Generally, when young women dress this way they are strutting their stuff, showing off in a fairly harmless way, and getting enjoyment from it. It's not because they're coerced. The resulting display is also enjoyable for many of the people who see it. It's enjoyable all round, except for the minority of prudes and puritans - but the latter don't get to dictate what everyone else does.

Of course, it's ridiculous to assert that the UK is a society that knows no shame or restraint. I'm sure that many people in the UK show restraint all the time, e.g. they probably restrain themselves from acts of violence or dishonesty that they might be tempted to in a vast range of everyday situations.

And they almost certainly feel shame in a similarly vast range of situations, perhaps when they fall short of their own moral standards (in honesty, for example) or in standards of skill and competence that they try to adhere to. It is nonsense to say that the UK is a society with no shame or restraint. No such society could survive for long.

What Alibhai-Brown means, of course, is that many people in the UK society do not show as much shame specifically about the body and sexuality as she'd like, or as much restraint specifically in sexual conduct and display as she approves of.

The truth of the situation is that Alibhai-Brown considers a certain high propensity for sexual shame and restraint to be a virtue, while many other people consider it to be a vice. Many people may think that a certain pride about the body and a certain degree of willingness to flaunt sexuality are actually the genuine virtues in this domain. If so, they are working with a more pagan set of virtues, perhaps, but they still have standards of virtue ... just different ones from Alibhai-Brown. That position may be growing more common, and those of us who share it are obviously pleased if our values are starting to seem normal. What Alibhai-Brown should not say, unless she is dishonest or ignorant, is that this amounts to "social nihilism". No, it is not a loss of values, or an absence of values, in the society, but the emergence of values that are different from hers. They are the values of people who do not use such words of condemnation as "debauchery", "licentiousness", and "dissipation".

It's true, of course, that life may be uncomfortable for people who don't share the dominant values in their societies. If sexual display, sexual permissiveness, sexual willingness or openness, and so on do become the dominant values in British society, then people with the opposite values may be psychologically uncomfortable - but no one has a right to control which values are prevalent in her society in order to ensure her own psychological comfort. The most she can ask is that she be legally permitted to live by her own (minority) values. I.e., she can ask that the state not coerce her to wear, say, a short, tight miniskirt and to expose her midriff. However, she cannot ask that other people be forbidden from doing so, or even that they be forbidden from making adverse judgments about her values if she chooses not to conform to theirs.

Alibhai-Brown either doesn't understand this or doesn't want to, because she indulges in the common statement of moral equivalence between (1) peer group, or other informal, pressure to wear revealing clothes and (2) the use of coercive political power to enforce wearing of the burka or other "modest" clothing. But peer groups inevitably establish norms of approved behaviour; no one can stop that happening. Nor is it surprising that many teenage peer groups develop a norm of approving a certain degree of sexual display in clothing, wherever this is legal (hint: teenagers of both sexes are typically as randy as stoats and want to be sexually attractive to other teenagers). Nor is it particularly surprising if an entire society moves towards values in which expressions of sexuality and displays of the body are valued (hint: sex is intensely enjoyable, and many human bodies are beautiful and sexually provocative ... so of course these things are likely to be widely valued).

Still, however much values may be shifting, Western society as a whole tolerates a very wide range of clothing. Alibhai-Brown can dress as modestly as she wishes without attracting much in the way of disapproval, let alone the punishment and stigma that goes with being a law breaker. Let her by all means wander the street in her veil, long dress, and sensible shoes - or whatever it is she wants to wear (I actually have no idea how she dresses). She probably won't suffer for it at all.

Sure, some younger people may find it psychologically difficult to go against the values of a peer group, but that is inevitable no matter what values their peer groups have. Alibhai-Brown's real beef is that she doesn't like the particular values that she sees. Fortunately, it is also inevitable that some people do manage not to conform to their peer groups, or to find alternative peer groups. This can't be guaranteed in each instance, of course, but even if going against the values of your peer group (or the wider society) is psychologically uncomfortable it is very different in kind from being locked up in a prison cell or being whipped or executed if you don't abide by the local code of sexual modesty.

Alabhi-Brown ends with this flourish:

With things falling apart and ethical compasses broken, you can see why so many are turning to self-discipline and certainties in an age of chaos. Islamic Stalinism is set to grow stronger. A society in a state of perpetual abandon cannot survive that onslaught. We need to sober up and see what we have become. The future is grim; it needs us to be serious.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! First, there is no evidence at all that "things" are "falling apart" or that ethical compasses are broken. At most, certain traditional anti-sex values are being replaced by certain (in my view, more rational) pro-sex values that Alibhai-Brown dislikes. That may cause confusion if some families and cultures are still preaching the anti-sex values while much of the advertising and entertainment industries preaches the pro-sex ones, but that does not make the former values correct. Nor does it mean that the transition in values is to "things falling apart" - that is nonsense.

Nor is the society of Britain or any other Western country in a state of "perpetual abandon". Can't Alibhai-Brown understand that a commitment to pro-sex values, and an unashamed enjoyment of sex and sexual display, is perfectly compatible with many other values, such as the value of fighting any onslaught from "Islamic Stalinism"? Indeed, people with the relevant pro-sex values are likely to be strongly motivated to resist "Islamic Stalinism", with its extreme anti-sex values.

As for the need to "sober up", how is this to be achieved? If it involves abandoning the new pro-sex values, what public policy is Alibhai-Brown proposing to achieve this? Of course, we could all change our values individually (though she has provided absolutely no good reason to do so in her article), but is she hinting here at some kind of collective response? I hope not, because that way lies the very totalitarianism that we want to resist.

In all, this is a very bad article, one that goes too close to blaming people who have values different from the writer's (but not obviously false or irrational ones) for the evil of Islamist terrorism. We should push back against articles like this and assert our own pro-sex values even more strongly. Indeed, it's clear enough to me that, despite Alibhai-Brown's lamentations, the mass media are still permeated by suspicion of pro-sex values. Popular entertainment is still monogamist, pro-natalist, and somewhat puritanical about the body. There is a long way to go yet before we have a genuinely sexually permissive society.

Alibhai-Brown won't like it when we get there, but no one promised her a society that values just what she does.

Coming soon ... some observations on Sunday Night Safran

It was an interesting experience listening to Sunday Night Safran, after my interview with (primarily) John Safran the other night. For anyone listening to the podcast version, available on the show's website, my interview starts at about 36 minutes in and goes (I think ... I didn't take much notice) for about 10 minutes. Most of what comes before is an interview with the author of a book about exorcism, then discussion between the hosts after that interview is over.

As for my own interview ... well, the interview itself was generally fine, even though I didn't feel as relaxed as I sometimes do with radio interviews. I do have some observations to make about it (and the pros and cons of how I handled it ... IMO, some things were good, some not so good). More frustrating was the discussion later on between the hosts (around the 50 minute mark), where some of the things said by Father Bob Maguire in particular had pretty obvious responses that I could easily have given if I'd still been on the air. Still, that's the format of the show and all interviewees have to live with it.

There are then some final comments by the hosts right at the end of the program - in fact I think it's really just John Safran summing up by saying that he liked 50 Voices of Disbelief:Why We Are Atheists but Bob Maguire didn't. That's fair enough, of course - they are entitled to their respective opinions of the book.

Anyway, here's a chance for anyone else who listened to the show to make comments. I've been away from my computer for most of today ... technically yesterday ... so I'll have to hold my fire for now on anything more detailed than this post. But I'll get back to the topic soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Michael Bachelard's story on the New Atheism - a response

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.