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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dawkins on the Old Testament God

Here's what Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Now, Dawkins himself has commented on this (though I can't immediately find the provenance). What I'm about to say is not, therefore, very original, but I do know that Dawkins more-or-less agrees with it - or at least some of it.

Some people doubtless think that the above quote is "shrill" or "strident". I say that those people are tone deaf. The tone is, above all, that of someone delighting in the English language and inviting us to do likewise, as he locates all these adjectives, many of them polysyllabic, though the rhythm of the prose (try saying it aloud) is controlled by the fact that they are not all of the same length. The delight is heightened by the sense that we have as readers of the sheer thoroughness of this denunciation, and by its precision and accuracy: by a sense that Dawkins could justify each of these very specific adjectives (and the nouns they attach to) individually, if called upon to do so. Whatever this passage is, it's not Dawkins playing tennis with the net down. It's exuberant yet disciplined.

The total effect is not just that of intoxication with the language, though it's certainly that as well; it is, let's say it, funny. Indeed, when Dawkins reads the passage out loud to audiences they laugh at it. That's his aim.

There's a seriousness about it, too, of course. Once again, the joy of the language and the humour it produces rely on the thoroughness and precision (and accuracy) of this denunciation of the Old Testament God. A serious point is being made here, but also in a way that celebrates our ability to make it in just this way, and partly for that reason it invites our laughter.

There's a great deal more that can be said about the passage, including, yes, the fact that a certain disrespect for the Old Testament and the religious significance of the passage is conveyed. God, as described in the Old Testament is being revealed not just as monstrous but also as absurd, and we are invited to feel and share the absurdity as we laugh at the wordplay. There's an iconoclasm about it, of which we are conscious - perhaps even uneasily, but perhaps not so much - even as we laugh.

The tone of The God Delusion is not strident. Sometimes it is passionate and blunt, more often it is urbanely humorous, but it can also be thoughtful: carefully making distinctions and even concessions, while identifying what the author invites us to regard as the important and irrefutable nuggets of truth. Dawkins is, to pick up on some of my previous post, a master of the English language, and there is always much going on in any passage that he's written which resists a reductive description as "strident" or "shrill". Of course, if you start out unsympathetic to him, with a closed mind, you may miss all this, all the humour, the cajolery, the careful seriousness of purpose, but it's all right there in the choice of language.

When Dawkins is described as "strident" or "shrill", one response is to say, "Who cares? All that matters is the cogency of his arguments." But this is an unsophisticated response. People are always going to be interested in discussing the sorts of things I've pointed to in this post - and even if they're not comfortable discussing it, they will encounter language working in these complex ways. And it will do its work on them, one way or another.

It might, for one thing, sometimes make them laugh out loud.

A better response to someone who complains about the tone of such a passage is not:"Tone doesn't matter." It's: "You're tone deaf."

Watch your language (yes, tone matters)

Tone and language matter. I've discussed this before, but every day, it seems, I come across stray comments on the internet about how ... tone doesn't matter, this is well known, it's illegitimate to raise issues of tone when discussing what someone else has written, etc. It's not that I see this from high-profile people, so I'm not blaming, for example, any well-known "New Atheist" writer for spreading such a silly idea, but I do see it from innumerable commenters all over the internet. I don't know where the idea originally came from, though of course some of it may be a reaction to such phenomena as the notorious "You're Not Helping" blog, which was dedicated to making accusations about the "unhelpfulness" of New Atheist writers.

Any sample of spoken or written language can be analysed in terms of features such as its tone and style. Often, there may be nothing very interesting to say about these features, but often they are very important. To claim that they don't matter is breathtakingly ignorant - it's like claiming that Genesis is not the first book of the Bible or like denying the truth of the second law of thermodynamics or that AIDS is caused by micro-organisms. To anyone who has done any study of literature at all, someone who denies that tone matters immediately identifies himself or herself as not knowing what they are talking about. It's that elementary.

If we go around saying such ignorant things, we will look, well, ignorant, to many people whom we'd like to persuade of our views; we'll effectively trap ourselves in a ghetto where we talk only to each other; we'll systematically mislead ourselves about many important issues; and if we apply our dictum seriously we'll cut ourselves off from discussing important questions about what is conveyed by much of what we read or hear.

Tone does matter. It is part of meaning. When we talk about tone, we are talking those parts of language that convey affective meaning - specifically, we are talking about the attitude that the speaker or writer takes to the audience, including the nuances of what is being suggested to the audience about what attitudes it should take to the subject matter. Tone involves, for example, issues of irony, sarcasm, grimness, seriousness, comedy, iconoclasm, and on and on. If you don't "get" the tone of what you read or hear, you may totally misunderstand what is being conveyed. In the extreme, as when you fail to pick up irony or sarcasm, you may get precisely the opposite meaning to what is intended. Even in less extreme cases, you may miss out on much of the meaning.

Think of tone of voice. If you are listening to a friend but cannot "read" her tone of voice, and have only her literal words to go on, you'll be missing out on a great deal of what she is conveying to you - or what she would be conveying to you if you "got" it. The reality is that much of the meaning of ordinary spoken language is conveyed through tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. If you "read" these innacurately, you'll get the wrong meaning, or an impoverished version of the meaning.

These elements don't exist in written language, though devices such as italics and scare quotes can capture some of their effect. Written language relies to a greater extent than spoken language on such features as the choice of linguistic register, the use of particular words that are rich in connotation, and the rhythms of the prose. These are, of course, also present in spoken language - they are very important in oratory - but in written language they become even more important, because there is no actual voice to back them up (we can't hear any literal tone of voice) and nor are they backed up by any facial expressions or body language. Good writers, though, have no difficulty conveying much of their meaning through the way they choose their language.

Thus, it's possible to adopt a light-hearted tone that suggests to the reader that what is being said is not be taken too seriously. It's possible to adopt a tone that suggests to the reader that it should be taken very seriously indeed. It's possible to suggest to the reader, without saying it explicitly, that something under discussion is absurd and so merits mockery, contempt, and rejection. It's possible to suggest that somebody who is being discussed is deserving of blame or hatred. And it's possible to suggest the opposite of these things. These aspects of what a writer is trying to convey will not usually be stated explicitly, but will be suggested by implication or by choice of language - by emotive words, prose rhythms, linguistic register and so on.

The good news is that competent writers of a natural language are very good at doing all this more or less unconsciously, though true masters of literary language are able to do it at a much higher level of intensity than the rest of us. The other bit of good news is that most of us have considerable skill in "decoding" these elements of language, and, again, we do it unconsciously. The bad news is that many people do, in fact, fail to "get" things that are conveyed in this way - as any English literature teacher quickly discovers if she delves into this territory with her students. Invariably, she'll find that some students are far more adept than others in picking up on how language conveys meaning in inexplicit ways.

Furthermore, even highly competent speakers of the relevant language can often end up in reasonable disagreement about what the tone of a particular passage was - was it meant to be taken straight, or was it more light-hearted, or was it sarcastic, or what? It can be difficult to settle arguments about this sort of thing, even in an English literature tutorial where the teacher may be much more experienced than the students and has a degree of legitimate authority.

It's also unfortunate that some people just are better at dealing with this than others, just as some people are better than others at picking up tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. It seems arrogant to tell someone that she doesn't "get" these things and to set yourself up as superior in "getting" them, but that's the world we live in. There are all these aspects of communication, some people are very comfortable with them, and with discussing them, and some people are less so.

Still, we have no practical choice but to communicate in these ways. In the context of the written word, we have no real choice but to convey much of our meaning through our selection of language and to receive much of the meaning of things that we read via the writer's selection of language. When we discuss the meaning of a prose piece (or even more so with a piece of poetry!) with someone else, we have no choice but to get into issues of language and tone, and to make attempts to show how one or other construal of the less explicit aspects of meaning is more plausible than others.

For example, part of the meaning of John Shook's piece in the Huffington Post the other day - a part conveyed by its scathing tone, which in turn arises from choices of words, from the rhythm of the prose and so on - is that certain unnamed people deserve our scorn for their ignorance and arrogance. Shook goes close to saying this explicitly, but he never goes quite that far. The further meaning in his piece is conveyed through the choice of language. We are entitled to say that Shook used scathing language of people who were unnamed but in a way that suggested he was talking about certain individuals who do not in fact deserve contempt or hostility, or whatever. That is a perfectly legitimate discussion to have. Leaving aside the literal meaning of what he said, we are entitled to discuss how certain choices of language make the piece sensationalist, inflammatory, and so on. We should not be cutting ourselves off from that discussion.

Part of the worry about discussing matters of tone, apart from the sheer slipperiness involved, the ambiguity of the data, and so on, may be a fear that we'll be constantly attacked for inappropriate hostility. Better, it might seem, if we can assert that this is irrelevant. But we really have no choice but to enter into arguments about whether and when hostility is actually expressed, when it is or is not actually appropriate, and so on. We are entitled to point out, for example, that Jerry Coyne's now-famous review of recent books by Ken Miller and Karl Giberson adopted a civil, thoughtful tone, and that any hostility conveyed was towards the ideas of the books, or certain of them, rather than to the authors personally. We can then complain, justifiably, if someone claims that such reviews should not be written. We can point out that there was nothing in the tone of the review that was inappropriate in the context, and that the complaint is really about Jerry Coyne's view of the actual arguments in the books. And so on.

We need to have these conversations, we can't avoid them, and there is no shortcut by which we can require our interlocutors to ignore tone and concentrate solely on the cogency of any arguments that are presented explicitly and seriously. Where such arguments exist, of course, their cogency is independent of the overall tone of a piece in which they are embedded. But that does not entail that the tone of the piece does not matter. It may matter in all sorts of ways.

I'm asking my readers to give up on this silly "tone doesn't matter" meme - if you have bought into it at all - and to squash it wherever it appears. The real point isn't to deny that tone matters; the point is to be able to discuss issues of tone with more sophistication than people who make crude allegations about it - so-called "tone trolls" who are too quick to make accusations of inappropriate hostility. We should be able to discuss how hostile a piece or English prose really seems to be, whether the degree of hostility shown really is inappropriate, and so on. We don't have to get caught up in foolish meta-arguments about whether tone even matters at all. Of course it does, and the argument that it doesn't is unwinnable in the wider world. Tone does matter. But we need not run away from arguments about it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Daily Mash on that religion survey.

Warning: this may contain satire.

Sample:

Most protestants believe their church was founded by Space 1999 actor Martin Landau, while many Roman Catholics thought that holy communion symbolised St Peter's fondness for Vimto and ready salted Pringles.

Meanwhile only half of those surveyed could identify the Koran as being the holy book of Islam, while the other half said that whatever it was they were terrified of it and wanted to shoot it in the face.

H/T Jenny Blackford

Argument from design

H/T Damien Broderick for sending me the link to this bit of fun.

Most American believers don't know what they're talking about

A story currently doing the rounds relates to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which asked 32 questions about religion to American respondents. Not surprisingly, atheists and agnostics did best - "not surprisingly," I say, because these are the people who are actually likely to have given religion some intellectual consideration.

I haven't seen all 32 questions, but the CNN version of the story gives some examples - "What religion was Mother Teresa?" "What religion was Maimonides?" "What religion is the Dalai Lama?" "What is the first book of the Bible?" "What are the first four books of the New Testament?" "Are American teachers able to use holy books in a comparative religion class?" "Are they allowed to lead a class in prayer?" The story also offers a quiz with 10 questions from the original 32 - with only minimal overlap with the ones I just mentioned. I got all 10 correct ... not because I am brilliant but because they are ridiculously elementary. In all, we have seen about half of the questions, and they are at such a rudimentary level as to be almost insulting to our intelligence.

Perhaps some of the questions we haven't seen are a bit harder, and maybe I would have got some wrong if I'd been asked all 32 of them. Who knows? But the evidence is that this was a very easy set of 32 questions that even someone with only basic general knowledge should have gotten almost completely right.

But, Catholics got only half the questions right. Mainline Protestants did even worse. White evangelical Protestants got over half right (it sounds like it wasn't much more than half) but did not do as well as Jews and Mormons who, in turn, did not do as well as atheists and agnostics. Black Protestants got just over a third right and Hispanic Catholics got just under a third right. Bible-belt Southerners fared badly, though we are not told exactly how badly.

In short, the ignorance of religion displayed by religious believers in America is appalling. Their reasons for believing in a particular set of religious propositions certainly cannot be based on a sound knowledge of what is on offer and deep reflection on the evidence. In America, at least, most believers simply don't know what they're talking about. I wonder whether it would be much better in other countries.

Forget the arguments about atheists rejecting the proposition that God exists, while being untutored in the more subtle kinds of academic theology. American believers accept extraordinary claims about the existence of a God, and much else, from a position of vastly more profound ignorance. That's the reality, folks.

Edit: Here's the full report - H/T Margaret Morgan. I've glanced through the full set of questions, and there was only one for which I was unsure of the answer (I get my American "great awakenings" mixed up). To be fair, even atheists and agnostics, who did best, only got about 20 or 21 out of 32 correct. Still, their decisions are, on average, grounded in a better knowledge base than that of any other group.

Further edit: I'm not usually one to brag, but I checked and my preferred answer to the question I was a little unsure about was correct - so I would have got all 32 right. But once again, that's because the questions were so easy. Even someone with only a superficial knowledge could have answered all 32 questions correctly ... but only 8 people out of over 3,400 managed to do so. Make of that what you will. This certainly puts a different perspective on claims that atheists somehow have no right to their position unless they have a sophisticated knowledge of theology.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jenny haz good news

The clever and delightful Ms Jenny Blackford has just had a couple of professional acceptances in a row, and she's done a count tonight that shows she now has 17 stories and 2 poems professionally published plus another 5 stories forthcoming. She's currently the fiction writer in the family and now has a lot more professional fiction credits than I do (hehe, but mine are still quite a bit longer on average).

I'm not sure whether the 17 includes her short novel, The Priestess and the Slave, but I'm sure she'll tell me if I call out to her in the other room.

Yay for Jenny!

A little bit more about Earani

Just to add a coda to my previous post, one of the intriguing things, but also one of the fascinating things, about Cox's Out of the Silence is the way the author doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind whether Earani is a monster or a spokesperson. On the one hand, her disparaging remarks about the general quality of Australian politicians seem like a nice case of  ingénue  irony - despite her super-intelligence, she is naive about democratic politics. First she thinks that a democratic nation would naturally elect the best and wisest citizens as its leaders, and then she is shocked to see that it is not so in early-20th-century Australia - as soon as she glimpses some photos of our parliamentarians, she is able to discern their shallowness, incompetence, and greed. In scenes such as this, her mix of intelligence and  naivety about the new world provide Cox with a vehicle for satire.

But at the same time, there's no doubt that we are to regard her as a monster, as Marian Seymour does from the moment they meet, and as Dick Barry increasingly does towards the end of the book.

Of course, when I say that the author "cannot make up his mind" I'm being unfair. It's better to work on the assumption that he knows exactly what he's doing. As an  ingénue, sometimes getting things wrong, Earani provides opportunities for satire; as someone who is superhumanly intelligent and perceptive, she quickly realises (other) things that escape ordinary people; and above all her genocidal plans, together with her almost-merciless dedication to them, make her monstrous. Cox puts her in many situations where we see her interactions with others, and the result is complex and subtle. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and the ambiguities surrounding Earani linger in the memory. That would have been even more so in the 1910s and 1920s, when Earani's actual theories of racial superiority were likely to be considered more plausible - they are never entirely repudiated, although her plans about taking them to their logical conclusion and putting them into practice most definitely are. Even now, when these ideas appear merely foolish and repugnant to anyone likely to read to such a book, there is much about her portrayal that makes her more than just a superhuman, morally-monstrous threat.

Marian, herself a kind of ingénue figure, is a far more sympathetic character than Earani. But Earani can still capture our imaginations.

Currently reading: Out of the Silence by Erle Cox

I've just finished reading Erle Cox's classic science fiction novel Out of the Silence (first published in serial form 1919) for at least the third time. It pays multiple readings, and it's good to see a new edition as part 6 of the Classic Australian SF series from Chimaera Publications.

Van Ikin, Sean McMullen and I discussed Out of the Silence at length in our 1999 book, Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (Greenwood Press), and there is little that I'd want to add to that discussion. As we say there, it's a complex, intricately-patterned novel, but its most troubling aspect is its racial element.

Just briefly, the novel is set in rural Victoria, where gentleman farmerAlan Dundas, a former barrister who has settled down to growing grapes, accidentally discovers a huge sphere of impervious metal, buried beneath his property. It contains, among other wonders, the body of a beautiful woman, Earani, who is from an earlier species of humanity and has lain in suspended animation for 27 million years, waiting to be revived.

Earani possesses a superhuman intellect and extraordinary powers that range from telepathy to teleportation. Alan falls madly, blindly in love with her, and joins in her plan to revive the even more formidable Andax, sleeping in another such sphere high in the Himalayas, and to create a racially-cleansed worldwide utopia. For all his good qualities, Alan is utterly entranced by Earani's beauty ... and we, too, are made to see her alluring side and her penetrating insight into the various people she meets. However, we are also led to view her as monstrous and to sympathise with those characters who seek to stop her, notably Alan's friend Richard Barry and the local woman who loves him, Marian Seymour.

In Strange Constellations, we say:

What is dated and disturbing about the book, is the way it appears to take Earani’s race-based thinking seriously. The novel’s rejection of her racist philosophy has to be earned through layers of double irony and complex narrative. Although readers are invited to be disgusted by Earani's bland account of cold-blooded genocide, they are invited to agree with the simplistic logic of some of the points she makes in the debate. Earani and Andax may be figures of wonder, but they are also figures of pitiless ultra-rational evil. As well as being beautiful and exotic (the standard attributes of the fictional heroine at this time), Earani is a cogent advocate of her philosophy and a vigorous defender of the merits of her society, and seems intellectually superior to many of the 20th-century humans with whom she comes into contact.

Inevitably, Out of the Silence is dated in other ways. To take just one example, Earani's civilisation is shown to have possessed incredible technology, including weapons of mass destruction on a grand scale, but we are supposed to be awed at its possession of air vehicles capable of travelling at ... 300 miles per hour. But the book is a splendid synthesis of themes from earlier Australian science fiction (or its precursors such as race-based political thrillers and lost-world utopias). At least until the 1940s, it stood as the leading Australian contribution to what was crystallising into what we now think of as the science fiction genre, and it still deserves a wide audience in its own country, albeit an audience informed by almost another century of historical experience with the perils of race-based thinking.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Shook Distraction (3)

This is the third post of three, and it'll be shorter. Some folks who've got caught up in this trainwreck created by John Shook are now saying that it will make them stop donating to the Center for Inquiry. Frankly, I think that's a shortsighted reaction. A poorly-thought-through, badly-worded article should not be enough to outweigh the enormously impressive programs that the CFI conducts, which depend on memberships and donations. The policy and political programs alone are worth every cent that gets donated, and then there are innovations such as Camp Inquiry. We need well-resourced organisations such as the CFI to do this work, and frankly it would be madness to lose its accumulated expertise and experience. The better resourced the organisation becomes, the better in the scheme of things ... especially as it goes through a period of adjustment now that the Paul Kurtz years have come to an end.

But the Shook distraction shows how the good will built up by all the good work can be negated by bad organisational communications. No one sees the totality of what CFI is doing - except, of course, for a few insiders - but a statement at a highly-visible outlet such as the Huffington Post is seen by very many people all over the world, most of whom have no idea what CFI does ... or even what it is.

Individuals associated with the CFI (and other such organisations) would do well to keep this in mind. They have it in their power to do enormous damage very quickly, and to undo an organisation's reputation built up by countless hours of hard work, some it spectacularly successful, by many, many people. That's the kind of responsibility that is on your shoulders when you speak for an organisation - even if you don't think you're speaking for it on that particular occasion.

But this cuts both ways. One badly worded article can have an immense cost in good will, and the managerial staff of advocacy organisations should realise that. However, organisational supporters should also realise it. One prominent, damaging action may be far outweighed by much work and planning elsewhere that should not be allowed to come to nothing. We all get to choose where we spend our money, and the staff of the advocacy organisations that we support need to be mindful of this when promoting their own personal projects. At the same time, we ought to recall the much bigger picture. The struggle for a truly secular society is enormous, potentially all consuming. Let's keep in mind all the folks who are working with professional dedication in that struggle, as well as who might be hurt if we respond prematurely, or simply overreact, when something goes wrong, as will inevitably happen now and then.

Though there are issues to tackle and lessons to learn, an organisation like the CFI is too valuable to jeopardise over an issue like this.

The Shook Distraction (2)

Let's take a look at John Shook's HuffPo piece plugging his book The God Debates (aren't I nice? I'll even help him sell copies). Why has this article caused so much upset? Forget for the moment that it is published with a bio stating Shook's positions with the Center for Inquiry - I'll return to that - what about the wording of the article itself?

There is much in it that seems reasonable enough, and it could doubtless have been topped and tailed and edited somewhat differently without causing much upset. Take this para, for example:

If you are religious, don't be wary of the God debates. Respectful debating yields deeper knowledge about one's religious beliefs. After all, religions are hardly strangers to debate. Many religious texts contain examples of debating. For example, accounts of debates between Jesus and Jewish teachers can be instructive for Christians; while Krishna's arguments to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita teach Hindus. Questioning and debating has helped shape many religions. Confucianism grew from philosophical meditations and debating with rival schools. Much of Hinduism and Buddhism developed through intellectual argumentation as rigorous as any in the Western philosophical tradition. Both Judaism and Islam have produced some of the world's finest religious literature and heights of philosophical thought. The Catholic Church's long reliance on councils of debating bishops directed its development. The fragmentation of Protestantism into thousands of denominations and churches is a long tale of disputation in the pews over ever-finer points of scripture interpretation, theological doctrine, and church practice.

Now, this may be a bit disingenuous, given that Shook is actually an atheist and believes that religion is pretty much intellectually bankrupt. Still, what he says in this paragraph is basically true: religion does, indeed, have a rich tradition (or multiple such traditions) of debate. What's more, you can't blame him for suggesting that his book has something to offer the religious as well as atheists and religious sceptics. Perhaps it has - and besides, he has a book to sell! Of course he's enthusiastic and of course he'd like to point out its attractions to as many demographics as possible. Besides, if the book is actually any good it will, indeed, have something to teach almost anyone. In isolation, a paragraph like the above would not bother me in the least, even if it's thought to have an "accommodationist" sort of ring, and there are plenty of other sentences in the article that are fair enough in a piece that has been, d'oh, put together to promote a book. What's more, I congratulate Shook - or whoever was responsible - for getting such a piece in the Huffington Post at all. I can attest, alas, that that kind of exposure is not always easy to come by.

The trouble is, first, that the article contains so many truly wild accusations. Though Shook never names names, his main thesis is that all those other noisy, "know-nothing" atheists are lowering the tone and the intellectual standards of debate. Who does he mean? Does he, perhaps, have in mind the core "New Atheist" authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens? Surely they will come to the minds of readers.

Does he mean such other candid atheists as the fifty-odd contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists? Is he thinking of such philosophical atheists as A.C. Grayling (one of our contributors) and Michele Onfray? Does he mean his colleagues at the Center for Inquiry? Or perhaps he means people who contribute to the blogosphere either by posting at their own blogs or by commenting on others' posts. Whoever he has in mind, these "know-nothings" have evidently not only lowered the standard of argument from secular thinkers - they have somehow also lowered the standard from the religious themselves, who respond, apparently, with similar crude argument:

But don't worry, defenders of religion say, there's no need to learn deep theology or debate God, thanks to dogmatic atheism's bad example. Just stick with faith; after all, who can argue with faith? Believers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of their religion's theological legacy.

This is an extremely unfair representation of the situation. Before the "New Atheists" came along, there were plenty of crude populist religious works being published, as Shook well knows. There was also plenty of more sophisticated theology, though it did not attract a popular audience. Likewise, there were critiques of religion - some very sophisticated intellectually, some less so. What did not exist, at least in any numbers, were well-written critiques of religion from large trade publishers and aimed at a general audience, works such as Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Hitchens' God is Not Great. While these are popular works, they are written, edited, and produced to a very high standard. Sure, they are open to debate and criticism like all books, and they do not have the kind of dry academic detail and rigour as might be found, for example, in the work of Michael Martin (which is excellent of its kind). But it is unfair to refer to their authors as "know-nothings" (a dreadful label that suggests not only ignorance but also bigotry, given its historical meaning) or to claim that the books are dragging down the standard of debate. Not at all: these books introduced one side of the debate to a popular audience, and introduced it at an appropriately high intellectual level. It is not the very highest level of philosophy of religion, if we are talking about academic rigour, but it is surprisingly high when you consider the huge print runs of these books and their appeal to non-specialists.

Rather than berating Dawkins and company for their ignorance and for dumbing down a popular debate that was (supposedly) previously at a higher level, Shook ought to be thanking them for creating the popular debate and for doing so at a level that is already surprisingly high. Of course, there are always opportunities to add value by opening up new areas of the debate or taking existing areas to a higher level. Perhaps that's what Shook's new book does, but even if it does that does not excuse slamming the supposed ignorance of colleagues, denigrating their work, and assisting in the efforts of many others to undermine their credibility.

Shook is adopting a tactic that is always problematic - promoting his product not by extolling its own merits but by dissing the opposition. There's nothing wrong with promoting your own book, but there's plenty wrong with adopting a campaign of negative advertising: essentially treating your allies and colleagues as no more than rivals in the marketplace and disparaging their product. This is not a good look, and a moment's reflection should have told Shook that it would be a foolish use of his precious space in the Huffington Post. Even if the controversy helps sales in the short term - something that may be a good thing if the book itself is any good - the deeper effect is to harm Shook's own reputation and "brand", and to do damage to his cause. He comes across as negative, selfish, and driven by ego rather than collegiality. In the process, some mud inevitably sticks, so the effect is also to assist the current efforts by many others to demonise or dismiss the "New Atheist" authors.

And make no mistake, while Shook does attack popular religious apologetics as well as the unidentified "know-nothing" or "strident" atheists, he is totally scathing in his language: How did know-nothing atheism and lazy theology grab the spotlight? This dead-end trap of mutually assured ignorance was not inevitable. For someone who has supposedly written a higher-level, more measured and scholarly book, which he is trying to promote to us, Shook goes out of his way to disparage, push buttons, and use inflammatory rhetoric. He shouldn't be surprised that many people who would normally be on his side have responded with anger. There was no need at all for him to employ this sort of language to get across the merits of his own book - presumably that he has managed to package some of the more rarefied and interesting scholarly debates for a cross-over audience of scholars and the educated public. Put like that, it sounds a bit dry, but I'm sure there are ways of making this sound exciting without denigrating allies and colleagues.

Shook is both a Senior Fellow with the Center for Inquiry and its Director of Education. These positions are mentioned in his brief bio at HuffPo. That brings me to the difficulty that an organisation such as the CFI has in acting as both an advocacy organisation and a think tank. As an advocacy organisation it communicates a particular "line" to the public, but as a think tank it provides a space where its Fellows may pursue their own agendas, taking different lines on various issues, and sometimes disagreeing with each other. It's difficult for any organisation to do both of these things, though it's not impossible. It basically requires a degree of good sense, diplomacy, and clear thinking from all concerned. That is even more important if an organisation gives the same person both the position of a Fellow - pursuing his own agenda in a way that the organisation thinks is socially beneficial - and the position of a public policy manager, who is thus responsible for advocating those aspects of the organisation's line that fall within his or her portfolio. If someone signs off articles with their policy management position mentioned, that creates the impression to ordinary educated people that what they say reflects the policy view of the organisation.

Since Shook is in the situation of being both a Fellow and a policy manager, you'd think he would be extremely careful what he says in anything that he signs off with a reference to his position as a policy manager (especially a position such as Director of Education, which implies a responsibility to communicate CFI views to the public via education campaigns and the like - it's no use saying that that is not what the position does, because HuffPo readers don't know that). But instead of showing extreme care, Shook seems to have gone out of his way to use scathing, inflammatory language in attacking many people who would be his organisation's natural allies. I don't blame the CFI for this, as it's not something you'd expect a person in a position of executive responsibility to do. But I do think that this episode has shown a structural problem in the way that the CFI operates.

If the CFI is going to continue to be both an advocacy organisation and a think tank, it needs to think hard about how the two roles relate to each other. In particular, it might wish to consider whether it's really appropriate to hand someone a role as both a policy manager and a Fellow. It might also need to ensure that policy managers do not sign off using their titles unless they are very confident that what they are saying reflects CFI policy or they insist on publication of a disclaimer to the effect that the views expressed are personal and not those of the CFI. All this might not be needed if the views of CFI managers and Fellows were more cohesive and people in management roles were aware of what that normally entails in, say, a trade union or an employer body such as a chamber of commerce. Basically, you are not employed in such roles to be a loose cannon, saying things that cut across the goals and strategies of the organisation (which, in this case, surely involve forming strategic alliances with the "New Atheist" authors and with such people as the editors of/contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief).

Finally, for now, let me add that diversity is not a bad thing. I'm not against academics or the Fellows of think tanks having and expressing diverse views. Indeed, the views that Udo Schuklenk and I collected for our book are highly diverse. However, things are somewhat more complicated when the organisation concerned is not an academic institution or a pure think tank but also an advocacy organisation. In this case, CFI advocates secularism and a science-based non-religious worldview. In doing so, it needs to develop policies, strategies, and alliances, and it should expect staff in executive positions to be sensitive to this. Its in-house communications strategy should address the points I'm making, and all staff should be made well aware of it and expected to follow it. It can provide Fellows with academic freedom, but it should address the situation of anyone who is both a Fellow and a policy manager, if such a combination continues to be used. Even Fellows should be expected to show a certain level of good sense when writing in their capacity with the organisation.

Does any of this mean we should write off the CFI as a worthwhile organisation to support? Not at all. I'll address that in more detail in Part 3. However, it is currently going through a period of transition and has inherited some difficult problems. These need to be addressed if it is to be as effective as we'd really hope it can be.

The Shook Distraction (1)

This has been done to death over at Why Evolution is True, where I had a bit to say on the extensive thread created by Jerry Coyne, but I think a few last observations are in order. For those who did not follow the trainwreck, John Shook, who is both a Center for Inquiry Senior Fellow and the Center's Director of Education, has a new book coming out in October:  The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between. I just looked this up on Amazon and found that it's from Wiley-Blackwell, so he and I share the same publisher. That's all the more reason to give it a plug. Really, good for Shook for writing this book and for Wiley-Blackwell for publishing it. If things had gone a bit differently, I might be here giving it my strong support, and I'm sure to pick up a copy at some point.

Irrespective of the publisher, the book sounds interesting: as far as I can work out, it attempts to explain and debunk some of the more esoteric Christian claims and arguments, from academically sophisticated theologians as opposed to the more popular kinds of evangelical Christianity that have been among the main targets for, say, Richard Dawkins (though of course, Dawkins and others have also been very interested in traditional Roman Catholicism, and some of the so-called "New Atheists", especially Sam Harris, have been very interested in Islam).

Shook's book may not be everyone's cup of tea. The more rarefied theological positions exercise less influence on public policy than do traditional Vatican-style Catholicism or the various shades of evangelical Protestantism, and of course many people who are critical of religion may be predisposed to think that the rarefied views are not worth refuting unless they include arguments for the existence of God that are stronger than the traditional ones. That may seem unlikely, on its face, or these arguments would be better known and would be wheeled out more frequently by evangelists. After all, people like Dale Stephenson are not idiots ... yet when they put actual arguments to support their faith they tend to come up with variations of the traditional arguments that the New Testament is credible, that God was needed as a First Cause, that the Universe shows an appearance of design, and that God is needed to explain the phenomenon of morality (and how morality can be authoritative). I don't find these arguments at all convincing, but that's not the point. My point at this stage is simply that if the more rarefied theologians have more powerful arguments than these in favour of the existence of God, as God is popularly understood, they are doing a lousy job of marketing them to folks out there in the field of evangelism and popular apologetics. Perhaps it is safe to ignore these other arguments, and if they are unsuccessful then the rest of rarefied theology seems to fall in a hole.

Nonetheless, the book looks interesting and I think it (potentially) has some importance for at least three reasons. First, there actually are some interesting arguments around for the existence of God that have not been relied upon much by evangelists but are given some respect in academic circles. Maybe evangelists avoid them because they seem fishy, or because they are too complicated to explain in popular forums. I'm thinking, for example, of modern forms of the ontological argument and of various kinds of transcendental arguments. I, too, find these arguments rather fishy - but they're out there, so it's at least worth looking at them.

Second, many of the rarefied theologians do not posit anything like the traditional God, let alone try to argue for this being's existence. Rather, they posit other concepts of the divine and/or of the role of religious belief. Some of these concepts may be quite difficult to refute, but they may (or may not) have real-world implications if they do turn out to be true. It's worth getting a better handle on what these positions actually are, what their implications would be, and whether they are at all credible.

Third, much of the contemporary critique of religion is not focused on its truth-claims but on its social benefit or harmfulness. However, a critique of this kind that relates to the position of the Vatican or that of evangelicals or fundamentalists may not touch the more rarefied versions of religion. So it is open to somebody who kind of likes those versions to claim that the critique from someone like Dawkins is at best incomplete: i.e., some kinds of religion are at least not harmful. Indeed, my own view is that the more liberal variants of religion are rather innocuous. Dawkins could respond, plausibly, that this is a relatively minor issue, since so many people believe in more traditional sorts of religion. Still, it would be worth getting a better idea of what the more rarefied theologies actually say and getting into a better position to make an assessment of whether they are socially beneficial, neutral, or harmful.

In all, I think that Shook's new book could well add value to current debates about religion. This is actually the sort of book that I want to see written to supplement the publishing phenomenon of the "New Atheism". If the book addresses the three issues I've raised above, and does so in an authoritative and systematic way, then it will be worth purchasing or at least getting out of the library. Besides, for many of us the ideas that Shook is apparently going to discuss have intrinsic interest. As I said, the book is probably not for everyone, but I'd like to give it a read. Although I'm not all that happy with Shook this week, I'll look at the book on its merits (when I get around to doing so) and if it's great stuff I'll say so. There's no reason why it shouldn't be.

Or so I would have thought if Shook had not written an especially clumsy article in the Huffington Post plugging The God Debates. I think that what I've written above does a better job of selling the book than Shook himself does - so Shook and his estimable publisher can give me a "Yay! for that - though of course I have a much smaller audience here than the Huffington Post gets. Perhaps the controversy created over there will generate sales. But at least I've put a case as to why a book like this may be worthwhile and interesting (though again, not to everybody's taste) without egregiously alienating my allies or creating a political problem for the organisation that employs me. That's a good start. When plugging your book, try to do no unnecessary harm to the people who are on your side.

I don't blame the CFI for the trainwreck that Shook's article caused, though I do believe that the organisation has some structural problems that it needs to work through. In particular, it's difficult (though not by any means impossible if good sense prevails) to operate as both an advocacy organisation and a think tank. I put the blame on Shook himself. It didn't have to happen like this, and with a bit of tact and common sense it would have turned out very differently. I'm going to explain why in a separate post, as this one is getting long already.

Great review of 50 Voices of Disbelief in Quadrant

The September 2010 issue of the Sydney-based conservative journal Quadrant has a lengthy, detailed, and very positive review of 50 Voices of Disbelief : Why We Are Atheists, written by philosopher of science Robert McLaughlin, who calls the book "this outstanding anthology." You can't read the review online unless you subscribe, but McLaughlin concludes his discussion of 50 Voices as follows: "there is a sense of a large and growing community out there, sharing a humanist morality and a rejection of supernatural myths, hungry for books like this."

I couldn't put it better myself. This is a great review and all contributors can be proud. For those who haven't read the book yet, well you know where to find it ... Try Amazon, Embiggen Books, Wiley-Backwell, or your favourite bookseller (though you may have to order it from the latter, depending on who it is).

 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back from my dad's birthday party!!

We saw in a very big birthday for Dad, a.k.a. Ken Blackford, last night at a family dinner chez nous (well, we didn't quite see it in, because no one stayed up past midnight) ... and my sister (Bev) and her husband (Ross Allen) followed up today with an outdoor party at their place.


My sister, Bev; Dad; Moi



Bev Allen; Jenny Blackford; et Moi




Jenny Blackford; Russell Blackford




Dad in candle-blowing mode; my brother-in-law, Ross


Dad in cake-cutting mode (et les autres).


Dad and Ross

Moi et Bev

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Burning your enemy's holy book

With all the fuss about people burning the Koran, or threatening to, there's now a disturbing development in the UK. Six men have been charged under hate speech laws after apparently burning copies of the Koran and distributing a video of their action. The charges should be dropped, and the police should stop grandstanding.

That said, I am not a big fan of burning holy books, effigies, religious and other symbols, or national flags. Burning books, in particular, is (usually) a stupid thing to do. It’s stupid because the message is unclear and can easily, and possibly correctly, be read as too extreme. If I burn a Bible, my action is wide open to the message: "I hate this book and all it stands for." Well, what does it stand for? That, in turn, is wide open to the interpretation: "I hate, among other things, actual Christians." That’s never a message that I’d be encouraging or supporting. Similarly, the message from burning a Koran may quite reasonably be interpreted as including: "I hate actual Muslims."

Again, burning flags can convey a message that goes far beyond, say, opposition to a nation's foreign policy or human rights abuses to include hatred of that nation's people. Usually, there's a more focused and rational message that could be conveyed in some other way.

At the same time, all of these actions should be legal. There will be occasions when actions taken in the name of a country or a religion or ideology are so extreme that an extreme expression of anger is appropriate and the message of repudiation is clear enough. That should be legal, and I don't see how the law can draw a line here, deciding that burning your enemy's flag, holy book, or whatever, should be legal in some circumstances but not others. Those more subtle judgments are best left to individuals to make for themselves and to social debate to constrain.

Besides, what if someone really does wish to express hatred for a group of people? I'm not sure that that in itself should be a crime. There are circumstances where it may create an immediate danger of violence, but there are many other circumstances where the danger is not immediate and we should rely on laws against the violence itself. Different jurisdictions might reasonably draw the line in different places, but they should all lean in the direction of preserving as much room for free speech as possible.

I'd still like to see people be clearer and more discerning about what messages they send. I support PZ Myers over the the notorious "cracker" incident a couple of years back, because the circumstances justified a strong statement - someone was actually receiving death threats from religious fanatics because he took a consecrated wafer from a Catholic church service, rather than eating it. It was quite appropriate for an individual with PZ's public profile to respond with a symbolic statement totally repudiating the idea that consecrated wafers, or anything else, possess inherent sanctity. There was a context for his symbolic statement. But if someone outside of that context randomly crucified a consecrated wafer to express hatred of all it stands for, whatever that is, I’d make the same point as I do about burning the Koran: it’s a stupid way to express whatever it is you want to express – though again it should not be illegal.

There are many different contexts, of course: political contexts, artistic contexts, and so on. I’d have something more complicated to say in any case where the context demanded it. Consider a work of art such as a painting or an artistically composed photograph. This may well, because of additional content, or features of its aesthetic composition, or simply because of the context in which it is displayed, resist a simple interpretation and demand more thoughtful consideration from its audience. This is another area where the law struggles to draw a line. You can't adjudicate between acceptable and unacceptable forms of artistic expression, where meaning is up for grabs, and I don't think the law should even try - at least not with the sorts of cases discussed in this post.

It can get complicated. But just going around burning the Koran (or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or whatever it might be) to express your hatred of whatever it is you think it stands for is almost always a lousy idea.

But then again -forgive me for labouring the point - it's not a matter for the police.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ophelia Benson and Eric MacDonald on the "beyond the 'New Atheism'" debate debacle

Caspar Melville's pronouncements and the beyond-the-New-Atheism thing are being discussed over here and here. Apart from Ophelia's own trenchant comments, Eric MacDonald's long comments are also very worth reading - and there are plenty of other useful comments.

Do I agree with all the comments? No. As a matter of fact, I think that we should be getting beyond the "New Atheist" books that have been published so far in the trivial sense that we need to work on projects that add value to the debate. Up to a point, of course, the basic ideas do have to be repeated so that they are available to new audiences, and also to refine them and to refute counter-arguments as necessary. But there is plenty of room for secular thinkers to deal with relatively new topics. For example, at some point, I'd like to write a book about living in a world without objective values. This is actually a scarier topic for many people than atheism - some atheists are freaked out by it - but it needs to be addressed. So do issues to do with free will. Meanwhile, I'm working on a book about freedom of religion and the secular state.

There are books waiting to be written about many other important topics from a secular viewpoint. There are many opportunities to add value.

But that doesn't require denigrating the efforts of those who have had the limelight in the past few years, who have done much that is valuable - including, no doubt, much that needs to be examined, disputed, or considerably qualified. One of the things that separates secular people from adherents to the great monotheistic religions is that we have no holy book. We may respect the writings of, say, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but that doesn't mean that we take them to be infallible. It's good to have a range of perspectives within secularism and rationalism. I can't and don't and won't object to reasonable disagreement.

I will, however, continue to argue that the publishing phenomenon that got labeled "the New Atheism" was not some kind of horrible mistake; on the contrary, it's important that religious doctrines, organisations, and leaders be subjected to thorough criticism - in some cases even to harsh criticism - and it appears to me to be an entirely positive development that such critiques can now find a popular market. By all means let's remember that religion is not monolithic, and let's not expect atheistic or secular or rationalist thought to be. But let's not make wild accusations out of boredom or fear of social division or just to be contrarian. Our allies and colleagues deserve far better than that.

Beyond the "New Atheism"?

Caspar Melville has a blog post over at The New Humanist in which he analyses a "debate" held a couple of days ago, apparently in London, on the subject "Beyond New Atheism: where next for the God debate?" On this occasion, four people who agree with each other that the "New Atheism" is somehow dehumanising, flawed, and boring, exchanged reasons why the "new Atheism" is dehumanising, flawed, and boring. That's hardly surprising, given their starting points, but there you go. Melville adds that:

It is true that there was no New Atheist on the panel to defend the arguments, but Laurie [Taylor] did a good job of pressing the panellists on the claims made by Dawkins and others for the importance of not allowing an exaggerated sense of respect [to] stop you from making a strong atheist case, and the audience too were quite critical. Given the frequency with which science came up, all three [others] professed a love for science but [I] felt that some misused it, I was sorry we didn't have a scientist on the panel.

Well, I can't help wonder how this can be called a debate when all four speakers, including Melville, took essentially the same position on the "New Atheism" ... and there was nobody involved who was prepared to argue for a contrary view. Still, I wasn't there, so maybe the event wasn't as bad as Melville makes it sound. It sounds awfully like a handpicked bunch of people getting together to attack a bunch of other people who have not been invited along to defend themselves. That is hardly interesting or charitable or constructive. It's nice to be assured that someone asked a few pointed questions, but surely if you're talking about what is "beyond" the "New Atheism" it would be appropriate to ask for an opinion as to whether there is any such "beyond" - and what it might be - from someone who is more or less identified with the "New Atheism" itself. As there are plenty of such people in the UK, I don't understand why that was not done.

I could understand it if this had been a Christian event, and the discussion had been about how Christians should respond to their "New Atheist" opponents. Of course such discussions are legitimate. In this case, however, the discussion was about how to respond to a group of people who are, on the face of things, allies of the organisers. So why not ask them along? Someone must have been available to provide the missing perspective.

I actually have a difficulty with this whole "New Atheism" thing, i.e. with the label New Atheism. Why? Because much of what is being said by the core group of supposed "New Atheists" - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens - is not new at all. These men are delivering familiar critiques of religion's truth-claims and social role that could be found in many books and articles published before the appearance of The End of Faith (by Harris) in 2004, the event that marks the beginning of whatever New Atheist movement might exist. What changed about that time was not the essential character of the critique. In part there was a restoration of business as usual, a softening of the taboo in middle class circles (and especially academic) against criticising religion.

Of more immediate impact was the greatly increased willingness of large trade publishers (not only specialty presses and academic presses) to accept books on the subject of religion from people with broadly anti-religious views. That, and the willingness of media corporations to use prominent atheist authors and thinkers as on-air talent.

These latter developments, in turn, reflect the commercial judgment that there's now a hunger out in the community for critiques of religion, a hunger that was not in evidence prior to the mayhem and mass destruction of September 11, 2001 ... and other events that have shocked many educated people out of their complacency about religion. Whereas religion had seemed benign, if not actually true, to many thinking people, the September 11 attacks, the widespread religion-based opposition to stem cell and therapeutic cloning research, the never-ending resistance to gay rights and abortion rights, the callous actions of the religious in the Schiavo affair, the Catholic Church's appalling insensitivity towards abused children, and the many atrocities perpetrated daily in the name of religion of one kind or another, all converged to create a sense that human religiosity has a dark side of cruelty, dogmatism, moral blindness, authoritarianism, and intolerance.

In such an environment, there was finally a popular market for the views of forthright critics of religion - not just Dawkins and the others mentioned above, but also AC Grayling, Michele Onfray (in translation), Victor Stenger, and others. As a result, the message is now going out more widely than ever before. Caspar Melville may well find it boring, because many of the arguments and conclusions are not very new. But at least two important points need to be made here.

First, this does not mean that the individual books, speeches, media appearances, and so on, are merely repetitive and add no value. "New Atheist" thought (i.e. atheist thought finally reaching a popular audience) is not monolithic, and the various relevant works are, indeed, adding value, even though they do so incrementally. Second, it's taking a very short-term view of things to think that the popular message is already stale after only six years. If the message is to have a strong impact, it will need to go out in forthright and persuasive ways for decades, until the "New Atheists"' issues, arguments, and conclusions permeate the popular culture and the lessons are widely absorbed into the consciousness of educated people. Talking in a jaded manner of "What comes next?" is just too impatient. It kind of misses the point that the New Atheism responds to opportunities that have only just, in the broader scheme of things, become available.

Naturally the core "New Atheists" have taken on projects that involve more than just advocating the merits of atheism. Richard Dawkins recently released a new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which provides one of the most thorough defences of biological evolution ever published; Christopher Hitchens has written an autobiography, and is involved in numerous other projects (despite suffering severe health problems); Daniel Dennett also has new projects, including a study of priests who have lost their faith; and Sam Harris has written an important new book about the nature of morality, which is just about due for publication. If we want to know what comes next, we can do a lot worse than checking out what the original "New Atheists" are actually doing right now, and considering its value. All of these projects build on aspects of what has come before, as reputable intellectual inquiry almost always does, but each adds value.

Much more needs to be done, of course, such as producing new and better studies of religious freedom and the role of the state, and new and better studies of how moral restraint works, or ought to work, in the absence of God or anything supernatural. I'm working on both of those topics myself, but that does not mean that I need to deprecate the work of Dawkins and the others.

Towards the end of his post, Melville emphasises his right to disagree with people who are broadly his allies:

My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation – all of which I am and will continue to be – does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.

But surely that goes without saying! If not, let me spell out the point that disagreement on specifics is - always - not only permissible but valuable. Indeed, there are many specific points where I find myself in disagreement with one or another of the core "New Atheists". That does not, however, mean that it would be helpful or accurate for me to dismiss their work as crude, simplistic, and boring. Books such as The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell are not crude or simplistic, though there are good reasons why the former is aimed at the more simplistic forms of religion, and nor do I see what is boring about them. Of course, they are written for popular markets and are not as complex or compressed as strictly academic books on similar subjects such as those of Michael Martin or Graham Oppy. But the latter do not - so far - write books that are meant to be accessible to readers in the popular market.

Melville should by all means disagree with Dawkins, or whomever, on whatever points he thinks fit. Perhaps Dawkins' critique of the ontological argument is not satisfactory and could be improved upon; perhaps he has not done enough to show that certain liberal sorts of religion are harmful or implausible; or perhaps he needs to say more about the effects of various minds of religion on children. Or whatever. Let's hear the specific criticisms, if they exist, and also the improved or streamlined analyses of religion that critics such as Melville have to offer.

But Melville seems to think there is something "dangerous" about any degree of solidarity among people who are "critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation". I'm afraid I can't see it. There is nothing especially dangerous about people organising in pursuit of a common cause, such as the one that Melville mentions. Indeed, it should be apparent that there's strength in at least some degree of unity. Once you do organise, to whatever degree, it makes good sense not to attack allies in an overly broad or damning way, or to organise seminars specifically designed to "other" them and treat them as deficient. Far better, when dealing with allies, to consult with them, treat them inclusively where at all possible, and discuss points of detail in an open, constructive manner. Of course, no one should have to sign on to a point that s/he disputes, but it's more productive to keep in-house disputes specific, detailed, and constructive (while keeping any manifestos broad and inclusive), and not to dismiss your allies' contributions in a way that assists with their demonisation.

In general, Melville seems to have lost his sense of strategic and historical perspective just lately. I hope he finds it soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reading: A Week in the Future by Catherine Helen Spence

A Week in the Future by Catherine Helen Spence (first published in serial form 1888-89) is the fifth volume in the Classic Australian SF series - the order of the volumes does not reflect the dates of original publication.

This short book is a socialist-feminist utopia, and like most pure utopias suffers from a lack of narrative richness and drama. Instead, it works somewhat like a travelogue.

In late middle age, the narrator - Emily Bethel - learns that she is unlikely to live for more than another two years. Her family and her doctor advise her to adopt a life without worry or strong emotions, but that is anathema to her. She would rather have one week in the future, enabling her to see the outcome of the social and intellectual movements of her time, than two uneventful and boring years in the present. Her doctor, who is evidently something of a master of occult learning, grants her wish, and she finds herself in the London of 1988.

Over the following seven days, Emily is introduced to the future's arrangements in housing, industry, child-rearing and education, marriage, government, recreation and the arts, and religion and morality. She learns that competition and conflict have been virtually eliminated from society, along with poverty and the class system, and that far greater social benefits and individual happiness are produced through various cooperative arrangements. The people of this world live longer, enjoy better health, and have increased hours of leisure. Contraceptives are employed to keep the population in check, and relations between the sexes have been revised to make both marriage and divorce relatively easy. Perhaps most notably, from the viewpoint of the novel's original audience, women and men are considered equals, and all positions in society are open to both.

Unfortunately, books such as this show the weakness of purely utopian narrative. A lack of conflict can result in a lack of interest for readers. For Spence's original audience, of course, the proposed social arrangements were an interesting and radical option, but for us, over 100 years later, some have already been implemented (to some extent or other), while others appear unrealistic or undesirable ... or seem rather quaint because we have already embraced far more radical alternatives. As a result, the book is mainly of historical interest, whereas an unashamedly melodramatic adventure story, such as Guy Boothby's tale of the menacing Dr. Nikola, still provides entertainment and suspense.

Since Spence's time, writers of utopian fiction have adapted and enhanced the utopian form by inventing new narrative structures that reintroduce an element of conflict - as with Samuel R. Delany's Triton (also known as Trouble on Triton), in which an egotistical misfit is unable to find happiness even in a utopian society, or Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which is patterned more like a dystopian novel: the ideal anarchist society has stultified to a point where it is needs revitalisation and is seen as grinding the protagonist down.

Such narrative innovations were, alas, a long way in the future when Spence was writing. Still, the book does have the historical interest that I mentioned, as well as the virtue of brevity. You could knock it over in a couple of hours and gain some insight into utopian thinking around the time when the first recognisable science fiction was appearing in Western countries, including Australia. This kind of utopianism was critical in the rise of science fiction, in Australia and elsewhere, and we'll see a very different version of it when we come to Erle Cox's Out of the Silence, possibly the greatest work of early Australian science fiction.

Reading: A Bid for Fortune or Dr. Nikola's Vendetta by Guy Boothby

A Bid for Fortune or Dr. Nikola's Vendetta, by Guy Boothby (first published 1895) is the fourth volume in the Classic Australian SF series, issued this year from Chimaera Publications. It tells the story of Dr. Nikola, a mysterious and charismatic villain with enormous ambitions that are never fully defined. He is an international criminal mastermind who possesses unexplained paranormal or supernatural abilities. Even his henchmen are clever, striking, and dangerous antagonists in their various ways.

Throughout the narrative, Nikola's aim is to get his hands on an oriental artifact that has fallen into the possession of Mr Wetherell, the rich and urbane Colonial Secretary in Sydney. Prior to the main story, Wetherell has rebuffed several attempts by Nikola to obtain the artifact, a small wooden stick that supposedly contains great power. Nikola continues to seek it, and to be revenged on Wetherell for frustrating his plans.

Apart from a brief prologue, the novel is narrated by Richard (or Dick) Hatteras, a tall, strong, energetic, and highly-competent young man who becomes involved after he rescues Wetherell's daughter, Phyllis, from a bunch of local ruffians. Dick and Phyllis soon fall madly in love, which leads Dick into conflict with Dr. Nikola when the criminal mastermind kidnaps Phyllis.

Dr. Nikola himself is a memorable character, surely (as Ian Irvine mentions in his introduction) an influence on many later super criminals such as Fu Manchu and James Bond's arch-enemy, Blofeld. Though Dick Hatteras boasts of his forty-six inch chest and great strength, he invariably comes off second best in his confrontations with the villain, whose abilities go far beyond mere physical strength. After several confrontations, Dick admits that he fears the man. This is no hackneyed clash between good and evil, with good winning through superior strength and resourcefulness. Indeed, Nikola is no ordinary villain - though his deeper motivation is not revealed, and his aims may be entirely malevolent, he is also portrayed as charming, courteous, and even generous in his own way.

Though Guy Boothby was an extraordinarily prolific author - he had published over 50 novels by the time of his death at the age of 37 - he shows no sign of having written A Bid for Fortune in a hurry. The plot is well-structured, even if many of the events are over the top, as one expects in melodrama (I'm not thinking here just of Dr. Nikola's striking appearance and manner, or even his extraordinary abilities, but also of such details as the way Dick and Phyllis so quickly fall in love and the dogmatic manner in which Mr Wetherell refuses either to countenance their romance or to give his reasons).

Boothby followed up with another three Dr. Nikola novels, none of which I've read. It would be fascinating to obtain these and see how the mastermind's career continues and how he is ultimately foiled once and for all (if that's what happens). Meanwhile, A Bid for Fortune is another great escapist read, with the fantasy element adding colour and texture to its melodramatic narrative.

For my next post in this series, I'll get to Catherine Helen Spence's early feminist utopia A Week in the Future.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Just watched - Tomorrow, When the War Began

Not a bad show - characters I could identify with, even if they seemed much older than the 17 or so they were supposed to be. And there's the sheer incompetence of all the highly-trained invading soldiers.

This movie is, of course, based on John Marsden's popular novel. Worth looking at it, but some of it was a bit too implausible to sustain disbelief ... as underscored for me by the groups of giggling teenagers in the audience who expressed their merriment at any moment that seemed appropriate to them.

On the Crossway Conference

I spoke at the Crossway Conference yesterday, and I should start by reporting that this was a very positive experience. My talk seemed to go well, the questions were generally courteous, sincere, and sensible - and they gave me a chance to make some important points that I'd dropped from the talk itself because of time constraints. Many people approached me afterwards to thank me for my perspective and for my courage in addressing them (not that it really took that much courage - it's not as if I was going to be physically attacked or something!). Everyone was kind and gracious to me, and there were some very interesting moments. I ended up seated at lunch with some young guys from a Christian rock band, who were fun to talk to and didn't even mind when I joked about Eric Cartman's Christian rock band in South Park. Perhaps my own background makes it easy for me to get along with people like this: more-or-less progressive evangelical Protestants, not greatly different from what I once was myself. However, it's not just that: the staff, attendees, and other speakers, etc, were all pleasant and professional. I can't fault the way they treated me.

So thanks again to Pastor Dale Stephenson for inviting me along, and to all the staff who helped out and the others who spoke to me. This was all very classy. (It was certainly a marked contrast to the weird Christian who berated me at the Atheist Society gig the week before.)

There's much to learn from this kind of interaction. It was interesting seeing the presentations from the speakers immediately before and after me, both of whom were humorous and slick, but also came across as very genuine. Dale spoke about his own conversion experience and his grounds for accepting the truth of the gospels - not very strong grounds in my view (of course), but that's not the point. What I got out of it was how pivotal it had been to him that someone he respected for totally different reasons turned out to be an evangelical Christian. The other speaker - a young evangelist from the US - emphasised the need to be friendly to people and sincerely interested in them, rather than shoving religion down their throats. Above all, basically, don't be weird. I'm sure that's good advice, and many religious folk - and others, no doubt - could benefit from accepting it.

There seemed to be a lot of acceptance of my points about the "New Atheism" - that it's not really new, but rather the new development is that there's now a large market for critiques of religion, since many people Out There are concluding that religion is not benign and that criticism of religion is worthwhile; and that it's no good demonising the "New Atheists" - even if this is successful in a PR sense, those who indulge in it will be misleading themselves and doing themselves a disservice. They'll fail to understand why it is that many tolerant, reasonable, good-willed people have come to the view that Christianity and religion in general are not benign but have a dark side of authoritarianism, intolerance, and worse. I may be wrong, but it seems that many of these folk were prepared to take that message on board. I only wish that all of my fellow atheists were as willing to accept these basic points. What the Crossway people do with this message, even assuming they accept it, is, of course, up to them and beyond my control.

Those of us on the "other side" have a lot to learn from organisations like Crossway about the professional organisation of conferences - though of course one difference is that such an organisation has enormous resources, with a small army of paid staff. No secular organisation can match this. Still, they deserve praise for the efficient way they run their show, while also making guests feel very welcome and addressing possible glitches well in advance. It's worth dealing with an organisation like this not just to see how the "other side" thinks ... but also to see how, with their resources and experience, they do things.

Once again an interesting and positive experience at my end, and I'm pleased to have been to invited and to have taken part.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Currently waiting to catch a delayed flight ...

... but at least it's now landed, so I'll be off to Melbourne soon. I look forward to reporting back. Tomorrow should be very interesting.

Off to talk about the "New Atheism"

I'll be addressing the Crossway Conference tomorrow, talking about the so-called "New Atheism". This involves explaining the phenomenon to a group of several hundred Baptist ministers and their teams from across Australia. I was a bit surprised to receive the invitation to do this, but I'm feeling positive about it: there are useful things that I can tell them, and it will be fascinating to see how they respond.

As I'll be flying around a bit for the next 48 hours, or a bit more, I may not be blogging much, if at all, and may soon become very slow in approving comments (moderation is still on). Bear with me; it's only temporary.

Indoctrination in guilt and shame

This is a good reason to be against "nice" "moderate" kinds of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism - well, Roman Catholicism in particular. Go and read Miranda Celeste Hale's piece, "A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame." I don't have a lot to add to it, except to say that this is how the Cult of Misery works in action; this is how it turns the ordinary behaviour of good people into the production of guilt and shame. This is one reason why it's worth our opposition.

Contract signed!

I've just signed the contract for my forthcoming book on freedom of religion and the secular state. This is an exciting moment. Though the book got a green light a few weeks ago, there's nothing like having an actual contract in the hand. I'm looking forward to finishing this project, which is my highest priority over the months immediately ahead.

Drink a toast to it, if you're that way inclined! :)

Reading: Vandals of the Void by James Morgan Walsh

First published in 1933, Vandals of the Void is an early example of the sort of science fiction that depicts naval battles in space. It's something of a landmark in the history of Australian science fiction, and a good choice for volume 3 in Chimaera Publications' Classic Australian SF series. Sean McMullen's brief introduction covers it well: this is a book with battles, political intrigue, and romance, in a formula that is still popular. Sean is also correct that a modern version would offer us more insight into the villainous Mercurians, who are intent on a program of forcible imperialism throughout our solar system. Today, we'd want to know more about how events seem at their end: what motivates them, what life is like for them, what their leaders are like as individuals.

The book proceeds at a cracking pace, almost too cracking for suspension of belief when it comes to such aspects as the main character's whirlwind romance with a young Martian woman. Still, there is much to amuse, such as the sly discussions here and there of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, which gets invoked as an analogy - though the point is made that this involves warfare on Earth, against invading forces, whereas the protagonists of Vandals of the Void face a war actually fought in space.

Next stop, a classic work of late-19th-century melodrama: Guy Boothby's A Bid for Fortune or Dr. Nikola's Vendetta.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Signing stuff (2): Baggini on the UK papal visit

Here's a letter that was signed by many highly admirable people from the UK. I was not asked to sign it, and nor should I have been - this was very much a letter to be signed by British worthies, protesting the Pope's state visit to the UK. So there's another reason not to sign something: in the circumstances, you might not be an appropriate person to do so. Most of the things I'm asked to sign could be signed by almost anyone, but as an Australian I'm not really an appropriate person to be signing a letter to be sent to British newspapers and addressed specifically to this kind of political choice. I suppose I'm entitled to an opinion, but it's really better left to people who are British citizens or at least have a much closer association with the UK than I do.

In the event, it's signed by:

Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Susan Blackmore, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Ed Byrne, Baroness Blackstone, Ken Follett, Professor AC Grayling, Stewart Lee, Baroness Massey, Claire Rayner, Adele Anderson, John Austin MP, Lord Avebury, Sian Berry, Professor Simon Blackburn, Sir David Blatherwick, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Helena Cronin, Dylan Evans, Hermione Eyre, Lord Foulkes, Professor Chris French, Natalie Haynes, Johann Hari, Jon Holmes, Lord Hughes, Robin Ince, Dr Michael Irwin, Professor Steve Jones, Sir Harold Kroto, Professor John Lee, Zoe Margolis, Jonathan Meades, Sir Jonathan Miller, Diane Munday, Maryam Namazie, David Nobbs, Professor Richard Norman, Lord O'Neill, Simon Price, Paul Rose, Martin Rowson, Michael Rubenstein, Joan Smith, Dr Harry Stopes-Roe, Professor Raymond Tallis, Lord Taverne, Peter Tatchell, Baroness Turner, Professor Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC FBA, Ann Marie Waters, Professor Wolpert, Jane Wynne Willson

That's a pretty impressive list!

If I'd been British, and if I'd been asked to sign the letter, would I have done so? Very likely I would. I'd want to scour it carefully to make sure I really did agree with everything in it ... but say I decided that I did? Would I have any other reason not to sign it?

I raise this because Julian Baggini, who is both British and a valued contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists , was given an opportunity to sign it and declined. Now, I'd understand this if he disagreed with the sentiments in the letter, or even if he generally agreed with them but found something there that he was just not prepared to put his name to. I think that's quite legitimate. It's also quite legitimate to explain your misgivings or reservations privately to the person who has asked you to sign up. Indeed, it's okay to explain them publicly.

But I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what was going on in this case. As far as I can see, Julian doesn't have any objection to the letter's content and would have been prepared to sign it if there hadn't been enough other people already doing so: "If only a few people were [protesting] I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition." As far as I can see, his reasons amount to the claim that signing would have been divisive.

I have a lot of time for Julian, and I think his essay in 50 Voices is well worth reading. I don't mind that his stance towards organised religion is more conciliatory than that of some atheists and religious sceptics. There's certainly room for a range of viewpoints, and my own experiences witth organised religion are not vastly different from his - a mix of benign and not so benign.

But I find it very odd that someone would decline to sign something that he doesn't really disagree with and might have signed in slightly different circumstances ... and that he'd then publicly criticise the document that he might have signed. Of course, he has -and should have - every legal right to do so; but what did he think he was achieving apart from putting his own allies on the defensive and creating further confusion and division within his own ranks? If you're going to think so damn tactically, rather than concentrating on whether you actually agree with the content of a document, what's the tactical advantage in writing a high-profile piece in which you criticise your allies (and don't, subject to one point below, express any specific reservations about the document itself)?

It's all very puzzling. I hope Julian will think a bit further next time he's tempted to do something like this. He's shown a tendency lately to want to distance himself from his allies in a way that can only provide succour to his intellectual and political opponents. That's not the kind of division he should want to create. Conversely, it's healthy to express your views on issues where you really do disagree with opponents, and especially if those opponents currently wield vast power and influence. That is the kind of division - a  difference of views - on which liberal democracies thrive. Talk of things getting "ugly" is inaccurate and inappropriate when all that is going on is expression of a viewpoint (and not even in some viscerally powerful way such as by destroying opponents' flags or symbols).

Providing he actually agreed with the letter, I still don't understand why Julian couldn't sign it. If his real point is that he disagreed with the demand that the entire papal visit be cancelled, while agreeing with other points, why not concentrate on simply saying that very clearly as the main focus of the article? It's an arguable point, but it gets lost in the rhetoric.

As it is, Julian has written a piece that makes things worse - especially for his own allies, but also generally - by talking about the signatories to the letter as if they are stirring up violence, or on the path to doing so. No - what they are doing is exercising their right to free speech, which is generally a civilised alternative to making your point through violence. Liberal societies provide freedom of speech to provide an avenue for strong feelings and principled viewpoints to be expressed publicly but non-violently.

That's what the signatories to the letter were doing. They were not stirring up violence or trying to make things get ugly, or even naively acting in a way that was likely to have such an effect. Questioning their propriety or prudence merely adds to the idea that there is something illegitimate about strong criticism of religion ... and lends assistance to the decidedly ugly idea that violence is an understandable, inevitable, or somehow forgivable, response to criticism. No it isn't; free speech is a key value in Western societies, and violent responses to it are totally beyond the pale of toleration. We may understand how violent people think in an abstract, intellectual sense of "understand", but we must insist that this way of thinking will not be treated with any toleration or leniency if it's expressed in action.

Julian Baggini is definitely one of the good guys, but he's tied himself in knots on this occasion, and, once again, I hope he'll think it over before too many more occasions like this come up in political life.