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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tone trolling

As per my comments here, I'm not generally a fan of the concept of tone trolling. I stand by those comments, and I don't think that intellectual progress is made in an atmosphere that is full of name calling, insults, and deliberate provocation. No one deserves to be dismissed as a tone troll just for complaining about personal insults and the like from whoever they are talking to online.

What's more, it's not just in the atheist blogosphere that we see some low standards. I do get sick of atheists being singled out for being especially bad in this way. Alas, the internet, for all its great benefits, often brings out the worst in people, and we see too much of this sort of thing in forums on all manner of subjects. I'm sometimes guilty of it myself. Yes - I, too, can fall short of the best standards of online interaction when something has annoyed me.

We're most likely to make some intellectual progress if we try to maintain civility; try to be tough on arguments rather than on our interlocutors as people; try to avoid ascribing ulterior motives, or a sinister psychological make-up; and so on. We're most likely to make some intellectual progress if people feel free to put arguments in support of a reasonable range of positions without being subjected to personal attacks (the word "reasonable" is important here, though - I'm not interested in allowing people to comment with neo-Nazi, pro-rape, Holocaust denialist, Young Earth Creationist, etc., etc., positions; some positions are not going to be taken seriously here, except insofar as they may show what we're up against, and any comments espousing such positions will most likely be deleted).

Civility really, truly does have its uses. It had to be learned a few centuries ago, when controversy via warring pamphlets was carried out in atrociously personal and uncivil ways when judged by twentieth-century standards. It seems that it has to be learned all over again for online controversy in the twenty-first century. This is a respect in which, for the moment, we've regressed.

But... You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? All of this is mainly to clear my throat. Although I'm not a fan of the concept of tone trolling, I'm not going to deny that there are some actual cases of it.

We see the real thing when, for example, someone turns up to give a long, sanctimonious lecture about the need for civility partway through what was already a fairly civil discussion. Or when someone starts carrying on at length about how absolutely frakking horrible everyone else has been, after receiving some relatively mildly worded criticism for their contribution (almost as if they deliberately provoked the criticism just so they could use it as an excuse to go all sanctimonious and act all hurt).

So, folks, if you want some glorious examples of what tone trolling looks like - of the real thing out there in the wild - go here and enjoy. I suggest you merely watch the trolls, rather than providing them with unnecessary sustenance. The comments by "David Hay" and "Nelson Rose" are particularly fine specimens.

Oh, and here's a related point. Sure, let's all try to be nice to each other. No one likes a big meanie who acts like a bully and spoils the fun.

But here's a thought. If you write a nasty, dismissive little post about someone who has just frakking died, that's fine as far as it goes. You have that right in a liberal democratic society. There may be occasions in the future when I will do it, too. Just a word to the wise, though, as they say: don't act all shocked and hurt if a friend of that person is then snarky about you in response. Sheesh!

(Hey, it's also a good idea not to accuse someone of "losing their cool" in a post that sounds much more like an angry rant than the alleged rant you're complaining about. Just sayin'. Y'know?)

Otherwise ... Happy New Year, everybody!

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 coming to an end

At the end of 2008 I wrote that it had been - for both good and ill - one of the biggest years of my life. Given that I don't have exceptional (just normal) energy, I'm surprised that I somehow managed to survive that year. During 2008, Jenny and I also sold our house in Melbourne, though we rented it back from the new owners through until almost the end of 2009.

2009 itself was a pretty big year. It involved a lot of travel, especially in the second half. We bought a house in Newcastle - near Sydney, and 600 miles away from Melbourne - and we moved here at the end of the year. There was a fair bit of teaching involved during 2009, and quite a lot of speaking gigs. The year was, alas, somewhat marred by ill health. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the publication of 50 Voices of Disbelief in October.

2010 was relatively quiet at my end, which is not to say I wasn't busy. Moving to a new house, interstate, created its problems and stresses, but we've never regretted it, and I had a much healthier year (in fact my health over the last two years has generally been excellent). While there were highlights such as the Global Atheist Convention, for which I popped down to Melbourne for a week, I spent most of the year researching and writing the first draft of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

What about the year that has just gone by? 2011 involved three overseas trips, though all were relatively short. I think it may have been my most busy year yet, and it went incredibly fast.

Whether all the work that I've been doing over the past tweleve months will see the light of day remains to be seen. In particular, somewhere amongst it all I rewrote my PhD thesis to make it more suitable for publication in book form for a reasonably broad audience. But I still need to find a publisher.

I also reworked Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, in light of comments on the first version that came back from the publisher, and I've since taken the book through to publication, with all that that involves. Meanwhile, Udo and I have been working on yet another book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, and I've been working with Linda MacDonald Glenn on a special issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology that is gradually taking form and has turned into the equivalent of another co-edited book. The JET special issue has occupied me almost around the clock for the past two months. And with Freedom of Religion and the Secular State about to appear, I've been doing a lot of associated work in an effort to promote the book. Other stuff, too...

Anyway, the upshot is that I end 2011 in good health, happy at how a lot of things have turned out, but (to be honest) feeling mentally and physically exhausted ... and with no sign of any respite in early 2012. Still, I have to say that it's been a good year for me - the highlight, perhaps, was the Intelligence Squared debate in Sydney back in September, when Jane Caro, Tamas Pataki, and I showed our stuff on national television, and in front of a live audience of 1200 people, in opposition to a group of well-known theologians.

Sooo, one more day of 2011, with my share of bubbly to drink before the year is out. Then into 2012, which will be another biggie.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Currently reading - Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right by Katharine Gelber

This study of freedom of speech in Australia is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. It makes much of being a free speech advocacy book - but when you actually read it, Gelber is not much of a free speech advocate after all. She is very keen to protect speech that she approves of, which is basically anti-establishment/left-wing political speech, but not so keen on protecting speech that she dislikes. This is justified by her deplorably uncritical discussion of international conventions (Gelber never seems to have met a UN instrument that she didn't like) and some hackneyed disparagement of the more "absolutist" US approach, which she hastens to assure us is an international outlier.

That said, I am sympathetic to most of her examples. Like Gelber, I'm not a fan of SLAPP lawsuits - unmeritorious actions initiated by corporations to silence their critics. Then again, Gelber never seems to have met a corporation that she actually liked ... or to have doubted that any lawsuit by a corporation was merely vexatious. (For the record, I am generally opposed to corporations being able to sue for defamation, and am glad that their right to do so is severely restricted in Australia.)

Again, like Gelber I don't want to see anti-war artworks suppressed by the police or by meddling local councils. Like her, I'm concerned at the breadth and multi-pronged nature of free speech restrictions in anti-terrorism legislation. And again, like her, I don't want to see red tape, officiousness, and police hostility hindering peaceful protests against government policy or corporate activity.

Fine, but Gelber's strong biases let her down. It would be more impressive if she showed the same scepticism about hate speech laws as she does about anti-terrorism legislation. In the latter case, she acknowledges the need for some limits on speech, at least when it comes to direct incitement of violence, but her whole emphasis is on the overreaching and problematic drafting of the laws. When we turn to hate speech, the tone of the discussion changes - these are "nice" restrictions on freedom of speech, it seems, so she handles them with kid gloves. There is no mention of important cases such as Kazak and Catch the Fire Ministries, where zealous tribunals made a mess of things and had to be corrected on appeal.

Though there is much about art, the entire emphasis is on left-wing political art (fine ... I want to protect this, too). But where is her discussion of, say, the Bill Henson affair, or violent videogames, or controversial movies like Salo?

I'd have been much more impressed by the book if its author had managed to say something about the censorship of erotic art and the difficulties of drawing the line between that and outright pornography (if even this should be banned or regulated, which I don't necessarily oppose). This important and difficult issue, however, is not mentioned at all.

I'd have been even more impressed if she'd defended our right to satirise religious organisations, leaders, and ideas, even if she also discussed the dangers that we are talking about in my earlier thread on shutting up. Unfortunately, Gelber seems to lump religion in with race - as so often happens in legal instruments - when the differences are more important than the similarities (for more, see my chapter on freedom of speech in The Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett, or the very different, though complementary, chapter on freedom of speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State).

I suppose the excuse could be that Gelber is really only writing about political speech. The title is misleading - as titles often are - because the book is not about free speech, broadly construed, at all. It is about free speech for people who want to engage in political advocacy, preferably of an anti-establishment or broadly left-wing kind (talk of "left-wing" and "right-wing" is not that useful, really, but it is pretty obvious that Gelber's main sympathies are with what she sees as oppressed identity groups and with speech that attacks corporations or conservative governments).

Again, I'm all in favour of protecting the speech of left-wing activists, but I also want free speech for my opponents. Furthermore, the rationale for free speech is far more complex and multi-layered than Gelber suggests. Yes, it is partly to ensure that people can discuss political ideas and engage in political protest, but that is only one of the well-known rationales for freedom of speech. Gelber pretty much ignores the others, which enables her to avoid standing up in defence of a whole range of much-censored speech.

All in all, the book is disappointing. I was expecting something more comprehensive ... and a much stronger commitment to freedom of speech across the board than the author actually displays.

That's not to say Getting Free Speech Right is without merit. For one thing, it has the great virtue of actually being well written - the prose is clear and vivid, and the chapters are structured to maintain our interest. Gelber can write effectively, which is a big plus these days when so much unreadable dreck by academics somehow gets published.

Better still, despite its narrow remit the book contains a lot of useful information. Within that remit - restrictions on vaguely anti-establishment or left-wing political speech - the book provides us with plenty of facts about how the law works in Australia. It also offers much information about how Australians think about freedom of speech: it seems that we are happy to give lip service to the idea, and can be swayed once it is argued that freedom of speech is at stake in a particular situation, but we are all too prone to support freedom for speech that we like and to countenance restrictions as soon as we encounter speech that we don't like (or find the least bit offensive or inconvenient).

That's an important lesson to take from the book, and you might be interested in the detail. Unfortunately, the author herself seems much like other Australians - freedom of speech by all means, but not for "nasty" speech please.

We need a broader debate about freedom of speech, here in Australia, and, to be fair to Gelber, she has made a useful contribution to it. As I said, the book has its merits ... but it could have been so much better.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Currently writing ...

... a piece about scientism that is getting too long. Although I think the situation with allegations of scientism is simple enough in principle, I see so much confusion around that it's hard even to know where to start in trying to clear it up.

Oh well, this thread over at Jason Rosenhouse's place is interesting, intellectually rich, very long, sometimes, heated, and still continuing. I find myself nodding along at Richard Wein's comments in particular, but a lot of people are making strong arguments for their various corners.

And so, again, although my approach to this is fairly simple (you don't have to believe anything contrived or overreaching about the nature of science to conclude that spooky ways of knowing are unreliable, and to realise that both the sciences and the humanities tend to undermine religion), sorting out all the issues could take a book. Unfortunately, books on that subject tend to get written mainly by religious apologists and accommodationists.

Ah haz mah authors' copies!

Yay! Five copies of the hardcover, and fifteen copies of the paperback, of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State just turned up in the mail, so there will be a couple of my close friends getting additional pressies this year and a few copies being sent around locally for promotional purposes. It looks very, very arty.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An announcement! Re Free Inquiry

I'm sure I told y'all that I had some big announcements coming up. Here's one of them. I think I can now announce this one. *Looks around furtively.*

I'm pleased to announce that in 2012 I will be joining Free Inquiry as one of its columnists. This puts me in the company of, for example, Richard Dawkins and leading bioethicist Arthur Caplan; if not for his recent death, it would also have put me in the company of Christopher Hitchens, but sadly that has not come to be. The list of columnists is pretty damn impressive, actually, so I am now sufficiently humbled, daunted, etc., to feel the need to prove my worth to the team.

Off I go to work on my first contribution in my new role...

Bombs away!

A couple of pieces sent off to the ABC portal over the last few days. I still owe one piece there, viz. a proper review of The Better Angels of Our Nature. Meanwhile, I see a review (sort of ... a brief discussion anyway) of it over at Talking Philosophy, and Jean Kazez has further observations on it at her place.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When should we tell each other to shut up?

And how should we respond if someone tells us to? Over at Talking Philosophy, Jeremy Stangroom has a post in which he raises these questions, using the example of a book that he may or may not write about the evils (as he sees them) of multiculturalism in the UK.

While British multiculturalism may have its evils, and there may be better policy options, might this be an inopportune time to say so? Might that claim be misunderstood, even subconsciously, in ways that will exacerbate social tensions and strengthen the hands of political extremists (some, perhaps, driven by cultural xenophobia or outright racism)? Would the book be misused and its message distorted by those extremists? Might the eventual outcome be a contribution to the very forces in society that the author opposes?

If so, might it be wise not to go ahead with the book? But what if another person advised you not to go ahead? Should you be angry, or grateful for the advice, or what? What if someone says publicly that such books should not be written - perhaps while you are immersed in writing the book, or, perhaps worse, after it has already been published? Should you be angry, grateful, detached and reflective, or what?

He concludes:
Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.

How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).
Now, that may be right. But telling people to shut up may not be the best option in a class of cases (perhaps even a very large one) where it's a tempting option. Does it matter how clear-cut the case is? What if the case for shutting up depends, in part, on claims that are obviously bullshit (perhaps showing the person who is calling for the shutting up to have poor judgment and/or a strong bias)? Doubtless there are many different scenarios to consider.

There's a good thread going over there at TP, and I've made a couple of comments so far. As I say there, I'm certainly not an absolutist about it. I wouldn't claim, in all cases, that a person calling for others to shut up is of vicious character. Still, I do think that as a general rule we should try to avoid getting into meta-level debates about whether certain things should be said at all, as opposed to whether those things are likely to be true. (I don't see any horrible paradox in this; it's usually possible to distinguish between a debate about, say, the merits of a government policy and a debate about the propriety of expressing a particular view on the policy.)

Notwithstanding the example used in the post, I'm sure we could think of other salient examples where arguments about some topic or other have quickly "gone meta". I'm not especially interested in discussing the merits of these examples - see, folks, another paradox! I'm not interested in discussing them in this place, at this time, because I want to discuss with you the general merits of shuttuppery and when it's appropriate ... and how we should respond to it.

So if we do use examples from the "Exhibit A" debate, or Elevatorgate, or Chris Mooney's response to "Seeing And Believing" (and the backlash that he copped), or any other recently-heated topic in the blogosphere, let's use some good sense and discretion. I don't actually ask you to shut up on those topics in your wider lives - by all means go and write a book about "Exhibit A" - just that you not try to settle the merits of those topics here. That's not the purpose of the thread.

It may be better to stick with the multiculturalism example or with made-up examples, but I'm not going to jump up and down about what examples are used unless they are used in the wrong spirit. As judged by me.

"Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning"?

So says Alister McGrath.

Really? I reckon you could drive a truck through this. Discuss.

(H/T Tim Dean.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - "Enjoy your human holiday!"

This from the mutants on Utopia and the X-office staff at Marvel. Gotta love it!

Merry Christmas to all!

Or your preferred expression of good wishes for this time of year. For me, "Merry Christmas!" is fine.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I get that Barnaby Joyce is trying to be funny... ho! ho! ho! ...

... but would anyone think it was so funny if a leading federal politician, here in Australia, wrote like this about any other group?
You can hear yourself muttering under your breath, ''I wish you would go drown yourself, you pseudo-intellectual Gucci flea.'' They write letters to complain about the incorrectness of carols at the school and picket the Christmas tree. To not insult their religion, you must no longer follow yours. They yearn for the fallacy of a vacuum and they demand that you join them in that philosophical void.
We can, of course, have debates about the rights and wrongs of singing Christmas carols in public schools. Is it a pernicious state endorsement of religion? Well, there's an argument for that. Or is it a bit of harmless tradition that no one need get too fussed about? Richard Dawkins, for one, might tend to think the latter. In any event, I'm not too worried about kids singing traditional songs ... not in the Australian context, at any rate.

But whatever you think, is it really a great idea for a senior politician to be going around publicly fantasising about a group of people whom he dislikes drowning themselves?

richarddawkins.net and Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

It's nice of richarddawkins.net to promote the book in this post. I'm grateful for this, and I thank Mike Cornwell and/or Richard if he was involved personally and/or whoever else was responsible (it wasn't prompted by me).

I've got to say that some of the comments on the thread are discouraging, beginning with the very first one. This is just one case where the sorts of comments made in that forum don't seem, to me, to reflect the thoughtfulness, seriousness, and fairness of Richard Dawkins himself.

Okay, okay, I get that we don't think religious doctrine should influence the law or politics. That's pretty much what the book argues. But we do get an intersection of these three things in practice, and this is important enough to merit examination and critique. Religion, law, and politics interact all the time, constantly in dialogue and influencing each other. If we don't think that should happen, or if we want to limit or structure how it should happen, we need a theory as to why. And it's no good simply saying that religious doctrines are all false. We're in real trouble if atheists are the only people who'll accept some kind of functional separation, or distance, of religion from law making and politics. That separation can't await the mass deconversion of, say, the United States of America. Furthermore, such separation as does exist is under constant challenge.

In fact, I think that there are good reasons for a functional separation of religion and political power ... and once they are explained they should be attractive not only to atheists but also to many (perhaps most) religious people. But they need to be articulated in a clear, modern, accessible way. I don't know of any book that has done this really well: too often, highly controversial ideas in political philosophy are relied on; or else the argument is only accessible to law professors; or else it's rather crude and unconvincing; or else it just doesn't deliver what it claims (too often, only a very weak separation is really argued for, and the most important aspects of separation may not be the ones that actually get advocated).

I've made an attempt to do this job ... to fill the identifiable gap.

And I try to work through the implications, examining the relationship between secular government and the classic liberal views of people like John Stuart Mill. That takes me to the implications for hot-button topics relating to freedom of religion - such as the burqa - and to large topics in liberal thought, such as freedom of speech.

Whether or not I've done a good job of this remains to be seen. It's not up to me to judge, and maybe the book will end up being a failure. Perhaps, for all I know, it will encounter powerful criticisms. At the least, it will encounter controversy.

For all that, I'm proud of my work at this point. It's nice that the book will see publication next month. But knee-jerk dismissal of such an exercise as either unimportant or easy doesn't exactly inspire me. The job is neither unimportant nor easy.

This Washington Times op.ed. piece is a bit more on the mark

Quote from here:
Please, America's Christians, please humble yourselves, discard the ego, stash the attitude, and look at the issue of public religiosity from any non-Christian perspective. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and that is something you need to start taking responsibility for.

Indifference in the face of adversity is a position of ignorance. Can we get you to stand up for what is just, please? We don't want to pick a fight, we want peace. Please help make that a possibility.

The separation of Church and state is of more importance than you think it is, and it is not an atheistic agenda. The separation of church and state is the equalizing factor for all religions. If we afford one religion privilege, it is not fair not to do so for all others, and how do we afford all other religions privilege without going to absurd lengths? The only viable answer is separation.
Pretty much right. There are deeper arguments than this for a functional separation of church and state, and I think that they are pretty convincing from most perspectives. But the above will do. You can't, in all fairness, have the state favouring a particular religion over other religions and over non-belief.

Time magazine provides us with some myths about atheism

As I've mentioned now and then, Udo Schuklenk and I are working on a book called 50 Great Myths About Atheism - to be published in 2013, I hope, if all goes as well as it might.

Documenting that these myths really are out there is one of the more difficult tasks, since we can't always recall the provenance of something that we know very well and certainly have no reason to doubt. Accordingly, it's kind of Time magazine to provide us with an article that is full of such myths.

Jerry Coyne has already done a good hatchet job on the article, which really is pretty terrible. It's full of tired, cliched thoughts.

I especially like: "It's a fairly widely accepted maxim that atheist fundamentalists, as I call them, can be just as intolerant as religious fundamentalists." Right, that so-called "maxim" might be "widely accepted" in the sense that there are a lot of idiots around who think such a thing. Even smart people might accept it if they told often enough that's true and haven't got the time or energy to check for themselves. None of us can stop and check out everything we're told. Nonetheless, the "maxim" is drivel.

It's unworthy of the author to write such rubbish as this article, and of a supposedly high quality magazine to publish it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tim Minchin comedy song cut from British TV show

But what the hey - you can go and see it here. Minchin sings a satirical song about the traditional Christian narrative of Jesus' life.

Seems kind of counterproductive to cut something that might have been offensive to (some people in) the UK TV audience, when this just makes it a bigger story in the UK and raises its profile internationally.

Tim Dean on Christmas

I like this post by Tim Dean at The Drum. Sample quote:
Certainly for some, Christmas is a deeply religious occasion, and a time of reflection on the birth of their saviour. Some might even consider the hedonistic lunching, the frenzy of gift shopping and the gaudy blinking lights and tinsel-covered trees a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas. They're wrong.

For most of us, Christmas is precisely about all those silly customs and rituals we perform each year. This is because, ultimately, Christmas is about tradition, it's about family, and it's about taking time out to share a feast with the most important people in our lives.

And like many traditions, the purported justification for its existence is far less interesting and far less important than the function the tradition plays in our lives. And once you divorce the religious justification from the practice, you can get an insight into what Christmas is really about.
Yup, pretty much right. Christmas has long lost its religious rationale for many of us, but it is still a valuable occasion. Whether on Christmas Day itself or throughout the week or two leading into the New Year, we get a chance to catch up with many of the most important people in our lives. Those who are absent (perhaps interstate or overseas) are in our thoughts, and we at least do something to renew contact ... by sending cards or making phone calls or whatever best works. This time of year is, above all, a celebration of our relationships with the people whom we care about and who care about us.

Sure, some alternative that had no religious roots at all might be good, but the religious side of it is pretty much irrelevant to the way Christmas actually functions for many of us in today's society. It's a time in the year that's well worth keeping because of what it's really become.

My magnificent 7 posts of the year

These are not necessarily my own favourite posts of the year. But they are the ones that have scored the greatest number of views (and will doubtless now score even more, lol). Still, they give an idea of the mix of this blog and the mix of what people seem to want:

1. Interpreting Deuteronomy - with sophisticated theology. How (some) theologians try to rehabilitate an offensive text.

2. Islam and "Islamophobia" - a little manifesto. This issue of what you can say about Islam, and what counts as Islamophobia, is obviously on a lot of people's minds, since the post sent my views through the roof (by this blog's very modest standards of what counts as the roof).

3. Coyne vs. Haught - advantage, Coyne. This was a long post on the kerfuffle related to the Coyne/Haught live debate (or whatever it was). Haught was out of line here, and rather precious. Jerry and I have different concepts of science, free will, and "fact" - but we don't get involved in fights about it. Perhaps it's true that our main disagreements are semantic, but, really, people are entitled to disagree. Haught seems to be someone who doesn't like being disagreed with and quickly makes it personal. I get the same flavour from his books.

I'll say it again: Jerry Coyne did nothing wrong in the discussion that Haught got so upset about ... and by getting so damn upset Haught made things worse for himself.

4. A very short introduction to non-overlapping magisteria. A perennial topic on this blog. I guess I'll go on criticising the surprising influential - but in my view utterly meretricious - concept of non-overlapping magisteria.

5. IQ2 debate on "Atheists are wrong" - the results (Lions defeat Christians). My initial report on this debate, which was a big thing in my life back in September. It was subsequently televised on ABC 1 and made available on video on the internet.

6. Jean Kazez on Gnude Clothes and shutting up. This issue is ancient history by now, and yet it still rankles. I need to say a bit about it.

I guess Jean and I are going to have to agree to disagree about some of this, though I wish I could persuade her, especially as my respect for her has risen immensely as the year has gone on. The way she handled herself over the issue that we don't talk about here was exemplary - if you want to see some actually useful discussion of, sigh, Elevatorgate, track down the relevant threads on her blog.

I suspect that we're not in total disagreement about the Mooneygate issues, etc. Like Jean, I do prefer civility, and I dislike personal attacks, pile-ons, and witch hunts. I'm happy to admit that I said some things that I regret in the thick of the battles over Chris Mooney, etc., etc., and I probably even owe Mooney an apology for some of it.

But please note this important point. Much of the anger against Mooney was based on his claim that some views should not be expressed in the public square even in a civil way. That may not be telling someone, directly in the second person, "Shut up!" But it is saying that someone should shut up because their views, even though they are arguable and civilly expressed, are politically inexpedient. I can't accept that.

For me, the argument has never been about whether we should normally try to be civil. Generally speaking, I think we should be. It's better for intellectual progress if a wide range of ideas can be discussed in a civil manner without people losing their tempers, provoking each other to lose their tempers, typecasting and dismissing each other as not worth listening to on the basis of their ideas, and so on. There is a place for satire and mockery of absurd ideas, but there's also an important place for listening to each others' viewpoints and welcoming thoughtful critiques of our own views.

What annoyed me so much about Mooney in the first place was the suggestion that we should not express certain ideas - at least in more public places like The New Republic - even in a thoughtful and civil manner (which is what Jerry Coyne did in the book review that Mooney objected to). Anyway... let's move on...

7. Some Saturday supervillainy: Zeus vs the Hulk. This brief post about heroism and villainy in pop culture attracts a significant number of readers month after month. It's obviously a hot topic for a demographic that I tapped into. And, hey, why not? It does less to raise my blood pressure than worrying about Chris Mooney or Wally Smith or Elevatorgate some of the other rubbish we encounter in the blogosphere. That has to be a plus.

My top 12 books of the year

I'm unlikely to read many more books before the year is out, and the ones that I really must read for professional purposes don't look as if they are going to make any list of mine of favourite or top or "best" books.

So here is a short list of my best books of the year, the ones that I found especially illuminating or enjoyable. It's my top 12 for 2011.

Few of them actually appeared for the first time in 2011 - in fact, I think only the first one did. My reading is seldom that up to date. However, they are all books that I read for the first time in 2011. Thus, you won't see Moby Dick on the list, even though I actually did read it in 2011, because I'd read it before.

Here goes, in a rough order:

1. The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker. This was the real stand out. A huge book crammed with interesting information and reflections. Superbly written, and simply a must read for anyone with interests remotely similar to mine. I've written about the book sporadically in a couple of earlier posts, and I'll be writing a proper review of it for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.

2. The Emotional Construction of Morals - Jesse Prinz. One of the best works on moral philosophy that I have ever read, and certainly the best case that I have ever seen for moral relativism (of a very sophisticated kind that avoids the obvious problems with cruder forms). This book was enough to shake me up and make me think that some sort of moral relativism might be the best theory after all. I'm still thinking about it.

3. The Slap - Chris Tsiolkas. This is my work of fiction of the year. I've only just read it, after watching the TV version religiously over the eight weeks that it played and then being lent the novel by a friend. There's a lot to say about the book, and maybe I'll find an opportunity to say more elsewhere, but this is a splendid portrait of how we live now.

4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanne Clark. To my shame, I only got around to reading this extraordinary fantasy novel in 2011. You'll need to do nothing but read it for a full week, unless you're a much faster reader than I am, but it's worth it. An immersive experience.

5. Collected Stories - Saul Bellow. This might deserve an even higher ranking, but a large proportion of it is one of my favourite stories by anyone, ever, Bellow's novella A Theft. I'd already read this several times. Bellow's fiction requires a certain level of concentration - don't read these stories while distracted - but the pay-off is worth it. Beautiful, compelling depictions of character in action.

6. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification - Michael Martin. I'd never actually read this from cover to cover, though I'd certainly dipped into it quite a bit. It really is a masterwork of modern philosophy.

7. Against the Day - Thomas Pynchon. Another book that will take you a week of doing nothing else. To be honest, I wish I could rank this a bit higher, but Pynchon is always a mixture of enjoyable and frustrating. I had to read Against the Day, at last (since it was published a few years ago now), in order to give a talk on Pynchon early in the year. I probably need to read it again so it makes more sense the second time, but when am I going to find another week? Pynchon's works do repay re-reading and re-re-reading.

8. Beyond Humanity? - Allen Buchanan. This book on the philosophy of enhancement technology is by one of the authors of From Chance to Choice, still probably the one must-read book in the field. The earlier book notwithstanding, Buchanan has some new, provocative, and important things to say.

9. Diamond Eyes - A.A. Bell. This won the Norma K. Hemming Award, for which I was on the jury. It's simply a page-turning thriller with a mix of science-fiction and fantasy elements. Not necessarily something I'd read again, but I loved it.

9. Power and Majesty - Tansy Rayner Roberts. I loved this as well. It would also have been a worthy winner of the same award, and it gained other honours (an Aurealis Award, for a start). Roberts is at the top of her game right now.

11. The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman. Again, a book that I'm ashamed not to have read before. It's as compelling, moving, and complex as they say.

12. The Weight of Things - Jean Kazez. Jean and I have had our quarrels and continue to have some disagreements. I must say, though, that she writes beautifully and thoughtfully. This relatively little book about the problem of "the good life" is thoroughly enjoyable, even if you find stuff to disagree with.

Some honorable mentions. First, Paul Cliteur's The Secular Outlook. I'd previously read the manuscript when it was sent to me to see if I might give it a back-cover endorsement (I did so enthusiastically). I was pleased to read it again this year in the form of the published book. It was good to have it in time to draw on it for my own work this year. It's an important contribution to secular thought, and you might like to seek it out. The only reason it's not on my list is that I'd read the manuscript.

Second, Mike Carey's X-Men story Age of X, which is now available in trade. The edgier reinterpretations of the X-characters are a joy to behold. It's almost a pity that they had to be brought back, at the end of the story, to the "normal" reality of the franchise. But Age of X did pay off for the on-going X-Men myth-cum-soap-opera.

Third, and now I realise that I'm being unfair to Philip Kitcher's big new book on moral philosophy, The Ethical Project. I've written a review of this for The Philosophers' Magazine, and have praised it quite highly. I think I need some time for my thoughts about it to bed down, before I can decide just how important a contribution to the field it is. But it probably belongs on the top 12 list somewhere, in which case I'd have to look at the last couple of items on the list and decide which to throw out. Just take it that the book is deserving of a place there.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A victory in the United Nations

For the first time in years now, the United Nations General Assembly has broken with what had become something of a tradition - passing an annual resolution condemning so-called "defamation of religion".

It is one thing for the UN to condemn actions to provoke inter-religious hatred. No one wants to see the world's societies riven with hatred, though it is worth remembering that much of the hatred comes from religious conservatives who refuse to tolerate sexual freedom (especially that of women), female emancipation, and any expressions of erotic love outside of heterosexual monogamy. Even in Western societies we see this in the emotive opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. It's another thing to become so focused on this issue that important kinds of speech are stigmatised and even prohibited. There is a public interest in scrutiny of religion, and it should be a fair target for criticism, denunciation, or satire.

At any rate, we should always err, if err we must, on the side of freedom of speech. Whatever lines are drawn in the area should allow bold speech that might offend - and this includes various forms of anti-religious criticism and satire. Such a liberal attitude to speech might permit some ugly speech, but the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind - religious, political, or philosophical - must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

(For further elaboration of these sentiments, you can see my chapter on free speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This is a theme of the book, and I discuss some of the important case law in detail.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Religion and science (an issue that won't go away!)

The discussion over at Talking Philosophy has become rather recondite, which is the nature of that forum (which is frequented by philosophers!).

Still, do feel free to join in. I think it's a good discussion, though criteria for this may vary! :)

Atheists Are Wrong debate now on the IQ2 site

You can relive the moment by watching the debate here.

Speakers

For:
■The Most Rev Peter Jensen is Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney and Metropolitan of the Province of New South Wales (since 2001). A former lecturer and Principal of Moore Theological College, he earned a D Phil from Oxford for his research on Elizabethan Protestantism. His book At the Heart of the Universe is used around the world as an introductory text on Christian Doctrine. His 2005 Boyer Lecture series for the ABC has been published as a book, The future of Jesus.
■Dr Tracey Rowland is the Dean of the John Paul II Institute, Melbourne and a Permanent Fellow in Political Philosophy and Continental Theology. She is also an Adjunct Professor of the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society of the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Dr Rowland holds a doctorate from the Divinity School of Cambridge University and has published widely including two books on the theology of Benedict XVI.
■Scott Stephens is the Religion & Ethics editor for ABC Online. Before joining the ABC he taught theology and theological ethics for many years. He has written extensively about the intersections among philosophy, theology and politics, the work of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Paul II, the moral problem of secularism and why atheism stems from the theological revolution of Christianity.

Against:
■Russell Blackford is a philosopher, literary critic and creative writer. His qualifications include separate PhDs in English literature and philosophy . He is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology and the author of many books, articles, essays and short stories. His books include 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (2009) co-edited with Udo Schuklenk. His new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, will be published shortly. Dr Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle.
■Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy and lectures in Advertising Creative at UWS. She is author of three books and is currently writing about atheism. Caro appears regularly in the media, is a panellist on the ABC’s top rating The Gruen Transfer and an occasional radio host.
■Dr Tamas Pataki is honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne (School of historical and philosophical studies) and honorary Fellow of Deakin University. He studied philosophy at the University of Melbourne and psychoanalysis at University College, London University. Dr Pataki has been a lecturer in philosophy at RMIT, University of Tasmania and University of Melbourne. He co-edited, with Michael Levine, Racism in Mind (Cornell 2004) and is the author of Against Religion (Scribe, 2007) as well as of articles and book chapters on the philosophy of mind and numerous popular pieces and reviews.

Fred Nile is a mean-spirited opportunist who can't spell the word "Hitchens"

For some amusement, have a look at this media release from Fred Nile, which relates to the death of Christopher Hitchens. Leaving aside the mean-spirited and opportunistic content, Nile can't even spell the name of the person he's writing about:
The Rev Fred Nile MLC, Leader of the Christian Democratic Party, has expressed his condolences and sympathy over the suffering and finally the death, from cancer, of Christopher Hitchins.

"However, whatever his beliefs in those last minutes as a proud atheist, Mr Hitchins is no longer an atheist" said Rev Nile.

Edit: Added link to the original release.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Media reports on the "protect Assange" letter

The letter that I referred to yesterday is getting a fair bit of coverage, including in The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News.

Once again, I am not necessarily opposed to Assange's extradition from the UK to Sweden to face allegations of some sort of coercive sexual conduct when he was in the latter country, and I do deprecate the widespread character assassination of the women concerned. Although I've read certain reports and opinion pieces, I have not formed any opinion on what he did or didn't do - I'm not a great lover of trial by media - let alone the rights and wrongs of it all. Perhaps I'll say more when I have a better grasp of the facts as the legal process continues (see below).

Important though this is, the larger issue in my mind is how he can be protected from having to submit to US criminal jurisdiction for separate issues relating to conduct committed when he was not in the US (and given that he is not an American citizen). In principle this could turn into another Hicks debacle.

At the moment, Assange has leave to appeal to the highest British court against his extradition to Sweden. I'll watch developments with interest.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kenan Malik wins 3quarksdaily prize

Kenan Malik has gained first place in the 3quarksdaily Politics and Social Science Prize.

Congratulations, Kenan!

I look forward to reading his prize-winning essay - "Rethinking the Idea of 'Christian Europe'" - which was published on his Pandaemonium blog back in August.

The "protect Assange" open letter in Overland

Hey, I was not asked to sign this - phew! I would have had a couple of reservations to make me hesitate. However, I do have a lot of respect for some of the people who actually did sign on (and I'm on friendly terms with a number of them).

My first worry is not a huge issue in the scheme of things, but let's look at this paragraph:
Further, the chances of Mr Assange receiving a fair trial in the United States appear remote. A number of prominent political figures have called for him to be assassinated, and the Vice-President has called him a "high-tech terrorist". Given the atmosphere of hostility in relation to Mr Assange, we hold serious concerns about his safety once in US custody. We note that Mr Assange is an Australian citizen, whose journalistic activities were undertaken entirely outside of US territory.
I agree with it all except the bolded sentence. I'm not in a position to say that the odds of the trial itself being conducted fairly are, or even "appear", remote. I don't think that's the point.

The last sentence is one I strongly agree with, though it is a bit obscure just what it's getting at. The real problem here is America's peculiar propensity for extraterritorial criminal legislation. The actual trial might be conducted fairly, but people who are not US citizens should not be tried under US law for activities outside of the US. If Assange did something that was illegal in whatever country he was in at the time, it should be up to the authorities of that country to decide whether it wants to prosecute. American law should have nothing to do with it, and no country should ever agree to the extradition of a person who is not a US citizen to face charges for conduct entirely outside the US. Although I wouldn't put it this way in such a letter, America's arrogance in this regard is appalling.

My second worry is just this: surely something could have been said to help distance the signatories from the widely-expressed view that the pending charges against Assange are absurd and trumped up, and that the women concerned are somehow disreputable or of no account. I realise that it wasn't strictly necessary to go into the issue, but I'm uncomfortable that nothing at all was said to make clear that the letter is neutral on the merits of Assange's conduct in Sweden.

I'm open to argument on this. I do realise that there's a risk in opening a can of worms here, and I'm not sure what additional wording, or tweaking of the current wording, I'd have wanted. Perhaps I'd have signed up if asked, after due reflection, but I'm not in a hurry to bounce up in the comments on the site saying, "Me, too!"

As to Assange's bedroom conduct, perhaps we'll find out more about what really happened if the case ever goes to trial ... or we'll understand more clearly. We can then make up our individual minds about how morally vicious or otherwise it was; whether it was the sort of thing that should have been criminalised; if so, to what degree; and so on. I have no opinion to express on any of that at the moment.

Jerry Coyne's latest on accommodationism

This is a lucid and persuasive statement of Jerry's position. I agree with almost all of it (anything I disagreed with would merely be a matter of quibbling).

Just two things to add. First, it's probably my philosophical training (and partly also temperament) that inclines me to make fine distinctions, strain to find whatever merit I can in opponents' positions, interpret opponents and their position statements as charitably as possible, etc. I'd like to see more of this in blogosphere debates, but it's also possible to get too hung up about it all. Jerry sometimes does a better job than I do in skewering accommodationism simply because he's not so hung up about it.

But ... second, read what Jerry actually says. This is damn sure not a crude position that he's putting. He's making subtle, incisive points about the fraught relationship between religion and science. That's his basis for pointing out the misleading nature of the accommodationist positions that he attacks.

Jean Kazez on Douthat on Hitchens

This piece by Jean Kazez is very good - have a look for yourself, and follow her links.

Among other things, the post raises the important question of whether we'd really want a world totally without religion. Unlike the others of the "four horsemen", Hitchens didn't. I recall watching the video discussion among the four of them that Jean refers to, and it's interesting seeing some of the conversation transcribed.

I actually have mixed feelings on this. My aim is not to eliminate religion from the world: my big thing is not atheism or anti-religion, but secular government. On the other hand, I do think that it's important to go on criticising religion, and I don't think it makes sense to criticise religious influence on political power without someone engaging in criticism of religion itself. The two go well in tandem. And I can't say that I'd be particularly sorry if no one, anywhere, took religion seriously any more.

On the gripping hand, I think I understand why Hitchens wanted ongoing argument, rather than a world where only one side speaks. There are good Millian reasons for that kind of impulse. As Mill said in On Liberty, it's better to have people around who disagree with you, forcing you to engage in self-criticism and refinement of your arguments. If that's what Hitchens means in the video, when he worries about "one hand clapping", I see his point.

Embiggen Books haz Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

Or, more accurately, it has a page for the book. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State is currently showing as "out of stock", but that will just be because copies haven't physically arrrived yet (publication is mid-January).

As I've said often, Embiggen Books is a wonderful bookshop - formerly based on the Sunshine Coast, but now in Melbourne. It stocks an extensive range of material related to reason and science. If you're here in Australia and looking for books as Christmas pressies (or looking for books for any other reason), check out its website. Ordering from Embiggen Books might be a good idea for you. You'll find some great possibilities, and you'll be supporting a business that stands strongly for a rational, science-based view of the world.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

David Nicholls on Hitchens' death

David Nicholls, organiser of the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention, for which Christopher Hitchens was going to be a star attraction, writes an obituary here.

He concludes:
We can expect detractors to exit from the woodwork over the next months. There will be half-true and untrue rumours and stories of a hateful nature, which will only go to reinforce the greatness of this one human who once trod the earth in a dignified manner. The intensity of his life and bravery to the end were examples of the finest of human qualities. If but everyone could emulate them.

The death of Christopher Hitchens has special significance for the Atheist Foundation of Australia. He was booked to appear at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention – 'A Celebration of Reason' in April next year along with the other acclaimed Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Christopher knew, as did we, that this was a gamble with time. If pneumonia had not stepped into the scene, the Four Horsemen would have been together at a public forum for the first time.

I know I can speak for the audience and everyone involved with this convention in saying that we are all deeply and profoundly sad that one of the four chairs on centre stage will be empty.

Sunday supervillainy - "Here, hold my Annihilus."

Go to Scans Daily to check out the significance of the above.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

McEwan on Hitchens ... and some reflections on death

This New York Times article by Ian McEwan is a beautiful and moving piece about Christopher Hitchens' last days, in a hospital in Houston, as the end approached for him. In a way, no doubt, it's sad - all that intellectual energy, and all that love of life and books, destined to be snuffed out, with so many thoughts never to be articulated. And Hitchens' passing is a huge loss to the world in many, many ways.

But that energy and love are so admirable, and the lucidity that McEwan reveals in the man, right up to the edge of the dark, is almost ... well almost enviable. Almost enviable in that it's hard for me to imagine reaching this sort of level when the grim, final days eventually come round. It's a standard to aspire to.

I'm not going to say a lot about this, except maybe in just this one post, but I've had frequent occasion to think about death over the last few years - not because of any great problems with my own health, and not because I'm anywhere near approaching my own life expectancy, but because of a series of events over that time. Chief among them was the death of my mother, just coming up to four years ago now.

As things turned out, she died on my watch at her hospital bedside: it was just me and a nurse there that January morning, when she took her last, spaced apart, unconscious breaths. My father and sister missed the moment, having both stayed up all night while I'd taken a shift of getting some sleep. The final breaths came after I'd returned to the ward, and while Dad and my sister were finally snatching a short bit of rest.

There have been other things. Most recently, I've had two friends from the past - they were people I was more-or-less out of touch with, but I'd known both of them quite well at earlier stages of my life - die in just the last month. Both were much too young, as, indeed was Hitchens if it comes to that, though they were quite a bit younger still.

As it turned out, when I first heard of Christopher Hitchens' death yesterday afternoon (Australian time), I'd just come home from the funeral service for Anne. I remember her as a kind, cheerful, and beautiful young woman from my university days (when she married one of my closest friends from high school ... in a marriage that didn't last, alas, though it produced a batch of children who are now, themselves, fine young adults).

So, may the evil hour be quite a few decades away for me, all going well, but events like this do make you think ... or at least they do in my case. The thoughts, in my case, are not of any spooky synchronicity, and they are not of an afterlife, though I do want to leave some kind of worthwhile legacy behind, which may or may not count as ersatz life extension. Nor do I feel morbid or depressed, or anything of the kind. But I do reflect, and an article like McEwan's provides another occasion for it.

Most importantly, all the events of the past four years and more - the many months of severe illness that preceded Mum's loss to us belong in the accounting, too - bring home thoughts about what is most important at the end.

I admire Hitchens' mental energy in his final days and weeks: all the things that I mentioned several paragraphs up the screen, and which McEwan conveys so adroitly and sensitively. Those things, perhaps, are much to be wished for when the end approaches, if it comes slowly enough to make them even relevant. But above all, in my case, I always want the people whom I most love - that very short list of individuals whom I can count in a moment - to be in no doubt as to how I feel about them.

No doubts at the end, I hope, for those on that list who end up outliving me, and preferably none at any time in the quite-a-few-decades to come (the decades I'm hoping for, if all goes well). That's my most important ambition in how I live my life.

These are just some reflections prompted by a week when death has been an especially conspicuous presence. Take them for what they're worth. At least I know what death means to me, or something of what it means - not something spooky, not necessarily something terrifying (though I don't expect to be especially brave about it), but mainly a presence that can focus us on what really matters. From where I sit, I reckon nothing matters more than the people we most care for.

Re the hardcover of 50 Voices of Disbelief

I see that Amazon is selling some copies of the hardcover of VoD at a good price.

Just to be clear, I'm unlikely to make much money from a small number of people picking up some or all of these. We're talking, at most, about the price of a middling bottle of wine. However, the hardcover edition is a thing of beauty, so if anyone would happen to like one - or if you think your local library or educational institution might like one, or that it would make a good present for somebody - just consider this deal drawn to your attention. Like I say, this isn't about Russell getting rich, just that I'd love to see those lovely hardcover copies go to good homes if there are good homes anyone can think of for them.

New post at Talking Philosophy ... and some summary thoughts right here

Back to that topic that won't go away - religion and science. Are they compatible? Whatever that means. Once again, there is no reasonable way that you can completely insulate the factual claims made by religion from the knowledge that we gain from empirical investigation (whether or not we use the word "science" to cover the entirety of empirical investigation ... none of this turns on the semantic point about what we mean by a particualr word). Accordingly, many religious leaders and organisations will thin out their factual claims to avoid conflicts with what we know about the world through empirical investigation. Where religion fails to do that, it usually ends up being stuck with those conflicts.

It didn't have to be like that. A thousand years ago, say, it might have turned out that one religion is correct in all its claims. In that case, scientists and whoever else is doing empirical investigation would have found themselves confirming (but perhaps finding more detail about) what was already known through religious "ways of knowing", such as visions and mystical experiences.

That, however is not the world we find ourselves in, and in those circumstances, it is glib and at best misleading to say, "Religion and science are compatible."

To be sure, there are various ways that religion can avoid empirical refutation. For one, it can thin out its factual claims. For another, it can introduce various ad hoc moves (e.g. claiming that the earth was created only 6000 years ago but in a pre-aged state with "fossils" of creatures that never actually existed). For yet another, it can deny ordinary canons of reason as far as necessary to deny inconvenient truths about the world. There are doubtless others. In the first chapter of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (which you can read online for free), I acknowledge that these resources are available to the religious, and I have never claimed that I can disprove the existence of supernatural beings once and for all to the satisfaction of all comers.

But to describe the situation as one of compatibility between religion and science is more a political choice than a natural choice of words that conveys the reality. The reality is that empirical investigation of the world, including investigation using the techniques distinctive of science, has put great pressure on religion to date, and it continues to do so. It has caused new problems for religion and worsened old ones. More generally, it has undermined the credibility of distinctive religious "ways of knowing".

As with so many things, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to demonstrate the falsity of religious claims to all comers, irrespective of their starting positions. Some believers will find themselves in walled gardens of beliefs, insulated from the reality by taking steps that others of us regard with incredulity and view as unreasonable. Other believers will find that what they are forced to believe if they are to maintain consistency is just too absurd for continuing belief.

People who are not believers, and do not start with a special trust in religious ways of knowing or a strong intuitive acceptance of religious doctrine, may find themselves even less willing to become religious when they see the intellectual cost.

This is situation has its complexities. I prefer to hammer the point that it is glib and misleading to say, simply, "Religion and science are compatible," rather to make my own simple announcement, "Religion and science are incompatible." The latter is, I think, closer to the truth, but it needs to be spelled out what it really means.

All that said, the record of empirical investigation over the past few hundred years has been one of putting pressure on religion, forcing retreats, undermining doctrines and theological systems, making it more difficult to be a believer, making it easier to be an intellectually comfortable and satisfied non-believer. Against that backdrop, glib claims about the compatibility of science and religion are absurd ... and transparently political when they come from science organisations.

Okay, the above is a summary of where I stand on this issue. The piece at Talking Philosophy is rather different, but it will probably make more sense in the context of this summary. So you might want to read both.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Death of Christopher Hitchens

We all knew this was coming, but now it's happened - Christopher Hitchens has died, at the age of 62, of esophageal cancer. That's a huge, saddening loss to the world. Hitchens was a man of wit, brilliance, and courage; he was a provocateur, an orator, and an intellectual powerhouse. He made a mighty contribution to our culture, and to the never-ending struggle in defence of freedom and reason. He'll be sorely missed.

For now, the best I can do is link to this piece by Juli Weiner in Vanity Fair.

Atheists not trusted

I must find the actual academic article on which this news story is based. It's disheartening that atheists are still so widely distrusted, and apparently for the same reasons that were put forward by John Locke back in 1689 (and doubtless by others before him. I.e. for reasons that should be well and truly exploded by now.
“Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” Norenzayan said in the news release. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

Atheists also tend to trust religious people more than they trust other atheists.

“Those people who did not identify with a religion still tended to find believers to be more trustworthy,” said the third co-author, Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon.

That’s because people trust “those who fear supernatural punishment,” Shariff added, and because atheists aren’t especially vocal, powerful or connected.

Michael Ruse on Alvin Plantinga

I haven't read Plantinga's new book, obviously, so I can't comment on whether the relevant chapter gives tacit-cum-explicit support to Intelligent Design theory. Given what I have read by Plantinga in the past, however, I'd be surprised if he didn't give some support to ID beyond the vague claim that God created and designed the universe as a whole. Plantinga has always argued that the cognitive powers of human beings could not arise from a merely naturalistic process, which must surely mean that there has been supernatural intervention in the detail of what cognitive powers we have ended up having. How is that not a form of Intelligent Design?

Anyway, the debate goes on. Michael Ruse has something nasty to say about everyone, but he does seem to score points against Plantinga here.

Jean Kazez reviews The Better Angels of Our Nature

Jean Kazez reviews Pinker's book over here on her In Living Color blog. Although she is a lot less taken with The Better Angels of Our Nature than I was, she has produced a useful and fair review - one that you might want to read to balance the more starry-eyed accounts you're getting from me and others.

A couple of quick comments. I think she's right in her comment about the "syllabular" nature of the book. It is not overtly thesis driven, and Pinker does not develop a simple argument for why human beings have, by and large, become less violent and bloodthirsty over the centuries. He identifies factors, certainly, but they are complex, and much of the book simply teaches us the facts from numerous data sets.

Although I agree with this, I don't think it's a great problem. Pinker has given us something that we need - overwhelming evidence that the idea of increasing bloodthirstiness, culminating in a horrifically violent twentieth century, is a myth. He sets the record straight, while not flinching from the horrors of the world wars and the historically recent democides in Germany, Russia, China, and elsewhere. That is, itself, an enormous service, and the book is so well written that it is entertaining in event.

Furthermore, if the reasons just are complicated we can hardly blame the author for not insisting on a simple thesis. It's not as if he has nothing at all to say about the causes of the relative decline of human nastiness; it's just that what he has to say matches up to the messy reality.

Jean does have some convincing points about why the fall-off in cruelty to animals may be exaggerated by Pinker, and why the problem continues to be a serious one. This, of course, raises the question as to whether Pinker may be wrong, or over-embellishing, on other issues. Despite the book's huge size, each topic could be explored in even more depth, and the picture might then change. Clearly enough, Pinker hasn't written the last word on any of these issues.

I'm not so taken with the point that the absolute amount of suffering in, say, a genocidal event increases if the population of societies and the world increases. While that is true, and many of the events of last century were horrible partly because of the sheer size of the populations involved, I don't think it is a criticism of Pinker's main point.

Sure, we ought to oppose acts of genocide, manufactured famines, and all the other monstrous events perpetrated by crazy governments. Yes, the scale of these will be greater, making them even more horrible, in a sense, as relevant populations increase. Nonetheless, consider a very large society where few people, relative to the overall size of the population, settle their differences in violent ways. It's quite meaningful to say that this is a less violent society than a much smaller society in which a large proportion of the population is resorting to violence. That is so even if the large society suffers a greater absolute number of murders than the much smaller one.

In the smaller society the average person is more likely to have a violent disposition. The likelihood that any given person routinely dishes out violence is greater. Your chances of being murdered if you live there are greater. The general ambience that you experience will be more pervaded by cruelty and viciousness. The smaller society is going to be brutal and brutalising. It is the one that urgently needs a better government and gentler mores, etc.

If modern societies are getting more like the large society where most people are peaceful, and less like the smaller one where, let's say, folks resort to killing and injuring each other at the drop of a hat ... well, that is worth knowing, and I think it's perfectly legitimate to call it a decline of violence. It's not misleading. No one is being tricked into thinking that, for example, more people were killed in the Albigensian Crusade (of the order of hundreds of thousands, maybe approaching a million on some counts) than in the Nazi Holocaust (between five and six million Jews murdered).

I'll be reviewing the book myself - for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal - so stay tuned for that. I understand that Pinker himself will have a piece there fairly soon, so you might like to look out for it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You make that sound like a BAD thing...

Some of the claims this book apparently argues for are true, in a sense, though expressed tendentiously (to say the least!) in the book description. The description makes the secularisation of government, society, and learning sound like a bad thing!
Before the Protestant Reformation, Western Christianity was an institutionalized worldview laden with expectations of security for earthly societies and hopes of eternal salvation for individuals. The Reformation’s protagonists sought to advance the realization of this vision, not disrupt it. But a complex web of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Christianity gradually replaced the religious fabric that bound societies together in the West. Today, what we are left with are fragments: intellectual disagreements that splinter into ever finer fractals of specialized discourse; a notion that modern science — as the source of all truth — necessarily undermines religious belief; a pervasive resort to a therapeutic vision of religion; a set of smuggled moral values with which we try to fertilize a sterile liberalism; and the institutionalized assumption that only secular universities can pursue knowledge.

The changes mentioned did happen, of course, though they are exaggerated, demonised, and misdescribed in the quote. Putting in words like "sterile" doesn't change the fact that we have moved increasingly in the direction of liberalism. And it's been a good thing too! All these changes, if only they were properly described without the negative/hyperbolic (and emotion-laden) rhetoric, did take place. When we look at their actual character, rather than at the book description's frothing-at-the-mouth summary of them, they were actually logical and beneficial.

Yes, science is now specialised and professionalised; yes, it really does tend to undermine much in the way of religious belief (so it's no wonder people say it does); yes, many of us do prefer the "sterile" situation where the state does not try to impose comprehensive conceptions of the good on us all, and attempts to do so are to a considerable extent off the political table (not as much as I'd like, but still...). Properly understood, all the developments alluded to are good things.

(As I always say when a book interests me, I'd be happy to receive a review copy if anyone reading this post has been sent one and is looking for a reviewer. I'd even do my best to be fair to it, as is my modus operandi.)

Transforming humanity

The N4CM church and state site has picked up Ron Lindsay's long editorial on the above topic in the current Free Inquiry. There's a bonus cartoon (not an especially good one, though) and a bonus video interview with James Hughes.

Apparently Plantinga has a new book

According to this NYT article. Guess this is one more thing that I need to read. Someone going to send me a review copy?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State - first chapter available online

If you go to the book's page on the Wiley site you can actually read a page proof of the first chapter - see over on the right-hand side of the screen.

This should give you an idea of whether the rest of the book might be of interest to you, or someone you know, or your local library or educational institution. Getting to read the entire first chapter will give you a more in-depth grounding in what the book is really all about, and the kinds of arguments that I am going to use, than anything I could possibly say here. So please consider having a look.

You can also see the table of contents and the index, which will give you an even better idea of what is covered.

Also, if you live here in Australia ordering straight from Wiley's site might be as easy a way as any of getting hold of the book at a reasonable price (if you create an account with them, you can also use it to buy other interesting books in the Wiley-Blackwell philosophy range). I've gotta say, though, that for American readers there's really no substitute for the very good pre-release price that Amazon is still offering.

H/T Akiva Quinn

Ah haz done my radio interview with The Pulse

I enjoyed the interview just now with Hilary Joy. I don't know a lot about 94.7 The Pulse ... but it looks as if you will be able to hear the interview by podcast at some stage if you check out its site now and then. We were talking mainly about the propensity for religious organisations - not necessarily all of them, but all too many of them - to try to prevent criticism of religion, while at the same time they attempt to impose their specifically religious moral views through political power.

I tried to make the point that religious organisations often support "freedom of religion" in the sense that political power will not be used to control their activities. They are, however, not necessarily interested in secular government, i.e., political power being used only for worldly purposes such as personal and collective security and economic welfare. All too often, there are attempts to impose religious conceptions of sinful and righteous conduct through the operation of the law. Thus, we need to be very careful about what is meant when we hear religious organisations and their leaders claiming to support "freedom of religion".

This is, of course, a theme of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. I didn't get a chance to plug the book in the radio interview, so I'll do so again now. The segment did plug Warren Bonett's excellent edited book The Australian Book of Atheism (which includes my article, "Atheists for Freedom of Speech").

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Radio interview tomorrow - The Pulse

If any of y'all live within range of radio 94.7 The Pulse in Geelong - presumably some folks in Melbourne might be close enough to tune into this - I'll be on tomorrow (Wednesday) at 11.15 am, talking about atheism and freedom of speech.

Enhancement anxiety - a short thread at richarddawkins.net

Over at richarddawkins.net there is a short but useful thread about enhancement anxiety (with a nice comment by Richard himself).

Rudd's sister quits ALP over same-sex marriage policy

Well no one has to remain in a political party if she disagrees with its policies. Sometimes, leaving may be the honorable thing to do.

And it's not that relevant that she's Rudd's sister, I suppose.

But look at the reason that Loree Rudd gives for opposing the policy of providing for same-sex marriage:
"I don't believe gay marriage is good for the community," she said.

"Homosexuals should be loved and treated right and they should not be discriminated against.

"It is a horrible thing for them to be discriminated against and that's why my brother introduced laws so they are not discriminated against.

"But to make that huge leap from their rights to breaking a commandment of Moses, to say homosexuals' relationships is marriage, is utter nonsense."
Once again, religion rears its head.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pinker defends/answers questions on The Better Angels of Our Nature

First, H/T Jery Coyne.

Pinker's FAQ on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is very well worth reading in itself - whether you've broached his huge book or not. He deals very well with furphies, such as the idea that violence is caused by godlessness or that the overall decline of violence across the centuries should be credited to Christianity.

But do the read the book itself (I've now finished it). It is so complex and information-packed that it defies any brief review, and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to find the time to write a review that does it justice. Just go and read it for yourself - really! The scholarly breadth and depth are extraordinarily impressive, the analysis is refreshingly level-headed, and the style is so clear, vivid, and lively that the book is simply a joy to read.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is definitely my number 1 book for 2011. Nothing else I've read this year even rivals it, and I can't see anything surpassing it at this late stage (though I do have a list of books that I'm eager to get to over Christmas and in early 2012 ... a few of them are sitting beside me even now, crying out loudly for my attention!).

10 (alleged) myths about introverts

Not sure whether all of this article is correct, but it's interesting to me as someone who is decidedly introverted.

As with all exercises that involve compiling lists of myths, there are two main questions. First, are these myths really Out There, i.e. do a lot of people really think these things? Second, are these things actually false? If they turn out to be largely true, after all, we can't call them myths.

What do you think? Some of the points made certainly match up with my experience (e.g. the point about having a rather small number of very treasured friends). Others do not so much, but they are obviously (I dare say) meant to be generalisations rather than descriptions of me in particular! As a matter of fact, the author says it's based on his own experience, so if anything it's a description of him. How well does it generalise?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - re: "just sayin'"


See a stoush about sales numbers on Amazing Spider-Man over here. Also (which is more elevating than a clash of proud people being uncharitable to each other) some insight into the Spidey/MJ/ break-up-their-marriage business. J. Michael Straczynski was clearly not happy about the editorial mandate for this.

H/T Scans Daily, which also has a thread on this little train wreck.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

That list again ... some funny things were said

Leaving aside the choice of people for the "50 Top Atheists in the World" list, discussed in the previous post, some things said about them are very odd. Take this on Jerry Coyne:
Coyne is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Educated at Harvard University, where he studied under Richard Lewontin, he is a specialist in the problem of speciation. He runs a web site called Why Evolution Is True, and has published a bestselling book by the same name. He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and other prominent publications. He confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
Jerry can speak for himself, but I doubt that very much that he has expressed impatience with the New Atheists - he'd often be categorised as one himself. In the quote (and elsewhere no doubt) he expresses impatience with the labels "New Atheist" and "New Atheism", as we all have from time to time. That is something totally different.

After all, these labels were not self-chosen, and they are often used as tools of denigration ... something that happens in the list itself, which frequently makes uncritical references to such things as "the dogmatism of the New Atheists".

Moreover, it tends to diminish the contributions of individuals if they are all thought to be saying the same thing - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and so on, are not merely clones of each other. They are allies in many ways, no doubt, but there would be very little in their thought that can be reduced to a lowest common denominator. These people deserve to be engaged with individually, and the "New Atheist" label tends to elide what is distinctive about them.

Edit: I see that Jerry has had a bit to say himself, including that the site seems like it might be some kind of creationist front.

"50 Top Atheists in the World Today"

This seems to be a rather eccentric list of leading contemporary atheists: supposedly "50 Top Atheists in the World Today". Some of the people there are rather questionable for such a list - but that's almost a matter of taste when you're looking at folks from so many backgrounds and it's largely comparing apples with oranges.

Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, some major contributors to the philosophical defence of atheism are not there at all. Given that Michael Martin and Quentin Smith are ranked so high, why are Graham Oppy and Michael Tooley (for example) not there, and in positions almost as high?

However, there are some pleasing inclusions that I wouldn't have expected, such as Sumitra Padmanabhan. (Then again, if you're going to include her, which I totally support, why not also include Prabir Ghosh, who actually has a higher profile ... or so I would have imagined?)

All in all it's a bit weird.

For what it's worth, about 8 or 9 of the 50 people on the list contributed to 50 Voices of Disbelief. (I suppose I should count again to check the exact number, but laziness overcomes me...) The person who comes highest on the list, Peter Singer, is one of our contributors.

I'm not saying that that's a high figure, or that it proves anything one way or another. I was just interested to have a look at the list and do a rough comparison.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A review of 50 Voices of Disbelief in the International Journal for Psychology of Religion

This review of 50 Voices of Disbelief is largely an attempt to categorise the arguments from a psychological perspective. It's still a positive review overall, and I found it quite interesting the way the author goes about pigeonholing the contributors. It concludes:
It is clear from reading this book that there are plenty of reasons for not believing in a god. Some that are offered in this book are clearly more compelling and more widely cited than others. And, at least as far as this book is concerned, people’s reasons for not believing appear to be related to how they feel religion has oppressed them. Scholars interested in a nonrandom
sample of generally well-written reasons for disbelief may find this book of interest.
H/T Udo (again)

Review of 50 Voices of Disbelief in Theology, Ethics and Philosophy

This is a rather critical review of 50 Voices of Disbelief, by a Catholic theologian, but one that might help sell the book for all that.

It concludes:
Many well-known atheists teaching at major universities all over the world are included here: Nicholas Everitt, J.L. Schellenberg, J.J.C. Smart, Graham Oppy, Sean Carroll, Victor Stenger, Austin Dacey, Susan Blackmore, Peter Singer, and Michael Tooley all finally get to tell their stories to a much wider readership.

H/T Udo.

Still reading - The Better Angels of Our Nature

I'm just checking in here to say that this is a very rich and rewarding book - it's full of fascinating discussions, and I've gotta marvel at the enormous amount of material that Steven Pinker has pulled together to advance his (complicated) thesis.

I've just been reading his take on the Flynn Effect: the increasingly high IQs of each cohort over the years, since intelligence tests were invented. Or, rather, the increasing difficulty in performing well on IQ tests: IQ testing is continually updated to keep the average IQ at 100. An "average" person today, measured by her score in an intelligence test, would obtain a score markedly above 100 if sent back in a time machine to be tested, say, 70 years ago. An average person from 70 years ago (whisked forward in the same time machine) would achieve a very low score if measured by a modern intelligence test.

Why might that be so? Average people in the World War II era were not incompetent at managing their daily lives. They were not lacking in the ability to express themselves and get along. They did not falter when confronted by simple arithmetic. Someone from that era who might score, say, 80 on a modern intelligence test would probably seem very different from a contemporary person who gets that score on a modern intelligence test - someone who probably struggles in a lot of ways.

Pinker doesn't put it like this, but it may look as if intelligence tests measure the relative "intelligence" of people within a cohort - i.e. they compare something, or a cluster of "somethings", among these people. However, so it may appear, they only work to compare people of more or less the same generation. You can't straightforwardly compare the results of people from different generations on the same test. (This may also apply to people from different geographic localities, and perhaps different cultures, sub-cultures, etc.)

Is that right? Is it the whole story? Or is there some sense in which people really are getting smarter? If so, what are the implications?

I won't go into Pinker's answers today, except to say that his take on it is eye-opening if he's correct and that, to me, a lay person in this area, it seems plausible. Perhaps he's wrong, and this may come out as reviews of the book accumulate (some will be written by people with expertise in the area), but perhaps not.

His discussion of the issue, as he lays out the conundrum, zeroes in on an explanation ... and draws some conclusions with dramatic implications if they are correct ... is not merely adroit, although it certainly is that. It is positively exciting.

Again, this is how a non-fiction book should be written if it aims to entertain and involve - as well as instruct - a broad educated audience. Pinker provides a model for us all, not necessarily one we can match, or one that will suit every topic without modification, but definitely one we can aspire to. I'm loving it.