Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Why this was never an atheist blog
So, we should ask, when we see religious leaders attempt to exert social and political influence - do you really have the authority you pretend to? Is your holy book really inspired by God? Does this god even exist? We ought, in my view, problematise the authority of religion, of religious leaders, and the organisations that they lead, by asking directly just what authority they really have. This involves casting doubt on their claims about an otherworldly order on which they claim to have expertise.
So that is a reason to speak up and voice your disbelief, giving your reasons for doubting the truth of religious claims, and perhaps telling some of your own life story insofar as it is relevant to how you came to reject religion. In our 2009 book 50 Voices of Disbelief, Udo Schuklenk and I assembled a rather large cast - among them Michael Shermer, AC Grayling, Maryam Namazie, Peter Singer, Margaret Downey, Prabir Ghosh ... the list goes on and on - to do exactly that. It's a formidable collection of people.
But I want to make some important distinctions here. The reasons for not believing in God, or for doubting religious doctrines more generally, are rather different from the reasons for speaking up about it publicly in a forthright way. If religion were a purely private matter, and if religious organisations and leaders were prepared to accept a political reality where their doctrines and canons of conduct have no significant impact on the development of the law, there would be far less urgency about questioning the moral and intellectual authority of religion.
There is every reason to argue that religion should be kept out of government, and the arguments I have in mind should be acceptable to many religious people. I've put those arguments to the best of my ability in my most recent (2012) book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This argues that governments should not be guided by otherworldly concerns, and it explains why a secular state tends to become a liberal state, supportive of such ideas as freedom of speech.
Although the arguments should be acceptable to many religious people, I make the point quite candidly that people from some theological backgrounds will not accept the premises that I rely on, and that I'd have to get them to change their theological positions first before I could get them to accept my arguments for secularism.
All of this means that the situation is messy. Some people will accept secularism from within their own religious positions - in fact, I think that most religious people in Western countries should be able to accept the arguments in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (though perhaps not all the detail). Some will not be able to accept those arguments without first changing their religious views: e.g., they might currently subscribe to a theological position that the state should enforce the true religion and its specific morality. As long as someone subscribes to that view as a matter of theological doctrine, I doubt that I can do much to encourage her to adopt a secularist approach to politics.
I'd need to go deeper and argue as to why she should abandon her theological position, perhaps adopting a more politically and theologically liberal one, perhaps even abandoning her religious beliefs entirely.
Both of these prongs are needed if we are to challenge the often reactionary, repressive, narrow-minded, frequently misogynist or otherwise bigoted influence of religion. However, it need not be done in the name of atheism. The fact that so much of it is currently being done under the banner of an atheist movement is to some extent an artifact of history. As a matter of fact, almost everything that I have described could be done by people who might be deists or who might even have some kind of liberal religious belief that questions the authority of the organised churches. 50 Voices of Disbelief would have been a rather different book if it had been expanded in its remit to include such people, but such a book would be quite legitimate. (Indeed, what if I became a deist tomorrow, as Thomas Paine was? Would my views about any of this change? Probably not.)
So, don't get me wrong. I am an atheist, I welcome the atheist movement that has grown up in recent years, largely inspired by the work of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and a handful of others (plus their equivalents in other languages, such as Michel Onfray in France). I am happy to rally under the banner of atheism for the purposes of networking and organisation. However, I am most strongly a secularist and a liberal - a liberal in the sense in which John Stuart Mill was a liberal, the classic sense that is primarily about individual liberty, freedom of speech, and diversity of ideas. My outspoken public advocacy of atheism should really be seen as outspoken advocacy of the idea that the claims of religion ought to be subjected to sceptical scrutiny, and that religion should not be accorded any kind of authority. And that advocacy is, as it were, in addition to what I was doing anyway - such as advocating what I see as a Millian liberal approach to issues in bioethics.
Thus, this blog was not created in the spirit of advocating atheism, though that has become an additional purpose. It was always intended partly as a weblog in the original sense of an online diary, with some interaction with my close friends (something that never really happened much); partly as a place to advocate ideas that I am committed to; and partly as a philosophical sandbox, a place to try on philosophical ideas in more-or-less draft form, with the possibility of improving them after thinking them through and/or after (civil, constructive) discussion with commenters. The ideas concerned were never intended to be primarily ideas in philosophy of religion, though that was always a possible direction to explore.
In practice, and as always intended, I have explored ideas about metaethics and fundamental moral theory, ideas about freedom of speech (including artistic expression), ideas about bioethics (and particularly the prospect of human enhancement through various emerging technologies ... which involves the organised transhumanist movement and its discontents). I have reviewed books, sometimes discussed art (and often discussed pop/geek culture), and occasionally commented on issues that matter to me for personal as well as impersonal reasons, such as bullying and gay rights. And of course, I haven't neglected Australian politics. I have described my experience of events in which I've had a personal involvement, such as the day I drove through the immediate aftermath of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. I've discussed many, many other things.
All in all, this has not been an atheist blog, though it has been a blog maintained by someone who, in addition to everything else, is an outspoken atheist. My participation in the atheist movement is, as it were, a plus to all my other interests and concerns. It would be wrong to read this blog, as it's turned out over the last six and a half years, in any other way. Although I once considered using the atheist symbol to stamp Metamagician and the Hellfire Club as an official "atheist blog" I decided a long time ago that that would be misleading.
I'll go on defending atheism, particularly against the many unfair and silly attacks that are made on atheists and the newly-developing atheist movement. But I'll be doing a lot more - whether it's here or (increasingly the case) in other venues such as over at Talking Philosophy. Please keep reading my work - and spreading the word about it if you find it of value. I'll continue discussing all the topics that have been mainstays of this blog, and doubtless more. In one sense, you'll be seeing atheist writings, i.e. they are the writings of an atheist, but I hope I have a whole lot more than that to offer you.
Take this post for what it's worth. I've had it on my mind for some time now. Hopefully you'll at least click on some of the links, which include some writing that I'm proud of, as well as some that merely gives an indication of what I'm on about.