About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why this was never an atheist blog

I am an atheist - let there be no doubt about that. I am also someone who encourages atheists, agnostics, and religious sceptics of all kinds to speak up about it. Given that religious leaders and organisations do not just put arguments based on widely-accepted premises, but rely on their appearance of moral authority, which supposedly has some transcendent backing, I think it's appropriate, and necessary, to ask whether this appearance is an illusion.

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 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 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.

There is more to say, but in the upshot I think there is room for books, articles, speeches, blog posts, etc., that put strong arguments for secularism that should be acceptable to both non-believers and many religious people. There is also room for books, etc., that more directly challenge the moral and intellectual authority of religion, including by casting doubt on the existence of God or any alternative gods.

Both of these prongs are needed if we are to challenge the often reactionary, repressive, or narrow-minded, frequently misogynist, and 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 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 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 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 also 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 this 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 still-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 - they are the writings of an atheist - but I hope I have much more than that to offer.

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.


Thesauros said...

What a fitting cover for the book - the light of the candle blown out.

"Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness was afraid of it.

Russell Blackford said...

It's the candle of reason, blown out by superstition and ignorance.

But the purpose of this post was to make a statement about the blog, not to have debate about the alleged evils of atheism. Your comment misses the point.

Dave Cake said...

For what it is worth, I find the posts focussed on atheism usually among the least interesting of the many subjects you discuss. Of course, we met through other interests, and I don't identify as atheist or part of the atheism community (though I have no quarrel with atheism), but still - subjects such as human enhancement are more interesting, comics are more fun, etc.

@blamer said...

"...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 Belief 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."

Maybe you meant to say Disbelief, but yes a collection of 50 Beliefs would have been rather different indeed!

Could we identify 50 believers of note who're voicing that theocrats --not the Nones-- are the antichrist?

Perhaps liberal christian voters have had enough of hearing from the polarizing ends of the religio-political spectrum...?

Russell Blackford said...

Typo fixed.

Russell Blackford said...

Whether anyone could actually find the right people to add believers of any kind is another thing. Historically, however, deism was influential, and it would certainly have been possible to identify historical figures who were deists and would have fitted in nicely. Whether there are contemporary deists who would have fitted in is hard to say, though I suspect that there probably are. It would be interestimg to research it.

Charles Sullivan said...

There are plenty of atheist blogs, and I read many of them religiously, as it were.

But as a philosopher (who teaches in higher education) I find there are too few blogs by careful-thinking philosophers on important philosophical matters. And especially matters that can be communicated without the reader having an advanced degree in philosophy.

I find your writings on moral error theory the most intriguing, and I've found your analogies with error theory and aesthetics (e.g. what makes for a good film, novel, etc), and even with what we desire from a car when purchasing one to be helpful in fleshing out the distinction between whether something is objectively right or wrong, and what underlying desires we may have, which we may indeed converge upon and which we can also argue for.

I also like your bio-techno enhancement blogs, and your secular society blogs, mostly because they involve ethical concerns.

The superhero comic books and films blogs I could live without, but hey, to each their own especially on their own blog.

I do worry about the apparent rift involving the whole issue of sexism and feminism that has arisen among atheists of late, but I fear that that is a dangerous minefield to tread, so I'll say no more about it right now.

Anyway, whatever you write I'll be sure to read.

Anonymous said...

Yes what me pisses me of is after each speech in the US you get that " and god bless America " It's not so bad as "Allah al akhbar" that I hear a dozen times on TV daily!

Anonymous said...

I love how the power of a religionist's argument is limited to quoting an ancient book. You really feel you've made a point?

Anonymous said...

It's not about being interesting; it is about political necessity. Surely you find that interesting.

Anonymous said...

And you have to love the implied "Screw the reat of the world!" every time an idiot says that.

Russell Blackford said...

Anonymous, if you're addressing David Cake he is certainly not an idiot, and it would have been uncalled for to address anyone that way just because they expressed their opinion.

Thalamus said...

So, do you agree with Sam Harris on the uselessness of the term atheist? If you do, I am glad. I think religion is simply an organized and pervasive form of superstition, and all we need to battle superstition are terms like, reason, science, critical thinking, skepticism, logic, and so on. "Atheism" is unnecessary and rather strategically detrimental.

Russell Blackford said...

I've got nothing against the term "atheism", but it wouldn't have been my ideal term to rally under. Secularism, liberalism, and humanism are what it's really all about when we get down to what we want socially and politically.

The main thing, as far as this post goes, is that the people rallying under the term "atheism" have a lot more to them, as individuals, than a lack of belief in any gods. The leaders certainly do.

March Hare said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
March Hare said...

Russell, I disagree about your inability to make a committed religious person accept secularism. I think if you mentally take a person from their comfort zone and place them in a position where their religion is threatened then you can make a strong case for secularism as the greatest protector of religion.

Or ask them how they, as a democracy-loving person, would arrange society where one third are their religion, one third another religion (with competing and opposing claims about how society should be ordered) and another third with little interest in religion? In that case there is a strong argument for the majority of secular rules (with some rules where the religious agree) until one of the religions convinces enough people to have a majority and impose their will on the rest. Or super-majority if they're American.

The term atheist is a useful one at this point in history simply because of the power and numbers of the religious. When their support diminishes it will be assumed people don't believe, much like people assume others don't believe in horoscopes, mediums or fortune tellers and so don't require labels to show non-belief in those things.

Russell Blackford said...

March Hare - I'm not saying that you can't get a committed religious person to accept secularism. On the contrary, I think you (normally) can, at least in principle.

I think that arguments such as you just put will cut ice with many religious people, and of course I discuss similar arguments in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

But even those arguments have premises or tacit assumptions. For example, one premise that you relied on is that democracy is a good thing - you imagined that I am addressing a "democracy-loving person". But what if I am addressing a person whose theological position is that democracy is a bad thing? Before this person is going to listen to such an argument, I'd have to get her to change her position on that.

Again, your first argument is about taking someone out of their comfort zone and imagining their religion is persecuted by the state. But what if their theological position is that such persecution is to be welcomed (perhaps even as the price of being able to impose their religion when they have power ... and they might even have a theological position that in the long run God will ensure that their religion is the one that prevails amidst the persecutions and counter-persecutions).

So again, my position is not that the arguments in, say, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State cannot convince committed religious believers. On the contrary, the book is addressed to committed religious believers as much as to anyone else.

My position is just that all the arguments have premises and background assumptions that someone with a sufficiently extreme theological position can reject on theological grounds. That means that those people would need to be shaken from their extreme theological positions first, and the book is not designed to persuade them. (And yes, these sorts of extreme theological positions do exist.)

Dave Cake said...

Russell, I didn't take that particular Anonymous comment as referring to me, so no offence taken.
To clarify my earlier comments (and reply to a different Anonymous comment), I'll chime in with the chorus - atheism per se is a metaphysical argument I have limited interest in, but secularism is a political stance that I not only fully support, but find a very fruitful topic for discussion. I find your work on secularism valuable, but I believe secularism to succeed needs to engage with moderate and liberal believers.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, these strategic/tactical things can be tricky. My own approach is not to pretend that, for example, I think that science and religion are, in any straightforward or very interesting sense "compatible". I'm not an accommodationist in that sense, and I won't pretend to be.

There is also a problem as to what "liberal" and "moderate" really mean. Some so-called "moderate" religious people don't strike me as moderate at all.

Nonetheless, the arguments for secularism don't depend on atheist assumptions. They should be able to convince many religious people with a whole range of theological positions. Really, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State was addressed at least as much to them as to atheists. By and large (there are exceptions) atheists are going to be secularists anyway, although whether they agree with all the detail of where I think secularism does and does not take us might be another matter.