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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Jenny Blackford on The Lord of the Rings




Jenny discusses why she loved, and loves, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A funny, candid, concise explanation of what the LOTR love is all about.

Edit: Special bonus - go here for me on Stranger in a Strange Land.

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 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.
There is more to say, but in the upshot I think there is room for books, articles, speeches, blog posts, etc., that put the 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, 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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New posts at Talking Philosophy

A couple of new posts at Talking Philosophy, where I plan to make a lot of posts about bioethical and related issues, particularly relating to human enhancement. First, an introductory post relating to the Julian Savulescu/Ruud ter Meulen/Guy Kahane edited collection, Enhancing Human Capacities; and second, a post touching on problems in defining enhancement in the relevant sense, looking at the opening essay in the book by its three editors.

I'm under contract with MIT Press to write a book - Humanity Enhanced - on the subject of human enhancement technology. This will be based on my (second!) doctoral dissertation, for which I received my philosophy PhD. All going well, I expect Humanity Enhanced to appear in late 2013 or maybe early 2014.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Is nice nihilism enough?

That's the topic of my newest post at Talking Philosophy. As usual, best to consolidate the discussion over there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New poem by Jenny Blackford

Jenny has a new poem, just published by Pedestal Magazine. Do go and have a look.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Collectively, we have failed Alexander Aan

Just have a look at this petition. It ended up attracting about 8,000 signatures, when 25,000 were needed for it to go any further. Why was it so hard to collect 25,000 people to sign a petition that contained no controversial detail that should have been a stumbling block to anyone? I am reluctant to sign petitions unless I agree with everything in them, and some are written with too much detail. But this wasn't such a case, and I had no compunction about signing it. My only issue was whether I should really sign it when I am not a US citizen, but nothing on the site suggested that I should worry about that.

What is at all controversial about the text?

Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy.

On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death.

By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.

At the same time, this is a very clear-cut case of someone being harmed for expression of his view of the world.

The campaign was pushed hard by high profile organisations and people, most notably the Center for Inquiry and Richard Dawkins. Many less prominent people tried to get out the message. Could we have done more? Well, I suppose so. For example, I used this blog and other social media available to me to promote the campaign and the petition, but I doubtless could have spent a lot more of my time hammering it day in day out.

But the message was well and truly out there. In the end, there simply doesn't seem to have been much interest.

It makes you wonder...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Futuredaze cover announced

A great cover for what looks like an interesting anthology ... and the text will come complete with a poem by Jenny Blackford.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Some new posts at Talking Philosophy

As usual, probably best to join the existing discussion threads, if interested.

1. On Islam, racists, and legitimate debate (this updates an old post on the present blog in the light of recent controversy involving Sam Harris).

2. Re Alex Rosenberg on moral nihilism - there will be more posts relating to Rosenberg's book The Atheist's Guide to Reality.

3. On philosophical virtues, such as charity and civility, and some reflections on the recent accommodationism wars.

Talking Philosophy has also taken on a bunch of new bloggers recently, and I'm looking forward to seeing their ongoing contributions.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - X-Men Legacy to focus on Legion

I'm not sure how this is going to work, but X-Men Legacy will be reverting to #1 as part of the Marvel NOW revamp of of the Marvel Universe.

So far, so good, but apparently the focus is going to be on Professor Xavier's mad-as-a-cut-snake, but very dangerous and powerful son, Legion. I can't say I'm a huge fan of this character, and I'm not at all sure how he could be used in a semi-solo book like this. It will certainly make a change from X-Men Legacy's focus on Rogue for the past few years (with Rogue now becoming part of the Uncanny Avengers X-Men/Avengers mash-up team that Marvel is now creating). Your interpretation of the cover, with Legion in a straitjacket and the fragments of several important X-Men characters (in his mind?), is likely to be just as good as mine.

Some of these Marvel NOW rearrangements seem a little crazy, but you at least have to give whoever is dreaming them up a few points for originality. The main Marvel Universe is getting shaken up dramatically, if these announcements far in advance are anything to go by.

I suppose I should at least try out the first issue of this one, and see whether it hooks me.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Edinburgh Airport removes/restores image of Picasso nude

In another piece of madness relating to sexual images, Edinburgh Airport removed this image of a Picasso painting, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932), which was being used to advertise an exhibition devoted to Picasso and Modern British Art at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. During the removal process, the airport management had the breasts of the woman in the image covered up (but apparently not her very bare mons pubis?!).

Although the decision was reversed, it's telling that some incoming passengers were sufficiently upset to complain about it in the first place, and it's even more so that the initial decision by the management of the airport was to accede to their wishes and remove the advertisement. That's the world that we live in.

"What were they thinking?" you ask. Well, this looks like a clearly erotic image to me, albeit a mild one, asking for a rather intellectual appreciation. It is one of Picasso's celebrated portraits of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Of course, it is highly stylised, but that does not erase its gleeful sensuality and, yes, an unmistakable sexual element, underlined by the neat visual pun where the left side of Marie-Thérèse's face (i.e. the right of the image as we look at it) is also the face of her lover, in profile, as he kisses her lips. If people are going to freak out over the public display of sexual images ... this gave them a clear-cut opportunity.

We still live in a time when the beauty and sensuality of the human body are widely considered problematic, even in Western countries. There's much work to be done to reverse this. Conversely, there's never a shortage of prudes and Philistines, as many as you want, and you'll find them among travellers entering an advanced city like Edinburgh. Let's not give in to them - though in some quarters it's apparently too late for that.

[H/T Jeremy Stangroom]

Please support Alexander Aan

You can sign this important petition over here on the White House's site. I'm surprised to see that it has only about 7,000 signatures, and will lapse at this rate. It needs a total of 25,000 signatures in the next week for anything to happen.

The petition:
Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy. 
On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death.

By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.

We can all get behind this, can't we? Regardless of any other religious, ideological, or philosophical differences. This is about as fundamental an issue of freedom of speech, thought, and belief as we'll find anywhere.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Marvel NOW taking shape

This story in USA Today gives us an update on Marvel NOW, the line-wide initiative at Marvel Comics to relaunch (but not reboot) its universe, with a massive reshuffle of creators among the old and new titles (e.g. Brian Bendis will now be moved to write X-Men rather than Avengers).

The whole initiative, which will all take place in the aftermath of the current Avengers vs. X-Men event (which I'm getting bored with), is meant to provide a jumping-on point for new fans. I suppose it can be read as Marvel's answer to DC's New 52 initiative last year.

I'm not sure what to make of the whole thing. So far, the announcements have not caught my imagination.

I'm vaguely interested in the forthcoming Uncanny Avengers book, to be written by Rick Remender, and with a mix of Avengers and X-Men teaming up. The new team includes a couple of characters who are perpetual favourites here at the Hellfire Club - I'm referring to Rogue and the Scarlet Witch. The others in the line-up are Thor, Captain America, Havok, and Wolverine. That's a high-profile group of characters, but, off-hand, I can't see any particular in-story reason to get this particular bunch together. Hopefully, Marvel will contrive something vaguely plausible.

But I'm not feeling it so far.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Steven Paul Leiva on Ray Bradbury and the urge for Mars

From here. Quote:

"The urge that led to this has, I believe, three components. Ray Bradbury instinctually understood two, and was a poet of the third.

The first is survival. This is why primitive humans did not stay home when the climate changed and the herds moved and vegetation became more lush elsewhere. To do so would have meant extinction. During the first migrations out of Africa the world population was in the low thousands. We are now a planet of over seven billion people facing the crises of climate change caused by our rapid technological growth, hoping we can deal with it if only knowledge can win out over ignorance. But even without climate change, the balance of population to resources is putting a negative pressure on all of us. Can the exploration of Mars and going back to the moon -- even going beyond both -- relieve that pressure? If so, not quickly, not easily, but eventually? The possibility of a positive answer compels us.

The second component has provided the name for the current rover: Curiosity. We have become a knowledge-seeking species, it is as ingrained in us genetically as the need for survival. To have the capacity to go the stars and explore and to not do so, would be the greatest of sins -- the denial of our nature.

The third component is either more primitive than the other two, or more advanced. I'm not quite sure which, which may be why it is best expressed through art, and why Ray was so effective at expressing it. It is a purely instinctual urge not to be confined, that feeling some of us have when we look up at a night sky -- especially away from city lights -- and see the Milky Way, of which we are a part, and ask, "Why?" Why must we be confined to this thin slice of atmosphere, why must we but a smudge of life on only this one small planet, when the whole of our solar system, possibly the Milky Way, maybe the universe, is out there for us if we but only...."

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

New post at Talking Philosophy - on civility and free speech

Over here. Once again, probably better to collect discussion on the TP thread if possible.