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

Friday, November 30, 2012

A fine day in the country

We had a fine day in rural Victoria - visiting our dear friends Janeen Webb and Jack Dann. No photos this time, but it's always nice to catch up with much-loved people in your life whom you don't get to see as often as you'd like to. Great food! Great conversation! And I enjoyed seeing what they've done of late to their beautiful house.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jenny gets an unusual acceptance

In this case, it's a poem for kids that she first wrote (and had published) when she was just a kid herself - aged 12.

Hmmm, I don't think Jenny can claim it was professionally published back then. If I'm right about that, her first professional publication is still a poem in the magazine Dolly when she was 15 or 16. But I guess this will now be her first work to be eventually professionally published, or something. I'm not sure quite how she looks at it, but congratulations to her anyway!

Edit - come to think of it, the $5 Jenny got way back then might be quite respectable in modern terms if we adjusted for inflation!

I meet James Randi and meet up with DJ Grothe

I've worked with James Randi before, in that he wrote an essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, but I hadn't actually met him until last night - that was a great privilege, as I've admired his work for many years. Jenny and I also got to spend a bit of time with my colleague and friend DJ Grothe - all at a Skeptics in the Pub meet-up here in Melbourne, where we're visiting for a few days.

I'm sure there are some photos of events, but none taken by me. So, alas, you're stuck with this brief all-text post.

Edit - here's a photo taken with Randi in which I look suitably demonic from the effect of the flash and, ahem, someone's de-reddening of my pupils.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - How death works in the world of X-Men

This video provides a bit of fun ... and seems to be about right. I'm glad I chanced across it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The latest on our friend, Dave Mabus

Tim Farley has a long, detailed post over here about the latest with intenet troll Dave Mabus (and the events leading up to it). Farley deserves thanks for all his efforts in getting police intervention and in keeping us all posted.

I hope it goes without saying that, annoying as he may be, Mabus needs help... probably psychiatric help, though it's not up to me to try to diagnose him.

I bear the guy no ill will, even though this is one of the sites that he has disrupted from time to time, and despite the fact that some of the material I've received from him in the past has amounted to death threats against me and my family. I think we can conclude by now that he is probably more dangerous to himself than anyone else (though of course, you can never be totally sure - and these situations do need to be treated with some caution).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kenan Malik on why he is an atheist

Kenan Malik has a long post over here, on his own blog, explaining why he is an atheist. In the process, he also deals with a few well-known canards about atheism - without God, life lacks meaning and purpose; atheism entails some kind of repugnant moral nihilism; etc.

Which leads me to a small plug... these are, of course, among the issues that Udo Schuklenk and I will be discussing in our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell. Malik makes a good fist of them and scores some telling points against theistic belief... which is not to say that I endorse every point he makes (he is discussing philosophical issues, after all).

Have a look for yourself at Malik's post, which is detailed and interesting. It concludes with a nice flourish:
The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.

Deepest beliefs

How often do you hear religious people talk about their religious beliefs as their "deepest beliefs"? Very often, I suspect - if you do a google search, you'll find that this is a common trope. Not only that, non-believers who are solicitous toward religion will often make a fuss about how we must not mock the "deepest beliefs" of religious people, or force them to act in ways that violate their "deepest beliefs". Again, you can do your own google search - I'm not going to drag out the evidence, but will merely remark that this is a very common trope.

I suppose some religious people do, indeed, hold their religious beliefs at a very deep level, but this can't be assumed. For some others, it might be mainly a matter of associating powerful or "deep" emotions with these beliefs. That's not quite the same thing.

I suspect that many religious believers do not hold beliefs about certain gods, or the authority of certain organisations and holy books, or the efficacy of certain practices for spiritual salvation or the like, or the truth of certain religious moral claims at the very deepest level.

Say I were able to demonstrate to a particular religious believer's satisfaction the truth of the proposition: "Either God does not exist or you have three arms." Imagine this is a person who has the usual human complement of only two arms, and is as aware of this as most of us, and in the same ways, etc.

I would then be in a position to continue with this tight little argument:

P1. Either God does not exist or you have three arms. (This has, ex hypothesi, been demonstrated.)
P2. You do not have three arms. (This seems like an incontrovertible empirical fact.)
C. God does not exist. (Disjunction elimination)

I suppose that some believers in this situation might conclude that they actually do have three arms. Some believers might abandon their acceptance of disjunction elimination (or vE or "or elimination") as a logical rule. Many, however, would believe in the seemingly incontrovertible empirical fact that they are two-armed, and in the intuitively compelling rule of disjunction elimination, at a more fundamental level than they believe in the existence of God.

Of course, such a person might still be very emotionally attached to the idea that God exists, and might look desperately at the previous demonstration of P1., looking to find a flaw in the demonstration. But what if P1. also turned out to be demonstrable using only a mix of intuitively compelling logical rules and seemingly incontrovertible empirical facts? I'm pretty sure that many believers would crack and admit that God doesn't exist after all. For them, belief in the existence of God is not be as deeply held a belief as belief in certain everyday and seemingly incontrovertible empirical facts. Nor is it as deeply held as their belief in certain fundamental logical rules (whether or not they could actually name those rules formally).

I actually doubt that belief in God - or any other religious claims - is as deeply held for many people as belief in various everyday, seemingly incontrovertible facts, or as deeply held as belief in basic logical rules.

Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to demonstrate a proposition quite so devastating to theism as "Either God does not exist or you have three arms." The problem, then, is not necessarily that the religious beliefs of religious believers are literally their most deeply held beliefs. It's more that it's difficult devising an argument which shows a clear contradiction between religious beliefs and what are probably (even?) more deeply held beliefs.

All that said, it is worth watching how religious believers respond when confronted with, say, the Problem of Evil.

Some people don't want to look too closely at it, perhaps sensing how devastating it is to certainreligious and propositions that they hold dear. Some people are terribly troubled by it (and some of these actually do abandon their religious beliefs). Conversely, some people actually do dig in, and they often end up having to believe stuff that looks crazy to most non-believers... and would probably look crazy to many believers as well. This last class of people, those who dig in, perhaps do have their religious beliefs among those that are most deeply held. But that can end up looking a bit nuts, or seeming rather unpleasant, or as if they are occupying very contrived and unattractive positions.

And these religious people may not be typical, which is one reason why many people might simply not want to look closely.

And here we have a clue why some people actually do abandon religious beliefs. For them, these were not their deepest beliefs after all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who would have guessed? Sex and alcohol make you happy!

Well, something like that - see this piece. In a New Zealand study, the participants apparently gave sex and "partying" top billing for what brings them happiness. Children and religion... well, not so much.

A bad decision - on the contraceptive mandate

I submit that the court decision discussed here by Ron Lindsay is wrong in principle. The outcome is to allow a religious publisher to evade the contraceptive mandate, and not offer its employees insurance cover with provision for contraceptives. Thus, the effect is to restrict the effect of a religiously neutral law of general applicability to employers (religous or otherwise) in the US. Such a law does not impinge on freedom of religion, as understood within the neo-Lockean model that I argue for - and which is pretty much accepted by the US Supreme Court in interpreting the First Amendment.

Importantly, persecution or imposition of religion in no way motivates the contraceptive mandate provision. Nor can it be said to be the primary effect of the law, or even some kind of disproportionate effect such as to make the law appear to be a contrivance or something of the sort. Nothing like any of this is involved. In principle, the law should have been upheld and left to operate freely.

If the case had been decided, with the same outcome in favour of the religious employer, under the First Amendment, I'd be fairly confident that it would be overturned on appeal. Note, however, that it appears (from Ron Lindsay's discussion) to have been decided under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which goes a lot further to give parties before the courts an affirmative right to practice their religions, which can include complying with religious canons of conduct, even in the face of neutral and general laws enacted to provide citizens with worldly benefits.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a mistake. It gives rights to religion that go well beyond the historical point of religious freedom, i.e. to prevent the state from imposing a favoured religion or persecuting a disfavoured one. The statute did not restore religious freedom. Rather, it created a situation where religious individuals, organisations, etc., obtained legal rights in excess of religious freedom.

The effect of the Act was struck down at state level by a US Supreme Court judgment, back in the 1990s, but it continues to apply at federal level in the US (and in addition, some states have their own versions of it). The effect is to impede the federal legislature in defending perfectly legitimate, non-persecutorial laws when they are challenged in the courts. Instead of the situation being clear-cut under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment, litigation over cases of "religious freedom" is now a dog's breakfast, as is trying to draft laws to conform to its requirements. This is an unsatisfactory situation, but I doubt that anything can be done about it in the short or medium term.

It's at least worthwhile, however, pointing out the problem. More people should be doing so. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not "restore" religious freedom in the US - something that the First Amendment protects adequately and did not need to be restored. It goes further and gives religious people and institutions - and even for-profit corporations - a special privilege to challenge neutral and general laws that they find inconvenient.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - Uncanny X-Men returns



As of next February, the flagship Uncanny X-Men series will be restarted at #1 for the second time in the last year or two. This iteration neatly fits our "Sunday Supervillainy" theme because it focuses on the adventures of what is pretty close to a team of supervillains.

In the wake of the Avengers vs. X-Men event, Cyclops is now a full-blown mutant revolutionary, and his team is made up of Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik - all of them morally dark characters. Their immediate aim is to rescue young mutants from bad situations and induct them into the team. Their ultimate goal, however, seems to be mutant revolution in some form.

It hasn't escaped anybody, I'm sure, that this rebel X-Men faction is pretty much an update of Magneto's old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It will be getting into conflicts with more law-abiding X-Men groups, though apparently it will also have a mission of protecting the world that hates and fears it. In that sense, it is a continuation of the Extinction Team that Kieron Gillen introduced to us in the previous series of Uncanny X-Men, although it is now down to its most hardcore members.

Magik has gradually become a favorite character of mine during AvX and especially since. I never used to think much of her one way or the other, but she's becoming a breakout character for Marvel at the moment. She's being portrayed as one of the most badass, ruthless, and competent of any of Marvel's characters with some claim to heroism - she's someone whom you'd hate in real life, but her destructive, demonic glee makes her a helluva fun character to watch in action.

Also of interest is the Chris Bachalo redesign of the main characters' costumes, which is going to take me some getting used to, though I think I might come to like it. At this stage we only have the cover of the first issue - I'm looking forward to seeing how the new visuals for Cyclops, Emma, Magneto, and Magik work within the covers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A great Margo Lanagan interview

I like this interview with Margo Lanagan over at Gabrielle Wang's blog. I'm always interested in reading about authors' work routines, and Margo has some interesting things to say about hers.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Is abortion a greater evil than sex abuse?

Is abortion a greater evil than child abuse? Of course it isn't! Indeed, I don't generally regard abortion as an evil at all. We could doubtless get into hypothetical cases of late-term abortions carried out on a mere whim, but are there many, or any, such cases in the real world? In the real world I think you must either suffer from a distorted moral sense or be in the grip of a theory if you regard abortion as the real evil (as opposed, say, to denying an abortion to a desperate woman or teenage girl).

And yet, we see statements made from time to time that abortion is a worse evil than, say, the sexual abuse of children, or that the widespread occurrence of abortions in modern societies constitutes an evil akin to black slavery or the Nazi Holocaust.

Frankly, these sorts of statements appear repugnant. What is especially repugnant, and to many people unintelligible, is how something that has great benefits in reducing or avoiding suffering - the ready availability of abortion to desperate women and girls - is being compared to sources of terrible suffering, such as slavery, sex abuse, and the Holocaust. Surely someone who makes these comparisons must be crazy or evil... right? Wrong.

I don't think that Catholic moralists, for example, are crazy or evil. Nor do I think that they are hypocritically rationalising what is really a hatred of women or a wish to keep women in subjection. Yes, there may be an element of that if we delve back far enough into Catholic (say) sexual morality. The Catholic moral system may fossilise ancient attitudes of misogyny, and particularly fears of women's sexual power and freedom.

But I actually think we should take people like Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, at their word. They really do accept a moral system that, as a matter of fact, rationalises many ancient moral attitudes and ideas on a false basis ... and ends up producing totally different results from a moral system based on amelioration of suffering (or, if you are a moral abolitionist like Richard Garner or Joel Marks, from a settled attitude of simply being opposed to suffering).

People like Cardinal Pell are not crazy or evil. In many circumstances, they will think and feel and act much as I (for example) would. They will show people respect and compassion.

But when it comes to thinking about anything to do with sexuality, they are in the grip of a horrible, miserable, cruel moral theory. They have been indoctrinated into it, and they actually believe it. From inside that theory, it is all consistent and all makes sense, even if you are otherwise a decent person.

If you don't understand that point, you'll find much of the behaviour of your opponents simply incomprehensible, and you'll just be dumbfounded when your own expressions of moral repugnance have no impact on them. Your opponents will appear to be monstrous. From their viewpoint, however, whatever you say is ill-informed and essentially irrelevant. They will dismiss it, but not because they are monsters or even because, as individuals, they are arrogant. Mainly, they are deeply mistaken about reality (which makes them the exact opposite of moral leaders or moral authorities).

Seen from the outside, of course, Catholic (and similar) sexual morality appears ridiculous and repugnant. All the more reason to fight against it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What do the New Atheists really say?

While we're talking about the New Atheists, what do they really say? You'd think, from the various denunciations, etc., that they just come out with long, unstructured, uncivil rants against religion. Who would think that the core New Atheist books contain detailed, thoughtful arguments and that they actually make out cases for certain ideas? You may disagree with those ideas, but surely they are worth rational discussion.

At the risk of being reductive, I think the following is a reasonable starting point to identify what they are really on about.

Sam Harris, The End of Faith. What people believe will actually motivate their actions. Therefore, we cannot simply be tolerant of all beliefs. At least some level of pushback against extreme religious beliefs is justified, and moderate religious people are not assisting with this.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Orthodox or popular theism can be seen as a persistent false belief, one that survives in the absence of evidence and even against our best evidence of how the universe works. Furthermore, it causes actual, identifiable harms.

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. We ought to devote a lot more time and energy to the study of religion as a natural phenomenon. This will be more useful than the current deference to religion and assumption that it is at least socially valuable (if not actually true).

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great. The big problem with religion, especially with Christianity, is not so much that it's false as that it comprehensively denigrates human nature and valuable human experience. In that sense, it "poisons everything".

Doubtless all four (well all three, plus Hitchens before his untimely death) would tend to support the main ideas of the others. But they have different specific concerns and different emphases, and they do put actual arguments for their positions. Importantly, while they don't mince words they do remain within broadly accepted standards for civility.

They deserve to be engaged in detail, with appropriate arguments, qualified agreement where that is appropriate, and so on. Instead, the response is often merely an attempt to demonise them and thus try to neutralise them as contributors to debate in the public sphere. That's not good enough.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A study of the effects of abortion ... and denying abortions

Here's an interesting article by Annalee Newitz, over at io9, about the social and psychological effects on women of having abortions ... compared with being denied an abortion that you want.

The question here is whether anti-abortion laws can be justified on paternalistic grounds, presumably because women who want abortions, but are prevented from having them, will end up being better off than they would be if they actually had the abortions. Before I go on, there is something offensive about the state enacting laws on this basis... telling you what to do in relation to very important decisions in your life on the basis that it knows your own good better than you do. This is a significant use of coercive power to override your autonomy. But even if we waive that point, are women likely to be better off if denied abortions?

Well, the study (as reported) doesn't seem to support that proposition. On the contrary, it appears more likely that someone who has been "turned away" from having an abortion will be stuck in an abusive relationship and/or trapped in poverty. Moreover, the medical risk of carrying a baby to term is greater than that of having an abortion. Finally, there is no sign of any greater risk of psychiatric illness such as clinical depression. Statistically speaking, there doesn't seem to be any downside to abortion.

Even if we accept the idea of paternalistic laws far more readily than I do, this looks like a weak case.

On Chris Stedman's Faitheist

I'm currently reading this book, and am writing a fairly lengthy piece on it (maybe a couple of thousand words) that I'll be submitting to Free Inquiry.

Just a few quick thoughts here, though. I've enjoyed Faitheist as the memoir of a life that has been interesting so far (though, alas, with its share of pain during the author's adolescence), and Stedman can certainly write lucid, concise, enjoyable prose. There are some small (seeming?) oddities, as when John Berryman is referred to as "a deceased gay Minnesotan poet". I don't know what that's all about, since Berryman was well-known for being heterosexually predacious. Even if it turns out he was bisexual (which would be news to me!), he seems an odd person to refer to as Stedman does. Could someone please enlighten me about this? Does Stedman know something I don't? Anyway, the memoir parts of the book make for a solid read ... sometimes even a poignant one.

I'm less impressed by Stedman's analysis of how we should talk about religion and the religious. I actually agree with him that some more civility might be in order as the default. But that's because we see some material on the internet (in particular) that is totally undiscriminating and unnuanced, mindlessly hostile, and even vilifying. This is not something we should aspire to. The atheist blogosphere is not always a pretty sight.

But Stedman goes too far in his denunciations of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and to a lesser extent of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In my opinion, none of these authors violates ordinary standards of civility that are accepted in, say, political debate. Perhaps they could be argued to have "given permission" (as they say) to others to be more offensive and less nuanced. Really, though, I encourage my readers to go and read any of these people carefully. See for yourself how they develop their critiques of religion. You'll see that their styles are calm, rational, and suitably varied to the topic. These are all fine writers with skilled control, in each case, of the "voice" that comes through.

None of that is to deny an element of moral indignation in some of what they write (some engage in this more than others). But we do not see incivility for its own sake.

In the past, I've disagreed with Harris, in particular, about some issues, but it is all too easy to demonise people. Unfortunately, there's that tendency in Faitheist. I wish the author had torn out a few pages on reflection (or rather, deleted them from the manuscript). The strength of his argument in favour of more civility will tend to be lost on many people because he overreaches. Yet, surely he has a point,and it's unfortunate that it might get lost in the inevitable kerfuffle.

[Edit: One sentence above is badly worded and conveys something rather different from what I actually had in mind: it's the sentence beginning, "But Stedman goes too far...". See comments below for explanation of what I was trying to convey.]

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Big Brother is going to be watching you

While we're celebrating a reasonable outcome to the political debate in Australia about internet censorship, let's pause to note that the next debate will be about internet surveillance. It seems that the government now wants to go ahead with this scary proposal, whereby telcos/ISPs will be required to retain your online data for two years. I.e. the police will be able to find out exactly where you've been and what you've done on the internet over the last couple of years, so you'd better worry about what you might have said or looked at that you don't want grandma or the public to know about.

Doubtless there would have to be safeguards with something like this, and it will be interesting to see what is proposed, but this is a degree of intrusiveness into our privacy that is not to be taken lightly. We're in for another messy but necessary debate before this one gets resolved.

Friday, November 09, 2012

More sex when drunk

Okay, I need to get more people reading this blog - it lost some traffic during its recent semi-hiatus in October.

So allow me to point out Jeremy Stangroom's post at Talking Philosophy, entitled "More Sex When Drunk". It's a perfectly good post, making a point of some importance, and I must get around to commenting on it. But my interest for the moment is that I notice when I check TP's stats that it's pulled in an unusually large number of views. I guess that's the internet for you.

So that's my interesting sociological datum of the day.

And now to see whether the same effect is achieved here. :)

Australian government backtracks on internet censorship

The Australian government has apparently abandoned its clean feed/mandatory filtering proposal, contenting itself with requiring ISPs to block Interpol's list of the most severely abusive child pornography sites.

I doubt that anyone who has been opposing mandatory filtering wants to defend those sites or access to them, even if a requirement imposed on ISPs causes them some inconvenience (too bad: for most of us, that was never what the argument was about). The sort of material that makes it to Interpol's list is obviously abusive.

Meanwhile, this outcome is an example of what I often argue for on this blog and elsewhere - we have ended up with a narrowly tailored law that deals with the worst aspects of a social problem, without an overreaching and clumsy attempt to micromanage things. The latter often sounds fine in theory, but it too easily creates systems that are over-inclusive and, in any event, ripe for scope creep. Wherever important freedoms are at stake - such as freedom of speech - that is not acceptable.

In this case, the public opposition to overreaching legislative proposals was successful. All the same, we need to be vigilant against this sort of thing whenever we see it.

Of course, it shouldn't be surprising that those moral watchdogs at the Australian Christian Lobby still want a wide-ranging scheme of censorship of sexual material on internet, based on "think of the children" grounds.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Steve Zara on Faitheist by Chris Stedman

Steve Zara gives a (surprisingly?) positive review to Chris Stedman's book, Faitheist. I'll be reading this book, and writing about it, myself. At this point, let me just say that I welcome the book, even though I am almost sure to find a great deal to disagree with.

I'm known, I suppose, as one of the more prominent anti-accommodationist thinkers/writers ... but anti-accommodationism in this sense just means that I don't think that religious doctrines can be accommodated straightforwardly within a scientific view of the world (for example, using Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle).

I also think that there is a place for stark, dramatic expressions of our problems with religion, as with the title of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I think there is a place for reductio ad absurdum arguments against religious views, showing how bizarre they can seem when their implications are examined, or how ridiculous they can appear in total when you step out of them. And religious views, like everything else, can be fair game for mockery and satire. That especially applies when the adherents of these views seek to wield power or political influence.

I guess this means that I am no "faitheist", which I take to be an atheist who considers religion a good thing, wants to say nothing against it, considers it beyond satire, etc. For a start ...generally speaking, I don't think religion is a good thing.

All that said, there are limits. I don't think that we should go after good, moderate religious people without restraint. I don't think that incivility, dismissiveness, and mere abuse are often appropriate. On the contrary, I think it's worthwhile striking a few blows for thoughtfulness, fairness, kindness, and civility. Satire is often justified, and even outright anger and mockery can be justified in some circumstances, but surely we can be a bit discriminating and careful about when.

If that is part of what Stedman wants to argue, I'm fine with it, and that's the way I'd hope to treat his book.

The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2011


This beautiful book contains a selection of the best fantasy and horror stories published in 2011, as chosen by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene. Among the stories is "The Head in the Goatskin Bag" by Jenny Blackford (originally published in Kaleidotrope #13). Jenny's author's copy has turned up in the mail, and of course she's thrilled to have it in her hand - and I'm just about as thrilled.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Free will and moral responsibility

I'm reading Against Moral Responsibility by Bruce N. Waller (MIT Press 2011). There's much to say about it, but the book is notable for challenging the tight connection that analytic philosophers make between ideas of free will and ideas of moral responsibility. Indeed, there is a near consensus among recent and current philosophers (at least those in the analytic tradition) that we possess free will just insofar as we possess the capacity to act with moral responsibility.

However, it's possible to find exceptions, philosophers who've questioned the consensus. There do seem to be other conceptions of free will - whether in philosophical writings, popular culture, or elsewhere - and I question whether the anxieties that ordinary people have in mind when they worry about having free will actually do track so closely with the idea of moral responsibility (whatever this might amount to).

Waller takes an unusual position in arguing that we possess a form of compatibilist free will (and he seems to think that this is a good answer to much of what we are concerned about with free will talk), while at the same time denying that we ever have moral responsibility. If that combination of ideas sounds untenable, bizarre, or plain heretical, you might like to check out his book and the arguments he offers. I'm not really persuaded, but it's possible that he's hit on a position which does better justice than outright hard determinism to the intuitions and concerns of people like Sam Harris who want to deny the existence of free will. He certainly develops his position with much detail and care.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Eric MacDonald & last year's IQ2 debate

I came across this somewhat by chance. Eric MacDonald comments on the IQ2 Australia debate on the topic "Atheists are wrong", held in Sydney last year and subsequently broadcast on national radio and television here in Australia.

As my regular readers will know, Peter Jensen (the Anglican archbishop of Sydney), and theologians Scott Stephens and Tracey Rowland spoke in favour of the motion.

Tamas Pataki, Jane Caro, and I (pictured here from the ABC's video) formed the opposition team, speaking against it.

Written versions of the speeches were also published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, though mine is a reconstruction that may not much resemble what I actually said, as I spoke with little recourse to my notes.

For whatever it might be worth, the opposition team was declared victorious in the debate: following the rules used by IQ2, the live audience shifted toward our position when polled before and after the debate. We gained a big chunk of the undecided vote and a small piece of the "for" vote.

It's hard to know what to make of these sorts of results, and I discussed in some posts last year what, if anything, such debates, on whatever topic, really mean. Arguably, they are won by whichever team seems more likable overall to the audience, but it would be interesting to see some research to establish whether there's more to it than that - just why do people change their votes? What we do know about debates in the IQ2 format is that the pre-debate and post-debate votes often, indeed typically, show dramatic shifts one way or the other, for whatever reasons.

Eric MacDonald's post contains some embedded video from the debate (though you can find this elsewhere). It includes an excerpt from my presentation as third speaker for the opposition, as well as material from Dr Jensen's performance that night.

MacDonald is rather scathing about the theodical ideas put forward by Dr Jensen during the debate in response to my challenge as to why the world (not to mention the Christian churches, with their very flawed histories) looks as it does if it's the creation of an omnicompetent god of love. Says MacDonald:
Their god, according to Jensen, spent billions of years thoroughly enjoying himself, but, in order to become human, we need to suffer and be diminished, and Jensen, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his ilk, are not at all backward when it comes to forcing people to undergo this suffering and this diminishment, all the while repeating the empty catch phrases about the goodness, the power and the love of their god.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

On the future of this blog (more)

This blog was largely in hiatus through October, which was for a number of reasons. One was simply that I was very busy with Udo Schuklenk putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of our next book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism. This can be seen as, in a way, a sequel to our co-edited volume 50 Voices of Disbelief.

Since we submitted the manuscript in mid-October, there's been a flurry of activity, as we plot and plan with each other and our commissioning editor at Wiley-Blackwell. There will be more news, no doubt, as the book goes through the editing/publishing process, but at this stage I can just say that we're very excited about it, and we're getting great feedback from the publisher. As the title might suggest, we'll be examining a wide range of myths, misconceptions, slanders, and half-truths about atheism and atheists. Amongst it, we'll also have quite a bit to say about the rise of modern atheism and why we think atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

I also have a deadline looming for another book, Humanity Enhanced, which will be published by MIT Press. This is involving a lot of work, and it is intensifying as that deadline approaches.

Some people may think that I'm a glutton for punishment, but I also stepped up during October to become the new chair of the board of a significant local arts body, here in Newcastle, Australia, the Hunter Writers' Centre. This immediately involved me (in a modest way) with the lead-up to the Centre's annual flagship event, the award night for the prestigious (and even somewhat lucrative) Newcastle Poetry Prize. The NPP is one of the most important annual literary awards in Australia. And there's the prospect of even more news relating to literature in Newcastle. That will have to wait for now, but I'm very pleased to find myself more closely involved in the cultural life of this beautiful city where I grew up, and to which I returned from Melbourne three years ago.

In the background of my own life, though, there are ongoing and worrying health issues in my family (not directly involving me!). That's placed some demands on my energy level just lately ... well, since about June.

While all this has been happening, I've been somewhat neglecting this poor blog and even wondering about its future. However, I do still think that it has a future as my personal blog, even if my lengthier and more philosophical pieces (particularly those where I feel I am writing for professional philosophers) are more likely to appear elsewhere, such as at Talking Philosophy.

Okay, so I've decided that the place needs a facelift. One thing I've been thinking of doing for some time is changing its title from "Metamagician and the Hellfire Club" to simply "The Hellfire Club". When I started blogging over six years ago, the "Metamagician" part made some sense in relation to how I saw the blog evolving. However, it has little actual relevance to the blog as it exists today - and merely makes the name more esoteric and difficult.

From now on, just plain "The Hellfire Club" it is. If the blog ever migrates elsewhere, which I do contemplate from time to time, that's the name it will continue under. The sort-of-new name, "The Hellfire Club", signals not just a certain anti-religious aspect - though I reiterate that this has never been an atheist blog more than a lot of other things - but also a certain alienation from much conventional moral and similar wisdom, which has been subjected to a running critique. That element will continue ... and, indeed, it may become more important.

Would people who have this blog listed on their blog rolls, or anything similar, please adjust accordingly.

The rest of the facelift is a work in progress, and you may see more tinkering over the next few days. But I was getting a bit bored with the look of it as it was. Time for something new!