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).

Friday, November 09, 2007

The new atheism rocks part three

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for this congratulatory thread ... after "The New Atheism rocks" was linked by the Dawkins website.

As I said in the Pharyngula thread, I never set out to be an "uppity atheist", as Blake Stacey likes to put it. I was happy to be low-key about my lack of belief in deities. Live and let live, etc.

So I used to think, and would still like to think.

I'm just very disturbed at the aggressive way in which religion has been encroaching on public policy over the past decade or so. I first noticed this with the hysterical response when the cloning of Dolly was announced in early 1997, but it's happened with issue after issue, whether it be the Terry Schiavo debacle, gay rights, AIDS policy (particularly the use of condoms), the push to teach Intelligent Design in American schools (which is infecting other countries), the shift in government funding to religious organisations, stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, or whatever other issue you wish to name. Religious conservative views are always in the forefront, and all too often they are politically influential.

We are currently seeing a New Endarkenment.

Contrary to what might sometimes be the appearance, I'm actually quite friendly and conciliatory to genuinely moderate religious folks - though I almost always remember to make clear that this does not include all "mainstream" religionists. In particular, it does not include the current Vatican leadership or its international network of astoundingly reactionary cardinals and bishops. Even the loopier religionists can believe what they like, as far as I'm concerned, as long as they don't try to impose it on the rest of us politically. Let them by all means keep their great queen spiders and talking snakes, their flying horses and armies of monkeys, and all the other creatures in their whole colourful zoo, but let them not loose their theological critters to scratch and play and defecate in our public spaces.

Of course, it's not working out like that: on issue after issue we see illiberal, irrational, miserable policies being pushed by outspoken religious leaders ... and it's well and truly time to push back and challenge religion directly and boldly. As we philosophers like to put it, we have no real choice but to contest religion's epistemic content, its actual truth-claims. That's the message of the article, and I'll go on defending it.


clodhopper said...


Re my comment over on the RD threads concerning UK publication.

Three UK magazines that are well respected and might well welcome such an article are:

The Spectator

The New Statesman http://info.newstatesman.com/

The Economist

You will also likely find it well received by the more serious UK broadsheets papers

The Guardian
The Independent
The Times
The Telegraph

hope that is of some help.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks - all good information.

Anonymous said...

Great final paragraph :)

clodhopper said...

I think The Economist would be worth a punt after this recent piece.


...on which there is now a thread over at RD it seems. There's synchronicity for you!

Anonymous said...

Russell, can you explain the great queen spider as catholic church? Is it because the church is considered feminine and reaches to many parts of life and many lands like a big web? Or is is like Shelob from Lord of the Rings? Or is it both or nothing related?

Evrim Olgusu said...

"New Endarkenment" indeed, not only in the West, but in the East as well. I grew up in a secular era, completed my education in secular schools (in Turkey) with almost no word on religion, and now the country is rapidly shifting towards anti-secularism. Secularists (>=53% of the population) are currently having a very tough time.

Turkey is a great laboratory to study "New Endarkenment". The secular constitution was established in 1923 when the republic was established. In 70's religious parties had 3% of votes, today they have 47%.

It is pity that the West (EU) favours ideological religious freedom and they remain silent on rapidly diminishing secular values. What is happening in Turkey right now is a "slowly progressing Islamic revolution", and the West is contributing to it through ignorance.

I tend to think not only we need "to contest religion's epistemic content, its actual truth-claims", but on political front we should relentlessly and globally support secularism.

Unknown said...

Until recently i thought that acceptance of all religious belief was reasonable (provided it did not damage others either physically or mentally) but recently i came across a podcast "skeptiko". I was alarmed at how it presents very silly ideas (not only religious ones) in such a "reasonable" fashion. It concerns me that silly ideas are on the increase (including religious fundementalism).

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, it's a South Park reference - or did you already know that much?

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that Russell. I looked it up on wikipedia after reading your comment. My little mind can rest now that it knows where you're coming from. Cheers.

J. J. Ramsey said...

One catch that I see is that you can't fight a retreat of reason by being sloppy in reasoning oneself. It's been said that truth is a casualty of war, and that is often true of wars of ideas as well. It is all too easy to try to make the opposition look bad by any means possible, even if it means doing little intellectual cheats.

To be blunt, I cannot see how one can describe as "meticulously fair" a book whose author cannot be bothered to even check his quotes of the Founding Fathers or contradicts himself by noting the existence of feminist theology on the one hand and describing it as having been static for eighteen centuries on the other. Dawkins is just continuing the usual sloppiness that has been par for the course in the atheist subculture for years. How do you expect to fight for reason when the standards for argument are that lax on one's own "side"?

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, I don't think a hostile starting point is appropriate (just saying), but of course we want these books to be as good as they can be ... and we want their successors to be even better. I'm quite happy to see specific criticisms of the books or of things these people have said. None of them belong on a pedestal. I've been sharply critical of AHA and Hitchens on a couple of occasions lately. I also disagree with Dawkins about some specific things.

In fact, I don't expect to find myself ever in full agreement with any "New Atheist" or "New Atheist" book. That, of course, wasn't the point.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"In fact, I don't expect to find myself ever in full agreement with any 'New Atheist' or 'New Atheist' book. That, of course, wasn't the point."

No, but the point was that the "New Atheists" are needed to help push back against the Endarkenment, and I think you've underestimated their weaknesses in that endeavor. If anything, they are playing the roles that those on the wrong side of the Endarkenment expect them to play, that of the willfully blind intellectuals whose sophomoric arguments highlight the bankruptcy of their position. The Christian apologists that I've seen point to genuine weaknesses to make their sophistry appear more plausible; Tektonics.org is a prime example of this.

J. J. Ramsey said...

That last part should be:

"The Christian apologists that I've seen point to genuine weaknesses in the opposition to make their sophistry appear more plausible"

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, we've been over this many times by now ... so I'm happy to let you have the last word.

Evrim Olgusu said...

Recently I initiated a debate in a Turkish Atheist site asking "Is reform in Islam possible?" (http://forum.ateizm1.org). I defined a hypothetical reference for reform and asked muslims and atheists to respond. I proposed something like an "islamic equivalent of anglican church":

1- remove islamic law/islamic state, let religion be a personal choice (ie. abolish islamic ideology, retain islamic religion)
2- remove 5 times daily pray routine (not practical)
3- allow pray while standing or sitting (up to the individual how often)
4- allow men, women, children mixed in mosque
5- remove the necessity for women to cover themselves

My impression from both sides of the argument is that, Islam is an ideology and it is very hard to separate religion from it. They were also not much interested in the topic, partly because atheists believe, in Turkey reform was already attempted and failed. Muslims believe Islam is the reform itself!

When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Ataturk tried a top-down reform in Islam. The republic was established as a secular state (meaning my point 1- above). Ataturk removed Islamic ideology (closed all private religious institutions, banned islamic outfit, and prosecuted fundamentalists) "The Turkish Republic is a secular state" remained the first clause of constitution.

After Ataturk's death in 1938, democracy was established. Gradually secularism was compromised by right wing parties. They used religion to gain popularity, and it worked.

Religious institutions started to receive enormous help from Saudi Arabia and Iran after 80's. Poor girls were paid (or offered scholarship) to cover their heads.

84 years after secular Turkey was established, the clock is now rapidly running backwards. There is a pro-islamic party in power with 47% of people's vote (they had 3% back in 70's).

Personally I don't think a top-down reform will work (as Turkey's case proves), nor there are circumstances to exercise such power, and bottom up reform is almost as absurd. Seculars are widely divided across political spectrum i.e. they lack political unity.

I am afraid after my research I have to agree with the findings. Reform in Islam in a foreseeable future doesn't seem possible. This doesn't mean however that we should stop supporting secularism in Islamic countries. Secularists, moderate muslims, and atheists are disadvantaged and suffering, they need our support.