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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The devil is in the detail

In my previous post, I posted the full text of the non-binding resolution on defamation of religion, passed by the UN General Assembly late last year. We need to be able to consult the full text because the devil is in the detail. Much of the discussion on the internet seems to make assumptions about what it might say, rather than what it actually does say. For a more authoritative publication of the text, go here, where you can find it with difficulty.

It should be pointed out that much of the text is innocuous or even commendable. E.g., it deplores literal (physical) violence, or incitement to violence, against people on the ground of religion. There are also commendable statements about the importance of education to both boys and girls, and much other material that is arguably good stuff for the UN to be saying.

But to see how sweeping and potentially draconian it is in restricting free speech, you need to dig into the detail and try to work out what it would mean in practice.

The main purpose seems to be to stop "defamation of religion" which seems to include claims that something in Islam encourages violence and terrorism. So, Fitna would seem to be a classic case of "defamation of religion". But there are other phrases that would seem to require prevention of certain kinds of blasphemy - e.g. the production of images on the internet desecrating religious symbols seems to be condemned by this resolution.

Because it's written in UN-style gobbledegook, it's very difficult to pin down what it would mean in practice, i.e. exactly what laws it would require nations to pass if the same wording actually became a basis for a UN Convention, and if various nations then signed it. That vagueness is itself cause for concern. But the aim does seem to be primarily to stop people saying highly critical things about Islam.

I don't know that anything in such a book as Richard Dawkins The God Delusion would necessarily come under "defamation of religion", although the comparison with other forms of delusion might go close. But anyway, large tracts of Sam Harris's The End of Faith would probably qualify. Likewise the anti-Muslim views of someone like Mark Steyn. It is possible that a great deal of robust criticism or satire of doctrines, religious institutions, holy books, and cultures could end up being prohibited if this resolution were given a higher status than just a non-binding resolution of the Assembly.

I'd be interested in anyone else's interpretations of how it would work if it actually became international law, based on a close reading of the actual text.

Full text of the defamation of religion declaration

79. At the 39th meeting, on 11 November, the representative of Uganda, on behalf
of the States Members of the United Nations that are members of the Organization
of the Islamic Conference, Belarus and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of),
introduced a draft resolution entitled “Combating defamation of religions”
(A/C.3/63/L.22), which read as follows:
The General Assembly,
Reaffirming the pledge made by all States, under the Charter of the
United Nations, to promote and encourage universal respect for and
observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction
as to race, sex, language or religion,
Recalling the relevant international instruments on the elimination of
discrimination, in particular the International Convention on the Elimination of
All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of
Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, the Declaration
on the Human Rights of Individuals Who are not Nationals of the Country in
which They Live and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to
National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities,
Recalling also the relevant resolutions of the Commission on Human
Rights and the Human Rights Council in this regard,
Welcoming the resolve expressed in the United Nations Millennium
Declaration adopted by the General Assembly on 8 September 2000 to take
measures to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many
societies and to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies, and
looking forward to its effective implementation at all levels,
Underlining in this regard the importance of the Durban Declaration and
Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference against Racism, Racial
Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South
Africa, in 2001, welcoming the progress achieved in implementing the
Declaration and Programme of Action, and emphasizing that they constitute a
solid foundation for the elimination of all scourges and manifestations of
racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,
Expressing concern at the increase in racist violence and xenophobic
ideas in many parts of the world, in political circles, in the sphere of public
opinion and in society at large, as a result, inter alia, of the resurgence of
activities of political parties and associations established on the basis of racist
and xenophobic platforms and charters, and the persistent use of those
platforms and charters to promote or incite racist ideologies,
Deeply alarmed at the rising trends towards discrimination based on
religion or belief, including in some national policies, laws and administrative
measures that stigmatize groups of people belonging to certain religions and
beliefs under a variety of pretexts relating to security and illegal immigration,
thereby legitimizing discrimination against them, and consequently impairing
their enjoyment of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,
and impeding their ability to observe, practise and manifest their religion
freely and without fear of coercion, violence or reprisal,
Noting with deep concern the serious instances of intolerance,
discrimination and acts of violence based on religion or belief, intimidation
and coercion motivated by extremism, religious or otherwise, occurring in
many parts of the world, in addition to the negative projection of Islam in the
media and the introduction and enforcement of laws and administrative
measures that specifically discriminate against and target Muslims, in
particular Muslim minorities following the events of 11 September 2001, and
that threaten to impede their full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental
Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human
dignity leading to the restriction of the freedom of religion of their adherents
and incitement to religious hatred and violence,
Stressing also the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions
and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular,
Reaffirming that discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief
constitutes a violation of human rights and a disavowal of the principles of the
Charter of the United Nations,
Noting with concern that defamation of religions, and incitement to
religious hatred in general, could lead to social disharmony and violations of
human rights, and alarmed at the inaction of some States to combat this
burgeoning trend and the resulting discriminatory practices against adherents
of certain religions,
Taking note of the reports of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary
forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,
submitted to the Human Rights Council at its fourth and sixth sessions, which
draw attention to the serious nature of the defamation of all religions, and
reiterating the call of the Special Rapporteur to all States to wage a systematic
campaign against incitement to racial and religious hatred by maintaining a
careful balance between the defence of secularism and respect for freedom of
religion and by acknowledging and respecting the complementarity of all the
freedoms embodied in the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Recalling the proclamation of the Global Agenda for Dialogue among
Civilizations, and inviting States, the organizations and bodies of the United
Nations system, within existing resources, other international and regional
organizations and civil societies to contribute to the implementation of the
Programme of Action contained in the Global Agenda,
Welcoming the efforts of the Alliance of Civilizations initiative in
promoting mutual respect and understanding among different cultures and
societies, as well as the forthcoming second forum of the Alliance, to be held
in Istanbul, Turkey, on 2 and 3 April 2009,
Convinced that respect for cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic
diversity, as well as dialogue among and within civilizations, is essential for
peace, understanding and friendship among individuals and people of the
different cultures and nations of the world, while manifestations of cultural
prejudice, intolerance and xenophobia towards people belonging to different
cultures, religions and beliefs generate hatred and violence among peoples and
nations throughout the world,
Recognizing the valuable contributions of all religions and beliefs to
modern civilization and the contribution that dialogue among civilizations can
make to an improved awareness and understanding of common values,
Underlining the important role of education in the promotion of
tolerance and the elimination of discrimination based on religion or belief,
Reaffirming the need for all States to continue their national and
international efforts to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among
civilizations, cultures, religions and beliefs, and emphasizing that States,
regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, religious bodies and
the media have an important role to play in promoting tolerance, respect for
and freedom of religion and belief,
Welcoming all international and regional initiatives aimed at promoting
cross-cultural and interfaith harmony, including the International Dialogue on
Interfaith Cooperation, held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on 6 and 7 December
2004, and the World Conference on Dialogue, held in Madrid from
16 to 18 July 2008, and their valuable efforts towards the promotion of a
culture of peace and dialogue at all levels, and taking note with appreciation of
the final declaration adopted at the conference on ‘Common world: progress
through diversity’, held in Astana on 17 October 2008,
Underlining the importance of increasing contacts at all levels in order
to deepen dialogue and reinforce understanding among different cultures,
religions, beliefs and civilizations, and welcoming in this regard the
Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the Ministerial Meeting on
Human Rights and Cultural Diversity of the Movement of Non-Aligned
Countries, held in Tehran on 3 and 4 September 2007,
Recalling its resolution 62/154 of 18 December 2007,
“1. Takes note of the report of the Secretary-General and the
conclusions contained therein;
“2. Expresses deep concern at the negative stereotyping of religions
and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or
belief still evident in the world;
“3. Strongly deplores all acts of ideological and physical violence and
assaults, and incitement thereto, against persons on the basis of their religion
or belief, and such acts directed against their businesses, properties, cultural
centres and places of worship, as well as targeting of holy sites and religious
symbols of all religions;
“4. Expresses deep concern at the programmes and agendas pursued by
extremist organizations and groups aimed at the defamation of religions, and
incitement to religious hatred in general, in particular when condoned by
“5. Notes with deep concern the intensification of the campaign of
defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general,
including the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the
aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001;
“6. Recognizes that, in the context of the fight against terrorism and the
reaction to counter-terrorism measures, defamation of religions, and incitement
to religious hatred in general, become aggravating factors that contribute to the
denial of fundamental rights and freedoms of members of target groups, as
well as their economic and social exclusion;
“7. Expresses deep concern in this respect that Islam is frequently and
wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism;
“8. Reiterates the commitment of all States to the implementation, in an
integrated manner, of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,
which was adopted without a vote by the General Assembly on 8 September
2006, and which clearly affirms, inter alia, that terrorism cannot and should
not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group,
stressing the need to reinforce the international community’s commitment to
promote a culture of peace, justice and human development, ethnic, national
and religious tolerance, and respect for all religions, religious values, beliefs
or cultures and prevent the defamation of religions;
“9. Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media,
including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence,
xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination against any religion,
including Islam, as well as targeting of religious symbols;
“10. Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law,
everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to
freedom of expression, and that the exercise of these rights carries with it
special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations
as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or
reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public
health or morals;
“11. Reaffirms that general recommendation XV (42) of the Committee
on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in which the Committee
stipulated that the prohibition of the dissemination of all ideas based upon
racial superiority or hatred is compatible with freedom of opinion and
expression, is equally applicable to the question of incitement to religious
“12. Invites the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism,
racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the Special
Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion
and expression to continue to carry out their work as mandated by the Human
Rights Council in its resolutions 7/34 and 7/36 of 28 March 2008;
“13. Reaffirms the obligation of all States to enact the necessary
legislation to prohibit the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that
constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States
to take resolute action in this regard;
“14. Urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and
constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred,
discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of
religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, to take all possible
measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs and the
understanding of their value systems and to complement legal systems with
intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious hatred and intolerance;
“15. Also urges all States to ensure that all public officials, including
members of law enforcement bodies, the military, civil servants and educators,
in the course of their official duties, respect people regardless of their different
religions and beliefs and do not discriminate against persons on the grounds of
their religion or belief, and that any necessary and appropriate education or
training is provided;
“16. Underscores the need to combat defamation of religions, and
incitement to religious hatred in general, by strategizing and harmonizing
actions at the local, national, regional and international levels through
education and awareness-raising;
“17. Urges States to ensure equal access to education for all, in law and
in practice, including access to free primary education for all children, both
girls and boys, and access for adults to lifelong learning and education based
on respect for human rights, diversity and tolerance, without discrimination of
any kind, and to refrain from any legal or other measures leading to racial
segregation in access to schooling;
“18. Calls upon the international community to foster a global dialogue
to promote a culture of tolerance and peace based on respect for human rights
and diversity of religion and belief, and urges States, non-governmental
organizations, religious bodies and the print and electronic media to support
and participate in such a dialogue;
“19. Affirms that the Human Rights Council shall promote universal
respect for all religious and cultural values and address instances of
intolerance, discrimination and incitement of hatred against members of any
community or adherents of any religion, as well as promote ways to
consolidate international efforts in order to combat impunity for such
deplorable acts;
“20. Welcomes the initiative by the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights to hold an expert seminar on freedom of expression and
advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination,
hostility and violence, which was held on 2 and 3 October 2008, and requests
the High Commissioner to continue to build on this initiative, with a view to
preventing and eliminating all such forms of incitement and the consequences
of negative stereotyping of religions or beliefs, and their adherents, on the
human rights of those individuals and their communities;
“21. Takes note of the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights to promote and include human rights aspects in educational
programmes, particularly the World Programme for Human Rights Education
proclaimed by the General Assembly on 10 December 2004, and calls upon the
High Commissioner to continue those efforts, with particular focus on:
“(a) The contributions of cultures, as well as religious and cultural
“(b) Collaboration with other relevant bodies of the United Nations
system and regional and international organizations in holding joint
conferences designed to encourage the dialogue among civilizations and
promote understanding of the universality of human rights and their
implementation at various levels, in particular the Office of the United Nations
High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations and the unit within the
Secretariat mandated to interact with various entities within the United Nations
system and coordinate their contribution to the intergovernmental process;
“22. Requests the Secretary-General to submit a report on the
implementation of the present resolution, including on the possible correlation
between defamation of religions and the upsurge in incitement, intolerance and
hatred in many parts of the world, to the General Assembly at its sixty-fourth
80. At its 46th meeting, on 24 November, the Committee had before it a revised
text of the draft resolution (A/C.3/63/L.22/Rev.1), which the representative of
Uganda orally revised by replacing, in the eighth preambular paragraph, the words
“illegal immigration” by the words “irregular immigration”.
81. At the same meeting, statements were made by the representative of Egypt and
the observer for the Holy See (see A/C.3/63/SR.46).
82. Also at its 46th meeting, the Committee adopted draft resolution
A/C.3/63/L.22/Rev.1, as orally revised, by a recorded vote of 85 to 50, with 42 abstentions
(see para. 182, draft resolution IV). The voting was as follows:
In favour:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain,
Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Chad, China, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire,
Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt,
El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras,
Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan,
Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho,
Liberia, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania,
Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria,
Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saint Vincent and the
Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa,
Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan,
Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab
Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Viet Nam, Yemen,
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus,
Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany,
Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein,
Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Micronesia (Federated States of), Monaco,
Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Poland, Portugal,
Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Samoa, San Marino,
Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland, United States of America.
Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso,
Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican
Republic, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti,
India, Japan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Namibia,
Nauru, Nepal, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Timor-
Leste, Trinidad and Tobago, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Vanuatu,
83. Before the vote, statements were made by the representatives of India, the
United States and France (on behalf of the States Members of the United Nations
that are members of the European Union and associated States); after the vote,
statements were made by the representatives of Nigeria, Chile, Colombia, Brazil and
Singapore (see A/C.3/63/SR.46).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Which countries still have some liberal credentials?

Go and have a look at which countries voted Yes, Abstain, or No for a non-binding UN resolution against defamation of religion late last year.

Now for the forthcoming vote on a binding resolution.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Was Christianity good for Europe?

Many Christian apologists, perhaps most prominently Dinesh D'Souza, argue that even secular people should be grateful to Christianity for the heritage of its dominant position in Europe during, and for long after, the Middle Ages. Indeed, I have often heard, or seen, secular thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas accepting this general point, even though I find it, myself, to be (to say the least) implausible.

Of course, there's a trivial sense in which we can all feel glad for everything that happened before we were, as individuals, conceived, since Who Gets Conceived And Born (or which sperm cells fertilise which oocytes and produce which zygotes) is ultra-sensitive to all prior events. Moreover, the existence of all the good things that we have in the world today has been highly sensitive to the actual course of history that led to them (but the same applies to many bad things in the world). Is there some sense, more substantial than these, in which the world - particularly Europe - is better off as a result of the centuries-long hegemony of Christianity?

That really depends on what the realistic alternatives were. We could imagine a worst-case scenario in which barbarian warriors dominated the Dark Ages with no influence from Christianity or from classical learning. All traditions of philosophy and science might have been lost, and perhaps we (or our equivalents) might have ended up as worshippers of Wotan or Thor.

Conversely, we might imagine scenarios in which classical learning survived and thrived in Europe through what we know as the Dark Ages.

It would be foolish to imagine that the actual course of history was the very worst it could plausibly been, so, insofar as Christianity may have prevented some even worse outcomes, perhaps we should be glad and grateful. But does that mean that the Dark Ages, as actually experienced, were an improvement on pre-Christian classical paganism? Were they a ferment of learning and innovation, misnamed by Enlightenment ingrates who failed to appreciate what was achieved under the aegis of the Church during the centuries after the fall of Rome?

Andrew Bernstein is one commentator who thinks not. See this ferocious critique of Christianity's contribution to European civilisation. I must say that Bernstein's occasional genuflections to Ayn Rand, a third-rate thinker at best, and the provenance of the article in a Randian journal, don't add to the author's credibility. But it's easy to ignore the references to Rand, on which nothing in the argument depends, and to replace the brief discussions of Randian epistemology with something more plausible (some kind of post-Popper philosophy of science, perhaps). Once that's done, the article is interesting and (perhaps) persuasive. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Do you have biblical morals?

Your morality is 0% in line with that of the bible.

Damn you heathen! Your book learnin' has done warped your mind. You shall not be invited next time I sacrifice a goat.

Do You Have Biblical Morals?
Take More Quizzes

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


A couple of up-coming local gigs.

On 10 March I'll be talking to the Atheist Society on the topic "Voices of Disbelief". This relates to the book that I'm editing with Udo Schuklenk, and I'll doubtless have a bit to say about my own motivation for wanting to edit such a book, and why I think this is a good time to be expressing our disbelief in the claims of religion. It's free (though you'll have an opportunity to make a gold coin donation) and no booking is required. Just turn up at the Unitarian Hall, 110 Grey Street, East Melbourne, at 8 pm.

On 26 March I'll be talking to the Humanist Society on the topic "Liberalism, humanism, and freedom of speech: The trouble with religious vilification laws". I take it that title is self-explanatory. The venue is Balwyn Library, 336 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn (Melway map reference 46 E8). Again, it's free, though a gold coin donation at the door is encouraged, and no booking is required. Turn up at 8 pm.

US edition of Dreaming Again

A couple of copies of the US edition of Dreaming Again arrived chez nous yesterday. It's a nice package.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Geert Wilders should have been allowed into the UK

I wouldn't be beating this issue to death except that I see people such as British MP Chris Huhne attempting to justify the exclusion of Geert Wilders from the UK (and seemingly to advocate censorship of his short film Fitna) on the basis of the harm principle of John Stuart Mill.

Frankly it's difficult to know which to feel more strongly - outrage at the anti-liberal character of Huhne's suggestion in his opinion piece or shock at the simple-minded nature of his argument.

His argument is no more than this:

In my opinion, Geert Wilders' revolting film Fitna crosses [the] line [into incitement to hatred and violence], as its shocking images of violence and emotional appeals to anti-Islamic feeling risk causing serious harm to others.

The key liberal principle was enunciated by John Stuart Mill in his essay "On Liberty", in which he stated that the only legitimate reason for coercing someone against their will was to prevent harm to others. It is precisely the prevention of harm to minorities that justifies the restrictions to Mr Wilders' freedom of speech.

First, there is a huge non sequitur here. Yes, the film does tend to invite very hostile attitudes to Islam by juxtaposing verses from the Koran that appear to demand violent acts against non-believers with images relating to acts of terrorism carried out by Muslims. It's possible, of course, that someone might be inspired by seeing Fitna to take direct violent action against Muslims, but - whatever else the film does - it does not call for this. There is certainly no incitement to any specific violent act or any class of violent acts. Obviously, however the film is interpreted (and it is certainly open to interpretation) it does suggest a very harsh view of Islam and arguably of Muslims as a class of people, but it is Wilder's right to present such a view and it is the right of others to rebut it.

Would John Stuart Mill have tried to suppress Fitna or to have shut up Wilders (or kept him out of the UK)? I very much doubt it.

Mill did not think that the power of the state should be used to stop actions that might produce harm by some indirect process, such as somebody saying something that then leads to someone else harming a third party. He had a very restrictive view of when the state should interfere with speech. His example of when it would be justified was a demagogue addressing an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer, inciting the mob to lynch the corn dealer, on the basis that "corn dealers are starvers of the poor". But Mill would not have accepted censoring the claim that "corn dealers are starvers of the poor" if it appeared in a newspaper (or by implication a book, or a film, or whatever).

Huhne must know this, or at least he affects to be familiar with Mill's thought. But he does not think it through to realise that Mill would not have favoured censoring Fitna, or, in most circumstances, suppressing Wilders' freedom of speech.

Here's how I think Mill would see it. The state would be justified in (1) stopping Geert Wilders from addressing an angry mob and stirring it up to lynch nearby Muslims. But the state would not be justified in preventing Wilders from (2) entering the UK and putting his views peacefully to the general population (this includes giving a lecture of the usual kind which is not directed at inciting a riot or a lynching). Nor would it, on Mill's account, be justified in (3) banning Fitna.

In case (1), there's no time to respond to the situation other than by stopping him and dispersing the lynch mob. The state needs to have laws to deal with these situations.

In the other cases, cases (2) and (3), Wilders' views can always be argued against; individuals are not caught up in the mentality of a mob, but can think calmly if they are so inclined; any individuals who just might be inspired to lawlessness can be deterred in the same way as any other individuals who are inspired to lawlessness by anything else that might have the same effect (reading a holy book, watching the news, listening to rap music, or the whole gamut of activities that can get people steamed up), and so on. In summary, cases (2) and (3) are remote in every way from the kind of circumstance where Mill would consider the use of state coercion to stop someone's free speech to be justified.

Mill is very clear about this. He spells out that the harm principle is all about direct harms, and that the use of state coercion to stop something not directly harmful is an absolute last resort. He'd count the corn dealer example as direct enough, or as a case where there is just no alternative to state coercion, but he would not generalise it to allowing censorship of the media. He would not extend the example to situations where the imminent prospect of violence does not exist ... and nor can Chris Huhne if he wants to be a good Millian liberal.

I should make a final point before I'm accused of being simplistic myself. With modern technology, there can be situations where speech can incite sufficiently immediate violence even though there's no physical proximity between the speaker and the target of the violence. If there's enough anger or hatred through a community to put potential victims in the way of violence from angry attackers, there can be situations that are relevantly analogous to the corn dealer example. Imagine that the day after the September 11 attacks a popular radio shock jock had declared to an audience full of para-military militia members, "That's it. Get your gun and kill a Muslim now!" This would be getting closer, in the relevant respects, to the corn dealer example. Likewise if someone had been able to send out the same message by cascading texts to the mobile phones of 1000 testosterone-soaked young men who were already known to be armed and to hate Muslims.

I'm giving hypothetical examples here, but of course there have been real examples not far from these. I'm not such a free speech absolutist as to deny that such examples happen, and laws are needed to deter them.

I'm certainly not saying that there can never be cases that where the risk of violence is sufficiently high and imminent for some kind of state action to be necessary. I even acknowledge that it may be difficult to draw a practical line when laws are framed, so a law against inciting violence might have to be drawn more widely than Mill would have approved of. Indeed, I'll go further and say that, although I think Fitna falls clearly on the "don't ban" side of the line, there could be doubts about what Wilders just might say (e.g if interviewed by a shock jock) - he does seem volatile. Sometimes he appears to be testing the tolerance of even liberal-minded people. For that reason, I feel little sympathy for him as an individual.

But Wilders has been in the UK before without stirring up lynchings or riots, and I see no evidence that he has ever crossed the line into any kind of clear incitement that should be cognisable by the law.

And even if a case to the contrary could be made out, it would need to be something far more sophisticated than what poor Chris Huhne offered in his weak excuse for an opinion piece.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Two Pearls of Wisdom aka Eon: Dragoneye Reborn

You might think I have a bias here, since Alison Goodman is a dear friend and one of my favourite people in the world, but I'm not enthralled by a book merely because I'm fond of the person who wrote it. In this case, I was enthralled by the characters, the story, the intricate but still crystal-clear writing. The Two Pearls of Wisdom (published in the US as Eon: Dragoneye Reborn), by Alison Goodman, was a book I hated to put down even for a moment. It had my complete attention from start to finish.

I was remiss in not getting around to reading it for months after buying a copy - it's rather long, and I wanted to put aside some time to concentrate on it - but I finally got to it this week. I wolfed it down in just two days that were busy with other things.

If Alison pops in and sees this post, then here's a simple message for her - This is another wonderful book from you, Al, maybe the best yet - and you're a wonderful writer!

For the rest of you ... if you enjoy fantasy, you'll be doing yourself a favour to read this one. The setting is exotic, but also layered, detailed, and utterly convincing; the fantasy element has been worked out with rigour, and depicted with vivid imagination; you'll care deeply about the characters and keep turning the pages to find out what's going to happen to them. Also, you'll squirm at the author's very keen observation of human interactions (well, you might squirm more if you know her and wonder how transparent you are to her frighteningly intelligent gaze!).

This is the first book in a two-part series, so we're all eagerly awaiting the sequel. But don't pester Alison about that: she's already working hard at it, and we'll just have to wait for a bit.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why don't they talk about defamation of science?

While we're discussing the ludicrous concept of "defamation of religion", I'm wondering why no one talks about defamation of science. Maybe we could try to ban Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and all those other books, movies, TV shows, etc., that present stereotyped images of irresponsible, hubristic scientists. Maybe we could ban a film like Expelled, with its slanderous claim that genuine biology in the form of Intelligent Design is being kept out of the academy by a conspiracy of Darwinists ... not to mention the claim that Darwinian evolutionary theory was somehow to blame for the Nazi Holocaust. Then we have the relentless war on science conducted by British journalist Bryan Appleyard, who believes that Nazism was not merely a misuse of modern science - with its mechanised attempts to exterminate the Jewish people - but somehow exemplary of it.

In fact, once we start looking into it, we can see that the defamation of science goes on and on. If the idea of defamation - a legal category to protect individuals from being shunned, or socially ostracised, by attacks on their reputations - scales up to include contentious debates about ideas and organisations, then let's get on the case. It seems that science has a particularly strong claim to be protected against defamation in this extended sense.

Of course, once this example is used, it becomes clear how ludicrous the idea is. Defamation law is not fundamentally about protecting organisations and it is certainly not about protecting ideas. When ideas are criticised, the correct response is not to march off to the courts to obtain an official ruling on a claim such as "evolutionary theory contributed to the Holocaust" or "the Koran contains material that lends itself to support of terrorism". Ideas should be met with ideas. Criticism of ideas should be met with counter-criticisms.

Likewise, large organisations can take care of themselves in public debate. There might be a need for some kind of law to protect share markets from instability caused by false rumours, but that purpose would be remote from the purpose of defamation law. Generally speaking, it should not be possible to sue for defamation of a company, as opposed to individuals connected with it. Here, the existing law should be scaled back if anything. It certainly should not be possible to defame something like a church or a religious sect. Once we talk about a religion itself, not its individual members or the organisations they have formed, any analogy with defamation has become so tenuous as to be laughable.

Outside of very narrow areas that should not be expanded by dubious analogies, the answer to bad speech is better speech.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Human Futures arrives in the mail

No, not the human future - the book entitled Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty, edited by Andy Miah, which contains my chapter "Embracing the Unknown Future: In Defence of New Technology".

My author's copy of Human Futures turned up this morning and it looks beautiful. I'm looking forward to getting a chance to read it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A little bit more about "is" and "ought"

I'm just getting some notes in one place here. Only read on if interested.

First, as a general point, we always need to distinguish between (1) questions about how, historically, human beings came to have certain systems of morality and (2) questions of why we should, as individuals, give those systems our support (or reject them, or seek to change them, or give them partial support, or whatever). The first of these is a descriptive or explanatory question - "how did it happen?" The other is a prescriptive question - "what should I actually do, given everything I know?"

Part of the answer to the first question must be that Homo sapiens is the outcome of an evolutionary process. We emerged 100 to 200 thousand years ago as a species of social primate. Like other species, we had evolved various broad psychological proclivities, as well as a standard morphology. It's controversial just what those proclivities are, but it's a question that science can study.

As a first approximation, we appear to have a strong tendency to act in our self-interest as individuals, and in the interests of our children, other family members, and those whom we see as allies. But we also seem to have a considerable degree of sympathetic responsiveness to others, even to the sufferings of non-human animals. I don't claim to be expert in how that could happen, but we have a nature that is not entirely selfish. Note that this is perfectly consistent with the selfishness, in a technical sense, of our genes. Contrary to what we've often seen from Mary Midgley and others on this subject, there is no strong connection between the selfishness of genes in that sense and the selfishness of people (in the familiar meaning of words like "selfish"). In fairness, a weaker point should be conceded, that it is prima facie unlikely that beings like us, who are not (for example) genetic clones of each other, would have entirely altruistic proclivities. That fact may set some limits to what kinds of moral systems - deontic constraints, concepts of virtue, etc. - are likely to be realistically workable for societies of human beings.

But what about the second question? Here's how I see things:

I can only get you to give your reflective endorsement to some set of moral norms by appealing to values that you actually (already) have. But again, it's likely, partly because of our commmon evolutionary history, that a lot of values (by no means all) will be very widely shared. Given real-word facts, most of us have good reasons, based on our more persistent and stable values, to uphold the respective moral systems that we are born into, but not necessarily in every detail. Hence, I am definitely not advocating some kind of vulgar moral relativism.

We may well find that we have good reasons to resist or flout some of the moral norms that we encounter, or, indeed, to seek deletions, extensions, and changes to the prevailing morality. The more we know about the world, the more we may find that traditional systems of moral norms, passed down over many generations, after being formulated in very circumstances from those that prevail today, do not actually match well with our own deepest values.

But not everyone's values will be identical - similar, yes, but identical, no. Other people may have reasons to seek somewhat different changes to the prevailing moral norms, and there may be no way to say who is "correct" between Adam and Belinda if some of their differences in values go all the way down. An important point here is that these differences very often will not go all the way down, and it may be possible to engage in discussion that leads to a considerable moral consensus. Such discussion may involve asking people what they think of real or hypothetical cases that seem to conflict with their stated principles, or how they justify certain kinds of harsh treatment of others (despite their admiration of kindness if they do profess to admire it), and so on. Even Muslim fundamentalists, when pressed, will often try to justify their positions by appealing to values, such as human happiness, that are shared with secular rationalists.

It does seem that a liberal society can operate successfully with quite a bit of difference among the values of its citizens, as long as there's also a strong core of agreement. In practice, it may be better, politically, for the law to allow a fair bit of variation in people's morality and actual practices, as long as they agree to be tolerant of differences, and as long as there's agreement on certain very important norms (such as not harming others in certain ways just to win out in social,economic, or sexual competition).

(Note, though, that even the judgment of what is "better politically" ... or what "operating successfully" amounts to ... is based on certain values. These may relate to peace, social survival, minimising suffering, and so on. Once, again, however, there's very widespread agreement on these values.)

In the end, moral and political norms can't be deduced from scientific facts that include nothing like values, desires, and so on. In that sense Hume was right. But nor are those norms just arbitrary: there are explanations as to why human beings tend to agree on many of them; and it is not surprising that well-informed people often converge, when they really think about it, on accepting the same deontic constraints, concepts of moral virtue and so. Hume was right about that, too, although his emphasis on sympathy as the ground of morality may have been a bit simplistic: the grounding is probably more pluralist, and more contested, than Hume seems to have thought.

Finally, it seems to me that there are good reasons, for as long as there's a certain amount of intractable moral disagreement, to prefer a liberal state to a state to, say, a theocracy. Morality is (I think inevitably) a mixture of agreement and disagreement. Even if totally rational and completely well-informed people would converge completely on the same moral views, which I seriously doubt, such people do not exist in the real world. Liberalism enables people who are not in full agreement to flourish side by side; at least as judged by my value system, that's a good thing.

Article at Butterflies and Wheels

Yesterday's blog post, on the idiotic and dangerous concept of "defamation of religion", has now been republished (with my permission) as an article on Ophelia Benson's wonderful Butterflies and Wheels site.

If you're not familiar with Butterflies and Wheels, please check it out. It's a marvellous resource, which is best explained here. To quote the explanation in part:

Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:

1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.
2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).
3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.

I have no difficulty in giving those aims my full endorsement. In fact, they correspond quite strongly with some of my own aims in my writing since 1997 or so, when I began to publish fairly prolifically about related issues. That includes my aims in producing this blog.

Whenever I visit Butterflies and Wheels, I learn a great deal, especially from the articles by Edmund Standing, Tauriq Moosa, and others.

Ophelia Benson is one of the many excellent writers who have contributed essays to the Voices of Disbelief book that I edited with Udo Schuklenk last year, and which is now finding its way through the publication process (Udo and I expect to see page proofs in the next month or two, and publication is currently scheduled for September ... at the moment I'm chipping away at some preliminary work for the index we'll be expected to prepare). I see that Ophelia has a new book coming out soon, written with Jeremy Stangroom: Does God Hate Women? That should be worth watching out for.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The idiocy of "defamation of religion"

Anti-liberal actors in the international arena, such as the Muslim states of the Middle East, are pursuing a path of attempting to suppress what they call "defamation of religion". Their campaign is achieving some success, and I believe we must take it very seriously.

The whole idea of defamation of religion is nonsense. Taken literally, it would mean that I could not utter any falsehood that is damaging to the reputation of a religion (so, it might lead people to leave the religion or doubt its doctrines, or fail to be convinced to convert to it). But a religion has no right to flourish, be believed, retain adherents, gain converts, or anything of the sort. On the contrary, it is in the public interest that the truth and credibility of various religions be tested continually, and it is quite within my rights to try to convert people from their current religion to my religion of choice or to an anti-religious position. Much like political ideologies, religions have to take their own chances. Many things will be said for and against various religions, and some of those things will not be true, even if they are said sincerely.

In that sense, the flourishing of a religion is simply not analogous to the flourishing of citizens. The concern that the state has to protect the flourishing of its citizens in no way applies to religions. If a religion dies out through a peaceful process of deconversions or a failure to reproduce itself, the state should be entirely neutral about whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Even apart from that fundamental point, the justification for defamation law can't simply be scaled up to apply to the "defamation" of something like a religion. On the contrary, we should ensure that speech about the public actions of elected officials and other public figures, the actions of business corporations, the actions of religious organisations and communities of religious believers, and the truth of religious doctrines, etc., is not chilled by applying concepts of "defamation" beyond their very narrow area of justification. In some cases, this might require narrowing of the existing law (e.g. in its application to large business corporations).

Let's look at this issue of justification. If The Sydney Morning Herald accuses me of being a pedophile, it will be very difficult to remove that slur without taking some kind of action in the courts. If the slur is believed by my friends, they will shun me. If it's thought more widely that there's any truth in the slur, then my career will undoubtedly be ruined. Indeed, in situations like that individuals can be ostracised - and so destroyed as social beings - and it seems that the only way to counter the possibility is by invoking the majesty of the law to clear their names and/or provide heavy damages for the loss. That provides some deterrence to giant media corporations, which wield private power, acting in ways that can ruin individual lives. Media corporations take potential legal liability for defamation seriously, and that's usually a good thing. It gives some reassurance to those of us who are not media magnates.

By contrast, consider the public actions (not, for example, the sex lives) of elected officials. It's well known that these actions are controversial and that any criticism, no matter how trenchant (or plausible-seeming), has to be taken with a grain of salt. Furthermore, elected officials have enormous resources with which to put across their own viewpoints and defend themselves without recourse to the majesty of the law for vindication. Moreover, whereas the sex life of an individual citizen is not, prima facie, a matter whose discussion is of public interest, there is great public interest in conducting robust discussions of the public actions of elected officials.

Accordingly, it should at the very least be extremely difficult for elected officials to succeed in defamation cases relating to criticism of their public actions. Over the past 15 years or so, Australian law has been moving in that direction, and it has long been so in the US.

When it comes to religious organisations, and to religious claims about prophets, gods, and so on, there is even less need to resort to the majesty of the law. If it's claimed that Muhammad was a pedophile, that has no effect on Muhammad, who is long dead, has no friends to shun him, has no career that can be ruined. Moreover, there are literally hundreds of millions of followers of Muhammad to defend him, and many of them wield enormous power and influence, and have easy access to the mass media. Furthermore, it's known that issues surrounding the lives of ancient and medieval prophets and saints are matters of heated and almost intractable controversy, so any false claims will be taken with a grain of salt by reasonable people. Such people either ignore the claims or look a bit more deeply, rather than accepting them uncritically. Indeed, the greater problem that we face is that even true claims in criticism of religion will not be taken seriously by the general population. At the same time, there is a strong public interest in discussing the origins and credibility of religions. Was Muhammad a good role model for contemporary Muslims or not? Are the traditional claims about his life even credible? With such questions, there is an overwhelmingly strong case that there should not be anything like a defamation action available. That case is even stronger than the equivalent case applying to the public actions of elected officials.

Similarly for claims about the behaviour of religious organisations. These organisations wield enormous power and influence, and their actions are inevitably controversial. Organisations such as the Catholic Church have practically unlimited resources to defend themselves against untrue claims, without needing recourse to law, and even true claims are likely to be greeted with disbelief by adherents and cynicism by many others. It's true that many less rational people will swallow nonsense such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but even more will accept religious dogma, and the fundamental rightness of an organisation such as the Church, as a result of childhood indoctrination. It is in the public interest to discuss the actions of these organisations without enacting laws that chill the debate.

When it comes to actual religious doctrines and rejection of those doctrines, the case against anything like a concept of "defamation" is stronger still. If someone says "The Abrahamic God does not exist", well, even if God does exist he will not be shunned by friends or have his career ruined. There is no equivalent to destroying him as a social person. Claims about God's existence or non-existence are highly, intractably, controversial, and many people treat all such discussion with derision, despite its philosophical importance. Although most citizens are probably more worried about their children, their mortgages, and so on, it is important to conduct philosophical inquiry into religious claims, and we must ensure that the discussion is not chilled by any such concept as "defamation of religion".

I could go on and on about how the justification for some kind of concept of defamation in liberal societies is an extremely narrow one, and how attempts to broaden it into concepts of group defamation, or even worse, defamation of religion, are fundamentally flawed. It seems that the immediate target of those who seek to prevent defamation of religion is to prohibit claims that something about Islam tends to lead its adherents to terrorism. But that claim is surely at least arguable: whether or not it can be defended at the end of the day, it is a controversial, yet important claim that merits fearless discussion. We should be very reluctant to suppress such claims, and of course Muslim leaders and intellectuals have enormous resources available to them to put their own side of the story without taking such a controversial and debatable psychological/sociological/theological thesis to the courts for an official ruling.

Thus, it would be incredibly simplistic to say, "Defamation of individuals is a bad thing; therefore anything analogous to it is a bad thing." Even the first part of this is misleading if it's intended as a broad generalisation - if the individuals concerned are elected officials and the "defamation" relates to their public conduct (not, say, to their sexual practices) then it is by no means obvious that any false criticisms should be cognisable by the law as a "bad thing". The law should not apply to criticism of the public acts of elected officials in the same way that it does to statements about the character or private conduct of ordinary citizens. The private conduct of elected officials may fall somewhere in between, but it should normally receive protection from defamatory claims.

Once we move beyond individuals to organisations, communities, bodies of religious or political doctrine, and so on, it is even less obvious that any legal concept of defamation is applicable. Indeed, it should be obvious that all the indicia point the other way: i.e., there should not be a legal concept of "defamation of religion", whatever, exactly, the concept is supposed to amount to. It is in the public interest that scrutiny of religion go ahead from every possible angle (philosophical, historical, sociological, etc.) without the ensuing discussion being chilled by anything analogous to defamation law.

We should be camapaigning to confine defamation law as narrowly as possible, not extend it even further. What I would support (and this already exists in some, perhaps many, jurisdictions) is a narrowly-confined tort of interference in privacy, according to which even true publications about the strictly private behaviour of individuals can be met by a claim for damages. Such revelations can greatly damage individuals as social beings, and the individuals concerned may have no other practical redress when confronted by media corporations. But such a tort would need to be confined narrowly in some way so that it applies only to revelations in the mass media, not to everyday gossip. In any event, this is quite remote from ideas of defamation of religion. If such a privacy tort is justified, it's on a totally different basis, and it shows why the sorts of concerns that might justify certain narrow exceptions to freedom of speech don't lead to a concept such as defamation of religion.

The concept of defamation of religion is a very worrying development. If it starts to gain legal force, it has terrible potential as an encroachment on freedom of speech. I submit that we should take this very seriously and fight against it tooth and nail. Our whole Enlightenment legacy is at stake here, and if the UN continues to take an illiberal path I see no reason for compunction about criticising the UN. The UN may or may not be a useful institution, but it is certainly not beyond trenchant criticism and satire, as and when the criticism or satire is merited.

There's no need to believe that the credibility of the UN must be retained at all costs. Doubtless, the organisation has done some good, but it has failed to achieve its crucial goal of ensuring "never again" for Nazi-like genocides and atrocities. It can't take much credit for the fact that there was never a World War III between the NATO allies and the former Soviet Union and its satellites - surely that related more to a balance of terror between nuclear-armed states. I doubt that it has done much to contribute to the fundamental freedoms enjoyed in liberal societies. In any event, no matter how wonderful the UN may be, it should attract criticism just like any other powerful organisation.

Freedom of speech has been squeezed and squeezed. Yes, it's not an absolute value that can't be overridden by other values in any circumstances whatsoever. I doubt that there are any such absolute values. But exceptions to the presumption of freedom of speech need to be justified, case by case, with compelling argument and evidence, and the exceptions then need to be defined as narrowly as possible, not used by analogy for dubious new exceptions.

The time has come to shout "Enough!" We've been moving too far in the direction of creating more and larger exceptions to freedom of speech. We need a loud, popular movement to push the other way.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Twenty years since the infamous fatwa

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the infamous fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for Salman Rushdie's death. To their eternal shame, many Western intellectuals chose to side with the evil ayatollah, rather than to support Rushdie's freedom of speech.

The anniversary is not exactly a cause for celebration, but it's worth marking it and reflecting on how our freedoms are still endangered by anti-liberal individuals, organisations, and institutions. We are under continual pressure to compromise precious rights such as freedom of speech and expression. Sometimes the proposals are sufficiently constrained that they might seem reasonable, and even I am not a free speech absolutist. When it comes to a battle between an individual and a huge media corporation that wants to rip away her privacy or destroy her career with lies, I'm going to side with the individual - so we need some limited kind of defamation and privacy law. But we have already gone too far in signing away our right to criticise ideas, organisations, and the performance of public figures in their public roles. It's time to push back, not time to make even more concessions.

As far as religious vilification or "defamation of religion" goes, there's plenty of evidence that the religionists - and the comfortable, well-meaning legal academics who tend to support them - will not rest until there are provisions with real teeth, provisions that will actually lead to restrictions on what can be said. The current debacle in India over Johann Hari's article is another datum in support of that inference.

With the fatwa still officially in force against Salman Rushdie, and this latest stuff-up involving Hari's article, it's a good time to reflect on what we can do to defend free speech and the rest of our Enlightenment legacy. It was hard fought-for over hundreds of years. If it's going to be taken taken from us, as I fear it will be, let's at least fight for it every millimetre of the way. Future generations should know that we tried our best.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In support of Johann Hari

On 28 January 2009, an opinion piece by young British journalist Johann Hari was published in The Independent. This piece is a strong argument for our right to criticise religion. Hari is, quite properly, scathing about recent developments within the UN, as a result of which the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has now been tasked with reporting on so-called abuses of freedom of speech, including "defamation" of religion. In other words, the Special Rapporteur's functions will no longer be confined to detecting and shaming those who suppress freedom of speech; it will now include attacking those who exercise freedom of speech in which ways that offend the religious.

Note that we are not talking here about the incitement of specific crimes against the religious, such as if I addressed a rioting crowd and told them to vandalise a mosque or a synagogue. We are talking about any speech that can be characterised as "defamatory" of a religion or its prophets, such as criticism of Jesus or Muhammad. We are talking about a mechanism to try to censor a wide range of robust anti-religious speech. Hari is justifiably outraged by this development.

The article goes on to elaborate that Hari feels no need to "respect" religions. I totally agree: we must affirm the right of other individuals to believe whatever superstitious or moralistic nonsense strikes them as true, and their right to speak the truth as they see it. But there is no need to esteem, or defer to, the nonsense itself.

Much of what confronts us when we examine religion, particularly but not solely the Abrahamic monotheisms, is barbaric and absurd when viewed in the light of modern scientific and moral understanding. Obviously, some religious groups have refined their doctrines to the point where they are inoffensive (I've said numerous times on this blog and elsewhere that I do not consider genuinely moderate Christians, liberal Jews, and so on, to be my enemies) and so abstract or demythologised as to defy attack on their factual claims. But there is all too much unreconstructed religion around that relies on holy books and traditions from more primitive times, and more often than not attempts to impose the dubious wisdom of these books and traditions on entire societies.

What's more, the problem will get worse. Even as non-belief continues to grow in the advanced countries of Western Europe, Oceania, and North America (even the US), barbaric, unreconstructed forms of Christianity and Islam are growing by immense numbers every year in the populous nations of Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Even in the most liberal and industrially-advanced countries, illiberal monotheisms are growing in numbers, prominence, and political influence. At the level of the United Nations, the UN's original role of preventing a recurrence of Nazi-like evils has largely been forgotten. On many issues, anti-liberal parties such as the Vatican and the key Muslim states (Iran, Syria, and others) are able to attract majorities to their position, or at least enough countries to scuttle liberal-minded initiatives that are in keeping with the UN's original mission, such as the initiative by France and the Netherlands to oppose the criminalisation of homosexuality. More liberal countries such as Canada, the countries of Western Europe, and those of Oceania, need to engage very actively to oppose these tendencies in the UN. It may be that a time will come when the UN has diverted so far from its original purpose that those countries have no choice but to leave and to form their own international organisation. If so, that is still decades away, and we shouldn't despair of the UN quite yet, but we do need to discuss these issues openly and fearlessly.

Please read Johann Hari's article. There is little in it that I disagree with, and he had every right to say what he did, whether you agree with it or not.

On 5 February, Hari's article was published in India, in a Kolkata-based newspaper called The Statesman. This seems like a valuable contribution to discussion of religion in India, in keeping with that country's secular traditions and its proud claim to being the world's largest democracy. What happened next?

In response, a group of Muslims staged protests outside the newspaper's offices. By Monday 9 February, these had turned violent. It's one thing to disagree with Hari's opinion, or even to express your disagreement by peaceful means such as a well-ordered protest. But there is no right to engage in violence, as when crowds start attacking police. Worse, this protest did not merely express disagreement with Hari's viewpoint; it sought that the editor and publisher of the newspaper be arrested for the crime, in India, of "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings".

What is truly outrageous is that any supposedly democratic country should have such a crime on its statute books. Shame on India.

But there's worse to come. The outcome so far is that the individuals concerned actually were arrested! To be fair, this seems to have followed the editor's voluntary attendance at a police station in an effort to defuse tensions, but the fact remains that these people are now charged with criminal offences for publishing Hari's article. Perhaps the prosecution against them will fail (it may be difficult to prove malice), but the ability of such laws to chill valuable debate about religion is obvious. Hari himself risks being arrested if he ever travels to India. I wish I had words to express the full depths of my anger about all this.

On 13 February, The Independent published a further article by Hari entitled "Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote". Here, Hari strongly defends freedom of speech, including freedom to criticise religion. Once again, please read what he has to say.

Johann Hari has my total support, as do the Indian journalists who have been arrested under India's contemptible legislation. Please do whatever you can to support them, to shame India, and to oppose any moves to get similar laws enacted in your own country. Even if the wording of a proposal in your country seems to be innocuous, you can be assured that people who want these laws won't stop until they are in a form that is strong enough to stifle any strong criticism of religion. Even now, supposedly liberal academics routinely complain that the defences in existing religious vilification laws here in Australia are too effective, and that stronger laws are needed to make sure that cases are brought successfully.

In my opinion, no issue is more important than this one. If we allow laws that prevent us criticising religion, we have given away the entire Enlightenment project. I'm not all that brave, but this is the one issue that I would fight for physically, if I had no other choice, or risk jail for. It embodies my deepest commitments. We must do whatever it takes to stand up for our freedom of speech in such an important area. Fortunately, I live in a society where democratic opposition is still possible, and all I feel called on to do at the moment is fight with words. But let's not be afraid to do that much.

For most of us, the prospect of violence or jail hasn't arisen yet: there are no real sacrifices demanded of us, except the sacrifice of some of our time. Thankfully, our courage is not being put to the test in any really harsh way. No one is threatening us with force. But others, such as the publisher, editor, and staff of The Statesman, are not so lucky. Please, please do whatever you can to support them and to take a stand on this overwhelmingly important issue.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geert Wilders refused entry to UK

Controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders has been refused entry to the UK.

From the little I know of Wilders, I don't think I'd like him. He strikes me as an arrogant bigot. He despises Islam, and likely despises Muslims (which is not the same thing, of course). If he had the power, he would very likely adopt extreme policies in the Netherlands.

But should he be prevented from entering a country such as the UK, or Australia if he ever wanted to come here, for the purpose of presenting his views? Should he be prosecuted for religious vilification or something similar as is currently happening to him in the Netherlands?

We need to look closely at the facts, more closely than I am going to attempt here, but I think that public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. I realise that entry into a foreign country can be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with such formalities as having a valid passport.

Outside of the Netherlands, Wilders is probably most famous for his anti-Islam movie Fitna. Fitna is open to interpretation - it does not develop a coherent set of propositions but rather bombards the viewer with certain images that connect Islamic doctrine with Islamist terrorism. On one interpretation, it is a call to Muslims to reform their religion to expunge the elements that conduce to violence. It would doubtless be naive to assert that that is all Fitna does, though it seems to be the most overt meaning. Of course, the deeper meaning may be a message conveyed to non-Muslims: "You should fear Islam and fear Muslims." Perhaps even more sinister messages can be found there.

Compounding the problem, Wilders has not stopped at making a controversial and ambiguous film. He has advocated extreme anti-Muslim policies and made numerous public statements in which he seems to go out of his way to be as offensive as possible. As I said, this is not a man whom I'd expect to like. He has created a situation in which he is almost daring Muslim extremists to try to assassinate him. Perhaps he has a martyrdom complex, or something; I don't know.

Thus, the situation that's now arisen is more complicated and difficult than if somebody were simply trying to ban Fitna, something I'd oppose very strongly. Far from letting the film speak for itself, with all its (doubtless deliberate) ambiguity, Wilders is going out of his way to create further offence and perhaps even to make himself a security risk. That makes it far less a black-and-white issue of how governments should deal with such a man. To a very large extent, he has brought bad treatment on himself - he's deliberately tested the limits, and arguably acted unreasonably and in bad faith. It's reached the point where I hesitate to defend his freedom of speech; I can see this case from the point of view of the Dutch and British authorities.

Nonetheless, the right of the state to prevent someone shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or to prevent a demagogue from inciting an angry mob to immediate violence, must be confined closely, or these exceptions to freedom of speech will eat up the rule. So let's try to get this clear.

If someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that would be a poor decision, and we would have good reason to protest and argue that the decision should be reversed. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind, and someone so divisive would be a very poor choice. More generally, people who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. In the end, though, the state should not interfere. It is their decision to make (but our decision whether we ask them to change their minds).

But when the state itself starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it starts to keep someone out of the country for what they've said, I believe that it needs absolutely compelling justification. Wilders has probed at the limits to the point where it's difficult to feel sorry for him, but in any case like this, where there's ambiguity, we really must lean towards freedom of speech.

I'm not going to jump up and down defending Wilders, given his own behaviour, but he has not reached the point of, say, inciting specific acts of unlawful violence. In those circumstances, he should not be prosecuted for what he's said, and a country like Britain should be very reluctant to exclude him from its borders. It should concentrate on providing security for him, even if he's courting assassination, not on keeping him out. Only if it has some very solid basis to think that Wilders' behaviour is endangering bystanders, should it refuse him entry.

Unfortunately, it's easy to imagine the reaction if Wilders entered the UK, and if he were then assassinated on British soil by a suicide bomber, with massive loss of life all around. I can understand that fear, but I think we should be very reluctant to give in to it.

I don't say this with enormous enthusiasm, but I do say it clearly: "Let Wilders into the UK. Stop trying to prosecute him in the Netherlands."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

CTFM watch

I see that my comment in response to the media release by Catch The Fire Ministries - in which CTFM's Danny Nalliah blamed the Victorian bushfires on liberalisation of abortion laws - has still not appeared. I'm not the only one: I'd be willing to bet that CTFM has been inundated with dozens or hundreds of unwanted responses, condemning its callous, opportunistic exploitation of this tragedy.

I wonder whether they'll ever appear.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fundies blame abortion laws for bushfires

Pastor Danny Nalliah of Catch The Fire Ministries (CTFM) has suggested that the tragic bushfires in Victoria were a consequence of the Victorian parliament's recent decision to legalise abortion. I quote from the media release:

CTFM leader, Pastor Danny Nalliah said he would spearhead an effort to provide every assistance to devastated communities, although he was not surprised by the bush fires due to a dream he had last October relating to consequences of the abortion laws passed in Victoria.

He said these bushfires have come as a result of the incendiary abortion laws which decimate life in the womb. Besides providing material assistance, CTFM will commence a seven day prayer and fasting campaign for the nation of Australia tomorrow Wednesday the 11th February.

You can read the rest of this nauseating drivel for yourself. I made a comment on CTFM's website, which was still "in moderation" last I looked. I'll quote it here, just in case in disappears. Before I come to that, though, regular readers of this blog will be aware that CTFM is the organisation that was taken to court over alleged vilification of Muslims, and got bogged down in complex litigation with the Islamic Council of Victoria. In my opinion, the case that was pursued and the legislation under which it was pursued were both misguided. I support freedom of speech even for fundamentalist organisations such as CTFM. It doesn't mean I have to like them. My comment:

Mate, I’m another person whose support you had in the religious vilification case. I do support your freedom of speech. You are free to come out with the morally repugnant garbage in this media release, and I’ll defend your right to do so - just as I reserve my right to name it for what it is.

Sky Marsen on future identities

One of the articles in the current issue of The Global Spiral is Sky Marsen's "Conceptualizing Future Identities", which would be worth reading solely for its interesting reinterpretation of the movie GATTACA, usually taken as a dire warning about the use of advanced genetic technology.

While the dystopian ambitions of GATTACA are obvious, there are other points that can be made. Since GATTACA is a favourite text for senior high school students, it would be nice if they were directed to Sky's discussion, which concludes as follows:

The film shows what might happen with technological advancement, if other factors (especially discursive and conceptual factors) are not updated to keep up with this advancement. It does this through the textual strategy of constructing a society where genetic engineering has progressed considerably since the late 20th century, but where everything else seems to be lagging. For example, the definition of "physically fit" remains exactly the same as the one used in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Vincent is barred from his desired profession because he is deemed to be not physically fit. Yet, after a while one begins to wonder why he needs perfect vision and a strong heart for the kinds of tasks his job requires. The fact that he succeeds in them, despite his "defects," shows that the definition of the agent does not match the actions of the agent. It is also interesting that "keeping fit" is still imaged as running on a treadmill, which suggests that concepts and metaphors of physicality have not changed. So, another valuable lesson of the story is the importance of the ways people think and talk about things (as manifest in concepts, definitions, metaphors, and other discursive strategies), in enabling new forms of identity to emerge.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Driving through smoke

Jenny and I have just spent a week in Newcastle, the city where we grew up and met, and where many of our loved ones still live. We have a vague (but increasingly less so) plan of shifting back there some time late this year.

Thus, we were 1000 kilometres away during the worst of the fires in Victoria over the weekend. When we're up in Newcastle, we tend not to be spending time watching TV or listening to the radio, or keeping abreast of things on the Internet, so we can get quite a few hours behind with the news. Although we knew that there were bushfires in Victoria (and, indeed, in New South Wales), we had no idea of the scale of what was happening. Of course, no one outside the affected areas really started to grasp the enormity of it until Sunday morning as the confirmed death toll started to mount.

On Saturday, we visited my father for a long chat over morning tea. Afterwards, we checked our emails and did some business over the net, then spent a while looking at houses in our current quest to get a good understanding of the Newcastle property market. We had a late lunch, spent a relaxing afternoon avoiding the summer heat, then went out in the evening, accompanied by lovely Amanda Pitcairn, to a local Japanese restaurant. During all this time, we pretty much avoided the news. We only started to get an idea on the Sunday morning.

Sunday was our day to drive back to Melbourne. We got past Sydney just fine, but had some car trouble during the afternoon - our old but normally reliable car has been overheating - and the result was that we didn't get as far as Gundagai until late in the day. The morning papers and the news reports on New South Wales radio stations were still not giving us a picture of the full scale of the tragedy that had been unfolding in Victoria, and Jenny's sister texted us a report that the Hume Highway was clear after having been cut at some point. As far as our own safety was concerned, we were confident, but we were getting more of an inkling of how bad things were.

The scene as we drove into the famous "Dog on the Tuckerbox" service station/fast food complex near Gundagai was eerie. The sky was filled with smoke and the western sun - still relatively high in the sky, with sunset at least an hour away - shone through blood red. We were driving into Mordor.

Running so late, we didn't approach the Victorian border until near-dark, the sun transforming to a pale purple-pink - very like a ball of burning gas, actually - as it sank behind the hills. We drove south through Victoria, peering through the dark and the smoke - never thick enough to be dangerous, but enough for us to smell it and see it was there - listening to Victorian ABC on the car radio. By now, we were getting a rolling report on the disaster; our ears were pricked for any warnings that suggested we might be in personal danger as we cruised down the highway (we weren't). At this stage, the worst was long over - temperatures had dropped from their Saturday peaks, many of the fires were under control, and we were travelling through the aftermath of the disaster, not the disaster itself. Still, as we listened to the rising count of confirmed deaths, the lists of school and road closures, the reports on events relating to particular fires and localities (oddly similar to an election-night round-up of local battles lost and won in electorates hither and thither), it was a sombre experience. Again and again, we hummed down long stretches of road without saying a word, just absorbing what the voices on the radio were telling us.

A couple of millimetres of nuisance rain fell. Truckies drove like maniacs on the empty road. Two or three bolts of lightning from a dry electrical storm split the sky near Shepparton. We stopped now and then, taking things easy after the particularly difficult drive between Sydney and Gundagai, what with our distracting car troubles. We were tired but not at all cranky, often communicating with just a hand on the other's knee. Fortunately, the old Integra was now performing just fine in the somewhat cooler air of the evening.

At about 1 a.m. on Monday morning, we arrived home safely ... never having been in any personal danger or having felt any real concern for ourselves. But what do you say in such situations? What can I add to what has already been said many times? Of course, there have been far worse disasters in other parts of the world, with enormously greater loss of life. But there is still something especially sobering when you come close to the disaster yourself (we would have had real difficulty getting home 24 hours before, and we nodded to each other as we passed burnt areas along the road, before it became too dark and we could see no more than the occasional glowing ember). There's something that especially affects your emotions when it's your own society that's been harmed, and the people killed are almost your neighbours.

It's all grim, but for those who've been wondering, we personally were never endangered by the fires, and we're completely safe now, no matter what happens this week, living in the middle of a huge international city.

But of course, we're keenly aware of all the less fortunate people, out in the countryside, not that far away from us city mice. So many have lost loved ones or family homes, lived through unimaginable terror or survived with awful burns or other wounds. My thoughts are with them this summer morning.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

New issue of The Global Spiral

I'm away from home for a couple of days so I will just briefly direct readers to the new (February 2009) issue of The Global Spiral, which contains essays by ten thinkers associated with the transhumanist movement - among them yours truly.

My own defence of transhumanism is milder, more equivocal, than some, but I nonetheless believe that much of the criticism in the earlier issue on transhumanism was unfair and ill-informed. This new issue should restore the balance.

Comments welcome.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Kudos to Daniel Fogel

I believe that he has handled the controversy over Ben Stein in a very classy way. It's good to see someone acting quickly, decisively, and competently, and admitting an error of judgment.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Self-explanatory open letter to Dr Daniel Fogel

TO: Dr Daniel Fogel
President, University of Vermont

Dear Dr Fogel


I was astonished when I heard that the University of Vermont has invited Ben Stein, an up-front enemy of reputable science, to deliver its commencement address. I do hope that you, or whoever else might have made or endorsed this decision, took into account that Mr Stein has publicy blamed the Darwinian account of evolution for the Nazi Holocaust in his efforts to undermine well-corroborated biological science. He has been the front man for a meretricious campaign attempting to demonstrate that proponents of Intelligent Design are somehow being victimised in the academy. These claims have repeatedly been shown to be without substance. See for example the excellent "Expelled Exposed" website:


I hope you imagine the embarrassment of your science faculty at the prospect of your giving such a person a prominent soapbox for his views.

The invitation to Mr Stein has tended to bring the University of Vermont into disrepute. Unfortunately, the university is now in a no-win situation: if you revoke the invitation, Mr Stein will claim that he has been "expelled" from the academy and his freedom of speech suppressed. Of course, he has ample opportunity to put his views in many forums; you are under no obligation to provide him with another, highly prestigious, one. Although there is now an obvious downside, I urge that you seriously reconsider the invitation. The danger to your university's reputation if you go ahead outweighs even the propaganda value for Mr Stein and his allies if withdraw the invitation and find another commencement speaker.

Yours sincerely

Russell Blackford