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).

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Felix is a star

Mystical Prince Felix is currently starring over on Jerry Coyne's blog. I play what you might call a supporting role.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Faith Fighter 2

Despite its violent-sounding name, this is a peaceful little game that can teach us all to show love and respect to the many religious faiths of the world. You can play it for hours and never get bored. Even religious folks should get a laugh out of it, provided they are not humorless fanatics.


(You can navigate from there to the original Faith Fighter, if you have a more pugilistic attitude. I chose to play as Ganesha.)

Credit where credit is due

In this statement by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi it appears that the Vatican is currently giving some (admittedly mild) opposition to the "defamation of religion" push by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It's all very lukewarm, and we know that the Vatican has supported various kinds of restrictions on free speech in the form of blasphemy laws and/or religious vilification laws. Still, the concept of "defamation of religion" goes further, and it's nice to know that even the Vatican opposes it, or at least wants it clarified. I've suggested in various places - at least in the occasional comment on the interblogs - that the Vatican supports the idea, but it looks like I was wrong.

Doubtless the Vatican's take on the issue will become clearer over time. But for the moment at least, I withdraw any claim that it supports the OIC concept. That doesn't appear to be right. I must give credit where credit's due.

Edit: That said, I'm not much comforted when I see a Catholic country such as Ireland attempting to enact a law like this.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Something of a rethink from Richard Hoppe

Whatever the exact truth of how science organisations in the US should position themselves in respect to religious views, it's good that - after the intense debates of the last few days - Richard Hoppe has moved from this to this. It's good to see someone reconsidering rather than just digging in stubbornly, so I thank him for that.

Some more posts on Eagleton

Mick Hartley declares Eagleton's latest attack on Dawkins, Amis, Rushdie, etc., a disgrace. Martin in the Margins has a bit more to say, including this:

"If you can get your audience to see your opponents as part of a wider, sinister movement - the war on terror, neoconservatism, late capitalism, imperialism - this relieves you of the necessity of engaging with their arguments."

Unfortunately, that's pretty close to Eagleton's style of argument.

There's also some good discussion going on over at Butterflies and Wheels.

Monday, April 27, 2009

PZ on accommodationism

I'm not going to blog at great length today, as the real world calls to me ... but this long post by PZ Myers makes telling points.

Let's all agree that Eugenie Scott and company are doing a fantastic job, and that any criticism of them should be constructive. I don't think there's anything destructive in my tone, but it looks as if any criticism at all upsets some people, no matter how carefully and respectfully it is phrased.

The fact is that there is a real temptation for the science organisations to stray from neutrality about issues such as whether science and (orthodox kinds of) religion are compatible. Political expediency tempts them to do that. People like Matt Nisbet encourage them enthusiastically.

Taner Edis has argued very candidly that it's a good thing when science organisations stray from neutrality and tell the noble (and expedient) lie that science and religion are compatible. I respect Taner's view, admire its frankness, and appreciate the difficulty he has in trying to win the sympathies of an Islamic audience when he communicates about science - but see what Jerry Coyne has to say over here about how expedient accommodationism has really been with Christian audiences in America over the past decades:

"As I’ve said before, 25 years of trying to sell evolution by asserting that it’s compatible with faith has had no effect on changing the minds of Americans. The percentage of Americans who accept evolution is about where it was a quarter-century ago — indeed, it’s a bit lower now. The battle to change minds is a stalemate. (In contrast, the evolution side has won repeatedly in court, but you don’t need to push accommodationism to do that. All you need to do is show that creationism or ID is religiously motivated.) I think that widespread acceptance of evolution in America may have to await the de-religionizing of our people, which may take a while. But, as one can see from Europe, it’s not impossible. The winning battle may be the battle against faith."

Disclaimer: I am not confronted by same day-to-day problems that face American science advocates. I'm humbled by that. I live in a relatively irreligious country. It would be arrogant of me to push this issue too hard, without at least acknowledging my opponents' points and the difficulties that they face. And just maybe Taner's position is correct at the end of the day, at least for the circumstances he faces. But even if that is so, it's going to take more honesty from other advocates of "necessary bullshit" before I'm convinced. In any event, I (and Jerry and PZ) are asking for neutrality. We're not asking the NCSE, or any other science body, to attack religion. The NCSE (for example) is not the right organisation to fight a battle against faith, and no one is saying that it is.

On the face of it, you'd think what Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and I are saying would be pretty reasonable. Why is our position so difficult to understand? Taner Edis gets it, but it seems from all the debate at cross-purposes in the blogosphere that most of our opponents can't get their heads around the simple concept of neutrality.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

And speaking of bullshit, try this example from Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton has written a confused article in The Guardian, in which he seems to be taking Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and others to task for illiberalism. I same "seems", because this article is all over the place; it's difficult to work out what Eagleton is really trying to say.

As it happens, I do think that there is a risk of people with comprehensive rationalist philosophies ending up falling into illiberalism. We could get to the point of wanting to ban religions, take children from religious parents, leave no room at all for moral views different from our own. Any comprehensive worldview has the potential of turning illiberal if it lacks certain inner resources; if it cannot find its own reasons to participate in something like a Rawlsian political framework. Indeed, I often wonder how many comprehensive worldviews really would participate in such a framework if they thought they could get away with imposing their views on others.

Sometimes I am worried by the proposals of commenters on the various blogs and sites that have become rallying points for rationalism and atheism; sometimes such people do stray into rather illiberal territory. While we complain about the theocratic tendencies of religionists, we all need to be careful not to become too prescriptive, ourselves, of other people's views of the good. Or, rather, we can offer prescriptions, but should not try to impose them by political coercion.

This is a worthwhile topic for an article. The trouble is that Eagleton makes a complete hash of it. If Dawkins, say, advocated deporting Muslims, or taking children from Muslim parents (with no uncontroversial child abuse involved), or attempting to suppress Islam, or to ban promulgation of its doctrines, that would plainly be illiberal. He would be making clear that he is unwilling to allow Islamic views of the good to flourish in our society - side by side with other views of the good - free of persecution by the state. I would oppose any such proposals.

But to oppose other views of the good simply by way of criticism or satire is not illiberal at all. There is no reason why liberals should refrain from criticising or satirising viewpoints that they consider benighted. Liberalism isn't an agreement that we all shut up and say nothing nasty about each other; it is not an agreement that we cease to regard our own respective worldviews as superior to others on offer; it is merely an agreement that we stop trying to get our hands on the levers of state power for the purpose of imposing our worldviews by coercion. It implies that the powers of the state should be somewhat limited, or at least exercised with a certain deference to the choices of individuals (I disagree, however, if Eagleton thinks, as he seems to, that it rules out any socialist economic program).

Eagleton is simply wrong to say that there's only a short step from superiority to supremacy. Anyone who could say such a thing does not understand liberalism at all and needs to go back to school. A liberal is not someone who takes the contorted view that her own viewpoint is no better than others on offer (that would be a vulgar and implausible sort of relativism). She is someone who takes the principled political stance that, although she considers her comprehensive worldview (perhaps a rationalist one, but perhaps even a religious one of some sort) to be superior, she will not attempt to impose it by means of fire and sword, as long as others do not attempt to use fire and sword to impose their views on her.

Generally speaking, liberals are even prepared to tolerate (at least up to a point) those who do not reciprocate. That's a practical necessity in modern societies because it may well be that the majority of religious and similar groups are not totally prepared to reciprocate. They do so only with reservations.

There are, of course, difficult issues about how far liberals should tolerate the intolerant, such as Catholic cardinals with theocratic tendencies. However, the general assumption is that individuals and groups which advocate intolerant laws and social arrangements will themselves be given a broad measure of tolerance. That doesn't mean that they should receive credence or be immune from criticism or beyond satire. Most importantly, we may have powerful liberal arguments to put in opposition to laws that would restrict freedom of religion or restrict consensual adult sexual behaviour (for example), and we may argue fiercely that the state should be unimpressed by any advocacy of those laws. But that's different from making the advocacy unlawful. Writing in the American constitutional context, Martha Nussbaum says:

"If people seek to torture children, or to enslave minorities, citing their religion as their reason, their claims must be resisted even though they may be sincere. If they simply talk in favor of slavery or torture, their freedom to speak must be protected, up to the point at which speech becomes a threat. They will not, however, be able to present their ideas in the political sphere on an equal basis with other ideas, since the Constitution (in the case of slavery) and the criminal law (in the case of torture) forbid the practices they recommend. So: people are all respected as equals, but actions that threaten the rights of others may still be reasonably opposed, and opinions that teach the political inequality of others, while they will not be suppressed, will still be at a disadvantage in the community, since their advocates would have to amend the Constitution to realize their program."

I think that's about right. It should be added that, even if it is not necessary to amend a nation's constitution to realise such an intolerant program, the program's advocates will (rightly) be at disadvantage because they will need to overthrow ethico-legal principles that are widely accepted within a liberal society. Within such a society, they cannot expect equal consideration of their views in the public sphere. They can, however, expect to be permitted to express their views. We won't suppress the intolerant, but their intolerant views don't deserve a level playing field.

A point may come where some intolerant worldviews that do not accept the Rawlsian framework need to be challenged more directly. The state may, for example, react by giving them a lower priority in its various consultations. It's not obvious that the state must consult with the intolerant or give intolerant groups formal recognition. In the extreme, we don't have to tolerate the intolerant so much that they are allowed to overthrow the liberal framework itself, but we should be very reluctant to decide that the time has come to suppress illiberal opponents, even opponents as despicable as, say, a neo-Nazi movement. But long before the state does anything in particular, individuals are free to employ criticism, satire, persuasion, to challenge any views that they disagree with strongly, and they are most definitely free to oppose intolerant views.

I fail to see where Dawkins or anyone else who has been mentioned has done more than that. If anyone is sailing close to the wind here, it's not them but Eagleton himself. What are we to make of it when he writes the following? "Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are [sic] apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult." Whether or not Islam is "a barbarous blood cult" is a matter of opinion. It's not my opinion, as it happens, and I don't know where Dawkins or anyone else has ever expressed such an opinion. Islam is obviously more complex than that. Nonetheless, even if Martin Amis, say, has said such a thing, so what? Someone who thinks Islam is nothing more than "a barbarous blood cult" does not necessarily propose to suppress Islam by using the coercive power of the state. Such a person may be quite committed to the liberal framework.

It sounds, however, as if Eagleton is getting very close to telling Dawkins and the others to shut up. The choice of the word "slanderous", which denotes a form of illegal speech, is very troubling. Is Eagleton seriously suggesting that the speech of Dawkins, etc., should be regarded as slander - as a form of defamation - and so prohibited? Perhaps not, but it would be a relief if he clarified this. If he doesn't actually want to use force to shut up his rationalist opponents, he's chosen his words poorly. Talk of slander may be colourful hyperbole, I suppose, but it's not very amusing at a time when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supported by other influential players such as the Vatican, is continuing its campaign to ban "defamation of religion".

Eagleton identifies with the Left, and he claims that it does not seek to suppress civil liberties (well, that's a relief!). But his own wording seems to call for exactly that. He can say what he likes, of course, in the sense that his attempts at a cultural contribution should not be censored. I'm a good Millian liberal, and I won't campaign to suppress Eagleton's opinions, or to control how he expresses them. But maybe he'd like to think a bit more carefully next time, before he rushes into print. It might also be a good idea if he learned something useful about political philosophy before his next unlettered rant against reason and secularism.

The bullshit we have to have?

Taner Edis (yet another contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief!) has replied to Jerry Coyne and me, over at the Secular Outpost Blog , an outpost, as it were of Secular Web/Internet Infidels.

Taner has an interesting take on this, and his views certainly merit consideration. He says that Jerry Coyne and I "are correct, and obviously so" when we say something like the following:

"[I]n their zeal to defend evolution education, many American scientific organizations, from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Center for Science Education, have endorsed what amounts to a liberal theological doctrine concerning the compatibility of science and supernatural religion. Indeed, they do so with an explicit concern to reassure the public that science is not associated with dirty ideas such as atheism. Given that natural science is notoriously an area where nonbelievers are overrepresented, this is odd. Indeed, some of those nonbelieving scientists who expect to be represented by scientific organizations naturally feel put up upon by all this."

That's a fair enough representation of my position and perhaps of Jerry Coyne's.

What's more, Taner thinks the compatibilist line adopted by the science bodies is "bullshit".

At the same time, he emphasises the political realities, and describes some of them in detail. He thinks that the alleged compatibility of science and religion, and the arguments put for this, are bullshit, and that it's appropriate for him to argue as much in his own books, articles, and blog posts. At the same time, political reality demands that science organisations disseminate this same bullshit to their larger and different audience.

"Very few actually read [my books, articles, and blog posts], and even less care about what I say, so the damage I can do by being honest is very limited. But if my political hopes for science are to be realized, the only feasible way I can see is for more liberal forms of religiosity to provide a buffer zone. I want superficial, bullshit varieties of compatibilism to become the conventional wisdom."

I'm not actually going to criticise this viewpoint, and not just because Taner is obviously an ally, etc. It's because I'm all too uncomfortably aware that this view may be correct, at the end of the day, and that maybe I'm naive in wanting to avoid peddling bullshit views to the wider public. When it's put this candidly, I respect the honesty. Taner's frankness is certainly refreshing compared with what Matt Nisbet might say on the same subject. I should add at this point, that I'm also well aware that (as someone emphasised to me in a private note) people like Eugenie Scott are among the good guys.

But for all that, I'm still uncomfortable about going down a path where we honestly and openly say one thing to a relatively elite audience that reads our books, etc., while applauding when the opposite is said to a mass audience. I'm not dogmatically opposed to elitism, noble lies, and so on. Maybe they sometimes have a consequentialist justification, but they're distasteful at best.

Edit: The above almost sounds like I'm ready to back down. I'm not, and I have larger reasons for not doing so. But I'm impressed that somebody - Taner Edis as it turns out - has finally articulated the hard-nosed view that some bullshit may be necessary bullshit. That's a debate we need to have within the rationalist tent.

Giving up ... something?

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins asks:

Suppose you have a religion and are interested in science. Do you

a. Have to give up your religion

b. Have to abandon your effort to find out about the natural world through science

c. Try to find some accommodation?

Now suppose you are a member of a scientific body, and want to suggest to members of religions that they can be part of the scientific enterprise. What do you do?

a. Tell them they can do so only if they abandon their religion

b. Tell them they cannot be part of the scientific enterprise

c. Tell them that some religions have no apparent problem accommodating science?

John thinks, or thought before I commented, that my answer would be "a." in each case, but that's not really how I see it. If someone asked me the first question, seeking personal advice, I'd give an answer more like c., although I'd be telling them to follow the science where it leads, and I'd warn them that they might thereby reach a view of the world incompatible with their current religious view or anything much like it. There's actually a bit more to say here, because the main problem that I see is the tension between acceptance of the general picture of the world offered by science (the age of the universe and the Earth, the long slow process of life's evolution, the fact that we ourselves are evolved animals closely related to chimpanzees, and so on) with the general picture of the world offered by orthodox Abrahamic monotheism. You don't actually need to know all that much science to see this tension, and if you think you can resolve it to your own satisfaction prior to pursuing a scientific career, it's possible (even likely) that whatever resolution you come up with will continue to satisfy you. That resolution will probably be some theological doctrine, or set of doctrines.

In my own view, if you're rigorous you'll be forced to a theological position quite remote from orthodox Abrahamic monotheism, possibly even as far as deism (or maybe some other historically unorthodox theological position, like process theology). And once you go that far you might start to lose the motivation to believe in God at all and become an atheist or at least an agnostic. You certainly might come to be very sceptical about the teachings of your own church (or mosque, or whatever).

But, look, that's just how I see things. Although I argue this case and would, frankly, like to see a loss in the authority accorded to religion, I'm not trying to force my view on anyone. Nor do I mind telling any young would-be scientists that there are good scientists who are also religious - the Ken Millers and so on. I'm not the thought police.

As to the second question, I'm not sure that scientific bodies should say anything at all on such a subject. However, I'm not all that worried if they say c., and then shut up. If they were really honest, though, they'd acknowledge that it's not so straightforward. To reconcile your religious faith with what you learn from science, you may eventually need to adopt theological positions that you find either far-fetched or remote from what attracted you to religion in the first place. Really, it's better for scientific bodies to shut up about this, or at least say as little as possible. It's not their job to reassure people that they can pursue the scientific enterprise without it changing them. No such reassurance can be given, at least not honestly.

If they went further than c., and claimed that religion (still thinking of orthodox Abrahamic positions) and science just are compatible, I'd not only think this incorrect and beyond the remit of the scientific organisations, but also rather dangerous. The fact is that some young scientists will think about the tensions between the scientific picture of the world and the orthodox monotheistic world picture ... and some will decide that they can't satisfactorily reconcile the two. Some of these people will come to see whatever doctrines are needed to produce the reconciliation as too far-fetched to be believable, or too remote from whatever made religion attractive to them in the first place. If scientific organisations start buying into the philosophical question of the compatibility of science and religion, but without mentioning this real possibility, then they risk being simply dishonest.

Again, it's better to say as little as possible and concentrate on talking about science itself. After all, there's overwhelming evidence for, say, the main ideas of evolutionary theory. Science also has huge social benefits, as well as intrinsic excitement. It's not as if there's nothing left to be said in defence of science once you decide not to address theological and philosophical questions.

I wonder how John would answer if I threw a variant of his questions back at him:

Suppose you have a religion and are interested in philosophy. Do you

a. Have to give up your religion

b. Have to abandon your effort to inquire into the nature of the world through the study of philosophy

c. Try to find some accommodation?

Now suppose you are a member of a philosophical organisation such as the American Philosophical Association or the Australasian Association of Philosophy, and want to suggest to members of religions that they can be part of the philosophical enterprise. What do you do?

a. Tell them they can do so only if they abandon their religion

b. Tell them they cannot be part of the philosophical enterprise

c. Tell them that some religions have no apparent problem accommodating philosophical inquiry?

Surely it would be disingenuous for an association of philosophers to get involved in the second question, partly because philosophers are deeply divided on whether any religion (and if any, which?) can withstand philosophical scrutiny. Answers a. and b. are obviously wrong, but c., even if literally correct, is disingenuous. If you study philosophy, you will change. No one can guarantee that the change will be one that preserves your current religious views - or anything like them. It's dishonest to provide an answer that implies the contrary.

Science and philosophy are different enterprises of course, but if we are going to recommend a different sort of answer for scientific organisations from what we recommend for a philosophical organisation, what exactly is the salient difference?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jerry Coyne on science organisations and accommodationism

At his Why Evolution is True site, Jerry Coyne has been posting about the accommodation of religious sensibilities in materials and statements by American science organisations such as the National Academy of Sciences, National Center for Science Education, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. In all cases, these (valuable) organisations have considered it necessary to calm the fears of American religionists that science, particularly evolutionary biology, undermines religion.

It's fair to say that the science organisations have taken policy stances that science and orthodox religion are not incompatible. In my view, that is a deplorable step. At stake here is a profound and controversial philosophical question: is the emerging scientific image of the world compatible with any of the religious images of the world that are currently on offer, particularly those that claim to be orthodox? Individual citizens are, of course, quite entitled to have views on that question. Likewise, as free citizens, individual scientists are entitled to have their philosophical views. However, it's not an issue that can be resolved within one specialised science; nor can it be settled by the policy decisions of one or more science organisations. It requires an analysis of the worldviews offered by various religions, including a consideration of which doctrines are considered essential by religious authorities and which are more peripheral. These must then be compared with the overall picture of the world in space and time emerging from scientific investigation. This involves an assessment (based on the consensus of scientists in the relevant fields) of which theoretical propositions are so well-corroborated by now that there is little prospect of revision, even though no scientific claims are considered certain or totally beyond revision. In other words, we need to assess which propositions should be considered established findings. Comparisons must then be made between essential religious doctrines and science's established findings.

In the end, reasonable people may differ about whether there is any incompatibility, though I am convinced that there really is an incompatibility between important, orthodox positions in Abrahamic theology, on the one hand, and established scientific findings on the other.

Before getting to that, I should note that some religious positions are plainly incompatible with well-established scientific findings. The image of the universe in space and time that has been built up by the converging investigations of scientists in such fields as geology, astrophysics, and evolutionary biology was not contrived for the purpose of discrediting religion. Rather, it is the gradual result of ordinary methods of rational inquiry supplemented by more precise methods that have become increasingly available since the time of Galileo — such as instruments that extend the human senses, mathematical modelling, and apparatus that enables many decisive experiments to be done. As a result of patient scientific work over the past few centuries, increasingly specialised and professionalised in recent decades, we now know that the universe we live in is billions of years old, that our planet itself is something like four-and-half billion years old, that life diversified through an evolutionary process involving mechanisms that prominently included Darwinian natural selection, that our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and so on. However, some religious leaders teach that our planet is only about 6,000 to 10,000 years old, that biological species have not evolved from earlier species, and so on. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence against that image of the world, all such religious doctrines are plainly and directly at odds with well-established outcomes from rational inquiry.

More importantly, however, at least for those of us who live outside of the United States with its abundance of creationists and the like, the scientific image of the universe is difficult to reconcile with more general ideas from traditional Abrahamic theology. It is particularly difficult to reconcile the scientific picture with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, providential deity, seen as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Note, however, that this "difficulty" is a philosophical inference, reached after a process of comparison between Abrahamic doctrines and scientific findings. It does not amount to a plain contradiction between religion and science, but is mediated by various assumptions that may (I'm willing to suppose) be debatable.

People like me - philosophers who are sceptical about the truth-claims of religion - may ask, pointedly, why an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, providential deity has employed biological evolution to bring about rational life forms like us, assuming that that was the deity's goal. It would have been within the power of such a being to create us, just as we are now, in the blink of an eye; instead it used the slow, uncertain methods of mutation, survival, and adaptation. What was all that about? As I argue in my forthcoming Voices of Disbelief essay, such a being, whose attributes include omniscience, would have known that this process would lead to untold cruelty and misery in the animal world, imperfect functional designs, and a timeframe of billions of years for rational life to eventuate. In short, why wouldn't a superlative being, such as the orthodox Abrahamic God, simply have chosen the outcome it wanted - then made it happen? As the Koran says of Jesus' virgin birth, "When He decrees a thing He only has to say, 'Be,' and it is." So why all this suffering, wasted time, and imperfection?

In defending the compatibility between religion and science, orthodox Abrahamic theologians and believers must either abandon their orthodox views (perhaps moving towards deism, or some kind of process theology, or even to an irrealist/metaphorical conception of God); or else they need to offer theological propositions that reconcile God's providential love (and other attributes) with the choice of such methods of creation. I very much doubt that the latter can be done in any plausible way. The attempt to reconcile orthodox Abrahamic religion with well-established scientific findings leads to unbelievable intellectual contortions.

But what if I'm wrong about this? Perhaps there are Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) philosophers who can answer the point I'm making. Well, fine. But even if there are, official organisations representing science don't - or shouldn't - get to adjudicate between them and me. This is a highly contentious issue that falls outside the expertise of such bodies.

In any event, individual scientists are entitled to have views on such philosophical issues, and it's clear that many scientists take positions much like mine. Those scientists have every right to be angry that their official organisations - organisations that are supposed to be representing them - are taking a stand on the issue. This leaves aside the arrogance of science organisations appearing to favour particular religious viewpoints. Of course, it's true that some religious viewpoints are just irrational, in the sense that they plainly contradict well-established scientific findings. Others, even on my account, are incompatible with science only in relatively subtle ways, and reasonable people with those viewpoints could put some kind of case against my position (even though I might not consider that case to be at all plausible). While this is all true, it's not up the scientific organisations to be saying it. That's outside their remit. It’s really up to the religionists to alter their views to bring them into line with well-established science - if they can. Or they can choose not to and go on advocating positions that range from plainly irrational to (more) subtly implausible. They may even fight back with nonsensical pseudo-science such as warmed-over diluvian geology or Flintstones-style depictions of humans and dinosaurs sharing the same environments.

Science organisations should stick to the point that certain findings are the result of systematic, rational investigation of the world, supported overwhelmingly by several lines of converging evidence. In putting that case, they can be "religion blind"; they should present the evidence for the scientific picture, but that's as far as they should go. They should not comment on what specific theological positions are or are not compatible with science. Leave that to the squabblings of philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, of individual scientists or other citizens. We can think and argue about it for ourselves.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Left libertarian thing again

I hadn't checked this Facebook application for a while.

It's interesting to see that all my friends are still left libertarians - well, actually, not anymore. There a a couple of outliers over to the right. However the overall situation hasn't changed much.

I take it as obvious that I'm represented by the red dot. Yes? I now find myself just to the right (on the economic dimension) of that main cloud of people in the left-libertarian quadrant. This means, I take it, that I am definitely assessed as a left libertarian, but on the right-hand edge of a very left-leaning group.

On the social dimension, I am markedly libertarian, but no more so than most of this bunch. On this dimension I'm fairly much in the middle of all these hard-core anti-authoritarian types whom I've befriended.

That all seems about right correct to me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Stuart Mill on the New Atheism

Not really, but look at this passage (my interpolated comments will be italics):

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

Well, THAT sounds familiar!

But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct.

Yes, where does it end if we start requiring strict standards of logic in public discourse? No law that does this would be fair or workable.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interested in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion.

Mill goes on to oppose efforts to prevent either "side" from using strong language, sarcasm, etc. But his point here is that it tends to be people with unpopular opinions who are attacked for using it. Given the disadvantages such people suffer, it would be far better to attack the rhetoric of people who have entrenched, popular opinions.

Dacey gets it right on Durban II

50 Voices of Disbelief contributor Austin Dacey has published a useful analysis of Durban II, pointing out that the conference was deeply flawed even if you set aside the anti-Semitic speech by Iran's Holocaust-denying President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Dacey highlights the illiberal nature of the existing UN anti-racism convention, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:

For nearly 40 years the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) has existed as an enforceable international treaty on racism and related forms of intolerance and discrimination. If this treaty has failed to compel signatory states to act against intolerance and discrimination, why should we expect Durban to succeed, even under the best of circumstances?

The truth is that the ICERD already goes too far in its efforts to curb hatred, calling for criminal penalties for the "dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred" and the participation in organizations that "promote and incite racial discrimination."

In other words, ICERD already contains unjustifiable restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of association. While I have nothing but contempt for anti-Semitic loons such as Ahmadinejad, I do not want their speech to be suppressed on the basis that it promotes racial hatred (as it clearly does). Generally speaking, bad speech should be met with better speech and by other means that fall short of criminal penalties (or other kinds of state suppression). There may be exceptions, but they should be narrowly-tailored to prevent imminent harms or otherwise to advance compelling state interests.

Dacey points out that the US ratified ICERD in 1994, but only with reservations:

The Constitution and laws of the United States contain extensive protections of individual freedom of speech, expression and association.

Accordingly, the United States does not accept any obligation under this Convention, in particular under Articles 4 and 7, to restrict those rights, through the adoption of legislation or any other measures, to the extent that they are protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

By contrast, I notice that Australia has taken a weak stance. Its reservation says no more than:

The Government of Australia ... declares that Australia is not at present in a position specifically to treat as offences all the matters covered by article 4 (a) of the Convention. Acts of the kind there mentioned are punishable only to the extent provided by the existing criminal law dealing with such matters as the maintenance of public order, public mischief, assault, riot, criminal libel, conspiracy and attempts. It is the intention of the Australian Government, at the first suitable moment, to seek from Parliament legislation specifically implementing the terms of article 4 (a).

It's about time for all Western nations to stand up for fundamental liberal freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, in international human rights forums. Durban II was almost certainly going to push the participant nations even further in an illiberal direction, with strong attempts to require full commitment to ICERD, plus the introduction of further, and far more worrying, restrictions on freedom of speech. Early drafts of the conference communique called for proscription of so-called "defamation of religion"; although this unacceptable language was removed from recent versions of the communique, negotiated in the weeks leading up to Durban II, there were legitimate grounds to fear that it would be returned to the agenda at the conference. Note that the UN's Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning "defamation of religion" less than a month ago.

Even with the removal of the phrase "defamation of religion", the text of the draft Durban II communique contained plenty to worry about. Dacey again:

What’s more, the text calls for an elaboration of existing international standards in order to keep pace with new forms of intolerance (read "Islamophobia"). Now the Algeria-chaired Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards, under the influence of the Islamic states and their African allies, is seeking to add to ICERD a protocol that would outlaw religiously offensive speech as "incitement."

Incitement normally has a fairly clear meaning. If I call on you to lynch a corn dealer (or, in more modern times, perhaps a merchant banker) on the basis that corn dealers (or merchant bankers) are starvers of the poor, that is incitement to violence. But if I am merely critical of the Catholic Church or its leaders, or its influence or its doctrines or its traditional attitude to sexuality, that is legitimate, indeed valuable, critical speech. If I criticise contemporary Iran for barbaric practices such as stoning adulterers or hanging homosexuals, that is legitimate critical speech, even if I (fairly or otherwise) blame Islam for these practices. But these are just the kinds of legitimate speech that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nations, with majority support within the UN membership, wishes to see banned. The Human Rights Council has already banned all such speech in its own discussions, effectively gagging the International Humanist and Ethical Union's valuable contributions.

As I've said before, international norms developed under UN auspices should not be embraced uncritically by the liberal democracies of the West, such as Australia, the US, and the sophisticated nations of Europe. It should not be assumed that whatever is contained in such documents as UN conventions will always be, or is now, fully compatible with our fundamental freedoms. Unfortunately, the UN itself and the norms that it develops are compromised and flawed. Whenever they clash with our fundamental freedoms, the latter must prevail.

If it comes to a choice between our freedoms and the ongoing viability of the UN, the UN can go to hell.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Death of J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard, the greatest of all the writers of the 1960s British New Wave, has died, aged 79.

Contemporary science fiction has absorbed so many layers, among them the innovations of the New Wave style, which brought a new approach to the genre, challenging its tradition of narrative realism; opening up explorations of the mind; flouting sexual taboos; and depicting Western culture, not in the triumphalist mode of much Golden Age SF, but as corrupt and doomed. Ballard, and others who gathered around Michael Moorcock at New Worlds in the early 1960s, brought the sensibility of Modernist literature to science fiction.

We've all gained immensely from having Ballard in this world with us for a time; without him, the best science fiction of the last few decades would have had nothing of the same sophistication. So just a suggestion: give him a moment in your thoughts as you go about your day.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Priestess/Slave party

Yesterday, we held a party at our place in honour of Jenny's book The Priestess and the Slave, which was launched with more formality and longer speeches in Perth last week. Peter Nicholls added some generous and well-chosen words to the short speeches by me, then Jenny, and there was much merriment, with ample amounts of ouzo and baklava available to give the party a Greek touch (however anachronistic).

Thanks to all who attended, and, hehe, especially to all who bought copies. You won't be sorry when you read Jenny's wonderful book.

Australia to boycott Durban II

I'm not sure what to make of this. Arguably, we shouldn't be boycotting even the most unprepossessing UN forums, since each one is a chance to engage in the development of international norms.

On balance, though, I think we've probably made the correct decision - it shows us taking a strong stance on freedom of speech. Even though the proposed communique, or position statement, from the conference was getting watered down in negotiations, there was still a real prospect that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and its allies would have toughened it up again at the conference itself, since they have the numbers, and that Durban II would have issued wording which condemns "defamation of religion". That may well happen, now, but whatever comes out of Durban II will have severely-damaged credibility, with most many Western nations (on my current count, at least the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Israel) boycotting the conference.

This development makes me wonder - again - about the future of the UN itself. Now that the UN is so dominated by illiberal parties, such as the OIC countries and the Vatican, it cannot be assumed that international norms will take a direction that's compatible with liberal political theory. If the UN goes down an increasingly illiberal path, then those countries that still value fundamental liberties, such as freedom of speech, will increasingly reject whatever verbiage emerges. A time may even come when the Western liberal democracies see no point in retaining membership, in which case they could pull the plug entirely and concentrate on relations among themselves. The UN could turn into a rabble of theocracies and dictatorships.

The next couple of decades will be very interesting.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Harvard's Islamic chaplain: "great wisdom" in death penalty for apostates

Harvard University's Islamic chaplain (there are other chaplains there, of other flavours) has created controversy by giving pastoral advice to the effect that there "is great wisdom" in the traditional teaching that apostates should be punished with death. Taha Abdul-Basser advised a student by email in the following terms, which I am quoting in full to avoid any criticism that I am taking the remarks out of context:


I am familiar with these types of discussions.

While I understand that will happen and that there is some benefit in them, in the main, it would be better if people were to withhold from _debating_ such things, since they tend not to have the requisite familiarity with issues and competence to deal with them.

Debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general, and people rarely observe the etiquette of disagreements.

There are a few places on the Net where one can find informed discussions of this issue (Search ["Abdul Hakim Murad"|Faraz Rabbani" AND "apostasy"]) . The preponderant position in all of the 4 sunni madhahib (and apparently others of the remaining eight according to one contemporary `alim) is that the verdict is capital punishment.

Of concern for us is that this can only occur in the_domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by non-state, private actors._

Some contemporary thought leaders have emphasized the differing views (i.e. not capital punishment) that a few fuqaha’ in the last few centuries apparently held on this issue, including reportedly the senior Ottoman religious authority during the Tanzimat period and Al-Azhar in the modern period. Still others go further and attempt to elaborate on the argument that the indicants (such as the hadith: (whoever changes his religion, execute him) used to build the traditional position apply only to treason in the political sense and therefore in the absence of a political reality in which apostasy is both forsaking the community and akin to political treasons in the modern sense, the indicants do not indicate capital punishment.

I am not aware of `Allama Taqiy al-Din Ibn Taymiya’s position on this issue but much is attributed to him by both detractors and supporters so one should be wary of accepting things attributed to him without asking experts. Perhaps you can ask Ustadh Sharif el-Tobgui or Shaykh Yasir Qadhi (I am copying both), both of whom are Ibn Taymiya specialists.

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

And Allah knows best.

Wa s-salam.


Before I go on, let's be fair to Abdul-Basser. He was responding in a private email to a question put to him by a student, after some discussion of the issue among Muslim students on campus. He did not go public, seeking to create controversy. He discusses the fact that different views have been expressed by scholars in the Muslim tradition, and emphasises that the penalty of death can be carried out, rightly, only by a Muslim government, not by private individuals. He was not inciting his students to kill anyone, and nor should he be seen as supporting terrorism or as being, himself, a potential terrorist. Rather, the email looks like someone who is trying to have it both ways - objecting to acts of violence against apostates in the circumstances of contemporary America, while not wishing to denounce traditional Muslim teachings.

Given all that, I'm not interested in condemning him as potentially violent; I don't believe he is. Nor am I calling for his sacking. He was, of course, naive to think that counsel to students on such a controversial issue could remain private, but he was doubtless doing his best to take a low-key approach to the issue brought to him. Whatever else you might call it, the email is not the rantings of an Islamist firebrand.

All that said, Abdul-Basser's eventual position is that "the established and preserved position", that apostates should be executed, contains "great wisdom". Even though there are other positions that have been advanced by (a minority of) Muslim jurists, he is unwilling to criticise what he obviously sees as the mainstream view in Islam.

Abdul-Basser acknowledges that the "established and preserved position" is difficult to accept in the modern world, but he phrases this in terms that might set off alarm bells. He says that the position "makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse". So, concepts such as the freedom to renounce a religion are referred to, somewhat with a sneer, as "hegemonic modern human rights discourse"; this "hegemonic" discourse is evidently something to be treated with caution, even resisted, while giving greater deference to traditional Islamic "wisdom".

While Abdul-Basser is clearly not about to kill anybody, and is not encouraging his students to do so, he is certainly not supporting the legal right of Muslims to convert to another religion, or to an irreligious worldview. It seems clear that he would support the imposition of capital punishment for apostasy in a Muslim state. To say the least, he does not agree with the freedom of individuals to form their own comprehensive worldviews based on what seems to them to be true.

I'm putting this carefully, since it is emphatically not my aim to paint Abdul-Basser as a dangerous fanatic. I merely seek to point out that the Islamic chaplain at Harvard University - clearly a very cultured, highly-educated, and thoughtful man - has a view of the world that is extraordinarily illiberal by Western standards. However you twist it, he approves of the idea of a theocratic Muslim state in which apostasy is punishable by death. As far as I know, he has not called for such states to be created in the West, but the fact that such a man in such a position has such a viewpoint doesn't bode well. It doesn't encourage trust in the ability of Islam to adapt itself to liberal ways of thinking that emphasise freedom of thought, belief, and conscience.

Often, people who express concerns about the compatibility of Islam with modernity, social pluralism, and individual liberty are accused of something akin to racism - of so-called "Islamophobia". That accusation is a dangerous one to make, since it can intimidate people of good will into holding their peace and refusing to say anything critical of Islam or its traditions and associated practices. It is not comfortable discussing these things, knowing that the slightest error of fact or judgment can lead to something like a charge of racism - perhaps the second most damaging, and personally painful, accusation that can be levelled against anyone in a contemporary Western society (exceeded only by an accusation of pedophilia).

So, I'm being careful. Whether I'm careful enought remains to be seen. What we have here with Abdul-Basser is just one data point. I'm definitely not claiming anything as strong as the need for a war (even of ideas) against Islam, or that we are involved in a clash of civilisations, or that Muslims cannot be good citizens in a liberal society (accepting something like a Rawlsian framework from the standpoint of their own comprehensive worldview).

I do, however, think that the jury is out on how quickly and readily Islam can accommodate itself to liberal ideas and a liberal political framework. Does it have the resources to join whole-heartedly in a society where individuals may choose freely between many religious and philosophical viewpoints? In that respect, it's pleasing that a number of Muslim students at Harvard appear to have condemned the views of their chaplain, but disquieting that most of them thought better of revealing their identities.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities is rubbish

Have a look at how this instrument "protects" freedom of speech, our most fundamental liberty:


Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 - SECT 15
Freedom of expression

15. Freedom of expression

(1) Every person has the right to hold an opinion without interference.

(2) Every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes the
freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,
whether within or outside Victoria and whether-

(a) orally; or

(b) in writing; or

(c) in print; or

(d) by way of art; or

(e) in another medium chosen by him or her.

(3) Special duties and responsibilities are attached to the right of freedom
of expression and the right may be subject to lawful restrictions reasonably

(a) to respect the rights and reputation of other persons; or

(b) for the protection of national security, public order, public health
or public morality.


You could drive a truck through that drafting. Sub-section (1) merely gives the right to "hold" an opinion; it doesn't even purport to give the right to express opinions, let alone the right to express attitudes, emotions, or whatever else people wish to express. Sub-section (2) is doing most of the work in the section, but its inclusive definition gives no hint that freedom of speech extends far beyond the right to "impart information and ideas". It would be better not to define "freedom of expression" at all, if that's the best the legislature could come up with.

But sub-section (3) is the killer. The language used here is downright grudging, and seems to be designed to signal to the courts not to take free speech seriously: "Special duties and responsibilities are attached to the right of freedom of expression ..." Okay, so we have this fundamental liberty only if we exercise it in accordance with unnamed "special duties and responsibilities". The most important freedom of all is hedged about as being subject to "special" restrictions on how it may be used. The tone is that of someone who considers free speech to be unwelcome and dangerous, to be handled with care.

But there's even worse to come. The sub-section allows the parliament to enact "lawful restrictions reasonably necessary ... for the protection of ... public morality." A "protection" of free speech with that provision is no protection at all. Governments can do anything in the name of "public morality", but they have no business in doing so. The state should keep out of the morality game.

Of course, sometimes it really is necessary to abridge free speech in some way - e.g., to prevent the direct incitement of violent acts. But the test should be that of a compelling state interest (as that expression is understood US jurisprudence), not the kind of weak, anti-free-speech test set out in sub-section 15(3) of the charter, which almost negates the half-hearted protection offered by sub-sections (1) and (2).

At a bare minimum, sub-section (3) should be repealed - this would bring the language of the charter into line with the equivalent instrument in the Australian Capital Territory: the Human Rights Act 2004 (which is a preferable model all round).

Ideally, though, the drafting should say no more than the following: "The parliament shall enact no law whatsoever that abridges freedom of speech and expression, and all existing enactments are hereby repealed to the extent that they do so." There could be a separate provision, elsewhere in the charter, allowing the enactment of legislation contrary to the charter where, but only where, there is a compelling state interest, with any doubt going against the state and favouring the party claiming the liberty.

The Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities actually does nothing to protect the rights of Victorians. It's so pervasively corrupted by hedging and grudging phrases as to be useless. We were sold a lemon. No wonder there has been almost no litigation based on the charter, as Rob Hulls was boasting the other day as if this were a good thing. I hope that the current federal exercise, chaired by Frank Brennan, produces something a lot stronger than this.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Peter Singer on "defamation of religion"

Another 50 Voices of Disbelief contributor, Peter Singer, has published this article in The Guardian, in defence of freedom of speech. This is what we need to see: the world's major intellectuals taking a stand for our most fundamental liberties.

Part of the motivation of the countries that form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference is their wish to suppress speech that links terrorism with Islam. But, as Singer replies, "To demonstrate that it is wrong to associate Islam with terrorism, the OIC might begin to compile statistics on the religious affiliations of those who engage in terrorism. By contrast, suppressing the freedom of speech of Islam's critics merely gives rise to the suspicion that evidence and sound argument cannot show their arguments to be mistaken."

Singer's main concern, however, seems to be a recent case in which the highest court in Germany ruled against the right of the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to use campaign posters juxtaposing photographs of Holocaust victims against those of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. The posters concerned say, "To Animals, All People are Nazis."

This was forbidden on the basis that PETA's campaign made "the fate of the victims of the Holocaust appear banal and trivial" and was thus, supposedly, an offense against human dignity.

Singer quite correctly points out that PETA was not suggesting that the fates of the Holocaust victims were either banal or trivial. Rather, it was relying on the acknowledged horror of the Holocaust to suggest that something equally horrible happens to factory-farmed animals that we use for food. Whether or not we agree with that, Singer is correct that "A free society should be open to discussing such a claim." Even if this speech offends some people, that is not the test. Generally speaking, no one has the right to be protected from mere offence.

I'm not an absolutist about freedom of speech. Note the "generally speaking" above - sufficiently high-impact images may be so revolting (even inducing physical nausea) that the effect shades into harm. There may be a role for the state in protecting us from having to see such images against our will, and thus for regulating the times and places in which they can be displayed or the manner in which they can be displayed. Images that are likely to produce physical nausea should not, for example, plaster the internal walls of trams, where commuters cannot easily avoid seeing them, or be broadcast during children's television shows. But there is nothing to indicate that the case against PETA was argued along such lines, much less decided in that way.

While there are always nuances, free speech is our most important political liberty, and no encroachments on it should be taken lightly. Kudos to Singer for coming out in its support.

Julian Savulescu lecture later today

Monash University is hosting Julian Savulescu when he gives a public lecture on human enhancement later today. Julian's PhD is from Monash, so there's a strong connection (Julian also has an essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief ). I have the new book on human enhancement that he edited with Nick Bostrom, but haven't yet managed to get a clear block of time to read it. Maybe I'll be able to have at least a look later today, as I'm gradually clearing tasks.

I'll report later on how the lecture went.

Edit: well, not all that much to report. It was good to catch up (very) briefly with Julian afterwards, and to see quite a few Monash people there. The lecture itself was quite low key, though well presented, as is the case with everything that Julian does. He concentrated on presenting the case that many traits, including psychological ones, are likely to have a genetic component, rather than dealing exhaustively with the case for genetic enhancement. The lecture was aimed at a general audience, so maybe he thought best to tone down some of the stronger philosophical claims.

The venue was magnificent; BMW Edge rocks. I'm told that Peter Singer will be speaking in the same venue when he's in town in early June. I must get along, if I can.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stand-up comedy routine by Islamist professor

Here's an entertaining speech by Dr Abdallah Al-Nafisi, an Islamist professor based in Lebanon. When I describe it as "entertaining", I have in mind the numerous one-liners that get laughter from his appreciative audience. It's good to know that there are so many people in the Middle East who have not lost their sense of humour (though they all seem to be men; the wives and daughters of these men might see things a bit differently for all I know).

Admittedly, those of us who are not part of Dr Al-Nafisi's cause might be less amused by the playful wisecracking with which he accompanies his suggestions. His hope for an attack on an American nuclear power plant doesn't seem all that funny to me. To be fair, he's not proposing this as a tactic for Islamist terrorist groups; rather, he's hoping that America's homegrown racist militias might do such a thing, and he suggests prayer to Allah for divine assistance. But nor I am amused by the good professor's more practical suggestions: for example, the idea of using anthrax for large-scale biological terrorism against the US just doesn't tickle my funny-bone. Silly me. Nor did I get many laughs from his suggested program for silencing liberal journalists in the Middle East by "any means possible" (he makes very clear that he means physical threats, culminating in what he repeats as "'Any means possible' - get it?").

But I guess that's the thing about humour. What strikes one person (and his chosen audience) as hysterically funny might leave others cold ... especially when the "one person" concerned is a deranged fanatic, deeply immersed in a cult of death.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back from the roundtable

Well, that was an interesting exercise. There were about 200 people, maybe even more, organised into tables of 10. We had two hours. I must compliment the committee members who ran the show, particularly Frank Brennan and Tammy Williams. They were well-organised, and very patient with the inevitable crackpots who turned up and somehow managed to grab the mikes (or to harangue committee members one-on-one afterwards ... as one person was doing to Brennan when I approached him to ask a simple question). I think that I would have lost patience very quickly with some of the individuals present. This was not a good forum for long speeches about peripheral single issues, such as whether men are treated unfairly in the divorce courts, or whether there ought to be a free ferry service to Tasmania, to take a couple of the examples that came up.

Brickbats to Victoria's Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, who insisted on making a speech in praise of Victoria's Charter of Rights, and offering it as a model for the federal level of government. Hulls has plenty of opportunities to put his views, and I thought it was selfish of him to take valuable time from what was already a time-stretched public meeting.

The microphone somehow never found its way to me in the question times, though I did put my hand up because I had some issues to raise. In any event, most of the time was devoted to the individual tables acting more or less as syndicate groups. Each table was asked to jot down points about (1) what rights should be protected, (2) whether they are adequately protected now, and (3) how they ought to be protected in future. The large sheets of paper were then collected. This process really meant that there was no chance for useful discussion about some things being off the agenda. If someone had a suggestion, it was duly recorded. The people at my table were sensible enough, though far more fixated than I was on economic and cultural rights. (They probably went out thinking that I'm a Randian or something, but of course I am not at all opposed to an economic safety net or some of the other things they were talking about. I just don't think those issues are appropriate for being constitutionalised, and my written submission explains why, as does Helen Irving's.)

Since the process encouraged each table to put down each point being made by anyone in the group of ten, it was a great opportunity for single-issue cranks. So if someone wanted the consultation exercise to bring about a free ferry service to Tasmania or better outcomes for men in the divorce courts ... well, I guess it got jotted down at the relevant table.

I did get some agreement from the others at my table to say that there was value in an entrenched Bill of Rights, even though it is supposedly off the agenda; that we are worried about constitutional problems with a non-binding charter; and that there could be merit in a non-judicial human rights watchdog (separate from the Australian Human Rights Commission) to vet legislation. Tammy Williams indicated that the committee would at least report to the government if there was public support for an entrenched Bill of Rights, even though its hands were tied to stop it making any recommendations limiting the ultimate sovereignty of parliament.

One person who did get a chance to put her view in the final question time made a specific point about the threat to freedom of speech from the push in the UN to prohibit "defamation of religion". Good for her in raising that. A bloke whom I found slightly annoying because he managed to get two goes by being aggressive (while most of us missed out entirely) did make an important point - that we shouldn't be trying to use this exercise to pursue our full political agenda, whether left-wing or right-wing. We should be concentrating on protecting fundamental freedoms. So a couple of the things that I wanted to say got said.

All in all, I conclude: "Not a total waste of time." I give the Committee members 4 out of 5 for how they ran the session under difficult circumstances.

Off to the roundtable

I'll be heading off a bit later to one of those National Human Rights Consultation Community Roundtables. I'll report my impressions later on, when I get back.

I don't have very high hopes for this exercise, at least from a selfish viewpoint, mainly because I expect it to be a cast of thousands, with little opportunity for individuals to have substantial input. This is a big city, and I'm sure that a huge number of people will want to go along. That's all good for democracy, but it may entail that written submissions are really the only way to have any impact as an individual (and even then, you'll need to do something to make your submission stand out from the ten thousand plus that have been received).

That's not to deny that the process will be useful to the committee members - at the least, it must be giving them an impression of what is on the minds of real people in the community. It's a good idea for them to conduct these sessions all over Australia, and I commend them for it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Now in Polish - the idiocy of "defamation of religion"

I don't think I've been published in Polish before. Here's my idiocy of "defamation of religion piece" on the Racjonalista site. I'm in very good company on this site, which has been publishing material by AC Grayling, PZ Myers, Johann Hari, Victor Stenger, and other such luminaries.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hate speech and the ICCPR - why we ought to be worried

Sometimes I wonder whether I'm a bit too paranoid about prohibitions on religious hate speech. It might be said to me, "I support your opposition to broad bans on an ill-defined category of defamation of religion, but there's nothing wrong with the carefully-worded proscription of hate speech in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Can't we use that as a standard?"

There's some force in this objection. On a sensible interpretation, Article 20 might be relatively innocuous, even beneficial. This provision states: "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law."

But let's look at that closely. First, it is requiring those states that have signed up to the ICCPR to prohibit something. Well what, exactly? Answer: "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence". So, what's so bad about that?

Actually, quite a lot, but notice, first, that what is prohibited is "advocacy of ... hatred". Of course, "hatred" is a very strong word, and the speech concerned must not merely be motivated by hatred; it must actually advocate hatred. The UN convention doesn't say "contempt" or "scorn" or "amusement" or "laughter" or even "disgust". The speech must actually (1) advocate hatred (nothing less), and also (2) incite others to "discrimination, hostility or violence". You'd think that would be a difficult test to pass. The strongest language used by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Michel Onfray or even (arguably) Geert Wilders does not advocate that we hate anybody. Not if the word "hatred" is taken literally. If you are advocating hatred, you (Person A) are advocating to Persons B1, B2, etc., that they actually feel malice towards Person C. Malice in the sense of extreme, destructive ill-will. That's very narrow drafting, you might think. How many people in civilised societies really advocate hatred?

Hang on, though.

The wording yields several combinations of elements (nine, in fact) that are supposed to be prohibited. For example, "advocacy of racial ... hatred that constitutes incitement to ... violence". I have no problem with banning that: incitements to violence are not something we want in modern societies. Another example would be "advocacy of national ... hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination". Okay, so I might tell my neighbour that she should hate Norwegians and make life difficult for them, specifically, if they want to buy stuff from her clothes shop. That's not very nice of me. What I'm inciting her to do is probably against the law in whatever jurisdiction we happen to live in (though not the criminal law in most jurisdictions). If my efforts against Norwegians are banned, is it such a huge imposition on my free speech? As it happens, I'm not sure about this one, and I don't want to get bogged down in arguing about the pros and cons. My point for the moment is just that the various things that are supposed to be prohibited are not all the same.

The truly worrying combination of elements, the one I can't live with, is this: "advocacy of ... religious hatred that constitutes incitement to ... hostility". That has enormous potential to restrict freedom of speech. Since "hostility" and "violence" are listed separately, it seems clear that "hostility" need not go as far as involving violence. If I read a harsh critique of Scientology, might I not be provoked to feel a degree of "hostility" to Scientology and to individual Scientologists? What if I see a video in which someone angrily denounces the views of the Catholic Church hierarchy on condom use? Might I not be provoked to feel hostility to the Church and to members of its hierarchy? Might that not be the intention? Might it not even be in the public interest in many cases for there to be such incitements to feelings of hostility, as opposed to any act of actual discrimination or violence? Robust public debate assumes that there will be speech that incites various degrees of hostility to various people. Note that no one worries at all if a politician attempts to incite hostility towards opponents or their ideologies or organisations. Why should it be any different when we're dealing with religious ideas rather than political ones?

But the word "hatred" might save me if I am severely critical of, say, the local Catholic cardinal in a way that incites hostility towards him. Much as I might want my listeners to feel some degree of hostility, I am not advocating hatred of the cardinal. Note that the prohibition called for is against speech that (1) advocates hatred and (2) incites hostility. My speech might fall under (2), but it can't be banned unless it also falls under (1). I can incite hostility against the cardinal as much as I want, as long as I don't do it using speech that advocates "hatred" of him. Surely I'm safe.

Not so fast. Yes, "hatred" is a very strong word, but it is also open to interpretation. It is used in many contexts where literal hatred - the kind of intense ill-will suggested by the word - is not at issue. "I hate the Cats," says someone whose football team has a losing record against Geelong (overseas readers can think of their own sports examples).

In the context of debate about religion, the word "hatred" and its cognates are thrown around very freely, usually by religionists who can't understand how criticism of their views, organisations, doctrines, and so on, can possibly be motivated by anything short of hatred. Consider this article by A.N. Wilson, headed "Religion of hatred: Why we should no longer be cowed by the chattering classes ruling Britain who sneer at Christianity." What is being suggested here is that atheism or humanism is a "religion of hatred". Forget the foolishness of calling the views of, say, Polly Toynbee, whom Wilson attacks spitefully, "a religion". The point is that it is called a religion "of hatred".

"Very well," you might say, "but A.N. Wilson may not have given his piece this title. It could be the work of a sub-editor. Don't put too much weight on it."

Fine (maybe), except that the hypothetical sub-editor found it reasonable, in contemporary circumstances, to use the word "hatred" in this context. And note Wilson's own language in the body of the article: "The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself." As Wilson goes on, accusing Toynbee, Richard Dawkins, and others of fervour, fanaticism, etc., etc., the picture emerges that he really does think his opponents are motivated by, and are advocating, hatred of some kind.

Wilson stops short of accusing his "smug", "sneering", "fanatical", "puerile", "foul-mouthed", and "tieless" (!) opponents of advocating hatred of specific individuals, rather than religion itself, but this is a fine line, and the tone of the article suggests that its author is, in any event, pretty close to crossing it.

This is by no means the first time that I've seen apologists for religion freely throwing around words such as "hate" and "hatred", suggesting that their opponents are hate-filled and promulgating hate. You might like to look out for your own examples. It seems that it is acceptable, in contemporary societies, to write and talk like this. I'm not suggesting that such language be forbidden by law, but I do think it should be seen as patently ridiculous. Should be seen that way - but evidently is not.

That's worrying. If it comes to be accepted that the sorts of critiques of religion that we see from Dawkins, Toynbee, Christopher Hitchens, and all the contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, are indulging in some kind of hate speech, the game is up. If it's accepted that we are all (1) advocating religious hatred and (2) thereby inciting hostility, then what we're doing should be banned by any country that wishes to meet its obligations under the ICCPR.

That being so, the freedom to publish such critiques hangs on either (1) the unwillingness of Western nations to accept their full ICCPR obligations or (2) the astuteness of judges if these critiques are ever challenged in court. Fortunately, even those Western jurisdictions that have religious vilification laws have generally been quite careful to provide defences and restrictions that offer some protection of free speech. Astute judges might well be unwilling to accept the language of "hatred" that is flung about so freely and recklessly by religionists, or might insist that the "hatred" be hatred of actual adherents, not of doctrines or practices or organisations. At the moment, it would take a maverick judge or tribunal member to find that (the right kind of) hatred is advocated by, say, Richard Dawkins.

These, however, are not bulwarks that we can totally trust. Yes, in current circumstances it's most unlikely that a Western court will find that Dawkins or Toynbee or Hitchens, or Udo Schuklenk, or Russell Blackford, or any of our Voices of Disbelief collaborators, has breached a law against religious hate speech. But the language of the ICCPR is sufficiently fuzzy to cause great concern. Public perceptions and public policy would not have to change all that much for Article 20, with its existing wording and no supplementary material about "defamation of religion", to become a powerful weapon in the hands of religionists who want to suppress their opponents' speech. The convention, in its current form, is already a weapon, if it's combined with the acceptance of hyperbolic language that imputes "hate".

We are not being paranoid if we worry about the existing language of Article 20, as I do in my submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, here in Australia (this is now also on the Committee's site). In Western countries, the danger is not immediate - but the potential exists. An entire post could be written about how the Article is open to abuse in more theocratic nations, such as those of the Middle East.

This is yet another area where continued social and political struggle is required to ensure that our fundamental liberties are protected.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My most popular Facebook status ever

My current Facebook status says:

"Russell Blackford is still working on that article about life extension - explaining why Peter Singer is wrong about this one. Contrary to Singer, we SHOULD develop a life-extension pill if we can."

So far, this has received fifteen comments; that's better than I normally get when I post something here! Admittedly, a small number of them are from me, responding to comments from others, but it's certainly a topic that has attracted interest.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Choosing the best (extended?) life

Given what most of you were saying here the other day, it seems pretty clear how you'll jump with this revised version of the thought experiment. But let's see what you think, and give your reasons. Does the "unnaturalness" of this scenario bother you? I don't mean that the scenario is contrived (though it may be) and unnatural in that sense; I mean the fact that it relies on high technology to make a life that is far longer than ever yet lived.

Person X lives for 75 years. Overall, she is very happy through that time. Let's express this by saying that she has an average happiness level of 8 (out of a blissfully-perfect possible 10) for those 75 years.

Person Y, thanks to advanced technology, lives for 150 years. For the first 75 years, she is just as happy as Person X: i.e., she enjoys a very good average happiness level of 8 out of 10 for those 75 years. In the second 75 years, her happiness drops off for various reasons (e.g. the technology keeps her relatively youthful, but it is not perfect so she gets more illnesses than she did during the first 75 years). Nonetheless, things continue to go pretty well for her, and she experiences a not-bad average happiness level of 7 out of 10 for the second half of her long life.

If I could offer you Person X's life or Person Y's life, which would you take? Person Y gets everything that Person X gets and more, but on average (i.e. averaged over their respective entire whole lives) Person X is happier. Which do you want?

Once again, please discuss.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Human rights consultation submissions

I've just been reading some of the shorter submissions, among those published so far, to the National Human Rights Consultation exercise. I'm not so cruel as to single out individuals - hey, I'm a big pussycat really - but I must say that it would help if more of the submissions came from people whose IQs require expression in at least two digits. Have a browse for yourself ...

Okay, so this post will come back to haunt me. It's doubtless revealing my evil streak, my elitist disdain for the common man (and woman).

Is there a lesson? If so, it seems to be this: any government organisation that gives an opportunity for the public to make submissions via the internet on matters of general interest is now likely to be bombarded with hundreds, or even thousands, of short submissions that are poorly-argued, ignorant of the issues, and unrealistic about what can be achieved - and, in some cases, expressed in written English that verges on the illiterate and is baffling to interpret. This is not hyperbole, folks, just the sober facts about the world we now live in.

But I wouldn't have it any other way. If we tried to filter out submissions that were not going to be useful (because they meet the above description), we'd also end up missing submissions from the general public that might be well-informed and valuable. This would leave the consultation process entirely to organisations and lobby groups, which is hardly satisfactory. So, all the verbal confetti appearing on government websites is the price to be paid for an initiative that's commendable overall.

Happy reading, Committee!

EDIT (9/4/09): To be fair, after thinking about the comment below by Tom Coward, and reading some more of the submissions that are now being published day by day, the above is too harsh. I really was a bit mean yesterday. It was a small number of submissions that annoyed me by saying especially silly/naive/outrageous things.

I keep coming across more of these. On the other hand, some of what's coming in to the site is interesting stuff, so I hope that by the time it does accumulate to thousands of submissions in a couple of months, the overall quality might be a lot higher than implied by my snarky observation from yesterday.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What's new about the New Atheism?

Whence the term "New Atheism"? Is the phenomenon it points to really something new? In fact, all this stuff about the New Atheism is little more than journalistic hype, and the arguments are not especially new. Nothing is (very) new about the so-called New Atheism. It's more a matter of resumed transmission than a whole new program.

But there's something to the idea, all the same. Here's the deal.

Through the 1980s and 1990s and even a bit earlier, most unbelievers in academia, journalism, the media dropped the ball. In the 1960s and 1970s, and earlier, there was plenty of public criticism of religion, but this changed in the last decades of the twentieth century. It became taboo to critise religion in the public sphere; there was a reluctance to be harsh about the cultures of peoples who were (supposedly) on the receiving end of Western imperialism; it was widely assumed that religion was going away, in any event, and didn't need to be fought anymore; in the academy, bright minds in philosophy turned to other topics, thinking that there was no interesting work to do in philosophy of religion; bright young atheists were certainly not steered into philosophy of religion, which looked like a dead end.

How wrong all this turned out to be. In Western countries, especially the United States, religion regrouped during the 80s and 90s. It organised politically, developing new and popular forms. Within the academy, bright young theists were encouraged into philosophy of religion; Christian intellectuals developed new arguments to counter the ones that had made religion look so intellectually shaky by the 1970s. It came to be almost a truism that traditional problems for religion, such as the Problem of Evil, were exaggerated and could be solved.

The New Atheism is the restoration of normal transmission. Some high-profile thinkers (Richard Dawkins/Daniel Dennett/Christopher Hitchens) and one not-so-high profile but very energetic thinker (Sam Harris) decided, for whatever mix of reasons, that enough was enough and it was time to break the taboo of the past couple of decades. But plenty of other people were starting to feel that the taboo must be broken. Even before most of the New Atheist books came out, I was starting to hear people say that it was necessary to engage in the public sphere with the epistemic content of religion (this is philosophy-ese for contesting religion's claims). While Dawkins and others may have been an inspiration, and may have opened up a publishing market, some people were beginning to think this way before the New Atheism came along. I was certainly one of them.

I expect to see more and more people speaking up. There are plenty who have been holding their fire until now, as Udo Schuklenk and I found when we began to put together Voices of Disbelief (or, as it has become, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists).

For example, it's become increasingly apparent to me, partly from the Voices of Disbelief exercise, that many people in the bioethics community are fed up with the never-ending resistance from religionists to rational bioethics. Some of them are asking what credentials religion has anyway. Religious leaders are, of course, able to put their arguments in public, like anyone else. But they cannot expect anyone to defer to them if they rely on controversial religious claims.

It's one thing for the state to protect us from internal and external violence, to provide a social/economic safety net, and to engage in a variety of other functions that can be given some secular justification or other. It is another thing for it to ask what the views are of various religious traditions when it is confronted by an issue such as stem cell research. But this is just what has been happening. I suggest that religious leaders should be free to put their arguments, but if the arguments depend on doctrines such as ensoulment, the views of God, the sanctity of the natural order, and so on, these popes and priests should not expect to wield any influence. Those are not the sorts of worldly concerns that should influence government policy.

But there's a further twist. If religious leaders insist that it's legitimate to put an argument such as "stem cell research should be stopped because my deity says so", they are going to be met, inevitably, with questions about whether this is even true. How do you know that that's what your deity says? Why should we believe you? How do we know that your deity even exists? The more that religious leaders rely on arguments based on essentially religious claims, the more those religious claims will themselves be challenged. The more they rely, implicitly or explicitly, on their own authority as moral leaders, the more that authority will be challenged. Where does your moral authority come from? Is it your expertise in the moral claims of a holy book or a religious tradition? But why should we think any of those moral claims are even true, leaving aside the question of whether those sorts of moral claims are those that governments should heed?

If we were pure secularists, we might simply argue that the church should be separate from the state, that discussions about public policy should rely on secular principles such as the Millian harm principle, and that specifically religious morality is not even relevant. Indeed, we should continue to argue that; if it were generally accepted, the question of whether any particular body of religious doctrine is true would not even arise. But it's clear enough that many religionists do wish to argue, or otherwise influence policy, on the basis that religious claims have some kind of special authority. It's also obvious that many governments are prepared to listen to religious views in the process of framing policies. In practice, religionists and politicians don't limit themselves to debate about such things as the harm principle, the need to provide an economic safety net, and so on. In that context, there is some urgency about asking whether the religious claims are true or not, whether religious leaders really are tapping into some kind of traditional wisdom, or not. Those questions are not going to go away, and nor should they.

In editing our book, Udo and I found that there is plenty of support Out There for asking those questions. Many people who have not yet entered the New Atheism debate are in favour of breaking the taboo, and are willing to do so themselves. There's a feeling that enough is enough and that religious doctrines must once again be critiqued and even directly opposed.

If so many religious leaders had not become so aggressive in trying to impose their views on the rest of us - i.e., beyond their congregations - the phenomenon being called the New Atheism might well not have happened, but popes and priests can't have it both ways. If they're going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to the public sphere, as they have been doing, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged. The reaction won't stop until religious leaders cease trying to influence governments - on essentially religious grounds - with respect to stem cell research, science teaching, abortion rights, gay rights, and all the other issues that they get involved in.

Many of the people who are now getting involved would probably prefer to get on with making other cultural contributions (as scientists, philosophers, journalists, or whatever); they are taking time out from what they'd normally be doing in order to answer the widespread claims of religion to exercise some special authority in the public sphere. These people, including Dawkins and the rest, have much more to offer than, "The claims of religion are false" - but the time has come, once again, when that view has to be put strongly and clearly. That's what's "new" about the New Atheism.