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).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fifty books for our times

This list published at Newsweek is introduced as follows:

We know it's insane. We know people will ask why on earth we think that an 1875 British satirical novel is the book you need to read right now — or, for that matter, why it even made the cut. The fact is, no one needs another best-of list telling you how great The Great Gatsby is. What we do need, in a world with precious little time to read (and think), is to know which books — new or old, fiction or nonfiction—open a window on the times we live in, whether they deal directly with the issues of today or simply help us see ourselves in new and surprising ways. Which is why we'd like you to sit down with Anthony Trollope, and these 49 other remarkably trenchant voices.

It's a classy looking list, though rather eccentric. I've read surprising few of the books that it contains. There's very little science fiction, I notice (Philip K. Dick's Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep? and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are about the only ones ... and there is also very little in the way of fantasy).

There's also little that relates to science, but it includes Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, which is kind of neat - in fact, I found out about this list via Jerry's blog. Thanks for the info, Jerry, and congratulations!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Has progress been made?

Chris Mooney has now explained his current thinking about the accommodationism debate and the proprieties of writing and publishing over on his blog. I have great difficulty seeing this latest as simply an explanation, rather than a change of mind, but whatever. I do thank him for his trouble. I posted a long response which I thought was measured and civil, but I still see some of Chris's commenters attacking it as though it is extreme. I've also received comments (not on this blog itself) to the effect that my careful post yesterday was some kind of reprehensible "absolutism".

That's part of the problem with this accommodationism debate. If anyone merely wants to engage in civil debate in which they criticise religious doctrines, organisations, and leaders, at least some participants in the debate will characterise them as "strident", absolutists, etc. Not only is Richard Dawkins supposedly strident, etc., now even I am, despite the fact that most of what I write is very mild and heavily qualified. I say "most" because I do, admittedly, think, and say bluntly, that much distinctively religious morality is miserable and irrational. I also think that denunciation, mockery, and satire have their place.

But it should also been kept in mind that I frequently make the point that I have no real problem with genuinely moderate or liberal religious people. Many of those people are my political allies, and I count some of them as friends.

I should add, that I see absolutely no evidence so far that Ken Miller or Francis Collins, for example, is a genuinely moderate or liberal Christian. Maybe they are, but I have no idea why this is so often simply assumed.

Anyway, someone called "Peter" is making the points I want to make over there on Chris Mooney's blog in tandem with Ophelia Benson, so I probably don't need to say any more about Chris's post.

But, on the broader subject of propriety, this review of Francisco Ayala's Darwin's Gift , published late last year, is the typical sort thing that I want to be able to write without getting into a distracting argument about the propriety of even writing it, as opposed to an argument about whether the views there are correct. There is nothing improper about writing a review like that (that is one thing that I'm prepared to be an absolutist about).

Nor is there anything improper about a review like this, written by Jerry Coyne.

Nor, if it comes to that, one like this, written by (a slightly younger) Chris Mooney a few years ago.

That is not to say that I agree with every word in either of the latter two reviews - I seem to recall quibbling mildly with Jerry about something in the first one when he presented the ideas on his blog a few months back. But we don't all have to agree with the substantive content of each other's reviews; the question that Chris originally raised was not about substantive content but about propriety. The third one, by Chris, is more aggressive than I probably would have written, but that's fine.

As far as I can see, Chris now thinks that there's nothing improper about any of these reviews, though, like me, he reserves the right to disagree with their substantive content (and he's said he'd no longer write the third in the same aggressive way). That's fine. Let's move on to something else. Agreement on that point certainly doesn't cover the whole argument between the accommodationists and the non-accommodationists, but it makes at least one aspect concrete. If the sensible people involved in this debate - and I still want to categorise Chris in that way - all agree at least on this point, then progress has been made.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More confusion in the accommodation debate

John Wilkins has a post on the debate over at Evolving Thoughts. Now, John is a mate, and he makes some good point in this post, but the trouble is that he seems to misunderstand the character of the recent debate. Accordingly, he characterises himself as an accommodationist when he is clearly an anti-accommodationist, as that term has been understood throughout the debate that's gone back and forth in the blogosphere. He says:

Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that science and religion are incompatible, and that to defend science one must, perforce, assert this incompatibility.

But that is not how the argument has generally being going. The correct situation is this:

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

Actually, we anti-accommodationists are even more liberal than this. We don't mind individuals asserting that science is compatible with religion when they defend science. We merely reserve our right to criticise them. If they put ideas out in the public domain that involve some kind of reconciliation of science and religion, we won't tell them to engage in self-censorship, but we may criticise their actual arguments. Moreover, we are likely to point out that some of their ideas are highly speculative and should not be understood as part of mainstream science - an example is the idea that God directs evolution by manipulating quantum-level events. Still, they can say what they like. It's only organisations such as the AAAS and the NCSE that we insist be neutral on the issue of whether science and religion are compatible. Such bodies should not, for example, explicitly or implicitly support doctrines such as Gould's non-overlapping magisteria.

I still don't see what is so unreasonable about the position that we non-accommodationists are taking.

If John’s definition were correct, I’d be an accommodationist (so would Jerry Coyne, as far as I can see). But I’m not. The position that I take is the one I’ve just set out as anti-accommodationist. The position that I keep criticising is the one I’ve defined as accommodationist. An accommodationist will, for example, say that the incompatibility of science and religion should not be mentioned even if one is doing something other than defending science, such as writing a book review or criticising the political influence of religion.

I am certainly not what John calls an exclusivist, and I find it difficult to think of anyone who is. Perhaps they can identify themselves. The only person I can think of who may be is Sam Harris, but even he might deny taking such a position. I don’t know him, except for having exchanged a tiny number of emails on a different subject, and obviously can’t speak for him. But apart from Harris, I can't think of any serious player in this debate who takes the so-called exclusivist line. I don't think that Richard Dawkins does. I don't think PZ Myers does.

Maybe I'm wrong and there really is a "harder" line than the anti-accommodationist one that I subscribe to (and which John also subscribes to!). Right now, though, I can't see it. Again, any genuine exclusivists can speak for themselves, but I'll state unequivocally that I am not one.

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can't see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that "secularists should not alienate religious moderates" and gave Coyne's book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don't know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her - I'm relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala's recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus "alienate" the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne's review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala's book would be such an example).

It is this call to the anti-accommodationists to shut up - to engage in self-censorship and not even write honest book reviews - that has produced anger and inflamed the debate. Mooney keeps denying that he is telling the non-accommodationists to shut up, but it's clear that that is what he represented Forrest as saying and that he totally agreed with her.

The only thing that I can imagine taking the heat out of all this is an unequivocal apology from both Forrest and Mooney.

Ophelia Benson on whether religion can be replaced

Ophelia Benson has written on this topic at The Guardian 's Comment is Free site. As everyone "knows", Ophelia is strident, shrill, unreasonable, unfair, unnuanced, etc. (yes, the scare quotes indicate that I'm being sarcastic). Accordingly, her reflections may surprise you:

The sad thing about this is that church is, among other things, a way to get together with other people and focus the mind on being good. The religious version of being good is not always on the mark, to put it mildly, but even the opportunity to contemplate goodness seems valuable. This is something it's truly hard to reproduce with secular institutions. Politics seems like the closest thing to a substitute, and it's not a very close match.

However, she concludes:

I can get quite melancholy, sometimes, thinking about this. But then – there is no obvious easy replacement for a weekly sermon on being good, but there is also no obvious easy replacement for the belief in eternal torment. Swings and roundabouts.

As with Peter Tatchell's recent Comment is Free piece, it's worth reading the whole thing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Human Rights Conference program - what are the implications?

Here is the program for next week's conference on human rights convened by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.

I must say that the list of topics and speakers sends alarm bells ringing for me, not so much for any sins of commission as for those of omission. I am disappointed that - in this year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty - there is no topic that relates directly to individual liberty or freedom of speech. An item celebrating Mill's monumental achievement, something that has been enormously valuable for our civilization, would have been an appropriate gesture, but no such gesture has been made.

Again, the only item relating to freedom of religion is about freedom of religion in employment - and the speaker is an Anglican bishop from the notoriously conservative Diocese of Sydney! Where is a balancing view from someone who objects to the claims of the churches for special privileges in employment, such as exemptions from anti-discrimination law? More generally, where are any of the countless Australians who have concerns about the undue influence of religion on social policy?

To be fair, I suppose it's possible that some of the speakers on gay rights, euthanasia, and abortion fit into that mould. Most of their names are not known to me, but I do congratulate the committee for at least including those topics.

It's still early days, I suppose, and it will be a couple of months before we see the committee's report (due by the end of August). However, this conference program is the best indication that we have so far as to what the committee considers to be its priorities. Some of those priorities are worthy in themselves, no doubt, and some of them even reflect some of the less distinctive themes running through my own submission, for I, too, expressed concern about social inclusion and the vulnerability of individuals who fall outside of the Australian mainstream:

Elsewhere in the policy landscape, many mainstream Australians can be insensitive or unimaginative when considering the interests of people who are outside the mainstream. Cases involving such groups as asylum seekers or disaffected Aboriginal youth underline how tempting it is for populist governments to apply harsh treatment to people who lack mainstream support and attract mainstream suspicion. Even relatively privileged individuals, such as the photographer Bill Henson, can be isolated by the mainstream public and demonised by populist politicians.

But at a time when free speech is under attack from all sides, I'd have liked some reassurance that it is being taken seriously by the consultation committee. Much more must be done in Australia to protect free speech from religious vilification laws and the like. Why wasn't this made a topic for the conference when there is so much community disquiet about the issue? Many people, including newspaper editorialists, have expressed a concern that the outcome of the consultation will be new restrictions on freedom of speech, so why not open that up for specific debate?

The program's heavy emphasis on social inclusion suggests that the freedom to criticise the ideas of others may receive short shrift. Well, that may be overreading. But in any event, no one on the program appears to be a free speech advocate - for example, there is no speaker from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or from any of the organisations in this country that highly value freedom of speech and are fighting against its erosion. There is no one who was vocal in defence of artistic freedom during the Henson affair. I'd have liked to have seen David Marr or Alison Croggon on the program, but where are they? Or why not Bill Henson himself? He'd have been an obvious person to invite.

Again, there is no one who is known for criticising the ongoing criminalisation of marijuana use. No one on the program represents anything like a libertarian or Millian position. Why not invite at least one person, such as Anna Blainey, who takes a strong libertarian line on matters of social policy? Anna's own profile may not yet be high enough, but there must be speakers who could be found to deal, from a similar viewpoint, with the proper limits of government power.

A lot of what's actually there on the program is solid, of course, and the individual speakers are generally difficult to criticise (though a few seem rather lightweight). But the overall program lacks imagination and philosophical perspective.

There's nothing more that I can do to take part in the process. I thought of registering to attend the conference, but I would be just one member of the public among many, and my voice would have little (more likely, no) impact. It would, of course, have been nice to have been invited to speak, since I wrote one of the most detailed and academically rigorous submissions that the committee received. But that was obviously never going to happen when the topics I'd have most wanted to speak on are not covered at all. There is nothing about free speech. There is nothing about the urgent need to hold governments' feet to the fire when (as so often) they do not follow the Millian harm principle. A discussion of the relationship between international human rights law and liberal principles such as those of Mill and Feinberg was a must for this conference - I can think of no more important topic that should have been covered - but it's simply not there in any discernible form. The best I can hope for is that my written submission will carry at least some weight in the collective mind of the committe, but I don't have any high hopes of that, given the priorities that the committee has now signalled.

As touched on above, I am conscious that I may be reading too much into the content of the conference program. Over on the committee's discussion site, I expressed bitter disappointment with the choice of topics and speakers, but that was a first reaction. I've slept on it now. Let's just say that I find the program disappointing (sans adverb), unimaginative, and (perhaps) a little bit ominous. We'll have to wait and see what the committee actually thinks of the issues that I've raised in my submission, and will keep raising on this blog and in any other forum I can find.

Meanwhile, feel free to have your say about all this. I must stress that the positive content of the program doesn't look too bad. It's what's missing that worries me, the very important missing content; it's not so much concerns about specific speakers or items.

Chris Mooney is an atheist, but ...

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist - it's difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world's phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical.

At least, the above is what I think he thinks. It's hard to be sure, because he avoids spelling out this position in a coherent way in one place. He has certainly not produced a consolidated defence of such a position, although he does say some of it in this latest post on the subject. I've pieced his position together largely from a hint here, a partial statement there, often in comments on blog posts by himself or others, so it is difficult even to track them down and provide links. Still, I'm reasonably confident that I've described his position accurately. If I've misinterpreted, and inadvertently misrepresented, his position, perhaps he'll turn up and set me straight. That would be useful.

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking - as far as I can work out - the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it's bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up.

Now, in his defence, Mooney is not the government. He is not literally attempting to censor people by the exercise of state power, or some other kind of power if it comes to that. Nor is he advocating that other atheists be forced to shut up by an exercise of the power of the state. So, I give him credit for that much. In this very basic sense, his position can be considered a liberal one - he is prepared to tolerate atheist discourse in the narrow sense of not seeking that force be employed to stamp it out. One cheer for Mooney!

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas - so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument.

But Mooney is not just calling for civil, rational argument, with such things as satire and ridicule off limits. He wants us to censor ourselves, to stop engaging even in civil, reasoned criticism of religion.

That is not a moderate position. That is quite a radical position to adopt. Perhaps it seems moderate to Mooney, having grown up fairly recently in the highly religious culture of the United States. But to those of us who are a bit older than Mooney - and so have seen the widespread public scepticism about religion expressed when we were younger, before this seemed to become politically unacceptable even on the Left during the 1980s - it looks very radical indeed, especially if we live in cultures that are not so pervasively religious as the US.

I've given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney's judgment.

That judgment strikes me as bizarre, but I am all too aware that this is not an argument. Perhaps my expression of personal incredulity will impress some individuals who trust my judgment, but it's not an argument in itself. Then again, the actual arguments have had no impact on Mooney, who holds to his position dogmatically. There's nothing much more that I can say.

I'll simply restate my position that religious ideas are important. It is important to know whether they are true or false, since they (typically) purport to tell us how to live and to offer the key to our spiritual salvation or destruction. Certainly, this is true of traditional forms of Christianity, which come complete with codes of morality and a means to eternal salvation via the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. It becomes all the more urgent to know whether these ideas are true or false when priests, pontiffs, and the rest attempt - as they so often do - to influence governments to enshrine the religionists' favourite moral claims in law. When they do so, we are quite within our rights not only to protest that the state should not lend its power to the teachings of the church (any church) but also that the church has no moral authority in the first place - in the absence of rational arguments, we should not defer to its distinctive moral teachings.

Mooney does not "get" any of this, but it seems like a reasonable enough position to me. I'll go on arguing for this position and will not be engaging in self-censorship. I'll also feel free to criticise people who want (unlike Mooney) to engage in substantive defence of religion, though I will not call on them to engage in self-censorship. They can say what they like, but must expect to be criticised when they do; you don't get to put controversial views without opposition merely because they are religious views.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Peter Tatchell on lost gay radicalism

Over at The Guardian, 50 Voices of Disbelief contributor Peter Tatchell writes on what he sees as the lost radicalism of the gay rights movement.

Our vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – queer and straight. Our message was "innovate, don't assimilate".

GLF [Gay Liberation Front] never called for equality. The demand was liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. Equal rights within a flawed, unjust system struck us as idiotic. It would mean parity on straight terms, within a pre-existing framework of institutions and laws devised by and for the heterosexual majority. Equality within their system would involve conformity to their ­values and rules – a formula for gay submission and incorporation, not liberation.

But, he laments,

In the 40 years since Stonewall and GLF, there has been a massive retreat from that radical vision. Most LGBT ­people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo. On the age of consent, the LGBT movement accepted equality at 16, ignoring the criminalisation of younger gay and straight people. Don't the under-16s have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them. All they got was equal injustice.

The whole article is worth reading.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Should we ban the burka?

I have a minimalist view as to what kinds of individual conduct should be prohibited by the exercise of state power. Accordingly, I do not believe that the state should be in the business of telling us what clothing, if any, to wear in public. It should not ban wearing a garment such as the burka while, say, walking on a public street any more than it should ban walking on the same public street wearing no clothing at all.

Hang on, you say the latter actually is banned in most Western nations, so I've used a bad example? Well, I'm going to stick with this example, because I do think it's a good one. We shouldn't ban people wearing very skimpy clothing or no clothing at all on the public streets; nor should we ban wearing a burka. In neither case is there a sufficiently compelling state interest in enacting legislation that controls how people choose to present themselves in public.

In both cases, however, arguments can be put. I suppose the argument in favour of compelling people to wear at least some minimal clothing that covers the pubic area (in the case of both men and women) and the nipples (in the case of women alone) is that many people are offended at the sight of the particular parts of the body that are required, in most Western jurisdictions, to be clothed. (Actually, a thorough analysis of the law in various jurisdictions might show that it is now perfectly legal for women to go topless in many of them; that they almost invariably don't do so, except perhaps at the beach, demonstrates that practicality and social pressure are at work as much as the law itself when people choose to wear at least some items of clothing, even in summer.)

The argument that nudity is offensive is rather weak as basis for legislative bans. The level of offence caused by mere nudity is hardly grave - it is hardly the kind of offence that shades into real harm, as is the case with being exposed to nauseating smells or to sights that might induce nausea in many people (such as the sight of somebody nearby literally eating shit). Doubtless there are a few individuals who would be shocked if the very small amount of clothing worn by some young people in summer were totally discarded, but it seems like the sort of thing most would get used to. Already, we see many topless women on beaches in most Western countries, and we see naked people on the beach if we bother to go around the corner to less frequented stretches of sand or rock. Most people are not offended at this sight. If you are, you'll soon get used to it. In all, the legal requirement that we wear at least some minimal clothing is based on weak reasoning. Arguments based on offence should not control the debate. In reality, such laws are a holdover from the centuries of Christian hegemony, when sexuality and the body were considered shameful and associated with "sin". These laws should be repealed.

If they were repealed, however, I suspect that not much would change. Practicality would still impel most of us to wear some clothing most of the time. Except on hot summer days, clothing is simply practical to provide warmth. Even in summer, light clothes and hats are practical for anyone who is out in the sun for a long time and wishes to avoid skin damage - and, with it, the real possibility of skin cancer. For most terrain, it is practical to wear shoes of some kind - even people who enjoy walking barefoot outdoors are usually fairly choosy about the circumstances - while garments with pockets are also practical. So are sunglasses. And there are various other practical reasons why sweeping away these laws entirely wouldn't make a lot of difference. Even if you're not ashamed of showing various wobbly parts of your body at the beach, you might well prefer to stabilise and protect them when you're wandering around the supermarket or queuing to do your banking.

Indeed, there is an argument that these laws are not very oppressive because they are not currently causing all that much practical restriction on how people choose to present themselves on public. That's true, but the burden should always be on those who support restrictions on individual freedom. Even if the restriction is rather minimal and not terribly onerous in practice, that is not a reason to leave an unjustified law on the books. All laws forbidding public nudity should be repealed - although, given the state of the world, campaigning for this is not a very high priority.

At least, however, we can discusss the issue rationally.

If the burka were currently banned, I'd likewise suggest that the ban should be repealed but that doing so should not be a very high priority among all the others. After all, only a very small number of people want to hide their entire bodies in public, and there are many ways of going very close to doing so.

Still, the case for actually banning the burka is rather weak. Somebody who is wearing a burka does not thereby directly harm others, which would be the classic reason for banning a kind of individual conduct. Any ban would need to rely on some more controversial reason, such as indirect harm to others (perhaps via some kind of damage to the social fabric) or offence to others ... or, most likely, on the basis that wearing the burka harms the person wearing it.

I am suspicious about arguments based on indirect harm to others. If a harm is not imminent or direct, then there are many ways to deal with it other than by restrictions on individual liberty. Overall, pluralistic Western societies tend to survive and flourish quite well despite all the things that supposedly cause some kind of indirect, or intangible, or long-term, or whatever, harm that affects everyone in the society as a whole.

What about offence? Well, consider what the burka stands for. Part of the problem is that this is itself controversial, but it seems reasonable for people who are exposed to the sight of women wearing burkas in public to receive some kind of misogynist or puritanical message that reasonable men and women may well find offensive. I see nothing wrong with discussing what message the burka conveys to reasonable people, and whether that message is offensive. If the message is sufficiently offensive, and sufficiently contrary to progressive views about women, sexuality, the body, and so on, then it may well be that the burka is something we should not welcome. But that is not sufficient reason to ban it. There are many messages put out in pluralistic Western societies that are, arguably, unwelcome, but that is not a reason to ban them. That would be contrary to the principle of freedom of expression.

On the other hand, it is also contrary to freedom of expression if we are prevented from discussing what messages the burka might give, whether those messages are offensive, whether the burka is a welcome phenomenon in Western societies, and so on. Freedom of expression cuts both ways.

That does not mean that individuals should be harassed on the street for choosing to wear such a garment. As long as I am going about my business lawfully, I have an expectation, which the law ought to enforce, that I'll be allowed peaceful enjoyment of my environment, rather than have people harass me.

But say I choose to go around wearing the very minimum of clothing that I could possibly get away with under the law. Instead of turning up at the local cake shop wearing, say, black jeans, a T-shirt, casual leather shoes, and a tweed jacket (standard clothing for a middle-aged academic/intellectual sort of guy like me) imagine that I turn up wearing nothing but the sort of g-string-like "posing pouch" beloved of male body builders. Whereas before I might have been greeted in a friendly way, it is now likely that other customers will look at me askance. It is now most unlikely that the young shop attendant behind the counter will talk to me in a slightly flirtatious manner as she serves me my lamington or my custard tart. The whole atmosphere in the shop may become less friendly for me than it would have been, as a result of my choice of clothing. Well, tough. No one is obliged to be friendly to you; all they are obliged to do is treat you with the minimum level of respect that involves not actually harassing you - insulting you personally, acting in a threatening way, generally giving you a hard time.

All right, so the burka should not be banned on the ground that it gives offence. But nor should we be prevented from discussing what message it gives, whether the message is offensive, and so on. We can't be allowed to harass others merely for how they dress, but we are quite within our rights not to be as friendly to people whose dress offends or disturbs us in some way as we are to people who dress in a way that appeals to our values. If I'm vain enough to enjoy having shop assistants flirting with me from behind the counter ... well, I'll have to wear the tweed jacket, not the g-string. We all make these choices.

The final reason why we might want to ban the burka is paternalistic. Here, the case is stronger. Unlike someone who is naked, someone wearing a burka is restricted in her movements, is not able to convey emotions and general good will through facial expressions, and generally has her individual appearance erased. Although some individuals may welcome this, it does create a huge disadvantage. The point about affective communication is especially strong. Much of what is communicated in ordinary life between individual human beings is expressed via movements of the facial muscles. Of course, there may be some circumstances in which the advantages of clothing that hides the face outweigh the loss of capacity for affective communication - e.g., to borrow an example from Martha Nussbaum, it may be so cold on a winter's day in Chicago that there's value in wearing a whole lot of scarves and hoods, or similar garments, perhaps sufficient to hide facial expressions. In most circumstances, though, covering your face destroys much of your capacity to communicate with others and obtain their trust, while having no compensating advantages.

But we get by in many situations communicating without facial expressions. I am doing so right now as I type away at my computer. People also do so on the telephone, although I dislike telephones for exactly the reason that they reduce me to a mere voice. They take away gestures and facial expressions, and it is difficult for many of us to communicate emotionally on the telephone to someone with whom we're not already emotionally bonded. I wonder what it must be like to wear clothing that forces you never to communicate with strangers by means of facial expression. It deprives you of one of the main ways in which friendly relations are maintained between people who are not family or intimate friends, etc. It's a real loss.

All that said, I am still not fond of the idea of the state intervening to tell adults how to act for their own good. Although we do accept some paternalistic laws - e.g. those related to wearing seat belts - paternalistic laws requiring us to wear certain clothing, on the basis that it will free our limbs and enable us to communicate more readily by showing our facial expressions, are a step too far. When we are dealing with the choices of adults, or even of relatively mature minors, the presumption is that the state should not claim to know better than the individual concerned what she should do for her own good. Just as we should not ban the use of marijuana - all such laws should be repealed - we should not ban wearing the burka.

Once again, the case for banning the burka on paternalistic grounds is weak. But once again, we do have some paternalistic laws, including some that already go too far in my opinion. It is perfectly legitimate to debate just what paternalistic laws are justifiable. Moreover, the fact that a self-destructive practice such as using certain drugs - or using them frequently and excessively - should not be banned does not mean that it should be welcomed.

In all, there is only a weak case for banning the burka - just like the case for banning pornography, total nudity, and marijuana smoking. None of these things should be illegal, but that does not mean that everyone must approve of them all or that there should never be a debate about what offence they cause, what harm they do, or whether they are welcome innovations in a modern pluralistic society.

Some of these things may be more welcome than others. It's not at all clear to me that the burka is something we should welcome. Nor is it clear to me that somebody who instigates a debate about it should be condemned as fanning religious hatred - as the Melbourne Age did this morning in its one-sided and unnuanced editorial about France's President Sarkozy. Western societies have become too quick to discover religious hatred under every bed. The arguments for banning the burka, though weak, are no weaker than those against some things that are banned already. If some kinds of Islam demand that women wear such a controversial garment, well too bad. No subject should be off limits merely because religious sensibilities are involved. (Indeed, once religion is brought into the equation it raises the suspicion that at least some women - I'm not suggesting the majority - are currently wearing the burka against their will, under pressure from their co-religionists, rather than from choice. That would strengthen the arguments for banning it.)

Is the burka welcome? No. There is much to be said against it. But should it be banned? No. That would be going too far.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Honorable mentions

Have just heard that Jenny and I both get on the honorable mentions list in the new Gardner Dozois Year's Best Science Fiction volume - she for "Trolls' Night Out" and me for "Manannan's Children".

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

JET - call for papers

Call for Papers - Nietzsche and European Posthumanisms

Issue 20(1) of The Journal of Evolution and Technology contains Stefan Sorgner's article "Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism":


This argues (contrary to the published views of Nick Bostrom, for example) that there are significant and fundamental similarities between the posthuman and the Nietzschean "overhuman".

We expect that this paper will be of general interest to transhumanists and scholars with an interest in transhumanism, and we are calling for papers that respond to it - either by replying directly to its arguments (with agreement, disagreement or otherwise) or by looking further into the relationship between transhumanism and European thought. Authors might, for example, wish to consider the work of Habermas, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Foucault, Lyotard, or Sloterdijk.

We are looking for (1) short responses (under 2000 words), which will not be peer-reviewed but selected by the editors on the basis of merit, and (2) full-length articles which will be peer-reviewed in the normal way. Please make clear how you wish any submission to be treated.

The deadline for submissions is 15 July 2009 negotiable (please contact us to discuss), but realistically the end of September would be good. Submission guidelines can be found here:


The Journal of Evolution and Technology is a peer-reviewed online journal, published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Editor-in-Chief Russell Blackford
Associate Editor James Hughes
Managing Editor Marcelo Rinesi

Monday, June 22, 2009

JET - issue 20(1) now complete

Issue 20(1) of JET is now complete, with Jamie Cullen's article on the Chinese Room thought experiment, plus reviews of Watchmen and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.

Please go to http://jetpress.org/ and have a look.

We're starting on issue 20(2) very soon (albeit slowed down a bit from what I'd like, as per yesterday's post).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Taking things easy for a bit

I've been fighting a bacterial chest infection - something I'm a bit prone to - for the past few weeks. Every time I'm almost better, I go and do something like... well, like doing most of the driving on a one-day 600 mile trip. I was almost better this time last week, then did that trip on Wednesday and threw myself into a lot of hard work when I got home (I was enthusiastic about catching up with a mountain of things that had built up while I was away for a fortnight).

So, I'm going to have to take being sick more seriously - even though it's a pretty low level illness - actually get some needed bed rest, and stop staying up until 2 am, as is my habit. Apart from anything else, it's no fun not being allowed to kiss people I want to kiss (yes, beloved reader, you know who you are) for fear of infecting them. :(

This is my way of apologising that blog entries will be a bit sparse and brief until further notice, and that people whom I owe work (such as editorial comments on material for JET) may find that I'm not as quick as I'd like to be.

On the plus side, I'm finally getting around to reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods - the kind of book that I keep putting off because of its length - and am loving it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Watch Madeleine Bunting get totally owned ... this is good

Madeleine Bunting published a truly dumb (and nasty) attack on Ophelia Benson in The Guardian's "Comment is Free": watch what happened when the comments in response started flowing in.

Poor, dear Madeleine Bunting got totally owned on this occasion. Sometimes you just have to gloat at the misfortunes of others.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Human rights consultation submissions wind up

I hope you (if you're Australian) took your opportunity to make a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee. The deadline was Monday. But you can still sneak in some last views over on the Committee's discussion site, where the deadline isn't until 26 June. There hasn't been a lot of traffic at that site, so you have a good chance of being noticed. Go and have a look at the discussion so far, if you have a moment, as some of it is quite interesting.

I was quite taken by (though not wholly in agreement with) Professor Tom Campbell's mildly sceptical comments about human rights and human rights law. I think he's wrong in his claim that most of us object to power being transferred to unelected judges if an entrenched Bill of Rights is put in place (I'm a bit tired of this canard - no such "transfer of power" takes place; what takes place is more subtle than this, and more defensible). But he does cut through a fair bit of confusion.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

There is only one world

Courtesy of Tom Clark via Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True site ... there is a great (well, startling) quote from Eugenie Scott:

Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.

I'm only going to comment on this briefly for the moment, but will doubtless have more to say in later posts. Note, though, the way Scott is able to entertain the possibility that, in addition to the "natural world", there is an additional "trascendent world" that "most people" believe in, a world populated by spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and ancestors. While science tells us about the natural world, religion tells us about this transcendent world, since it is religion's "provenance".

I doubt that Eugenie Scott actually believes that this transcendent world, or these spooky beings, even exist. She gives us no reason to believe that, beyond the fact that "most people" believe it. But of course, at various times, and in various places, most people have believed all sorts of things that are now known to be false - that the Earth is flat or perhaps some kind of inverted saucer shape, that it is the centre of the cosmos, that thrown objects travel in paths nothing like what we now know, that the world is only a few thousand years old, and so on. The fact that "most people" believe something is not, in itself, evidence. For a start, we might want to ask how "most people" have come to believe that this world of unseen spooky beings exists - have they, for example, observed it in some intersubjectively reliable/verifiable way, or obtained records of reliable observations made in the past? Do any propositions about spooky beings have any explanatory power? Is there any way to test them (so that we don't believe propositions that I might just arbitrarily make up, such as the proposition that I am followed around by an invisible hippopotamus with four heads)?

Or is it the case that most people believe these things without evidence because they were socialised, as children, into believing in them ... perhaps by adults who were also socialised into believing them without evidence, who were socialised by other such adults, and so on? If the chain of socialisation comes to an end somewhere in the depths of the past, is it in anything that would convince a rigorous historian, or does it seem to end with the kind of messy legend creation that is so familiar, in recent times, with cargo cults, Rastafarianism, and many other clearly man-made sets of stories about the "transcendent"?

There is no good reason for scientists or advocates of science to suggest that a so-called "transcendent world" exists, that there are spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and the rest, or that religion in general, or any particular religion, can give us reliable information about anything of the kind. Stories of such things may well be charming, they may have cultural and aesthetic value, they may be worth preserving and studying. I don't say that such stories are entirely without value. On the contrary, I love myth, legend, and folklore as much as anyone. Ask my friends about it if you don't believe me. But that's not the same as suggesting that any of these stories are actually true.

The "transcendent world" and the various spooky beings probably do not exist. Even if spooky beings of some kind did exist, it is most unlikely that any religion to date provides any reliable information about them. So why, exactly, do we see so many intelligent people who know all this bending over backwards to pretend that religion may have some kind of epistemic authority in informing us about gods and spooks? What, exactly, is going on here? What on earth are they thinking when they do go through this charade of deference?

Why hand religion, uncontested, a whole realm of authority to pronounce upon things that (almost certainly) don't exist? There is only one world, in the sense under discussion here. Why piously pretend otherwise?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Normal transmission quite soon

I'm still on the road, but will be back in Melbourne on Wednesday night. It's been an interesting 10 days so far, and I've enjoyed seeing some old friends in Adelaide ... and loved ones here in Newcastle. When I get back, I have an examiners' meeting the first day, need to do some work on an article for the Journal of Medical Ethics, plus quite a bit of JET work (finishing off the current issue and starting on the new one). One thing I've managed in the last day or so is to scribble a review of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, which I'll be tidying up for publication in JET. I also need to work on a paper about NOMA for the AAP conference at the start of July, after which Jenny and I will be back here in Newcastle for another week. Plus, I have various other articles to work on/reviews to write.

We'll be overseas for the entirety of August and a few days on either side of it. I also expect to be overseas throughout October, but my plans haven't entirely fallen into place.

All in all, it's shaping up to be a very interesting second half of 2009.

Anyway, normal transmission resumes quite soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

NOMA no more - the great accommodationism debate

Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been alive with a passionate debate about the extent to which science should accommodate religion, leaving it an area in which it has authority - whether it be in respect of truths about morality or truths about a supernatural realm - while denying it authority over empirical claims.

One of the difficulties with all this is that no one has ever distinguished convincingly and sharply between the world of nature and the supposed supernatural realm. After all, if we routinely encountered ancestor spirits that were capable of affecting the world available to us through our senses, and if they behaved in reasonably consistent ways (like human beings and other animals) we would be able to investigate their activities systematically. Their activities would fall into the realm of science, and we might come to think of them as part of "nature". There is no reason why science cannot investigate claims relating to "supernatural" (by commonsense definitions) entities so long as they actually exist, have the power to affect the material world that we can observe, and behave with some consistency.

Over the centuries, science has abandoned explanations that rely on, say, the actions of disembodied intelligences, since those kinds of explanations have been fruitless. But this is not because science is prevented, in principle, from investigating claims about such things if they exist. It has taken this attitude based on its experience of what constitutes a fruitful approach. So-called methodological naturalism - avoiding the use of supernatural hypotheses - is a relatively recent component of the scientific method, resulting from historical experience. It is not that science rules out supernatural things a priori or that it has no capacity to investigate them if it turns out that some do exist.

By now, the reasonable assumption is that such things as ancestor spirits, gods, angels, and demons really do not exist. It is not that they exist in a separate sphere that can be known through religious experience - but is beyond the methods of science. More likely, they don't exist at all.

There is more to be said about this, but I'd like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.

In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.

Gould called his idea "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or "NOMA"; if it is correct, it gives an extremely important sphere of authority in teaching to religious doctrine, religious organisations, and religious leaders, while holding that religion has no role, even in principle, in offering truths about the empirical world (e.g. truths about the age of the Earth, how it came into existence, or where human beings as a species came from). But Gould is wrong on this in every possible way.

First, religions have, historically, claimed authority to tell us about such matters as the age and origin of the Earth, the origin of humanity, and so on. Religions have acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems. It is not part of the concept of religion that it keep out of such matters. Moreover, if a religion's more general claims were true, there is no reason why it should not have authority in this sphere. After all, if a god or angel or similar being has inspired the religion's poets and prophets, or dictated actual text for inclusion in its holy books, the god or angel (or whatever) could easily reveal such facts as the true age of the Earth, the fact that it revolves around the Sun, the fact that it is spherical and rotates on its axis, and the evolutionary origin of human beings. There is no reason in principle why a true religion with genuinely supernatural origins could not have authoritative teachings on all these things.

Religion is not, in its essence or its very concept, confined to matters of morality. One or more religions could have had authority on empirical matters, and a religion still could if a true one came along (its prophet genuinely interacting with a superhuman intelligence). It’s just that, historically, religion has done a poor job when it has offered information about (for example) the age of the Earth or human origins. Empirical investigation, supported by huge amounts of converging evidence, has reached different conclusions.

Supporters of NOMA want to give religion authority over matters of morality while denying that science has any such authority, but again this gets things totally wrong. It is true that science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can religion. The ultimate point of morality, as opposed to the historical origin of morality, is something we decide rather than something we discover, and neither religion nor science can tell us authoritatively what we should decide.

Certainly, the ultimate point of morality cannot be obedience to the will of a god or a group of gods. This would raise the notorious Euthyphro problem: does conduct become morally correct because it is in accordance with a god's commands, or should we obey the god's commands because they track the independent requirements of morality? If the former, we seem to be stuck with the idea that murder and rape are wrong only because of the arbitrary commands of a powerful being (this being could have made murder morally right simply by commanding it). If the latter, then why not find out what the independent requirements of morality actually are, i.e. the requirements that are independent of the god's will?

It may be, however, that a god could be a reliable advice-giver about morality. This makes more conceptual sense.

Before I come to that, however, note again that neither science nor religion can decide what the ultimate point of morality should be. Should it be individual flourishing? social survival? reduction of suffering? some combination? something else? We can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy. When we so do, we can never step entirely out of all our values at once, so there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. "Oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element, as Hume argued in his great Treatise of Human Nature.

However, once we know what we want morality to achieve we are, in practice, at least as likely to get good advice on how to achieve it from science as from religion.

It didn't have to be like this. If prophets were genuinely receiving information from a god, it might have included reliable information on what best conduces to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But the holy books seem no more reliable about that than they are about empirical matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and other such goals). Far from being authoritative, holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to such goals as flourishing or happiness.

At this point I should concede that science is also limited in this realm. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of the advice coming from science may leave something, perhaps much, to be desired. We do not yet have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But science can certainly study this. In principle, it can draw reliable conclusions - at least as reliable as any in the holy books. Science, as it develops, has at least as much, perhaps far more, authority in this area. Unlike the authors of the holy books, science can investigate the issues methodically, discard bad hypotheses, and draw increasingly robust conclusions.

For the moment, however, we must rely to a large degree on such things as historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, our own experience as individuals, and so on. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things. They can also reflect on religious texts from various traditions, of course, since these may contain some wisdom, but no more than on great literature or insightful classics of philosophy. Religion has no special authority in the realm of how we should act and live.

Fortunately, a great deal of our morality is not contentious – we all know (or at least it seems very plausible) that it advances social survival and individual flourishing and reduction of suffering, for example, if children are trained in virtues such as honesty, reasonableness (in the sense of willingness to compromise), kindness, and courage. But where morality is actually contentious - as when we consider such issues as stem-cell research or gay marriage - religion provides a poor guide. It is all too likely to make recommendations that do not conduce to individual flourishing, social survival, reduction of suffering, or any other plausible goal that morality might have.

In short, there is no reason to defer to any specifically or distinctively religious morality. On the contrary, we should emphasise that religion's claims to possess a special moral authority are entirely without merit.

I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.

Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I'm convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.

All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

In Newcastle - transmission resumes soon

We spent a couple of days driving to Newcastle from Adelaide, staying overnight in Hay. Can't believe how cold it is here in Newcastle, which is supposed to be a lot warmer than Melbourne at this time of year. But there seems to be a cold snap everywhere.

Tired now, and a bit pressed for time. But normal transmission will resume soon.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Panel soon in Adelaide - anthologising as a critical act

I'm on a panel very soon (within an hour) called "Is anthologising a critical act?" Hmm, that's a slightly oddly-worded topic, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the process of putting together an anthology. It doesn't seem right to me to talk about it as a "critical" act, exactly. It's a creative act of a kind, but in some ways more like creating a small business from scratch than like writing your own book. The overall effort in putting together an original anthology such as 50 Voices of Disbelief is, however, certainly comparable to that of writing a book of similar length.

The small business side of it is shown by (for example) the sheer number of emails it generates - to and from potential authors, the actual authors, various people at the publishing house, etc., and between the editors. My email folder for the book contains well over 2000 emails, going on 3000. I also suspect, by comparing other editorial work I've done, that the amount of work does not increase in a neat linear way with the size of an anthology: the bigger the book the more complex the task becomes, so a book twice as big requires a lot more than twice as much work.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Here I am in Adelaide

Over the June long weekend, I'm at the national science fiction convention - Conjecture - in Adelaide. I'm getting too old to know much of the gossip ... or at least to be the cause of it. Still, I'll report on anything interesting that happens. My only participation this time around is a panel on Monday that may or may not have something to do with anthologies.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Friday Felix

I'm going to spend most of today driving between Melbourne and Adelaide, and I'll be a bit scarce for the next couple of weeks. So here's something cute to go on with for now (not me, Felix). This is in the same spirit as what Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers have been up to lately.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

New discussion site for the National Human Rights Consultation

Australian readers who are following the National Human Rights Consultation process might be interested to visit this forum. So far, it hasn't generated much discussion, though there's been some interesting debate about the fact that the Consultation Committee is headed up by a Catholic priest, Father Frank Brennan, and about the submissions by religious organisations that are keen to get involved in the debate a possible bill or charter of rights.

As usual there are some very, um, odd people expressing views: it's always an eye-opener for me to see what views get put by individuals and organisations that are way outside the mainstream of political or academic opinion.

I've raised one of the issues that I discussed briefly in my submission to the consultation: the prospect that a non-binding charter of rights, with a power to the courts to advice parliament of breaches of the charter, would be unconstitutional. It will be interesting to see what replies I receive, since a couple of high-ranking academics are officially participating, one of them Professor George Williams, who favours this model. So far, nothing has convinced me that the model can be tailored in a way that is consitutional but I'm open to argument.

This is a relatively esoteric issue ... though of enormous practical importance, since it could potentially lead to the legal outcomes of the exercise being thrown out by the courts. In any event, I continue to encourage all Australian readers to find ways to submit their views to the Committee, either via the discussion site or as formal submissions. Whether your views agree with mine or not, it's important that all views be put. Of course, if you want to defend freedom of speech and other fundamental liberties I encourage you even more strongly.

It's a very quiet forum so far; it could really do with some more traffic, and with a whole lot of intelligent traffic to make it worthwhile. Given how slow it is at the moment, you can be sure that your voice will be heard, so I'm giving you the tip to go there and have a say.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Another great review for The Priestess and the Slave

Just a (large) sample of another review of The Priestess and the Slave:

If you have even a little interest in or knowledge of Ancient Greece, Jenny Blackford’s first book The priestess and the slave is well worth reading. This slim volume tells the stories of two women of very different social standings: Thrasulla, a priestess of the god Apollo at Delphi, who observes the corruption of one of her fellow priestesses, and, sixty years later, Harmonia, a slave owned by an Athenian sculptor, who endures the terrible plague that engulfs Athens as the city is besieged by Sparta and its allies. ... Jenny has an extraordinary knowledge of Ancient Greece, both of the politics and the ordinary lives of the citizens. She writes with authority, providing fascinating details of life at that time. She also develops two characters with whom we can truly empathise. Both stories are suspenseful and fast moving.

This review isn't available online. I'm quoting from the review by Jill Enks in the June '09 issue of inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Does God Hate Women? - Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have written a new book, Does God Hate Women?, a critique of religious misogyny that is being published in the UK this week (and will be available in the US soon). For a sample of the argument, go here for an article by Ophelia in The Observer.

Edit: I why can't I resist pointing out where you'll be able to find a bit more from Ophelia Benson on a related but different subject?

Monday, June 01, 2009

A great review for The Priestess and the Slave

Jenny's book, The Priestess and the Slave, gets a great review from Alison Woodward over at ReadPlus. The review starts ...

A fascinating novel set in Ancient Greece, The Priestess and the Slave tells two parallel stories of a Delphi Pythia and a young slave woman with incredible historical and archaeological accuracy. It is clearly written by an author who not only specialises in ancient history, but has a passion for telling the stories of those who lived in such times.

... and continues in the same vein.