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, October 29, 2009

In San Jose for the World Fantasy Convention

I arrived here this morning, local time, which equalled some ridiculous hour of the day by my body's time. Am now hoping to acclimatise as quickly as possible to a new timezone, so as to get the most out of the convention.

So far, I've scarcely looked a the program, but let's see. As a result of laziness or distraction at my end, I am not scheduled anywhere on the program, though Jenny has a couple of items, including the very last one after the World Fantasy Awards, since she is one of this year's judges (and thus one of the very people who knows the winners; and no, I am not one of those people).

I do feel a bit silly not getting myself on the program, but then again (1) it means I'm free to enjoy the convention with no pressure; and (2) it's probably just as well, because, for one reason or another, I've been doing a lousy job of keeping up with events and trends in fantasy and would feel like (and probably appear like) a charlatan. Next time, perhaps.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flying to the US tomorrow

I'll be away for approximately a week, attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose. Just warning everyone that I may be a bit slower than usual in responding to things. I'm looking forward to the convention, but not to the usual travel hassles - I've had about enough of them for one year.

Jerry Coyne on 50 Voices of Disbelief

Jerry Coyne, who kindly gave a back-cover blurb to 50 Voices of Disbelief, expands over here on the occasion of the book's official release in the US. Thanks, Jerry!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Response to Dr Dvir Abramovich

My reponse (currently stuck in moderation, it seems) to an article in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

The article by Dr Abramovich reads like a series of random comments, dashed off in unreflective anger. It is so permeated by distortions and misrepresentations that there is no hope of exposing them all in a 300-word comment. I'll be highly selective.

First, Dr Abramovich appeals to the authority of Einstein and Hawking as if the writings of those physicists support theistic beliefs. Both made points by using the word "God" metaphorically, but Hawking is not a theist and Einstein was at pains to explain that he did not believe in a personal deity.

Second, Dr Abramovich displays a total insensitivity to literary tone when he reads the books of Dawkins and others. E.g., he fails to notice that The God Delusion is written thoughtfully, with a light touch, and is frequently humorous. Readers should judge for themselves whether the books that Dr Abramovich condemns match his simplistic and tendentious description.

Third, I am tired of the specious argument that various supposedly "secular" political idealogies also did enormous harm. Yes indeed, Hitler and Nazism were responsible for terrible atrocities. Likewise Stalin and Pol Pot. However, Hitler was no atheist - and in any event, contemporary so-called "New Atheists" (a mere journalistic label) are political liberals and pluralists. They oppose all structures of comprehensive, authoritarian, apocalyptic dogma, including Nazism, Stalinism, and Pol Pot's agrarian communism. Such structures of thought do tend to perpretrate horrors, precisely because they so closely imitate the monotheistic religions.

The article is riddled with error in every paragraph, and its author seems to be totally unaware of the current state of the debate that he is naively attempting to enter. Dr Abramovich is the one who is out of his depth and clearly floundering.

Russell Blackford
Co-editor, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)


Edit: Looks like it didn't get through. I tried again with a few words removed to make absolutely certain it wasn't over 300 words, and it's now on the site.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some posts on scientific epistemology, etc.

Massimo Pigliucci's post over here at Rationally Speaking.

My long reply at Sentient Developments.

Jerry Coyne's take at Why Evolution Is True (where I've now made a couple of comments).


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Official US release date is 26 October

The official US release date for 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists is 26 October.

Copies have actually been available via Amazon for a week or so now, and the book also appears to be available already in (at least some) Barnes and Noble stores in America. Still, 26 October is an important official day in the book's life. If you were planning to make some noise about it, that would be a great day to do it, as it gives you a hook: "50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, ed. Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, published today!!" Got the idea? :)

So, everyone out there who has maybe read the book and liked what they read, have a think about it. Likewise if you just want to raise awareness of the issues, or whatever ... It would be terrific if you could mark Monday, 26 October in your diary as a really good day to have your say - in any way.

Amazon reviews, blog posts, comments in podcasts, contact with local media - whatever it is that you might be able to do to spread the word, it will be very welcome indeed.

Cat registered as hypnotherapist

Who's to say it wouldn't do a good job?

A time of changes, right?

New house in a new (sort of) city. New book out. Meeting lots of new people in foreign places.

Hey, and this will be the new car.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Proof of the existence of ... well something.

I just wrote the following on Twitter: What counts as a genuinely moderate religious person? Well, I'm sure that some of my friends do. I'm sure that Cardinal George Pell doesn't.

This came out at exactly 140 keystrokes. I'm getting very good at doing that, but I think this is the first time I've managed to do it exactly right, first go, with no fiddling at the edges. Proof of some sort of Intelligent Design? Is the Designer trying to tell us something?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Despicable abortion law in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma legislature has passed a draconian statute that provides for personal details about women who obtain abortions to be placed on line. Much can be said about this despicable and cruel law, all of it in tones of fitting outrage. However, let me use it to illustrate one important, and often neglected point.

Outright criminalisation of a practice is not the only means that the state can use in its efforts to suppress the practice. There are many ways that political power can be used to attack our liberties. In current social circumstances prevailing in Western societies, the criminal law uses punishments that can include the infliction of a range of harms, such as loss of liberty or property, while also expressing public resentment, indignation, reprobation, and disapproval (Joel Feinberg has written well on this). But much the same infliction of harm and officially-sanctioned stigma could be accomplished by means that do not involve criminalisation of an activity or even the criminal justice system as we know it.

Even in current liberal societies, the difference between criminal law and civil law is always arbitrary to some extent, and may not always be of great substance. Modern statutes frequently create civil offences, often applying to corporations or their officers. Although civil laws do not categorise those who breach them as criminals, they, too, can be used to attach a stigma to actions and to individuals, and even to destroy reputations and careers. Think, too, of how we should categorise a provision that provides for mandatory awards of punitive damages in defined circumstances, or such innovations as triple damages in civil claims relating to breaches of certain statutory obligations (in order to discourage law-breaking).

In fact, the state can select many hostile and repressive means to achieve its aims. These include propaganda campaigns that stigmatise certain categories of people and officially-tolerated discrimination against people of whom it disapproves, such as by denying certain categories of people access to government employment. The state requires good justification before it calls upon the power of the state to suppress any form of conduct by any of these means.

The Oklahoma law is clearly intended to intimidate and stigmatise women who have abortions, in an attempt to deter the practice. It is no more acceptable than outright criminalisation of abortion. This action merits our contempt, and the law concerned should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Blogging at Sentient Developments

If you haven't already done so, you ought to bookmark George Dvorsky's fine blog Sentient Developments, which is devoted to "the future of intelligent life". From that thematic base, George is able to deal with a huge range of themes, from the prospect of finding intelligence on other planets to the possibility of very advanced, perhaps self-conscious, Artificial Intelligence. If this is your thing, check out the intelligent and thoughtful way he approaches these issues, often aided by smart guest bloggers. I don't always agree with George, but he's one of the go-to guys on all this.

I was a guest blogger at Sentient Developments for a week earlier this year, and it seemed to go pretty well. Since May, I've had a standing invitation to guest blog there from time to time at my own discretion. This has been very kind of George, but at the same time the last six months have been a bit of a hectic time for me. I mean, what with buying a new house interstate, plus extensive travel both interstate and overseas, seeing a book through publication, then doing what I can to promote it. And so on. In the time left over, I've wanted to concentrate on family responsibilities and editorial work on JET.

Still, it's silly of me not to take opportunities to contribute to such a good blog as Sentient Developments, so I'm going to try to do so. Hopefully, you'll soon start to see the occasional piece that I've written.

But again, it's worth a look anyway, if your interests are anything like those I've described.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is Epicurus right about sex?

This intriguing question has been asked by Jeff Mason in The Philosophers' Magazine's blog:

Epicurus is very clear that the desire for sex is generally bad for one’s peace of mind. When we imagine Epicurus doing what he likes best, he is swinging in a hammock in his garden talking philosophy with his friends. The frenzy of love making and its aftermath disrupts the calm and stately demeanor that comes with living a simple life, satisfying only one’s basic desires. His motto is “Plain living, high thinking.”

Epicurus is very clear about this. Desires are natural or vain, necessary or unnecessary. Pursuing vain desires, like extreme wealth, pleasure or fame, is difficult, fretful and uncertain. None of the vain desires are necessary, and we never find rest if we pursue them. The necessary desires are for food, shelter, clothing, water and air. With these the individual can maintain life. Our happiness lies in cultivating a taste for the basics.

There is one desire, however, that Epicurus singles out for special attention, the desire for sexual pleasure. Like the vain desires, the desire for sex is unnecessary for the survival of the individual, yet it is perfectly natural, like thirst or hunger. We are built for sexual reproduction, and a maturing human animal will feel the stirring of sexual desire no matter what. We are hardwired to find sexual attractions in the world.

Read on here. What do you think?

I like the comment that "one can well be even [a] keen follower of Epicurean teachings without swallowing the whole hog."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Crackpots, crackpots everywhere

Apropos of my last post, have a look at the thread over on Richard Dawkins' site. The scary thing is the number of people - a minority, but a significant one - who want to defend the more crackpot aspects of Bill Maher's thinking. The people concerned appear to be, in every other respect, the kind who are fans of Dawkins: i.e., atheistic, anti-religious types.

Let this underline one of my occasional themes: genuinely moderate religious people are not our enemies. The other side of it is that someone does not become a friend of reason and science (or liberty, if it comes to that) merely by being anti-religious. It's well to subject religion to sceptical scrutiny, and I'll go on doing that - and defending it, and encouraging it in others. But the divide between religious people and non-religious people does not map neatly onto the divide between people who are friends of reason, science, and liberty and people who are enemies of one or more of those values. I wish it were so simple, which would make things much easier for me. But it's not.

As for Bill Maher himself, I have enough regard for him to hope that he'll yet come around to the side of reason on the issue that's been raised with him in Michael Shermer's excellent open letter. In many ways, he's admirable, and I take no pleasure in slagging him off. Please, Mr. Maher, have a good think about what Michael wrote. Do you really believe that you are the only rationalist who is in step here? (Well, he won't read what I say, but I bet he'll read what Michael Shermer has said, and he certainly heard the comment that Richard Dawkins made a couple of weeks ago.)

I really hope that Maher will sort this out in his mind in a rational way, but at the moment my hopes aren't very high.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Michael Shermer's open letter to Bill Maher

I'm going to republish this without comment, except to say "Kudos to Michael Shermer!" for hitting what seems to me exactly the right note.

(And do you need reminding that Michael has a 5000-word essay explaining where he stands on the God question ... in a certain book that gets mentioned here now and then?)


An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

From a Fellow Skeptic

By Michael Shermer
Editor of Skeptic magazine and “Skeptic” columnist for Scientific American

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 “truthers”, Obama “birthers”, and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Atheist Alliance International.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See www.sciencebasedmedicine.org for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace—was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.

One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say “I was wrong.” Perhaps we don’t do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I’ve done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, “I changed my mind. I was wrong.”

With respect,

Michael Shermer

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why no funding for the Global Atheist Convention?

The Global Atheist Convention 2010 in Melbourne, Australia is expected to be the largest gathering of atheists, rationalists, humanists, sceptics, free thinkers, etc. ever run in Australia and possibly in the world (it is projected to attract over two thousand people).

The Atheist Foundation of Australia, which is running the convention, applied for government funding months ago, but has not yet received a response. Compare how governments support religions and large religious conventions. Here in Australia, exemptions or concessions apply to religious organisations in relation to income tax, fringe benefits tax, GST, payroll tax, land tax, stamp duties, car registration fees and municipal rates. Consider the millions of government dollars that will help fund the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne this coming December and the $120m the World Youth [i.e. Catholic Youth] Day in Sydney cost Australian tax payers (and let’s not even start on the civil liberty restrictions associated with World Youth Day…).

It’s time our parliamentary representatives actually represented all citizens and supported the Global Atheist Convention. Alternatively, they could stop using tax-payers' dollars to subsidise religion. At the moment there is an unacceptable double standard.

Please help by spreading the word – raise this issue on blogs, in conversation and anywhere else the politicians might hear you.

Footnote: I have (somewhat freely) adapted this wording from here. I don't necessarily agree with every sentiment expressed there, so I've rewritten it somewhat and cut it down, but I think the above is the gist of it that many of us could agree with.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some thoughts on previous post

I've watched the first ten minutes or so - Catherine's introduction to the session and my own statement of my position (remember, we were asked not to treat this as a debate but simply to state our positions in 4 to 6 minutes ... then have a conversation led by Catherine).

I've learned a bit from watching it. I actually thought it was pretty good, probably better than I expected, although I rushed phrases at times, and lost their full effect. I'm not yet ready to debate someone as skilled as, say, William Lane Craig or Christopher Hitchens (on a subject where I disagree with him). But it's not a bad start.

Of course, I shouldn't pretend to be a complete novice at debating, since I have years of courtroom experience behind me. But the kinds of debates that we see Hitchens, etc., involved in are very different from what happens in a courtroom; they are much more dependent on concise claims, persuasive rhetoric, a confident demeanour, an attractive personal style, etc., rather than presenting and analysing evidence, possibly over days. What suits one format will not necessarily suit the other. I admire Hitchens, but I'm sure that he "wins" many debates just from his assertive demeanour and his wonderful, resonant voice.

The Problem of Evil - the video

Okay, so here is the video of the cosy chat/not a debate/sharing views about the Problem of Evil put on by the University of Melbourne Secular Society last month. There was a further hour of discussion with the audience that was not taped, so you don't get the whole experience unless you were there.

UMSS - The Problem of Evil from Kang Wei Tan on Vimeo.

Remember, we were asked not to treat this as a debate but simply to state our positions in 4 to 6 minutes ... then have a conversation led by Catherine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Simon Singh gets right to appeal

In another small victory for freedom of speech, Simon Singh has been granted leave to appeal the shocking procedural decision against him in a libel case in the UK. The nature of the decision was to make his position in the larger case untenable. It's almost time for bed at my end, but this whole case is worth following. For now, have a look at the link.

Geert Wilders wins UK appeal

Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders has won an appeal against the decision of the British Government to exclude him from the country.

While the ruling in Wilders' favour, made by an immigration tribunal, can still be appealed by the British government, this outcome is, for now, an important victory for freedom of speech.

The government's decision, made early this year, was under 2006 regulations that allow the exclusion of individuals who represent:

A genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society.

However, in overturning the government's decision, the tribunal emphasised that the right of freedom of expression was important in a democratic society, even though opinions were expressed in a way that was bound to cause offence. The tribunal said:

Substantial evidence of actual harm would be needed before it would be proper for a government to prevent the expression and discussion of matters that might form the opinions of legislators, policy makers and voters.

As I've said in the past, I doubt that I would like Wilders if I knew him. If he had political power in the Netherlands, he would likely follow extreme and highly undesirable policies. But the immigration tribunal got this case right. Wilders should not be barred from entering liberal democracies such as the UK.

Public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. Technically, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic under contemporary conditions. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with all the immigration formalities.

Yes, Wilders' film, Fitna, does tend to invite hostile attitudes to Islam by juxtaposing verses from the Koran with images relating to acts of terrorism and incitements to violence against infidels and apostates. Wilders has also made other public statements that are likely to provoke hostility and cause offence. It's even possible, I suppose, that somebody might be inspired by Wilders' statements and/or by seeing Fitna to take direct violent action against Muslims. However, I do not believe that Fitna - ambiguous as it is - calls for this or that Wilders has done so elsewhere. Fitna may provoke some generalised hostility, but there is no call for any specific violent act or any class of violent acts.

Millian liberals might ask themselves whether the sorts of principles advocated in On Liberty would justify suppression of Fitna or other attempts to gag Wilders (including the recent efforts to keep him out of the UK). I doubt it.

On a Millian approach, the state would be justified in stopping Geert Wilders from addressing an angry mob and stirring it up to lynch nearby Muslims. But it would not be justified in preventing him from putting his views peacefully to the general population (this includes giving a lecture of the usual kind which is not directed at inciting a riot or a lynching).

In the first case, there's no time to respond to the situation other than by stopping him and dispersing the lynch mob. The state needs to have laws to deal with these situations. In the other case, Wilders' views may be wrong or even dangerous, but they can always be argued against. Individuals who see Fitna, or read about Wilders' ideas, or attend his speeches or lectures are not likely to be caught up in the mentality of a mob. Any individuals who just might be inspired to lawlessness can be deterred in the same way as other individuals who are inspired to lawlessness by anything else that might have the same effect. Thus, this whole situation is remote from the kind of circumstance where Mill would countenance the use of state coercion to stop someone's free speech.

I'm not suggesting that there can never be cases that where the risk of violence is sufficiently high and imminent to justify some kind of coercive action by the state. But Wilders has been in the UK before without stirring up lynchings or riots. He has also spoken in the US - even after he was barred from the UK - and has not stirred up violence. I see no evidence that he has ever crossed the line into the kind of clear incitement that should be cognisable by the law.

Let's be clear: if someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that might be a poor decision, and we might have very good reason to protest to the university adminstration, as many of us did when such an invitation was extended to Ben Stein not very long ago. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind. People who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. But that does not entail that the state should interfere. I'd be just as quick to defend Stein as I am to defend Wilders, if an attempt were made to exclude him from entry into a foreign country.

When the state starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it tries to keep someone out of the country for nothing more than that, it needs compelling justification. If there is any ambiguity, we should lean towards freedom of speech.

50 Voices of Disbelief reviewed at Open Parachute

A nice review by Ken Perrott over at Open Parachute. He begins:

Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! That might be how some people react given the media linking of atheism with these names.

So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. Atheism is far more widespread than that. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas.

Exactly! There are many people who do not believe in the existence of any God or gods, and are prepared to say so in public. Many of them have interesting reasons for their views, and it's valuable for them to speak up, even if they don't all entirely agree with each other. The ferment of debate is itself valuable. I should note that I don't agree with every idea in the book myself - how could I? - but (except in my own essay) my role as a co-editor was to do whatever I could to help the writers express their own ideas as clearly and persuasively as possible, not to impose my own. Beyond the most obvious minimal requirements (Udo and I only wanted essays from people who are, at least in some sense, atheists), the Voices of Disbelief project had no party line that everyone was expected to toe. 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists is all the more interesting for that, I think. There's something for everyone, but also something for everyone to debate. I think that's a good thing.

Perrott goes on to discuss some of the individual essays that most interested him, whether or not he entirely agreed with them. These include the pieces by Victor Stenger, John Harris, Adele Mercier, Tom Clark, Ophelia Benson, AC Grayling, Philip Kitcher, and Frieder Otto Wolf.

All in all, a gratifying review by someone who has his own take on the issues, but also "gets" the intentions of the book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Interview at Butterflies and Wheels

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has posted this new interview with Udo Schuklenk and me, conducted by Tauriq Moosa. Please consider having a look.

Thanks to all concerned! Thanks especially to Tauriq, whose idea this was, I believe. But also to Ophelia for publishing it, and to Udo of course.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I guess we all know a few people like this ...

H/T Matthew Cobb at Why Evolution Is True

AC Grayling on getting respect

He pretty much nails it in this article: "We might enhance the respect others accord us if we are kind, considerate, peace-loving, courageous, truthful, loyal to friends, affectionate to our families, aspirants to knowledge, lovers of art and nature, seekers after the good of humankind, and the like; or we might forfeit that respect by being unkind, ungenerous, greedy, selfish, wilfully stupid or ignorant, small-minded, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, violent, and the like. Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists."

I'm not sure I agree with every point in the article, but this bit is so good (as are others) that I'm not going to quibble. It's a privilege to have friends and allies like this.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Church Times review of Does God Hate Women?

This is a thoughtful and favourable review of Does God Hate Women? by 50 Voices of Disbelief contributor Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. One thing that I especially like about it is that the reviewer appears to be a genuinely liberal-minded and sensible religious person. Which leads me again to the observation that such people are not our enemies - quite the contrary. What's more, I'm sure that many such people exist. It's just that we see so few of them in public life these days. It's especially encouraging that no attempt is made in this review to defend religion by claiming that Benson and Stangroom have missed the point, or that it is only a few extremists who act on their religious beliefs by oppressing others.

If all our fellow citizens who happen to have religious beliefs were like this, books such as Does God Hate Women? and 50 Voices of Disbelief would not be needed. Issues about the truth or otherwise of religious claims would still be of academic interest, and philosophy of religion would not disappear as a sub-discipline, but there would be no social or political urgency about it all.

It's at this point that some will complain that I'm too soft on religion, but I'm going to keep stating - whenever opportunities arise - that I don't have any problem with genuinely liberal religious people. I'll always count such people as allies and potential friends.

I am not an "accommodationist" towards religion, in that I think only the most liberal, non-literalist kinds of religion - together with rarefied views such as deism and pantheism - are at all philosophically compatible with science. I.e., I think that the emerging scientific picture of the world is incompatible not only with fundamentalisms of various kinds but also with many supposedly "moderate" views. But my anti-accommodationism doesn't entail that I'm personally hostile to those religious people who - unlike the Vatican hierarchs - are genuinely moderate. In fact, I wish there were more of them.

What we did in our holidays

Jenny has written a great post summarising all the hectic activity in our lives over the past few months. No wonder I've sometimes felt a bit frazzled of late.

Friday, October 09, 2009

50 Voices of Disbelief is published today!

50 Voices of Disbelief is officially published in the UK (and most other places) today, 9 October 2009. Some people who've purchased it already have copies. In fact, Steve Zara has already read it, and reviewed it very positively (and I've made a comment that may or may not be of interest).

As a matter of fact, all the reviews so far have been positive, but I'm sure that that will change as more reviews roll in and we get some controversy. For now, I'm enjoying the feeling of having a new literary baby now finally out there in the big world making its way.

If Udo is reading, drink a glass of Champagne today, mate! You deserve it.

Edit: 50 Voices of Disbelief also gets a mention in this discussion of Victor J. Stenger at The Open Parachute.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Back in Melbourne - for now. And a miscellany ...

I arrived back in Melbourne earlier today and am now catching up with various small tasks. The big AAI bash in Los Angeles was great, and not at all a bunch of mean-spirited, snarky people as suggested by Andrew Sullivan in a rather mean-spirited and snarky manner over here.

Quote: "They're really charming, aren't they? It is as if everything arrogant about the academy and everything sneering about cable news culture is combined into one big snarky smugfest. Maybe these atheists will indeed help push back the fundamentalist right. Maybe they will remind people that between these atheist bigots and these fundamentalist bigots, the appeal of the Christianity of the Gospels shines like the sun."

Yeah, Andrew. Thanks for those kind words about a gathering of 700-plus people whom you haven't met. You may have met one or two of them, or even a few more, but I'm betting that you have no real sense of the ambience. The speech by Daniel Dennett that you object to so much was penetrating and critical, but delivered in more civil and good-humoured tones than you seem to have managed in reacting to it. And need I note how dangerous such accusations of bigotry are? It suggests that we are motivated by hatred, and once you suggest that about people you start to lay a foundation for persecution. Accusations of hatred or bigotry have their place - when they are made correctly and justly - but should never be plucked out of the air.

(In a spirit of atheistic charity, however, I must report that Sullivan gives a sort of obscure apology for his nastiness here and publishes some very cogent dissenting letters here. In each case, let it be recorded, this is to his credit. But still ...)

The AAI convention was possibly the best convention of any kind that I have ever been to. Where else would I get to see presentations by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Jerry Coyne, and others all in one day - not to mention the other days (with speakers of the calibre of PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott (whose talk was excellent), and on and on)? If I could afford it, or somehow got some funding, I'd definitely attend future conventions put on by this organisation. Next year, this annual convention will be in Montreal ... with big conventions that have AAI involvement in Melbourne, Copenhagen, and (so I hear on the grapevine) Rio de Janeiro.

Fortunately, as I've mentioned in an earlier post, my own presentation went very well (I felt in the zone as I gave it, and have received a lot of positive feedback). So I don't have to hang my head in shame, or anything of the sort. Quite the opposite, actually.

But all that said, it's great to be home with Jenny and Felix. All is well in Melbourne, though I've just read the manuscript of a new story by Jenny that is so good, but so sad, that it brought tears to my eyes. Now she just needs to find a publisher for it.

Meanwhile, I'll be catching up a little over the next two to three weeks before flying to the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose at the end of the month. Jenny will leave a few days before me to get acclimatised. This is an important gig for her in her role as one of the judges of the World Fantasy Awards (the outcomes of which will be revealed at the convention).

Thanks to Charla for taking a great photo of the moment when I met my e-buddy, Jerry Coyne, in person. (Jerry on the left, me still on stage at the right ... for anyone who doesn't recognise us.) And thanks to official photographer David Diskin for the shot of me with the mammoth at the La Brea tarpits.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A couple of early reviews for 50 Voices of Disbelief

"In their excellent collection of essays exploring and defending the philosophical stance of atheism, Russell Blackford (Kong Reborn, 2005, etc.) and Udo Schüklenk (Philosophy/Queen’s University, Canada) had an inclusive vision. 'The selection criteria aimed at creating a diverse group of contributors from very different spheres of public life, including academia, novelists, artists, philosophers and so on,' says Schüklenk. 'We thought that this diversity should make the volume attractive to people from quite different walks of life.' Contributors to the book range from those with science-fiction backgrounds to modern-day philosophy. 'We ...thought that this diversity of backgrounds should translate into a rich mosaic of personal and professional views,' says Schüklenk. While atheism has of late acquired some high-profile advocates, such as scientist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, it is, of course, not a topic without controversy. There has been backlash against those who have courted it. 'Dawkins has been demonized with some success, i.e. a myth has been created that his tone is simply angry or strident and that he has only a crude understanding of religion,' says Blackford. 'Neither of these is true. The myth provides an excuse to avoid his actual arguments, which are quite nuanced and carefully qualified…[It’s] doubtless [that] Udo and I will encounter some critics who’ll distort our arguments and misrepresent our motivations. It comes with the territory.'" (Kirkus Reviews, October 2009)

"In more than 50 brief statements organized by Blackford and philosopher Sch√ľklenk ... contributors share views—their routes toward nonbelief and their feelings about the place of religion in the world ... including James (the Amazing) Randi, a well-known magician and debunker of spurious psychic phenomena. Considering the popularity of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris's The End of Faith, [these] memoirs and observations will be of interest to disbelievers." (Library Journal, October 2009)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Global Atheist Convention

Following on from the Atheist Alliance International convention in Los Angeles, which had over 700 people in attendance, the biggest ever convention devoted to atheistic thought will be held in Melbourne next year. The 2010 Global Atheist Convention, "The Rise of Atheism", is scheduled for 12-14 March, and it is expected to attract 2500 people.

I understand that Atheist Alliance International is also planning to be involved in large conventions in Copenhagen and Rio de Janeiro, and I look forward to announcements about those.

The current list of speakers for the Melbourne convention is a treat: Richard Dawkins, Catherine Deveny, Phillip Adams, Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer, PZ Myers, Dan Barker, Stuart Bechman, Sue-Ann Post, Kylie Sturgess, John Perkins, Tamas Pataki, Max Wallace, Russell Blackford (ahem!), Ian Robinson, AC Grayling, Robyn Williams, Jamie Kilstein and Simon Taylor. This blends Australian and international activists; local media celebrities (but very much at the intellectual end, rather than, let's say, the Paris Hilton end, of the spectrum); and some very high-profile international public intellectuals. It should provide for a fascinating and entertaining mix.

All speakers are giving their services for free to help make it a success. In my case, I'm prepared to do that, despite the work that will be involved, because I strongly support the organisers' aims. A major global convention like this can highlight the political and other concerns of non-believers, in a society where too much deference is still given to the views of religious leaders and their organisations. It's time to contest the authority that religion claims, and the Global Atheist Convention can be provide one rallying point.

Please help spread the word and give this wonderful convention the publicity and profile it needs. Some letters to newspaper editors, commending the idea, would be helpful, but please talk it up however you can.

And as PZ Myers reminds us, non-Australians are welcome. And don't forget that Melbourne is beautiful at that time of the year - late summer/early autumn. So come on down, or across the Tasman, or from wherever you come from, and enjoy yourselves. We'll be putting on a good show. By March, I'll be living in Newcastle, but this is going to be an exceptionally enjoyable visit to Melbourne. It's gonna rock!

Michael Ruse on Richard Dawkins

In Saturday's Globe and Mail, philosopher Michael Ruse has a positive review of the new book by Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Ruse concludes, "I hope you can [...] put your abilities to good use and read Richard Dawkins's wonderful new book."

Indeed, I'm looking forward to reading The Greatest Show on Earth, which has been on my must-read list since its publication a few weeks ago. It's nice to see Ruse giving Dawkins such a favourable review, since there has been an appearance of bad blood between them in recent years, but Ruse cannnot refrain (dare I say?) from having another crack at Dawkins' expressions of his well-known atheism. He explains one of Dawkins' points as follows:

Dawkins cannot refrain from having another crack at the evolution-is-cruel-and-hence-God-cannot-possibly-exist argument. Associated with this is a fairly detailed discussion of how often organisms are built on what Americans would call Rube Goldberg and the British would call Heath Robinson lines, that is to say cobbled together without regard for the niceties of fine design simply to get things working, probably in the most outlandish way possible. All of this apparently is taken to be a refutation of the God of Christianity.

Actually, it sounds like a pretty good refutation to me. Indeed, I've often put the same argument, and I'm far from the first to do so. The idea of a loving, providential, but all-powerful-and-knowing God seems pretty much coherent to me (though some philosophers doubt this), but it is very difficult to reconcile with the facts of the world made known to us by biological evolution.

In response, Ruse says:

To which I suspect Christians will respond: Whoever thought they needed Dawkins and evolution to tell them about any of this? The problem of evil goes back a long way before Darwin; this is not to say that it can be solved, but it is to say that evolution does not uniquely have an essential role in refuting Christianity.

But surely this misses the point. Ruse is correct that the Problem of Evil already existed prior to Darwin, but I doubt that Dawkins believes or states otherwise. In any event, it doesn't follow that biological evolution is irrelevant to the problem.

Arguments about the Problem of Evil, including attempts by religious apologists to solve it, are based, in part, on the facts we have about the world. They are also, of course, based on concepts of God. The idea is that a God of a certain kind would seem to have both the power and the motivation to act in ways that he has evidently not acted, given the facts about the world that are available to us. The better informed we are about the world, the better our discussion of this problem. But, as it happens, the more we know about life on Earth, including its history, the more intractable the Problem of Evil becomes and the more remote become the prospects of solving it satisfactorily.

To take just one obvious example, evolution knocks on the head the argument that evil and suffering (if these are distinguishable) were only brought into the world by Adam's fall from grace 6000 years ago (and can thus all be attributed to human free will). If a believer is going to rely on free will, assuming that the required concept of free will is coherent and plausible in any event, she will be forced into what may be an unpalatable position - perhaps developing a demonological defence in which the evil and suffering result from some rebellion against God by angelic beings billions of years ago.

The point isn't that there was no evidence against the existence of a benign creator before Darwin came along. I doubt that Richard Dawkins or any atheist thinks that. The point is that the totality of the evidence changes dramatically when you take evolution into account; when you do that, it becomes all the more likely that no loving and providential (yet all-knowing and all-powerful) God exists.

Although Ruse makes it clear that he is not a Christian, he offers his own pet theodicy:

Moreover, many Christians think that miraculous creation is simply not the way of the Lord. God is outside time and (as Saint Augustine argued) created by implanting seeds that would then develop naturally. Hence, on theological grounds, one has reason to think that God created through unbroken law, that is to say through evolution.

But why should we accept this as a satisfactory response? If God is all-powerful, he is quite capable of miraculous creation, and his existence outside of time does not remove this power (indeed, he could create the entirety of space-time from outside it). So the question remains, What could motivate a loving God to create through a process that foreseeably, to such a being, leads to all the suffering (not to mention design flaws, waste, etc.)? What Ruse says here is no more satisfactory than any of the other recent attempts to offer an answer to the evolution-enhanced Problem of Evil, such as the weak arguments that Andrew Sullivan has been making, and which Jason Rosenhouse has been tearing apart.

Ruse is not a Christian, but he has certainly become an arch-accommodationist of religious thinking. I see that his next book is to be entitled Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science; he says, doubtless accurately, that Richard Dawkins won't like it.

I can hardly wait.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Talking about horror in Montreal

This video - the Alien one on the site - is from my last trip to North America, a couple of months ago, when I visited Montreal for the annual World Science Fiction Convention.

I was nabbed for the interview immediately after I spoke on a panel about the movie Alien and its sequels, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original movie. I was geared up for this because I was also on a separate panel about the horror genre, and had been thinking about what separates it from, say fanatasy narratives or action thrillerss.

On the Alien anniverary panel, I made the case that Alien is a quintessential horror movie despite (or in addition to) its science fiction elements. If I may say so, I was pretty pleased with my performance on the panel ... but less so with my interview performance (partly because I was getting pretty tired - at this stage I was just getting over a fairly serious illness and my voice was still croaky).

But I think it's come out pretty well, the way my interview is intercut with scenes from the movie itself. Go and have a look - it's only a few minutes. I really like some of the juxtapositions of my descriptions of specific elements of the movie with scary scenes from Alien.

More generally, I hadn't previously heard of this media site, The Electric Playground ... but it sure seems cool.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Another big day in Burbank

Big day watching great presentations by Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others. I got to meet Dawkins, as well as Michael Shermer later in the day. Both seemed very kind, though also very much in demand, especially Dawkins who is being mobbed like a rock star. He seemed to know who I was, though. Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to them beyond the handshakes and related pleasantries.

Also did a video interview ... and just now was live streaming to answer questions on anything and everything (I was thrown only by the questions relating to Celebrity Chef).

Tired now, since I hardly slept last night. Hope I do better tonight.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Some more on Paul Kurtz

Says Paul Kurtz:

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society. I apologize to my fellow citizens who have suffered these barbs of indignity.

I've kinda covered this a couple of posts back, but there's a bit more to say ... and today is a good day to say it, since I've given a talk that discussed ideas of blasphemy, defamation of religion, and freedom of speech. I have to say that I find this passage that I've quoted above very surprising. I really don't know why Kurtz brings up the dangerous idea of "hate speech" (which may be of some value in other contexts, e.g racial ones, but causes a great deal of confusion when applied to "hate" of ideas).

This is the kind of problem that I raised towards the end of my talk, the risk that the idea of "hate" will be watered down, in which case even existing UN conventions can be very dangerous if enacted into law. The relevant UN convention (see Article 20 of the ICCPR) requires the legal suppression of religious hate speech that causes mere "hostility". But many things cause some hostility, and a degree of hostility (provided it is not violent) is not actually unwelcome in pluralistic societies. For example, there's a fair bit of hostility between political parties, supporters of rival football teams, opposed economic theorists, etc. The word "hostility" is potentially very broad.

Alas, much of Kurtz's rhetoric is unfortunate. It's especially unfortunate that he talks about violation of "the key humanistic principle of tolerance". I know of no humanistic principle that says we must tolerate, in the sense of being nice about or respectful of, every absurd idea that confronts us. Voltaire was certainly not tolerant in any such sense. If such a principle exists, it should be repudiated.

We should, indeed, exercise liberal tolerance in the sense of not trying to suppress religious ideas by fire and sword. We ought to abjure the use of the coercive power of the state to impose our own view of the world. But tolerance is not the same as respect (unless "respect" is itself defined narrowly). It is certainly not the same as "deference" or "esteem". I am, perhaps, less ready to resort to mockery and outright hostility than some of my allies, but hostility is often appropriate, and mockery certainly has its place where what is opposed is absurd. Often it takes a degree of mockery to cut through all the crap and expose the absurdity of an absurd position.

When we do this, we are not abandoning liberal tolerance, and nor, as far as I can see, are we abandoning some key principle of humanism.

This cuts both ways. Kurtz says in the passage above:

What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society.

No we would not. We might disagree with the views, we might find them irritating, we might not welcome such religious believers in our houses, but we would not protest in any such way. They are entitled to insult us. What they are not entitled to do is get laws enacted to try to suppress humanism or scepticism.

As I've said before, I have some sympathy for the idea of preserving the dignified brand image that the CFI has cultivated in the past. To be clear, I'm not sure that Kurtz would be entirely right even about that. But even if he is, that does not mean that the rest of us have to be similarly dignified in our approaches, or that those who are less so should be condemned as failing to be properly tolerant. It really is over the top Kurtz to be apologising to people who have not been oppressed in any way but merely suffered some "barbs of indignity".

No one has a right to go through life never suffering such "barbs". Give me a break.

Myers on Blackford ... and other stuff

What a day! Highlights include meeting PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Daniel Dennett + the hitherto mysterious "Sastra" ... and briefly catching up with Margaret Downey. I also exchanged shy hellos with Richard Dawkins as we passed each other in opposite directions at one point (but I don't think this counts as meeting him, especially since I doubt that he had any idea of who I was). Also met lots of other great people - Jim Lippard among them. Lots and lots of people.

I gave my own talk in the afternoon, and it seemed to me to go well - and PZ has already found time to give it a positive review. All talks are videoed, so I assume mine will turn up on the internet sooner or later. PZ's own talk was excellent, though it was standing room only (note to all future convention organisers ... PZ Myers is now so popular that he needs a big auditorium ... got it?).

The evening has been a blast, with entertainment from the folks from Mr Deity + Richard Dawkins' presentation of an award to Bill Maher (both of whom gave funny and brilliant speeches), then a stand-up comedy show to finish the night.

All is well in beautiful downtown Burbank.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A tale of three generations: CFI and Blasphemy Day

The Center for Inquiry recently made a decision to sponsor Blasphemy Day, 30 September - the five-year anniversary of the publication of the notorious Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Unfortunately this decision has produced a split between CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz, who opposes the decision here and here, and the organisation's current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, who strongly supports it.

Kurtz is in his mid-eighties, easily old enough to be Lindsay's father, and comes from a generation more used to decorum and formality than baby boomers like Lindsay, who came of age during the tail end of the Vietnam War era and the Sexual Revolution. For the moment, boomers and older Gen Xers - people in their late forties and fifties - have their hands on the levers of power and influence. But there is a still younger generation making waves: the brash, cyber-savvy younger X's and Gen Y's: people such as those who dreamed up the idea of Blasphemy Day in the first place.

While men and women of Lindsay's generation (and mine) may respect our elders, including statesmen like Kurtz, we have very different life experiences. And we also have to accommodate the attitudes of those coming up behind us, or else the movements we're involved with will die. This is going to make for some interesting policy dilemmas over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile, who is right, Lindsay or Kurtz? I can't help feeling that Kurtz has a point. The CFI is a corporation, and indeed has a strong corporate brand. It needs to satisfy all its stakeholders as far as it can, and it needs to avoid tarnishing its brand, one that connotes a certain dignity in its critique of religion and superstition. It appears to me that the CFI may have embraced Blasphemy Day so wholeheartedly that it has unnecessarily upset some of its more conservative stakeholders.

But that's not to say I'm with Kurtz. The idea of a right to "blaspheme" is important and compelling. I think that the CFI was correct to give some support to Blasphemy Day, even if not to the extent of encouraging artworks and actions that (arguably) conflict with its carefully established brand image. The promotion of symposia to discuss the idea of blasphemy and its political suppression, some general support for the idea of Blasphemy Day, perhaps some clarificatory reservations about blasphemy merely for its own sake (rather than to dramatise a point, as Blasphemy Day no doubt does) may have served the CFI and its stakeholders better. The CFI did some of this, but perhaps it went too far in involving itself in the business of apparently gratuitous ridicule ... though it could certainly have made statements defending the right to engage in this, on free speech grounds, without harming its own brand.

Still, I think it was correct, given the various vectors involved here, to give at least some recognition and support to the Blasphamy Day concept.

Like other corporate bodies and associations, such as the NCSE and various scientific bodies, the CFI has no thoughts or feelings of its own. It is there to adopt policies and programs that serve the interests of members and others whose cause it has taken up. Its leaders and staff need to be very careful to be inclusive, as far as possible, and that may mean involving the CFI in some compromises when it makes delicate corporate decisions. I'm not sure it made exactly the right decision in this case, and I do think it needs to listen carefully when respected people like Kurtz indicate their alienation.

On the other hand, Kurtz has not helped by talking about "fundamentalist atheists", when what he is really seeing is the brashness of a younger generation, combined with a tricky decision for the people who actually hold the power to make tricky decisions at the moment. Though Kurtz insists (in his latest piece) that there are fundamentalist atheists lurking around, this is a meme that should be contested vigorously whenever it appears. A fundamentalist atheist would be an atheist who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text - perhaps Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian or Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion - even in the face of results from rational inquiry.

I have yet to encounter such a person. Even if any exist, I very much doubt that fundamentalist atheism had anything to do with the decision in this case.

That's not to say that there are no atheists who are knee-jerk in their hostility to all religious people, no matter how theologically and politically liberal. Knee-jerk atheists certainly do exist, and I will criticise them whenever necessary.

There are also atheists who have apocalyptic and/or totalitarian/authoritarian tendencies. I.e., they may wish to eradicate religion in a dramatic way within their own lifetimes, rather than merely contesting its truth claims (with the benefits that I believe this produces). Or they may wish to impose non-belief by authoritarian state action. All social movements are likely to attract people with these tendencies; and even very liberal people (like me) need to beware of the temptations of apocalyptic or totalitarian thinking. While the current religions are great breeding grounds for this kind of thinking, and Christianity helped spawn the apocalyptic and totalitarian quasi-religions of communism and Nazism, no movement is necessarily immune from these tendencies. (As an aside, apocalyptic thinking is rife in the transhumanist movement, which needs to be careful where it goes with this.)

However, I don't think that any tendency towards apocalypticism or totalitarianism - or fundamentalism if it comes to that - lies behind the CFI's handling of Blasphemy Day. It was simply a matter of how to engage productively with the brashness of a younger generation, while trying to protect the CFI brand.

I also disagree with Kurtz when he claims that there is something intolerant or illiberal about Blasphemy Day. Let's be clear on this. Regardless whether the CFI leadership made the most adroit decision, supporting, or engaging in, acts of blasphemy is not intolerant in the way that Kurtz must mean. I.e., it is not inconsistent with Millian liberalism. The latter requires that we not attempt to suppress religion by force. It does not require that we must like religion, be polite about it, or refrain from protesting against it or making fun of it. Indeed, ridicule is sometimes necessary to get across how absurd a position or practice is. It's not a method that I prefer, but it has its place in public discourse, and engaging in it to make a political point to the effect that it does have a place, and should not be prevented, is, however undignified, perfectly legitimate speech.

In conclusion, Kurtz does has a point about the CFI brand (which is not to say that his views should prevail). He certainly should speak up, and we should all listen to him. But I wish he had made his point in a somewhat different way. I hope he can be persuaded to stop talking about fundamentalist atheism, which was not the issue here, and to step back from an interpretation of liberal tolerance that would have dire implications for freedom of expression. Nonetheless, the CFI is not a human being with its own thoughts and feelings; it is merely a legal construct, designed to serve the purposes of its stakeholders. In their deliberations, the individuals who have leadership roles within the CFI will need to think carefully about brand, image, and broad inclusiveness.

But they also need to harness the brashness and enthusiasm of younger, up and coming, generations. This balancing act won't always be easy.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

National Human Rights Consultation Committee reports to government

I've received this (below) in my in-box. Was wondering what was going on, since the report was due on 30 September. Looks as if the National Human Rights Consultation Committee has written its report according to schedule, so we now need to wait until the government releases it, before we'll see what Frank Brennan and the others have said. I'm happy to wait for a few days, as it will be a lot easier for me to analyse it when I'm back at home than it is here.


Final National Human Rights Consultation Update – 1 October 2009

Dear All

The National Human Rights Consultation has drawn to a close. The Committee has travelled far and wide to ensure that a diverse range of views on human rights has been sought. Since the Consultation was launched on 10 December 2008 the Committee has hosted 66 community roundtables in 52 locations throughout regional and remote Australia, as well as in capital cities.In addition to this, in excess of 35,000 written and online submissions were received by the Committee, and many people attended the three days of public hearings held in Canberra in July.

The National Human Rights Consultation Report was handed to Government yesterday. The Government will release the Consultation Committee's report and provide a formal response in the coming months.

We are pleased to announce that video footage of the Public Hearings is now available and can be streamed from the Consultation website under the 'Public Hearings' tab or http://www.humanrightsconsultation.gov.au/www/nhrcc/nhrcc.nsf/Page/Public_Hearings. You can view Day 1 sessions with Day 2 and 3 becoming available in the next week. Transcripts will also become available shortly. You may view the program of the Public Hearings on the website and watch the footage on a session by session basis.

In other news, Fr Frank Brennan will be speaking about the National Human Rights Consultation and the Report at the National Press Clubof Australia in Canberra on Wednesday, 14 October 2009. This event will be broadcast live on ABC Television. For more information please visit the NPC website: http://www.npc.org.au

Finally, we would like to thank each and everyone of you for your interest and participation in the National Human Rights Consultation. The Committee has been grateful for the opportunity to listen to and report on the diverse range of views put forward on how human rights can be better protected and promoted in our country.

Frank Brennan, Mary Kostakidis, Mick Palmer, Tammy Williams.


In LA ... now for the excitement, after I get some sleep

Just checking in for now. I'm sure the next few days will be very interesting.