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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).

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.


Brian said...

I read the article and it was like a hodge-podge of the many times refuted lies and canards. Actually, it reminded me of something Barney Zwartz wrote about 2 years or so ago. Even Barney seems to have moved on since then. Where's this guy been?

Em said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one to think this article was just a poorly constructed collection of old misinformation and flat out lies.

Janet's Dad said...

Doesn't look like Einstein is using the word "God" metaphorically here.

Barney would say that Luther believed in a god that no one really believes in.

NewEnglandBob said...

It is also covered on richarddawkins.net

MosesZD said...

Man! That was well done!

Russell Blackford said...

Quite so, Scott. He was well aware of different uses of the word.

Anonymous said...

this article was just a poorly constructed collection of old misinformation and flat out lies.

Care to be specific?

Anonymous said...

The Nazis were atheists plain and simple, like their Communist enemies. A.N. Wilson in "God's Funeral" comes very close to laying the horrors of the 20th century at the feet of the atheistic philosophers of the 19th century. He sites two main philosophical branches of 19th century atheism that bore bitter fruit in the 20th: the Carlyle/Nietzsche branch in which God is replaced with the hero or superman, and the Hegel/Marx branch in which heaven is replaced with a workers utopia. The first gave us the horrors of the far right, the other the atrocities of the far left.

The Nazis, Hitler especially, despised Christianity as a belief fit only for weaklings, not for the coming amoral Superman (that they misread Nietzsche on this issue is besides the point). With the possible exception of Himmler and his bizarre paganism, the Nazi ruling circle was composed of atheists.

Though he called himself a Christian in Mein Kampf and in several speeches, it is well to remember that these were pronouncements for public consumption and were made by a consummate liar/politician. No politician could have hoped to get himself elected in Weimar Germany as a self proclaimed atheist. In his public pronouncement concerning his religious faith, Hitler did the sensible thing, he lied.

For his real views on the subject see his "Table Talk", surreptitiously recorded by Martin Borman and never intended for the public. These statements represent his real views (more on this below). Statements made in confidence to a circle of cronies is obviously a better indicator of the man's thinking than statement made to woo the public.

Hitler had every intention of destroying the Christian faith and replacing it with Nazism when the time was ripe. His accommodations with the Roman Catholic Church and German Protestant churches were purely tactical. For a more in depth look at this issue see the OSS post war report on Nazism and the churches at www.lawandreligion.com run by Rutgers University. For a shorter version, see pages 477-478 of Weinberg's A World at Arms (IMHO the best single volume history of the war).


"Secondly, all their plans for cities and towns had one common characteristic: there would be no churches in post-war Germany's urban areas. Here one can see the architectural expression of a goal close to the hearts of the leadership of National Socialist Germany. Whatever temporary accomodations might have to be made in wartime to the objections of the churches to euthanasia, to removal of crucifixes from the school, and to the maintenance of a structure of chaplains in the army, once victory had been obtained in the war, the existence of the Christian churches in Germany could safely be ended. And if anyone objected, the Gestapo would see to their punishment."

Religious faith was the common enemy of atheistic regimes of both the far right and the far left.

An historical article from Christianity Today sums up the conclusions of the OSS report quite nicely:

"Donovan's Nuremberg report undermines the assertion, made by Feldman and so many others, that because several key Nazis had ties (however tenuous) to a church, and because the Nazis advanced insidious policies, then those insidious policies must be inherently Christian. To what extent elements of popular Christian ideology fed Hitler's anti-Semitism is a separate and valid question, but the "if A then B" connection fails because insidious anti-Christian policies do not fit the syllogism above. A plan to eradicate Christianity can hardly be construed as Christian, and persons supporting such a plan can hardly be considered believers of any standing."

Zachary Voch said...

Hm... "Anonymous" decided to post that same little misleading rant on several other blogs.

Anonymous said...

If I believe in a certain creator of the universe, that I will be subjected to an eternal afterlife – the quality of which depends on how observant I was of the creators desires – and that the creator recommends that I stone a woman who isn't a virgin on her wedding night, then the cost of me not following his recommendation (a terrible afterlife for ETERNITY) will certainly tip the cost benefit scales, and so I will stone her.
No such logical progression links non-belief in astrology, Zeus, Thor or Yahweh to the murder of millions of people or indeed any act which is widely considered to be ‘evil’.

Dvir: “And what about weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear and biological bombs developed by scientists? Does that mean that all atheists and scientists are evil?”

Those who developed nukes and other such weapons were acting as engineers, not scientists. This distinction is emphasised in particular by Feynman.
Science is concerned with the accumulation of knowledge in the form of theories which produce empirically verified predictions (and which haven't been falsified), not how the knowledge is used.

Russell Blackford said...

Here we go again. Long-winded Anonymous has turned up. That's enough for one day, matey. Go and play on your own blog.

Russell Blackford said...

Meanwhile, I see that the article is now getting a few defenders over on the original site - folks who evidently haven't seen these canards before and imagine that creating a pastiche of them serves some useful purpose.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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Trav said...

I am one of those folks commenting on SMH. Like you, Russell, I felt frustrated by the 300 word limit. Unlike you, I agree with the general thrust of the article- even if I don't agree with every point made.

Dean said...

the 9:48 comment by anonymous starting with "If I believe in a certain creator of the universe..." seems to oppose dvir and seems kinda pro atheism

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Russell Blackford said...

I'm usually pretty easy going. But I've warned long-winded Anonymous before about spamming my blog with long, multiple posts. I just gave him (I assume that someone with this obsessive style is male; few women are like that) a specific warning relating to this thread.

When I give a warning I expect it to be followed.

Anonymous has defied my politely-expressed wishes for the last time. I've just deleted two of his posts and I'll delete any posts that I see in future which display the same posting style. I've had enough of these attempts to hijack my blog with material that belongs on the commenter's own blog. No one can say I wasn't patient.

Trav said...

Sorry, I should've clarified- I was NOT making any anonymous comments- just in case anyone wondered that after reading my last post 5 minutes ago.

However, I have made about 5 contributions to the SMH article comments, that most of you will no doubt vehemently disagree with.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, the post made at 9.48 seems to have been made by a different person. Okay. It would be good if people would create accounts and stop posting as "Anonymous" or at least sign their posts so I can tell who is who.

Meanwhile, I've left the substantive post by long-winded Anonymous. He made it before the warning, so it can stay - unlike his whining about getting a warning. For those who don't know, he's got a lot of previous form.

We'll see how this goes, but there are limits to my patience which this person has tested in the past. He really needs to create his own blog and post there.

Sean Wright said...

@ Trav, what was the general thrust of the article?

Trav said...

The general thrust being that New Atheists are a bunch of hypocrites.

That, I believe, would probably be the best way to summarise his point. Although, the article aimed to cover a lot of bases and so I'll happily concede that many rational people could have a different take on it.

By hypocrites, I mean the following: Dawkins chides fundamentalists, while at the same time showing himself to be a vitriolic fundamentalist, albeit of a different stripe. Dawkins also berates Evangelical Christians for ignoring the evidence surrounding evolution, but then he shows that he's completely ignorant of history, and hasn't a clue about theology or philosophy. In fact, ignorant is probably a relatively complementary term to describe his historical exploits, when you consider how his shockingly errant blunders have been shown in some detail. And on philosophy, his philosophical prowess has not only been questioned by Christians like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, but it's also been discussed in VERY negative terms by atheists like Julian Baggini, Michael Ruse, Thomas Nagel and many more.

In a roundabout way, Abramovich aimed to show that the fundy new atheists are short sighted and can't see any point of view outside their own limited worldview. And I agree.

Trav said...

Also there was an AGE article written in response to Abramovich, by James Richmond of Melbourne University. As yet, my comment hasn't been added but I'll paste it in here anyway:

The article: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/atheists-are-good-humans-too-20091027-hibc.html

And my response (in 300 words):

As a Christian, I happily concede that James’s article is well written and generally coherent, and that he has effectively countered many of Dr. Abramovich's points. However, there’s a couple of issues that need to be taken up.

Regarding morality, Jimbob is correct in pointing out the bigger issue underpinning James's discussion. If you are an atheist naturalist (AN), there's actually no such thing as objective evil. When you think through the AN worldview and it's logical consequences, you'll quickly realise that choosing between moral act X and moral act Y is as subjective as choosing between ice cream and yoghurt. It's ultimately of no consequence, other than whatever ramifications you may face for choosing whichever course of action suits you. To me, this undermines the credibility of the AN worldview because it undermines my deepest intuitions.

Secondly, James goes to pains to argue that the brain is purely the product of natural selection. There's a problem though. Natural selection, under AN, is part of a causally closed system of atoms and molecules. Yet, the scientific enterprise itself actually requires the existence of rational inference, and previously uncaused causation between mental events. In other words the mere existence of science undermines the idea that everything is physically causally closed. It seems to me that firstly, John Lennox was right when he suggested that all attempts to derive rationality from irrationality (or non-rationality) are ultimately doomed to fail and that secondly, CS Lewis (in Miracles) was correct in arguing that the AN worldview refutes itself. It cuts off the branches it claims to be sitting on.

The atheist naturalist worldview promoted by James in this article is both highly counter intuitive and logically self refuting. Hence, it should be rejected.

Sean Wright said...


Thanks for the clarification. If that was the central point of the theologians message, it would have been nice if he had included examples to back up his claims

Sean Wright said...


Regarding morality, Jimbob is correct in pointing out the bigger issue underpinning James's discussion. If you are an atheist naturalist (AN), there's actually no such thing as objective evil.

Is that not taking James out of context? He is using the term in a sense that it is commonly understood. Can you link Stalin's actions to the fact that he had no belief in god? Does it matter if we call these actions evil or harmful when we are trying to prove a causal link?

I have no belief in a god, but I have an aversion to killing people. This stems not from some fear of punishment from god or man but from empathy.

Trav said...

So what if you're not feeling particularly empathetic, on any given day?

Sean Wright said...


I would argure that, the empathy(perhaps that is the wrong word)is always there,always on and only in extreme circumstances can it be overidden.

I have trained to fight and injure people even when I defeat an opponent and we have been beating the crap out of each other I feel a measure of sorrow for for the other guy.

I see this aversion as ingrained, an evolved trait that society builds laws and mores around to bolster.

But perhaps we should refine what sort of killing we are talking about. It can be dreadfully easy to kill someone when you are only angry and lashing out. Are we talking about cold premeditated murder?

On reflection to its probably more than just an aversion, likely a combination of

1) absence of motive/reason/desire
2) aversion to hurting other people
3) training in avoiding conflict
4) conflict free circumstances
5) experience of the resultant pain and anguish of violence

Can I conceive of a situation where I might make the choice, or be given no choice but to kill someone - maybe, but it's highly unlikely.

So what stops you from killing people Trav? That it's against the law or against god, or as I suspect for the same or similar reasons I have outlined above.

Peter said...

To add what I think is an important thing to this discussion, I would like to point out that apart from wrongly claiming that Hitler was an atheist, Abramovich and many other religious polemicists a profound misunderstanding of what the term "secular" means.

"Secular" does not mean atheism. It does not necessarily imply disbelief in god; in fact it does not in itself indicate any particular religious belief or the lack of it. It is possible to be a secularist, in the sense of supporting the concept of a secular society, and be a Christian, a Muslim, and atheist or anything else.

Secularism fundamentally means two things
* supporting the right of all to freedom of conscience - to follow and practice the belief system of their choice;
* supporting the concept that religion and the state should be separate, and that it is not the role of the state of government to advocate for or impose any religious belief system.

Secularism is about fundamental human rights, and essential to a truly free society.

Abramovich and others are completely wrong when they say that Hitler and Stalin were secular, or that they imposed secular belief systems. Quite the opposite, they were NOT secularists in that they did not support the freedom of their citizens to follow the belief systems of their choice, and used the state to impose their own ideologies on their populaces.

I myself am an atheist, but I do not believe it is the role of the state to spread atheism. Neither would I support an atheist statement in the constitution, or have atheist imposed as a belief system in schools, or the idea of an atheist statement of atheist belief being read at the opening of parliament.

Yes, there have been horrible ideologies that have done enormous damage during the 20th Century. Some of them have been religious and some have not. None have been secular.

In opposition to them we should support the concept of fundamental and universal human rights, and central to this is support for secularism.

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