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, January 05, 2010

Voicing disbelief

My new article in The Philosophers' Magazine is online today ... over here, where it has been attracting quite a lot of attention. It's been linked by various other sites, but I must say that some of the discussion is rather bemusing. Even if we stick to the comments on the original website for the magazine, it's difficult to be sure what some of them have to do with the article itself. But then there's this sort of thing. At least it's refreshing when right-wing Christian fundamentalists accuse people like me of being, in essence, nothing more than fearful supporters of progressive political positions. It's a change from the more common assertion that we are part of a neo-liberal, vaguely right-wing, plot to keep America in a perpetual state of war against Islam.

Anyway, read the article ... and, hopefully, enjoy.


Ramases said...

An excellent article Russell.

I generally agree with your statement that even the atheist movement may not be immune from some who may show "apocalyptic or authoritarian tendencies", and some who (as you say) advocate state action in an attempt to impose non-belief. Perhaps the one who comes closest to this are the ravings of Pat Condell, who not only equates all people from a culturally Muslim background with the most extreme political Islam, but has stated that Muslims do not "belong" in Britain.

In a secular society people of all beliefs belong, even if I disagree with them. Xenophobes advocates for the extreme anti-immigrant right have tried to hijack a number of movements to their ends, and it should not be surprising that it should be happening within the atheist movement too.

That said, there will never be, and should never be, such as thing as a completely unified atheist movement. On the contrary, I think it is important that we continue to have our differences and that we debate them. Atheists after all are and should be a diverse bunch. Some of us will inevitably have different opinions on economics or educational reform or the role of free markets or social security or state support for the arts.

I hope as the atheist movement develops it evolves as a rational one, unsupportive of xenophobic tendencies, but supportive of the free and rational exchange of ideas.

Mark Jones said...

Thanks for this essay, Russell. It lays out in very clear terms why sceptical thinkers are currently *required* to speak up.

In the UK we have much religious involvement in matters of state, and this piece should be required reading for politicians of every stripe.

Unknown said...

Outstanding article Russell. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

"At least it's refreshing when right-wing Christian fundamentalists accuse people like me of being, in essence, nothing more than fearful supporters of progressive political positions."

Heh. "Right-Wing Christian fundamentalist" label was fun ad hominem, especially because Russell didn't refute his claim. (I'm not sure, whether the labeled person is in fact right-wing fundamentalist.)

Steve Zara said...

This is one of the finest pieces I have read about the current state of atheism and secularism, and the justification for a strong stand against religion. It is outstanding.

Frankus said...

A very good article. It is interesting to read the comments after it. 'Bob' seems to have been hit hard by the 'fundamentalist rationalists'.
That may be a more apt description, although not one I would promote.

Roger said...

I don't mind being called afundamentalist rationalist; it just means I am fundamentally rational, whereas believers in
god- even by their own claims- are fundamentally irrational.

There cannot be "a completely unified atheist movement", Ramases: all atheists have in common is an absence of belief. At the moment we have a common collection of opponents but our apparent similarity only exists because of the existence of those opponents.

mace said...


I agree with your reasoning,but then I'm an atheist and don't have the gene for religion.It's extremely difficult to convince religious people that atheism is not a belief,as result of this attitude,Dawkins and others, are on rather quixotic mission.

The best we can hope for is to prevent religion from subverting the secular state.

mace said...
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mace said...
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mace said...

I also don't think philosophical arguments are adequate when examining the human predispositon to religious belief. Here's some scientific findings-


Raymond Dickey said...

Good article, as usual. Well done, Russell!

chunkdz said...

Hi Mr. Blackford.

I enjoyed your essay and it has sparked some discussion. Could you please expand a little on what you referred to as the "rampant dominionist movement [which] wants to establish an American theocracy"?

Russell Blackford said...

chunkdz, perhaps the best thing I can do for now is refer you to the Wikipedia article on dominionism, which is here:


chunkdz said...

Thanks for the link.

One thing the article didn't really answer for me is the question of who are the leading proponents of theocracy in America? Most of the key thinkers listed in the article appear to be dead.

Who do you cite as being the leader/leaders of the movement?

sazerac said...

i know this is awful and i apologize in advance, but can we get some perspective on the demonizing of religion? can anyone help me with some math regarding murder and quality of life?


number of people killed by crusades =?
number of people killed in other holy wars =?
number of witches burned at the stake =?


Holodomor = 3.1 - 7 million
Khmer Rouge = 7.1 million
tibetans killed = 1 million
tibetans living under PRC apartheid = 10 million?
chinese living under PRC apartheid = .5 billion?

now explain again how faith is so god-awful.

Russell Blackford said...

Ugh, another person who doesn't understand that Nazism and Marxist-Leninist revolutionary communism (and its variants) are quasi-religions that were deeply influenced by Christian thought. Sorry mate, but this issue has been raised so many times that I'm frankly getting sick of it. Each person seems to think he or she is the first to come up with the idea.

Nazism and revolutionary communism belong on your side of the ledger, not mine. Nazism was heavily influenced by Christian anti-Semitism and millenarianism. It was overtly theistic, and could almost be considered a Christian cult except for its syncretic borrowings from European paganism. Still, the blame for the killing of six million Jews by Hitler lies heavily on Christianity for its hatred of the Jews promulgated and preached over many centuries. Don't try to blame it on atheism - it falls on your side of the ledger, not mine.

So does Marxist-Leninist revolutionary communism. It borrowed its belief in imperatives of History and an apocalyptic end time from Christianity, via Hegel. Without Christianity's teleological account of history, Marxist-Leninism would make no sense.

Yes, mate, apocalyptic, totalitarian thought systems are bad things. That's why I oppose them all, whether or not they are literally "theistic". As all long-time readers know, I'm anti-revolutionary-communist and anti-Nazi. It's just that the theistic systems of apocalyptic and totalitarian thought are bigger problems than any kind of communism or Nazism right now (in case you hadn't noticed). There's no great point, right now, in producing yet another book explaining what is wrong with communism or Nazism, because those systems do not have any widespread support in the West and don't influence public policy.

To be clear, I don't believe in the Christian God, and nor do I believe in History with a capital-H as seen in the more systematic strains of communism.

If you think that God or History or Providence is on your side, you are likely to commit atrocities to achieve your ends. If you have the resources to kill millions of people - as the Hitler and Nazis did - that's what you will end up doing. If you have the resources to kill and torture "only" thousands of people, that's what you'll probably do.

I oppose all systems that think this way - that their adherents are doing the work of God or History or Providence. That includes Christianity, Nazism, Islam, and revolutionary communism. Even liberalism can take on apocalyptic forms as it did in the French Revolution. I've always said, and have been emphasising of late, that we all need to steer clear of apocalyptic and authoritarian thinking.

The struggle isn't against theism as such; it's against apocalyptic, comprehensive thought systems, including Nazism and revolutionary communism. It's just that the most popular and dangerous ones at the moment, the ones that are persisting in the West, happen to be religious in certain obvious ways.

sazerac said...

wow, let me apologize again for my pathetic little dig, but if that's what it takes to generate the response you gave, i would do it again. i really like what you've said here. sure there are a couple of problems (i didn't mention Shoah specifically but i agree that it would probably have to go under the other holy wars tag), but overall i really like the notion that each atrocity involves some profound lack of perspective whether it involves theism, apocalyptic vision, determinism or some other over-tuned notion.

i had no idea that you were not actually arguing against theism. if you were more clear about this in general, i think it would be very helpful.

just for kicks, what do you think the implications would be of convincing the religious right that the most important problem with jihadism is really the lack of perspective?

sazerac said...

er... to clarify, i mean lack of perspective on the part of the jihadist. and what would happen if the religious right were effectively convinced?

Aileen said...

What's all this "your side of the ledger" stuff? Do you really believe the sins of the fathers automatically transfer to future generations? Are their sins genetic? Epigenetic? Are people responsible for their color, ethnicity, cultural milieu and ancestral history by some magical feat of free choice before they are born?

Would it not be better to fix blame for sins on those who commit them? Does this make some ideal of "perfect justice" too impractical in this unjust world for your tastes? And where in the world would an atheist come up with an idea of "perfect justice" in a reality where such a thing has never existed?

Human nature harbors a strong selfish streak (must have been good for survival) and human society's power inequalities offer plenty of opportunities for authoritarian tendencies to play themselves out. It doesn't make any sense to waste one's life tilting at the windmill of nature's red teeth and claws. There are always handy targets for projection of existential angst if you really want to blame almighty 'Other' for life's many injustices or your own weaknesses. New Atheists aren't offering anything new on that front.