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).

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Leach on group rights

There is more to be said about this, but for the moment have a look at the piece by Joshua F. Leach on group rights over at Butterflies and Wheels.

(Hint: I think it's rather good.)

Edit: I was going to say some more, but we seem to have some good discussion going even on the basis of this minimalist post. So let's just discuss it in the comments.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

We have reviews

I see that the number of Amazon reviews for 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists has now risen to 11, with an average ranking of 4.5. Interesting to read these ...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Doing what comes supernaturally: Stanley Fish on fact and value

In a book review on the New York Times online Opinionator page, Stanley Fish offers specious objections to the following item of political wisdom:

So it’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.

He goes on to explain this classical liberal viewpoint in a way that is essentially correct, but tendentious in its wording:

behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons. As John Locke put it in 1689 (“A Letter Concerning Toleration”), the “care of men’s souls” is the responsibility of the church while to the civil magistrate belongs the care of “outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like”; it is his responsibility to secure for everyone, of whatever denomination or belief, “the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”

A neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think, intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out of sight. If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.

Note the use of words such as "apartheid", not to mention the scare quotes around "real", to signal Fish's distaste for this line of reasoning. And then there's the dripping sarcasm of the final sentence that I've quoted. Fish is antagonistic to the classical liberal tradition based on the work of philosophers such as Locke, Mill, and Rawls. Like Steven D. Smith, the author of the forthcoming book that he's reviewing, Fish thinks that it leads to an impoverishment of politics.

I disagree strongly. This tradition is worth defending. That's why I'm writing a book about it: specifically about what it offer on freedom of religion.

What Fish leaves out of his discussion is the historical context of Locke's proposal to separate the roles of church and state. There's the whole wretched history of persecution, torture, burnings at the stake, large-scale dislocation, and cruel warfare. Particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, in response to the Protestant Reformation, the European states took it upon themselves to decide which religion was correct, and to use fire and sword in long-term, relentless, yet ultimately futile, efforts to impose their respective notions of "correct" doctrine and ritual.

It was not for nothing that radical thinkers such as Locke and Spinoza turned to new ideas of freedom of religion, mutual tolerance, and the separation of church and state. The state is a poor judge of which church or sect, if any, is correct; its efforts to impose its theological judgments are often futile; and they can lead to endless horrible, largely unpredictable ramifications. The point isn't so much that religion should be private - not in the strict sense of not being discussed in public fora - but that the state should not form a form a view as to which religion is correct, and then seek to impose it on non-believers. Nor should it persecute the followers of a religion that it objects to on theological grounds. The rest of us who are not the state can argue and persuade as much as we like, whether in private or public, but we cannot use political coercion.

None of this is based on any fancy metaphysics, just on historical experience and good sense. We can see that the state does a reasonable job of deterring violence and theft, maintaining a property regime, and even providing a welfare system; but it does a horrible job when it goes on the frolic of deciding and imposing the "correct" religious views.

In attacking the Lockean approach to separation of church and state, Fish totally misunderstands the notorious fact/value distinction, which is not the same as the distinction between empirical and logical, or the distinction between natural and supernatural. He alludes to Hume's observation that reasons for action cannot arise from facts alone, in the absence of values or desires (I will use the word "values", where Hume refers to "desires", but we both refer to human psychological structures of pro-attitudes, hopes, fears, preferences, and so on). Without values, Hume thought, we cannot be motivated - and in that sense do not have reasons - to act in any particular way. More specifically, we cannot be motivated to develop certain traits or dispositions of character; or to attempt to instil them in growing children; or to support certain moral norms and oppose others; or to vote for certain laws and policies.

What Fish does not appear to have noticed is that this issue of motivation does not apply only to facts about the natural world. It applies equally to truths of logic, such as "If the truth of proposition P entails the truth of proposition Q, and proposition P is true, then proposition Q is true." It also applies to any truths that might exist about a supernatural world or supernatural beings. If we learn that a certain god hates us eating shellfish, that alone cannot motivate us to avoid eating shellfish. We must also desire to please this god, or we must fear its wrath, or hope that its plan for the world will come to pass, or whatever. Somewhere along the line, our values must be involved or the supernatural fact will not motivate us.

Thus, even if some religious sect has access to truths about the will of certain gods, that cannot help us decide how to act in the absence of values - i.e., of fears, hopes, preferences, and so on. Even a true body of religious doctrines about supernatural beings and their various powers, proclivities, etc., cannot give us guidance by itself.

In that sense, even a true religion is in exactly the same position as science.

It might, of course, go without saying that I wish to avoid being tortured with fire forever if I act in a certain way, but it might also go without saying that I wish to avoid infection with a painful and debilitating disease if I act in a certain way. True religious claims about the powers, wishes, etc., of a god might combine with very obvious values to give me guidance as to how I ought to act, but so might true empirical claims about the worldly consequences of my actions. Either combination might lead me to support certain social norms or certain legislative innovations. But my values are always involved, whether in combination with natural or supernatural facts.

Fish is correct that the state acts on certain values when it enacts laws forbidding (say) murder and rape, or seeking to avoid economic ruin for its population. E.g., most of the people in any population fear being killed or raped, most people enjoy peace and economic prosperity, most of us fear poverty and hunger, and so on. These are well-recognised values that are shared by almost all people, religious or not, and the state has various mechanisms (notably the criminal justice system and the tax-transfer system) that have at least some positive effect in the domain of such worldly values. Thus, as a matter of practicality, the state has a positive role to play in providing and protecting widely-valued this-worldly things.

Conversely, if the state attempts to provide or protect spiritual salvation, nirvana, moksa, or any of the other grand goals of the various religions, it generally makes a mess of it. As Charles Taylor rightly points out in A Secular Age, these goals are supposed to be obtained through deep personal transformations, and they involve ways of living that are supposed to transcend our ordinary concepts of human flourishing - which involve living in ways that satisfy species-typical worldly values. The state is not well equipped to decide which of these transcendent goals, if any, is the correct one to seek. Its major agencies, such as those operating within the criminal justice and tax-transfer systems, are not well designed for producing the required inner transformations. If the state attempts to ensure that the "right" transformative beliefs and practices are adopted in the territory where it has power, this will be experienced as tyrannical by those who disagree, and if it pushes hard the cost in human lives and human happiness is likely to be immense.

When Locke and his followers seek to confine the state to a wordly role, they make arguments such as these. They do not claim that the state's actions are value free, merely that there are good reasons for the state to act solely on those values which relate to the things of this world. That leaves the various churches and sects to offer ways of achieving salvation, moksa, rightness with God, or whatever it might be, to whichever people can be induced to value those things. The set of values that the state acts upon may be relatively thin, compared to the various sets of values that are offered by the religions, though it need not always be like that, since religions can tell us to renounce many of our worldly values. And even if state power is confined to promoting only a thin set of values, that is not a bad thing. By not imposing any one set of "thick" religious values, and one set of practices that can supposedly be used to obtain them, the state allows all the others to co-exist. That's usually a good bargain, even for the religious. (I leave aside the likelihood that moksa, spiritual salvation, nirvana, rightness with God, and so on, are illusory. Despite Fish's sarcasm, the liberal arguments simply do not turn on this.)

The arguments developed by liberals since Locke's time are to do with the clumsiness of the state's powers, historical experience, and the practical need to accept reasonable social pluralism ("reasonable" because, at least beyond a certain point, we need not tolerate the intolerant). They do not depend at any stage on a naive denial of the fact/value distinction. What Fish really needs is not an argument that slanders liberals for an imagined meta-ethical naivety. He needs something more gritty and practical, an argument as to why we now live in an era when it is wise to trust the state to decide which religion is correct, and then legislate accordingly. I'd love to see that argument.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

And while we're talking about sport

Christopher Hitchens comes down hard on international competitive sport, claiming that it exacerbates rather than reduces conflict.

In reply, Mike Labossiere gives a defence of sport more generally - emphasising its character-building nature and so on.

My verdict? Alas, I'm a bit of a fence-sitter with this one. I think that Hitchens' article is rather over the top and that, despite the existence of corruption, extreme rivalries, and so on, international sporting competition probably does do more good than harm. It does seem to create some international goodwill, overall, and to provide a relatively harmless outlet for nationalistic fervour. Glory on the sports field is a far preferable goal to glory on the battlefield. However, this is impressionistic. Just how anyone could be confident about the net effect is unclear. How do you measure it against the counterfactual alternatives?

While Hitchens may be over the top, Labossiere strikes me as a bit too Pollyanna-ish. Sure, most people in amateur athletics probably display ordinary human sympathy and courtesy when appropriate. So do most people at rock concerts or science fiction conventions or poetry readings or tutorials on ancient ceramics ... or in the supermarket, if it comes to that. So? There are also circumstances in which people may not be so "nice" (e.g. in prisons, or when arguing anonymously on the internet), but they are not the rule from which kinder behaviour is a special departure.

H/T Tauriq Moosa.

Edit: Some of the responses to Hitchens are hilarious. I like this one:

The athour must be a booksmart idoit who tries to bring down all athletles because they are better than him. To the athour: your a big softy who cant play sports, and sports does i lot of good i would know due to sports i care about school and iam healthly and more of a man, unlike the authour, who poorly attemps to bring down whoose who are great so you can sit alday typing ur dumb opion and acting like your cool and people care about your life. I know your somewhat smart though....but catch me on the mat of the football feild and i dont think youll have much to say

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The most sensible thing I've read about the Tiger Woods fiasco

This piece by Brendan O'Neill pretty much nails it. Sample:

Are we saying that anyone who is a prominent public figure – from politicians to actors, “it girls” to athletes – should have no unrevealed life? Such an erosion of the line between public and private, between what we do for a living and who we are with our friends and family, shows just how far the new requirement for revealing everything has gone. You can see the Oprahite dogma at work in dozens of recent scandals, from politicians like Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer, to athletes like A-Rod and Mark McGwire.

The criticism of Woods for zealously guarding his private life, and for at first refusing to do the formulaic public mea culpa that is now expected of every fallen public figure, showed what really lurked behind the Tiger-baiting of the past three months: fury over a famous man’s refusal to play by the new rules, to adhere to the new ethos of public emotionalism, to bow before the altar of publicly advertising one’s pain. Woods was clinging, for dear life, to the old-fashioned idea that a clear line should be drawn between a man’s public life and his private life, and the media could not tolerate that.

And the conclusion:

Last Friday, his capitulation was complete. After months of being ridiculed and attacked, Woods finally partook in perhaps the most widely disseminated expression of public sorrow of all time. The privacy zealot was successfully remade as an acolyte of Oprah, his mind expunged of the silly idea that he, or anyone else, should have the right to sort out his problems “behind closed doors.” There were elements of the authoritarian show trial in his mea culpa: the denunciation of the self, the promise to become a new man.

The forced conversion of Tiger Woods represents another blow to the idea of privacy. A civilized society should recognize the dividing line between a public man and his private life, because all of us need a private space in which we can develop relationships and work out who we are. The slaying of private Tiger and his rebirth as a public spectacle makes defending privacy that much harder.

Yes. Last Friday, Tiger Woods let us all down - admittedly, under pressure that was evidently too much for him. I care more about that than about what he does in private with the consensual sexual partners of his choice. If some of the latter was unethical (involving lies or broken promises), that's for him to sort out with the people concerned. It's not our problem. His failure to hold the line on privacy has a much greater public impact.

Read the whole article, and spread the meme.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The two words you really wanted to hear from me

Yes, here they are.

No, not: "Love you!" (well maybe one or two of you ...).

No, the two words you've wanted to hear from me for the past few days were surely: "Tiger Woods."

All right, discuss. I'm not going to say anything more, except you may assume a certain degree of cynicism at my end ... and that this (the apology itself if it lets you view it plus some commentary) doesn't reduce my cynicism in any way. If you can't see the apology speech at that link, go to YouTube.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jenny Blackford interview

Jenny's interview for ASif. Sample:

While you’re known for your short stories in the speculative fiction genre, your first novel is a historical one (The Priestess and the Slave, Hadley Rille Books, 2009). How did that come about, and what are the different challenges in writing the different genres?

Ever since I can remember, I've loved the ancient world – from Palaeolithic through to Classical. My degree was in Classics, back when that meant four years of intensive Greek and Latin, as well as history and literature. (My honours subjects included Greek and Latin Epigraphy, Palaeography and Comparative Religion, and my unfinished PhD was titled "The Tripartite Godhead in Indo-European Religion".)

So – when Eric Reynolds, of Hadley Rille Books, put out a call for submissions for an anthology about ruins, the obvious topic for me was the ruins of Delphi as described by 2nd century AD writer Pausanias (who wrote the ancient equivalent of the Lonely Planet Guide to Greece). Eric was impressed, and I was thrilled that the story (my first adult one) got an Honourable Mention from Gardner Dozois. Then, when Eric decided to publish a set of seriously archaeologically-based short historical novels, he asked me to do the Greek one.

The real difference between historical and speculative fiction, at least for me, is the research. I spent months immersing myself in the original sources about 5th century BC Greece, plus a huge range of arcane academic books (including, for example, The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks and Diseases in the Ancient Greek World.) Luckily, I love that stuff. There's nothing in The Priestess and the Slave that's not well-attested in the historical and archaeological sources.

AC Grayling on the new puritanism

Kudos to AC Grayling for his trenchant critique of the new puritanism, published in The Herald (Scotland).

The law has no place in the private lives of consenting grown-ups, whether they are playing scrabble or having sex, and whether they are doing the latter for cash or for the long-term project of building a home and family together. When the cycles of moral fashion swing back towards prohibition, criminalisation, and the interference of law in private lives, and when this results in Canute-like efforts to stop people doing, seeing or being something that the moralisers themselves happen not to like, and which makes them wish to stop everyone else doing, seeing or being it, we need to oppose them vigorously. We must challenge them on the facts and argue the case for keeping a level head.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Charles Taylor makes mess of "The Windhover"

I know this is going to be cheap of me, and I'm sure I've made similar mistakes myself and will probably be caught in the future making others. I've been known to refer to a book by a (very slightly) incorrect title all the way through a review. Ouch! We're all fallible.

And, look, before I go on, I actually think that A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, is a very useful book. It provides an extremely detailed account - admittedly from a liberal Christian viewpoint - of how we became secular. That means many things, as Taylor explains, but the book is largely devoted to a discussion of how we moved from a situation in Europe in, say, 1500, when atheism or "exclusive humanism" was almost unthinkable, to the situation now ... where it is very thinkable indeed in the countries of the West. We need thorough historical/philosophical discussions like this, written from all viewpoints, to form our own understandings of how our contemporary reality came to be as it is.

It doesn't even matter that I find some of Tayor's arguments weak, although he does, in my humble opinion, make far too much of the fact that some people continue to yearn for something beyond nature, and specifically for some transformation of their lives that will take them beyond "merely" worldly kinds of human flourishing. That's an interesting psychological phenomenon, but no supernatural explanation seems to be required. There are many reasons why even the best human life seems unsatisfactory compared to what we can imagine - but that is in no sense a reason to deprecate the genuine joys and satisfactions that we can have. To his credit, Taylor is wary of the churches' historical calumnies of the flesh. In any event, I'm learning much by reading this huge, bug-crushing work of scholarship (and I thank one of my closest friends for buying it for me as a present, since it's a book I really need on my shelves).

But I had to wince at a passage near the end, where Taylor has been discussing various fears about the cheapening or flattening of poetic and other language. To make one point, he discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins and specifically quotes the octave of "The Windhover", perhaps the most famous poem in the Hopkins canon, observing how Hopkins attempts to reveal and celebrate the force of particular existing things. Here is the actual octave of Hopkins' great poem ... which, alas, Taylor quotes with numerous errors:

The Windhover:

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Note that I have lost the indentations, but that is not my doing - just the way it comes out on Blogger.

Taylor misquotes this in a way that destroys the urgency of the sprung rhythm in the fifth line, and, indeed, the line's overall effect. I knew that something had gone wrong, as it matched neither my memory nor my sense of the rhythm, and went off to look it up. Hence my provision of the correct version above. (This is taken from W.H. Gardner's standard selection of Hopkins' poetry, but I checked it in a couple of other places to make sure.) I can forgive the fact that "big wind" is printed in Taylor's book as "bog wind" - presumably just a typo - and some of the other errors (such as the accent marks that Taylor provides, which do not seem to match those in the manuscript, if Gardner's notes are correct); but leaving out (as Taylor does) one of the two "off"'s in line five, then adding the word "a" before "swing", is disastrous. It may not change the literal meaning, but it produces a much weaker, "flatter" effect. Then there's the addition that Taylor makes of an "is" before "in hiding" in the second last line of the octave (this totally alters the meaning, disrupting the octave's past-tense narrative, if it actually makes sense at all).

All of which suggests, I say smugly, that theists don't have an advantage over atheists in appreciating the language of poetry.

To start where I began, though, I really don't want to make too much of it. True, the multiple and poem-wrecking errors could only be made by somebody who does not have a feel for the poem's rhythm and sense - it's dangerous to quote something you don't fully understand. But in fairness, I'm not sure I fully understand it either. The poem has its points of difficulty. And again, perhaps a research assistant mistranscribed it (and then Taylor neglected to check).

Still, the errors are so blatant, and have such an impact on the poem, that I can't just let it slide. Particularly when I noticed, a few pages later, another poem-wrecking misquote, this time from the opening of Hopkins' "(Carrion Comfort)" ... and yet other lines from Hopkins that don't sound quite right to my ear and have probably been mistranscribed. And particularly when all this appears on the heels of a discussion of the heights and nuances of poetic language.

Interview at ASif

As the World Science Fiction Convention, Aussiecon 4, approaches, Australian Specfic in focus (ASif) is conducting a series of interviews with writers, editors, publishers, and so on involved in the local science fiction community. Aussiecon 4 will be held in Melbourne in September, and I'm looking forward to it.

The various interviews are initially appearing across a number of blogs, but will eventually be consolidated on the ASif site. Jenny will be doing one of these interviews today, and others so far include Alison Goodman (hey, Al, you were a bit laconic!), Damien Broderick, Paul Collins ... and many others whom I'm glad to count as friends (I can't list them all, so browse for yourself via the ASif site). This is about the closest thing to my tribe (to borrow a line from the Kim Wilkins interview).

I'll link to the consolidated set of interviews when it's available. My own interview appears here, on Kathryn Linge's LiveJournal page.


Did you specifically approach science fiction (as compared to mainstream) writers when putting together the collection [i.e. 50 Voices of Disbelief]? What did you aim to achieve with the book?

To take the second question first, Udo and I are outspoken critics of organised religion, and not even big fans of the less organised kinds. We're painfully conscious that religion is not only persisting but often exercising serious influence on the political decision-making process. Worse, at least from my viewpoint, many religious organisations, leaders, and thinkers defend the right of legislators to enact laws that enforce specifically religious moralities. While these leaders, etc., may say they defend a separation of church and state, I often have to laugh at this. Many of them interpret "separation of church and state" as a requirement that the state refrain from interfering with the organisation and operations of the religious sects — but that the latter remain free to lobby the state to impose a Christian (or Islamic, or whatever) moral agenda, even on non-believers. As long as we have religious leaders, and indeed legislators, who think this way, it's natural, inevitable, and entirely desirable that non-believers question just what intellectual and moral authority the religious organisations, leaders, holy books, etc., actually have. Where do they get this authority that they claim? If it's from a god, how does anyone know what this god really thinks or whether it even exists? It's worth scrutinising the amazing claims of religion from every angle — philosophical, historical, psychological, or whatever.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Prudish bully vs. ACLU - government official challenged in US Court of Appeals

H/T George Felis.

This from the ACLU's Blog of Rights.

On January 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit heard arguments in Miller, et al. v. Skumanick, a child pornography case that, oddly, involves no child pornography. The case goes back to 2006, when two girls aged 12 were photographed by another friend on her digital camera. The two girls were depicted from the waist up, wearing bras. In a separate situation, our third client was photographed as she emerged from the shower, with a towel wrapped around her waist and the upper body exposed. Neither of the photos depicted genitalia or any sexual activity or context. In 2008 the girls' school district learned that these and other photos were circulating, confiscated several students' cell phones, and turned the photos in question over to the Wyoming County district attorney, George Skumanick, Jr.

Skumanick sent a letter to the girls and their parents, offering an ultimatum. They could attend a five-week re-education program of his own design, which included topics like "what it means to be a girl in today's society" and "non-traditional societal and job roles." They would also be placed on probation, subjected to random drug testing, and required to write essays explaining how their actions were wrong. If the girls refused the program, the letter explained, the girls would be charged with felony child pornography, a charge that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence.

The girls are now about 16. Obviously, a conviction for child pornography - or even the process of a trial - could easily destroy a teenage girl's life prospects. It boggles the mind that any responsible public official would make such a threat to very vulnerable young people; but of course, bullies are always with us. For someone prepared to abuse his authority, this is a very powerful way to coerce others to obey his will. Interestingly, none of the children known to have actually distributed the photos were the subject of any action by the authorities - only the girls actually appearing in the photos. In particular, there is no reeducation program proposed for the boys involved in distributing them.

Most of the girls surrendered to the overwhelming power of the bully: they gave in and attended the aptly-named Skumanick's reeducation program - with what effect is not apparent. But three families challenged him and contacted the ACLU to defend their daughters in court. In 2009, the ACLU was successful in obtaining an interim order restraining the DA's office from proceeding to prosecute the three girls concerned. Whether the DA's office will be able to proceed further is now up to the Court of Appeals.

Blog of Rights observes:

It is certainly important, in this era of Facebook and Twitter and text messaging, that children learn the consequences of sharing digital photographs of themselves, but as ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak puts it, "prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach that lesson."

Edit: On reflection, I'm not sure that the word "prudish" is correct in this context, since the photos don't sound especially sexual (much as they might appear provocative and "naughty" to a bunch of 12-y.o.'s!). It's not that he's seeing something clearly sexual and finding it offensive, although the word may still be appropriate as there does seem to be an underlying "shame about the body" thing going on. But what I mainly see here is a pathological lack of any sense of nuance or proportion, combined with an unscrupulous, destructive determination to get his way.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kevin Rudd wants women to be baby factories

This story by Nina Funnell is an eye-opener. It seems that we have a choice for prime minister come next election. On the one hand, we can have a bible-bashing social conservative who would take us back to the 1950s if he could. If that's what you want, you have a perfectly good candidate in Kevin Rudd. Alternatively, there's Tony Abbott.

Extract from Funnell:

After Rudd came off stage, he spoke to me and the few other under-30s (we had congregated for strength in numbers). He extended his points about the problems with the ageing population and the financial problems gen Y will incur when the baby boomers become pensioners.

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the "excuse" that "all" young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I've come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Russell Blackford interview on YouTube

Adam Ford did this interview with me in October 2009, at my old house in Melbourne (shortly after last year's Atheist Alliance International Convention and a couple of months before I moved interstate).

It's divided into six parts, as follows:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/6/8Ly-KEqy0rs

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/5/uwPLob4tJ_Q

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/3/cWijedQIrnQ

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/2/gU0W8xmqEc0

Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/1/ID4j1pXf6f0

Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/user/singularitysoup#p/u/0/S-GxnXGkFL4

We discuss such topics as the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists; atheism and secularism; indigenous spirituality; radical life extension; and technological change, including the Technological Singularity foreseen by Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil and others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hitchens - Amnesty has lost sight of its original purpose

Christopher Hitchens castigates Amnesty Internation, which has, he says, lost sight of its original purpose.

In common with all great ideas, the Amnesty concept was marvelously simple. Each local branch was asked to sponsor a minimum of three prisoners of conscience: one from a NATO country, one from a Warsaw Pact country, and one from the Third—or neutralist—World. In time, the organization also evolved policies that opposed the use of capital punishment or torture in all cases, but the definition of "prisoner of conscience" remained central. And it included a requirement that the prisoner in question be exactly that: a person jailed for the expression of an opinion. Amnesty did not adopt people who either used or advocated violence.

This organization is precious to me and to millions of other people, including many thousands of men and women who were and are incarcerated and maltreated because of their courage as dissidents and who regained their liberty as a consequence of Amnesty International's unsleeping work. So to learn of its degeneration and politicization is to be reading about a moral crisis that has global implications.

Hitchens' article is well worth reading, which does not mean I endorse it all. I don't think he goes far enough.

The truth is that Amnesty International lost sight of its original purpose years ago, which is why, with some sadness, I left the organisation years ago. For some reason, it decided to morph into an all-purpose human rights advocacy body, which would be fine except that this duplicated aspects of the work of many other bodies and distracted it from its original focus on freeing prisoners of conscience: people imprisoned for expressions of opinion. That was the organisation that I'd joined and paid my dues to. Moreover, its more diffuse mission undermined its ability to maintain true expertise and authority on the limited subject of prisoners of conscience. Its pronouncements once had credibility right across the political spectrum, but I can't remember when that was last the case - not in this millennium.

And it began to pay too much attention to the low-hanging fruit, the undoubted human rights violations by Western democracies that might actually be shamed if exposed ... distracting it from the mass incarcerations by theocratic and dictatorial regimes of prisoners of conscience by the thousands. Once again, there are many other organisations mainly lobbying against human rights abuses in the West; this is important work, but not something that we specifically needed Amnesty International to pursue to the point of watering down its real expertise and distracting from its original purpose.

The tendency of Amnesty's new direction, set a couple of decades ago now, is that it will provide a platform even for Taliban sympathisers, so long as they are willing to rail against human rights violations by the West.

Against that background, I feel sympathy for the plight of Gita Sahgal, an Amnesty employee who objects to her employer's provision of a platform for Moazzem Begg. Hitchens describes Begg as follows:

Moazzem Begg, a British citizen, was arrested in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the intervention in 2001. He was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and then released. He has since become the moving spirit in a separate organization calling itself Cageprisoners. Begg does not deny his past as an Islamist activist, which took him to Afghanistan in the first place. He does not withdraw from his statement that the Taliban was the best government available to Afghanistan. Cageprisoners has another senior member named Asim Qureshi, who speaks in defense of jihad at rallies sponsored by the extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir (banned in many Muslim countries). Cageprisoners also defends men like Abu Hamza, leader of the mosque that sheltered Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid among many other violent and criminal characters who have been convicted in open court of heinous offenses that have nothing at all to do with freedom of expression.

Note that Amnesty's original purpose would involve a much less significant overlap with the work of Cageprisoners.

I am, however, less sympathetic to Saghal than some. I have reservations.

The fact is, Amnesty has every right to take the policy direction it has, no matter how misguided, and no employer will put up with a senior employee in a policy-implementation position publicly arguing against its lawful policy direction. Note that, whatever else Sahgal may be, she is not a whistleblower, since Amnesty is doing nothing in secret that needs to be exposed, and is doing nothing corrupt or illegal on which she could be "blowing the whistle". Instead, it is quite openly carrying out a highly problematic but perfectly lawful policy. Rather than being a whistleblower, Saghal is simply a person who finds herself working for an employer whose lawful and openly-pursued policies she objects to strongly and now wishes to oppose in public debate.

Unfortunately, that places her in an untenable position, and I don't see how she can stay employed by Amnesty unless it does a massive policy volte face. Subject to the details of her contract of employment, it is, I suggest, legally able to dismiss her from its employment in these circumstances. Thus, I think her position is legally shaky ... and to be frank, I am also a bit iffy about the morality of how she is handling this.

Is it really morally acceptable to go on insisting on getting a salary from an employer whose policies you are in the process of opposing in public debate? Well, perhaps it's fine if you are a junior employee or an "ordinary" cog somewhere in the organisation, or perhaps if you are an academic with some guarantee of freedom to speak out, including on the decisions of your university. But Sahgal is not an academic, and she is a senior employee who appears to be part of Amnesty's policy-implementation team, and perhaps part of the management structure. Such employees are quite rightly expected by their employers to keep policy debates in-house, maintain a public show of solidarity, and even defend policies that they personally disagree with.

I've been there; that's how it is. If your employer's policies appear so heinous that you can't implement them and defend them in public, you should resign - quietly, or, if the situation is truly extreme, in protest and with fanfare. But you can't expect to continue to be paid a salary.

So, Sahgal and Hitchens are both correct on the substantive point: Amnesty International is not the organisation it once was, and the change is for the worse. On the other hand, this process of change has been going on for many years now, and will not be reversed quickly or easily, if ever or at all. Amnesty does have the right to change, even for the worse, and very likely the right (depending on what's in the relevant contract of employment or any related undertakings or circumstances we don't yet know about) to dismiss Sahgal from its employment.

On the gripping hand, we have the right to leave the organisation if it's not what it was when we joined it. As I said above, I exercised that right a long time ago. What will you do? I'm not saying you ought to leave, even though I did. Amnesty still does good work and needs funds. Maybe you can stay and help to repair it from the inside. But then again, you could spend the money on other charities that need your funds just as much. It's your choice.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Helen Razer on talking to the press

Here is Helen Razer with an unusual but amusing take on talking to the press.

And if that's not enough, go here. You'll find an even more unusual, and perhaps even more amusing, but possibly somewhat disturbing, discussion of a well-known Iranian theocrat.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Coming up - Russell Blackford in conversation with AC Grayling

On the evening of 11 March 2010, I'll be in conversation with AC Grayling about 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists in a gig sponsored by Readings Bookshop (and with the involvement of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, which is running the Global Atheist Convention that begins in Melbourne the following day). The event will be held at Cinema Nova, in Carlton, commencing 6.30 pm. Entry is free, but you'll need to book to ensure that you get a seat.

If you're going to be in Melbourne, come along, or if you just want to buy the book you now have a link provided by Readings.

This should be a sensational gig - Anthony Grayling is one of the world's leading secular intellectuals, author of many books, a major critic of religion, and a defender of the Enlightenment. His own essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief is an important contribution to the contemporary debate over religion and atheism ... and he is also a delightful person, a gentleman in the best sense.

I'm looking forward to this, and will doubtless provide some reminders as the date gets closer.

John Birmingham on Conroy

A nice take down over here by John Birmingham.


What's that? You're unaware of Senator Conroy's latest outrage? Oh, well, allow me to elucidate.The communications minister has been openly sulking because, as he says, Google filters "an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Chinese government", but they are resisting his attempts to do the same thing for Canberra. This is the same communications minister whose major achievement so far, besides enraging thousands of angry internet users with his wretched filter scheme, and drawing the somewhat comical wrath of the self-styled cyber-hero collective Anonymous down on the government's websites, has been to hand a massive earner to a disgraced Labor Party apparatchik, Mike Kaiser, when he thought nobody was looking.

The Kaiser embarrassment should have been enough to have any reasonable minister reaching for his resignation letter, but of course the thought never crossed Conroy's mind, because he was too busy figuring out how to turn a mature and prosperous democracy into the digital equivalent of a vicious totalitarian one-party state. Nice work, Steve.

See here for Conroy's complaint that Google is prepared to help China's government censor the internet, so it should do the same for him.

"What we're saying is, well in Australia, these are our laws and we'd like you to apply our laws," he said. "Google at the moment filters an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Chinese government; they filter an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Thai government."

Good for Google for refusing, so far, to cooperate in Conroy's attack on freedom of speech.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sydney Morning Herald article on Global Atheist Convention

Today's Sydney Morning Herald contains an article by religion reporter Jacqueline Maley on the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention (12-14 March, in Melbourne).

Maley starts off well: Something you will never see: an atheist boarding a plane with a bomb strapped to him, waving a copy of On The Origin Of Species, before he blows himself up in a violent attempt to further his cause. So says David Nicholls, the head of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the man at the increasingly pointy end of the reinvigorated and freshly vocal atheism movement.

Quite so. Atheists tend not to be fanatical people - at least not unless caught up by some kind of comprehensive quasi-religion such as Stalinism. Neither the lack of belief in God nor a commitment to good science is likely, in itself, to lead to fanaticism and violence. For that, you need a worldview with some kind of apocalypic content, something that makes you think you are doing the work of God or History, and that the lives of ordinary people may rightly be sacrificed in a great cause. Like the Marxist-Leninist political tradition, the traditions of the Abrahamic religions contain much to encourage that sort of worldview.

Good on Nicholls for making that point, and good for Maley in leading with it. However, the headline "Atheism's true believers gather", is already off-putting. This was probably chosen by a sub-editor rather than by the journalist, but its condescending suggestion that there is something paradoxical and funny about the convention is reflected in the article itself, with such barbs as the reference to Richard Dawkins as the atheist movement's "supreme deity". Why not just say, truthfully, that he is the most prominent figure in contemporary atheism? Dawkins provides leadership of a kind, but he is not the equivalent of a pope or a patriarch, or even a priest or a bishop, let alone a deity. His leadership comes from the power of his ideas and his ability to present them lucidly. Yes, it probably does no great damage to insert such wording, but the cumulative effect of this sort of thing is to make the article seem like smartarse journalism.

That's unfortunate because it could have been better than this. Maley appears to be fair in the way she treats the people she interviewed, so why spoil the effect? The quotes attributed to me, from a phone interview earlier this week, seem to be correct, and she allows Nicholls, Tanya Smith, and me to come across as sensible people. I don't think the article is damaging to us, in the sense that we will look bad to unbiased readers, but for all that I do find much of it annoying. Take the following: As atheists organise and unite, they increasingly face the criticisms they are used to levelling against their faithful counterparts - that they are extremists, skewed fundamentalists. Others warn that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads logically to social Darwinism. Hitchens is often accused of recycling arguments and of demolishing his marks with one-eyed fervour. His targets include Mother Teresa, a woman well on her way to canonisation. Dawkins has been criticised for his ignorance of Christian theology, and his inability (and that of science in general) to disprove the existence of God.

The bit about recycling arguments is odd: is he really supposed to come up with wholly original arguments or with new ones each time? But the sentence about Mother Teresa is especially tendentious. Mother Teresa may be on her way to canonisation, but there is much controversy as to whether her work genuinely ameliorated suffering among the poor of India or had the opposite effect. Within the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, suffering is not loathed as an unmitigated, radical evil, as it is by most people who simply respond with healthy human sympathy to those who are in pain. For the Church, suffering is accepted as a mystery, and sometimes even valorised for bringing us closer to God. Conversely, birth control and the emancipation of women from traditional roles are considered morally problematic. The sort of figure who is likely to be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily the sort who does the most secular good in helping people attain their freedom and in carrying out good works that really do help those who are suffering from illness and pain.

However, Maley skips over all this by hinting strongly that Mother Teresa is, of course, an inappropriate target for criticism by a public intellectual such as Christopher Hitchens - and thus that Hitchens himself merits criticism for going there. But there's no of course about it. Mother Teresa was, at best, a problematic figure, even though (or, rather, because) she conformed to the dubious values of Mother Church.

Similarly, it is unfair to refer, as if it is straightforward and obvious, to Dawkins' (or science's) supposed inability to disprove the existence of God. It is highly controversial just how far the Christian image of the universe can be reconciled with the image arising from science. Dawkins, along with many other atheists, argues that the two do not go together well - in the light of science, the Christian picture does not make sense. I realise that many people disagree with this - and I will doubtless attract arguments about it even though it's not the topic of this post - but it is not reasonable to refer to Dawkins' "inability" to disprove the existence of God as if this is uncontroversial, or as if this way of putting it is uncontroversial: talk of "disproof" is very tricky here, since there are many kinds and standards of proof.

And there's more in the passage quoted. Do "others" really "warn" that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads to social Darwinism? That's not an argument that you often hear except from the nuttier US religious zealots, and surely there's a better word than "warn" for a proposition that is not only contested but almost certainly untrue. The English language has the perfectly good and useful word "allege", which might have come in handy at this stage. The fact is, there's no reason at all to think that "strict" adherence to evolution leads anyone to support social Darwinism; on the contrary, the countries with the most widespread acceptance of biological evolution are precisely those which do not have dog-eat-dog social Darwinist societies, but are conspicuous in pursuing egalitarian policies.

The kinds of things that I find annoying will not do much good to Maley's reputation as a fair journalist with no axe of her own to grind. I repeat, however, that she has been fair to me personally. The views attributed to me are my real views: e.g. I have no problem with individuals being religious, as long as it's their private belief, not something they try to impose through public policy; I do see enormous influence being wielded by the churches, and I think it's time for secular people to have more of a say; and I certainly do contest the idea that high-profile atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens are fundamentalist or extreme. When that claim is made, they are judged by a ridiculous standard of open-mindedness and civility that is never applied to their opponents or to anyone else in public life.

Overall, my attitude is that almost any publicity for the convention is good publicity, and this article is not one of the exceptions. David, Tanya, and I, as portrayed here, seem like sensible people who actually have a point. I do hope, though, that we can get some media coverage from journalists who are not religion writers and will be more critical about the virtues of religion or the likes of Mother Teresa, and less credulous about the more naive criticisms that are sent the way of Richard Dawkins and company. If you're a journalist who matches that description, and if you have an "in" to get articles like this published somewhere, why not contact the organisers?

Bailey on the life extension debate

Over at reason.com, Ronald Bailey discusses two recent papers on the ethics of radical life extension, one by me and the other by John Davis, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee.

The first objection one hears when one advocates radical life extension is that it will produce a Malthusian Hell of overpopulation and resource depletion. Objectors clearly believe it would be immoral to make it possible for lots of people to live to be, say, 150 years old. But is that so? Two newish papers from two controversial philosophers take on that reasoning, and tear it apart—with the help of their pocket calculators.

As described by Bailey, the paper by Davis comes to conclusions that sound wildly counterintuitive (to me, at least).

“So far as the total net good for humans is concerned, the most justified social policy is the one that satisfies preferences over the greatest number of life-years, all else being equal,” argues Davis. One implication of total utilitarianism is that “we should create as many people as possible in order to maximize the total amount of desirable experiences.” Total utilitarianism might result in Malthusian consequences because a large, relatively miserable population might well have a greater total amount of utility than a smaller, happier population.

To be fair, however, I should read the entire paper.

My own paper is described in quite a sympathetic way. E.g., the following is a nice para by Bailey that sums up part of my argument:

To counter the total utility logic, Blackford offers another thought experiment in which a benevolent, but not omnipotent deity has the choice between creating a world with 1 billion happy people (6 hedonic units on average out of 10 possible) versus another world with 6 billion fairly miserable inhabitants (1.5 hedonic units on average). Total average happiness on the second miserable planet would exceed that of the first by a ratio of 3 to 2 over time (9 billion units versus 6 billion units in any given year). Singer, if he followed the logic of his argument, would advise the deity to create the second world rather than the first. Blackford counters, “We expect a benevolent god to be concerned about how well lives go, rather than about the sheer number of them.” The upshot of this analysis, according to Blackford, is that “what we value…is that whatever actual lives come into existence should go well.”

I see that Bailey's piece has attracted well over 100 comments. Do feel free to comment either there or here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tangled Bank now available ... and launched

Chris Lynch's anthology of stories, poems, and essays, The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution, has just been published and launched to coincide with Darwin's birthday, 12 February.

It contains my 5000-word essay "Science and the Sea of Faith", along with many other goodies that I'm looking forward to reading (with Sean Williams and other high-profile contributors). (Disclaimer: I haven't yet read any of it apart from my own contribution so I can't actually vouch for the individual pieces at this stage.)

The Tangled Bank will be available in various electronic and other formats, with more detailed advice available from the site. The ePub and POD editions are not yet available, but will roll out a bit later. For now, the version available on the site is a PDF format for only US$4.99. Hey, my own essay by itself should be worth that much ...

Since I actually want people to buy this book, I'm not likely to be making my own piece or others available so please don't ask me to do that. Hopefully I've made the project seem enticing enough for some of y'all to give it a try, or at least to have a look at the site for it. Happy reading.

Chris Hallquist debunks the resurrection

I've been reading UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, by Chris Hallquist (Reasonable Press, 2009). Hallquist examines the evidence for the resurrection, a core Christian doctrine, adopting a sceptical viewpoint informed by our modern experience with other extraordinary claims, such as those about ghosts (including the Amityville Horror hoax), levitation, and UFO sightings/abductions. The result is an enjoyable volume, in good, clear prose, that debunks the resurrection myth quite thoroughly. Hallquist leaves few stones unmoved or unturned.

A book like this might easily have rested its case on a superficial discussion of the biblical sources or on speculation about what might really have happened after Jesus was crucified and his body then went missing. But Hallquist goes deeper than that. He is well acquainted with both popular Christian apologetics and the more specialised textual scholarship relating to the Bible. Thus, he is able to examine the provenance and historicity of the various resurrection accounts, while also answering the (rather shaky) cases that have been built on them by such apologists as William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. He puts a compelling case that the resurrection story is a legend that grew up among the early followers of Jesus, not the rationalisation of facts about an empty tomb - indeed, we have no reason to believe that any such "empty tomb" ever existed. The historical records are far too murky for that.

Hallquist's book aside, an uncommitted but well-informed observer would conclude that Jesus was probably one of the many apocalyptic prophets of ancient Palestine, and that his life was heavily mythologised in the gospels, which were written well after his death. The ancient books traditionally ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were based on oral traditions that soon became embroidered with fanciful stories which are not even consistent with each other. The first of these books, Mark, did not come into existence until about 70 AD, and the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, were largely based on Mark, with input from a lost document referred to by scholars as "Q". (The gospel of "John" is later still and presents a very different account of Jesus' life.)

It's unlikely that the story of Jesus was made up whole - for a start, the very earliest Christian writings (those of St Paul) date from a time still too close to the events - but the real apocalyptic prophets wandering around the Middle East in the first century did not, alas, have the power to confront demons or the ability to come back to life after being tortured to death.

However, it's conceivable that the New Testament's "Jesus" is a composite figure to some extent, since oral traditions based on the lives of more than one of these prophets could have become conflated as the documents came into existence over time. Be that as it may, the life of the historical figure we now know as "Jesus" was built up into something extraordinary, involving a virgin birth, miraculous healings, encounters with demons, and a divine resurrection.

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, there is an excellent article by Edmund Standing which argues for the existence of an historical Jesus, despite the unbelievable claims made about Jesus in the Bible and elsewhere. As Standing points out, the lives of real people can be mythologised beyond recognition, but this does not entail that there is no underlying stratum of truth - that such and such a person existed and did such and such (far more ordinary) things. Standing uses the example of Haile Selassie, whose life was mythologised beyond recognition, even in his own lifetime, by the Rastafarian movement, despite the fact that this was in modern times and the truth was readily available.

Hallquist takes a similar approach (though it's a pity that he does not seem to be aware of Standing's case study). He does not deny that there is a stratum of truth in the Christian mythology, i.e. that an apocalyptic prophet with a name like "Jesus" lived in the early first century, and perhaps made enough of a nuisance of himself to the local Roman administrators to be executed by them. However, we will probably never have enough information to be sure of what actually happened, event by event, and at any rate this prophet was not a god-man with supernatural powers. When we compare modern investigations of amazing phenomena such as alleged UFO abductions, we can easily understand how such a person's life could be mythologised beyond recognition very quickly, and how unlikely it would have been, in the social and technological conditions of the time, for the surrounding mythology to be successfully debunked.

UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God deals with all this in sufficient depth to become a valuable part of a sceptic's library. Hallquist structures the book usefully and explains the issues lucidly. My only gripe is that the British philosopher Antony Flew is referred to throughout as if his first name is "Anthony" - this detracts from the book because there are so many references to Flew. In particular, much of Hallquist's discussion of modern apologetics deals with debates in which Flew was involved on the sceptical side (he has more recently become a deist, though not a Christian or even a conventional theist: as far as I know he still denies the truth of such Christian doctrines as the divine nature and miraculous resurrection of Jesus). I hope that this glitch will be fixed in any subsequent printings.

Meanwhile, don't let it distract you too much. This is the most focused and definitive book that you'll find putting the detailed case against Jesus' resurrection. It's done very well indeed. If your home or local library has a place for such a book, I don't hesitate to recommend it.

The General

The General

(by Siegfried Sassoon)

"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He’s a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

. . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Simon Singh letter (with my full endorsement)

Subject: Simon Singh's weird idea that might just work

Dear Friends,

I've had an idea, an unusual idea, but I think it might just work.

As you know, England's chilling libel laws need to be reformed. One way to help achieve this is for 100,000 people to sign the petition for libel reform before the political parties write their manifestos for the election. We have 17,000 signatures, but we really need 100,000, and we need your help to get there.


My idea

My idea is simple: if everyone who has already signed up persuades just one more person each week to sign the petition then we will reach our goal within a month!

One person per week is all we need, but please spread the word as much as you can. In fact, if you persuade 10 people to sign up then email me (simon@simonsingh.net) and I promise to thank you by printing your name in my next book - which I will start writing as soon as I have put my own libel case behind me. I cannot say when this will be, but it is a very real promise. My only caveat is that I will limit this to the first thousand people who recruit ten supporters.

When persuading your friends remember to tell them:

(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee.

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to discuss matters of genuine public interest (and public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws are so hostile to responsible journalism. (In fact, it is exactly because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically runs to over £1 million.

(e) Three separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and two medical researchers raising concerns about three medical treatments. We face losing £1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar concerns? If these health matters are not reported, then the public is put at risk.

My experience has been sobering. I've had to spend £100,000 to defend my writing and have put my life on hold for almost two years. However, the prospect of reforming our libel laws keeps me cheerful.

Thanks so much for your support. We've only got one shot at this, so I hope you can persuade 1 (or maybe 10) friends, family and colleagues to sign.

Massive thanks,



The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.

So far, 188 MPs have signed our Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for libel reform and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has formed a working party that the Libel Reform Coalition is represented on.

Please also considering donating to keep our campaign going:

"Why can't we just argue for secularism? Why be so nasty?"

Please note the inverted commas in the title of this blog. It's often asked why we horrible "New Atheists" actually have to criticise religion. Why be so nasty? Why not just argue for secularism, for a separation of church and state? This is asked so often, that it's hard to think of the best example - any ideas, anyone, of the locus classicus of this argument, so we can cite it?

It sounds vaguely plausible, but it is totally wrong. Reading Michael J. Perry this week has brought home to me even more strongly just how wrong it is. What our religious friends often mean by "separation of church and state" is that the state does not interfere with the activities of the church, but the church is free to persuade the state to impose a religion-based morality on the citizens - including (or especially!) citizens who reject that morality. With relatively minor qualifications, Perry argues for something like this, as do other high-profile Christian scholars working in such areas as legal philosophy and constitutional law. Less erudite versions of the same doctrine are widely adopted by Christian leaders from the Pope down and accepted by ordinary Christians. This is the real world that we live in, a world where there is no consensus for accepting the harm principle and other liberal principles (and where such phrases as "freedom of religion" can be given Orwellian meanings by people who wield power and influence).

I think this is an absurd and unfair interpretation of the idea of separation of church and state, but that's not the point. In the real world, politicians often do use the law to impose their specifically religious morality, in the absence of any strong or even plausible secular case for what they propose to do. They do so with a clear conscience, believing that this is legitimate. Many lobbyists and electors applaud, and even urge them on. And that means that it is, at least covertly, always an election issue just which religious morality if any is actually correct. Which further necessitates that there is no choice but to enter into arguments about whether the holy book that a religious morality comes from really is divinely inspired ...or whether it is a human construction entrenching many of the barbaric moral assumptions of an earlier time. In the real world, we have no choice but to scrutinise the claims of religion and persuade as many people as possible that those claims are actually false, or at least doubtful. I wish there were less urgency about this, and that we could all be nicer about it, but that's not the world we live in.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chained to the Alien for Valentine's Day

Looking for a great gift idea for Valentine's Day, something your spouse would like, or your lover ... or maybe both of them? Why not buy them a copy, or two, of Chained to the Alien: The Best of Australian Science Fiction Review, edited by Damien Broderick, published by the small-but-very-reputable Borgo Press, and featuring nearly 30,000 words of material by yours truly?

In fact, I've just signed the contract for my one of my pieces from the late 1980s or early 1990s to appear in Damien's follow-up volume, somewhat jokingly entitled Skiffy and Mimesis (I have to take the blame for this book title: it's the title of my own piece in the volume, "Skiffy and Mimesis: or, Critics in Costume"). This second volume of selected material from ASFR(2) will highlight shorter work that the zine published back in the halycon days, a couple of decades ago, including some of the battles that took place in its pages. See a multi-dog struggle, involving George Turner, Lucius Shepard, John Foyster, and, oh yes, Russell Blackford, fighting over the ambitions and achievement of modern science fiction. Elsewhere, Gregory Benford sternly critiques Ursula Le Guin, only to be critiqued just as sternly in turn.

Tempers flare. Relationships get tense. And Benford's candid reflection on these events, twenty years later, may surprise you ...

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Video interview at the AAI Convention last October

This is a video interview that I did with Dennis Horvitz last October in LA, at the AAI Convention. Not a bad interview - really more a conversation the way Dennis conducted it - though the video seems a bit blurry, and there's one thing about myself that I have to laugh at. Can you guess what it is?

Monday, February 08, 2010

A little bit more on religious freedom

Whether religious freedom is a concept worth supporting really depends on what it means. No one wants to be heard saying that they are opposed to it, but not every conception of it is as liberal as the one that I support. I'm currently reading Michael J. Perry's Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy. At this stage, I haven't absorbed the whole thesis, and there are some points to come that I'll probably find attractive. But he does seem to think that, for example, there is nothing wrong with politicians voting to ban conduct merely because it is against their moral views, and even though they would not have those moral views except for their reliance on a holy book. Thus, if a society dominated by people whose holy books say that eating pork is an abomination decides to ban eating pork that is fine ... even though the ban is not for public health reasons, or because there is a temporary shortage of pork so all pigs must be used for breeding for the time being, or whatever other secular reason we can imagine, but merely because the relevant holy books condemn the eating of pork.

Needless to say, Perry's ideas of what a government can do in a society that embraces religious freedom are radically different from mine. For me, the above is a paradigm example of a religious doctrine being imposed on population - believers and non-believers alike - by means of the coercive power of the state. And whatever else that is, it is not freedom of religion.

Of course, Perry is correct that in the real world of Western democracies such as the US it will be difficult to find such clear-cut examples. For example, people who think homosexual acts should be criminalised can always dream up some kind of secular-sounding reason. But that's not a reason for us to stop complaining about essentially religious doctrines being imposed by the state and backed up with guns and police: "We will force you not to have sex with the person of the same sex whom you love, or between whom there is simply a mutual attraction, on pain of locking you away in a small space behind iron bars, and even though you are not hurting anyone and don't accept the holy book on which we base our decision to do this."

No, that's not acceptable. That's tyranny.

Even if the state can get away with banning X for what are preponderantly religious reasons - e.g. by convincing a constitutional court that it also had some secular reason - so what? This does not give us a reason to say that banning X for preponderantly religious reasons is consistent with plausible ideas of what freedom of religion is all about, or that banning X for preponderantly religious reasons is a proper thing for the state to do.

I'll read further as the week goes on. Although it's a short book, it's very densely argued (to its credit), and the issues are, at least from my point of view, extremely important. So I'll take my time, make close notes, and so on. I can see, looking ahead, that Perry is going to qualify his argument considerably, but I can't see him doing so to an extent that will mollify me.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Beware the drop bears

The Australian National Dictionary Centre provides a wonderful online resource for those of you are not entirely familiar with Australian English. My overseas readers may need to consult it now and then when I use an unfamiliar expression (to those beyond these shores) such as "bogan" (a word that proved to be very important recently in a discussion over at Butterflies and Wheels). If I suggest that someone (our Minister for Communications and Stuff, for example) dare not eat prawns for fear of cannibalism, you will be able to discover something to the effect that a prawn is not just an edible crustacean similar to a shrimp but also a foolish or hapless person. Moreover, when a prawn, such as the Minister, or indeed anyone else (whether they are a prawn or not), attempts to deceive you, or put one over you, you are entitled to respond: "Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate!" I.e., "Don't try to fool me, my friend!"

One point that strikes me when I look at the site is how recent some well-known Australian slang terms are - some appeared in my lifetime, and I must have cottoned on to them, or sussed them out, almost immediately. E.g., the expression "hoon", for a dangerous, stupid, and irresponsible driver, usually behind the wheel of a powerful or hotted-up car, goes back no further than the era when I first encountered it. Evidently, the word was used before that but in a different sense (to refer to some kind of standover man involved in prostitution).

The people involved in the site also have a sense of humour.

To demonstrate the latter, I refer you to the definition of "drop bear".

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Endarkenment

H/T to Ophelia Benson on this one. Via Butterflies and Wheels, I came across this review of a new book by Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press). If anyone wants to send me a review copy of this, I'd love one. If anyone wants to review it for JET, well I'll certainly consider a review as long as it is made relevant to JET's interest and meets the other criteria.

Meanwhile, this review contains a fair bit of snark near the end, but it's not obvious that it's justified. Some of the reviewer's own claims seem to be open to debate. E.g., sure there's a sense in which Nazism was a product of the First World War, i.e. the outrageously punitive terms imposed on Germany fueled a craving for revenge and redress. They may have made a second world war inevitable, though a further war does not always follow from crushing defeat and harsh terms of surrender. In any event, surely Sternhell is correct that Nazism was not just a reaction to the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The form of German militarism that arose in the 1930s was shaped by many ideas in the German culture that could be traced back for centuries. It's simplistic to say that one or two events, alone, led to something as horrible, yet bizarre, as Nazism. History is far messier than that.

The commenters seem to be even less helpful, with much anti-Enlightenment feeling being vented, and a great deal of uncritical praise for Edmund Burke. Burke, of course, was no saint. Much of his energy was wasted on his successful-at-the-time (but ultimately futile in the sweep of history) campaign to retain the Test and Corporation Acts, which prevented non-Anglicans from matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge or holding offices under the Crown. He was convinced that public order required this kind of draconian interference by the secular authorities in matters of religion. Thanks to Burke's efforts, these unjust and unnecessary laws remained on the books in England until as late as 1829. While we can praise Burke for his opposition to the more apocalyptic aspects of the French Revolution, he was far more deeply and nastily conservative than his modern-day fans like to paint him.

If the French Revolution went overboard in one direction, Burke certainly did in the other.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Risk Quotient test

H/T Pharyngula. As PZ explains the test:

Here's an interesting test: measure your Risk Quotient. It's a 50 question survey of a set of questions, some simple and some obscure, in which you estimate your confidence in providing an answer. You aren't scored on just getting the right answer, but on whether you accurately assess your likelihood of being right — if you answer wrongly but with great confidence and certainly you'll score poorly, but if you answer just as wrongly but with a more cautious appraisal of your certainty, you'll score better.

I.e. someone with a high RQ will admit uncertainty, and can be generally be trusted to be correct when they feel certain or highly confident of something. Such a person is someone who will not bullshit you.

Assuming the test is valid, it's very interesting.


My result

Results and Explanation
Thank you for participating in our study!

The RQ score ranges from 0 (low RQ) to 100 (high RQ). Your RQ score is 85. Such a score is very high.

Risk intelligence can be measured by calculating something called a “calibration curve”. The graph that is displayed above, is your calibration curve

A perfect calibration curve would lie exactly on the diagonal line, so the area between the curve and the diagonal would be zero. Nobody is perfectly calibrated, but people with high risk intelligence come very close to this ideal. For more information about how to interpret your calibration curve, click here.

Is religious freedom self-contradictory?

Over on his CFI blog, It's Only Natural, John Shook addresses an argument against religious freedom. The view that he challenges is articulated like this in a piece on the American Catholic blog: there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible. Now, before going any further, I must observe what a recipe for intolerance and bigotry this is. I'll try to discuss it dispassionately in the paragraphs that follow, but you can be assured that I fully appreciate that it's morally repellent. How does Shook respond? Quite sensibly - for example, by emphasising that what is required is not theological consensus but some degree of basic moral/philosophical consensus. As he says, these are not the same thing. But that actually understates it. Sure, there has to be some consensus that we cannot, for example, just go around using violence to promote our own interests in social, economic, and sexual competition. The benefits of social life will be impossible unless there are some strong norms against that kind of violence. Given the scarcity of resources, there also has to be some sort of property system; whatever form this takes, it will need to be experienced as "fair" (in practice, this is likely to involve such things as some emphasis on effort and contribution in acquisition, while also a place for property to be transferred as a gift); and there will need to be a strong norm that property rights be honoured (which does not preclude, and may even require, the overlay of a scheme of taxes and transfers based on need and other relevant values). This level of basic agreement on certain sorts of legal and moral norms is, in fact, required for any society to operate. However, the reasons have nothing to do with theology and can be agreed to from almost any comprehensive worldview. Whatever their comprehensive worldview, nobody wants to live in a Hobbesian state of nature. Generally speaking, we all have good secular reasons to support these sorts of norms and to socialise children into internalising them. Theology has nothing to do with it. When it comes to issues such as whether homosexuality or polyamory or abortion or stem cell research or the use of contraception or IVF or reproductive cloning is morally wrong, however, the situation changes. It is not necessary for social survival and the benefit of living in societies that there be agreement on these things. The law can allow somebody who thinks one of these things is morally wrong to refrain from it, while also allowing those who have no such moral aversions, and who find these things good, to act on their own beliefs. In such a case, neither group of people is subjected to tyranny. The former are not subjected to tyranny because they are not forced to do anything that goes against their own morals. It would be a bizarre definition of "tyranny" to say that someone is tyrannised merely because she is powerless to stop others doing things she disapproves of. The latter group - the homosexuals, polyamorists, women seeking abortions, etc., are not tyrannised either. They are not prevented from doing what they want. (They might be tyrannised if their activities are legal but nonetheless lead to social ostracism, but in a society where their actions are not only legal but approved of by large numbers of people they cannot claim to be tyrannised. If social tyranny is too much of a problem, some specific laws may need to be enacted to ensure they can function in society.) Human societies can certainly operate with no theological consensus, so long as there is even a fairly rough consensus on the norms required to protect such worldly things as life, limb, and property. Someone with a theologically-based morality may wish to see many things prohibited that are actually allowed, but she cannot complain merely because she doesn't get to use the state apparatus to control what others do. If she wants more than that, the rest of us may rightly regard her as unreasonable - she wants her own way not only in how she gets to behave but also in forcing others to do likewise. Stook deals with a further argument: If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams. His reply is that this is essentially a fantasy, as no such fundamental disagreement is actually tearing apart the country that both bloggers are talking about, i.e. the United States of America. But I'd go further. It is quite possible for a society to get along with fundamental disagreements about such things as "what the purpose of the human person is". You could have half the population claiming that the purpose of the human person is to worship a particular god, while the other half denies that there is any "purpose" at all (though they may still think that life can be rich, personally meaningful, lived with zest, and so on). There is no reason at all why these two groups cannot co-exist in the same society. All that is required is that neither attempt to coerce the other to live in a certain way. They will, of course, also have to have some consensus about the need to refrain from violence, respect property rights (and legitimate redistributions of property through the official tax-transfer system) and so on. But that's already covered above. In other words, it is indeed possible to have a state that does relatively limited things - protecting us from internal and external violence, establishing and enforcing a scheme of property, imposing taxes and redistributing wealth in the form of public programs based on such things as individual need - without anyone having to feel defeated or tyrannised. Of course, you may literally be defeated if you campaign for, say, the criminalisation of homosexual acts ... and your pet theologically-based campaign fails. But your "defeat "simply means that you have failed to coerce others, or to get the state to do it for you. It is bizarre to claim that you are, yourself, being tyrannised. If your views are based on religious doctrine, you will have failed to impose your religious morality on others who don't share it. That does not, however, mean that they are tyrannising you or that your freedom to live by your own religious morality has been lost. There are, of course, any number of complexities and ramifications to all this, but if there is any contradiction in classical liberalism, or in freedom of religion, the arguments that Stook refers to certainly do not establish it. Of course, as with almost anything in this domain, there are going to be some grayish areas, but some can be dealt with in a principled way, while others can be dealt with by means of the reasonable discretion of electorates and governments. Overall, the view of the world sketched above can be elaborated indefinitely to cope with real-world complications, and I see no reason why it should ever come apart - at least not under pressure from the crude arguments dissected in this post.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Remember them - political executions in Iran

(Reposted from a widely-distributed email from Maryam Namazie, with my full endorsement.)

Dear friend

I want you to remember two names - Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour.

They were two young men who were executed by the Islamic regime of Iran at dawn this past Thursday, January 28 for the ‘crime’ of ‘enmity against god’.

Yet another two beloved, murdered for protesting medievalism and theocracy …

And whilst this act of barbarity will leave many of us outraged and ‘speechless’ (see writer Jim Herrick’s act of solidarity against the executions: http://iransolidarity.blogspot.com/2010/02/i-am-speechless-on-execution-of-two.html), we can only do them justice if we keep the pressure on.

The Islamic regime of Iran is on its last legs and will do anything it can to maintain power just a while longer. It is flexing its muscles to intimidate and threaten and we need to flex ours.

It plans to execute at least another 66 people that we know of in the coming weeks.

But we just cannot – no, we will not - let them.

Those on death row, languishing in prisons and who dare to come out onto the streets of Iran every opportunity they can represent the undefeated even after thirty years of Islamic rule. We must come out in full force to stop the executions and support the people of Iran in their struggle to get rid of this regime.

We mustn’t let up until we win. The future is ours.

In solidarity,


Maryam Namazie
Iran Solidarity


Things you can do:

1. Send a letter of protest to the Islamic regime of Iran over recent and impending executions. For details, click here: http://iransolidarity.blogspot.com/2010/02/66-political-prisoner-sentenced-to.html

2. Support Iran Solidarity and its demands by signing up to our petition: http://iransolidarity.org.uk/iscommit/iscom186.php?nr=97158834&lang=en.

3. Sign up to the Manifesto of Liberation of Women in Iran: http://equal-rights-now.com/IntWD/IntWD649.php?nr=63719093&lang=en

4. Join our daily acts of solidarity with the people of Iran. Since Monday July 27, we have organised acts of solidarity EVERY SINGLE DAY. It is easy to join in – just videotape or photograph yourself doing something and send it to us to upload to our blog. You can see other acts here: http://iransolidarity.blogspot.com/.

5. Join rallies and events in various cities against the executions and the Islamic regime of Iran, including every Saturday. You can find out about such protests on our blog.

6. Set up Iran Solidarity groups in your neighbourhoods, workplaces, universities and cities. So far we have groups in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Like the solidarity committees during the anti-apartheid era, these committees can be instrumental but we need many more in every city in the world for that to happen.

For more information or to send in your daily acts of solidarity, contact:
Maryam Namazie
Iran Solidarity
BM Box 2387
London WC1N 3XX, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 7719166731

Backdown on some censorship madness

SOUTH Australia's Attorney-General Michael Atkinson has made a "humiliating" backdown and announced he will repeal his law censoring internet comment on the state election.

After a furious reaction on AdelaideNow to The Advertiser's exclusive report on the new laws, Mr Atkinson released this statement at 10pm last night: "From the feedback we've received through AdelaideNow, the blogging generation believes that the law supported by all MPs and all political parties is unduly restrictive.

"I have listened. I will immediately after the election move to repeal the law retrospectively."

Mr Atkinson said the law would not be enforced for comments posted on AdelaideNow during the upcoming election campaign, even though it was technically applicable.

"It may be humiliating for me, but that's politics in a democracy and I'll take my lumps," he continued in the statement.

"This way, no one need fear now that they are being censored on the net or in blogs, whether they blog under their own name or anonymously.

"I call upon all the other political parties who supported this review to also review their position."

No the above is not a joke. To read on, go here.

At least the South Australian government had the decency to back down on this crazy law, which prohibits anonymous comments on the internet on election issues during an election period. Anyone making election-related comments has to reveal their name and address! What is especially troubling is that such a crazy and illiberal law had the support of all parties and all MPs until a public backlash led the government to back away from it.

What is more reassuring is that the government seems to have listened, showing that it can be worth standing up and shouting loudly in defence of our freedoms.

John Wilkins on fear and risk

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins has a highly meritorious post about the creeping totalitarianism in Australia and other Western democracies. This tendency succeeds, and has the support of major political parties in both government and opposition, because, we, as populations and electorates, acquiescence in it, or even seem to want it. We are driven by fear and an irrational aversion to any risk. Unfortunately, no government, however much it puts us under surveillance and attempts to micro-manage our lives, can ever guarantee an environment free of risk (or some kind of centrally planned utopia). The tools available to governments are clumsy, and can never bring about a risk-free, ultimate zipless society.

We might as well face that fact, unpalatable or not, and fight to get our freedoms back.

Worse, democratic governments reach for populist solutions that create an illusion of decisive action, and thereby make our lives less and less free, but are pretty much guaranteed to be ineffective, Imperfect though it is, our law-makers would do better to rely on ordinary policing of genuinely harmful crimes. Yeah, okay - meanwhile, in the real world, we end up with such outcomes as ridiculous and unpleasant aviation "security", censorship of the internet, and ever-increasing surveillance of our actions and speech. Wilkins says:

we have adopted useless ineffective and costly measures that only look good, so we can deal with out fears. We can feel comfortable knowing that the national intelligence services are listening to those terrorists, while pretending not to know that they are going instead to listen in on you if you have any kind of view the authorities do not like. Warrantless wiretaps by the FBI and other agencies after 9/11 went rogue immediately, and that’s only what we do know. In Australia, moves to make the internet self-censor under law according to an undisclosed, unsupervised, list drawn up by public servants at the behest of the government of the day stands to make Australian access to information something that happens at the whim of the politicians. Now where has that worked well in the past, I wonder?

What can we do about it? Well, I sometimes feel as if it's futile to try anything, since we are confronted by the sensationalist media and a naive, scared public, not just by power-hungry or officious politicians. But we certainly won't be able to push this whole thing back if we simply give up and live in coccoons.

Wilkins again:

What to do? Well there is only one way to prevent this – stand up for freedoms against the unrelenting desire of the bureaucracy and politicians to take control. Allow rights to those you do not like so that you may have rights too. And when something, like child pornography or terror, threatens the civil order, use legal and effective policing methods to halt it and reverse it. And realise that you cannot have a risk-free world.

That's right. But it won't work unless a lot of us follow this advice, and it's all too tempting not to step forward and risk being isolated. In my case, I'm a bit less vulnerable than most, being old enough, now, and financially secure enough (by a run of moderately good financial luck plus a certain amount of self-sacrifice over the last 25 years or so). Nothing terribly harmful can be done to me, not easily. Not if we're talking about careers or livelihoods being destroyed - though obviously my reputation can be smeared, and I'm as vulnerable to physical attacks as anyone else. But I do speak up in this blog and elsewhere, partly because I can. I'd do it even more if I had better media access. If you can deliver it to me, take the hint.

Not everyone is as well-fortified against human-made ill fortune as I am. Still, I implore you to do whatever you can against the drift that Wilkins identifies.

It's an understatement to say that John Wilkins and I don't always agree on stuff, but he's a stalwart on this kind of issue, where our vaunted Western freedoms are being eroded. On this occasion I want to applaud him with all my might and power (pity I don't have more of it to applaud with).

You rock, mate. More strength to your arm.