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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Expressing our views on religion

Ronald A. Lindsay has a good editorial piece in the latest issue of Free Inquiry. In light of the latest debates about Gnu Atheism and accommodationism, this piece by Lindsay is especially useful. The following three paras not only provide a good sample of the article but also offer a commonsense approach that is valuable in its own right:

There should be no inherent limits on how criticism of religious belief is expressed, any more than there should be inherent limits on how criticism of a political belief is expressed. Cartoons and slogans are freely used in politics. Is there any reason why we cannot use them to make a point about religious beliefs or practices? Religion should not enjoy a privileged status, especially when many religious people strive to influence politics and public policy based on their religious beliefs. Do I violate some rule of civil discourse if I draw or publish a cartoon lampooning the Catholic Church's position on abortion when the Catholic Church is trying to influence public policy on abortion? If so, I fail to understand the reason for such a rule. Such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the taboo mentality that has protected religion for too long. As Daniel C. Dennett has so elegantly stated, we need to "break the spell."

This is not to say that we should do nothing but publish cartoons or work continuously to craft the best twenty-word jab against religion-any more than those engaged in politics confine themselves to cartoons or slogans alone. In criticizing another viewpoint, an array of expressive means is available and acceptable for use, including scholarly articles, detailed arguments, position papers, speeches, cartoons, billboards, slogans, and even jokes. What the appropriate mix of expressive forms may be is determined by the circumstances, including the goal of the criticism and the expertise and capabilities of the person or organization making the criticism. But determining the appropriate mix is a practical question, not a moral one. There is nothing per se immoral or unacceptable about a cartoon with a religious subject.

Nothing that I have stated should be interpreted as endorsing in-your-face criticism of religion around the clock, on any and all occasions. Religious beliefs are not always in play, just as political beliefs are not always in play. If you are at a party and people are discussing a movie, it is pointless, at best, to blurt out suddenly, "There is no God, and anyone who believes there is must be misguided, ignorant, or stupid." We are neither cranks nor missionaries. Similarly, if you attend a religious funeral, it is beyond tasteless to carry a sign saying, "It is a shame the deceased will never know how wrong she was." If you have strong objections to religious funerals, weddings, or similar events, just don't go.

Now, with all respect to Ron Lindsay, this isn't rocket science. It wouldn't have occurred to me that anyone would take an approach greatly different from the above, except for some of the wilder fantasies that appear, and sometimes get endorsed by the gullible, on the internet. But good for Lindsay in spelling it out.

He has pretty much described how I see it, and how I think most public critics of religion see it. We're not going to spit on the local vicar, but we do maintain the right to challenge religion's truth-claims and moral authority in a robust public debate analogous the the various political debates that we're all involved in. That may involve presenting our views in books, or articles, or book reviews ... or in other ways such as cartoons and stand-up comedy. It doesn't mean that we are going to go around acting unprofessionally or simply like arseholes ... or that we encourage anyone else to do so. I don't know why this is so hard to understand, but obviously some people find it difficult to get their heads around.

The same issue of Free Inquiry contains a lengthy and favourable review by George Zebrowski of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.


Tony Smith said...

Similarly, if you attend a religious funeral, it is beyond tasteless to carry a sign saying, "It is a shame the deceased will never know how wrong she was." If you have strong objections to religious funerals, weddings, or similar events, just don't go.

The thing that got me a bit more active on the atheism front was the funerals of my mother and aunt in the same year where both had been very explicit about no religion, but that was still not enough to stop a couple of people taking advantage of the informality to prosthelytise.

Yet when I was asked to give a eulogy at a friend's Catholic funeral, I managed to say what was needed without either offending the believers nor compromising my own non belief.

Me thinks the deluded call foul way too much when they are overwhelmingly the ones departing from civil discourse.

Brian said...

Russell, this morning on the 7 networks Sunrise love fest they had a group of supposed experts commenting on Gillard's atheism. They concluded that she'd be a good atheist and not challenge churches 'rights' to be tax free and respect religious folk's beliefs. I nearly choked, and then though on your many posts about why beliefs aren't things that one automatically respects. Especially religious beliefs.

Charles Sullivan said...

Yes, I also liked that piece by Lindsay.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Sadly, and I mean this seriously, many atheists problems, and yes they are problems, stem from not ever having grown out of the bitter child syndrome... the position has always played second fiddle to the big cousin of religion. Now that religion isn't what is use to be it does appear and from most commentaries I have viewed in the last few months - mainly on sites like this - that atheists cannot accept that religion is not the things it has argued against for the last 1000 years. SOme aspects are, for sure, but it is evident that when an athiest is challenged on the understanding of Christianity for instance the evident put forth is older than the very first church... Where Christians seem to have become more enlightened to the world around them, many (not all) atheists are still stuck in a time warp set in the 1920-1950s. Why is this?

Russell stands well on his principles but if truth be known he may not actually know a great deal about the Christian religion today: He may understand Catholics, or even the quite mad American evangelicals - but if he and I were to sit in a room and look at Christianity what would the end result be?

Colin said...

After reading the news from the election today it seems that Australia needs a debate on the merits of secularism more than ever before. Poor old Julia being picked on by the churchs due to her beliefs. You catch any of it Russ?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"It doesn't mean that we are going to go around acting unprofessionally or simply like arseholes ... or that we encourage anyone else to do so."

Are you suggesting that there aren't atheists acting like "arseholes" and encouraging others to do likewike?

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, I'd have thought you'd have learned your lesson by now.

J. J. Ramsey said...

That's a non-answer.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ok, my last post was a bit brief, partly because I didn't want to go another round of SIWOTI syndrome, and partly because I wish you had offered a real answer to my (admittedly sarcastic) question, something along the lines of either "Yes, and ..." or "Of course not, but ...".

It wasn't that long ago that, for example, PZ Myers not only called a guy a "witless wanker" but did it based on bizarro logic worthy of a Republican pundit. He even went as far as quoting a footnote about how philosophy rather than science is the right tool for addressing Last-Thursdayism and the view that "God has been the hand behind the process of evolution," and then used that as a proof text for this: "Somebody says the universe appeared magically a few thousand years ago, I guess that has to be a valid answer on the test question, 'How old is the universe?'." I don't want to rehash why PZ Myers rant had little to do with the facts since I had done it in a comment thread a few months back. Anyway, my point is that's not that hard to find an atheist--and a relatively infamous one at that--acting like an arsehole.

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