About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Good Reading reviews Alison Goodman

The latest (April) issue of Good Reading Magazine has a rave review of Alison Goodman's Eon/Eona fantasy duology. So ... yay for you, Al.

Now here's an interesting fact

My most popular post over the past month, in terms of page views during that time, was this one. It keeps getting a steady trickle of attention.

Nothing wrong with that. The post is about a fictional clash between the Incredible Hulk and Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Hey, cool! I'm fascinated by the way mythic figures are presented in modern narratives, whether it's novels, movies, comics ... you name it. I'm pleasantly surprised that this particular post, which touches on the nature of heroism in fictional narrative, is proving to be so popular (though it's not getting more comments coming in, so maybe everyone who reads it actually hates it).

Currently reading - The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau

I can thank Jean Kazez for recommending this book. I'm not very far into it, and I'm already finding points to disagree with. But it's a very clear, accessible, and (judging by the table of contents) comprehensive text on current philosophical ethics. I'm sure I'm going to enjoy the whole book.

It was published only last year, so we'd all be struggling to think of a more up-to-date introductory text on this subject. At this early stage I'd rank it above James Rachels' equivalent book, even though the latter is also very good.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Formal debates

I was a stalwart of my high school's debating team, and at another phase of my life I was a fairly well-regarded courtroom advocate. However, my school never did win a big competition while I was involved - the best we ever managed was to win our local zone, consisting of only four schools. Nor did I ever become a barrister, as I planned at one point, and thus really test my courtroom skills.

Still, public debating is not something that intrinsically scares me. I can do it. On the other other hand, I don't claim to be Zeus's gift to it. I'd feel some trepidation if I had to do it very often, or if I had to face a world class opponent like Christopher Hitchens or William Lane Craig. But, yeah, it's something that I can sorta do. :)

Today, I popped down to Sydney to have my very first formal debate of a kind that has become so popular lately. I.e., the (New?) Atheist versus Christian sort of debate. I'd never debated in this kind of format before, or on such a topic. It was very interesting.

Hitchens, in particular, does a lot of these debates, and yesterday I was commenting on the one that Dan Barker did last year against Cardinal George Pell. It was, once again, an interesting experience adapting to a version of the format.

My opponent was Dr Michael Jensen, an evangelical Anglican priest who lectures on Christian doctrine at Moore College (a high-status theological college here in Australia). He's an experienced advocate for his brand of Christianity, but that doesn't mean that he's any more experienced than I am in this sort of formal debate. I should also say that Michael seemed like a nice guy, and of course I'm pretty comfortable around evangelical Christians. The topic was "It's time to leave God behind." As you may have guessed, I spoke for the affirmative.

The debate was a lot of fun - though I should say immediately that my arguments were put in all seriousness, and with due regard to some of the solemn aspects of such things as the Problem of Evil. Furthermore, it was a useful exercise for me preparing my argument and strategy. It may stand me in good stead as I work with Udo to plan our new book. I also believe that I made points that should get Christians to think very carefully about their view of the world (the debate was jointly arranged by the Christian Union and the Atheist League at Macquarie University - the Zeus Club and the Friends of Old Thor were not involved). Is Christianity really intellectually tenable?

My challenge for the theists/Christians in the audience (they were probably the majority of the 150 to 200 people) used my own adaptation of John Loftus's "outsider test". I asked them to examine why they believe what they do; whether they think their reasons should be persuasive to a rational outsider who doesn't already believe anything of the kind; and whether, if not, they can, in all intellectual honesty, go on justifying it to themselves. I put some brief (but, I think, strong) arguments as to why they can infer that there's no plausible reason to believe in the existence of God; why there are powerful reasons not to; and why the Bible, the church, and the God-concept are merely human constructs. I do think I gave them a lot to dwell on, and I hope that some went away keen to sort it out in their minds.

For those who are wondering, the debate was not video recorded, though an audio recording of most of it will probably be available soon on one or the both of the student associations' websites.

It's not up to me to say a lot more about how it went. I did enjoy the experience, which suggests that I didn't feel beaten up or anything of the kind. I hope the attendees found it entertaining and intellectually stimulating.  My sincere thanks to the Christian Union and the Atheist League for inviting me.

But the nagging issue in my mind is just how valuable these debates are. I wonder whether anyone much changes their minds as a result. I guess some people do in at least superficial ways (there's evidence for this), but do they have any deeper impact? Or is it really too much like a beauty competition? I'm interested in this general question. Discuss.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dan Barker vs. George Pell

I'm just having a look at this debate from last year. Dan Barker certainly put up a more impressive performance than George Pell, but fine - Pell doesn't have to have the sort of personality that wins people over in debate. These kinds of debates don't necessarily prove a great deal. They're largely beauty contests. An articulate, physically attractive, well-coached actor would "win" such a debate each time.

That said, Pell certainly resorts to a lot of obfuscating and fillibustering. It's not a lot of fun to watch. He doesn't have a talent for this kind of debate. He's no William Lane Craig - though he did have a pretty good support squad there.

More importantly, however, I'm amazed that he simply denies that Antony Flew ended up becoming a kind of deist rather than a full-fledged theist, and that he relies on the title of Flew's book - There Is A God - as evidence. Yes, a deist is also going to say "There is a God [of sorts]" (leaving aside the fact that titles are chosen largely on commercial grounds and don't necessarily give much indication of the detailed thesis).

Flew believed what he believed, and you just have to accept it. You don't get to make up your own facts.

I have a contract!

I've just signed the contract for the new 50 Great Myths About Atheism book that Udo and I are writing. We're still planning the detail of how it will all work, but this will segue quite soon into some intensive wordcount-producing activity.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Rob Bell does-anyone-go-to-Hell controversy

H/T to Marshall for drawing this controversy to my attention. Fascinating, those theological debates.

Currently reading - Philosophers Without Gods, ed. Louise M. Antony

As I said in a comment yesterday, this book would make a nice companion volume to 50 Voices of Disbelief. When Udo and I started work on the latter, Philosophers Without Gods had been published very recently and was, I believe, only available in hardback. I, at least, have only just got to it, with the publication of a paperback edition last year.

It contains twenty pieces, to our fifty, so they are longer on average. All of them are by professional philosophers. But most of these essays would have fitted quite nicely into our book, and some of the essays in our book would have fitted well over there (the ones by professional philosophers, naturally enough).

I do like the fact that the book doesn't have a party line. Some of the authors are even regretful at not being able to accept a theistic picture of the world - though that's certainly not the case with the majority of them. Some individual essays are very good, indeed, and maybe there will be time to come back to one or two of them. But whether I manage that or not, it's nice to catch up with this book.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Simon Blackburn on respect

"I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call 'respect creep' sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions."

Sunday supervillainy - Thor movie trailer

This trailer has been around for quite a while now, but hey - it's still a bit of fun. Something to look forward to at the movies in May. The villains include the Destroyer, which looks suitably threatening in the trailer and this image.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A.C. Grayling on drug prohibition

This piece by Anthony Grayling dates from 2002, but I've only just come across it. Well worth reading. He puts the arguments for individual liberty very clearly and succinctly.

H/T Tauriq Moosa.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The evil and hypocrisy of the Vatican - again

If you were in doubt as to what vile people are in control of the Roman Catholic Church, look no further. Here we have a Vatican hierarch, Silvano Tomasi, complaining that poor, dear homophobes get "vilified" for their homophobia. More specifically, this Silvano dude complains as follows:

When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature ... they are stigmatised, and worse -- they are vilified, and prosecuted.These attacks are violations of fundamental human rights and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

The most important thing about this is its one small grain of truth: you should not be prosecuted for expressing such evil views as that engaging in consensual homosexual conduct makes you a "sinnner", or "emotionally disordered", or whatever else these bastards want to say. Freedom of speech should enable you to say, quite legally, all sorts of ugly, vicious things.

Freedom of speech also should enable others to point out that these are, in fact, ugly vicious things ... and that only a vile person would say such things. When you say these things, it shows your true character.

Silvano wants his cronies to have freedom of speech. Fine. I agree. But he doesn't want the rest of us to have it. He's not only vile - he's a hypocrite, like the rest of his kind.

ToC for Midnight Echo # 6

  • “Out Hunting for Teeth” by Joanne Anderton
  • “Trawling the Void” by Alan Baxter
  • “Silver-Clean” by Jenny Blackford
  • “Graveyard Orbit” by Shane Jiraiya Cummings
  • “More Matter, Less Art” by Stephen Dedman
  • “Seeds” by Mark Farrugia
  • “Earth Worms” by Cody Goodfellow
  • “The Wanderer in the Darkness” by Andrew J McKiernan
  • “Dead Low” by Cat Sparks
  • “Surgeon Scalpelfingers” by Helen Stubbs

Happy fifth birthday to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

Actually, I'm a day early ... but while I remember ...

This blog started on 26 March 2006 and so has been going for just on five years. I can't say it's the biggest blog on the internet, but it's built up to a fair bit of traffic after starting off as a small personal blog with some occasional thoughts about moral philosophy, or science fiction, or whatever happened to take my fancy at the time.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It is finished!

Yes, that's one book ready to package up and send off in what I hope is its final form.

Now to do some more work on the others. :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CFI and IHEU on blasphemy laws

This statement has my full support. Apart from the ordinary issues relating to freedom of speech, surely we all have a fair idea by now that laws against "blasphemy", "defamation of religion", and so on, are likely to do more harm than good - if the purpose is social harmony, this is best achieved by policies that encourage people not to take undue offence at disliked speech, and certainly not to respond with violence.

The current push at national level in various countries - as well as at UN level - for blasphemy laws is about the last thing we need.

Harris and Pigliucci on moral philosophy (more)

That thread over at Butterflies and Wheels ran for 284 comments before Ophelia eventually decided to encourage the remaining participants to talk offline. It's a great debate. While there's always more to say, this discussion is a worth a look to see those involved hashing out the issues. Not, of course, that it's conclusive.

H/T "Paul W" - the email about it was appreciated, mate. Which is not the same as saying that you've persuaded me. ;)

Some pics from Ross's birthday the other nite

A little group of us went out for the birthday of my brother-in-law, Ross Allen, the other night. Here's some photos.

Respectively, from top to bottom ... me with my sister, Beverley Allen; Jenny and my Dad, Ken Blackford; and one of me, Dad, and Ross.

And Jenny and I held a not-for-anything-in-particular party at our place on Sunday ... but as far as I know nobody thought to take any photographs for posterity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday ... er, whoops, Monday ... supervillainy - Jenny on Medea

Over on Gillian Polack's blog, Jenny writes about the much-maligned Medea, the sorceress extraordinaire from Greek mythology who married Jason (of Argonauts fame) and ended up obtaining a gruesome revenge when he dumped her for a younger princess who offered better political prospects.
Even in Euripides' sympathetic version, Medea is best known for helping heroic Argonaut Jason to win the Golden Fleece, but her life is larger than that.

I'd never really understood, despite all the servings of myths and legends in my childhood reading, that Medea was the grand-daughter of Helios, the Sun, and far more powerful a being than Jason ever was. She was fabulously exotic: a Bronze Age princess and sorceress, whose turbulent life took her from exotic Colchis, at the far end of the Black Sea, to some of the greatest palaces of Mycenaean Greece: Iolkos in Thessaly, mighty Corinth, then finally Athens.

Medea served the dark, but well-respected, goddess Hekate. She was the niece of Circe, most famous of Greek witches, who ensorcelled Odysseus' crew. Her father was a powerful king and godling. After delivering the Fleece to Jason – who wouldn't have had a hope without her – and getting him safely back to Greece, Medea murdered Jason's treacherous uncle Pelias, healed the hero Herakles of his madness, and brought about the birth of Theseus.

Medea's myth reveals much about the place of women in ancient Greek society. In the earliest of the ancient sources, Medea is relatively innocent – according to archaic–era Hesiod, she's a "goddess" who marries a mortal man, Jason, and bears him fine sons. Nothing else is mentioned. As time goes on, evil acts accrete around her, so that she becomes an exaggeration of everything a Greek man would not wish for his daughter, wife or daughter-in-law.

Working on the old scholarly apparatus, etc.

Over the last two weeks or so, I've been working on final revisions for my forthcoming book on freedom of religion. This has involved strengthening some of the points where it was maybe a bit "thin" or weak, addressing some new developments (such as the Lautsi v. Italy outcome last week), and, above all, trying to get all the scholarly apparatus (the notes and bibliography) into a better form. I still have a handful of page references to check, and maybe I need to do some last-minute proofreading ... but this is otherwise the final version.

The book has grown by 6,000 words to just over 90,000. It should be on sale in either late 2011 or early 2012- though with a formal 2012 publication date either way. There'll be more reports coming your way as the process goes on.

And in other news, Udo Schuklenk and I have been sent the contract for our next book together (Udo has signed the contract copies, he tells me, and they are in the mail on the way from Canada to Australia). More on this as well, as it unfolds.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The majority opinion in Lautsi v. Italy

 I'm quoting the most salient paragraphs of the main opinion which was joined by some judges in separate opinions. Formally speaking, the case is a decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, dated 18 March 2011. It is Application no. 30814/06. Note that the real question before the court was whether the compulsory display of crucifixes in state schools in Italy breached Article 9 of the European Convention Convention on Human Rights, which relates to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
What should, I think, be disappointing about this case and the case law that it follows is that it gives a rather weak protection against religiously motivated actions by the state - far weaker than has been found by the US courts interpreting and applying the First Amendment to the US constitution. As I said yesterday, that's not entirely surprising, not only because of previous cases but also because one thing that seems pretty clear is that Article 9 was never intended to prevent the continuation of established churches in countries such as the UK, Sweden, etc.

The bottom line is that the court would have required something much more active in the way of persecution or indoctrination than the mere passive display of symbols such as crucifixes before finding a breach of Article 9. It's not obvious how much more would be needed, but you can draw your own conclusions from the key paragraphs below. I've quoted them in their entirety for context, so don't get bogged down too much in the references to precedents, etc.

For those not familiar with the term, the court talks about a "margin of appreciation", i.e. an area in which the government exercises a legitimate discretion that the court will not interfere with. This a key concept in much of the European human rights jurisprudence.
71.  In that connection, it is true that by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms – a sign which, whether or not it is accorded in addition a secular symbolic value, undoubtedly refers to Christianity – the regulations confer on the country's majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment.
That is not in itself sufficient, however, to denote a process of indoctrination on the respondent State's part and establish a breach of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.
The Court refers on this point, mutatis mutandis, to the previously cited Folgerø and Zengin judgments. In the Folgerø case, in which it was called upon to examine the content of “Christianity, religion and philosophy” (KRL) lessons, it found that the fact that the syllabus gave a larger share to knowledge of the Christian religion than to that of other religions and philosophies could not in itself be viewed as a departure from the principles of pluralism and objectivity amounting to indoctrination. It explained that in view of the place occupied by Christianity in the history and tradition of the respondent State – Norway – this question had to be regarded as falling within the margin of appreciation left to it in planning and setting the curriculum (see Folgerø, cited above, § 89). It reached a similar conclusion in the context of “religious culture and ethics” classes in Turkish schools, where the syllabus gave greater prominence to knowledge of Islam on the ground that, notwithstanding the State's secular nature, Islam was the majority religion practised in Turkey (see Zengin, cited above, § 63).
72.  Furthermore, a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court's view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality (see paragraph 60 above). It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities (see on these points Folgerø and Zengin, cited above, § 94 and § 64 respectively).
73.  The Court observes that, in its judgment of 3 November 2009, the Chamber agreed with the submission that the display of crucifixes in classrooms would have a significant impact on the second and third applicants, aged eleven and thirteen at the time. The Chamber found that, in the context of public education, crucifixes, which it was impossible not to notice in classrooms, were necessarily perceived as an integral part of the school environment and could therefore be considered “powerful external symbols” within the meaning of the decision in Dahlab, cited above (see §§ 54 and 55 of the judgment).
The Grand Chamber does not agree with that approach. It considers that that decision cannot serve as a basis in this case because the facts of the two cases are entirely different.
It points out that the case of Dahlab concerned the measure prohibiting the applicant from wearing the Islamic headscarf while teaching, which was intended to protect the religious beliefs of the pupils and their parents and to apply the principle of denominational neutrality in schools enshrined in domestic law. After observing that the authorities had duly weighed the competing interests involved, the Court held, having regard above all to the tender age of the children for whom the applicant was responsible, that the authorities had not exceeded their margin of appreciation.
74.  Moreover, the effects of the greater visibility which the presence of the crucifix gives to Christianity in schools needs to be further placed in perspective by consideration of the following points. Firstly, the presence of crucifixes is not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity (see the comparative-law information set out in Zengin, cited above, § 33). Secondly, according to the indications provided by the Government, Italy opens up the school environment in parallel to other religions. The Government indicated in this connection that it was not forbidden for pupils to wear Islamic headscarves or other symbols or apparel having a religious connotation; alternative arrangements were possible to help schooling fit in with non-majority religious practices; the beginning and end of Ramadan were “often celebrated” in schools; and optional religious education could be organised in schools for “all recognised religious creeds” (see paragraph 39 above). Moreover, there was nothing to suggest that the authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.
In addition, the applicants did not assert that the presence of the crucifix in classrooms had encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency, or claim that the second and third applicants had ever experienced a tendentious reference to that presence by a teacher in the exercise of his or her functions.
75.  Lastly, the Court notes that the first applicant retained in full her right as a parent to enlighten and advise her children, to exercise in their regard her natural functions as educator and to guide them on a path in line with her own philosophical convictions (see, in particular, Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen and Valsamis, cited above, §§ 54 and 31 respectively).
76.  It follows from the foregoing that, in deciding to keep crucifixes in the classrooms of the State school attended by the first applicant's children, the authorities acted within the limits of the margin of appreciation left to the respondent State in the context of its obligation to respect, in the exercise of the functions it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

The dissenting judgment in the Lautsi case

1.  The Grand Chamber has reached the conclusion that there has not been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 on the ground that “the decision whether crucifixes should be present in State-school classrooms is, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State” (see paragraph 70, and also paragraph 69).
I have difficulty following that line of argument. Whilst the doctrine of the margin of appreciation may be useful, or indeed convenient, it is a tool that needs to be handled with care because the scope of that margin will depend on a great many factors: the right in issue, the seriousness of the infringement, the existence of a European consensus, etc. The Court has thus affirmed that “the scope of this margin of appreciation is not identical in each case but will vary according to the context ... . Relevant factors include the nature of the Convention right in issue, its importance for the individual and the nature of the activities concerned”.7 The proper application of this theory will thus depend on the importance to be attached to each of these various factors. Where the Court decrees that the margin of appreciation is a narrow one, it will generally find a violation of the Convention; where it considers that the margin of appreciation is wide, the respondent State will usually be “acquitted”.
In the present case it is by relying mainly on the lack of any European consensus that the Grand Chamber has allowed itself to invoke the doctrine of the margin of appreciation (see paragraph 70). In that connection I would observe that, besides Italy, it is in only a very limited number of member States of the Council of Europe (Austria, Poland, certain regions of Germany (Länder) – see paragraph 27) that there is express provision for the presence of religious symbols in State schools. In the vast majority of the member States the question is not specifically regulated. On that basis I find it difficult, in such circumstances, to draw definite conclusions regarding a European consensus.
With regard to the regulations governing this question, I would point out in passing that the presence of crucifixes in Italian State schools has an extremely weak basis in law: a very old royal decree dating back to 1860, then a fascist circular of 1922, and then royal decrees of 1924 and 1928. These are therefore very old instruments, which, as they were not enacted by Parliament, are lacking in any democratic legitimacy.
What I find more important, however, is that where they have been required to give a ruling on the issue, the European supreme or constitutional courts have always, without exception, given precedence to the principle of State denominational neutrality: the German Constitutional Court, the Swiss Federal Court, the Polish Constitutional Court and, in a slightly different context, the Italian Court of Cassation (see paragraphs 28 and 23).
Be that as it may, one thing is certain: the doctrine of the margin of appreciation should not in any circumstances exempt the Court from the duty to exercise the function conferred on it under Article 19 of the Convention, which is to ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken by the High Contracting Parties in the Convention and the Protocols thereto. Now, the wording of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 confers a positive obligation on States to respect the right of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
That positive obligation derives from the verb “respect”, which appears in Article 2 of Protocol No. 1. As the Grand Chamber has rightly pointed out, “in addition to a primarily negative undertaking, this verb implies some positive obligation on the part of the State (see paragraph 61). Such a positive obligation can, moreover, also be inferred from Article 9 of the Convention. That provision can be interpreted as conferring on States a positive obligation to create a climate of tolerance and mutual respect among their population.
Can it be maintained that the States properly comply with that positive obligation where they mainly have regard to the beliefs held by the majority? Moreover, is the scope of the margin of appreciation the same where the national authorities are required to comply with a positive obligation and where they merely have to comply with an obligation of abstention? I do not think so. I incline, rather, to the view that where the States are bound by positive obligations their margin of appreciation is reduced.
In any event, according to the case-law, the margin of appreciation is subject to European supervision. The Court's task then consists in ensuring that the limit on the margin of appreciation has not been overstepped. In the present case, whilst acknowledging that by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms the regulations confer on the country's majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment, the Grand Chamber has taken the view that “that is not in itself sufficient, however, to ... establish a breach of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1”. I cannot share that view.
2.  We now live in a multicultural society, in which the effective protection of religious freedom and of the right to education requires strict State neutrality in State-school education, which must make every effort to promote pluralism in education as a fundamental feature of a democratic society within the meaning of the Convention.8 The principle of State neutrality has, moreover, been expressly recognised by the Italian Constitutional Court itself, in whose view it flows from the fundamental principle of equality of all citizens and the prohibition of any discrimination that the State must adopt an attitude of impartiality towards religious beliefs.9
The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 implies that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that knowledge is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Schools should be a meeting place for different religions and philosophical convictions, in which pupils can acquire knowledge about their respective thoughts and traditions.
3.  These principles are valid not only for the devising and planning of the school curriculum, which are not in issue in the present case, but also for the school environment. Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 specifies that in the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. In other words, the principle of State denominational neutrality applies not only to the content of the curriculum, but the whole educational system. In the case of Folgerø the Court rightly pointed out that the duty conferred on the States under that provision “is broad in its extent as it applies not only to the content of education and the manner of its provision but also to the performance of all the 'functions' assumed by the State”.10
This view is shared by other both domestic and international bodies. Thus, in its General Comment No.1, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has affirmed that the right to education refers “not only to the content of the curriculum, but also the educational processes, the pedagogical methods and the environment within which education takes place, whether it be the home, school, or elsewhere”11, and also that “the school environment itself must thus reflect the freedom and the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups”.12
The Supreme Court of Canada has also observed that the school environment is an integral part of discrimination-free education: “In order to ensure a discrimination-free educational environment, the school environment must be one where all are treated equally and all are encouraged to fully participate.”13
4.  Religious symbols are indisputably part of the school environment. As such, they might therefore infringe the duty of State neutrality and have an impact on religious freedom and the right to education. This is particularly true where the religious symbol is imposed on pupils, even against their will. As the German Constitutional Court observed in its famous judgment: “Certainly, in a society that allows room for differing religious convictions, the individual has no right to be spared from other manifestations of faith, acts of worship or religious symbols. This is however to be distinguished from a situation created by the State where the individual is exposed without possibility of escape to the influence of a particular faith, to the acts through which it is manifested and to the symbols in which it is presented”14. That view is shared by other supreme or constitutional courts.
Thus, the Swiss Federal Court has found that the duty of denominational neutrality incumbent on the State is of special importance in State schools, where schooling is compulsory. It went on to say that, as guarantor of the denominational neutrality of the school system, the State could not, where teaching was concerned, manifest its own attachment to a particular religion, be it a majority or a minority one, because certain people may feel that their religious beliefs are impinged upon by the constant presence at school of the symbol of a religion to which they do not belong.15
5.  The crucifix is undeniably a religious symbol. The respondent Government argued that, in the context of the school environment, the crucifix symbolised the religious origin of values that had now become secular, such as tolerance and mutual respect. It thus fulfilled a highly educational symbolic function, irrespective of the religion professed by the pupils, because it was the expression of an entire civilisation and universal values.
In my view, the presence of the crucifix in classrooms goes well beyond the use of symbols in particular historical contexts. The Court has moreover held that the traditional nature, in the social and historical sense, of a text used by members of parliament when swearing loyalty did not deprive the oath to be sworn of its religious nature.16 As observed by the Chamber, negative freedom of religion is not restricted to the absence of religious services or religious education. It also extends to symbols expressing a belief or a religion. That negative right deserves special protection if it is the State which displays a religious symbol and dissenters are placed in a situation from which they cannot extract themselves.17 Even if it is accepted that the crucifix can have multiple meanings, the religious meaning still remains the predominant one. In the context of state education it is necessarily perceived as an integral part of the school environment and may even be considered as a powerful external symbol. I note, moreover, that even the Italian Court of Cassation rejected the argument that the crucifix symbolised values independent of a particular religious belief (see paragraph 67).
6.  The presence of crucifixes in schools is capable of infringing religious freedom and schoolchildren's right to education to a greater degree than religious apparel that, for example, a teacher might wear, such as the Islamic headscarf. In the latter example the teacher in question may invoke her own freedom of religion, which must also be taken into account, and which the State must also respect. The public authorities cannot, however, invoke such a right. From the point of view of the seriousness of the infringement of the principle of State denominational neutrality, this will accordingly be of a lesser degree where the public authorities tolerate the headscarf in schools than where they impose the presence of crucifixes.
7.  The impact which the presence of crucifixes may have in schools is also incommensurable with the impact that they may have in other public establishments, such as a voting booth or a court. As the Chamber rightly pointed out, in schools “the compelling power of the State is imposed on minds which still lack the critical capacity which would enable them to keep their distance from the message derived from a preference manifested by the State” (see § 48 of the Chamber judgment).
8.  To conclude, effective protection of the rights guaranteed by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention requires States to observe the strictest denominational neutrality. This is not limited to the school curriculum, but also extends to “the school environment”. As primary and secondary schooling are compulsory, the State should not impose on pupils, against their will and without their being able to extract themselves, the symbol of a religion with which they do not identify. In doing so, the respondent Government have violated Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention.
1.  Justin Marozzi, The Man who Invented History, John Murray, 2009, p. 97.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lautsi v. Italy

This important case can be found here on the portal for the European Court of Human Rights. The point is that the court at the highest level found that it was acceptable for Italy to have crucifixes on prominent display in its public schools. This appeal overturned the court's earlier decision in 2009.

I've got to say that I'm not surprised by this. I'm not happy with it, but I'm not surprised. After all, Europe is a continent bristling with established churches, and it's long been clear that their continued existence would not be threatened by the European Convention on Human Rights. The provision for freedom of religion has been interpreted in some odd ways in previous case law, but it never seems to have much in the way of teeth when it comes to preventing government endorsements and establishments.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Currently reading ... lots of stuff, actually, for the Norma K. Hemming Award

I'm a juror for the Norma K. Award, which is awarded annually (provided a worthy recipient is found) on the following basis:

The Norma K. Hemming Award marks excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability:

* in the form of science fiction and fantasy or related artwork or media.
* produced either in Australia or by Australian citizens.
* first published, released or presented in the calendar year preceding the year in which the award is given.

This has me reading all sorts of fascinating books and stories that I wouldn't necessarily broach without being prompted. There's a lot of material here that's very impressive, and in a variety of ways. My fellow jurors (Sarah Endacott, Rob Gerrand, and Tess Williams) and I will need to reach a decision in the next month or so, in time for the next national science fiction convention, here in Australia, toward the end of April.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Russian trailer for X-Men: First Class

This has slightly different footage from the first English trailer...

Carroll on Carrier on moral ontology

Sean Carroll posts on this over here. I'm actually going to side with Richard Carrier on an important issue. Sean thinks the following is invalid and requires an extra premise:
  • Your car is running low on oil.
  • If your car runs out of oil, the engine will seize up.
  • You don’t want your car’s engine to seize up.
  • Therefore, you ought to change the oil in your car.
I don't think so. I think that Carrier is perfectly right insofar as this is a legitimate way to derive a hypothetical imperative. The hypothetical-imperative "ought" has a meaning such as to allow this as valid practical reasoning (with just a bit of fiddling around needed to tighten up the wording). "Ought" in this sense is about a relationship between desires and facts about what conduces to fulfilling them.

My problem with it is that it's only a hypothetical imperative. We can imagine a rational being somewhere in the universe that, for whatever reason, doesn't care about whether or not its car's engine seizes up, or, for whatever reason, might even want its car's engine to seize up. This kind of reasoning can deliver us "oughts" (and even Hume accepted this). What it can't do is deliver us oughts that transcend our desires, oughts that are objectively binding on us irrespective of our desire sets.

I don't see any reason to think that our desire sets will all be the same, even after rational reflection. Why - without cheating and introducing a concept of rational reflection that is already moralised - would they not be sensitive to our differing initial desires? So even if we imagine a sort of "ought" that is about the relationship between desire-after-rational-reflection and what conduces to its fulfilment, there's still no reason that I can see - other than a leap of faith - why we will all end up acting in the same way in circumstances C.

To take this a bit further, most of us do have a lot of common desires, and there are often ways that we can compromise and come up with collective ways of acting that fulfil a lot of them. Once again, this will set boundaries to what kinds of systems of law and morality societies come up with in practice. These systems are not just arbitrary - i.e, not just any system will do. But that's a long way from saying either that there is just one "correct" system or that everyone has good reasons, after reflection, to go along completely with her society's local system (as in vulgar moral relativism).

Polish version of 50 Voices of Disbelief

On its way in September, apparently.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A little bit more on admirable and contemptible traits

I commented over at The Reason Behind X:

Thanks for taking the trouble to comment on this. As you'll have seen, I take a fairly robust view on this. I.e., I don't look for responsibility all the way down.

There may be extra strands to the story, but I think that the starting point is that we find such traits as intelligence, courage, honesty, etc., admirable, while we find such traits as stupidity, cowardice, dishonesty, etc., the opposite. Generally speaking that's rational, as someone with the former traits will usually be better to have around as a friend, fellow citizen, etc.

We don't generally care all that much how someone got these various traits, though we might admire someone more if we find out that she got the admirable ones partly through pre-existing good traits like self-discipline, industriousness, etc. But even those traits have a causal origin that's ultimately beyond her power.

Likewise, there might be some mitigation of our disdain if there's a special story about how someone came to have the contemptible traits - they can't be blamed on some pre-existent bad traits she had, such as some sort of laxity or laziness, so much as some unusual external influence that might have made her turn out that way even if she started with normal levels of self-discipline and so on.

Richard Carrier on moral ontology

Carrier's post is very long and I don't have time to analyse it in a whole lot of detail, but do go and have a look. As it happens, I agree with most of what he says, even though he claims that his is a moral realist position. In part, this shows how slippery terms like "moral realism" can be. His analysis does not show that two people who are fully rational but start with different desires will end up acting the same way in what is otherwise the same situation. What it is most rational to do for person A with initial desire set X will not be most rational to do for person B with initial desire set Y - or at least Carrier has not shown otherwise. There may be an objectively most rational thing for person A to do - i.e., the thing that will most conduce to her achieving her goals, obtaining her desires, and so on - and an objectively most rational thing for person B to do. But it is a leap of faith to assume that there is a single most rational thing for any person at all to do in that situation, irrespective of her initial desire set.

So the question is this: When someone says that phi-ing is morally obligatory in circumstances C, does she mean, or does her meaning at least include, the claim that phi-ing is the most rational thing for any person to do in those circumstances? If so, an error theory looms because across a vast range of circumstances no such claim is likely to be true.

But Carrier is right that morality takes a reasonably determinate form and is in that sense not just arbitrary. Yes, given the common human desires for a degree of social peace, etc., it's likely that all societies will develop codes of conduct for their members that have a fair bit in common, and it's worth exploring what it might be.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On contempt, admiration, and respect

This is a side issue, but I find the analysis of contempt by Aikin and Talisse very odd. They say:

The view has it that those who are contemptible are not worthy of respect.  This seems true as far as it goes. But notice that to hold a person in contempt is to ascribe to him a capacity for responsibility. Accordingly, we do not hold the mentally deranged in contempt for their delusional beliefs; rather, we see their beliefs as symptoms of their illness. To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid. Thus it is a confusion to regard religious believers as both contemptible and cognitively beyond-the-pale.
This actually seems confused to me. It may well be that contempt is an inappropriate response to someone who suffers an actual mental illness. Some kind of compassion seems more appropriate, and of course we would know better than to get into an argument with such a person. We might humour her, but we would not try to argue with her. Fine so far.

But you can be cognitively beyond-the-pale for all sorts of reasons that fall short of an actual mental illness. Generally speaking we express admiration (or esteem) for people who have qualities that are admirable (and note that judgments about what is "admirable" don't have to be objectively binding on all rational creatures, they are made relative to shared values, purposes, etc.). They are people who have certain excellences, which might, in context, include intelligence, intellectual honesty, courage, openness to new ideas, and so on. We feel contempt for people who lack such excellences or who actually have the opposite qualities. If we find ourselves arguing with someone who is stupid, intellectually dishonest, fearful, and close-minded, it is perfectly appropriate to feel the opposite of admiration - i.e. contempt or disdain - for her.

Someone with those qualities may well be cognitively beyond-the-pale in the sense of being impossible, for all practical purposes, to persuade by rational argument. She may be beyond the reach of reason. We would do well not to waste time arguing with someone who possesses that particular combination of qualities. But that does not entail that we are wrong to regard her with the opposite of admiration. She clearly has qualities that are the opposite of the relevant admirable ones, i.e. she has qualities that merit our contempt.

I conclude that there is nothing at all confused about regarding some people as both cognitively beyond-the-pale and contemptible. Indeed, the very same qualities may make somebody both of these things.

This is kind of tangential, but the Aikin/Talisse passage puzzled me the first time I read it ... and it still puzzles me. I'm not actually arguing that we should feel contempt for anyone in particular. I certainly don't think that we should feel contempt for all religious believers. But I don't accept the claim that "contemptible" and "cognitively beyond-the-pale" are mutually exclusive categories.

It's also possible that someone who merits our contempt - the opposite of our admiration - nonetheless also merits some minimal or residual kind of respect as a fellow human being or a person (in the Lockean sense) or a sentient creature, or some such thing. I.e., the person is due some kind of residual regard for her interests. That opens up a large set of issues about what it is to respect somebody. But this sort of minimal/residual respect can co-exist with the idea that, at least for current purposes, the person is the opposite of admirable and that it's worth expressing that evaluation.

Again, I conclude that someone can both (1) be cognitively beyond-the-pale and (2) have qualities that are the opposite of admirable  - and merit expressions of contempt. Even though this person is still owed some residual regard for her interests, that is a separate issue.

We really have to respect all those religious people

I suppose this could be a Poe. I hope so. On the assumption that it isn't (and I'm here to tell you that I've encountered people like this in real life, so I find it all-too-plausible that this is for real) have a look at this nutjob praising the Lorrrrrd for the Japan earthquake. Apparently it was sent to tell us atheists to change our ways and believe in Teh God Of Teh Bible. She goes on to express her hope and confidence that TGOTB will do even bigger and better things after 40 days of Lenten austerity and prayer.

Does this deserve our contempt? If it doesn't, what the hell does?

Edit: Okay, according to a couple of commenters this was indeed a Poe - someone trying to make a satirical point about fundamentalists. That is also pretty damn sick, in the circumstances. The Japanese earthquake is not the occasion for that kind of dumb point scoring, any more than it would have been the occasion for blaming atheists and praising God. My apologies for thinking this video plausibly genuine ... though they have to be slightly half-hearted apologies, given Poe's Law and given that we've seen forreal examples of this sort of thing with various other catastrophes, for example the Black Saturday fires a couple of years ago.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ah is revising

I'm currently immersed in final manuscript revisions for my forthcoming book on freedom of religion, to be published in late 2011 or early 2012. Just letting y'all know where this is at the moment.

The books people really read?

Speaking of kerfuffles, there's currently a lively one prompted by a BBC program called The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special, as opposed to literary novels that garner critical acclaim. You might think that a large chunk of the program would be devoted to fantasy, horror, and science fiction, given the immense popularity of these genres among general readers ... but apparently they didn't even rate a mention. So what were the program's creators thinking?

Stephen Hunt has a good long (seemingly justified) rant about this (more strength to his arm!), and there's a post by David Barnett on The Guardian's site.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Going off the rails - the Aikin and Talisse teachable moment

As I said yesterday, the kerfuffle with Aikin and Talisse is potentially a teachable moment. Let's have a look at the first paragraph of the piece published in February that caused all the fuss:
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea [sic] that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.
Aikin and Talisse seem surprised that this got people upset, but let's look at the problems just in these opening sentences. First, they say they have "already been charged" with the "cardinal sin" of accommodationism. What they don't tell us is that the charges did not come from any publicly known New Atheist figure ... but from anonymous correspondents who sent emails! When the sentence goes on to say, "the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists" it is strongly implied that they have done something that New Atheists actually object to - not something that some stray anonymous people with email accounts object to. Yes, it does not say that in so many words, but language does not always communicate so literally. Even statutes are not usually construed completely literally. There's also the small problem of referring to accommodationism as "the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists". This is not neutral language - since New Atheists do not believe in "sin", and the whole piece is aimed at secular people, using such a metaphor establishes a sneering tone.

Fine, people get to sneer if they want to. But when you take such a tone you shouldn't be surprised if you're seen, at a minimum, as distancing yourself from the people you've sneered at.

Within the first few sentences, then, Aikin and Talisse have implied that New Atheists are opposed to whatever they did that has been branded "accommodationism", and they (Aikin and Talisse) have sneered at the idea of accommodationism as a "cardinal sin" in the New Atheist conception of the world. It's no wonder that the rhetoric here put many people off, and if they are surprised that it had this effect, as they say they are, I am surprised at their surprise.

They go on to say, "Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect." At this stage, there is no suggestion that the people who considered it an "offense" were some anonymous email correspondents. Anyone reading the piece cold will assume that New Atheists consider the idea of atheists owing anything like respect to religious believers to be (1) an instance of accommodationism, (2) an offense, and (3), at least metaphorically, a "cardinal sin".

Of course, New Atheist thinkers simply do not think any of these things. Not only that, most people who have some public profile as New Atheists find ourselves constantly on the back foot having to explain that we don't think anything so extreme, despite the repeated accusations. It's a bit like the continual claims that Richard Dawkins thinks teaching your religious beliefs to your children is child abuse, when what he actually says is far more complex and nuanced (see pages 311-44 of the original editions of The God Delusion). After a while this sort of thing becomes infuriating.

In the space of a few sentences, Aikin and Talisse have misrepresented and sneered at our position and done their small bit to undermine our efforts to explain our position in the face of widespread misrepresentations.

The facts are that (1) the criticisms did not come from New Atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett, or from people who are involved on the "New Atheist" side in the public debates about accommodationism, such as Jerry Coyne or Ophelia Benson or me. They came from anonymous email correspondents. (2) New Atheists do not claim that it is wrong to show respect to religious believers (they/we tend to think that respect should be shown to them in many but not all circumstances). (3) New Atheists mean something totally different by "accommodationism".

And (4) New Atheists do not have a concept of "sin". They, or we, may well object to accomodationism, but the objection is mainly an intellectual one - we do not think that religion and science are compatible, at least not in any way that can be asserted straightforwardly, and we object when we are told not to discuss our views on science/religion compatibilility in public. This is what the accommodationism debate is all about. It has very little (I'm tempted to say "nothing") to do with whether we should treat religious believers with respect. That's a separate (non-)issue.

So I'm just not buying the idea that Aikin and Talisse should feel "surprise" at New Atheist objections to their opening paragraph. If they'd put themselves in the shoes of New Atheists, rather than writing about New Atheists as a group who can be sneered at, and have their views, to say the least, represented without due concern for accuracy, then they simply would not have produced that paragraph in anything like the form that they did. A more careful and neutral version would have read more like the following:
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already received a number of anonymous emails charging us with accommodationism. Accommodationism is opposed by New Atheist thinkers, but we are simply not guilty of it in the sense that they usually have in mind, i.e., we do not claim a compatibility between science and religion - we do not claims that religious doctrines can be accommodated unproblematically within a view of the universe based on science. Nor do we claim that areas of tension or incompatibility between religion and science should be off-limits in public debate.

The emails we've received mainly criticize the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

That, however, is a misguided position and goes far beyond what New Atheist thinkers appear to mean when they criticize accommodationism. Even if they oppose respect for religion, they do not generally oppose respect for individual believers.
Although this version is much more accurate, it loses some of the rhetorical vigour of what was actually published. Fine, I can see that.

But here's a thought. We should all be prepared to criticise our allies, but something has gone wrong if we feel the need to use rhetorically vigorous wording when we do so. As soon as we do so, we are distancing ourselves from them, creating a situation where we invite our audience to join us in treating those allies as "other". Now, I don't mind that sort of complicity between writer and reader - it happens all the time; it's a legitimate rhetorical approach - but if you apply it to your allies you shouldn't then be surprised if they feel that, first, you've distanced yourself from them, and, second, you've used them to make your own point without regard to how it affects them. If this is done in such a way as to weaken your allies' public standing or to undermine them in existing debates that they're involved with, they will indeed feel - with some justification - that they've been thrown under the bus.

Now, Aikin and Talisse can say what they like about whomever they like. There's no use getting too precious about it. But once again, if they're surprised that what they wrote was read as throwing New Atheists under the bus ... then I'm surprised at their surprise.

They spend a lot of space in their February piece analysing whether or not we should show respect to religious believers. I don't find it all convincing, but that's beside the point because I actually agree with the general sentiment. But it would have been nice if they'd engaged, before they went to print, in some analysis of their own rhetoric - and not least the vital omission of the fact that they were replying to anonymous emails that no one else had seen.

And it's not as if it's only the first paragraph that causes these sorts of problems. Near the end they say this:
The proper response to this state of affairs is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for one’s own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly. To be sure, there are plenty of religious believers who fit these descriptions. But there are plenty of atheists who do too. It is here we part ways with the New Atheists, as what makes one a fool is not what one believes, but rather how one’s beliefs are related to one’s evidence.
Here they are still at it, claiming that they "part ways with the New Atheists", when surely what they mean is that they part ways with a group of anonymous email writers.

That said, I think that some of what they say in the just-quoted paragraph is rather naive. In many cases, it is not possible to distinguish so sharply between what someone believes and how her beliefs are related to her evidence. The situation is much more complicated than that, partly because somebody's fundamental prior beliefs can create a cognitive disability that hinders her in obtaining the truth, while also causing her to act in ways that are almost indistinguishable from ordinary intellectual dishonesty. But that's another story - the point is that New Atheists are not committed to some simplistic account of human psychology where false belief and foolishness are simply conflated.

Again, it's not surprising if publicly known New Atheist thinkers feel that they've been "othered" in this piece, rather than treated like valued allies and comrades, and have had their ground in the struggle of ideas unnecessarily undermined.

All that said, the writers of those anonymous emails also have something to answer for. Accusing Aikin and Talisse of accommodationism, merely for arguing that religious believers be given respect, was factually wrong, an unnecessarily hostile act, and must surely have created a misleading impression of what New Atheists actually think, to the extent that these people implied that they were basing their criticisms on New Atheist  concepts. I have no idea why people would go off half-cocked in that way in emails sent to strangers. It must surely have reinforced whatever misconceptions Aikin and Talisse started with.

The whole thing went off the rails very quickly - and there are lessons to be learned all round.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Aikin-and-Talisse accommodationism kerfuffle

I'd like to return, over the next couple of days, to this piece by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse that was published by 3quarksdaily back in February. This is not because I want to have a further shot at Aikin and Talisse, but because what went on here seems to me like it may be a teachable moment, or at least a moment we can all learn from. The new book from these authors,  Reasonable Atheism, looks interesting, and it's one that I look forward to reading (especially if the publishers think to send me a review copy).

In particular, I'm not at all out of sympathy with the project of producing the best possible formulations and incremental developments of the case against theism and religion (which are not quite the same thing). The task that Aikin and Talisse appear to have set themselves is an important one that must go on. I also agree with their point that it's better to treat opponents with respect ... although I may be quicker than they are to discern limits to respect.

From everything I've seen so far, Aikin and Talisse are not accommodationists in any sense in which I'd want to employ that term, and I think it's unfortunate that they end up accepting the term, even when giving it a stipulated definition that would also make me, Richard Dawkins, and almost anyone else in the "New Atheist" camp an accommodationist. I'll return to this ... but in any even they are not what I understand by the word "accommodationists" and in my humble opinion it only creates confusion if someone applies the term to them or they embrace it. At the end of the day, they appear to be valuable allies in the ongoing struggle to reduce the social footprint of religion.

So let's assume - at least for the sake of argument, if you don't agree with the above - that Aikin and Talisse are good guys. What went wrong last month and what can we learn from this situation? By "we", I include Aikin and Talisse themselves. What could we all have done differently? I'm looking for constructive comments here.

Saturday supervillainy - Meowvel vs. Catcom

Why wait until Sunday to reveal this wonderful pic over at I Can Has Cheezburger?

Unfortunately, I'm totally ignorant about Capcom's characters ... but I recognise almost all the Marvel characters. Even understanding only the left side of the picture, I think it's hilarious. I love some of the expressions.

Among others, we have kitteh versions of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Galactus, Storm, Dormammu, Dr. Doom, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Phoenix, Magneto, and the Hulk.

Edit: I now see that "Captain caturday" (this isn't you is it, Jerry Coyne?) has explicated the full pic as follows:

For those that are curious, here they are, from top to bottom, starting from the left
Column 1: Spidercat, X-elebenty3, Taskmeowster, Dormameow, Shumeow-Gorrah, Meownix, Deadpoolcat the merc with the meow
Column 2: Catverine, Stormz aka Ororo Meowroe, Doctor Tinydoom, Senticat, Supurr Skrull, Meowneto
Column 3: M.O.C.A.T., Ironcat, Captain Ameowrica, Moar god of thunder, Haik, She-haik
Column 4: Catlactus nommer of worlds, Ameowterasu, Purron Bonne, Mewtiful Joe
Column 5: Akumeow, Chris Rawrfield, Rawryu, Catte son of Purrda, Cat Viper, Purro meowverick hunter
Column 6: Spencer the bionic catmando, Cat-li, Rawrthur, Hsien-meow
Column 7: Mayor Mike Rawrgar, Felicia who has been hit my Anakris’ mummy curse, Albert Whisker, Purrish, Jill Catlentine, Meowriggan.

Ellen Datlow's year's best horror list

Ellen Datlow provides her full "honorable mentions" list for the year's best horror, 2010, in two instalments. Dear to my heart is one item in the first instalment: Jenny Blackford - "Adam" (published in the magazine Kaleidotrope).

Congratulations, Jenny! And of course, to all others concerned.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New book on the Culture Wars

This looks interesting. I can't imagine when I'll find time to read it, but we need some good theoretical (yet accessible) work on this subject. If any of y'all do read it, let me know.

H/T Kenan Malik.

Eona appearing soon

You can read the opening chapter of my great buddy Alison Goodman's new book, Eona. The book is appearing on the shelves in April, so to those who enjoy thoroughly-worked-out fantasy worlds and extraordinary narratives set therein ... well, hey, read the first book (known as Two Pearls of Wisdom in Australia, but by other titles overseas). Got that? Then think about picking up a copy of Eona. Or who cares - go and read the second one first.

Unusually these days, this is a duology, not a trilogy or a longer series. Judging by the quality of the first book, and Alison's other work, I expect this sequel to be a frakking monstrous critical and commercial success. Don't say I didn't tell ya.

I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

Supreme Court of India sets guidelines for passive euthanasia

The Time of India reports that the Supreme Court has refused to order passive euthanasia - withdrawal of life support - in the case before it, relating to Aruna Shanbaug, who was in a persistent vegetative state after a vicious attack over 37 years ago. However, the court has laid down guidelines (albeit somewhat onerous) for other patients. This seems like a step forward in the world's largest democracy.

Facebook ruins the internets - a defence of anonymity, etc.

Here's a post concerned that Facebook is rooning teh internets by destroying our authenticiteh. It seems a bit OOT to me, but it's very much the opposite viewpoint to Farhad Manjoo's. [Edit, I should note that the author says that anonymity is not his main/real point, though his real point does seem to be about the ability to create multiple online identities for different contexts.]

I expect that we'll continue to see some sites require people to use their Facebook identities, but others would be destroyed if they tried such a thing. It'll find a level.

Anyway, I had to laugh at this:

Face it, authenticity goes way down when people know their 700 friends, grandma, and 5 ex-girlfriends are tuning in each time they post something on the web.

In my case, it's a smaller number of ex-girlfriends on Facebook, and certainly not grandma ... but over 1800 friends.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On over- interpretation

I'm not sure why a bit of traffic has been coming in for this post from last year - but anyway, I had a look and corrected a typo. It raises issues about "correct" interpretation of, in this case, a cinematic work. The question of whether there are objectively binding interpretations of such things parallels such questions as whether, or when, evaluations are objectively binding. Probably something I'll return to.

Anonymity on the internet - Farhad Manjoo puts the case against

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo puts the case to do away with anonymous comments on the internet. His argument is essentially that there will be a massive increase in the quality of comments if people are forced to take responsibility for them. Read the entire post, because he develops this theme in quite impressive detail.

That doesn't mean I agree - at the end of the day, I do think there's a place for anonymous interaction. Many people would be deterred from putting unpopular opinions, or even discussing unpopular subjects, if their participation was available to be searched online by actual and potential employers, family members, potential lovers, educational institutions, and who knows who else. While it might work for Slate to insist on people revealing their real identities, it's not something that I'd want to insist on here, or something that I'd like to see insisted upon routinely by blogs, message boards, and the like.

Nonetheless, anonymity can be abused. We saw plenty of that in recent times, with the Tom Johnson/You're Not Helping saga, and it happens every day. Even without blatant abuses such as sockpuppeting, identity faking, and the like, we often see people behaving with a degree of hostility and anger that goes far beyond satire and snark. Personally, I'd rather, where convenient, comment under my own name. I think it good to take public responsibility for my words. That might not apply to all possible topics in all possible forums - even over at Wikipedia I don't normally use my real name if I edit an article (though in this case it's not hard to track me down).

I do, of course, appreciate that I'm far better placed than most people to get by without the need for anonymity. Within quite broad limits I can get away with saying very controversial things without suffering for it - this is almost expected of someone whose public presence is as a writer and a philosopher - and in recent years I've reached a point where, although I'm far from rich, I can live a comfortable life with some little luxuries without having to worry about falling into poverty. To be sure, I could do with funding for purposes such as travel, to get out my message, blah, blah ... but I don't need to worry about actual bosses and employers. Not many people are in that position unless they're fully retired.

I totally understand that commenters here, or many of them, really do need anonymity/pseudonymity as a protection. But it's also true that anonymous commenting can have a downside, even if it's not actually abused.

What do you think of Manjoo's piece, and this issue more generally?

H/T Tauriq Moosa.

The snark was a boojum

While we're hunting for snark, I should mention that I still get comments such as the following:

Keep that comment moderation on, you little idiot



Wednesday, March 09, 2011

For God's sake

More about what you can say. The British Humanist Association was not allowed  by companies owning advertising space in railway stations to run an advertisement that said: "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so." This relates to the UK census - BHA is campaigning for people who are not religious to put down "No religion", rather than their cultural religion.

This was a decision by private companies, not a government agency, but the reason given was that ads worded that way would "cause widespread and serious offence"; this kind of reasoning is underpinned by a legal, political, and social climate in which offending religious sensibilities in the slightest has become taboo. Yes, there may be limits to how in-your-face advertisements in these sorts of public places should be ... but for God's sake that wording was nowhere near the limit.

Once again, we need a culture that looks far more favourably on robust freedom of speech.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

And another "What can you say?" - Snyder v. Phelps

I haven't yet read the judgment of the US Supreme Court in this case, so I can only go on various reports, including a quite thorough Wikipedia article (which will, I don't doubt, grow in detail).

This is another case of religious fanatics demonstrating ... with legal repercussions. But on this occasion they ultimately prevailed by 8-1 (Alito J. dissenting) at the level of the highest court. It was found that their speech was constitutionally protected by America's First Amendment. The case involves, of course, the notorious Phelps family and its habit of picketing funerals for US servicemen in order to make their loony (oh noes, the snark-hunters will be after me again!) point that America is doomed because of its tolerance of homosexuality.

Loony or not, it's a point that the Phelps clan are lawfully entitled to make. Should they have been entitled to make it in the way they did? Without having all the detail - so I could change my mind, I suppose - my answer is "Yes." Yes, based on the facts as given in the Wikipedia article. In particular, they abided by lawful instructions from the police and did not conduct their protests (or whatever) in a way that disrupted the funeral concerned. Indeed, they were at sufficient distance that mourners were not necessarily even aware of them.

On these facts, I don't see how there was even a case to be argued. The matter should never have gone as far as it did. That's not to say I'm sympathetic to the Phelps clan - on the contrary, I have nothing but contempt for them, and I have nothing but sympathy for the mourners. But unless I'm missing something important, this is a clear-cut case where the litigation should have been thrown out from the beginning. Litigation is not the answer to every evil, and the US Supreme Court has done the right thing in reinforcing that message.

Still another "What can you say?"

According to this story in The Guardian, a Muslim extremist in the UK was convicted and fined for burning two large plastic poppies as part of a demonstration on 11 November - Remembrance Day - last year. Emdadur Choudhury, a member of an organisation called Muslims Against Crusades (MAC), burned the poppies as part of a demo that also involved chanting "British soldiers burn in hell" during the traditional one minute's silence on Remembrance Day. He was charged and convicted under section 5 of the Public Order Act, for burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause "harassment, harm or distress" to those who witnessed it.

It's not clear how far any memorial services were actually disrupted by the demonstrators. If they were, I can't condone it, and I think the law should be able to do something about it. But in any event, that's not what Choudhury was charged with.

I'm against this law if it's going to be interpreted in such a manner. Burning the poppies to make a political or religious point, presumably about colonial imperialism or some such thing, seems to me to be something that should be permitted. I'd say the same about burning a flag at an anti-war rally. These are not my preferred ways to make a point, but people should be politically entitled to express their point, and their emotions, in a vivid and highly provocative way. Emotional upset from something like this should not count as "distress" for legal purposes.

Likewise, I should be permitted by the law to organise an anti-Islam rally and burn a Koran or an effigy of Muhammad at it. It's not my preferred way for someone to express opposition to Islam, but that doesn't mean it should be illegal. But if I lead such a rally, I shouldn't get to lead my marchers into a mosque and disrupt whatever peaceful activities are going on there.

Before someone asks me where I draw the line, I don't think there's a clear line that must be drawn here or here. It's a matter of judgment, with different values to be weighed up. I think the state needs some reasonable discretion as to where it draws its own line to protect events from disruption (and to deter provocations to violence and the like). There may be various policy considerations and they may vary from case to case.

But I do think that burning the artificial poppies should have been legal in this instance, and on the sketchy facts in the report Mr Choudhury shouldn’t have been convicted of a crime.

We ought to be consistent about this. If we want robust protection of freedom of speech, that will also apply to ugly forms of speech and/or to the speech of our opponents.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A different sort of "What can you say?" - Islam and evolution

While we worry about how and whether to write about tricky issues of metaethics for the folk in the public square, some people have a much bigger problem.

E.g., if you're a Muslim in London you may find a lot of grief if you want to give a lecture to your co-religionists on the topic of "Islam and the theory of evolution" ... in which you plan to teach well-established science. You might find yourself getting outraged responses from members of your community, including what Chris Mooney would call "even, apparently, some death threats." You might, to put it another way, need to deal with a style of incivility seldom displayed by liberal atheists.

If so, perhaps you'd be wise to cancel the lecture and issue a public recantation of your "errors" - right? That's what Usama Hasan did, and I'm not going to blame him for doing what seemed needed to save his skin.

Look, I'm not an Islam basher, unless you count my sceptical attitude to religion in general ... and my denial of its authority.

I don't want to conceive of Islam as simply an enemy to be opposed by all possible means. It remains my hope that Islam can reform and adapt to secular modernity. It may be that not just some but most Muslims living in Western democracies have already embraced much in the way of liberal ideas (though it would be nice if they'd raise their voices and say so). But this kind of thing doesn't exactly give more hope. Where is the outrage from within the Muslim community that Dr. Hasan has been silenced and intimidated into a public recantation? Will we hear prominent Muslims condemning this? Will I be accused of "Islamophobia" for commenting on it?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Hoffmann on Pakistan

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, R. Joseph Hoffmann provides his reflections on the situation in Pakistan and particularly the recent assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the government leader for minority religious affairs.

I have nothing really to add to this, though I wish I did: I see no solution in sight for Pakistan, which seems to be spiralling ever more deeply into disaster.

Sunday supervillainy - visit the Hellfire Club

This image of Emma Frost and Sebastian Shaw (acted by January Jones and Kevin Bacon) is from the forthcoming X-Men: First Class, in which the Hellfire Club apparently have a big role to play as bad guys. The image first appeared, as far as I know, over at Empire Online.