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).

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just a little reminder about a matter dear to my heart

If you happen to be reading Freedom of Religion and the Secular State ... and you like it, well, you know about spreading the word. Right? Amazon reviews, blog posts, word of mouth ... it all helps.

I'm not a big fan of Chris Mooney, but ...

Don't you love posts that start, "I'm not an X, but ..."?

Still, I wasn't especially convinced or impressed by Unscientific America. On the other hand, this article is rather interesting. I wonder whether it signals a return to form. Anyway, it's an intriguing result that intelligence and education can have the kinds of perverse effects that Mooney describes here.

H/T Steven Paul Leiva.

Plane reading

I read Religion for Atheists on my flight over to the US - this is the new book by Alain de Botton. Verdict? Well, just quickly what I got out of it is that religions are comprehensive, totalitarian systems in which everything (art, architecture, music, the order of everyday life) is integrated and bent to a single purpose, with no room to manoeuvre except what the system itself provides. In other words, religions are even scarier than you thought.

Now, this is not how de Botton puts it of course. He doesn't seem to have any problem with such systems. He seems to think we're all pretty pathetic, don't do well with freedom, and could really do with something like this to give our lives direction. But reading between the lines he shows how dystopian a society dominated by a religion inevitably is for anyone who is inclined to question and not conform.

I think that last thing atheists should be doing, if de Botton's description of religion is more or less right (and it probably is) is to go aping the forms and techniques of religion. Religion is something to oppose, but with asymmetrical methods, not trying to beat it at its own totalitarian game. We should respond with questions, satire, and art and science that are not bound to a system and can go in their own multiple directions. We should be trying to create a world in which grand, comprehensive systems are pretty much unworkable.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Now in New York City

Just sayin'.

(A couple of days here to rest up and think great thoughts, then on to the conference in Orlando.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

I am flying to the US

... this afternoon. But I have a transfer to Sydney first, so I'll be getting picked up soon. Looking forward to the conference in Orlando, plus other speaking engagements, plus other things. Onward!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - Kelly Thompson on the sexist portrayal of women in superhero comics

This post is another one to come back to - i.e. I may say a bit more either by editing this post or by writing a follow-up post. Anyway ... a very interesting article by Thompson, who is not naive or extreme, and makes strong points. The long thread that follows has some well-argued opinions, both pro and con.

Just fairly quickly ... regular readers of this blog will know that I am not opposed to nudity, eroticism, or idealised depictions of beauty (provided the concept of beauty concerned is not an unhealthy one - i.e. literally unhealthy as with glorifying anorexia). I am very far from being a prude or a killjoy. But that's not the point. I still think there is something wrong with some of these portrayals of women. At the same time, I like seeing critics such as Thompson examining some of the complicating factors - such as the legitimacy of having some characters, both female and male (Emma Frost, Namor, etc.) for whom it is perfectly in character for them to appear exhibitionist, seductive, or narcissistic.

But what happens if almost all the female characters appear to be like this? E.g., Tigra is basically a humanoid cat - it makes narrative sense that she would go naked, and she is actually given a skimpy bikini just to avoid censorship. But when there is some excuse for almost every female character ... well, any one case may be explicable and excusable, but there's a cumulative effect simply from creating so many characters like this.

Don't get me wrong - I actually like Tigra as a character, and I think she should go virtually nude now that she has been created as she has been. If she went into battle completely nude, at least there would be an in-story reason in her case. Once again, I don't necessarily object to specific examples of costumes considered in isolation.

I can understand that Rogue, who is a young woman from the American South where the weather gets hot and steamy, often wanders around during her off-duty time in very light, but not especially sexualised, clothing. That's in character for her, and, sure, lots of young women in Australia do likewise. But why does she go into potential battle situations with her otherwise-not-revealing superhero costume zipped down to below her breasts - seemingly just to display them to the reader - as in the pic?

Compare the costumes worn into the same situations by other prominent Marvel characters who happen to be male, such as Spider-Man, Magneto, and Iron Man, all in the same pic (from Avengers: The Children's Crusade, where a lot of the main Marvel heroes and villains end up in conflict with each other). And what about Ms Marvel's costume (in this same pic, just to the left of Rogue)? Once more, don't get me wrong, it's an iconic and nicely designed costume, and I don't disapprove of it in itself and in isolation, but what if most of the female characters, both heroes and villains, dress in these skin-baring costumes? As they do.

You'd never see Magneto or Iron Man or Dr. Doom dressed like that for battle. (OTOH, you often do see Namor going into a fight wearing just a speedo ... which is in character for him.)

Anyway, the use of porn poses is more annoying, and perhaps worrying, than the actual costumes. Again, I'm not against nudity or seductive poses where this is in character and relevant to the story. For example, Storm can be portrayed as unselfconsciously nude when not on duty, and I won't complain - it's in character for her to prefer to go nude, and plenty of people in real life are actually like this.

But the brokeback poses are typically not the character wishing to look seductive, or being unselfconscious about her body. These are highly sexualised poses created to exhibit the character in a certain way for no in-story reason at all, and indeed at points in the narrative where it makes no sense for the character to be trying to attract sexual attention. There's a tendency for this to go beyond idealised depiction of beauty into something more demeaning (and therefore not necessarily pro-sex or pro-body).

The critique has to take into account some of the specific pros and cons, and the best critics writing on the issue are alert to them. I like the piece by Thompson, but I also enjoyed the debate.

As I said, maybe some more later ... although this is longer than I intended. In any event, feel free to discuss now if you like. Do have a look at Thompson's thread to see the points that are being made there, both siding with her and defending some the choices that she criticises.

Annalee Newitz on reproductive rights and science fiction


I'll be back to say a bit more about this.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

These people really don't get it

H/T Scott Hedges

This video shows how opponents of ethics classes in NSW public schools really don't get it. They acknowledge what a privilege it is that they are able to teach their religious beliefs in NSW public schools (with the opportunities that involves to proselytise) ... and yet they still think they have a basis for opposing anything that might be competition. Don't they realise how stupid and hypocritical they look in this video?

Of course the elephant in the room is this: why are the churches given opportunities to proselytise in state schools in the first place? How does that fit with the idea of a secular state?>

I'm wondering...

... how many of you will be at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando. Raise your hand if you will be.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

National Civic Council supports MTR

The NCC does so here, in a piece published earlier in February. And don't give me a line of bullshit that the piece is solely the view of its author and does not reflect the viewpoint of the NCC: the NCC is unlikely to publish anything that is not squarely consistent with its political and social agenda, and even if I'm wrong on that the article's by-line is that of the NCC's Vice-President.

For those who don't know, the National Civic Council is an extreme right-wing pressure group cum think tank, with a long and disgraceful history here in Australia. It has notably theocratic views of politics, and in case you're wondering how I form that opinion ... well, there is ample evidence that I can point you to from its political past dating all the way back to its roots in the 1940s. You can research it for yourself. This is an organisation that seriously merits your political opposition.

If you want to know more, just look at the sort of material that is available online in recent issues of its News Weekly journal. In particular, the NCC has a record of opposing abortion rights, opposing same-sex marriage, adopting distinctively religious stances on bioethical matters in general (and numerous other matters), and supporting vicious attitudes toward homosexuals. It sometimes publishes homophobic material written in highly provocative terms. See, for example, this recent piece, which includes such gems as the following:
The ordinary person will be in no doubt about what homosexual behaviour entails, its terrible risks and its outcomes of physical, emotional and mental disease. Parents will be on their knees praying that their sons and daughters escape the infection, futility and sterility of homosexual life.

It should horrify people, after learning what homosexual behaviour entails, that gay activists are agitating to have their propaganda for gay equality included in primary school lesson material.
This epitomises the sort of hateful and bigoted views associated with the National Civic Council.

Hopefully, Melinda Tankard Reist will distance herself from this mob - she certainly won't be taken seriously as a feminist thinker by many people when she has such an extreme and notorious organisation giving her its support. Not unless she clearly repudiates it.

Your occasional reminder to follow me on Twitter

You can do so easily - I tweet as @Metamagician. Spread the word!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Kenan Malik on free speech and double standards

Go here for a fuller version - which tells us that there will be a fuller one still, yet to come (i.e., what I've linked to is itself an extract). Malik concludes:
At the heart of much of the discussion of double standards is the suggestion that because there is much hypocrisy about free speech, so censorship is acceptable. Since campaigners for free speech are often happy to restrict the liberties of others, particularly Muslims, so Muslims, the critics suggest, should be allowed to censor what they find offensive. It is an argument that makes no sense. Double standards need to be confronted, not by extending restrictions, but by extending speech, by ensuring not that everyone is equally deprived of liberties, but that all are equally sheltered by them. To see how we should deal with double standards today, we only have to ask ourselves how we should have responded in the age of Milton and Locke. Should we have suggested that the best way to deal with their anti-Catholic bigotry was to extend to everyone the restrictions that Milton and Locke wished imposed on Catholics? Or should we have argued that restrictions on Catholics were wrong and that all deserved liberty? With four centuries worth of hindsight the answer to most people is crystal clear. It should be equally so today, in response to free speech and the hypocrisy of anti-Muslim prejudices.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

#MTRsues and freedom of speech

My considered opinion on what is really at stake with #MTRsues ... and at the same time, my latest contribution to the debates over freedom of speech.

All at the ABC religion and ethics portal.

Re ... submissions for Best Australian Writing

It's good to see an open process with this.

Kitcher on the ethical project

A brilliant article by Philip Kitcher over here on the ABC portal (they do publish some good stuff that goes against the grain of the editor's own beliefs). What is disheartening is that no one seems to have understood it. As I write, there are only four comments, none of which really seem to have followed the argument - and the first most recent one on the page is especially stupid.

Edit: A few more comments there since I posted this, but still not a lot of comprehension being shown so far.

Ron Lindsay on contraception and freedom of religion

A good post on the CFI site. Ron also has a link to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' campaign, which, of course, blathers on about how the churches' constitutional rights are being violated.

That's a large and very dubious claim - based on Supreme Court precedent, there is no constitutional violation if a religious employer is simply required to comply with the same law that applies to everyone else. If it's a neutral law of general application (with some legitimate secular purpose), then everyone has to follow it, and at least as far as the US constitution goes that's okay. (There are federal and state laws in America that go further than the constitution itself in what they require in the way of accommodations of religion, but that's another matter.)

Nebula Award nominees announced

2011 Nebula Awards Nominees Announced (H/T SFWA)

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is proud to announce the nominees for the 2011 Nebula Awards (presented 2012), the nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, and the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book.


Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

Embassytown, China MiƩville (Macmillan UK; Del Rey; Subterranean Press)

Firebird, Jack McDevitt (Ace Books)

God's War, Kameron Hurley (Night Shade Books)

Mechanique: A Taleof the Circus Tresaulti, Genevieve Valentine (Prime Books)

The Kingdom of Gods, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)


"Kiss Me Twice," Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2011)

"Silently and Very Fast," Catherynne M. Valente (WFSA Press; Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2011)

"The Ice Owl," Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2011)

"The Man Who Bridged the Mist," Kij Johnson (Asimov's Science Fiction, October/November 2011)

"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary," Ken Liu (Panverse Three, Panverse Publishing)

"With Unclean Hands," Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2011)


"Fields of Gold," Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse 4, Night Shade Books)

"Ray of Light," Brad R. Torgersen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, December 2011)

"Sauerkraut Station," Ferrett Steinmetz (Giganotosaurus, November 2011)

"Six Months, Three Days," Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com, June 2011)

"The Migratory Pattern of Dancers," Katherine Sparrow (Giganotosaurus, July 2011)

"The Old Equations," Jake Kerr (Lightspeed Magazine, July 2011)

"What We Found," Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2011)

Short Story

"Her Husband's Hands," Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine, October 2011)

"Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son," Tom Crosshill (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011)

"Movement," Nancy Fulda (Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2011)

"Shipbirth," Aliette de Bodard (Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2011)

"The Axiom of Choice," David W. Goldman (New Haven Review, Winter 2011)

"The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees," E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2011)

"The Paper Menagerie," Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (writer/director) (Optimum Releasing; Screen Gems)

Captain America: The First Avenger, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (writers), Joe Johnston (director) (Paramount)

Doctor Who: “The Doctor's Wife,” Neil Gaiman (writer), Richard Clark (director) (BBC Wales)

Hugo, John Logan (writer), Martin Scorsese (director) (Paramount)

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen (writer/director) (Sony)

Source Code, Ben Ripley (writer), Duncan Jones (director) (Summit)

The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi (writer/director) (Universal)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor (Viking Juvenile)

Chime, Franny Billingsley (Dial Books; Bloomsbury)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Hodder & Stoughton)

Everybody Sees the Ants, A.S. King (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

The Boy at the End of the World, Greg van Eekhout (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman (Big Mouth House)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books)

Ultraviolet, R.J. Anderson (Orchard Books; Carolrhoda Books)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cavanaugh on Blackford on Cavanaugh on Blackford

If you haven't already noticed it, this piece by William Cavanaugh completes the series that began here. I'm not answering it - partly because enough is enough (and there are other topics to talk about on the ABC portal site), but also because I just don't think it's very impressive. Cavanaugh seems a bit frustrated at his inability to get his point across, if anything, and he quite understandably encourages readers of the ABC site to read his book on the subject.

There's some interesting discussion in the thread, if you want to check it out.

I've replied implicitly, I suppose, in my piece at Talking Philosophy yesterday - there I discuss religion-based exemptions from the general law, addressing the same example that Cavanaugh raises near the end of his piece: the requirement that will fall on certain Catholic employers in the US to provide insurance policies that, in turn, provide for birth control. However, I didn't intend this piece as a reply to Cavanaugh in particular: it's a topical issue that provides a good example of how religious freedom and the secular state should operate (at least in my view that I develop in my own new book ... which I quite understandably, I think, encourage people to read).

Oh, and there's some more good stuff coming up from me on the ABC portal.

Moving Secularism Forward

Here's your occasional - and increasingly frequent as the time approaches - reminder about this great conference.





Sounds good to me.

Polly Toynbee on secularism

Unlike some, she not only gets, but also eloquently defends, the concept.

Hutton and Dawkins on secularism - Hutton gets himself confused

This is important, so I'm going to harp on it a bit. At one point in the discussion, Hutton says the following:
I also think your distinction between atheism and secularism is sleight of hand. Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others.

Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like "expansionary fiscal contraction" – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You've made your reputation by being one of the country's most articulate atheists. Don't muddy the waters!
I actually find this quite extraordinary. Hutton seems like an intelligent and well-educated man, but here he is utterly confused - and it's not Dawkins' fault but his own.

No, there is nothing at all that is "sleight of hand" about distinguishing between atheism and secularism. Atheism is an informed absence of belief in any gods (or, if you are thinking of a stronger kind of atheism, a denial that any gods exist). Secularism is the view that the state, or the government, should not be enacting laws and making decisions on religious grounds.

You can be an atheist without being a secularist (you might not personally believe in God, but you might think that it is good for society if the state imposes traditional religious beliefs). There may not be many people like that, but there are some.

You can also be a secularist without being an atheist, and indeed while believing in some religion or other. There are many such people; in fact they are probably the majority of secularists in many countries.

It's going to depend on your theological standpoint, but many theologies allow the view that it is not the business of their religion to try to get the state to impose true religious views on non-believers. If that is your position, you can certainly accept the secularist coin view that it is not the business of the state to be identifying the true (or most beneficial) religion and then imposing its standards on everyone,including non-believers.

Hutton says: "The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others."

Well, not really. I don't want someone else's values and practices imposed on me whether these values and practices are "delusional" or not. I don't want them imposed on me because they are not my values and practices. All religious believers, as well as atheists, have a stake in living under a political system that allows each person a great deal of latitude to live in accordance with her own beliefs and values, and engage in her own practices. It is better all round if the state does not get too far into this, and most of us could agree that the state does not do a good job of it. For a start, it should not be identifying and imposing the "correct" religion.

I said "a great deal of latitude" because the state does, in fact, require some things, such as that we not murder each other, that we look after our children, and that we pay our taxes. But modern secular states do not impose comprehensive systems of thought on their citizens, and they do not impose specifically religious standards of morality (or at least they have tended to move away from imposing such standards). If these states have a legitimate interest in imposing a morality at all, it is a rather minimal one related to avoidance of worldly harms and requiring some basic mutual cooperation. That leaves all sorts of other decisions to the individuals concerned. Hence such catchphrases as, "Don't like abortion. Don't have one!"

Indeed, early secularists such as John Locke tended to be Protestant Christians rather than atheists. Secularists these days can belong to almost any religion, though it's true that Muslims and Catholics (at least the higher clergy, not necessarily ordinary Catholics) can have a problem with secularism. Those religions have, historically, been particularly unwilling to draw even a conceptual line between religious and political authority.

Getting back to the Hutton/Dawkins debate, Dawkins is not muddying the waters at all. What he has to say is clear and accurate, while Hutton seems to have a bizarre, incorrect, and ahistorical idea of what secularism is all about. If someone like him can be this confused, we clearly have a lot of work to do.

Finally, I do realise that there are some grey areas, puzzles, etc., here for philosophers to discuss. But that's not what Hutton is talking about. He misunderstands the nature of secularism at a very basic level.

Even more about secularism - Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins debate

Well, debate in a very civil and intelligent back-and-forth. I think Dawkins is spot-on on this occasion. Hutton is quite good, too, in his way, though rather confused as to what secularism is all about. I can't entirely blame him, as the word secularism and its cognates are used in various ways. Still, it shouldn't be that difficult to understand what is being spoken about here - essentially the idea that the government should not make its decisions on a religious basis. It should not do things for specifically religious reasons and should not give such reasons when it justifies its policies and actions.

That leaves everyone free to practise her religion and follow whatever canons of conduct it demands, above and beyond those in the secular law, as she pleases. It also allows others not to follow any religious practices or any specifically religious canons of conduct if they don't so wish. You need only obey the laws, which will be made for non-religious reasons. Secularism is closely connected with religious freedom (though not with religious privilege, such as the privilege to impose your views through political force, or the privilege of being exempt from certain laws).

Hutton is also confused about tolerance. Merely trying to persuade people to adopt a religious viewpoint, or to abandon one and become (perhaps) an atheist, is not an act of intolerance. Dawkins puts this well:
That doesn't mean religious people shouldn't advocate their religion. So long as they are not granted privileged power to do so (which at present they are) of course they should. And the rest of us should be free to argue against them. But of all arguments out there, arguments against religion are almost uniquely branded "intolerant". When you put a cogent and trenchant argument against the government's economic policy, nobody would call you "intolerant" of the Tories. But when an atheist does the same against a religion, that's intolerance. Why the double standard? Do you really want to privilege religious ideas by granting them unique immunity against reasoned argument?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On religious freedom and religious privilege

I have something to say about this over here - at Talking Philosophy - relating it to the current controversy about mandatory provision of contraception as an item in US employer-provided health insurance schemes.

It's a nice up-to-date example of the sort of problem (if we're going to see it as one) discussed in Chapter Six of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

Steve Zara reviews Attack of the Theocrats by Sean Faircloth

This is a book that I really want to read - the sort of book that publishers should be sending me to review! Hint! Hint!

Oh well, I'll end up buying a copy. Meanwhile, here's a concise but interesting review by Steve Zara.

UK Christians support secularism

There was a lot of discussion on the internet last week about secularism, some of it related to the release in the UK of data from a survey undertaken by Ispos MORI on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK). Paula Kirby writes at richarddawkins.net:
It shows that most UK Christians have very little in common with the Christian lobbyists claiming to speak on their behalf. The constant calls from Christian lobby groups to deny full rights to gays, to grant Christians exemption from certain laws, to outlaw abortion, to maintain privileged access to political influence and generally to put Christianity at the heart of UK public life simply do not reflect the views and wishes of the majority of UK Christians.

On the contrary, our findings show that the majority of UK Christians share the secular, liberal, humane values that are the hallmark of a modern, decent society.

This won't come as a surprise to most Christians reading these results, I suspect, nor to those of us who count liberal Christians among our friends, families and colleagues.

But it may come as a shock to certain politicians who seem to have bought into the idea that there are votes to be gained in 'doing God'. These results show quite categorically that there are not.
As you work through the questions and see the positions taken by most self-identified Christians in the UK, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that most are favourable, at least to some extent, to secularism - to a separation between religious beliefs and political decisions. It is not entirely clear how far they would take this, but it is interesting that most rejected moral conservative views about sexuality, and in particular that most favoured equal legal rights for homosexuals.
Six in ten respondents (61%) agree that homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexuals, and those who disapprove of sexual relations between two adults of the same sex (29%) are greatly outnumbered by those who do not (46%).

Less than a quarter (23%) believe that sex between a man and a woman is only acceptable within marriage.
At least in the UK, most self-professed Christians would be willing to along with the general view that religion and state power should be separated, and they do not just mean that the state cannot interfere with such things as church doctrines and rituals. It seems that most would, for example, be unwilling to support the political imposition of traditional Christian moral beliefs.

It's noteworthy that many of these Christians actually know little about their religion - e.g. few could pick out the Gospel of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament, even from a list of possibilities. That's about as ignorant as it comes. Perhaps those Christians who are more immersed in their religion and its traditions and teachings would be less secular in their social and political attitudes.

Still, it seems that in the UK, at least, the general approach that I advocate in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State would be viewed sympathetically by the majority of (self-professed) Christians.

As I've been saying, the book is not anti-religious, though I've had anti-religious things to say elsewhere - I think its arguments could appeal to many people who consider themselves religious, and they are not based on any atheistic or naturalistic premises. The analysis of the function of the state, which lies at the core of the book, is one that could be agreed to from many theological perspectives (though, of course, not all), and, as I've been pointing out around the traps, similar analyses were produced in early modern times by people who were not atheists (whether they would have been prepared to take their analyses to their logical conclusions is another matter, though, as I point out in the book).

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State presents a fairly rigorous (though accessible) development of the arguments - something that I think we need to inform debates about sexularism. However, it does not present a view that is necessarily anathema to religious people. At least in the UK, most Christians take similar views. That's somewhat comforting. I wonder whether comparable results would be obtained in other Western countries.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An American case of bullying via defamation threats

H/T Leslie Cannold. This article in Salon involves an American billionaire who is accused of intimidating opponents with legal threats. It is very interesting to all those of us worrying about the use of defamation law to chill free debate here in Australia.

In Australia, unfortunately, the balance of power between public figures and small defendants is rather different, and even more favourable to the former. As we lack such strong freedom of speech protections, it is even easier here to adopt intimidatory legal tactics.

Jenny on cats (and a new story in the NSW School Magazine)


Friday, February 17, 2012


Russell Blackford, an Australian writer, philosopher, and critic, will speak his mind at “Moving Secularism Forward,” the Council for Secular Humanism/Center for Inquiry conference to be held in Orlando, Florida, March 1–4, 2012. For a limited time, FREE INQUIRY subscribers can still save a stunning $100 on conference registration, so beat the rush and register today!

The second luncheon speech at “Moving Secularism Forward,” featuring activist and newly named Free Inquiry columnist Russell Blackford, will take place on Saturday, March 3. Blackford is editor in chief of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and coeditor (with Udo Schuklenk) of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). An emerging figure in U.S. circles, he is well known in Australia as a “go-to” spokesperson sought out by the media when issues concerning secularism are in the news. He is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and will soon join Free Inquiry’s roster of celebrity columnists. He authors the noted blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

In the field of nonfiction his interests include bioethics, cyberculture, transhumanism, and a deep body of literary criticism of the science fiction genre. He is also well known as an author of science fiction and horror, including a trilogy of novels set in the universe of the Terminator films and collectively titled Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles.

Blackford will be the featured speaker at the Saturday luncheon. This is a ticketed event that requires separate registration for the luncheon in addition to registration for the conference itself.

“Moving Secularism Forward” will be held at the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport, a world-class hotel located inside the Orlando airport terminal. Arriving airline passengers can just pick up their luggage and ride an escalator to the lobby. (But fear not: locals driving to the hotel don’t need to clear security to enter the Hyatt!)

For a very limited time, Free Inquiry subscribers can register for $275, $100 off the normal registration of $375. This very special discount can’t be maintained much longer, so register today before the rate goes up!

To register for the conference and the Russell Blackford luncheon on Saturday, March 3, click here, phone 1-855-417-9930 during business hours Eastern time, or see the multi-page advertisement in recent issues of Free Inquiry.

^^^^^^The above was in my email this morning. Hopefully, a lot of y'all also received it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New issue of New Humanist devoted to defending freedom of speech

Sounds good!

A guest blog post at Readings

Here ... though there is a small error in the bit provided by Readings at the top. On the gripping hand, I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this guest post on their site. Thanks, you lovely people at Readings.

A new Jesus and Mo cartoon

Over here in case you haven't seen it yet.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Those apoplectic excesses

I've bought myself a copy of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's book, Morality Without God? Sinnott-Armstrong is a respected philosopher, not least by me, and I look forward to reading what he has to say. But I was immediately struck by a quote on the back cover from a review in Publishers Weekly. This says, among other things, "... Sinnott-Armstrong provides a welcome relief from the apoplectic excesses of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens..."

Oh dear. If the Publishers Weekly reviewer said that, then, okay, the Publishers Weekly reviewer said that. But what an obtuse thing to say. Since when can Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens seriously be accused of "apoplectic excesses"? Dawkins is notable for being polite, rather gentle, though sometimes wickedly funny. Hitchens often spoke in a forthright way, but it was always measured - and again, his speeches and writings were laced with humour. Neither is notable for speaking or writing in a way that resembles somebody having an apoplexy.

I often think that these reviewers have no sense of tone at all, at least when it comes to debate about religion. They can't comprehend the tone of someone who unambiguously opposes religion, but communicates in an intelligent way about it. Any unambiguous statement of opposition to religion gets categorised as angry, strident, "apoplectic", etc.

But more importantly ... come on. Isn't it getting a bit unoriginal to praise every academic book in support of an atheistic viewpoint by comparing it to the nastiness of Dawkins or Hitchens? This is such a cliche by now. It's a bit like saying of every new fantasy book that it's comparable to (or better than) The Lord of the Rings.

Come on, reviewers, you can do better this. So can you, publishers - surely you can find more interesting quotes to use on back covers.

50 Great Myths About Atheism - and other stuff

As I've mentioned now and then, Udo Schuklenk and I are currently writing a book to be called 50 Great Myths About Atheism. Right now, we're working on it pretty intensely (in fact, very intensely for me just at the moment, as I've been able to put aside some time to concentrate on it to the exclusion of almost everything else). If things are a bit quiet here for the next couple of weeks, that's why.

Actually, they'll be a bit quiet for a while after that as well, because I'll be off to the US for three weeks at the end of February. This is mainly to speak at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando, but I also have several other speaking engagements lined up. So, it's busy, busy, busy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Currently reading - The Godless Delusion by Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hensley

I've been reading a lot of Christian apologetics lately, some of which is pretty bad. On the other hand, some of the material is at least literate and thoughtful, even if I can't find much intellectual merit - and some of it is intellectually provocative in its way. But this one is just hilariously, absurdly, embarrassingly bad. Sample: "As we will see, in spite of all the incessant bobbing and weaving in which atheist arguments against God engage, they will be knocked for a loop as the case for belief in God lands the uppercuts, right hooks, and other counter-punches that are the rational reasons for theism."

Oh dear!

More on FIRIS and scripture classes in Victorian public schools

An interview with Scott Hedges on JOY-FM. The curriculum that is widely used in public schools in Victoria is undoubtedly not secular, and you have to wonder why this happens. Once again, there's a history to it (of course), but it is hardly justifiable in modern circumstances. It could not be supported if we could start from scratch.

Sunday Supervillainy - a cool interview with Kieron Gillen

Marvel Comics' big "event" for 2012 is an Avengers vs X-Men dust-up that begins very soon. In that context, here's a good interview with Kieron Gillen, who now writes the flagship Uncanny X-Men title. Gillen reveals that he has been shaping events in this title to lead up to the "vs" event and make it matter. He has a fair bit to say about how the current and forthcoming issues of Uncanny X-Men are meant to lead in. Sample:
Since I knew AvX lay ahead, I knew that with the double-shipping I'd get 10 issues before the crossover hit. The crossover, as I said earlier, is such an enormous thing that it's going to fundamentally change the sort of stories it's possible to tell. So I knew that I had this space to basically let the Extinction Team exist. And I basically wanted to tell a year's worth of stories in it. So rather than the 4-issue arcs I was writing before the relaunch, I aimed at three-issue arcs. The second arc expanded to four issues — I'd written it for three, but due to the density of subplots, it sat better in four. And the final arc, I compressed down to two with every technique I could think of, which makes it incredibly punchy. Issue #9 may be my favorite “traditional” X-men issue of the run, actually. #4 is my favorite generally, but that was so leftfield, I'm not sure I can count it. The #9-#10 arc is about a jailbreak from the Peak, and in #9 alone five different alien invasions are defeated. Hypercomics are go!
So, amongst it all we can expect to see the X-Men and Avengers siding with each other in beating back a series of alien invasions, before they end up at each others' throats over how to respond to a new manifestation of the much-feared Phoenix Force. Some things to look forward to!

I hope you all did your bit for freedom of speech/expression yesterday

Or still today, if it's still the 11th where you live. In my case, I wrote an article consolidating some of my thoughts on the #MTRsues case, but with particular reference to the importance of freedom of speech and the problems with defamation law in particular. Assuming it gets published on line, I'll link to it when it happens.

Here's a comment on the porn debate that we can all get behind

Well, so I thought. First, the piece in question is over here, by Michelle Griffin.

Many of us worry about internet pornography, or some kinds of it, or some kinds of it when seen by the wrong people, or whatever. It's a complex issue and I don't think there's a straightforward answer, even though I am opposed temperamentally to censorship ... and at the level of principle I want to see stronger arguments made out than anyone has produced so far before I support any tightening up on censorship of pornography. I have a lot of concerns about where that could lead us, and I still have fresh memories of the Bill Henson debate/debacle not all that long ago. Still, I am not dogmatically opposed to taking some action on some kinds of pornography if the right data is provided.

But set all that aside. Who, on any side of this, could possibly object to the idea that sufficiently bright teenagers should be reading books by the likes of Nicholson Baker ... as Griffin argues? I love Nicholson Baker's work, though I haven't yet read House of Holes. I can totally recommend Vox, though, for any teenager. Well-written novels, even, up to some reasonable point or other, supposedly "pornographic" ones, that depict the endless variety of human sexual desire and experience can only be good for teenagers.

Predictably, of course, there are people criticising Griffin about this. I roll my eyes at them. I bite my thumb in their general direction.

Polish edition of 50 Voices of Disbelief reviewed

Here. Unfortunately, I can't read Polish, but I'm told that it's a positive review and in Poland's largest non-tabloid newspaper. Any further information about this gratefully received.

H/T Mike Poznan

Friday, February 10, 2012

20 common grammatical problems

This is great! As it happens, I don't get them wrong, but almost everyone else does. I do disagree with one of them: I don't have any objection to the usage of "since" as synonymous with "because", since I think this is now accepted (and used!) even by people who are otherwise very pedantic about such things. ;)

The explanations are very good. I especially like the explanation of the "which"/"that" distinction, which I actually do understand but always find very difficult to explain to others.

Finally, of course, euphony and simplicity trump pedantry. None of the rules set out should be followed when doing so forces clumsy, ugly-sounding, or unclear prose. Then again, they are often violated for no good reason that I can see. I hope all potential writers for the Journal of Evolution and Technology click on the link.

H/T Kenan Malik.

Fairness in Religion in Schools

H/T Scott Hedges for drawing my attention to this organisation, which supports secularism in Australia (more specifically, Victoria) at the level of state schools. We might well wonder why religious organisations are given the chance to teach devotional classes to the children of their respective congregations - or, probably more often, people who are merely deemed to be from their respective congregations.

While this practice is well entrenched by now, and, to be honest, I am sceptical as to how much effect it really has on the religiosity of our society - scripture classes were not taken very seriously by most students when I was at school, and I doubt that that's changed - there's an important question of principle here. Why, exactly, are schools run by the state doing anything other than teaching secular knowledge? Why shouldn't any doctrinal classes be provided by churches, mosques, religious parents, etc., outside of school hours?

Obviously, there's a history to it (I'm currently reading an interesting article by Catherine Byrne that goes into this aspect of public education in Australia in considerable detail), but it's hardly something that would be easy to justify if we were starting over again.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

I respond to Cavanaugh - "Don't Mention the War"

I have responded to Cavanaugh: here - on the ABC religion and ethics portal. The more I read Cavanaugh's piece, which I briefly discussed here the other day, the less its logic made sense.

You can, I suppose, define "religion" in such a way that "religion" didn't exist before 1700. Up to a point, you can define your terms how you like. But whatever it was that existed before 1700 (something that involved churches, creeds, etc.) certainly was implicated in a lot of violence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and before ... and that did, indeed, trouble thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke.

In any event, Cavanaugh was foisting on me a simplistic narrative that couldn't be found anywhere in my original piece that he was responding to.

Legal Eagle on Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

See here for a discussion by Legal Eagle (Katy Barnett) of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (she liked it), last week's launch for the book, and the law's treatment of religious privilege.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The point of the #MTRsues controversy

The point, expressed succinctly, is that defamation law should not be used to chill debate about the public images and motivations of political activists and other such public figures. If current defamation law in Australia allows that to happen, it needs to be amended, especially to provide people such as bloggers - who don't have the resources of media corporations - with sufficient protections. If Melinda Tankard Reist successfully sues Jennifer Wilson, none of us should feel safe.

This is worth a vigorous public campaign, and every blogger should be involved.

More legal threats by #MTRsues (aimed at Jennifer Wilson)

This time with an even clearer threat to take defamation proceedings - and a totally over-the-top defence of doing so by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Really, I don't even care that much what #MTRsues' theological views might be. Why doesn't she just clarify them once and for all, and be done with it? I'm sure that any number of media outlets with far wider reach than Wilson's obscure blog would publish the clarification, and probably even pay a fee for it.

In any event, these legal threats are so heavy-handed as to be ridiculous. #MTRsues is a public figure, and it comes with the territory that she will find herself subjected to some robust criticism by various opponents, some of which might even be inaccurate. Whatever the truth about her theological views, and about how reticent or otherwise she has been about revealing them, she should not be using defamation law to chill public debate about such things as the motivations of high-profile political activists like herself.

Yes, we do need some basic defamation law in this country to ensure that individuals don't suffer social death from destructive lies - but this is not such a case. This is not, for example, a case where a public figure with ready access to the media has called someone else with less media access a plagiarist, say, or a pedophile, or a rape advocate. The balance of power between #MTRsues and Jennifer Wilson is totally in the other direction.

Even if #MTRsues technically has a case for defamation, her actions are destructive of freedom of speech, and she should abandon them. If she goes ahead, this could be a test case on the extent to which defamation law can be used to chill public debate in Australia - and if that happens, I hope that a public appeal will cover Wilson's legal costs.

And if #MTRsues is successful in court, by any chance, it will show that we seriously need to narrow the law of defamation to put a stop to these sorts of speech-chilling claims. It's time for a strong campaign to defend freedom of speech in Australia. We need a public figure test with real teeth, as in the United States, coupled with strengthening of the provisions for indemnity costs so as to deter actions relating to minor issues by public figures who have access to the media.

Defamation law should be a last resort for people with no other redress for highly damaging lies. It should not be an easy port of call for public figures who could easily clarify misconceptions that are unlikely to do them any real damage in any event.

Blackford on Leiva

Neworld Review republishes my post on Steven Paul Leiva's Traveling in Space. Here if you missed it the first time.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A day off...

... which included a pleasant afternoon with friends up in the hills outside of Melbourne. Thanks to Paul for taking the photos (which means he doesn't appear in them) and to Corinne and Peter for their splendid hospitality.

Hmmm, let's see who we have in the photos. Me, Alison (foreground), Meredith, Clare, Peter, Vita, Jenny, Corinne, and Peter - lovely people all. Well, all those others.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Cavanaugh on Blackford

Just for the record, here's a critic of mine - William Cavanaugh writing in response to an earlier piece by me that is, in turn, based on material in chapter 3 Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

I'll be responding to Cavanaugh on the ABC site. Meanwhile, we can certainly quibble about how much blame we should allocate to religion for, say, the Thirty Years' War (for reasons that I sketch briefly in the book). But I should just say for now that the historical thesis Cavanaugh attributes to me is not one I have ever argued for. Perhaps something I have said somewhere as shorthand could be interpreted that way (I seem to recall some confusion during the IQ2 debate last year), but nothing like it appears in the first para of the piece that Cavanaugh objects to - and it's only in the first para that I touch on these issues about wars of religion.

What I say in the impugned essay and the book is not that the strife of the 17th century was resolved at the time by the introduction of secularist arrangements (a separation of church and state). It wasn't. Rather, I say that it provoked certain thoughts in the minds of political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, and that those thoughts are still of value to us today. I stand by that.

Anyway, I'll have a longer response elsewhere and will link to it when it's published.

Alain de Botton on that "temple" proposal

I'm still a bit unclear as to exactly what Alain de Botton has in mind - perhaps it's rather vague - but here he does a bit to set the record straight.

It does seem to be rather different from what was widely reported, and which I commented on (with a note of caution about what he was really proposing) here.

Friday, February 03, 2012

A couple of extra pics from last nite

Courtesy of Embiggen Books.
Hey, and a bonus one!

Last night's launch at Embiggen Books

Last night, I enjoyed speaking, meeting people, and catching up with some friends, at Embiggen Books (here in Melbourne, where I'm spending a few days).

The occasion was a launch for Freedom of Religion and the Secular State - my new book from Wiley-Blackwell. We had a full house at Embiggen Books, and there was plenty of enthusiasm. I received some insightful and probing questions, which is all good, and there seemed to be a hunger for material supporting the concept of secular government ... and considering how it might play out in the twenty-first century, as we confront numerous issues where religion brushes up against state power. Hopefully, this sample typifies the wider educated community, since there is much to be concerned about.

Thanks to the good people at Embiggen Books for hosting for me, and to all the good folk who bought copies of the book. Now I just have to hope that you all enjoy it and/or find it useful. (If you do, make sure you spread the word!)

Richard Dawkins' site reacts to George Pitcher (so does Richard himself)

Over at richarddawkins.net you'll find a thread that links back here to my "shrill atheists" post the other day. That, in turn, discusses a meretricious Daily Mail piece by George Pitcher.

The richarddawkins.net thread contains some strong criticism of Pitcher, including a comment by Richard Dawkins that does some setting the record straight.

Pitcher claims: "Just before he died, Christopher Hitchens expressed some generous sympathy for the Christian worldview, much to the evident frustration of his interlocutor Richard Dawkins."

This appears to be a fabrication. The interview concerned can found in a recent issue of the The New Statesman, which Richard edited, and short extracts are available online here. The extracts certainly do not give the impression of an interviewee who favours, or wishes to express, "some generous sympathy for the Christian worldview" - quite the opposite!

Hitchens says:
If I was strident, it doesn't matter - I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You've educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It's the shame of your colleagues that they don't form ranks and say, "Listen, we're going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements."
To quote Richard, "Well, it is true that I was his interlocuter in his very last interview, for the Christmas issue of New Statesman, which I edited, and I can state with total certainty that he expressed no sympathy whatsoever, generous or otherwise, for the Christian worldview. So that is a lie, and so is the 'evident frustration of his interlocutor Richard Dawkins.'"

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Rally for freedom of expression

See here. I think this is an issue most of us can agree on. Freedom of expression is under attack from many quarters, and this especially applies to the freedom to criticise or satirise religion. At the very least, let's make some noise about how this freedom is important to us.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Moving Secularism Forward

Here's your irregular reminder about this wonderful-looking conference in Orlando, Florida, where I'll be a guest speaker. Now only a month away!! If you live within, well, striking distance of Orlando ... please consider.

Off to Melbourne!

Wish me luck - the launch of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State is tomorrow night, at Embiggen Books, a business that deserves your support whether or not you are interested in my particular book.

Good luck to us all!

Here's a clue for writers

If you receive a rejection letter from a professional publication or an academic journal, or really any other reputable publication where the editors are likely to be busy people and are not your personal friends - and whether or not they have taken the trouble to send you more than a rejection slip - it's usually best not write back arguing that the wrong decision has been made. You're unlikely to get them to change their minds. Unless there are special circumstances of some sort, it only makes you look like a clueless amateur. Absent those special circumstances, doing this tends to make it less likely that you'll be taken seriously next time.

I do mean an outright rejection, not a revise and resubmit, where of course there are issues that might need clarification before you can revise, and so on.

Some people don't know this, so perhaps it's worth stating it in public now and then. It goes with "Use double spacing as the default unless otherwise requested" and "Don't send your manuscript on scented paper."

Just a word to the wise...

Yet more on #MTRsues

Whatever the merits of this one, I couldn't fail to notice the following:
The suggestion that one needs to scrutinise Tankard Reist further because of what she has identified as a "struggling spirituality", also suggests a suspicion and intolerance for faith.
Well, this suggests that there is something actually wrong with "suspicion and intolerance for faith". I don't, of course, want intolerance in the sense of advocacy of persecution, but I don't see how anything like that could be "suggested" - at most what is suggested really is just a kind of dislike or distrust of religious faith.

Now, why is it axiomatic that there is anything wrong with dislike, distrust, suspicion, etc., of religious faith, especially when it seeks to influence public policy? I would have thought that this kind of dislike and suspicion was actually perfectly rational and healthy. As I've said on numerous occasions by now, I don't know all that much about Melinda Tankard Reist, but one thing that's fairly obvious is that she cultivates her public image. She does not just provide data and arguments - as an obscure academic might do in peer reviewed journals - but is continually out there in the mainstream media, with photos of her and her books plastered everywhere. She's an activist and a public figure. She relies on creating an air of trustworthiness and moral authority.

Well, once you are that sort of person you can't get too much on your high horse if some other people might have a very different image of you if they knew your religious views. I'm not necessarily arguing that she has a duty to disclose them voluntarily - that's a tricky question - but this idea that we shouldn't speculate about them, that we mustn't connect dots, that they are irrelevant to the campaigns she's involved in or to her own trustworthiness and authority, and that in any event religious faith is not something we should be suspicious of ...

Well, sorry, but I'm not buying it.