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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Orwellian understanding of religious freedom

This statement by a group of Catholic and Evangelical intellectuals offers us an Orwellian conception of religious freedom that leaves it open to them to seek imposition of religious morality on non-believers through the exercise of state power:
It is essential for the full expression of religious freedom that believers be welcome, in law and in social custom, to bring their religiously based moral convictions into the ongoing public debate over how we ought to order our common life. Religiously informed moral argument does not establish religion or impose sectarian values on a pluralistic society.
The statement largely equates religious freedom with being exempt from the ordinary, secular laws which apply to everyone else - you should be exempt, they think, as long as obeying those laws somehow violates your conscience.

But if you are religious you get to impose your specifically religious moral views on others if you can persuade the state to enact the appropriate laws - this is what is meant by the euphemistic phrasing: "bring their religiously based moral convictions into the ongoing public debate over how we ought to order our common life."

No, that is not essential for religious freedom; it should not be welcome in social custom; and it should be deterred as far as possible by constitutional arrangements that limit the power of the state to interfere with highly personal matters such as our sexual and reproductive lives - just the matters where religious believers so often want the state to exercise authoritarian control. The entire statement is written in a form of Orwellian Newspeak.

Notice how they ask specifically for exemptions from requirements on healthcare workers - requirements that have nothing to do with religious persecution, and would have been imposed on these workers if the relevant religions didn't even exist:
In the same spirit of concern for religious liberty, we ask that legislators formulate explicit conscience protections for health-care workers. And we counsel legislators to intervene and reverse the coercive efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to mandate health coverage and adoption procedures that will force religious institutions to betray their foundational principles. In these and other areas, we must vigilantly defend religious freedom.
But no, this is not a breach of religious freedom.

Admittedly, it's a good idea for the state to lean against enacting laws that force people's consciences, whether their consciences are informed by religious ideas or by moral qualms based on secular ethics. However, the reason this is a good idea is that forcing people's consciences causes them suffering even if it is not religious persecution. Attempting to avoid that kind of suffering may be a reason for conscientious objection provisions in some circumstances, but if so there should be no discrimination between people whose conscientious objections are based on religion and people whose conscientious objections are based on secular ethical philosophies.

Furthermore, we should also not grant conscientious objections too lightly. Yes, you may suffer because your conscience is forced, but if the law is justifiable in the first place shouldn't we also be worried about undermining its operation? If exempting you will lead to harm to someone else - someone, let us say, whom the law was supposed to protect - what is the secular reason for the state to put your happiness first? And even if we do give you some kind of exemption, it may need to be narrowly crafted and confined - and you may just have to compromise if the exempting provision doesn't give you everything you want.

More generally, the underlying basis for religious freedom is the limited role of the state in protecting and promoting the secular interests of its citizens. In modern times, this might be extended to some of the secular interests of some people and conscious creatures that are non-citizens, since the state is at least competent to an extent to make judgments about those interests. Thus, we do have laws about cruelty to animals. However, the state is not competent to judge any creature's interests in such matters as spiritual salvation, and this, in turn, will give it a powerful reason not to suppress religions or to coerce people to abide by the tenets of a favoured religion.

This does not, however, mean that religious individuals and organisations get to pick and choose which legitimate secular laws they will follow. Prima facie, if a law is enacted for some legitimate secular reason, such as to protect the health of medical patients, and if that law has general application (i.e. it applies to everyone, irrespective of their religion), then everyone has an obligation to obey it. In those circumstances, you can't claim that you are being persecuted if you are simply expected to obey the same secular laws as everyone else. If the requirement you object to is work-related ... well, maybe you should take up some other career.

No one has a positive right to a job that they'll be able to carry out in accordance with their particular scruples. Nor do religious organisations have a positive right to run such things as adoption agencies and healthcare institutions however they want. If they don't like the regulations applying to these activities ... well, they are not being forced to involve themselves.

This is heartening ... re living your dreams after retirement

A nice feature in the Sydney Morning Herald about people living their dreams in their elderly years. One thing that's slightly irritating is the "bored boomers" title for the piece. Ms Beasley is not a baby boomer at all - she was born in 1942, long before the post-war baby boom. Still, we baby boomers currently range in age from late 40s to mid-60s, so we're this great big demographic wave coming through. We'll be joining the ranks of senior citizens pretty soon, and something will have to be done about us.

The "something" could be putting us down, I suppose - to hear a lot of the slightly younger Gen Xers, now mainly in their 40s, talk, you'd think that was the solution. (By the way, does anyone understand why so many Gen Xers express so much hostility to boomers - who are their elder siblings in some cases?) A better solution, which will be applicable to the Gen Xers very soon after it's applicable to us, is to help people stay as healthy and productive as possible for as long as possible.

So good for folk like Ms Beasley who are leading the way.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Archibald Prize finalists

Apart from the fact that a friend of mine (Nick Stathopoulos) was one of the finalists, I don't have a lot to say about the finalists in the Archibald Prize).

But it's interesting to see which pieces have been voted up and down by the public on the Sydney Morning Herald site. As a public, we evidently like photorealistic pieces - the more so, the better - and we dislike anything that takes a less realist approach to portraiture. As it happens, Tim Storrier's winning piece is one of the few in the latter category that the viewing public likes.

George Weigel on the Pill

Just occasionally, I read an article so morally obtuse that it leaves me momentarily speechless. Here is an example - a piece by George Weigel (a professor of Catholic Studies, of all things, in the US) about the evils of the contraceptive pill. Borrowing from his "friend", Mary Eberstadt, Weigel lists the alleged evils of the Pill, and the sexual revolution more generally, as follows:
•the "pervasive themes of anger and loss that underlie much of today's writing on romance";
•the "new and problematic phase of prolonged adolescence through which many men now go";
•the social and personal psychological harm caused by the availability of pornography on a historically unprecedented scale;
•the "assault unleashed from the 1960s onward on the taboo against sexual seduction or exploitation of the young"; and
•the "feral rates of date rapes, hookups and binge drinking now documented on many campuses" (the direct result of a sexual revolution that has "empowered and largely exonerated predatory men as never before").
This is all a load of rubbish, but it is especially ironic having a professor of "Catholic Studies" complaining about predatory men and "sexual seduction or exploitation of the young". Perhaps Weigel should look a little closer at the organisation he is supposed to be studying.

One commenter, Hudson Godfrey, offers a better list of consequences of the pill (I don't adopt all of this - we could talk about details - but it's much better than Weigel's silly list):
1. Women can control their own fertility.

2. Having planned families is liberating for both sexes. We have longer, more productive lives as a result.

3. We have more women in the workplace and in public life. Society is better for their contribution to it as a result.

4. Contraception leads to fewer abortions which is always a good thing if only because any medical procedure that is even slightly invasive comes with risks quite apart from the traumatic aspects of what this particular procedure entails.

5. Control over our reproductive cycles leads to fewer late-term pregnancies, obviating yet another serious health risk.

6. We have fewer unwanted, and often sadly unloved, children in our society.

7. Following on from the above, population control is a reality that we need to accept. We should be fully aware that, wherever you go from the first world to the third, wherever there are good health services, education and I would argue effective fertility control then you will find people enjoying a better standard of living. They have longer and fuller, more rewarding, lives.
Very good! Of course, there is an elephant in the room. Weigel doesn't even consider (and Hudson doesn't explicitly mention) that it is a good thing that we are now far more able to gain sexual pleasures of various kinds, and, more important still, that we have unprecedented opportunities to develop a real, on-ground understanding of sexuality. Most people these days have sexual encounters with a variety of partners when they are still quite young - and that's an advance.

The kind of ignorance about human sexuality that was once so common - if people went through their whole lives only ever having sex with one person, or with none at all, or mainly with prostitutes - is no longer encouraged or typical. Most people we meet (especially those who are not Catholic clergy) know something of what they are talking about when they discuss human sexuality. We can take a degree of experience and sophistication for granted in the majority of our conversations about sex.

That's an enormous social gain in addition to more obvious ones. There's still a long way to go, and the very fact that this point is so seldom made tells us that our society retains a significant degree of sexual puritanism. But things have improved enormously, thanks to the Pill and the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Jesus and Mo also comment on secularism

Over here. lol

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Currently reading - Attack of the Theocrats by Sean Faircloth

I've been reading Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All - and What We Can Do About It, by Sean Faircloth. As a book written in defence of secularism, it's of particular interest to me - especially since it has appeared at almost the same time as my own Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, which deals with a similar topic.

I've read a number of reviews of the book by friends and colleagues, including a brief one by Jerry Coyne that forms part of a more general post on Faircloth's activities. I can endorse this para, which forms the main part of Jerry's review:
The book paints a scary picture of how, despite America’s official policy of church/state separation, our laws and our legislators are still deeply imbued with irrational religiosity. (Read his summaries of the 50 most religiously insane American senators and representatives.) It’s also very eloquent and convincing about how the “Founding Fathers” of America—people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin—were by no means religious, but were at best agnostics, and certainly did not form the U.S. government on Christian principles. That’s a must-read section if you want to go after the common religious claim that “America was founded as a Christian nation.”
Nicely said!

Jery also has some mild criticisms. One is that "his [Faircloth's] prescription for how to create a secular America seems appears to consist almost entirely of helping the SCA [the Secular Coalition for America] or donating money to it" - which is a bit unfair to Faircloth. The latter does, indeed, ask us to support the SCA (most specifically on page 132), but he also sets out clear objectives and policies that he asks readers to embrace. If he succeeded in getting a significant number of readers to adopt some version of these ("some version" because I don't claim that the objectives or policies are perfect; obviously, readers ought to think about them), he'd have performed an important service for secularism.

Jerry also suggests that the chapter on sex is "a tad excessive, almost obsessive". Hmm, I was expecting to disagree, given the opinions I am about to express. But to my surprise, I don't entirely. Jerry has a point here: the chapter really could have done with a bit of editorial tightening up.

On the other hand, and more importantly, I actually applaud Faircloth for taking on this controversial issue. Faircloth states clearly, and shows in some detail, that one of the greatest problems with religious morality is its miserable and officious attitude to sexual pleasure. That's a good thing to emphasise - and a brave thing to say, when so many non-believers appear unwilling to take such an unequivocal pro-sex stance. If the result is a chapter that contains a bit of repetition and other such looseness, that's not so terrible. The reader still gets a good deal.

Unlike Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Attack of the Theocrats is not a philosophical examination of the issues. It does not try to produce a principled and unified philosophy of secular government, but it is none the worse for that. The book has enough to say about history and legal principle, while being mainly a political manifesto.

It is a call for political resistance to the theocratic directions in contemporary America (by which I mean the USA). In providing this, Faircloth supports his case with numerous dramatic examples of religious privilege in the law, and of politicians who believe it's the role of the state to impose the moral canons of their particular religions. Usually these political miscreants adhere to some kind of evangelical protestantism, but often it's conservative Catholicism that motivates them - these are now often allied in the political sphere. The specific, vivid detail in a book like Attack of the Theocrats is most useful; I'm glad to see so much of it in one handy place.

I don't doubt that Faircloth's book will help many people. With its practical emphasis and easy journalistic style, it fills a niche that my book does not pretend to (though to be fair to myself, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State is also written in an accessible way, and it does investigate what we should do about actual issues that confront us today). You could do a lot worse than read both books, as they tend to complement each other - and there's little actual disagreement between them. They help fill out a complete picture of secularism and its opponents.

One thing that they have in common is that neither is actually an anti-religious book. While my positions in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State would be rejected by many religious people on theological grounds (so I could not persuade them without first persuading them to abandon some deeply-held theological premises), many other religious people could embrace its premises, arguments, and conclusions from within their existing views of the world.

My arguments do not in any way depend on such claims as that there is no God or afterlife. They depend mainly on a model of the state similar to Locke's, and the arguments for this model could be accepted by many, and perhaps even most, ordinary religious people in Western countries.

Something similar applies to Attack of the Theocrats. Though Faircloth is critical of much religious morality - not least in the chapter on sex - there is little or nothing in the book that could not be accepted by a large percentage of Christian believers (and probably believers from many other religions).

Thus, the book is not aimed solely at atheists, agnostics, religious sceptics, and the like, but evidently aims to convince anyone who potentially sees merit in separating church and state ... and anyone who is concerned about the excessive kinds of religiosity that Faircloth reveals and describes. Some people will, indeed, reject his underlying assumptions on theological grounds. After all, some theologies do insist that the state has a broad role in imposing the (specifically religious) "moral law". But many believers will have no great problem with the author's arguments, and could be persuaded to support his proposed goals and policies.

That's just as well, because the political environment must be changed now, not at some remote time in the future when religion has largely vanished from a country such as the USA. I'm fully on-side with criticising religion - and I've defended this strongly against accommodationists and the like, who object to our doing this. But we also need to persuade a large block of people to give their active support to ideas of secular government, whether they are personally religious or not.

Faircloth's efforts will contribute to that, and I support them.

New post at Talking Philosophy

This time, on Alfred Mele on free will. You might want to read the piece by Mele first.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tom Flynn on declining fertility rates

Tom Flynn has a post in praise of declining fertility rates on the CFI blog.

I agree. From experience to date, we can expect continued declines in fertility wherever we see industrialisation and the availability of reliable contraception (though there may be a few ups and downs, as with some movement upward in Scandinavia recently). Thus, as traditional societies adopt modern forms of technology, infrastructure and business practice, they will have the same general experience with declining fertility as more industrialised nations such as Japan and the nations of Europe (not to mention Australia). This trend will eventually mitigate and begin to reverse the continuing develping-world population explosion.

Leaving aside the volatile situation in much of Africa, and bracketing off any catastrophic effects from global warming, we can expect to see the entire world modernising through the coming decades. We can project that our planet's human population will stabilise, as all continents undergo the demographic transition. Current projections suggest that Earth's human population should peak about the middle of this century and possibly even decrease thereafter.

At the same time, people will live longer. The net result will be societies in which proportionally more people will be found in older age groups, compared with past experience, and there will be proportionally fewer children, teenagers, and young adults. A smaller proportion of people than now will fit into the age ranges that currently make up the bulk of the workforce, but that is not a cause for alarm.

The changes we're seeing stem from altered technological and economic conditions that liberate people to live non-traditional lifestyles and tailor their own unique life plans. Large and increasing numbers of people will find this attractive, even if there is always a sizeable component who find satisfaction in more traditional ways of life that emphasise parenthood.

Attempting to reverse the current tendency would require curtailing individual liberty or producing some kind of cultural change that undermines the attractive idea of personal choice in sexual relationships and family formation. In my view, therefore, any public policy response based on resistance to declining fertility rates would be doomed to failure.

More importantly, I do not agree with the frequent assumption that the changes are undesirable. First, they are the outcome of a desirable development: the economic, technological and social changes that have given people greater liberty to control their own fertility. Ultimately, they will also lead desirable outcomes. Since there is an eventual limit to the carrying capacity of each of the world's continents, the demographic transition should be welcomed. Rather than bemoaning the situation, we should take comfort that the world's population will stabilise, and hope that this happens quickly enough in the developing world to prevent environmental and social disaster.

A world in which population has stabilised, and perhaps even begun to decline, will be more prosperous and environmentally sustainable, and (most likely) more peaceful. As the world's societies modernise, there may be less diversity among them, but there will be far more diversity and choice available within each of them, which is what matters from the viewpoint of individuals. People will be more free to pursue their own unique interests, rather than concentrating their efforts on traditional patterns of family formation. I believe that we should be encouraging that world into being, not wasting our efforts in trying to resist it.

It will begin with the voluntary behaviour of adults in the most advanced countries, and we should not be dismayed as it becomes the norm in most parts of the world. If the tendency becomes so powerful that the survival of the species is threatened at some distant time, let the problem be solved then. Meanwhile, people who consciously choose to have few or no children should be respected for taking control of this aspect of their lives and being in the vanguard of a much-needed global change, not thought of as "selfish" or strange, or as somehow harming their particular societies.

This is not to claim that societies experiencing lower fertility need make no social or economic adjustments. Affected societies, will need to ensure that older people are capable of making their full social and economic contribution. This will require serious legal steps to combat age discrimination by government bodies and corporations. Hopefully, this will be accompanied by cultural change to ensure that the abilities of older people are acknowledged and respected. In the future, there will doubtless be a far greater range of individual choices about when to cease participation in the workforce, with some people staying on into what was once considered old age (though others will retire "early" from full-time work).

The argument that we should fear such a scenario is based on stereotypes about the supposed lack of creativity, energy and productivity of older people. I expect that older people will have more and more opportunities to display those qualities, as our society develops - and they (at my end this is increasingly "we") will surprise the pessimists.

There may be some serious transitional difficulties. Outmoded attitudes to older people may not change as quickly as desirable, nor may the attitudes of those people themselves, some of whom may not welcome an increasing social expectation that they continue to be productive into their later years. This may influence many policy deliberations.

Still, one point stands out. We should adopt a mindset of embracing the future rather than resisting it. It is pointless suggesting more and more ways to cajole people out of exercising their freedom to put less emphasis on childbearing and rearing. If, for example, we favour policies such as paid maternity leave, our support should be based squarely on arguments relating to the interests of women. The arguments should be about increasing the practical autonomy of those women who choose to become mothers, and particularly their ability to care for their children. They should not be based on a supposed need to increase the fertility rate.

Fertility rates will probably get even lower. So be it. This will create policy challenges, but it is not a tendency that must be reversed by moral exhortations or government actions. On the contrary, despite the policy challenges that it creates, it is the sign of free societies and essentially a development that we should welcome.


(This material is based on an article published in Quadrant a few years ago now - edited down, and slightly reworked for concision and relevancy. Thanks, Tom, for inspiring me to revisit the issue.)

On Pinker and violence

Three pieces on the ABC Religion and Ethics site: one by Pinker himself, which summarises his views on the historical decline of violence ... one by John Gray (who takes Pinker to task in a way that many of you will be familiar with if you've read a lot of his work) ... and one by me (basically a positive review of Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

Fate and free will - and empirical research

There is an excellent thread over at Practical Ethics on free will, commenced with a post by Brian Earp. One thing that's especially useful is the discussion, particularly by Neil Levy, of how the folk seem to understand free will. Some empirical research has been done on this, and also on the effect that it has on people if they are presented with denials of free will (which is interesting from my viewpoint for a number of reasons, but not least because it could shed light on what is conveyed by the expression, perhaps at an unconscious level).

There is actually rather little published research on all this, so you could get a handle on the literature quite quickly if you go and read the references in the thread. Read the whole thread for yourself, by all means, and better still read the articles and other references that are cited, mainly by Levy. Don't take my word for anything.

But ... meanwhile, one thing that leapt out at me was this part of Levy's discussion of the empirical research:
In response [to an earlier article], Nahmias et al. 2007 (Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Mechanism: Experiments on Folk Intuitions. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31) argue that the description of determinism Nichols and Knobes used causes people to think that future actions had to happen no matter what anyone did. That is, the descriptions suggested fatalism, not determinism (where an event is fated if I can’t avoid it, like Oedipus’s killing his father – it doesn’t matter what Oedipus does, because the event occurs independently of what he does). Nahmias et al. therefore suggests that it is the incompatibilist response, and not the compatibilist response that is a performance error. They think that incompatibilist intuitions are caused by confusing determinism with bypassing mental states: people are not worried that their thoughts are determined; they are worried that their actions might be determined regardless of what they think. In support of this, they showed that if determinism was described in psychological terms (‘once specific thoughts, desires, and plans occur in the person’s mind, they will definitely cause the person to make the specific decision he or she makes’), incompatibilist responses fall dramatically.
Nahmias et al might be wrong, of course, and the earlier study in which the folk appear to reject compatibilism might be right. But in any event, if we want to get a grip on what is actually bugging the folk when they worry about free will, we'd do well to see what understandings of their understandings are defensible on the basis of the empirical research. It does seem from this description that what is bugging the folk may be the question of whether fatalism is true. If so, "free will" for the folk isn't anything as spooky as often asserted by Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, but, in essence, the denial of fatalism.

Now, if all that is meant by "you have free will" is that certain fatalist (and/or perhaps passivist) views are false, compatibilism is in good shape. However, the concept of free will may not have a lot to contribute in, e.g., theodical debate. If so, so be it (I never actually thought it did). In any event, I am not arguing here in any settled, dogmatic way that that is all free will means to the folk.

Rather, it seems to be an open question what free will means to them, needing further empirical research - though there seems to be some fairly strong support for the idea that "acting freely" (not necessarily, in my view, the same concept as that of having free will) has a fairly stable meaning for the folk. Namely: "they described free actions and choices as those free from constraints like compulsion and coercion and regarding which they had time to deliberate."

If that is all free will means to the folk (i.e. if they conflate the concepts of free will and acting freely), then it does appear that the folk view of the matter is (a) not spooky, related to religion, or related to dualistic notions of the mind; and (b) not likely to be useful for theodical purposes (theologians might as well give up on the idea).

There's more to be absorbed in all this, but these studies appear to be grist to my mill that the folk don't necessarily have a spooky notion of free will ... and that books, articles, and blog posts which seek to refute some spooky notion - then conclude that we don't have free will, as "free will" is usually understood! - are on shaky ground.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Happy birthday to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club!

This blog is now six years old. In fact, I'm a day late wishing it happy birthday, as it was on 26 March 2006 that I made that very first test post, followed by a batch of others on the same day, including my first post of any substance (relating to a talk that I gave in Melbourne shortly before on the concept of sinning against nature (complete with a couple of photographs from the night)).

So much has happened since, both bad and good. I had a peer-reviewed paper on the topic of sinning against nature published later that year in The Journal of Medical Ethics, and I've had various other peer-reviewed papers in good academic journals, and other articles in good magazines and online publications ... plus chapters in wonderful books (and even a stray short story in yet another wonderful book). But this same period also included the death of my mother, after long illness, in early 2008. About the same time, I took over as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and I brought that second Ph.D to successful completion later the same year.

I've had books published (50 Voices of Disbelief, co-edited with Udo, in late 2009, and Freedom of Religion and the Secular State in early 2012 (with the Kindle edition apparently available in the UK in late 2011, but that's a complication)), signed other book contracts that I now need to fulfil, had numerous overseas trips (including five to the USA alone), and shifted 600 miles north. And there have been other events, some dramatic, some less so, in my life. I've met all sorts of people, including the likes of Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, and Daniel Dennett, and on and on (too many fantastic people, famous or otherwise, to list). I've been mixed up in all sorts of debates and controversies. What a six years it's been!

So happy birthday again to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club! And thank you to all who have supported this blog throughout that time, and/or supported my work in other ways. It's much appreciated. And to my dear friends, family, loved ones in general, who give me your love and support amidst the ups and downs and controversies ... well, you know who you are, and (I hope) you know how I feel about you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Talking at Macquarie University tomorrow

Time: 1:00 to 2:30 pm
Date: Tuesday 27th March, 2012
Venue: Building W6B, Room 286.

So be there, if you're in the vicinity. The topic is exactly the topic of my book, i.e. freedom of religion and the secular state.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

On the Reason Rally

This piece in The Washington Post is not super-illuminating, but it's something.

I continue to encourage people who attended the Reason Rally to post their impressions in the comments. Yes, if you were there ... this means you!

Daniel Fincke is also asking for impressions from his readers.

Edit: If you hadn't noticed it, Dave Ricks has a longish report on one of the earlier threads. I'll actually copy and paste it into the comments here (I'm presuming that's okay with you, Dave?).

Sunday Supervillainy - Namor vs. The Thing

Damn, this is a tough one. I love The Thing, but, let's face it, Namor is going to cream him. He's faster, stronger, probably smarter, a lot more villainous, and better looking can fly. I think The Thing is in real trouble here, as shown in the illo. I'd totally put my money on Namor.

As a matter of fact, I'm betting on all the supervillains (I'm not the first to notice that the X-Men ranks are full of supervillains these days: when I write my book on villain theory, I'll absolutely be spending a chapter on supervillains who cunningly choose to operate within teams of (basically) superheroes).

Oh well, Namor is a great villain cum anti-hero, and a great role model for men who hang around in ... let's not go there and teenage boys ... so let's support him. I'm guessing that the X-Men are going to win a few of these early fights, even if the Avengers ultimately emerge as the victors in whatever the hell they're fighting over (what is it again?).

More generally, I'm still hanging out for this Avengers vs. X-Men series that's coming up. Go, X-Men!

On Jerry Coyne on free will

As sort of promised, I'm going to comment on those Chronicle articles on free will at Talking Philosophy (a blog that encourage y'all to read frequently ... not least because the resident bloggers there disagree about a lot things, which makes for some spirited discussion).

Here's the first substantive instalment - on Jerry Coyne's piece. I'll probably space them out a bit, as something like this takes quite a long time to write, and also it'd be good to get a decent thread going on each one before jumping to the next.

Ken Perrott on the Reason Rally

I'm hoping to collect various posts, etc. pro and con, now that the Reason Rally is over. Wish I could have been there! I may not have time to comment on many or any in depth. For now, here's a detailed discussion of some of the issues from Ken Perrott on his Open Parachute blog.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My opening salvo on free will at Talking Philosophy.

This is just scene-setting/preliminaries so far. Still, it appeared necessary. I had to do it. Or I decided to anyway. Or something.

Paula Kirby on Christians with persecution complexes

Paula Kirby has a nice article on the Washington Post site about Christians who claim to be persecuted just because they are required to obey the general law that applies to everyone else, or because they are required to conform to work requirements under their contracts of employment - the same work requirements as apply to everyone else.

Historically, this was not what persecution was about. In principle, if you are simply being required to meet some requirement that is imposed for a good secular reason that would exist whether your religion did or not ... you can't claim that this is persecution. The intent of the requirement is not persecutorial, but is, rather, blind to your religion. It is not the same as someone setting out to suppress your religion or to impose on you a religion that you don't accept.

It may, of course, still be important to you. There may be reasons why the people imposing the requirement should compromise if it causes you all that much pain and anxiety, and if the compromise will not do too much to undermine the purpose for which the requirement was implemented in the first place. Anti-discrimination law may categorise the requirement as indirectly discriminatory if it is imposed by an employer - though merely indirect discrimination can usually be justified if there is a reason for it genuinely based on business efficacy. (You can guess, of course, that this issue gets a fuller discussion in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State - my background in employment and labour relations law helped here).

In any event, even if some compromise is offered ... compromise is a two-way street. You don't get to complain about being persecuted (well, you can because you have freedom of speech, but no one need take you seriously) just because you're required to abide by the same rules as everyone else. And you certainly don't get to complain if a compromise is offered to you but you are the one who is not prepared to compromise.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Free will - further placeholder

I'm just starting to read the pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I referred to the other day. I'd actually like to discuss these individually, and in a little bit of depth, so I'll take the issue over to Talking Philosophy - which I think is a better place to do that (I'll take the pieces in the Chronicle in order, so I'll be starting with Jerry Coyne's).

But by all means, though, continue the discussion on the earlier thread.

Edit: Here's a book that I want - the new book on free will by Mathew Iredale. Whether or not I am fated to get a review copy is ... shall we say, doubtful.

Pew survey shows more Americans are getting wary of religion in politics

Go here to see for yourself. A small majority of Americans actually favour the churches not expressing views on political matters:
Slightly more than half of the public (54%) says that churches should keep out of politics, compared with 40% who say religious institutions should express their views on social and political matters. This is the third consecutive poll conducted over the past four years in which more people have said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics than said they should express their views on social and political topics. By contrast, between 1996 and 2006 the balance of opinion on this question consistently tilted in the opposite direction.
Sooo ... only 40 per cent think that the churches should express opinions on social and political questions!

That's not, of course, to say that the majority of Americans would reject all policies that are difficult to justify on purely secular (such as utilitarian, for example) grounds. They may not have thought it through in that way. Perhaps, for example, many of them think that the churches should keep out of politics, while they still think the state should enforce various moral ideas that are (as a matter of fact) historically entangled with religion and/or difficult to justify outside of a theological context. There is a difference between being opposed to churches speaking up on social and political matters and being opposed to the enforcement of traditional morality that is (as a matter of fact) entangled with religion.

A small disclaimer - in my case, I'm not actually opposed to the churches expressing views on political matters, though I don't think their expressed views should be based on theological considerations (such as the idea that there is a an inviolable God-given order of nature, or that our sexual organs have "proper" functions within a teleological and sacramental order of things, or simply that certain things are forbidden or commanded by God).

If they wish to put views based on secular considerations such as the worldly harms that many people might suffer if social security payments are not raised, I have no objections. Anyone can say that and I won't object merely because of the identity of the speaker. And even if they do put views based specifically on theological considerations, their freedom of speech to do so should not be impaired.

Still, with whatever disclaimers and caveats we may wish to introduce, this survey provides still another indication that a lot of people in industrialised nations are broadly in favour of secular government. Not only that, there is currently an upward trend. As far as I'm concerned, that's good news. Those of us who argue in favour of secular government are not involved in some kind of futile, merely symbolic battle.

Reaching for the lawyers

Greg Barns writes:
Bravehearts is a poster child for politicians, many in the media and many parents.
Perhaps so, but those of us with memories more than a nanosecond long remember the role that Bravehearts child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnston took in the disgraceful Bill Henson affair not all that long ago. You can be strongly opposed to actual child abuse - Zeus knows, you won't find many people more strongly opposed to it than I am - while being very sceptical about Bravehearts and its judgments and methods. Judging solely by the description Barns gives, the Keep Safe handbook developed by Bravehearts sounds very problematic, and I wonder, based on what Barns describes, whether it might even be psychologically damaging to some children (which would be kind of ironic, as well as a matter of great regret).

You might notice a slightly legalistic tone to the preceding paragraph. Well, yes. Indeed, the main point that I went to draw attention to is the way Bravehearts seems to have gone quickly to its lawyers when criticised. Honestly, what's with people these days? Can't we have discussions of matters of public importance without everyone constantly having to worry about possible defamation suits?

H/T Jennifer Wilson.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

David Silverman on the Reason Rally ... and some words on secularism

A pretty good summary of why it's needed, with an emphasis on secularism. The last para is especially good:
The Reason Rally is not about eradicating religion. There is a difference between wanting a secular government and a nontheistic government. A secular government is one that gives no preference to any religion or to non-religion. This allows the government to remain neutral and to protect all religious belief. America’s great religious diversity is best protected when the federal government to stays neutral about matters of religion and ends special privileges for religion in law.
Sure, people can work towards "eradicating" (not the best word, but it will do as long as it is not read as implying active persecution of the religious, but merely persuading) religion. But it's not what the Reason Rally is about. It's about secular government, a secular state - and that's not a great secret.

A great diversity of people should be able to get behind that. Many religious people should be able to get behind it, as a matter of fact, though I do accept that this particular event is primarily a rally for non-believers to call for a truly secular America.

Secularism isn't something that only non-believers can support. Generally speaking, it is good for believers as well - not all of them, always, in all circumstances, but very many of them, perhaps the majority in Western countries, in current circumstances. Secularism has a lot going for it apart from its appeal to those of us who reject religion.

Reason Rally this coming Saturday

The Reason Rally takes place this coming Saturday in Washington DC - I wish I could be there (this time last week I was still in the US, but I couldn't justify the expense of staying on for another week and half).

There's been a great deal of debate on the internet (I'm not going to track it all down and link to it) about the real point of the Reason Rally - is it a rally in support of atheism, or scientific scepticism about supernatural and pseudo-scientific claims, or what? - and also a lot of agonising about the list of speakers.

Obviously people get to express dissatisfaction with the speakers list if that's what they feel - we all have freedom of speech in Western countries. If some wildly inappropriate speakers' list had eventuated, I guess I'd join in. Indeed, some of these speakers are unknown to me, while others are known to me but don't strike me as of especially high quality. But overall, this list is pretty damn impressive, and there's something there for everyone. The inclusion of Richard Dawkins, Taslima Nasrin, and Lawrence Krauss, in particular, plus leaders of major organisations that are involved, gives the line-up real gravitas.

I'm not interested in criticising individual choices because I think this list, over all, is about as good as it gets. In those circumstances, complaining about individual choices seems churlish to me. So, disagree with me if you like, but I think the rally organisers have done a great job in coming up with this impressive and eclectic list.

(Okay, there is one speaker in particular about whom legitimate issues have been raised, in my humble opinion: Bill Maher, who has expressed views in the past that do, indeed, seem counterproductive to the cause of reason. I'm thinking of certain of his views on health issues. But there are also all sorts of positives in involving him, and he is a much more prominent figure than many of the others whom I'm not going to quibble about. While I have the misgivings about Maher that I just expressed, I actually think the organisers would have been crazy not inviting him. More on this below.)

As for the point of the rally, there is, indeed, some confusion about this. A rally in the cause of "reason" sounds very broad and vague, but then again "Reason Rally" is a concise, alliterative, memorable, and easy-to-say title. It's a good choice of a name.

My understanding all along has been that it is actually a rally in support of secularism or secular government, i.e. in support of a political culture where policy is not driven by matters of faith and religion. "Reason Rally" isn't too misleading a title for that, especially when it's immediately explained. Secular government might not be the main focus of all the organisations involved (e.g. it is not the main focus of James Randi's organisation), but surely it is something that all the organisations agree on and can all support. A strong public statement in favour of secular government is sorely needed at the moment, when there is such a strong push in the United States, during this election year, to create (or further reinforce) a post-secular politics, returning to days when the political agenda was moulded by religion and specifically religious morality.
All the publicity we've seen appears to me to be broadly consistent with that understanding of the rally's real point. E.g. the home page for the rally (which I linked to above) claims on the main banner that the Reason Rally is "the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history". The home page then explains, in the first paragraph of text:
The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 6:00PM at the National Mall. There will be music, comedy, speakers, and so much more. We hope you can join us! [My bolding, but note that this is the very first sentence of text on the site.]
All of which suggests to me that the confusion (as I said, it does exist)about the rally's point or purpose is mainly in people's minds, and probably the result of different hopes and priorities that they have. It is not a result of anything done or said by the rally's organisers.

Given the rally's real point, the speakers' list seems all the more appropriate. Bill Maher would not make sense as a drawcard speaker for a rally in defence of scientific scepticism, but he makes perfectly good sense as a drawcard speaker in support of secular government. Even a politician who is himself religious (i.e. Senator Tom Harkin) makes sense if he's there to acknowledge the legitimacy of people rallying in the cause of secular government and to make some kind of conciliatory statement.

Overall, the rally organisers appear to have done a fine job in putting together a balanced and effective set of speakers and entertainers (the rally is partly a celebration, so it's appropriate for it to have music and comedy).

I look forward to the (expected) success of the Reason Rally, and in particular I invite people who are actually attending it to make comments here in a few days' time about how it all went.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

TAM 12 speakers announced

An interesting line-up, and I'm especially pleased to see Miranda Celeste Hale get some recognition. That's a good move.

Jennifer Wilson on anti-pornography campaigners

This post is really very good. As Wilson says, the censorship laws relating to pornography are already very restrictive in Australia, so what more do these campaigners really want? Perhaps some restrictions on pornography can be justified, as I've always said (most recently in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State), but they do need justification, and I don't see why we need laws that go even further than the restrictive Australian classification code. Perhaps that code even needs to be liberalised when you look at the detail. So what, in the Australian context, is really up with these campaigners?

It seems that they must want something that goes much further than could be justified on any plausible feminist grounds, for example. The recurrent theme seems to be that they want to ensure that our society decisively privileges sex within committed, loving, monogamous (though, to be fair, not necessarily heterosexual with all these campaigners) relationships. This should be privileged to such an extent that no messages favouring other kinds of sexual activity should be tolerated - all such messages should be subjected at least to strong moral(istic) criticism and possibly to some kind of legal deterrence.

If that's not what these people are really saying, let them clarify it, please, because I agree with Wilson that that's how it often comes across from the likes of Emma Rush and Clive Hamilton. Wilson quotes Hamilton as saying: "Perhaps this is why many people are left with a vague feeling that each time they have casual sex they give away a little of themselves, that something sacred is profaned and they are diminished as a result. Casual sex truly is meaningless sex."

Well, it may be that "many people" feel like that, especially if they've been socialised to feel like that. It may also be that many other people do not feel like that at all, and perhaps we shouldn't support socialising young people to feel like that.

Wilson says:
Claims of the rightness of a sexuality confined to “loving relationships” and the alleged profanity of casual sex must refer to the commandments of some metaphysical authority, unless Rush and Hamilton assume an infallible authority for themselves. Alternatively, their positions are social constructs, and if that is the case, we need to be convinced why they ought to have more influence over us than any other social construct. Empirical evidence for claims is the best way to establish this. Rush and Hamilton et al need to prove the “sacredness” of sex, the profanity of casual sex, and the need to confine sex to loving relationships, or risk being perceived as founding their campaign in a crypto theology that is of no real consequence to anyone other than those who believe in it.
Read the whole thing! Wilson has been producing some brilliant material of late.

The debate about contraception still continues at Talking Philosophy

I.e., here, where there are some long, serious comments being made - not least by me. At the moment, there is a discussion going on about the principle that someone can't be directed by an employer, a commanding officer, etc., to do something illegal. Frankly, I'm not sure what that has to do with arguments against the contraceptive mandate - as I say in a long comment - but perhaps I'm missing something.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is free will an illusion?

Mainly just a placeholder post here, as I need to read the articles in this special issue of the Higher Education Chronicle. I have a copy of the new Sam Harris book on order (sigh, why doesn't anyone send me review copies of such books? grumble, grumble), and I've promised to review it for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal when I've read it. I'll get back to the Chronicle's pieces and say something about them soon, if I can (!), but as always I agree that free will doesn't exist in the sense that Harris seems to have in mind when he claims that, well, free will doesn't exist.

But that doesn't mean that I think it's useful or accurate to say to someone, "You don't have free will" ... which to me at least connotes something false (that our deliberations and efforts are all futile, so we might as well adopt a passive, fatalistic attitude to life).

In short, I'm not at all convinced that "free will" means what Harris thinks it means; however, I'm open to an argument that the meaning of the term has become so confused (or perhaps was always so confused) that we should all drop it and use more specific terminology.

But anyway, I'll be interested in the arguments in the Chronicle piece and in the Sam Harris book. Maybe I'll be convinced by some of the arguments one way or another. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, have at the arguments for yourselves.

H/T Jerry Coyne, who has a good thread running (even if the computer science stuff on the thread is baffling to me).

More debate about contraception

A lot of debate about this at Talking Philosophy lately. Here's the latest instalment, initiated by Mike LaBossiere.

Q&A guests - a case study on the topic

For Australian readers, here's an interesting report on biases in selection of guests for the ABC's high-profile TV show Q&A. Biases include guests from Sydney, rather than elsewhere, anti-pornography campaigners, people from the IPA right-wing think tank, and (of course) good-looking people.

You'd hope for a bit more diversity than this. The excuse that there are very few people in Australia who'd do well in the format is nonsense - being on TV, and thus in front of a huge, unseen audience, could cause anxiety, but the format itself is not especially difficult.

Anyway, you now know why I have not yet appeared on the show: however good-looking I may or may not be, I am not a Sydney-based IPA type who campaigns against pornography. Good to have that cleared up. (In all seriousness, I feel just as qualified to go on this show as most of its guests who are not actually politicians or well-known authors like Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins, but I'm obviously not an insider. Zeus knows how Cristina Rad got a gig on the show last year, but good for her.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jennifer Wilson the Republican Party war on women in the US

A sobering and soberly-written post. I have nothing to add right now, but I do suggest you have a read of it, as she sums up a lot this stuff well.

"Trust and Tribulation" - finished it!

Yes, I finished it. Except there's no final chapter, dammit, until the competition finishes and is judged. Grrr, I want to know what happens. Who does Anthea end up choosing? Or does she reject them all? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sold by the Millions

I've just received my copy of Sold by the Millions: Australia's Bestsellers, edited by Toni Johnson-Woods and Amit Sarwal. This book, from Cambridge Scholars Publishing in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, includes a chapter by me on Australian science fiction.

It's a handsome little volume - I look forward to reading the whole thing, and I hope it's successful for the editors and publishers.

"Trust and Tribulation"

I've started reading "Trust and Tribulation" the Regency serial that Alison Goodman has been writing over the past couple of months to help promote an upcoming Jane Austen literary festival in Canberra. Alison is also providing notes on her storytelling techniques, and she will judge a competition based on the story: it has ten completed chapters so far, and competition entrants are asked to provide their versions of the eleventh and final chapter.

I'm not very far advanced in the narrative at this stage. In the first chapter we are introduced to Anthea Stanwell, her mother, and her sister Lily - there is already some romantic intrigue being set up here, as the plot jumps quickly out of the blocks. Alison's second chapter lures us more deeply into the murky romantic possibilities for Anthea, with some nice, sharp exchanges among the characters. Already, I'm hanging out to meet Anthea's potential love interests, most of whom are lingering off-stage but have been characterised strikingly by others, who may or not be being fair to them. We shall see.

Alison really is a wonderful writer, with a crystal clear style, a knack for vivid, economic scenes, and superb sense of pacing. This little story is really not such a serious exercise for her, but it still hooks the reader. Let's find out what happens as it continues ...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tim Dean and others debate Alain de Botton...

... on this thread.

I dunno. I don't have strong feelings either way about de Botton's book, which I thought was well enough written and quite enjoyed. I still think that de Botton goes out of his way to make potentially (and sometimes actually) oppressive features of religion sound like a good thing. I really don't see the need for the sort of direction, structure, etc., in my life that he seems to think is necessary (or at least psychologically desirable). I can provide enough of that myself, thank you very much. The notion of whole societies being structured and directed by religions, with their sacred texts, comprehensive moral systems, and general efforts to permeate every aspect of our lives just seems to me to be claustrophobic and creepy.

But that's just me. I'm not claiming that you have to feel the same way, and I'm certainly not out to suppress religion by force. All I really ask is that religions maintain some sense of modesty about what influence and authority they ought to have ... and particularly that no religion be imposed on people by state coercion.

Abbie Smith in debate over Intelligent Design

Sounds like Abbie Smith did a good job in this debate. Congratulations, Abbie! I don't think I'd have had the patience to debate a fundamentalist windbag like this guy (Steve Kern) seems to be.

Edit: I see Jerry Coyne has posted on the debate at some length, with a pretty good thread running at his blog site.

Sunday supervillainy - Week of the Witch continues PLUS ... Captain Marvel returns (in a sense)

More here about Wanda Maximoff ... and here ... and here. This whole "Week of the Witch" thing, plus the role that seems laid out for The Scarlet Witch in the upcoming X-Men vs. Avengers event, constitutes a big push for the character, so I'm hoping it signals a return to her status as a major figure in the Marvel Universe.

That's largely because The Scarlet Witch has been one of my favourite comics characters since I was a kid, but also because Marvel really needs to invest in its major female characters.

Meanwhile, I'm not entirely sure what I think of this development. There is currently no character in superhero comics called "Captain Marvel" - though Marvel Comics owns the name as a result of some complex legal ins and outs in past decades. Thus the original Captain Marvel character, created by Fawcett Comics in 1939, and later owned by DC, can no longer be depicted or promoted with that name.

Marvel's own Captain Marvel character (created in 1967) was killed off in a classic story, The Death of Captain Marvel in the early 1980s, and has never been "brought back to life" in any ongoing way.

It seems that Marvel Comics has now decided to fill the gap by renaming a high(ish)-profile character, Ms. Marvel, as "Captain Marvel" ... and promoting her under the new name in a new ongoing book (at the same time, I see, giving her a less blatantly sexy costume). There are some good aspects of this, but I'll miss the name "Ms. Marvel": the character, Carol Danvers, had established an important place in the Marvel Universe under that superhero alias, as well as developing an iconic look of her own. Overall, I hope the new move succeeds commercially - even though it will be a wrench at first - mainly for the same reason as I gave with Wanda Maximoff, that Marvel needs to invest in its major female characters.

Damian Thompson on same-sex marriage

Over here in The Telegraph (the British one. He says:
The passing of this legislation will mark a significant moment in Britain’s history: its emergence as a post-Christian society along the lines of Scandinavia or France.

The traditional definition of marriage is a cornerstone of Church teaching. The fact that the Rev Giles Fraser (inevitably) wants to remove it is evidence of secularisation from within.

But the secularisation that really matters comes from the majority of young British citizens who are atheists or agnostics. David Cameron isn’t in favour of gay marriage because he’s a Conservative: that’s just cute sophistry. He’s in favour of it because he represents, and earnestly desires the votes of, Britain’s fast-growing post-Christian electorate.
If you read the whole article, you'll see that Thompson is trying to make this sound like a bad thing. Personally, I look forward to the day when we can say with certainty that all the nations of the West have evolved into post-Christian societies, societies in which the various forms of Christianity are part of the cafetaria of personal choice and have no real influence on public policy. Alas, that day is still a fair way off.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Victor Stenger on science and religion

Sample of Victor Stenger's piece in the Huffington Post (from his talk at Moving Secularism Forward):
Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of the opposing assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. Science is the systematic study of the observations made of the natural world with our senses and scientific instruments. The knowledge gained in this manner has proved effective when applied to human needs.

By contrast, all major religions, including Buddhism, teach that humans possess an additional "inner" sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the visible world--a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural. If it does not involve the transcendent, it is not religion. Religion is a set of practices intended to communicate with that invisible world and use its forces to affect things here on Earth.

The working hypothesis of science is that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world. Natural theology accepts empirical science and views it as a means to learn about God's creation. But religion, in general, goes much further than science in giving credence to other claimed sources of knowledge such as scriptures, revelation, and spiritual experiences.

No doubt, science has its limits. However, the fact that science is limited doesn't mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits. For example, science cannot yet show precisely how the universe originated naturally, although many plausible scenarios exist. But the fact that science does not--at present--have a definitive answer to this question does not mean that ancient creation myths such as those in Genesis have any substance, any chance of eventually being verified.

The scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science, as they are currently practiced, exclude supernatural causes. I strongly disagree with this position. If we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means.

MIT Press to publish Humanity Enhanced

MIT Press has sent me a contract for my proposed book on legal and political responses to genetic technologies: (provisionally titled) Humanity Enhanced.

This book will be based on my Ph.D dissertation from Monash University (which was entitled "Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance"); however, the published version will be revised, updated, and generally reworked. Like the dissertation on which it is based, Humanity Enhanced will focus on the politics of human enhancement technologies - or, more specifically, the political challenge posed by a range of genetic technologies. It will explore the principles that should be used when laws are enacted to regulate or prohibit them. I ask how people of reason should respond politically to such prospects as human reproductive cloning and attempts at genetic engineering for enhanced intelligence or longevity. Should we tolerate these things, and if not ... on what ground that is acceptable in secular, liberal societies?

I will argue against the tendency to ban or heavily burden the use of these emerging technologies, and specifically against the sorts of sweeping prohibitions that were enacted in many parts of the world - almost in panic mode - in the immediate aftermath of Dolly's announcement in 1997. We can do better than this.

To whet your appetite for the book, I refer readers again to my article "Enhancement Anxiety" in a recent issue of Free Inquiry. (I don't believe the article can be viewed on the internet in its entirety any longer, but many of you will have the issue in hard copy. Also, there is a thread about it on Richard Dawkins' site if you missed it late last year.)

For me, the remainder of 2012 will be spent getting two books into shape for publication a year or two from now - Humanity Enhanced and 50 Great Myths About Atheism (which Udo Schuklenk and I are co-authoring for Wiley-Blackwell).

So that's my big news. I'm looking forward to the work itself and to seeing the product take form. To state the obvious, Humanity Enhanced has found an excellent publisher in MIT Press. As you can imagine, I'm very excited about this, so you can look forward to many updates, thoughts on the issues, and so on.

The politics of Hulkling and Wiccan

While we're discussing same-sex marriage in the very same week that we're using to follow Marvel Comics' "Week of the Witch" (its focus this week on The Scarlet Witch, who has finally been returned to as a player in the Marvel Universe) ... here's an article by Brett White that combines these themes. White discusses the relationship between The Scarlet Witch's son, Wiccan, and his boyfriend, Hulkling.

In Avengers: The Children's Crusade # 9 we are shown a passionate kiss between them for the first time (not their first kiss, as is clear from the story, but the first time such a scene has been shown with them). Then Ms Marvel interrupts at the window ... oh well.

How do the politics of all this play out?

Extract (from the end):
When I see a gay couple kiss in a superhero comic book, I wonder if it's going to get protested. I wonder if the comic is going to get tons of hate mail. I become hyper-critical of the kiss and put way too much thought into whether or not they are characters or caricatures. I wonder if there were meetings with executives in stiff suits, discussing how big the panel should be and how advertisers would react. I wonder if anyone on the creative team felt awkward about drawing, inking, coloring or lettering a page showing a couple of dudes expressing their love for each other. My sexuality has been politicized to the point where I can't read a kiss between two fictional characters without thinking every insane thing I just listed. And yes, I think all the things I think are insane, because Marvel and the creators have given me no reason to doubt their sincerity. But I've seen bigotry on television, in comic book letters pages and in my own life. Even though the comic book industry has been incredibly supportive of the LGBT community and has made great strides towards diversifying their characters, I still let the words of the people currently vying for the Republican nomination spoil what should be a celebratory, progressive moment.

I'm glad that Hulkling and Wiccan kissed. I'm glad that comic books are now regularly depicting diversity. It's important to know that the gender of the kissers should not be news. It's two characters kissing, and that's awesome (as long as you think those two characters are right for each other, like Kitty Pryde and Iceman -- yep, I went there). But also keep in mind that right now, in 2012, the world at large is not necessarily so accepting, and there are politicians running for president on the promise of nullifying same-sex marriages if elected. Comic books are leading the progressive charge right now and I just hope that the rest of the world can catch up. When I read my comics, I want to stop worrying about the underlying politics; I want to start being happy for the characters.
(I disagree about one thing, though. Kitty Pryde and Iceman? Don't kid me - she totally belongs with Colossus.)

And now home at last!

It sure does take some time getting from New York to Newcastle - even with good connections and everything falling into place pretty well. It's about, hmmm, 33 hours since we left West Village, where we were staying, and we're just home. All this consisted of a long taxi ride to JFK Airport, flight to LAX, cooling heels for a while at LAX, loooong (13+ hours) flight to Sydney, then the drive from Sydney Airport to our home in Newcastle 100 miles (160 kilometres if you prefer) north.

But we've finally done it, all is well, and - looking back - that was an enjoyable trip. Also, I think, a successful one (all my gigs seemed to go at least okay, and sometimes rather better than that). I send big hellos to all the people I met for the first time and others whom I caught up with' that was probably the really great part of the trip.

And some more hellos to friends and loved ones here in Australia. Though it was a great trip, it's nice to be home.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In LAX (having flown from NYC)

Home soon(ish). Very slow connection here, so won't say much for now.

Rowland on communicating Catholicism

Like the other pieces by Catholic theologians that I've been looking at over the last couple of days, this one by Tracey Rowland is about how Catholics should communicate and "frame" their message to make it more persuasive. It's interesting to see theologians make suggestions like that to other Catholics.

The most important thing about the article from my viewpoint, however, is that it demonstrates exactly what I've been saying. Here in the US, I keep bumping into people who want to persuade me that Catholic moral teachings make sense from a secular viewpoint. I.e., there are independent secular reasons for these teachings. But this is not true - on the contrary, Catholic moral teachings make sense only in the context of a larger worldview that is distinctively religious, and which includes a "sacramental" view of the world (yes, that's the word I've been using). Divorced from all this, Catholic morality becomes incoherent and bizarre. Rowland makes the same point clearly and strongly, though for a totally different purpose.

So, will secular people please stop defending Catholic moral views on the basis that they could somehow stand on their own outside of a broader religious view of the world? This is one claim that we really should put behind us. To Rowland's credit as a theologian, she does not make such a claim.

Hamilton and Ormerod at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal - actually, Hamilton's piece is okay for what it is...

Hang on, first go here for the context!

Andrew Hamilton struggles with Catholicism's political role:

This reflection on the way in which Catholics might both claim a privileged access to truth through their faith, and yet engage in open conversation about public policy may seem tortuous and byzantine to those with no commitment to faith. But a similar challenge faces anyone who brings to public conversation conscientiously held beliefs and values. They need to reflect on how they can negotiate the unique and untradeable value of each human life the unique and untradeable value of each human life with others without sacrificing their integrity.
Well, yes. It does seem tortured and byzantine. That's because it is tortured and byzantine. But at least he sees the problem.

However, it's not a problem for just anyone with "conscientiously held beliefs and values". Many people have such "beliefs and values" without thinking that they should all be imposed by state power on those who don't share them. E.g. I believe that the Catholic Church is a pretty dreadful institution, but I don't ask that it be suppressed by the use of state power.

And Neil Ormerod gives a reminder of the problems Catholics have in getting their own house in order. Fine, good for him

I don't, however, see any actual dissent from Vatican doctrine on sexuality, reproductive freedom, or religious morality in general.

My first column in Free Inquiry has now appeared

See here.

My piece, "Who's Afraid of Scientism?", is not among the selection of material posted on the internet this time to whet your appetite ... so it looks like you'll just have to buy a hard copy. Better, yet, you could subscribe!

Eulogy for Christopher Hitchens by Edward Tabash

Published in Free Inquiry:
This is a time of celebration and sadness, of exultation and grief. We commemorate the life of Christopher Hitchens, our “Hitch.”

Atheism has lost a singularly eloquent voice—a fearless, groundbreaking intellectual giant who dared to challenge the most cherished notions of God and religion that still so thoroughly pervade human life. We have lost a leader who, now that his life is over, can be said to have taught us how to cultivate the courage to live and how to die.
Do go and have a look at the rest.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Even more about same-sex marriage ...

... with even more attempts to rationalise theocracy): here.

Okay, before I'm jumped on I realise that that's a slightly cheap shot to take at Catholic theologian Austen Ivereigh. To be fairer to him, much of what is contained in the piece that I linked to above is populism rather than outright theocratic reasoning, though I'm not a fan of the former a and I'm willing to bet that we'll see more of the latter in the book it is based on (assuming someone sends me a review copy), especially given the publisher - Our Sunday Visitor Press/Publishing - which is basically a Catholic propaganda organ. (That said, even propaganda type presses can sometimes produce decent books ... we'll see if this turns out to be an example or not.)

In any event, the arguments are weak. Importantly, the cultural meaning of marriage has already changed. That horse has bolted. For a start, marriage has no strong connection with children these days: many married couples have no intention of having children, and many couples do have children without getting formally married. The nature of marriage is more complex, and there is nothing about marriage, as it actually operates in the twenty-first century, that could not be extended easily to same-sex couples who want it. Even in past centuries, the cultural significance of marriage was not stable.

I see that there are three other pieces by Catholic theologians replying to Ivereigh. It will be interesting to see whether any of them dissent and actually argue in favour of same-sex marriage. I've been told often of late that many Catholic leaders and theologians dissent from the views of the Vatican and from traditional teachings on sexual morality. I haven't seen much evidence for this (though there is plenty of evidence that ordinary Catholics dissent from Vatican teachings in great numbers). Perhaps we'll see some surprises with this new batch of articles. Here's hoping!

More marriage stuff

Stephanie Zvan has a good thread at Almost Diamonds.

Edit: There's also a pretty active thread on this whole subject at Richard Dawkins' site, if you're interested.

And I'm trying to get some discussion going at Talking Philosophy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Week of the Witch continues: Heinberg interview

Allan Heinberg interviewed on The Scarlet Witch - yes, you're getting a whole week of supervillainy this week, in between matters of more obvious urgency and seriousness.

Edit: Link added!

My own piece on marriage...

... on the ABC site is now here. Note that this is not a reply to Milbank, but was independently written and based on material in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (so it gives another sample of the style of argument in the book).

It might be simplest to keep discussion of Milbank's piece and mine on one thread.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

If today is Tuesday

Then ... it's back to New York with me. And soon back to Australia. This has been a pretty amazing trip (though next time I'll aim for something less whirlwindish).

John Milbank on same-sex marriage

I'm not going to comment much on this intriguing piece by theologian John Milbank on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. Make of it what you will (try to be fair to it and at least see if you can make sense of the argument, as a lot of thought has obviously gone into it, so it's perhaps worthwhile to try to figure it out). It is obviously making all sorts of assumptions that I would not accept. But that's all I plan to say for the moment.

Quite independently - I have only just seen Milbank's piece and am not writing in reply to it - I have a piece on the subject of marriage on the same site appearing very soon, perhaps tomorrow. I like to think that my piece will be a little easier to follow, but who knows what people will think?

Boston puppies


Week of the Witch begins

For afficianados of Wanda Maximoff.

(That isn't my big news, though. You'll have to wait for a day or two.)

I have some big news! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Announcement soon. :D

Next stop New York City

Since this time last week it's been

Monday - Orlando
Monday night flying Orlando to New York City
Wednesday morning train to New Haven
Thursday a gig in Hartford
Friday flight from Hartford to Buffalo
Saturday flight from Buffalo to Boston.

Okay, we are spending three nights in Boston, of which one is left, and we catch a train back to New York City tomorrow.

By the way, Boston is a gorgeous city and it is getting unseasonably warm weather to end winter/begin spring. It was lovely wandering around the city today, and great catching up for lunch with my fine editor at Wiley-Blackwell, Jeff Dean. Thanks again, Jeff!

On the supposed rights of the fetus

I think this paper - published in Quadrant a long time ago now, but I pretty much stand by it - deserves a bit more exposure. It summarises where I am coming from in debates about abortion, infanticide, etc. Sample:
In principle, there may be a variety of such reasons that we might recognise as requiring us to restrain the purely selfish pursuit of our own interests. However, it is not clear what reason could apply in this case. Even if we speak of a fetus, or another potential person, as having an interest in becoming a person, exactly what harm does it suffer if the interest is not met?

It cannot experience any frustration of its desires, because it has no desires. The mere failure to meet this interest does not inflict any pain. It does not experience fear, so the wrongfulness of our action cannot consist in inflicting upon a entity something that it fears. Nor has it begun a life whose coherence or value may be ruined by being cut short. We do not reveal ourselves as cruel if we terminate the development of a merely potential person painlessly, or with minimal pain. It is difficult, in short, to see why the interest is one that must command our respect. It seems to be a totally theoretical interest. It might unkindly be called a contrived one.
I elaborate about why it is a good thing that we a general pro-baby attitude - but why this at least does not extend to early embryos here, but the main article is behind a wall and you'll need some kind of subscription to the Journal of Medical Ethics to read more than the abstract.

You might like to see what Kenan Malik has to say on the topic here.

Doonesbury on compulsory ultrasound

This is a classic - and how ridiculous that some newspapers are apparently not prepared to run satirical comic strips on this subject.

Lorenzo on "natural" sex

I'm elevating this from the comments on an earlier post. A good discussion of sex and so-called "natural law".

Andrew Bolt is right here

Bolt is correct to denounce Bob Katter's propaganda against same-sex marriage.

H/T Jennifer Wilson

Monday, March 12, 2012

Giubilini and Minerva should NOT have apologised

This apology should not have been issued. The authors did nothing that merited apologising for. By doing so - even in a rather "notpologyish" way - they have bought into the idea that people should be apologetic merely for expressing unpopular, perhaps offensive views. Which entails that such views should not be expressed - a dangerous conclusion to be stuck with.

That does not mean that I fully endorse their views in the original article. I don't: the situation is much more complex than they acknowledge, and I am surprised that they did not discuss the sorts of views about the moral status of babies that I elaborate here (full article behind a wall) and (briefly) here, and similar views that others have put forward (e.g. those of Mary Ann Warren; Warren, at least, should probably have been discussed). However, my agreement or otherwise is not the point, and the original article by Giubilini and Minerva was a legitimate academic contribution that probably merited publication.

You should not have to apologise because your thoughtful, civilly expressed views on a tricky bioethical issue have offended or outraged a number of people. By buying into that idea, the authors have made it that increment more difficult for the rest of us to put forward unpopular, perhaps unsettling, perhaps even incorrect, views in the future. That is bad for freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas.

So should they now apologise for apologising? What a mess!

Jonathan Turley on freedom of speech

A solid op.ed. by Jonathan Turley in the LA Times, defending freedom of speech - and especially freedom to satirise religion. There can be debate about specific examples in the article, and I do discuss a range of possible situations in other writings. I am not a free speech absolutist, and I doubt that many people are. (I spoke to someone the other night in Buffalo who claimed to be an absolutist about freedom of speech, but he thought this was consistent with having a right to sue if someone spread lies that he was a pedophile ... almost everyone is prepared to admit some restrictions on speech.)

But overall, Turley is surely in the right here. Free speech is under attack from many sides (here, yet again, is one of them in the Australian context), and we need to stand up and be counted in its defence.

In January, the French parliament passed a law making it a crime to question the Armenian genocide. The law was struck down by the Constitutional Council, but supporters have vowed to introduce a new law to punish deniers. When accused of pandering to Armenian voters, the bill's author responded, "That's democracy."

Perhaps, but it is not liberty. Most democratic constitutions strive not to allow the majority to simply dictate conditions and speech for everyone — the very definition of what the framers of the U.S. Constitution called tyranny of the majority. It was this tendency that led John Adams to warn: "Democracy … soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
H/T Tim Kolanko