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).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review of Callum Brown's book BECOMING ATHEIST

I have reviewed Callum G. Brown's Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West in Reviews in History. Brown also has a useful and generous response. If nothing else, my review should give a good overview of the argument offered by Brown and the sort of evidence that supports it. The gist of the argument is that religiosity collapsed in many countries in the 1960s, largely because women increasingly became alienated from it (men may already have been alienated from it to some extent). See for yourself how this is supposed to work (Brown gives his imprimatur to the way I express it, which I was not sure he'd do).

Here is a long extract from a much longer review - for the full thesis, read the whole thing and see Brown's response:
Many men who lost their faith during the long 1960s spoke, in retrospect, of their development of naturalistic worldviews through encounters with science and philosophy, whereas only a few women spoke like this. Instead, women often reported distressful events in their lives from gender-based subordination, abuse, or loss of loved ones. Unlike the men in Brown’s sample, the women described their disengagement from family expectations and their rejection of 1950s’ ideas of respectability and piety. Conversely, these women did not speak in the same way as men of psychological trauma from the actual experience of shedding religious belief. At a critical transition point in Western history, it seems, men and women tended to become alienated from religion by different paths.
For Brown, certainly, the key change was the alienation of many women in the 1960s. He refers to ‘the declining acceptance by young women of the traditional Christian ideal of marriage, motherhood and domesticity’ (p. 6). Many women ceased to accept – and ceased to reflect in their own thoughts and speech – Christian moral discourse relating to pious femininity and to moral virtue more generally. Not surprisingly, then, Brown finds strong interconnections between what he calls ‘the rise of no religionism’ (p. 89) and the dramatic changes for women and families associated with the 1960s’ demographic transition. These changes included later marriages, increased sexual activity outside of marriage, a steep decline in fertility levels, and far greater participation by women in higher education and the paid labour market.
At this critical point in history, many women became unwilling to submit to the regime of sexual control imposed by the churches and often enforced through the family. In rejecting this, they inevitably denied the authority of religious culture and discourse. In interviews, feminist respondents often reported a general alienation from religion and conventional morality at an early stage in their lives. This often preceded (and perhaps motivated) their feminism, but their feminism, in turn, preceded their self-recognition as humanists or atheists.
While Brown’s interviews were with self-conscious non-believers, it seems likely that there was widespread alienation of women from religion during the 1960s, extending to some who retained a residual faith. Becoming Atheist tends to confirm a dissatisfaction among the young women of the time with conventional morals and gender roles. When added to more traditional – largely male – suspicion of religiosity, this could be an effective recipe for snowballing irreligiosity. Bear in mind that some male compliance with religious and moral norms may have been in deference to the real or imagined sensibilities of women. An unprecedented defection of women from religiosity could thus have had a very large impact.
In his response, Brown does not disagree with anything that I have quoted above. He identifies some possible minor differences between us on other issues, although I'm not sure that we really do differ. If we really do differ about any empirical claims, I'm open to the possibility that he is right on them, but I don't think it's at all clear that we do, even if we use slightly different language. At any rate, the references that he offers to support his points - whether or not they are really points that I disagree with - appear useful. I think this is the kind of constructive exchange from which onlookers, and even the participants, can learn.

I should say, that some of Brown's conclusions about, for example, the different paths by which (many) men and (many) women became alienated from religion in the middle to late decades of last century are unexpected. I.e., I don't think a layperson to these arguments would have expected them. Even I, as someone who has looked into this a bit, find them pleasingly unobvious and revealing. That does not mean I am especially sceptical about them, though. I think Brown's book (along with his earlier work on this topic) makes the empirical case pretty well.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Steve Bannon sees the world

This is mainly a bookmark - but here's a link to Steve Bannon's remarks to a conference in Vatican City back in 2014. Everything we have seen so far, since Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president, suggests that remarks like these distil the ideology behind the current administration. You'll forgive me for suggesting that the ideology concerned borders on a kind of Christofascism. Note how Bannon sees the most horrific events of last century as a war against atheism (of all things), for which capitalism generated the wealth to beat back various kinds of barbarians.

Edit: This critique by Cathy Young of Trump's speech in Warsaw is very good, and it's salient to this post.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A brief word on Trump's (worrying) Warsaw speech

I'm thinking of writing something longer about Donald Trump's major speech delivered in Warsaw a few days ago - perhaps for Free Inquiry. This post is partly a bookmark and partly a reminder to myself to come back to the issue. I don't often comment on narrowly political events, but a speech like this, which was clearly intended by those involved to be something of a landmark, is worth attention. It paints a broad picture of what the current administration in the US is supposed to stand for.

Much of the speech simply extols the history, traditions, and culture of Poland and its people. It was tailored to win applause from its immediate audience while projecting Trump as a global statesman. Beyond this, however, it paints a picture of the United States and other countries (pre-eminently, it seems, Poland) standing in defence of Western values (whatever, exactly, these are supposed to be) against barbarians at the gates. The speech was obviously crafted with great care, and its message should be taken seriously, though I fear that if we do take it seriously it is either incoherent or a somewhat coded message in praise of Christian values rather than Enlightenment values.

To be fair, the speech does mention values such as free inquiry and debate, but again and again it ringingly invokes God. The problem with its coherence is that on one conception of Western values - a conception that I favour - they most notably involve the taming of religion (and its separation from the levers of secular power) rather than religion's glorification. This is evidently not the conception of Western values that Trump and his speech writer(s) had in mind, and the choice of Poland - one of the most religious and even theocratic nations in Europe - to deliver a major speech immediately frames, and partly governs, the speech's meaning. Much of it is sufficiently ambiguous or bland to be interpreted in more than one way, and it could be relatively innocuous on some readings. It does, however, fit all too easily into a worldview that understands politics as a struggle to revive and sustain historical Christendom, rather than to extend the secular ideas of the Enlightenment. Theocrats should be pleased. We already know that such a worldview is well-represented within Trump's team, whether or not Trump sincerely shares it.

More later ... but perhaps elsewhere.

Friday, July 07, 2017

CV Update

My CV updated at Academia.edu for anyone who might happen to be interested.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Announcement: I have won the 2017 AAP Media Prize

I can announce that I have won the 2017 AAP Media Prize, which was presented by the Australasian Association of Philosophy at the Alan Saunders Lecture, held on the evening of 4 July 2017. On this occasion, the Alan Saunders Lecture was delivered by Professor Nancy Sherman. This annual lecture takes place in conjunction with the AAP's annual conference, which is being hosted this year by the University of Adelaide.

My citation from the judges for the AAP Media Prize states:
Russell Blackford has created an impressive body of work that deftly weaves together his academic research and popular writing across a wide range of topics and outlets. On subjects as diverse as philosophy of religion and science, ethics, and political philosophy, Blackford’s clarity and earnestness demonstrates the indispensability of philosophy for public debates. The panel particularly commends the way in which Blackford’s writing not only communicates philosophical ideas, but also models philosophical practice, taking the reader along through a process of lucid and balanced argument to reach his conclusion. His work has, deservedly, found a wide and eager audience.
This particular prize means a great deal to me, as I have long been an advocate for public philosophy. I encourage colleagues to present philosophical ideas to the public in an accessible way. I also see a role for philosophers in addressing issues of current public concern with the clarity and intellectual rigour - and perhaps a certain fearlessness - that our discipline shows at its best.

My thanks to my editors, notably Tim Dean, founder of the Cogito philosophy blog hosted by The Conversation, and Zan Boag, the editor of New Philosopher, both of whom have done much in the cause of philosophical outreach.

As it turned out, Zan was a co-winner of the other award announced on the night, the AAP Media Professional Award, along with Kyla Slaven from the ABC podcast series Short and Curly. Tim Dean has won that award on a past occasion (2015).

While I'm at it, I should also thank Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry, where I have a regular column. The AAP Media Prize is specifically for publications in Australian popular media. Nonetheless, Tom deserves mention for his ongoing support for my work and for his efforts in bringing the ideas of philosophers (among others) to a large and dedicated international audience. We need and should honour editors who do this.