Quick Post: No, seriously… What is this ‘Open Letter’? #atheism #misogyny #wtf #racism

I’m writing up a post on another issue and happened to come across this ‘open letter from the secular community‘.

Long story short, pop-atheism has a serious problem smack bang in the middle of the ‘movement’ (in the bowel sense).  Because pop-atheism relies so heavily on intuition and the assertion of a particular viewpoint as the default rational perspective, it absolutely cannot deal with the concept of plurality.  Plurality is anathema to pop-atheism.  There’s One True Rationality, One True Logic, and, therefore, One True Culture — a secular culture.

But nobody can work out what a secular culture is, so we get ‘Take our current culture and delete anywhere it says the word “God”‘.

Feminist philosophers, of course, have a lot to say about this sort of buffoonish stupidity.  Even the fundamental concepts which pop-atheists consider default rational: the building blocks of logic, for example, aren’t value-neutral.  When this is pointed out, a lot of very angry white guys who are pathologically incapable of grappling with criticism lash out.  Pop-atheism is openly misogynistic and definitely not a safe space for anybody who’s a white guy.  I’ve been in face-to-face conversations with pop-atheists where I have been very fortunate to have several thousand years of privilege behind me — it’s much harder to shout down somebody who is quite accustomed to living in an ivory tower.  I know others from different backgrounds who just straight up refuse to engage with pop-atheists.

Thus we get to the ‘open letter’ which is… strange.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.


Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.


Go offline before going online: pick up the phone. 
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

Wait… what?  Just what?  So if you’ve got somebody being a misogynist jackhole, the correct response from the woman being attacked is not to respond with anger, indignation, or any of the other perfectly legitimate responses; she should consider how the jackhole will respond to being criticised.  We need to make the community a safe space for jackholes.

Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.

There’s some weird definition of ‘insult’ being used here.  If I call somebody a racist jackhole, is that an insult?  What if they are being a racist jackhole?  What if I point out their racism without using the word ‘jackhole’?

As it turns out, insults do change opinions.  Ad hominem (in the sense of ‘insult’) is a powerful and important pedagogic tool.

Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

There we go.  Don’t condemn the racist, misogynistic mouthbreathers in the atheist community.  We all need to sit down very patiently and explain to them why being racist, misogynist mouthbreathers is a bad thing.  And if they don’t listen, then we need to try harder.  It is our role to educate these halfwits and to consider how it must feel to be an ignorant spunkerchief.

Importantly, there is no declaration within the letter that the responsibility not to be a turd rests with the turds.  This letter is not about making it a safe space for everybody: it’s to render the natural, sensible, and appropriate response to such cockery as illegitimate.  Pointing out the nasty underbelly of the atheist community is divisive and there’s no room for divisiveness.  It’s similar to Andrew Bolt’s: ‘People of colour are being divisive when they declare that they are people of colour.’

Seriously.  These pop-atheists are just the worst people.

That is my reasoned conclusion.

You’re such a delicate boy in the hysterical realm… The Spectre of Catholicism in Folk (A)Theology

You make the whole world want to dance…

So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit.  A Jesuit.  From the Society of Jesus.  Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits?  Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People?  Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?

For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented.  Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties.  It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul.  Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).

But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place.  Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings.  And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown.  ‘The Pope?!  Resigning?!  Can the Pope resign?!’  I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow!  How is this even happening?!’  His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter.  He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap.  But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up?  (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news!  Click here!  Retweet this!  Linkbait!  Linkbaaaait!’)

But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did.  He had significant image difficulties.  This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair.  It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope.  ‘This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?!  Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’   It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian.  Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy.  Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something.  And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic.  Horribly, horribly Catholic.

Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it.  Child abuse!  Anti-condoms!  Dan Brown!  But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.

The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly.  The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs.  But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.?  When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo!  Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse.  I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions.  Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening.  In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.

But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community.  The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel.  The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.

And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist.  A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics.  I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.

You make my legs shake… Religious exemption from anti-discrimination laws is what atheists wanted #auspol #atheism

Dear Australia’s Megaphone Atheists,

We really need to talk.  Sure, I know you think anybody who disagrees with you is a deluded moron but, when you launch into public debates blowing hot and cold, you start to make the reasonable, sensible atheists (like me) look bad.

The problem comes down to your sloganeering.  When you use slogans as placeholders for thought, you end up saying pretty dumb things.  We’ve seen the same thing with the religious folk we’ve pilloried.  Remember when we mocked those religious nutters for saying:

It is … impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they could do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they get started.

Oh, wait.  That was Hitchens.

What about when the religious nutters said:

Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.

Oh, wait.  Hitchens again.

Okay, what about when the religious nutters said:

Even in the case of the Aurora shooting, it is not ludicrous to suppose that everyone might have been better off had a well-trained person with a gun been at the scene.

Actually, that was Sam Harris.  The guy who also said: ‘Islam, as it is currently understood and practiced by vast numbers of the world’s Muslims, is antithetical to civil society’.


Okay, so you megaphone atheists now have a reputation for saying repugnant and moronic things.  At least in the above examples, we can see that your statements are self-evidently stupid and beneath contempt.  But what about when you start chanting ‘Separation of Church and State’?

The issue arose last year with the Commonwealth’s funding of the National Chaplaincy Scheme.  There you were trying to argue that secular money shouldn’t flow to religious programs because of the principle of ‘Separation of Church and State’.  There should be two spheres, you claimed, where there was no support from one for the other.  I argued that you were completely wrong for this argument.  I also argued that we should be encouraging religious education in public schools in order to reduce the prevalence of extremism.

But, no.  The important thing was the Separation of Church and State.  Written by God Himself, nobody should even think that the Separation of Church and State might be a bad thing.

Oh, how your uppance has come!  Anti-discrimination laws have an exemption for religious organisations and now you’re crying foul.  Of course, this is the consequence of the Separation of Church and State: the State has to take a ‘hands off’ attitude towards how religious organisations manage themselves.  If Catholics don’t want to hire Jews, that’s a matter for them and they shouldn’t be told otherwise.  Why?  Because there’s this thing (apparently) called the Separation of Church and State.

The Separation of Church and State is not your friend.  What you really want is the Church to be subordinate to the State.  If we want particular religious organisations to be banned (Westborough Baptist Church, for example), then we should be allowed to pass a law which says: ‘Nuts to your folkish beliefs about freedom of religion.  Not in Australia.’  KKK?  Not here.  Forced marriages?  Not here.  And so on and so forth.  Separation of Church and State is tacit approval of the idea that religious freedom is the most important freedom, but it shouldn’t be.  While I respect religious folk — an uncommon trait among modern atheists — I don’t think their religious beliefs about the status of women, for example, should trump the feminist movement’s campaign for equality on their terms.

Caesaropapism, baby.  The State should have authority over the Church; it should not take a ‘hands off’ attitude.

I find it’s all our waves and raves that makes the days go on this way… Anti-blasphemy laws are good for you #atheism #auspol

We need to get something out of the way: Australia is not Syria.

I know.  You’re probably shocked at this revelation.  You were probably sitting at work in your office, going slightly grey under the fluorescent lights, contemplating going for another coffee, and thinking: ‘Shit, I can’t work it out.  Am I in Australia or am I in Syria?  They’re so alike.’

No.  Australia is not Syria.  Australia is not even close to being Syria.  No policy implementation exists which could increase the risk of Australia being Syria.  Australia is not Syria.

Now that we’ve got that controversial point out of the way, we can talk about freedom of speech.

The language we use to describe our rights often reveals our biases and assumptions.  ‘Freedom of speech’.  It sounds so noble but it hides a lot of implications.  ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means offending.’  ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means a group of people don’t feel welcome in society.’  ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means putting people in danger.’

For example, when Adam Brereton writes:

Make no mistake, Wilders has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic of Islam. But in an ideal world we would welcome him to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate.

What he’s really saying is that tearing Wilders to shreds in the parry and thrust of public debate is more important than the right of Australian Muslims to go about their lives here in Australia unmolested by racist cranks.  A lot of our debate about freedom of speech is really about normalising or silencing the problem of externalisation: somebody else pays the price of our pursuit of particular rights.  As I said in a recent post, nobody can say anything — short of making absurd death threats or shocking me with praise of Osama bin Laden — which will upset me in the same way I can upset somebody who’s religious, or homosexual, or an ethnic minority, or any other marginalised group.

Most people accept that defamation is a legitimate restriction on the freedom of speech.  You can’t use your freedom to damage the reputation of somebody else.  If ever there were a self-serving case of special pleading, I’ve yet to come across it.  ‘Oh, protecting the interests of wealthy people who can afford to use the legal system is a legitimate restriction of free expression… but protecting the interest of marginalised people who are excluded from easy access to the legal system?  No.  That’s making us much more like Syria.’

Despite being an atheist, it’s no secret that I’m pro-Islam.  I think it’s a great religion, as far as religions go.  It preserved the works of Aristotle, after all.  I’m also a staunch pluralist (rather than secularist) and think it’s extremely important for the promotion of conservative values to make Australia as inclusive as possible.

But perhaps you don’t share my enthusiasm for inclusiveness.  Perhaps you’re really attached to the idea that freedom of speech is not just an adolescent whinge.

I still think you should support anti-blasphemy laws.

On the one hand, you have the indignation and outrage of a large group of people who feel marginalised and excluded from mainstream public conversation.  They are repeatedly told: ‘No, you don’t belong here.  Your anger is illegitimate.  Your outrage shows how uncivilised and backwards you are.’  In response, they look to the organs of state to protect them.  They want some legislated protection from the excesses of ‘freedom of speech’.  They want anti-blasphemy laws.

To define something is to limit it.  So an anti-blasphemy law not only restricts freedom of speech in some way, it also restricts the informed conversation about blasphemy.  It draws a circle around it.

Imagine if we had a law which said: ‘It is unlawful to perform an act in public which would, in the view of a reasonable person, insult, offend, ridicule, or humiliate a person or a group of people based on their religious beliefs (including atheism as a religious belief because it totally is)… except where the act is a good faith engagement in a scientific debate, or artistic production, or public debate, &c., &c.’

In one swift move, you have protected the most important aspects of freedom of speech — the right to have an open, honest, frank, and fearless debate — from the increasingly persuasive case of various minorities that they’re victimised in society by the assumptive pursuit of freedom of speech.

Thus, everybody should be in support of anti-blasphemy laws.  They make a more inclusive society and they uphold the importance of free speech.

As I walk along the avenue… Omniscience, Omnipotence, and #atheism

A friend of mine sends me links to Futility Closet.  It’s awesome.

One post recently caught my attention: ‘Ordained‘.

If God makes decisions, then he has a future.

But if he’s omniscient, then he already knows that future.

Can he then have free will?

Let’s be kind and pretend that the structure is logically sound (it’s not, but we can see what it’s trying to do).  And let’s tweak it so it uses more familiar language (‘If God makes decisions, then he has a future’?).

If God is omnipotent, He can do anything.

If God is omniscient, God knows what He will do tomorrow.

If God knows what He will do tomorrow, can He change His mind and do something else?

A lot of pop-atheist debate begins with setting out a definition of terms.  The standard method is to use a lick-of-the-thumb common language approach.  Omniscient means ‘can do anything’.  Omniscient means ‘knows everything’.

The problem with this approach is that denies that there’s anything intellectually serious about theology.  Imagine the outcry if a theist began an argument against Darwinism by defining evolution as ‘That thing Pokemon do to turn into stronger Pokemon.’  When physicists use terms, they might have specialist meanings that aren’t in common with the general public.  Why do we expect theological terms to be different?

Also, if we define terms in a way which is prejudicial to the case of our interlocutors, then refuse to analyse those definitions, are we really having a discussion about the possibility of God?

When we say that an omnipotent being can do anything, what do we mean by ‘anything’?  Could an omnipotent agent make twice two equal to five?  Could an omnipotent agent microwave a burrito so hot that they could not eat it?  Could an omnipotent agent make colourless green dreams sleep furiously?  Could an omnipotent agent defeat Ganon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with the Fire Rod (instead of the Silver Arrows) without breaking the rules of the game?

Language allows for a lot of valid constructions which don’t necessarily link to sensible ideas.  When we’re talking about omnipotence, is it reasonable to point to this failure of language as an inconsistency in the logic of omnipotence?

Thus, theologians and philosophers play with a lot of different ideas of omnipotence and the consequences of those ideas.  Perhaps ‘omnipotence’ means ‘a being more capable of activity greater than which it is impossible to conceive’?  In which case, omnipotence might not be terribly great: what if, for some strange reason, it’s not logically possible in some world to lift more than 51 kilogrammes?  What if our ability to conceive great things is really rubbish and there are beings which are possible but not conceivable?  And so on and so forth.  Thus, theology and philosophy of religion.

But let’s be civilised about it and say: ‘While we can’t give a really good definition of omnipotence, we basically agree on what we mean.  Super-dooper powerful.  If your omnipotent being can’t change their mind, you’ve got a problem with omnipotence.’

We similarly unpack the idea of omniscience.  Are future states ‘knowable’?  This is a contested point (future propositions might not have truth values).  Are the actions of a free agent ‘knowable’?  This is another contested point.

But we don’t need to play with those ideas too much.  We can instead look at what it means to know something.  I have TiVo.  It taped a live program this evening (Q&A).  If I watch the program now, I know what the agents will say.  That doesn’t mean that the agents were restricted in power at the time it was recorded.  Knowing the outcome of the event is secondary to the determination of the event.  Similarly, an omniscient’s knowledge of future events (if possible) isn’t what determines the future event; this knowledge is secondary to the determination of those future events.

That got pretty dense.

I go through this for a broader reason than just the above argument.  When people drop these three-liners, they rarely explore the assumptions being made which underpin them.  Big name atheists — significantly moreso than big name theists — routinely make these sort of handwaved arguments without coming terms with what the arguments mean.  Indeed, ordinary pop-atheists are actively discouraged from exploring them.

I’m an atheist, and the above, to me, shows why religious education in public schools is essential to a pluralistic society in the future.  We need a population that can discuss and interrogate its religious beliefs and its irreligious beliefs intelligently and coherently.  We don’t have a population that’s capable of it at the moment.  Why?  Because religious education, where taught, is taught by well-meaning volunteers who don’t understand the importance of good religious education, and they’re opposed by a loud group of well-meaning atheists who are incapable of any reason regarding the place of religion in society.

The future is pluralism; not secularism.

We don’t need no education… Why State funds private schools (re: @JaneCaro) #atheism

When I was younger, I argued with street preachers and door-knockers.  I loved to watch the way they could hold irreconcilable beliefs and yet assert them all forcefully and with a straight face.  The artifices of language held up by Escheriffic scaffolding loomed like a Tower of Babel: surely such batshittery must be an affront to the gods.  Most of the claims advanced were either unsupported or unsupportable.  Where were the rocks upon which God would build His church?

As I grew older, I realised that there were some catastrophic problems on my atheistic side of the fence.  Positivists roamed free, mingling with science fetishists and other carriers of diseased thought (A = A!!  The world is directly engaged by the seeeeeenses! A = A!!!!).  At every point of my engagement with the door-knockers and the street preachers, I could dismiss the problem as: ‘We just fundamentally disagree about the nature of the world.’  But with other atheists?  The same escape clause didn’t work.

Few places is this problem more clear than the issue of private schooling in Australia.  I’m a fan of religious education in schools for a lot of reasons: it makes religious education mainstream (thus making it harder for fringe lunatics to preach hate in the pulpit), it means people educated in religious schools have to be taught science properly, it means the State can punish religious schools who preach and forget to teach.  State funding is a firm leash on a potentially wild animal.

In a lengthy exchange with Jane Caro, we discussed the issue and kept coming back to the same mantras about private education in Australia.  Because private schools weren’t strictly secular (whatever that means), they shouldn’t receive taxpayer funds.  Private schools exclude (and, though I pointed out that some public schools do as well, it was correctly rebutted that they probably shouldn’t).  Private schools entrench class differences based on parents’ ability to pay.  Private schools are run by the Church.

As an example, Caro noted the excellent US system which Constitutionally divorces religion from the curriculum.  Speaking of the US system, has anybody seen Waiting for Superman? (Note the table in the trailer which puts Australian kids at number 9 in the world for competency with maths, with the US at 25).

I’m not suggesting that religious education makes kids better at maths.  I am suggesting that handwaving the US system as the gold standard to which we should be aspiring is a bit wonky.  The American system is fundamentally broken and the approach championed by the haters of the private education system will result in similar structural problems.

But let’s start way back at the beginning.  This is, as I’m sure everybody would agree, an argument about principles more than evidence.  If it were about evidence, one would merely point to our great education outcomes and say: the system of public and private seems to be working, so why change it?

The basic principle is that every kid in Australia deserves an education.  We can either couch it in obnoxious rights language: ‘Every kid has the right to an education’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated virtue politics tones: ‘An ideal society would enable all children in that society to receive the best education which meets their needs.’

So how do you ensure that every kid gets an education?  You could start by building schools, filling them with teachers, and then allocating children to those schools by lottery.  Kids in less population dense areas wouldn’t need a lottery because they’d only be able to support one school.  So that’s buildings and teachers, but what about resources?  Should there be one Bunsen burner per student or should the Bunsen burners go to where they’d deliver better outcomes?  If a Bunsen burner out in regional Australia can only meet the needs of 5 students, wouldn’t it be better to put it in a city school where it can meet the needs of 15?  Given that there aren’t infinite resources, how do you divide the resources up between schools?

What about kids with multicultural needs?  Should Caro’s Extremely Secular High School provide prayer rooms for Muslim students?  Should school cafeterias include kosher and halal food?  Her exact words were: ‘I’d like to see them purely secular‘.  It’s unclear.

Do you know who should be able to choose the sort of educational environment for their children?  Parents.  If parents want their kids to do the International Baccalaureate instead of the Victorian Certificate of Education, who should stop them?  If parents think that their kids will be better served by technical education rather than scholarship, why should they be denied?

Because the options aren’t infinite, it makes sense to have a co-contribution system.  If parents want special education desires fulfilled, they can help make up the financial difference.  The question then becomes: why should parents be expected to meet all the costs of their children’s education?

We’ve already agreed that the State should facilitate the education of every child.  In some sense, we recognise that there’s a duty of the Government to support every student.  Why does that duty cease to exist the moment the child walks through the gates of a private school?

In a fair and egalitarian society, taxpayer funds follow the student to subsidise their parents’ choices.  The only way to disagree with that is to say that parents should be denied the right to choose academic outcomes for their child and that the State knows best.

Despite having this discussion a few times, nobody’s agreed to assert that final point.  Their argument, instead, is:

1.  Religion is bad.

2. Separation of Church and State (whatever that is).

C. The State shouldn’t be funding private schools because they’re religious and OMG Separation, Separation, Separation.

But that just delays the question.  Why shouldn’t parents be able to choose religious education for their children?  I’m an atheist and I really cannot see any problem with a parent deciding that religious education is the best option for their child.  I also can’t see why the State should be allowed to drop the ball when it comes to that child’s education just because the parents want a religious education.

The ideal education model isn’t difficult to envisage.  The State allocates a certain amount per student which follows them to wherever their parents decide is best.  If that place is a private school, the private school requests fees from that parents to make up the difference between the amount made up from students and the amount it actually costs to run a school.  Each public school would get a block grant based on a few specific factors (location, for example, would mean public schools with fewer students in regional areas would need larger block grants).  Simple.

So apart from the rabid animosity of New Atheists to religion, what argument is there against State funding of private schools?  None.

(By way of disclaimer: I received a scholarship to go to a private school.)

I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control… Live export shouldn’t be hijacked by Islamophobes

Australia is wading through a difficult debate about animal cruelty and the export of live animals.  Over on ThinkAtheist, WoljaIlpapa has stated that:

Now some of that cruelty is due to the attitudes of the abbatoir workers but the big hidden problem here is that the reason the animals are transported live to Indonesia, the middle east etc is to cater for the demands of Halal. [Source: ‘Cruelty that is Halal and Kosher slaughter methods‘, ThinkAtheist]

Utter nonsense.

Regulation of abattoirs within Australia is a matter for the states, but each state has regulations preventing animal cruelty which abide by national guidelines issued by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.  There are no exceptions for religious requirements.  Halal abattoirs in Australia — and we should all be enormously proud of this — have animal welfare standards identical to everybody else.

In other words, this isn’t an Us vs Islam issue, as the ThinkAtheist piece is trying to assert.  This is an issue regarding animal welfare in Southeast Asia.  To suggest otherwise is to pander to prejudice and Islamophobia.

ThinkAtheist should retract the post and issue an apology for spreading such hateful, bigoted rubbish.

My eagle’s busy doing other things… Why New Atheism hates Islam and dissent.

This week, we have been treated to something almost entirely absent in the broader atheist discussion: dissent. When Jeff Sparrow wrote that progressive atheists were disconcertingly quiet in response to the nasty streak of neo-con Islamophobia amongst New Atheists, the comment section went wild.

Despite stating, in no uncertain terms, that “[i]n Australia, the most prominent local atheists […] are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics”, atheist readers could see nothing but an unmitigated attack on them and their beliefs. Dr David Horton wondered “how [Sparrow’s] tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists“. President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Mr David Nicholls, thought the piece was “a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go“.

Reading through the responses, I became both saddened and frustrated. Atheists won’t get riled up about racism in their midsts, but they’ll go ape over criticism.

As both a conservative and an atheist, I have no doubt that Sparrow is correct. Having to confront on nearly a daily basis the xenophobia and racism of political leaders who are supposed to represent my political persuasion, it is nauseating to see the same traits among the most vocal advocates of my religious beliefs. For all the New Atheist rhetoric about how religion is for sheep, it is much easier to find Catholics speaking out against homophobia within the Church than it is to find atheists speaking out against the Islamophobia preached by prominent UK and US New Atheists.

There is no dissent within New Atheism. There is no room for it. If you don’t toe the party line, you’re either marginalised or you’re suspected of being a covert theist.  I’ve often wondered to what extent this is due to market forces: would the Atheist Convention in Melbourne have been as successful if there had been dissenting voices?  Would people pay to have their views challenged?

Sparrow’s article drew attention to the disease within New Atheism but – as correctly noted by some of the commentators – didn’t analyse why New Atheism seems to slide so easily into xenophobia and racism. In fairness to him, Sparrow wasn’t trying to analyse the resultant xenophobia of atheology; had he turned his mind to it, I have no doubt he wouldn’t have found it a taxing task.

First, there’s the lack of diversity within New Atheist culture. The profile of the most internationally outspoken atheists is not insignificant: they’re old; they’re white; and (overwhelmingly) they’re male. Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, argues “that New Atheism’s dominance by elite white males from the scientific community does not serve the broader interests of non-theist people of color. In order to make atheism and secular humanism relevant to people of color, our communities’ specific needs in a racist, sexist, heterosexist global context must be assessed.” It is hardly surprising that in a monoculture, intolerance festers.

Second, there is the stillborn debate between secularists and pluralists within modern atheist dialogues. Earlier this month on New Matilda, Adam Brereton argued in favour of secularism. After arguing that religion has no place in our schools or public debate, Brereton asserts that “secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.” Although he doesn’t use the phrase, it seems that Brereton is an advocate of freedom from religion.

Contrariwise, atheists could argue in favour of freedom of religion: where public discussion is flavoured by all kinds of religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. Religious education in schools, for example, would be less about forcing children to accept particular religious beliefs and more about teaching them how to elucidate and discuss their religious beliefs. This viewpoint is called ‘pluralism’.

Secularism is currently the unofficial orthodox position of the New Atheist congregation, and it’s not clear why. Why should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) to pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in the public debate)?

Third, there are the unexamined cultural assumptions of New Atheism. New Atheism is less <i>secular</i> than it is <i>disbelieving Christianity</i>.  Although they’ve crossed out the word ‘God’ and question the historical accuracy of Jesus, they’ve imported all the existing cultural values and dubbed it ‘universal’.  Nowhere is this seen most than in how the secularist panacea of “Keep religion where it belongs” is applied in different ways to different groups.  To Christians, this means ‘in Church’.  To Muslims, this invariably means ‘Back in your home country (unless you were born here)’.

Finally, there’s the “Otherness” factor. Atheists are finally in the position where they understand (fundamentalist) Christianity.  The internet has cracked the nut wide open.  Where the atheists of the glorious past were engaging in the problems of mainstream, orthodox Christianity, New Atheism is chiefly concerned with the nutbag, backwater Christianity which ‘predicts’ the apocalypse and thinks that Noah rode around on a triceratops. New Atheists are, by and large, stone ignorant about Islam, considering it to be a pseudo-Mediaeval attack on their ‘universal’ values.  Until we have equal representation of atheists from Islamic backgrounds, this won’t change.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake… Adam Brereton and the unexamined secularism

In my previous post, I outlined the problems which arise when you just assume slogans such as ‘Separation of Church and State’ and ‘We should have a secular nation’.  These problems multiply exponentially when the target of your attack is unclear.

Take, for example, Adam Brereton’s piece in New Matilda:

One of the more controversial policies announced by the Treasurer in the recent budget was the decision to pledge $222 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program. The scheme has been dogged byclaims chaplains have been proselytising to students, and critics argue the money could be better spent on trained counsellors if pastoral care is at stake. [Source: Brereton, ‘Keep the Proselytisers Where They Belong’, New Matilda]

Just an aside: until there’s some actual evidence rather than fourth- and fifth-hand stories, ignore the ‘claims’.  It smells a bit fishy that the ‘claims’ are all coming from the usual group of attention-seeking fringe-dwellers — and I’ll write something up about Leslie Cannold’s recent atrocity in the name of reason soon.

So the question at play is whether public funding should go to supporting chaplains in schools.  It’s a complex question about the role governments have in supporting communities, about the role of religion in society, and about whether we agree with the policy goals (if there are any).

[B]ut, distasteful as it is, the last 50 years of state sponsored religion in schools should indicate it’s not an aberration. We have no constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state, and outsourcing state functions to religious institutions has been, for the last half-century, a stronger tradition than secularism.

In 1962, Goulburn, a town in NSW notable only for its giant, betesticled concrete merino, was the site of a general Catholic school strike that led to the first state compromises with the religious establishment over education. [Ibid.]

Wait… what?  Did I turn over two pages at once?  Are the chaplains going to be performing some educational role?

Despite the debate not being about religious education, Brereton outlines the history of public funding for religious schools.  We even get an irrelevant history lesson about Constitutional Law:

Secondly, the court played its traditional role, reading the constitution narrowly to find that section 116 did not amount to a separation of church and state provision, and was a mere “denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth” — meaning the Commonwealth could not legislate for a state religion, but otherwise had no distinct “wall of separation”. This precedent does not bode well for the current High Court challenge on essentially the same issue. [Ibid.]

Right… so back to chaplains, I guess?  Nope.

Current commentary on the Gillard government’s decision to continue funding school chaplaincy has missed the historical point that Australians are loath to draw bold lines between secular and religious education, because secularism as a value is not enshrined in our constitution, and there have always been more votes from travelling with religion than fighting against it. [Ibid.]

And this is where a bit of a stocktake would have been good.  The article began as a criticism of the proposal to fund chaplains in school.  Ideally, we would understand why the government has decided to fund chaplains in schools (let’s face it, we’re not going to be shocked when the funding was motivated for cynical, poll-driven reasons).  We could then question whether or not chaplains in schools meets those policy objectives.

Instead, we seem to be caught in a discussion about the history of public-funding for religious schools.  But that’s not what’s at play here: 3,500 chaplains for state schools.

We get further confusion when Brereton leaps from this debate into:

Bob Carr, former NSW Premier-turned ALP revisionist, has recently slammed the $222 million pumped into the scheme, which is delivered almost exclusively by sole operators like ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. He says it’s “resulted in breaches of what should be a very thick wall between church and state” and that it’s naive to expect chaplains not to proselytise. [Ibid.]

The article to which he links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The blog to which the article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  What’s going on?

We’ve had a slide from chaplains in state schools to public-funding of religious schools and now we’re sliding to religious volunteers teaching in state schools.  And we’re not done there…

In the pompous, nebbish style for which he has become famous, Carr doesn’t take another step and dare to consider that religious vilification laws, school chaplaincy issues, and any number of other teacup-localised storms might be solved by levering church and state further apart — the whole point of secularism to begin with. Might the debate be reinvigorated by a well-regarded and purportedly secular ex-premier? Yeah, and we have an atheist PM — pull the other one. [Ibid.]

‘Religious vilification laws’?  Where the devil did that come from?  What could he possibly even mean?  Also note the use of the word ‘purportedly’: whenever one atheist says something which goes against the collective atheist groupthink, it’s important to question whether they’re actually an atheist, or an evil Christian in disguise.

Brereton seems incapable of distinguishing between the issues at play.  Instead of seeing a list of separate issues, Brereton sees only religion.  And any religion is bad religion.  Check out the final paragraph:

This is why secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church. [Ibid.]

What kind of rubbish?  ‘Tolerant society smeared’?  Le whut?  What’s tolerant about: ‘Get out of my public debates and back into your churches, where you belong‘?  We will tolerate you so long as you’re suppressed in public.

As noted in my last post, the confusion arises because ‘secular’ isn’t well understood.  Should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) over pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in public debates and public policy), for example?  Brereton seems to want the former.

And because he wants religion suppressed/invisible, he can’t distinguish between issues.  All religion-in-public instances are reprehensible and should be denounced.

Despite being an atheist, I’ve made the case that religious education is important (especially for atheists).  In that piece, I also showed that keeping religion in the public sphere was important to reduce extremism.  Australia funds ‘moderate Islam’ schools in Indonesia for good reason.  As they are incompatible with Brereton’s position, either preventing extremism in this way is abominable or Brereton is incorrect.  It’s not looking good for Brereton’s case.

And then we can add all the other issues relating to the ‘separation of church and state’ that I mentioned.  Do we want to live in a country where religious groups have several immunities from legislation?  Do we want churches to be a safe-haven for extremist views (SoCS works both ways, after all)?

Atheists like Brereton need to sharpen their analysis beyond ‘religion bad/secularism good’.

Call me morbid or absurd… Atheist Exhaustion

The atheist narrative in Australia is now almost completely devoid of reason or rationality.  I’m going to post on some of the more egregious excesses in the debate which have occurred over the past few weeks.

Before I can do that, I need to lay down some fundamental points which frame how we conceive of religion in society, and how we discuss secularism.

No doubt, I’ll need to make clear at the very beginning: I’m an atheist.  I believe that the statement ‘God does not exist’ is true (and provably true) and I believe that any mainstream definition of ‘divine’ does not denote to a real set of objects.  To the fun stuff!

Should we have a separation of church and state?  We have to ponder what we mean by the terms ‘church’, ‘state’, and ‘separation’.  Popularly, ‘church’ refers to religion in general (rather than its original meaning, where it meant the establishment of religion).  ‘State’ is a bit trickier.  Where once it just referred to the courts and parliament, we now interpret it more broadly.  As government services have devolved, more of the public sphere is captured in the idea of the state: schools, hospitals, &c., &c.

This is where language is tricky.  Talking about church and state make them seem like really distinct things.  ‘Church’ and ‘State’ have no letters in common, after all!

Unfortunately, they’re not so easily distinguished.  What happens when we get politicians with religious convictions?  Ought they split themselves in twain: one side devoted to the Church; the other to the State?  What happens when particularly religious communities elect representatives who share their religious views?  What happens when religious views shape election campaign promises?  And so on and so forth.

This is where the ‘separation’ is supposed to come in handy.  In the U.S., the legislature is — give or take — forbidden to make laws overtly to do with religion.  I say ‘overtly’ because the U.S. separation doesn’t result in politicians with religious views influencing policy.  This also has the effect that, combined with the first amendment, the legislature is unable to prevent religious groups from doing some particularly horrific things.

Which is odd because the separation of Church and State is an overwhelmingly American concept.  Though it has its roots in earlier thought, the Americans went gung-ho with it.

Britain, on the other hand, was more keen on caesaropapism: the Crown would rule and religion would be subordinate to that rule.  It’s intuitively nice, as an atheist, to think that the boundaries of religion are confined to the laws of the country, unlike in America where religion is given a status beyond the reach of the legislature (not quite extra-legal, but almost).

For the US, freedom of religion was tied to freedom of thought (or absence of thought, amirite? Hurr, hurr, hurr).  In modern times, this precept of ‘freedom of religion’ has become enormously important in debates about multiculturalism and personal identity.  Not only does religion attempt to explain the relationship between humans and the cosmos, it also attempts to explain the individual.  Humans, being social creatures, form our ideas of individuality and self through reference to our societies.  Religious views have traditionally been a part of those societies and encouraged various perceptions of the self.  The most notable of these, from a western viewpoint, was the idea of inalienable human rights (which is thoroughly and inescapably a religious concept, extending from the conception of the ‘soul’).

But some people want to go further.  Instead of merely freedom of religion, it has been common to see people discuss freedom from religion.  In brief, the idea is incoherent.  As religion remains an inescapable aspect of the social framework, people cannot claim to have a right to be unmolested by religion.  It would be like a fish claiming to have the right to live free of water.

For those unconvinced by the pervasiveness of religion, we can also put it in terms of J.S. Mill.  A freedom of religion is your right to act.  A freedom from religion is placing an obligation on others not to interfere with you.  As the freedom of religion includes the right to demonstrate that religious belief (including the right to express — rather than suppress — that religious belief), there cannot be a freedom from religion (which requires the suppression of the religious beliefs of others).  In other words, freedom of religion and freedom from religion are incompatible.

The confusion seems to stem from the idea of secularism.  It shocks most people to realise that there’s no common academic understanding of secularism.  Here’s why:

Imagine that you take secularism to mean that religion should be a private matter and not part of the public sphere.  This is an easy policy to enforce when it comes to anything with GOD written in massive letters: no priests in public debate, no prayer in Parliament, &c.  But what about family law?  Our concept of family is built on religious notions.  Should the concept of family stay in the public sphere?

Some people respond by stating that things like family, mathematics, science, universities, rights, &c., should stay in the secular society because they have (somehow, don’t ask) shed their religious trappings.  They used to be religious and, at some undefined point, now they aren’t.  Something rational and logical happened to cause this.  Magic, I guess.  Or leprechauns.

In case you didn’t get my biting sarcasm, there is no process to distinguish the secular from the religious.  People agree that most of our cultural artefacts had their origin in religious belief but can’t agree on how things evolve into secular objects.

There are a few responses.  The first is to be ruthless and root out the religious thinking in our culture, like Lady Macbeths trying to rid themselves of spots (real or imagined).  The second, more common, response is to ignore the problem, rendering invisible the complex religious framework that underpins western society (which, crazily enough, also feeds a lot of atheists’ Islamophobia — as I’ve discussed before).

Neither response is satisfactory, for obvious reasons.

So when we casually drop terms like ‘the separation of church and state’ and ‘secularism’ and ‘freedom from religion’, are we saying anything meaningful?  Or do we chant these mantras because they’re intuitively appealing and because they signal to other atheists that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet?