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?

Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear… Why atheists should love the cosmological argument

The review I wrote yesterday reminded me of something awesome.  While you’re knitting on this cold Sunday afternoon, let me outline this awesomeness.

The cosmological argument has been around since Aristotle, at least.  In a nutshell, it says that everything has an origin, therefore the universe has an origin, therefore God.  Over time, the argument has become significantly more sophisticated — deftly avoiding the asinine ‘So what’s God’s origin, huh?’ response — and a thousand times more useful for atheists.

That’s not a typo.

One of the fundamental properties of physical objects (i.e. those we perceive empirically) is that they obey cause and effect.  This has been a cornerstone of empiricism since Hume.  Basically, if the principle of cause and effect isn’t true, we have absolutely no way of interpreting the world around us.  Before anybody gets too Deepak Chopra on me, this rule of cause and effect also applies to quantum events.  Yes it does.

So we get the following:

For any physical object, there is a cause. (P1)

The universe is a physical object. (P2)

Therefore, the universe has a cause, x. (From P1 + P2)

If x is a physical object, it has a cause. (From P1)

From this, we can see that we’ll either end up with an infinite chain or we’ll end up with x being a non-physical object.

To keep it quick, we can deny that there’s an infinite chain of causation.  Our observations of the universe do not support there being an infinite chain.  An infinite chain also lacks explanatory power: why is there an infinite chain rather than nothing?

So we’ve got a non-physical cause to the universe.  It’s usually at this point that one of two things happen:

1. Theists jump to ‘And this non-physical cause is God.’

2. Atheists try to deny the non-physical cause.

(1) is clearly batshit.  Let us not speak of it, but look and pass on.

(2) causes extreme difficulty for outspoken atheists.  Richard Dawkins — in one of the many wall-banger moments in The God Delusion — writes:

[I]t is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown. [Source: Dawkins, The God Delusion, Ch. 3]

So… he’s denying cause and effect?  Really?  Or by ‘physical’ does he mean ‘non-physical’ (sort of like how Sam Harris uses the word ‘science’ to mean ‘science and lots of things which are not science’)?

We atheists can do a whole lot better.

An option we have available to us is to deny that all objects are physical objects.  There are some objects, for example, which we can only understand through reason and rationality but cannot experience.  The object which gave rise to physical objects, for example, is one of them.  This is also good news for atheists who want to be realists about mathematics as well (I’m not in that group, but we might as well spread the love).

But, best of all, it allows atheists to claim back the (currently) unchallenged turf of theists: the parts of our ontology which extend beyond empirical verification.

(2) leaves atheists exposed because it’s so extremely irrational and forces us into the untenable position of admitting only empirically verifiable objects into our world.  Atheists should admit the solid reasoning of the cosmological argument and attack the leap from ‘non-physical object’ to God.

Give me a reason we’re in control… Multiculturalism is bad because they do things the same way I do

While I’m not terribly keen on providing links to his hate material, Pat Condell has had a crack at explaining what he thinks is wrong with multiculturalism: Muslims.

It’s no secret that Condell hates Islam.  He is incapable of seeing Islam as anything but a monolithic structure of barbarism.  Mind!  He doesn’t put it in those terms.  Instead, he white knights women’s lib (every Muslim is misogynistic), democracy (every Muslim is a tyrant), and — in this latest foaming fury — animal rights (because Halal is code for cruelty to animals).

Back to that last point in a second.  First, I think it’s important to note how passionate many outspoken atheists become when Islam is discussed.  When Christianity is discussed, most of these atheists will make condescendingly dismissive comments.  Dawkins, for example, dismissed Aquinas’ arguments in a quick paragraph as not intellectually credible (or, rather, dismissed his bizarro version of Aquinas’ arguments).

When Islam is discussed, the discussion is framed in terms of response to a threat.  Most of the articles and books written by atheists about Islam have always characterised Islam as something foreign to fear.  Christianity is something to defeat; Islam is something to exclude.  This trend was demonstrated uncritically throughout that rag The Australian Book of Atheism (which I should definitely get back to reviewing).  The essays asserted that Christianity did what it could to retain power and that Islam was attacking secular society by stealth.  So long as atheists continue to milk intuitive notions of ‘secular’ without distinguishing them from ‘non-believing Christianity’, this framework will continue.

Back to cruelty of animals.  Says Condell:

Halal is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.

There are a few easy ways to not eat halal meat: try more pork.  If you’re that worried about Muslim meat appearing on your dinner plate, eat pork wrapped in bacon.  Hell, it could even be an advertising slogan for the pork industry.  ‘Pork: Guaranteed not to be kosher or halal.’

Less flippantly, people like Condell only care about the cruelty towards animals if other cultures (particularly Islam) are doing it.  Most Anglophones get their meat from factory farms.  Says PETA:

On today’s factory farms, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and confined to wire cages, gestation crates, barren dirt lots, and other cruel confinement systems. These animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests, or do anything that is natural and important to them. Most won’t even feel the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter. The green pastures and idyllic barnyard scenes of years past are now distant memories.

The factory farming industry strives to maximize output while minimizing costs—always at the animals’ expense. The giant corporations that run most factory farms have found that they can make more money by cramming animals into tiny spaces, even though many of the animals get sick and some die. [Source: PETA ‘Factory Farming: Cruelty to Animals’]

In the universe next door where Pat Condell is ranting about the insidious spread of multinational corporations, I’m sure he’s saying:

Supermarket-purchased meat is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.

It is — quite frankly — ludicrous that Condell should pick up the mantle of animal rights in order to attack Islam.  There are legitimate questions about whether there are more humane ways to procure halal meat — they’re the same legitimate questions as those which ask if there are more humane questions to procure non-halal meat.

Similarly, there are legitimate questions about Islam which we in a multicultural society should ask (a classic one, for example, is ‘Why is there a growing trend for Muslim community leaders to describe Islam in opposition to mainstream society?’  The answer concerns both the individual Muslim communities and the societies in which they are trying to integrate).  But Condell is not asking those legitimate questions when he pretends to champion the rights of the minorities he wantonly and casually disregards every other minute of the day.

I’m riding a dolphin, doing flips and shit… and tying up loose threads

There’s a fun game I like to play called ‘Are you sure about that?’  I usually play it with racists.  You let them shout off their ignorant prejudices for a while before getting them to commit to a short statement which is unequivocally their belief.  And then you systematically destroy that statement and watch them squirm.

I sometimes play it with my grandmother.  She, like a lot of old people, is incredibly racist.  After she went on about how Arabs are intrinsically violent and uncivilised, I got her to commit to the sentence: ‘Arabs have not made a worthwhile cultural contribution to the world.’  Then it’s a simple matter of explaining that algebra exists before going on to the massive cultural output during the Dark Ages and how the Renaissance wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Arabs (including the current theory that Leonardo da Vinci was the son of an Arab).  The misconception provides a springboard to have a productive and wonderful conversation and, in the case of my grandmother, a greater interest in Arabic history.

Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Here’s SaidSimon having what I like to call ‘Whitey’s Etymology Whinge‘ (WEW) about racism.  The argument runs a bit like this:

Bigot: [Something that looks suspiciously like racism]

Me: Ease up on that racism there, good buddy, or we can’t be friends any more.

Bigot: It’s not racism because [group I am slagging off] isn’t really a race.  It’s a [culture/sub-culture/religion/ethnicity/group/nationality/&c.].

The above is frequently seen in the comments section to Pat Condell’s YouTube tripe.  For the record, I think Condell is both a racist and a terrible human being.  I think it’s nothing short of a travesty when people hide behind their State-given right to the freedom of speech to justify marginalising a systemically oppressed group.

SaidSimon used the WEW to claim that the often extremely vitriolic comments made by many atheists toward Muslims was not really racism because Islam isn’t a race.

But what is really a race?  The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination states:

In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. [Source: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art.1(i)]

For those of you who enjoy the history of the history of the international treaties and conventions, check out the lengthy, lengthy debates which surrounded this passage.  Wow.

The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (‘CERD’) has not, as far as I’m aware, defined ‘race’ in any useful sense but tend to roll with the bellyfeel interpretation: if it looks like racism, if it smells like racism, if it walks like racism, bets are on that it’s racism.

What was fun was tying SaidSimon to the statement: ‘The Irish are not a race, they are a nationality.’  Unfortunately, he didn’t participate in the conversation much after it was pointed out that, not that long ago, they weren’t considered ‘white’.  Similarly, Jews were considered a group unto themselves.

There are two ways through the conversation.  The first is to be more rational when it comes to the term ‘racism’.  We all seem intuitively to believe that there are racists in the world.  At the pointy end, we have people who run about in their haberdashery setting fire to crucifixes.  At the soggy, mundane end, we have people who don’t interview people with funny sounding names for job applications.  At the same time, our best science has proven conclusively that there’s no such thing as race.  What we thought were genetic differences between the tribes who evolved on different ends of the giant land mass turned out to be little more than culturally-fuelled smoke and mirrors.  The most rational interpretation of this is to believe that we can have racism without the need for races.

There’s a danger there that we undervalue the importance of the culturally crafted race to an individual’s identity.  It’s a short jump from denying race to whitewashing.

The other, probably more productive way, through the landmines is to ask: ‘If I have to justify my behaviour by crafting an snarky argument that I’m not picking on a race but a [culture/sub-culture/religion/ethnicity/group/nationality/&c.], am I really being an awesome person or am I being an arsehat?’

There is a pathological need for a lot of people to avoid being called ‘racist’.  In Australia, a bunch of guys did a blackface sketch on national television (which aired shortly after an advert where a white guy appeased a group of blacks with tubs of fried chicken).  Even the deputy Prime Minister (now the Prime Minister) had to come crawling out of the woodwork to say: ‘No, it’s not racism; it’s just the Australian sense of humour.’  Our beloved Prime Minister has also said that she understands and sympathises with white Australian’s distrust of the burqa…

Anyway, back to the subject.  I can now get people to say, without a trace of doubt, that they feel that being called a racist is actually, factually, 100% worse than being racist.

So if you have to crawl out of an accusation through semantics and witchcraft, you probably shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing.  (In fairness, SaidSimon wasn’t playing with a full deck: he appears to claim that, if you take a true statement and replace a noun arbitrarily, you necessarily get a new true statement).

Which brings me nicely to the question of whether atheists are an oppressed group.  There have been a number of posts where I argue that we’re not and that we should stop being such insufferable crybabies.  Oh my Higgs boson, you have no idea how difficult it is to be an educated white atheist, dear Internet.  I can’t even go down to the supermarket and purchase atheist milk.  When I go to the hospital, they don’t give me the special atheist medicine.  When I walk down the street, theists don’t even say hello to me.  It’s a horrible life.  I don’t know how I manage it.

The Key of Atheist let me know a few ways in which I’m oppressed.

I think I’m still unconvinced that I’m a persecuted minority.  As if reading my future state of doubt, TKoA cleverly — like a master chess player — used my own citations against me.

Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means. Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways.  Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy.  Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. [Source: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.]

I agree with the respondents.  I associate most atheists with those things as well.

More relevantly, is this what atheists are whinging about when they claim that they’re persecuted?  In fairness, TKoA explicitly states that comparisons to persecuted groups are wrong (unlike The Australian Book of Atheism…).  Should we get another bus advert to let everybody know the real incarceration rates of atheists?

I run around town, around round the round… Wow, that last post was terrible

There’s a lesson from this.  I shouldn’t blog while tired and ill.

For those of you who struggled through my last post, I apologise sincerely.  I tried to wade through it this afternoon and realised that I could barely make heads and tails of it.  There’s several different ideas going on all at once, and it hasn’t turned out well.

Fortunately, Simon and The Key of Atheist were here to let me know that things had gone very wrong indeed.

So to summarise what that last post should have said:

1. Andrew Lovley promotes a view of ‘accommodationism’ where atheists concentrate on shared values without analysing the underlying reason for the commonality of those values.  Most atheists hold moral values which can only be justified through appeal to Judeo-Christian concepts of the world, but they render this basis invisible by saying that they are really secular values.  We should do this, he says, because it’s a sign of maturity.

2.  I think a proper sign of maturity is a distinctly atheist concept of the social project (atheism qua atheism).  Contra Lovley, I don’t think we should focus on our similarities.  I think we should stop trying to derive a secular culture from the overlap between our current beliefs.

3.  The Key of Atheist also thinks that Lovley is incorrect, but for different reasons.  The argument there is that Lovley views his accommodationism to be more or less mutually exclusive from more confrontational forms of activism.  TKoA argues that they’re not mutually exclusive and can be instead mutually beneficial.  TKoA links the atheist movement to the gay movement, stating that the two different forms of activism complemented each other.

4.  I consider the confrontational forms of activism in the gay community are different to the confrontational forms of activism in the atheist community.  Where the former caused confrontation by being openly gay, the atheist community isn’t causing confrontation by being openly atheist.  Instead, atheists are being dicks and that’s a bad thing.

5.  Also, unrelated to everything else, being confrontational by being dicks results in religious types clinging more tightly to their irrationality.  Instead of attacking the belief, most of the dickish behaviour is attacking people’s sense of identity.  Most atheists don’t see it that way because they don’t link religious belief to identity.  It’s also why so many outspoken atheists run head first into racism regarding Islam.

That basically covers the major points I was making in a confused and unclear way.  TKoA did me the great courtesy of trying to make sense of the ideas in my ramble and responding to them.  I thought I’d focus on the biggest and most contentious point:

[Mark] neglects the genuine prejudice that still exists against atheists, and the difficulty that many existing communities have with recognizing any kind of secular identification. I’ve never had much difficulty myself, but I’ve spoken with enough activists from other backgrounds to know that I’m the exception. Black and First Nations atheists often have a very different story. Same goes for those from majority Muslim countries. Same again for white activists from predominantly religious areas of the United States and Canada.

The numbers are pretty clear. Many people report negative feelings about atheists, and a secular outlook is still all but a guarantee of total unelectability. Off the top of my head I think Pete Stark is the only openly atheist senator, and he wasn’t out until after his first election. Can we really dismiss an effort to address all of these problems as completely worthless? Again, it seems like such an extreme sentiment that I’m not entirely certain it was the intended one. Suffice to say I think atheist activism is worthwhile because it makes it easier for people to be atheist if they want to be, and of course they should have that right. [Source: The Key of Atheist: ‘In Which Somebody Disagrees With Me, I Think?’]

I don’t just neglect the prejudice towards atheists; I actively deny that it exists.

The study cited includes important points which are routinely overlooked.

[W]hile our study does shed light on questions of tolerance,we are more interested in what this symbolic boundary tells us about moral solidarity and cultural membership.  We believe that attitudes toward atheists tell us more about American society and culture than about atheists themselves, and that our analysis sheds light on broader issues regarding the historic place of religion in underpinning moral order in the United States. [Source: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.pdf]

What we’re not seeing in society is atheists earning less than theists, for example.  Atheists really aren’t an oppressed minority, despite what others have tried to claim.  The survey that people keep citing was not looking at prejudice towards atheists: it was looking at how people delineate cultural membership.

Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means. Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways.  Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy.  Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. [Ibid.]

The purely anecdotal part of this is that atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. made it more difficult for me to be open about my atheism.  The moment I dropped the A-bomb, I’d be forced to distinguish my opinions and beliefs from those more prevalent.  The toxic discourse from the Big Name Atheists — which, in historic terms, is remarkably extreme — is affecting the way the mainstream conceptualises atheists.  It’s why it seems more socially appropriate to call oneself an agnostic instead of an atheist.

You’ll be given love, you’ll be taken care of… Unless you’re an atheist with a billboard

We atheists don’t do ourselves any favours.  We really don’t.

Here’s the President of the American Atheist Society, David Silverman, in conversation with Bill O’Reilly (Warning: It’s painful viewing)

At no time should an atheist make Bill O’Reilly look sane.  Even when he’s babbling about tides or some crap, O’Reilly still appears to be the sensible one in the conversation.  ‘Oh, calling a religion a scam isn’t an insult.  Don’t be silly!  We’re trying to reach out to all the secret atheists who are going to Church.’  Uhhhh… right.

I prefer to think of O’Reilly as performance art.  How do people in the world respond to brute silliness?  In the case of the President of American Atheists, the response is to claim that people are secretly atheist and secretly agree.  It’s completely rational to believe that an invisible group of secret, anonymous people believe with you.

When everything is going down the pan… another post about the Australian Book of Atheism

It looks like I’m going to write an entry criticising every piece in the book…  Oh dear.  At some point, I should get around to Eggs_Maledict’s request to explain what I like about conservatism.  Every time I sit to write that entry, I get a bit lost and need to reframe the argument.  Look forward to it.

In the mean time, we have ‘Religion and the Law in Australia’, written by Clarence Wright.  In fairness to this guy, he hasn’t made any beefed up claims about himself (like the other two authors) and seems to have been included in this anthology by virtue of being friends with the editor (they’re both Brisbane atheists).  Later, the anthology will include Tim Minchin’s poem about a dinner party, so I think we’ve given up on considering this anthology to have much in the way of intellectual merit.

But let’s give Wright’s article a chance to shine…

He starts off with Thomas Aquinas’ account of ‘natural law‘ but mangles a bit to get to his conclusion:

This religious and unsophisticated ideal of just law resulting from ‘God’s’ direction, through his Holy Text, the Bible, no longer serves a significant influence on jurisprudence. [Source: Clarence Wright, ‘Religion and the law in Australia’]

Phew.  If we accept Wright’s reading of Aquinas (which we shouldn’t, but whatever), then we atheists have nothing to worry about.  This religious ideal is no longer a significant influence!  Hooray and hoorah.  Victory to us.

Wait… why is his conclusion on the second page of his article? Continue reading

You want to sleep and I do too… but computer programmers aren’t philosophers

So The Barefoot Bum has responded again

The Story So Far…

The Barefoot Bum called religion infantile because ‘[t]he specifically religious type of make-believe has an especially disturbing characteristic: Meaning and purpose come from without.’  And then he floundered around before wrapping up with ‘It would be nice to just be pluralistic, to say that well, we’re still going to need people to clean our toilets, and those who cannot consistently understand reality in a rational, adult manner will always be at a substantial disadvantage.’

I said that his post was both false and relied on assuming the conclusion.

He replied that my direct quotes of his argument were a mischaracterisation of his argument and that quoting a person was not a way to argue.  He wound up by showing that he was out of his depth with ‘“bald naturalism” (as opposed to what, hairy naturalism?’.  Amidst the personal attacks, he mentions the philosophically interesting part:

The fundamental principle of atheism is the rejection of ethical and epistemic authority: even if there were some form of objective values, meaning or purpose, they must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘How Not to Argue’]

I still hold that this is an interesting idea, mostly because it is a very common belief amongst internet atheists despite being irrational and indefensible.

So I replied why we shouldn’t believe the statement and why it was irrational.  ‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’ is not a provably true statement.

When Computer Programmers Disagree

‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’ is not a provable statement, as noted in a previous post.  How could a person mount a defence of it?

The Barefoot Bum tries to do it by stating that he never said it.

In the quoted passage I do not […] link knowability with existence. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘Injustice’]

So when he says that ‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’, he doesn’t really say that.  It makes me feel better that he doesn’t say what he means.  Perhaps when he says that I’m egregiously stupid, he actually means something completely different.  He might mean, for example, that I like marzipan (making it a true statement).  And the frequency with which he charges others of poor reading comprehension would make more sense if we suppose that he is projecting his deficiencies on to others.

So what does the Barefoot Bum mean?

I just don’t make the argument […] is not that what we cannot know does not exist. [Ibid.  All sic]

When reading masterpiece sentences like that, I wonder if I’m being really unfair by quoting him.  It’s like all those YouTube clips of children falling over.  Sure, it’s funny when they hurt themselves but should we laugh at the incapable?

I’m arguing against authority, that no individual can reasonably assert private knowledge of any objective truth. [Ibid.]

This is an exciting revelation because it strikes directly at the heart of ‘objective truth’.  Is the fact that I’m wearing black pants objectively true?  Really?  When I kick you, is it objectively true that you’re in pain?  Really?

On some accounts, the answer to all of those is yes.  If so, then there are clearly objective truths for which an individual has private knowledge.  ‘As it is objectively true that I am experiencing pain, I have private knowledge of an objective truth.’

But, in fairness to the Barefoot Bum, he might believe that colour and qualia are subjective (with propositions relating to them being made true by virtue of magic, perhaps — I wonder if he’s written ‘extensively’ on the role of magic as a truth-maker).  In which case, he’s making contentless statements: objective truths are those where there is no first-person authority to their truth; truths which depend on first-person authority are not objectively true.

If so, so what?  You’ve just defined a term annoyingly.  It’s like those theists who pull throw the chessboard by saying ‘God is unable to be debated’.  Nobody defines objective truths as those which aren’t based on first-person authority.  People define objective truths as those which are independent of the observer.  Truths which are based on first-person authority can be independent of the observer: ‘Anybody in this position would know X to be true.’

But we’re still back at the start: the Barefoot Bum is asserting unprovable statements and then firing abuse to people who disagree.  How do you know that there are no private objective truths?  Because you don’t know any?  Are you feeling left out?  I know many, many objectively true things which cannot be verified by others.  This is because I’m not a p-zombie.

Given that the Barefoot Bum goes on to complain that he has difficulty imagining things, I’m not so sure about him.

Can we imagine an causally inert object? Is such a concept even coherent? What is an object but a collection of causally relevant properties? Ordinary people don’t ever talk about causally inert properties of ordinary objects: such as the happiness of a rock, or the consciousness of piece of cheese. Indeed, does a causally inert object differ at all from no object at all? If so, how? [Ibid.]

The answers to all of these are: Yes.  Yes.  An existential being (Go-go Gadget Aristotle).  Happiness and consciousness are not causally inert, especially when they’re ‘of’ other things.  Yes.  Beingness.

Again, I’ve waffled far too much.  I could have left it with his statement:

[W]ho — besides philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals such as Sangy, and other professional bullshit artists — would ever care [about truth]? [Ibid.]

It is awfully interesting to discuss this issue with a person who states that only philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals, &c. are the only people who care about truth.