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.