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.

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’.