The Missing Review of Jane Caro’s ‘Oz Book of #Atheism’ Entry…

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, I was reviewing the individual entries in the Australian Book of Atheism.  After I discovered that the essays were just making me grumpy due to the poor reasoning, wild assertions, and general awfulness of the tone, I gave up writing all these down.  But I still have my notes.  Oh, yes.  I still have my notes…

The latest in Australia’s pop-religious discussion is For God’s Sake — a ‘debate in book form’.  The book has four authors, one of whom wrote an entry in The Australian Book of Atheism, Jane Caro.  I’m no stranger to criticising Caro.  One of my biggest complaints is her presentation as an academic expert in the public education debate.

My criticism of her article in The Australian Book of Atheism, however, was so scathing that I refrained from uploading it to this blog.  As was fairly evident, I wasn’t the intended audience for the book in general.  Despite being an atheist and interested in the history of atheism, this was a book for the happy-clapper atheist.  The sort of atheist who happily repeats everything they’ve heard that conforms with their prejudices, biases, and intuitions.  The sort of atheist who describes religion as the source of all social evils in the world in one breath, then ignorantly attacks Islam and its adherents in the second.

But reading Caro’s contribution to For God’s Sake made me remember the horribleness of her entry in The Australian Book of Atheism.  It seems obvious that terrible things happen when intelligent people say nothing.

Continue reading

We’ve got the land but they’ve got the view… Patrick’s Unfallacy

Last week, Bruce of Thinkers’ Podium took issue with my ‘execrable garbage’:

Now either Mark Fletcher is [sic] to use his words, particularly stupid or odious […] or he’s undertaking a brilliant project lampooning the stereotypical, bumbling, envious, aspiring fool-author.  [Source: ‘Patrick’s FallacyThinkers’ Podium]

Being the thoughtful and considered person that I am, I took a few days to think about his complaint and whether his armchair psychology diagnosis had any merit.

Before we get there, we need to look at Bruce’s overall argument.  It revolves around a concept he calls ‘Patrick’s Fallacy’:

It works like this. Your opponent makes an analogy between one thing and another thing, purportedly showing how they are the same in a particular way. You then find a different trait one of the things possesses, and declare that it is utterly horrible to analogize a thing with that trait to the other thing. [Ibid.]

I have trouble with the idea of the ‘fallacy’ in informal logic.  Nine times out of ten, it’s an attempt to normalise rules of discussion in favour of a privileged mindset.  Invariably, people who invoke ‘fallacy’-talk characterise their own position as default-rational and, more concerningly, values-neutral.  ‘No, it’s not me trying to dominate conversations with my preferred frameworks.  It’s just logic and rationality.  You’re being illogical and irrational when you say that you don’t trust my armchair psychology because I’m not a psychologist.  That’s an ad hominem.  I win this argument.’

Long story short, fallacies are rarely universalisable and invariably render invisible the power structures of language.  Unlike formal fallacies (e.g. affirming the antecedent), there is no structure underlying informal fallacies.  They are merely cultural constructs and are often too imprecise for practical work.

But it’s not fair of me to merely dismiss Bruce out of hand for getting confused by basic logic.  Maybe, despite his reliance on informal ‘fallacy’-talk, he has a legitimate claim that I am particularly stupid or odious.  Let us turn to the content of Patrick’s Fallacy.

Let us imagine Bruce and I are the best of friends (and I certainly hope that, in some future state of the universe, this might happen).  One day, Bruce and I are boarding a flight to attend a conference in Lithuania about the social project of atheism.  The following conversation happens:

Bruce: Ugh.  They want my passport.  This is just like Nazi Germany.

Mark: Say what, old chum?

Bruce: Identification documents.  This is also totally like apartheid South Africa.

Mark: You think a comparison of our current situation in an airport to a grand scale genocide and a national programme of racial segregation is appropriate, just because they share the common attribute of ‘Had identification documents’?

Bruce: Shut up, Mark.  You and your confected moral outrage really annoy me.  You know full well that you are committing Patrick’s Fallacy.  It is perfectly rational and reasonable for me to compare these things to each other.

Mark: Are you for real?

Bruce: Of course I’m for real.  I’m always for real.  It’s valid of me to compare these things because they share at least one attribute.  It in no way trivialises the horrors to which I’m connecting our current situation.

Mark: I’m sorry, we can no longer be friends.

I can understand situations where Patrick’s Fallacy might be reasonable.  For example, imagine the Australian Government started cleansing the Earth of New Zealanders.  Imagine somebody said: ‘Oh, hey.  This is scarily like Nazi Germany.’  I think it would be extremely foolish for someone to reply: ‘Don’t be so stupid.  Nazi Germany was about exterminating Jews.  We’re exterminating Kiwis.  It’s totally different and how dare you compare these atrocities.’

But anything short of that, and I don’t think it holds all that well.

So what’s the underlying problem with Patrick’s Fallacy?  Usually, I can work out what the underlying reason is behind informal fallacies.  Take, for example, the ad hominem.  Basically, it’s trying to say that (for ordinary propositions, at the very least) authors are not truth-makers.  P is true or false independent of who utters P.  The principle doesn’t hold for more complex cases or for where we’re stretching out of logic into epistemology (and justifications for beliefs).

What’s the deal with Patrick’s Fallacy then?  If two events contain at least one attribute in common, it doesn’t hold that these events are positively comparable.  My telephone and your artwork contain atoms; it doesn’t hold that my telephone and your artwork are anything alike.

The thrust of Patrick’s Fallacy seems to be that people make tenuous leaps to moral outrage.  Somebody might make the claim that draconian censorship laws are just like Soviet Russia’s.  It would be pretty dumb for somebody to complain that the censorship laws aren’t alike because Soviet Russia had a 5-year plan and these censorship laws don’t.  Maybe.  Do people even do things like this?  Surely the correct answer would be: ‘This is nothing like Soviet Russia.  Go read a book.’

What is far more common is for people to make tenuous links between their current situation and atrocities.

That brings us rather neatly to Bruce’s criticism of me.  Way back when I started going through The Australian Book of Atheism, I commented on an essay by Chrys Stevenson.  Stevenson, not known for being a class act, had this to say:

History is political.  The portrayal of minority groups in mainstream histories, or their omission from the national chronicle, resonates through our sense of national identity […]  It is no surprise that a key strategy of any social or nationalist movement is to reclaim the past — to seek out actors, events, and influences which have been omitted or downplayed in mainstream histories, and to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.

An early advocate for African American civil rights […] argu[ed] forcefully that African American contributions to America’s history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  Racial prejudice […] was the ‘inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.  (As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed.) [Source — Stevenson, C. ‘Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-Wing Loonies: Atheism in Australia, 1788-2010’; emphasis mine]

What does she mean when she says ‘As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed’?  I read it as Stevenson making a comparison between the treatment of atheists and the treatment of African Americans.  This would make use of the words ‘similarly’ and ‘dismissed’.

I said in that post — and I still maintain the position — that this is ludicrous.  Atheists have not suffered the same (or even similar) treatment as African Americans.

To substantiate my point, I noted that lots of atheists (who were also known to be atheist) feature prominently in Australian history.  You could find textbooks of Australian history in which atheists featured.  This is in contrast to the treatment of African Americans.  ‘African American History Month’ was established to counter this problem.

In response, Bruce says this:

Anyone bothering to read The Australian Book of Atheism with any appreciable level of comprehension will notice that in no way does Stevenson compare ‘suffering’. She’s comparing the similar tactics used by majorities in two different contexts, and you can even see this for yourself in the portion quoted in Fletcher’s own post. [Source: ‘Patrick’s FallacyThinkers’ Podium]

What sort of argument is that?  Oh, she’s comparing tactics?  How does this change the meaning of my post?  How does this mean I’ve inaccurately represented her argument?

To show this, let us imagine that Bruce is correct.  If the tactics were similar, then atheist contributions to Australian history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  This would have had ‘ the effect that [atheists] has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind’.

But, as my original article showed, this isn’t the case.

Clever readers would have noticed that Bruce hasn’t provided an argument for why I’m incorrect; he’s merely stated that I’m the victim of ‘envy and poor comprehension’.  I’m sure we all agree the extent to which Bruce has made a persuasive and rational case.

I think what he was trying to do was give examples of Patrick’s Fallacy.  Given that Patrick’s Fallacy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, this attack fails.  My response to Stevenson’s offensive suggestion that atheists and African Americans have experienced similar oppression (with regard to acknowledgement of contribution to human history) seems to be sound (though I’m open to rebuttal).  If Bruce thinks that it’s an example of some hastily-invented ‘fallacy’, this probably says more about his critical reasoning skills than mine.

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

And you think you’re radical, but you’re not so radical… More from the Australian Book of Atheism

To what standards should we hold ourselves in our writing?  In a blog post, perhaps we’re forgiven some indelicacies and the odd [sic] or two.  In a published book outlining the position of Australian atheists, it is probably more important that the ideas are rigorous and the writing coherent.  To do less than this is to invite (quite reasonable) criticism from the detractors of atheism, making it less inviting for people in the sidelines to express their atheistic beliefs.

Max Wallace doesn’t have much of an excuse when he wrote the second entry in The Australian Book of Atheism.  He’s a clever guy: he’s the director of the Australia New Zealand National Secular Organisation.  And he has a book published!  Watch out religious-types: Max Wallace (what a cool name that is) is going to lay an almighty smack down on your woolly-headed thinking.  Plus, after the first chapter (atheists are totally persecuted just like African Americans), I didn’t think this book could get much worse.

The tax-exempt status of the monarchy and the churches is the foundation of all subsequent political structures. [Source: Max Wallace, ‘The Constitution, Belief, and the State’]

Oh…

Foundation of all subsequent political structures?  The tax-exempt status of the monarchy and the churches?  Foundation?  All subsequent?

Something smells like bullshit. Continue reading

I remember when I lost my mind… there was something about the way they taught ethics

I’m going to update regarding the essay in The Australian Book of Atheism which argues:

Premiss 1: Religious education is bad.

Therefore: Religious education is bad.

But in discussing some of the ideas elsewhere, I got bogged down in an argument with @pandeiacomic on Twitter about Primary Ethics.

In NSW, the Education Act has been changed to allow students to receive ‘philosophical ethics classes’ instead of going to religious studies classes.  As an atheist myself, I think this is a bad idea.  I feel that a lot of our social problems relate to cultural illiteracy: we lack the language to construct a positive and robust discussion about our culture and society.  If religious education classes were taught well (and I happily admit that they are not — I’m not sure what educational relevance colouring a picture of Jesus holding a duck has to do with religious instruction), they would help people discuss culture meaningfully.

Sometimes, I wonder if my fellow atheists would be better equipped to discuss religion if they’d had better religious instruction (one of the essays in The Australian Book of Atheism starts discussing religion in society before going off on an irrelevant rant that the Earth didn’t begin 6,000 years ago; because, you know, hurr hurr that’s what theists believe). Continue reading

God rest ye merry Gentlemen… Atheism’s still in disarray

In a fit of bloodymindedness, I purchased this.  The Australian Book of Atheism demonstrates fairly conclusively that we atheists have given up on atheism as a social and intellectual project.

One of the articles in Salmon of Doubt discussed how Douglas Adams felt betrayed by comedy when he heard a comic ask an audience: ‘Why don’t they make the plane out of the same stuff that they make the black box out of?’  As the audience gaffawed in slack-jawed appreciation of the joke — signalling their sneering attitude towards the dumb scientists who made the black box indestructible but not the plane — Adams was shocked that it was culturally acceptable for the ignorant to sneer at the educated.

Given that Adams was a good friend of Richard Dawkins and dabbled quite a bit in social atheism, it seems slightly odd that I experience a similar feeling when reading the ‘works’ of modern atheists.  The Australian Book of Atheism is possibly the worst of the books published so far.

While it would (and will) take me a vast amount of time to correct the litany of errors written by my fellow atheists, the first essay struck me as particularly stupid and odious.  Written by Chrys Stevenson — ‘Historian, writer, blogger’ — it (again) compares the ‘suffering’ of atheists to the suffering of African Americans.

History is political.  The portrayal of minority groups in mainstream histories, or their omission from the national chronicle, resonates through our sense of national identity […]  It is no surprise that a key strategy of any social or nationalist movement is to reclaim the past — to seek out actors, events, and influences which have been omitted or downplayed in mainstream histories, and to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.

An early advocate for African American civil rights […] argu[ed] forcefully that African American contributions to America’s history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  Racial prejudice […] was the ‘inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.  (As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed.) [Source — Stevenson, C. ‘Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-Wing Loonies: Atheism in Australia, 1788-2010’; emphasis mine]

The essay then goes on to discuss people most of us already know: Gough Whitlam and Henry Lawson, for example. Continue reading