Insulting Islam

I came to know of Uthman Badar recently via the news that his talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, titled “Honour Killings are Justified”, had been called off. It’s certainly a provocative title. My instinct was not to take it at face value, and Badar himself said it would be “ludicrous”, but it’s difficult to make an assessment of a talk that never happened.

Since information is scant on that topic, I’d like to address something else Badar has raised in this article (in a publication called 5Pillarz, which describes itself as “an opinion and analysis-based website which concentrates on British Muslim news but also looks to the wider Islamic world”).

I’ll start at the end, where Badar finally says:

Hence all beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult, including that which is most sacred to billions around the world: God and His Prophets, peace be upon them all. This should be done, in our present context, by the elevation of values, not imposition of law. You can’t regulate civility. You can’t force people to be respectful. This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

(My emphasis.)

Badar would have done well to say this up-front. Up until those final sentences, you get the distinct impression that he is talking about the imposition of a blaspheme law, or something like it.

After all, he spends a fair bit of time tearing down the notion of free speech; indeed, the piece is titled “Free speech is a liberal tool of power”. Badar does make a some reasonable points when he argues against the notion of an absolute right to free speech. Many of us are quite open to being persuaded, in particular situations, that free speech is absolute. It clearly isn’t, though, and there are many times where, for good reason, we simply cannot (or should not) say whatever we please. All of us know this, at some level, but we do not always remember it.

I agree with much of what he says, but his free speech argument doesn’t really support his broader point about the protection of belief from insult. It looks like it does, on the surface, but it’s a subtle non-sequitur. By “protection” Badar means something other than by means of the law. But free speech is fundamentally a legal notion. It implies that we have (at least some) legal protection, not necessarily moral virtue, when we choose to say something controversial. Libertarian defenders of free speech are often happy to concede the moral argument entirely (focusing instead on what they conceive to be a higher principle — individual rights).

The upshot is that free speech is the apples to Badar’s oranges. Badar’s argument that we should encourage (not enforce) civility by the “elevation of values” does not require a step back from free speech. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the legal protection of free speech at all, either in theory or practice. (Some people, particularly committed ideologues, do often mistake criticism of their ideas for an attempt to silence them, but we need not give their complaints credibility.)

Putting the free speech issue aside, Badar also runs into trouble when he tries to distinguish between “insult” and “critique”:

When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is kosher. It’s halal. Insulting any beliefs or people is not. Critique Islam all you want. Write in measured, considered tones about why Islam is not the truth, or why the Prophet was not a prophet. Such books fill bookstores across the West as it is. Never have any of these books resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate – that is something else, and is unacceptable.

A very fine line indeed, you might think. Badar tries to make it concrete by praising “critique” and damning “insult” in the strongest terms he can, but that’s emotional reasoning, and doesn’t actually serve to distinguish the two very well.

The real problem here is that the magnitude of the disagreement between religious groups, or the religious and non-religious, is so large that speaking honestly, openly and concisely about what you think of someone else’s beliefs is almost inherently mocking, denigrating and provocative. A debate? What “debate” would you have with someone who sincerely believes that the sky is green, or that we’re inhabited by ghosts who came from a volcano blown up by an ancient extraterrestrial? Your inner voice is not weighing up the evidence and formulating critiques. It’s saying “WTF?! Okay, just smile and nod. Smile and nod”.

Sure, we can, in theory, sit down for a few months (or even years) to meticulously explain in a weighty treatise where some belief system went wrong. “Never have any of these books resulted in a riot”, Badar claims, for those books that address Islam. I don’t actually know if this is true, but there is a logic to it — the longer and more detailed the explanation, the more opportunity the writer has to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) that they operate from a position of intellectual rigour and not malice. But writing books is a pretty high bar to set. A little forethought is always a good thing, but I don’t think one should be asked to refrain from commenting on a contentious issue unless or until one has devoted months of one’s life to researching and expounding the topic. This would just create a kind of intellectual aristocracy that shuts out most people.

Of course, we can be diplomatic and simply not point out how absurd we find the claims of (other) religions. For the purposes of maintaining harmonious relationships across belief systems, such discretion is necessary much of the time. But we must also be seekers of truth. Falsehoods have real consequences (see Iraqi WMDs, doomsday cults, vaccine denial, climate change denial, etc.), and we cannot always sit idly by while people are lured into believing something we know to be false. We know people are hurt by having their beliefs questioned, especially if those beliefs are held as dearly as religion often demands. But the same people, or others, or the wider community, can often be hurt even more if those beliefs are left unchallenged.

And so we must at least occasionally speak up, not because “it’s a free country” (as if there was any logic to that), but because we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t excuse the trolls whose motivation actually is to upset people by mocking their beliefs. If Badar is only talking about genuine trolls, then so much the better. But removing the trolls will not stop people taking offence at the comments of others; the problem is more complicated than that.

I’ll address other aspect of Badar’s article: his take on “secular liberalism”, which comes off as a little defensive:

But, let’s be honest, the reason this debate over the freedom to insult others is still a live one is because secular liberalism has dominated both East and West, not by the strength of its values, but by the strength of its militaries.

I won’t deny that the military might of the West (and others) has won it great power over the rest of the world. But are we really blaming liberalism for that? Liberalism is just one part of the political spectrum, not a banner under which Western armies march. Consider the internal politics of a country going to war — the nationalistic fervour, the secrecy, the paranoia over enemy propaganda and enemy infiltration. This is not liberalism, nor is it secularism. It was not liberalism nor secularism that advocated for the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian war in Chechnya. Liberals in the west are constantly being criticised by conservatives for being too weak to confront Islam, a charge to which they respond (broadly speaking) by calling for peace.

If there is peace to be made between the Western and Muslim worlds, secular liberalism will be a vital ingredient. The whole point of secularism is the peaceful coexistence of different belief systems. Where the word is co-opted to mean something else, this (I think) usually means the speaker feels threatened by such a heterogeneous society. For instance:

This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

There is also a certain level of hypocrisy in railing against insult while simultaneously levelling accusations of “hideous” erosion of “the sacred and the most basic value of human decency” at one’s opponents. Surely, if beliefs are sacred, then secular liberalism is entitled to the same basic level of respect as Islam.

Besides, the above statement is simply wrong, and demonstrably so. Consider the changes in Western society over the last fifty or so years. Erosion of human decency? What about the advancement of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of (at least some) racial and religious minorities? What about the advancement of medicine and health care and the de-stigmatisation and management of mental illness and disability? None of these are fixed problems, of course, but you can’t easily deny that there’s been progress. Are these things not elevating the human condition?

Badar is thinking of Western militarism, and (though he doesn’t say it) he could also be thinking of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, both of which are arguably erosions of human decency. I’m not sure that Western militarism has any particular philosophical basis, other than the basic tribal instinct to be as big and powerful as you can. You might legitimately blame the wealth gap on economic liberalism — the philosophy of small government. Economic liberalism has tended to ally itself politically to religious hardliners, who are opposed to liberalism in the secular/social sense.

While Badar is right about the limitations of free speech, and right about the importance of civility, he seems bent on hitting the wrong target. But then, the same thing happens when the ABC’s Scott Stephens writes about the perils of the faltering influence of Christianity. The ills of the world are arrayed before us and, whatever they are, we can be sure that it’s the damned secularists wot dun it. The varied religions of the world are getting quite good at this, and it serves their purposes (at least temporarily) to have an adversary who won’t get righteously outraged at being insulted.

It’s not even really secularism that they spurn (because, as mentioned above, secularism is merely peaceful coexistence among religions). Their true adversary is the absence of religion, including atheism and agnosticism, but also apatheism — a category for those who essentially don’t care. Defenders of religion devote so much of their human compassion, morality and civility to their cause that they conflate these qualities with their religion, and they forget, I think, that the same qualities exist outside of religion too.

Straw alarmism

So much is said in the political catastrophe surrounding climate change that I can’t quite imagine anyone keeping up with it. However, rbutr has informed me that one particular pseudo-anonymous article at something called the “Independent Journal Review” (or “IJReview”) could do with a closer look, and so I shall oblige.

The IJReview discusses James Lovelock’s recent about-face in which he describes his previous position on climate change as “alarmist” (a word that tends to be thrown around rather loosely — I’ll come back that later). The IJReview doesn’t cite the original source — an MSNBC phone interview with Lovelock — but rather several secondary authors. This indirection doesn’t alleviate the irony of the IJReview’s own political cartoon poking fun at MSNBC for selective editing and taking things out of context (which appeared alongside the article at the time of writing). Presumably, unreliable sources become reliable when you don’t cite them directly.

The level of snark in this article is on the silly side of normal, with “hardcore environmentalists” described as “money-grubbing” and “power-grabbing”, a connection based on some undiscovered logic by which, I suspect, I could also prove that 1 = 2. There’s also the condescending use of “confesses” and “admits” to describe anything said by a stereotyped individual that doesn’t conform to the stereotype.

First, a word about Lovelock’s Gaia Theory/Hypothesis, which (as I understand it) supposes that the Earth/biosphere behaves as a single composite organism. There is no supernatural or spiritual element to this. Gaia, though named after a Goddess, is not supposed to actually be one; it is merely a statement about large-scale self-organising phenomena. Nonetheless, a religious movement called Gaianism seems to have grown up around a silly misunderstanding1 of Gaia, and Lovelock himself seems to suffer casual ridicule for it. The title of this article describes him as the “Guru” of Gaia Theory, while James Delingpole has him pinned as the “High Priest” and “founder” of Gaianism itself.

Continuing in this vein, the IJReview article states:

James Lovelock, the veritable Pope of Gaia Theory, has taken global warmists to task for treating manmade climate change like a religion rather than valid science. Poignantly, [Lovelock] claims that for many the green religion is replacing the Christian religion.

The second sentence is accurate — Lovelock did say that — but he makes a similar claim about the religiosity of climate change deniers. It seems obvious, therefore, that Lovelock draws a distinction between people who broadly accept that climate change is real and people who approach it with religious fervour (those he terms “greens”, though obviously some will disagree with that).

That there is a “green religion” (or equally a denier religion) is not necessarily an unreasonable claim to make; all large political movements seem to have a quasi-religious element to them, and this probably tends to really annoy any independently-minded thinkers who come into contact with them. However, one cannot confuse the “green religion” with actual science or economic modelling conducted in actual research institutions, which convincingly (for the non-religious) points to the need to do something about carbon dioxide. It does not take an environmental activist to realise this, but like all religions2, the “green religion” incorporates some ideas that are actually sensible.

Now let’s look at Lovelock’s actual message, as quoted by MSNBC:

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

I find this curiously dismissive3. The millennium has no particular significance for science, and what makes 12 years a “reasonable” time? We know for a fact that the temperature trend has been steeply upwards for decades. If you ignore enough data — say, by picking an arbitrarily-recent starting point — you can always prove that, well, you don’t have enough data. If there are inexplicable fluctuations, the take-home message for laypeople is not “everything we know is wrong”, but “fluctuations are noise, and we’ve already seen the signal”.

Moreover, Tamino reports on a paper by Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf, published in December 2011 (months before Lovelock’s above remarks), which concludes that all five major global temperature datasets do show statistically significant warming since 2000, with no evidence that the rate of warming has slowed. The authors achieved this analysis by removing known sources of natural variation, which seems to put paid to the substance of Lovelock’s assertion that “we don’t know what the climate is doing”. I suspect the climate science community knows a lot more than Lovelock gives it credit for.

We also ought to ask this: what precisely is “half-way to a frying world” supposed to look like? What was it exactly that Lovelock expected to happen by 2012 that didn’t happen? Perhaps it was elucidated in his 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning — the volume he has now essentially disowned. It received a positive review by Tim Flannery at the time, who begins:

James Lovelock’s latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning… has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth’s climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

It must be said that this is alarmist, and well out-of-step with the IPCC’s projections, as Flannery acknowledges. I certainly haven’t heard the IPCC make any such dramatic short-term predictions. The main concern was always for the long-term when a litany of positive feedbacks are predicted to accelerate the rate of temperature increase. Nothing spectacular was supposed to happen as early as 2012 (though there are certainly worrying signs in the form of, for instance, Arctic ice depletion, glacial melt, ice shelf collapse and extreme weather events that, put together, are highly improbable in a world without climate change).

I’ll put Lovelock himself aside for the moment, while the IJReview article does some value-adding to his remarks:

The major issue with climate change acolytes is that they rarely if ever quantify the effect of man’s activities on climate change. Well, let me help them: It is a little more than 0.28%, based on Department of Energy statistics and verifiable scientific data.

“Veritable scientific data” is rather too strong a turn of phrase. The linked webpage was written by one Monte Hieb, who performs a calculation based on a suspiciously low number for the human contribution to CO2 levels — 11.880 parts per million.

(A quick aside: the 11.880ppm figure is then used to calculate that the human CO2-only contribution is 3.207% of all greenhouse gases minus water vapour by volume. The actual purpose of that very specific percentage — quite aside from its utter fictitiousness — is unclear, but it seems to have formed a core factoid in the climate denialist arsenal.)

Hieb cites another webpage by one Tom V. Segalstad as his source for the 11.880 ppm figure. Segalstad doesn’t seem to give us that figure explicitly4, but does produce his own calculations. He argues that the observed ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere puts an upper limit of about 4% on the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that resulted from burning fossil fuels.

But this is highly misleading, as explained here. CO2 molecules in the air are continually recycled. Those that originated from fossil fuels are mostly re-absorbed by the biosphere, but in doing so they displace naturally-produced CO2 molecules that are then left in the atmosphere (rather than being absorbed themselves), resulting in an overall increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Perhaps only 4% of atmospheric carbon dioxide originated from fossil fuels, but a much larger proportion is there indirectly as a result of fossil fuel burning. The ratio of carbon isotopes has no direct bearing on the human-caused change in overall CO2 concentration.

What we do know, according to the US EPA, is this:

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by almost 40% since pre-industrial times, from approximately 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in the 18th century to 390 ppmv in 2010. The current CO2 level is higher than it has been in at least 800,000 years.

If this improbable spike were due to natural processes, it’s a hell of a coincidence that it happened so quickly after the industrial revolution.

Now, in backing cautiously out of this particular rabbit hole, we also discover that Hieb is actually talking about the greenhouse effect, which isn’t the same thing as climate change at all.

The IJReview article follows this up with another link that tries to imply that CO2 cannot be a problem because it’s only a trace gas. That’s a straightforward non-sequitur; it simply doesn’t follow. (To assuage intuitive doubts, consider that cyanide is lethal at the concentrations we’re talking about for CO2.) The linked article also trumpets the logarithmic effect of CO2 on temperature, which is a great insight to throw at the climate modelling community who know that perfectly well and who must routinely deal with things a lot more complex than log functions (with apologies to the less mathematically-inclined).

We’ll return to CO2 concentration shortly. For now, we’ll instead confront this concoction of denialist memes:

Fellow enviroscientist Phil Jones, he of Climategate fame, admitted that there had been no global warming since 1995 in February 2010. Lovelock seems to refer to Phil Jones of the infamous “hockey stick” graph  when he declares that it is a “sin against science” to fudge data.

Climategate” has become a mythological scandal, along with the “infamous hockey stick”, that must be mentioned at all opportunities. Lovelock and others have rushed to judgement on the basis of selected stolen private emails — inherently flaky evidence. More than two years later, no allegation of “fudging data” has been sustained that I’m aware of. One wonders what Lovelock or the denialists actually want to happen over the matter, after the various investigations found no actual wrongdoing5. Do they simply want more investigations? Or should we just ignore the real findings and pretend that everyone was guilty of all the things we feverishly imagined about them?

That aside, Phil Jones emphatically did not “admit” there had been no warming since 1995, and he would have been lying if he had. Jones actually said:

I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.

This was poorly summarised as “no statistically significant warming”, which of course morphed into “no warming”. Statistical significance is nothing but a arbitrarily-chosen threshold level of probability; its absence does not alter the fact that Jones did observe a 0.12 degree/decade temperature increase. The issue is rendered irrelevant by the findings of Foster and Rahmstorf (and probably others), as mentioned above.

The IJReview article also has a swing at the “hyperbole” of James Hansen’s warning over the mining of Canada’s tar sands, where Hansen says:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

It’s worth contrasting this against Lovelock’s retracted predictions of global doom. The trouble is that Hansen actually knows his climate science, so you can’t dismiss him quite as easily as Lovelock. His idea here seems relatively straightforward: there’s enough carbon in those tar sands to wreak havoc. The world has been operating for some time on the basis that 450ppm was the “safe limit” for CO2 concentration. Hansen generously allows 500ppm in his article, but others have suggested that 350ppm is closer to the mark (which is a problem, because we’re already at 396ppm and rising). Hansen is simply comparing the projected future CO2 concentration to the reconstructed past. In effect, he’s citing precedent. This isn’t alarmism — it’s a reality check.

The IJReview article then makes a final digression into fracking, at which point my interest in the matter is finally exhausted. Lovelock seems to like the idea of fracking as well, but at the moment I don’t know enough to comment.

Although it’s an interesting exercise to write these articles, it’s unfortunate that there’s so much material. The IJReview article is a good example of a game of Chinese whispers played between people who already know what they want to hear.

  1. I suspect there is some overlap with the people who also try to coerce Quantum Theory into some sort of new-age religion. []
  2. Scientology is probably excepted here. []
  3. Indeed, a lot of what Lovelock has been quoted on recently appears to boil down purely to flippant cynicism: collectively we’re idiots, everyone is also an idiot individually, and nothing will help. Cynicism of that magnitude irritates me because it’s intellectually lazy, fundamentally useless and diverts attention from attempts to solve (or even understand) the problems we face. []
  4. I can only speculate that 11.880ppm was a product of some unseen conversation or calculation. []
  5. The investigations did find that Freedom of Information requests had been mishandled, but this has nothing to do with science per se. []

Trolling atheists

Scott Stephens has a good heart, and is refreshingly well acquainted with the absurdities of politics. However, in his capacity as an antagonist of atheists, I find his arguments rather inadequate.

While Stephens propounds his notion of “chic” and “fashionable” atheism, I sense that his own lines of reasoning are sculpted by the vacuous fashions of anti-atheist campaigning. Stephens’ opening mention of atheism (which actually occurs well into his article) goes like this:

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

This rather depends on your definition of atheism, and also the societal context. The increasing number of non-religious people in Australia probably does create a context in which absence of belief is an aspect of conformance. However, it is debatable whether these people are true atheists, for whom the argument itself is of fundamental importance. Atheism is not just the absence of belief, but the rejection of it, and you cannot reject something that you haven’t truly thought about. I think Stephens’ talk of “ultimate conformism” is a product of his own over-eagerness to see irreligious society as a uniform cesspit of unspeakableness, rather than any careful, objective observation.

Stephens goes on to make another familiar complaint:

This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.

Who, among the atheists of this world, blames everything on religion? That seems rather an extreme interpretation of atheism.

Science and education are the crucial mechanisms by which atheism proposes to address social ills. Different atheists take different views on the extent of religious interference in science and education. In Australia, it seems quite minimal. In the US, religion poses a real threat to science education, and thus to science itself and the employment prospects of the next generation. In Africa, religion continues to obstruct the fight against AIDS, by opposing contraception. If atheism “poses no serious challenge” to such problems, it is only because religion is already too powerful.

Stephens then explains the root cause of atheism:

Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism.

And hence it is altogether unsurprising that, when we can’t even think clearly about such lower-order goods, the highest Good, and what philosophy once regarded as the ultimate object of human contemplation – namely, God himself – is beyond our imaginations.

If we are to “think properly” about Good, Beauty, Truth, etc., then my first question would be what “properly” means. It seems just slightly sinister, as though there are Correct thoughts and Incorrect thoughts. Meanwhile, actual scepticism doesn’t really fit into Stephens’ picture at all – you either unconditionally acknowledge God’s supreme Goodness, or you are utterly ignorant of God, having succumbed to “incurious and all-pervasive nihilism”. There can be no genuine questioning of God, except for that which leads to the appropriately sanctioned conclusion.

Moreover, it is equally unsurprising that when the New Atheists do speak of “God,” their god is just as vulgar and petty and agonistic as their conceptions of morality, gender, politics and sex. When they speak thus about “God,” are they not just seeing what is worst in ourselves?

“Their” god? The god discussed by New Atheists is the god of the masses – the being actually worshipped by countless millions of people – not some Freudian fantasy. That’s the point of New Atheism; it bypasses theologians and theological arguments and talks directly to the actual beliefs of real people.

Moreover, what does Stephens have in mind, precisely, when he alludes to substandard atheistic notions of morality, gender, politics and sex? Is he simply conflating atheism with everything else he doesn’t like? Perhaps we are seeing what is worst in ourselves, but if so then it’s the New Atheists who are trying to improve things.

Stephens moves on to what he considers a “desperate contradiction” at the heart of “atheistic hyperbole”:

But they also claim that all religion is “man made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination?

Correct, Mr Stephens – you have understood the contention, albeit through circuitous, tautological reasoning in which you conclude your own premise. Stephens does eventually come to the point:

And so, as Bernard Williams puts the question:

“if humanity has invented something as awful as [these atheists] take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?”

And so, it would seem that we are left with an unavoidable choice: either these atheists are really misotheists, God-haters, who rage against the very idea of God, the Good, Truth and Law, and so desperately try to will God out of existence; …

I think we can discount that absurd possibility, Mr Stephens. The “Atheists hate God” meme simply arises from some people not wanting to believe that actual atheism is actually psychologically possible.

…or their oft-professed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress is without justification; …

Without justification? Atheists accept human frailty, therefore our belief in humanity’s capacity for progress is without justification? I think not, Mr Stephens, but I’ll get back to this shortly.

…or the history of religion reflects the extraordinary human capacity to pursue the Good, as well as its equally pronounced tendency for Evil, idolatry and nihilism.

Well yes, it does1. However, I don’t see how this addresses atheists’ contention that religion is made up. If anything, this actually supports it.

But let’s get back to Bernard Williams’ point – the middle option in Stephens list of alternatives – which is a terribly simplistic piece of reasoning. Atheists do generally argue that (a) religion is both a product of and a burden on humanity, but that (b) humanity can ultimately take care of itself. These are in some respects contradictory notions, but they do not really undermine each other. Atheists do not contend that religion wipes out all that is good in humanity. It’s a matter of scale and perspective. We might well regard religion as evidence of humanity’s flaws, but religion is not a sufficiently bad idea to write off humanity altogether, and few atheists would think it was. Atheists would contend that religion is a mistake of humanity, but a mistake that we, as a species and a global civilisation, can learn from. It’s that learning process that constitutes progress, in my mind.

The definition of progress that Mr Stephens supports might be extrapolated from his closing remarks:

I often hear atheists insist that they do not need God in order to be good. But if I am in any way accurate in what I have argued here, we are faced with a far more destructive possibility: that without God, there simply is no Good.

Yes, Mr Stephens. Without God you might be forced to settle for “good”, rather than “Good”. Oh the humanity.

  1. I don’t see human endeavour bifurcated into Good and Evil, though. That reminds me too much of politics, and I would hate for the universe itself to succumb to such petty notions. []

I’m not latently racist, but…

It’s an interesting exercise getting people to admit to racism. The ABC reports on a nation-wide survey (or rather a collection of state-wide surveys) exploring the nature and extent of racist attitudes in Australia.

Only 1 in 8 people were prepared to explicitly admit to racial prejudice. Yet, 1 in 2 people were found to be “anti-Muslim”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Indigenous”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Asian”, 1 in 4 were anti-Semitic and 1 in 4 were “anti-black African” (approximately, in each case). Clearly there is a disconnect, but how did the researchers manage to uncover it? By asking the following question:

In your opinion how concerned would you feel if one of your close relatives were to marry a person of…?

(This question was asked once for each of five national/ethic groups – Asian, Indigenous, Italian, British and black African – and three religious affiliations – Muslim, Jewish and Christian. )

In other words, though you might not identify yourself as prejudiced, your prejudices can be revealed by having you imagine a personal association with someone different. People are evidentially very good at fooling themselves when it comes to racial prejudice; hence the expression “I’m not racist, but…”, which is almost invariably followed by something mind-bendingly racist. As a society, we’ve learnt by rote that racism is bad, but a lot of us clearly don’t understand why. Thus, we perform mental gymnastics to allow us to be racist without acknowledging it.

Of course, there are lots of ways in which racism can be worse than concern over interracial marriage in your own family. There was some relatively good news from the survey:

  • Less than 1 in 10 people felt insecure “with people of different ethic backgrounds”.
  • Less than 1 in 15 people felt that society ought not to be “made up of people from different cultures”.

Maybe this is where our “latent racism” comes in. We’re happy to work with people from different backgrounds, but we don’t truly think of them as equals. This shows up in the 41% agreement with the following statement:

Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways.

This is a curious form of wording. “Old ways” seems to invite respondents to fantasise about all manner of archaic, barbaric practices that might occur in Ethnicistan. The statement is not loaded per se – it is perfectly possible to give a reasonable, straight “agree” or “disagree”. However, like the marriage question, it is cleverly designed to press our buttons and draw out latent prejudice.

The responses to that original marriage question also turn the “integration” debate on its head. For years, politicians and commentators have cried out for migrants, especially Muslims, to “integrate” into Australian society. Interracial, inter-religious, inter-ethnic marriage is surely one of the best markers of successful integration. If Muslim migrants are to be truly integrated into Australian society, such marriage is an inevitable, perhaps crucial part of the process. And yet, on a personal level, it would be a cause for concern for half of all Australians. It is concerning, presumably, for many of the very same people1 who complain about the lack of integration.

Hopefully those 14 out of 15 Australians are not just paying lip service to diversity.

  1. I tend to be wary of the phrase “the same people who…”, because often it’s a device to conjure up fictional double standards for your opponents. Often there’s no evidence that the people in question are the same at all. I’ll concede that some of the people complaining of the lack of Muslim integration might not be concerned about their own relatives marrying Muslims. I’m not really worried about anyone who holds that combination of views, because race riots are not conducted by those with such nuanced opinions. I fear it’s a little too nuanced for many of us, though. []

A “pseudo-intellectual trifle”

Scott Stephens has an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website called “The Poverty of the New Atheism“.

PZ Myers has a go at this (and he’s seen it all before). Stephens’ article resembles the Courtier’s Reply, another of Myers’ illuminations. Theologians seem to object to atheist arguments not because they’re wrong – they hardly even mention the issue of correctness – but because atheists pay insufficient attention and reverence to the details of theological discourse. In this case, Stephens objects to “New Atheism” not because it makes errors but because it doesn’t go far enough into his other pet interests.

Many of Stephens’ remarks are just empty put-downs, like this:

But is there not is a kind of implicit acknowledgement of inferiority in the tone so many of the “New Atheists” have adopted? The air of contemptuous flippancy reduces atheism to a form of light entertainment and petit bourgeois chic.

New Atheists might adopt contemptuous flippancy towards the more extreme and fantastical religious imaginings floating around, but it’s not atheism that this reduces to light entertainment – it’s religion. Their tone might convey arrogance (which is the usual accusation), but Stephens does this quite well himself, as you can see.

Stephens use of “bourgeois” might be telling, considering that his next dozen paragraphs lead us on a wild adventure into Marxist philosophy. Stephens is strangely enamored with Marx, who he promotes above the New Atheists. I was torn between two possible reasons for this. Either –

  1. Stephens wants to laugh at his contemporary adversaries by comparing them unfavourably to a long-vanquished foe; or
  2. Stephens does see a redeeming quality in Marx, and is disdainful of New Atheism for not also being New Communism.

I lean towards the latter interpretation, because Stephens wraps up his Marxist adventure as follows:

And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

I think Stephens displays a profound misunderstanding of the terms of reference, so to speak, of atheism. It is silly to chastise atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) for what it doesn’t do. Atheism is not supposed to be a holistic solution for all your philosophical needs; it is only one aspect of philosophy.

In particular, if you want to hear atheists make passionate moral arguments, tell them to take off their atheist hats and put on their secular humanist ones. It is humanism that (typically) drives morality for atheists, not atheism. Atheism is concerned with the non-existence of God. That’s not just where it happens to be focused at the moment; that’s what it is. New Atheism is merely a modern-day expression of this.

It’s even sillier to accuse New Atheism of legitimising “the pathologies of capitalism”, simply by having nothing to do with it. Atheists span the entire political spectrum. As many atheists would argue for capitalism as against it. As many theists would argue for capitalism as against it. We can debate the existence of God without invoking economics. We can debate the relative merits of capitalism without invoking the supernatural. The two issues are completely independent, and it serves no purpose to conflate them.

However, Stephens finally uses the capitalism theme to launch into the unlikeliest of proposals:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

“Not unproblematically” is something of an understatement, you might think. Atheism would not be atheism if it made an “alliance” with religion – the idea is self-contradictory. Secular humanism might make an alliance with religion (in some hypothetical context) – and that might even entail atheists, but not atheism per se.

Finally, we have this:

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

That’s the thing about atheism, Stephens – it has no debt to the past. Atheism is merely the rejection of religious mythology. Every one of us is born with the capacity for such reason. We don’t need cues from those living decades, centuries or millennia ago – we can work it out for ourselves. And that’s why it will endure.

The institution of specious reasoning

Stumbling across the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” department, I discovered David Novak’s rather bluntly titled article: “No Right to Marriage for Same-Sex Couples“. It’s long, rambling and so far hasn’t attracted a lot of attention (judging from the solitary comment).

Novak’s points are at least made clearly enough (though rather verbose), but in the end they boil down to a set of very ruthless and arbitrary value judgments. Novak feels it necessary to declare himself a “Traditional Jew”, so I can’t help but feel that there is some religious motivation behind his position, even though he briefly tries to dispel that notion. He does appear to claim, a little way in, that God created marriage.

Throughout his piece, Novak (like most other opponents of same-sex marriage) talks of the “institution” of marriage. I find this to be a clever rhetorical device for giving form to an abstraction. The word “institution” merely means “tradition”, yet the former seems to demand more reverence. Tradition, by definition, is just the way things have been done in the past, but “institution” seems to imply something more formal, almost concrete, built-up over the ages from humanity’s noble efforts. In fact, three times Novak mentions the “traditional institution” of marriage, wherein I fancy he’s tripping over himself.

Novak’s first point of interest (after trying to dismantle a strange analogy with public education) is that the state should not interfere with marriage because marriage predates and “transcends” the state. I’m only quoting selected parts of Novak’s article, but much of it is the kind of waffle that rings all sorts of cognitive alarm bells (if there was a valid point to be made, surely it would have been made in far fewer words and with far more precision).

Novak lays the foundation of his argument as follows:

The most the state can honestly do in such appropriation of an institution that predates its founding – and in many ways transcends its operation – is to refine and reformulate in its governance of this institution the original reasons why this institution has deserved and still deserves social recognition and support.

A bit of a mouthful, but not entirely unreasonable. I’ve stopped Novak there because what he says next is truly ridiculous:

That should be done by judges, already designated by society to be the proper interpreters of the law. If judges cannot refine and reform the existing institution of marriage, then legislators who want this radical change should implement the abolition of this institution altogether, or they should subsume what used to be known as “domestic relations” under some other existing institution, such as private contracts. But, if they do that, they should be honest enough to stop calling what would not have been recognized in law as “marriage.”

I’m not sure what test Novak is  proposing to determine whether judges can “refine and reform” marriage. Judges may well have already sanctioned same-sex marriage if not for the explicit intervention of legislators. In Australia at least, it’s the Marriage Act that provides the legal basis for marriage being heterosexual in nature, not any judge’s determination (as far as I’m aware, though of course I’m not a laywer). Novak would be foolish to assume that the judiciary holds his same views on the origins of and reasons for marriage. To me, same-sex marriage is a natural part of the existing “institution” of marriage (one that has been conspicuously omitted), not at all a radical departure from it.

Novak seems committed to the idea that marriage cannot physically be redefined, though I can’t imagine what he thinks would happen if we simply decided to do so anyway. It’s a testament to the emptiness of Novak’s (and others’) beliefs that they are so possessive of the word “marriage”. Why should the state, and by extension society, be forced to use a different term (e.g. “civil union”) for the concept we want to call “marriage”? You can’t own a word, either morally or legally (except of course as a trademark). Even if same-sex marriage was a significant departure from the traditional definition – which it really isn’t –  it’s perfectly acceptable for words to be co-opted into new meanings, as long as the meaning is clear. Language constantly evolves. Many more words have their meanings corrupted beyond recognition*, and yet this is looked upon at worst as a mere annoyance.

However, Novak is not finished yet. He tells us that there are good reasons, aside from tradition, for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. He cites one Martha Nussbaum, who divides the various reasons for marriage into two categories: expressive (e.g. love, companionship) and procreative (having and raising children). Novak decides that the procreative aspect of marriage, unlike the expressive aspect, is in the public interest and should “be governed by the laws of the state”:

The state’s interest in procreation and familial continuity is because the state needs to replenish its citizenry regularly and thus ensure social continuity.

There is something terribly cold about this logic. Novak talks about “the state’s” interest, as though this is somehow divorced from society’s interest, and this obscures a fairly obvious and universal human sentiment. Yes, it clearly is in society’s interest to continue procreating (at some level, at least). However, surely the expressive aspect of marriage is also in society’s interest. Surely our society is richer and more human for its collective (not just individual) embrace of love and companionship. The state is supposed to serve the interests of society, not just keep the human race alive. Nevertheless, Novak continues:

Since procreation combined with child rearing is the only truly public reason for marriage, I think marriage is essentially endorsed and structured by the state to best facilitate the procreation and rearing of children.

This betrays a rather stunted idea of what a “public reason for marriage” might be. Novak is saying, quite earnestly, that love cannot be a basis for the legal recognition of marriage. Couples should only be allowed to marry on the basis of their having procreation and/or parenting potential. This is a particularly egregious value judgement, and is completely nonsensical when you consider all the symbolism and ritual associated with marriage. Marriage vows are generally about love and companionship, not raising kids.

Even after we accept this monstrous logic, Novak is aware that there are still two obvious problems: (a) not all heterosexual couples can or even intend to have children, and (b) homosexual couples can and do have kids (in various ways).

On (a), Novak invokes a bit of Latin:

I would answer that objection by citing the old legal principle: de minimis non curat lex, which could be translated loosely as “the law is only made for what usually obtains.”

The fact is, the majority of people who marry are fertile and are of an age to be fertile. And how could we reasonably establish a criterion to determine who is fertile and who is not? Moreover, in an age when new reproductive technologies are enabling persons heretofore assumed to be sterile to become parents, almost no one can be presumed to be incurably infertile.

That is, the law is designed to take care of the big problems, and we shouldn’t worry so much about the little ones. Basically, we can’t really come up with a ironclad test for fertility, especially considering technological options. However, this undermines his larger point. Novak is already applying a gender-based fertility test (heterosexual and you’re in, homosexual and you’re out), which is by no means an ironclad determiner of a couple’s ability to have kids, one way or another. However, if we hold the gender test to be valid – as Novak does – why not more fine-grained tests? Why not have a marriage automatically revoked after a period of time if no babies have resulted? That would be quite easy to administer, and would almost certainly achieve Novak’s stated objectives for marriage.

On (b), Novak descends into pure snobbery:

But let us examine some examples of how gays and lesbians can “have” or “create” children.

The first example concerns children from a previous – and I assume heterosexual – marriage. Since children from a previous marriage can be and often are raised by a single parent after having been widowed or divorced, I fail to see what the addition of another adult adds to the family, especially when that new spouse functions in loco parentis, at least de facto, replacing the now displaced parent in the new domestic arrangement.

What passes for an argument is merely Novak “failing to see” how a homosexual partner can fulfil the role of a parent. This is empty prejudice, with not even the veneer of an intelligent point. He further adds:

There is also the question of adultery and its connection to the question of custody of children after a divorce. That is, when an originally heterosexual couple divorces because one of the spouses decides he or she is really homosexual, is it often the case that this spouse discovered his or her homosexuality from having been involved in a homosexual relationship already?

I don’t know Novak – is it often the case? You don’t appear to have any evidence that homosexual parents are engaging in adultery. I myself don’t have any problem imagining that a homosexual parent might discover his/her homosexuality without engaging in an extramarital affair. Are you perhaps predisposed to thinking of homosexuals as being morally inferior?

The second example concerns surrogacy or artificial insemination, which creates a violation of a child’s natural right to have both natural parents raise him or her.

I skipped over the bit when Novak rambles on about a child’s “natural right” to have a mother and a father, but it comes into play here. Novak never gets around to saying what is actually wrong, morally, legally or practically, with surrogacy or artificial insemination. His case is, once again, built entirely on value judgments. Bringing a bit of the real world into this story, it seems a Victorian gay couple have just been granted the right to parent a daughter conceived with a surrogate mother. If there was anything wrong there the judge certainly couldn’t discern it. (Remember again that judges are the people Novak would have guarding the institution of marriage).

Personally, I reject the entire notion of natural rights. I prefer to think of “rights” as an evolving societal construct that has no meaning without the consent and support of members of society. What society demands principally, I think, is that a child have dedicated and loving parents. I don’t think we’re all that worried about their gender. (At least, we won’t care about it for long, given the trends in public opinion of same-sex marriage.)

Novak then talks about adoption, and seems to do a bit of backtracking:

Nussbaum’s last example concerns adoption. Despite all my talk about natural parentage and childhood, I am in favour of the institution of adoption. Surely, a child’s right to being raised to adulthood is better upheld by adoptive parents than by natural parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their natural offspring.

And, in principle, I am not opposed to a gay or lesbian couple being able to raise a child so abandoned by his or her natural parents. Surely, a child is better raised by two people who love him or her and each other, rather than being raised in the less personal setting of an orphanage, or by foster parents.

Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. Novak is clearly quite eager to make an exception for adoption, even for homosexual couples, but again this undermines his main point. If marriage is all about raising kids, and Novak concedes that a homosexual couple can be viable parents, then why can’t homosexual adoptive parents get married? His logic is tangled into knots of self contradiction.

The two previously-quoted paragraphs provide at least a flame of enlightenment, which Novak can’t help but extinguish in the following text. Nothing else Novak has said so far has any bearing on homosexual vs. heterosexual adoption, and yet he still manages to worm his way into arguing that the latter is preferable.

That is because a heterosexual couple can better simulate – perhaps improve upon – the heterosexual union that produced this child in the first place. This better simulates the duty of the natural parents to raise this child, a duty they would not or could not exercise.

Better “simulate”? Whatever parenthood might entail, it’s not about “simulating” anything, least of all (in the case of adoption) the original parents. There is clearly no biological directive at work here – no “natural right” left to uphold – so what makes a homosexual couple less able to raise an adopted child than a heterosexual couple?

Novak concludes by returning to the state, and raising the notion of “civil unions”:

Although I have extrapolated on many points at which Martha Nussbaum and I disagree, I do agree with her when she says: “I personally favor the solution of leaving civil unions to the state and leaving marriage to religions and other private entities.” In fact, such a move would greatly strengthen the social prestige of religious marriage.

Novak’s religious underpinnings are showing here. There would be utter outrage from across secular society at the notion of “leaving marriage to religions and other private entities”. Marriage is a secular concept, co-opted by religion by means of various rules and rituals. Every society in the world has marriage, even those that have nothing in common by way of religious tradition. Given the universal applicability of marriage, it is society that grants religion the privilege of officiating marriage, not the other way around.

It is secular society, not religion, that holds the mandate for changing it.

False security, false feminism and false secularism

There seems to be a growing school of thought in Western countries that the burqa (or other forms of Islamic headdress) should be banned, with several European countries (including Belgium, France and Spain) debating or already having passed laws against it. There are murmurings here too, by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and the Christian Democrats’ Fred Nile.

The most ludicrous claim is that such religious clothing is a security risk. If that were so, we ought to ban all manner of clothing, including just about anything you might want to wear if the temperature drops below about 20 degrees C (as it has been known to do, on occasion), or even if it doesn’t. Bernardi and others claim that the veil obscures the wearer’s identity. This may be so, but implication is that none of us are entitled to anonymity – we must be readily identifiable in any public place to which we might venture. Why? We are not (yet) a police state, and I rather like the idea of being anonymous when out in public. I suspect most other people would as well, if they thought about it. Identifying specific circumstances in which the veil may cause problems does not justify a blanket ban. The security argument is simply designed to press the buttons of islamophobes looking for the most flimsy of excuses.

A marginally less ridiculous argument concerns women’s rights. It is argued that we ought to ban such clothing because it represents the submission of women to a male-controlled religious establishment. This is a little more plausible, but there are still two enormous holes in the argument:

  1. What about Muslim women who want to wear religious clothing, due to a genuine, freely-held belief that it’s the right thing to do? Any claim to be defending their rights through a ban on such clothing is completely nonsensical. If you’re not actually being oppressed, then the fact that some people see your clothing as a symbol of oppression is utterly irrelevant.
  2. Even in cases where religious clothing does indicate female subjugation and/or religious oppression, it’s only a symptom of the problem. A likely outcome of any ban might be to effectively prevent women in such an unfortunate position from going out in public at all. After all, it’s they who will be targeted under any ban, not their oppressors. They will face a three-way choice – violate the law, violate religious commandments, or stay at home. The law might be written to ban men from forcing women to wear religious clothing, but how do you enforce that? You can’t legislate to force people behave as if they aren’t at the wrong end of a power relationship, or as if their beliefs don’t matter. It’s the women in question who will miss out on attending university, getting a job, etc., and this lack of exposure to society would only entrench the problem. If there really is a problem, what on Earth could possess you to think that punishing the victims will solve it?

I worry that this argument has ensnared a number of feminists, which is disheartening because it’s largely anti-feminist. It appeals to one’s sense that one group ought not to impose standards on another, but the proposed solution is to hypocritically impose just such a standard while ignoring whatever religious/gender power relationship might be at the root of the problem – if indeed there is a problem. The argument probably arises out of the ancient reactionary instinct that “bad things” can simply be banned. It’s not always that simple. Whatever you think of the idea of covering yourself up in public, or even of forcing others to do so, surely it’s better that devout Muslim women feel they can at least be in public places.

The final fall-back argument is high-minded secularism. France, for instance, bans all “conspicuous” religious symbols from state schools. This thinking also annoys me. (The protagonists talk about values, which is never a good sign in political debates.)

I’m a great fan of secularism. I think it is, almost by definition, the only way that different religious groups can coexist peacefully. When I’m wearing my atheist hat, of course, I argue that religion and religious beliefs are unnecessary, that morality derives from human nature (far from being in conflict with it), the universe is inherently naturalistic, etc. I see those arguments as being largely of intellectual value, while the political arena presents an entirely different set of problems.

Secularism is essentially the separation of church and state. It is not anti-religious; it permits any type of belief system that does not infringe the rights of others. The state is supposed to be, as much as possible, agnostic.

So what, then, is the state doing making judgments of what constitutes religious clothing or symbolism? In theory, the state shouldn’t even be aware of the concept of religious clothing or symbolism, because such awareness in itself breaches state-church separation. The state should merely ensure that the rights of its citizens are being upheld.

To impose a ban on religious clothing or symbolism (except perhaps for those people who symbolise the state itself – but that’s a side issue) is not a secular idea, but an anti-religious one. I have no love of religion, but government intervention isn’t how atheism wins. It is far more important that everyone in society be able to get along. Militant secularism is not secularism at all.

One belief does not a religion make

There’s nothing like a righteous religious leader for a good dose of stagnant inanity. Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen doesn’t let us down (SBS, ABC, News Ltd):

As we can see by the sheer passion and virulence of the atheist – they seem to hate the Christian God – we are not dealing here with cool philosophy up against faith without a brain.

One should immediately be suspicious of the phrase “the atheist”. Those two words alone give Jensen away, if you think about it for a moment. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, it brings to mind whinging complaints about “the Jew”. The reason he does it, I imagine, is that it carries more weight than just “atheists”. He’s not referring to the group overall, but to each and every member of it. They’re all the same, so nuanced reasoning is not required.

The “passion and virulence” of atheists was picked up on earlier by Monash University Professor Gary Bouma, who accuses atheists of stoking sectarian conflict. This is a convenient rhetorical device used to turn “arguing the point” into something negative. I haven’t heard of any atheist mobs hurling bricks through church windows. It’s really just hypocritical invective.

“Atheists hate God” has been a long-running mantra in certain religious circles, voiced frequently by those who apparently see no contradiction in the idea of hating an entity that one does not believe to exist. Christians do not generally “hate” the various supernatural entities of other religions (as far as I’m aware), so why would atheists “hate” the Christian God? I find it incredible that this misconception continues. Jensen clearly suffers from an acute lack of imagination.

Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

This is a manifest falsehood, made all the more dishonest because Jensen uses such emphasis. Christianity posits an entire volume of miracles, historical events, prophecies, commandments, virtues, vices and assorted supernatural beings, not to mention the church’s additional evolving beliefs, rituals and systems of authority over the last two millennia. What dogma does atheism have to compare to all this? Atheism merely states that there is no God, and even that is argued over within the atheist community. (Is it right to say that God doesn’t exist, or merely that we cannot substantiate the concept of God?)

As a general remark, it’s curious that religious leaders choose to describe atheism condescendingly as a religion. They have no problem describing as religions their own institutions, which purport to offer the most important truths that you can possibly know. Surely, if their world view has any merit, calling atheism a religion would be elevating, not denigrating it. This is a hint that our protagonists don’t truly believe what they’re saying. I suspect they know at some level, perhaps subconsciously, that religion cannot compete with science or higher philosophy; that in fact it does not offer the absolute truth of the universe. Instead, they merely resort to suggesting (without a hint of justification) that atheism also suffers from the same fundamental problems.

It represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.

It is a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves.

The notion of a “human assault on God” is rather amusing. Is Jensen really saying that rebellious atheists are ganging up on the Supreme Being? The force that supposedly created time itself and brought into existence a trillion galaxies is under “assault” from the electrical impulses of a bunch of organic molecules on one tiny rock? Forgive me if I don’t show overflowing concern for His well-being. Even if I believed in Him, I’d expect the Creator of the Universe to be a little more resilient than that.

As for resentment and idolatry, I suspect this is just part of how Jensen justifies his own faith. The notion that it might be possible to not worship anything at all seems alien to people who make these sorts of arguments. They don’t truly believe that atheism is even possible, so they translate it into something else more amenable to their understanding.

Jensen might reflect on the company in which he finds himself. Among the other religious commentators of late is Catholic Bishop of Parramatta Anthony Fisher:

Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating: Nazism, Stalinism, Pol Pot-ery, mass murder, abortion and broken relationships – all promoted by state-imposed atheism.

This is why I think I’m safe from Godwin’s Law. It’s pure self-parody. I’m happy to see that, in a list containing Nazism and Stalinism, Fisher found room to bemoan the tyranny of broken relationships.

Biblical decline

I read that the National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 in the UK has reported a poor showing for Bible knowledge. I can’t say I’m either terribly surprised or troubled by this; there are any number of other literary works more deserving of public knowledge, and at some level this must be reflected in the public’s attitude.

There is, of course, some lingering sense that we “should” understand the Bible; that it above all other books has some special status. Well, that particular miscellaneous collection of ambiguously-translated ramblings is supposed to be the Definitive Word of the Infallible Creator of the Universe, isn’t it? Of course it is – it says so itself. Comments from those affiliated with the survey are not much more moderate:

Brown said the survey showed the need to push for greater religious education among young people as knowledge of the Bible among the under-45 age group was in decline.

“We have got to recognize that it (the Bible) is the foundation of our society, upon which our whole culture has been based,” he told Reuters. “To understand it and to live in it you do need an understanding of the Bible.”

Well, I’m not entirely convinced. If only someone had conducted a survey to determine the relevance of the Bible to our society. Oh look, they did! This piece of logic evidentially fails on some people. The fact that few of us know or care about the Bible these days is fairly good evidence that it isn’t relevant to much of our society at all, let alone forms the foundation of it. I assume, of course, that British and Australian culture are not too far removed.

To understand and live in Iranian or Saudi Arabian society, by contrast, I imagine you would need a solid understanding of the Koran and other sources of Islamic doctrine, but then that’s because those countries are theocracies. The West has spent a good few hundred years slowly disentangling society and governance from religion, and frankly we’re all much better off as a result.

Ponderings of sanity

There are many things to be said about debating in online forums. One, that you learn early on, is that it doesn’t take much effort to find the fruitcakes. It really doesn’t. The people who firmly believe that the World Trade Centre was brought down by explosives, as evidenced by the “indisputable fact” that it “fell faster than gravity”, because just look at that YouTube video. The people who believe you’re going to hell not just because you don’t believe in God, but because you haven’t performed the 54-day version of the “Rosary Novena” (a type of prayer) and that TV shows made since the 1960s are so unforgivably immoral that they must be the work of Satan Himself. The people who equate taxation with slavery and socialism with atheism. The people who believe that oil is not derived from ancient organic matter but instead is simply “produced” by the Earth’s core. The people who proudly challenge you to disprove their three-paragraph thesis on why the entirety of science on evolution and cosmology is flat-wrong and the literal Biblical account is the only possible alternative.

One person I encountered had a pet theory on the nature of photons (particles of light): that each in fact comprises an electron and a positron in orbit around each other. Facts, such as the one where photons have no mass, unlike electrons and positrons, do not pose a hindrance to such theories, I’ve discovered. The idea, more generally, that experts in the field have been looking into this sort of thing for quite some time, publishing multitudes of peer-reviewed journal articles along the way, is of little concern.

Not that I’d wish to put you off online debating, but as you’re encountering these varied and interesting specimens, you’re bound to pick up a few insults, depending on what fascinating theory you’re being unreasonably sceptical of. As a change of pace from the usual names I get called – leftist, liberal, socialist, atheist (which at least is true), materialist or totalitarian – I’ve recently been called a “Bushbot”. This is an interesting and somewhat disturbing thought, considering some of the stuff that’s popped up in my George Bush “Out of Office Countdown” off-the-wall calendar.

Not even Bush though can match some of the wisdom of the Internet, which I’ve decided to share with you:

“In addition, the Earth is continually producing oil, because “Peak oil” was a carefully crafted myth. Oil does not come from dead dinosaurs as you skulls full of mush have been brainwashed to believe.”

“Scientists are usually the last to know about anything”

“A price chart is how I make my living….It represents truth.”

“A truth to point, all the Atheists I know have no children and it is always due to thier Atheistic mental state as compared to normal (spiritual) people. I know 7 Atheists; three couples. Sure many Atheists do produce children but certainly a large number possessing the Atheistic mind, refuse and will therefore generally NOT pass on either their genetic or social make up to the younger generations.”

“The constant social and technological progress resulting from the constant advancement of the metaphysical mind set means that we now have societies full of people, some of whom now can survive to adulthood with all alorts of personal shortcomings. This obviously includes Atheists.”

So now you know.