More of the same

It seems the hand-wringing over “New Atheists” hasn’t abated in respectable circles, and is still as depressing as ever. Take this latest effort by Tim Robertson over at Eureka Street.

Like it’s 2006 all over again, we kick off with a retread of the “New Atheists do it too” retort concerning creation myths; an old standard still carries the tacit admission that there’s something to be embarrassed about in believing in creation myths. I guess I’d be more disappointed if I was religious.

Getting closer to the meat of things, Robertson portrays a “New Atheism” that views itself as being in line with a Humean kind the Enlightenment. This strikes me as more than a little odd, because ever since Harris’s The Moral Landscape, misunderstanding of and dismissiveness towards Hume could be portrayed as a fashionable trope of the “New Atheism”; from cod-moral realism, to dyspeptic rationalists* giving anti-Humean lectures at the pub, to train-wrecks involving the is-ought distinction like those described here.

If you’ve been around skepto-atheist circles during the past ten years, and you haven’t come across this anti-philosophical, anti-Humean schtick yet, you’ve either not been paying attention or have been incredibly lucky. “New Atheism” sees itself as anything approximating Humean? Phooey.

(And if the “New Atheism” did actually exist, you’d also think it’d be more Millian than Lockean, too, what with all the utilitarianism and the motivation to avoid all the peskiness involved in natural law.)

As for the matter of Dawkins and his eugenics tweet, and how this moves the “New Atheism” away from the Humean, I’m pretty sure Robertson is just being salacious here. Mentions of Dawkins and eugenics in close proximity may excite the usual audiences, but Robertson doesn’t really go anywhere with it so much as riff over the matter with a cheap jab and glib allusion to critical theory by way of Wikipedia. It’s all over a bit quickly.

An essay detailing why we should consider the referenced Dialectic of Enlightenment as a sound analysis, and how it applies specifically in cases like Dawkins’ might be interesting (and probably a good deal more interesting again if involving a case with a publisher other than Twitter). We don’t get that though. Is something like this expecting too much, or are we all supposed to be clever, to be “in” enough to just know where Robertson is going with this and give each other knowing nods?

(If you have the time, patience and curiosity, there’s a discussion on much the same topic that has the merit of being somewhat less conjectural or opaque than discussion centered on theory. Keith Stanovich’s concept of cognitive decoupling presents as highly applicable to Dawkins’ tweets and similar displays of reasoning. Points for dipping your toes in that are as good as any other can be found here and here.**)

The matter of eugenics and the Dialectic of Enlightenment pushed to one side, Robertson moves back to bromides, performing  a bit of splitting to present Dawkins The Biologist and Dawkins The Atheist as if they were somehow distinct. It’s a artifice of course, so that Robertson can present one as having failed to do the work of the other – in this case Dawkins The Atheist being a mean uninspiring sod, incapable of the “wonder and splendor” achieved by Dawkins The Biologist. A neat little trick of Manichean negation if your brain can manage it, I guess.

Of course religion is positioned as a purveyor of “wonder and splendor” itself, which Dawkins himself could have remained more like if only he’d stayed in his lane.

(This splitting does raise a question, though. How do you dissociate Dawkins’ tweet on eugenics from Dawkins The Biologist in the first place? Because we are trying to hang shit on the “New Atheism”, right? This is Dawkins The Atheist leading us towards scientific racism, not Dawkins The Biologist yeah?)

I can’t help thinking that deep down, this hope-trope is tied to another piece of apologetics: “The New Atheists have failed to contend with the hope brought by sophisticated, progressive religion! They talk about us like we’re creationists!”

The “New Atheists” – whoever they are on any given day – among others, treat religious moderates/liberals/progressives as if they are statistically or socially marginal, which in many, many contexts they are. In practice this often means just overlooking them. Does being ignored like that hurt so much that apologists still need to trot out the denials? “No, no. They’re talking about us!”

Maybe people need to get over themselves, yeah?

Getting back to hope; what’s to contend with anyway? I don’t just mean background levels of hope, or hope that the credulous can get behind. Why is religion portrayed as especially inducing of high-grade hope, more so than say worker’s clubs, group knitting or mosh-pits?

We’re challenged by Robertson to consider why the “New Atheist” bogeyman fails to inspire hope like religion or like Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn? It’s truly odd that Corbyn is presented by Robertson as an alternative given that this piece was published well after the bloodbath that was the 2019 UK general election.

The Corbyn rapture didn’t happen. And it’s less than hope-inspiring to have to listen to all the rationalizations for why prophecy failed to materialize. Yes, the Russians got involved. Yes, the Tories lied, even more so than usual. But no, none of this clinched it. It’ll all be just as much fun when the Bernie Sanders rapture fails to materialize and his more fervent followers – the hopeful ones – try to re-invent history so as not to look like followers of Harold Camping each time they pass a mirror***.

Robertson compares religion to this cascading disappointment and still finds the nerve to criticize “New Atheists” for slagging off religion?

This phenomena of Australian writers of a radical bend, or of progressive theological sympathies, crying into their beers and pissing and moaning about perceived slights from now over a decade ago, doesn’t inspire much hope either. I can understand religious people not liking The God Delusion. What’s not to understand? I can understand them not finding it inspirational either because outside of a particular subset of the ex-religious, who does?

I can understand people finding Dawkins’ tone-deaf tweeting annoying or uninformative. My suggestion is simply that if you don’t like the guy’s tweets, you treat him like someone who’s transitioned well outside their talents into a retirement full of awkward, eminently ignorable beat poetry. It’s not like you’ll ever have to worry that some nation will turn one of his tweets into policy.

What I do have difficulty understanding is why any curious, emotionally functioning, religious adult would feel the need to get Dawkins so long after the original narcissitic injury. Defensive, thin-skinned, grudge-holding types on the other hand – that’s easy to grasp. As is the idea of authors willing to pander to these sentiments to get published.

I’m not sure how sulky axe-grinding, or peddling ego-balms is a good fit for publishers of serious literature, though. Don’t ordinary religious people find these grudge pieces utterly depressing? Maybe they do and maybe more literary journals and should reflect that.

At any rate, you don’t have to be religious to find a failure of Jesuit culture depressing; we’re all humans after all. Unless you’re a sadist, the failure of other humans is something that we should feel on some level.

Similarly, if you have any care for Australian literature, the indulgence of pettiness has got to be pretty disappointing as well. I don’t think people are remotely as inured to this as some pretend.

~ Bruce

* Term borrowed from here, which is a good read in its own right. Apparently Sam Harris first coined the term, so I guess it’s nice to have something decent to attribute to him.

** I won’t endorse all the points made, obviously, but the discussion overall seems fruitful enough, and leads off into other conversations people may want to chase up.

*** Even if Sanders becomes president, his purported appeal won’t be enough for his supporters dream to survive Congress.

Imagined History of a Never-Was: “New Atheism”

church-53192_640Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.

There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.

People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.

One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.


Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.

Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.

It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.

Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.

Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.


Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.

“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).

“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).

“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).

“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)

The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.


Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?

Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.

Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.

Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.

The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”


Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?

Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.

And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.

I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.

It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.


There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.

There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”

Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.

What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.

Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.

As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).

Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”

~ Bruce

Look out, Melbourne…

ImageAnimal-product-free luggage… check.

Gold convention, and Gala Dinner Tickets… check.

Train tickets for the scenic route… check.

Accommodation… check.

Ironing and packing clothes… okay… Innaminute.

That’s it Melbourne – I’m on my way down to sneer at your cafes, point at your soggy chips, and mock your dreary weather.

The Global Atheist Convention is my main objective, that and a few of the fringe events, but I do hope to find a good book exchange or two, and soak in a bit of this and that. I’ll be writing a few journal/essays on the convention (and fringe events), probably on a daily basis, for Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels, and I’ll post links as they’re published.

I’m not overly-inclined to live-tweet a live event I’m taking notes on, but I should have my Twitter client turned on at various points to make comment. You can track my feed over here if you’re so inclined.

Possibly, if I can find the time to draft suitable questions, I’ll be able find someone of academic or community standing, amenable to a beer and twenty questions.

I wouldn’t mind catching up with some of the Melburnian wonks I’ve pestered on the blogosphere over the past seven years, if they’re up for it, and if we can find the time. I’m already lucky enough to be meeting and eating with one of their families at the gala dinner, so I won’t get sooky if I don’t get more than that.

The fringe event I’ve committed to is Secular Australia: A 10 Point Plan, featuring Russell Blackford, Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy. It’s on Thursday night at 6:30pm at Embiggen Books. It’s worth mentioning, and I’ve had Russell Blackford emphatically confirm this – this isn’t an atheist-only gig*. Secular theists are more than welcome – they’re wanted.

Don’t worry about my bluster, Melburnians. I come bearing hugs.

~ Bruce

Apparently my droogies ain’t hardcore, no more…

A couple of years ago, I wished Archbishop Dr Jensen, amongst others, a Happy Easter, for what was in my view, a gift – in particular, his over-privileged, petulant whining about atheists who wouldn’t submit to the will of Archbishops God. It was political gold.

But I’d like to thank another Jensen from the Sydney Anglicans for yet more wild speculation about people they’re in-touch with. I wish him a Happy Easter as well.

This time it’s not atheists being discussed, at least not directly (I mean, you can refuse The Lord’s message, and go for a bit of the biff), but brawlers.

All cities are violent, even though cities were ostensibly founded to protect us from violence. But among Australian cities, Sydney is famous for its love of a good ding-dong, a donnybrook, a barney. Cultured Melbourne is far too genteel for that kind of behaviour; sweet Adelaide even more so. – Emphasis added.”

(Michael Jensen, 2012)

Jensen waxes nostalgic about biff-clichés, but I’d like to think I can be a bit nostalgic about that kind of ‘sin’ as well. Let me tell you a little about my experience of Adelaide, South Australia, and its surroundings.

If cities are violent, such as being worthy of note, you’d expect country towns to be comparatively peaceful. In Port Lincoln, South Australia, I got into plenty of stupid fights as a kid; I got into my first knife fight at age eleven or twelve. (An interesting side note to all of the knife fights, then and since; the other guy always had the knife).

In 1991, amidst other adventures, I took a number of thumpings (under pillow, or Yellow Pages), and enjoyed a brief encounter between my scrotum and a hot lamp bulb, to see if I could be trusted to keep a secret. Fun stuff.

In 1992, after escaping Port Lincoln, one of my former acquaintances blew the brains out of one of my Father’s weed-smoking buddies, and brain-damaged another poor fellow, in Lincoln National Park. Glad I missed it, even as ‘genteel’ as it must have been.

A number of the people who managed to escape, have similar tales to tell, although I guess technically, if I’m to adhere to Jensen’s wisdom, I’d have to confess that a former mate, who I’ve been informed was killed a few years back by a screwdriver through the neck, met his end in Perth. You are probably well aware, this is nowhere near Adelaide.

Then there’s the sweet tales I could tell of my sweet stay in Elizabeth Vale; a suburb in Adelaide’s north, where I lived within walking distance of one of the homes of the Snowtown Killers (at around the time they were actively bumping people off for their Centrelink payments).

Two murders (not including any of the Snowtown murders) within the first two months of living in the area. Knife-fights between neighbours; knife-on-bare-fist; knife-on-knife; knife-on-garden-rake; knife-on-shard-of-glass…

…don’t get me started on the car-on-bedsit, or the syringe-based violence.

Sweet, genteel, Adelaide!

This is anecdote, of course. Not statistics. I’m sure throngs of people from Sydney could tell similar tales.

And what anecdote may Mr Jensen have by way of example? I’m sure those having experienced violence, those in need of respite and pastoral care could take, if not solace, then a sense of solidarity, or even awe, from Mr Jensen’s tales.

“The churches of this town have not always been above a bit of brawling themselves. You have to be tough to survive as a god-botherer in a town that despises wowsers so much. The Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang was himself a famously strident and uncompromising debater in his time.”

(Michael Jensen, 2012)

Cool story. I’d almost mistaken Jensen’s article for a middle class, toss-fest.

Happy Easter, folks.

~ Bruce

(HT: Neil).

March of the wankers…

It’s a couple of days march, at least, until Richard Dawkins and George Pell go head to head on ABC’s QANDA. Of course, I’m not referring to them when I talk about ‘wankers’.

The ‘March’, is the predictable plodding of anxious and pretentious sods and sodettes, who lament the discussion in advance, down the bridge of their noses.

Continue reading “March of the wankers…”

Is Barnaby Joyce the avante garde of the Christian literary tradition?

Ho ho ho, with a hat-tip to Russell Blackford. Barnaby Joyce is putting lead into the pencil of Christian literature, or at least, there’s probably lead in the crayons he ate from the Fairfax stationary.

Perhaps I’m being unkind…

‘My war is always against that religion called atheist extremism, that sneaky sect.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011).

Oh come on… It’s not so bad.

‘Yes, this sect’s followers make their way on to your veranda then hold a righteous court of sneering indignation about the crib in the park. You can hear yourself muttering under your breath, ”I wish you would go drown yourself, you pseudo-intellectual Gucci flea.” They write letters to complain about the incorrectness of carols at the school and picket the Christmas tree. To not insult their religion, you must no longer follow yours. They yearn for the fallacy of a vacuum and they demand that you join them in that philosophical void.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

Now I know what you’re thinking – incitement to violence, and in a Fairfax paper of all places!

But if you’ve learned anything about lit-crit, and religious texts, it’s that you can take these things to literally. He’s not suggesting that atheist should actually kill themselves, no, no, no.

You start out as a Gucci flea (whatever that is, I’m not sure of the Biblical reference – I’m not a Biblical scholar), then you submerge yourself in a baptism until you flatline. You are then born again, brain-dead, able to operate on, and in sympathy with, Joyce’s intellectual plane. Which apparently isn’t a void. Sort of a Cartesian dualism deal, or something – the brain is dead, but the soul goes on, un-vacuumed.

It’s hard to interpret such cutting edge stuff fairly. I may not be a Biblical scholar, but I know when new intertextualities arise, in more novel configurations, those familiar with the traditional – conservatives and laymen – are left scratching their heads.

Where he got the idea that atheism was a religion, much less a sect, I don’t know. There are too many new sources. Once upon a time, people knew that atheists were precisely not religious, which is why sometimes, they were killed. Not drowned so much as dismembered, hung, set on fire, or whatever.

No, Barnaby is obviously going with something post-modern, in response to the liberal secularism of early 20th century anglophone nations. The confabulation about Christian exclusion from schools, or the anxiety about freedom from religion being the freedom to take religion away. Not my tradition of choice, actually – bullshit actually – but that seems to be where Joyce, our latest national treasure, is coming from; late 20th, early 21st century, Christian self-pity.

But ignore the ressentiment, for a moment, because it’s only one facet of the human condition that Barnaby Joyce fleshes out. Joyce is nothing, if not a pluralist…

‘Anyway, Christmas is here and I hope we borrow a little from the person who kicked it off. The timing at the end of December has more to do with the celebration of the pagan festival of Saturnalia rather than when Christ was actually born. Those politically incorrect early Christians had the good sense to roll with the customs rather than to rage against them.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

I take it that this includes the concept of ‘December liberty’, where people could say what they wanted of their leaders, and others, without fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why Barnaby is so liberal with his own choice of words.

Allow me to reciprocate in the same spirit.

You Barnaby, are a complete and utter moron. I hope you asphyxiate on a dingleberry. (Not literally, of course.)

Oh, and it’s a few seconds from midnight… Happy Unholy Anti-Christmas! Here’s a jingle.

~ Bruce

The virtue of paying attention (to theological ethicists)…

Sometimes us Gnu Atheists, secular fundamentalists, and religious fifth columnists can be dismissive, even totalitarian when the need arises.

Not that we’ve come to power quite yet, or that we’re necessarily restricted to anti-theistic dictatorship when we do (the dwindling Christian minority can still spout its nonsense in public, and we can allow this to continue), it’s possibly time for a change in the mode of engagement. The Enemy is beaten.

Before the First Atheist International secures its first English-speaking nation at the Global Atheist Convention in 2012, it’d probably be worth considering the baby we risk throwing out with the bath water. It’s time – the first time – for us to truly consider what sophisticated theologians have been saying, without our snickering, and without ridicule.

It’s time, now that we have the time, and that victory is already assured, that we consider these things in a scholarly manner.

Consider gay marriage. We’ve been shutting down that particular discussion for decades now, by calling opponents ‘homophobes’ without any consideration of their actual position. Terrible for sure, but necessary for the revolution, at least up until now.

We’ve won the debate. Public sympathy is now irreversibly against the church in this matter. It’s now safe for us to consider the more sophisticated ethical arguments against gay marriage without fear of a loss of hegemony.

“It is significant that everywhere the issue has been debated it begins on the issue of fairness and justice and with majority support but that soon changes when people realise that there are deeper issues involved. After their legislature experimented with same-sex marriage, the people of California voted against the revisionist concept of marriage.” – Emphasis added.

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

There are deeper issues involved, and the revisionist concept of marriage, our revisionist concept of marriage, doesn’t account for them. You don’t have to be religious to note that if we assume power, and follow through by riding roughshod over these deeper issues, it could mean disaster! It could turn out to be just another facet, in possibly yet another failed secular revolution! We don’t want that.

“Changing the law so that marriage includes same-sex unions would be a change to what marriage means. Currently marriage involves a comprehensive union between a man and a woman, and norms of permanence and exclusivity. Marriage has a place in the law because a relationship between a man and a woman is the kind of relationship that may produce children. Marriage is linked to children, for the sake of children, protecting their identity and their nurture by a mother and a father.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

Think of the children! You’d never had heard of it, or come across the idea during the past two decades of discussions of revisionist marriage, if you hadn’t bothered to take down your blinkers – to pay attention to what sophisticated, scholarly, religious ethicists had been telling you all along.

Think of the children! You’d never had heard of it!

Clearly revising the definition of marriage opens up all sorts of terrible possibilities. First we’d let the gays marry – couples who can’t produce their own offspring naturally – and then we’d have to grant the right of marriage to barren heterosexuals as well. Why it’s a slippery slope!

And you just know that secular fundamentalist ethicists have never considered the ramifications of giving IVF and adoption in combination with marriage, to straight couples. I really feel like we’ve dodged a bullet here. We really weren’t prepared for this!

“If children happen to be in a same-sex household they will always have come from outside that relationship, either through an earlier relationship or through the use of some other biological parent and technology.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

You see, it is just the same as with all of the heterosexual couples with reproductive problems the state has conscientiously been barring from marriage all along!

“If the law were to be changed so that marriage included same-sex relationships [or heterosexual couples with reproductive problems], then marriage would no longer be about children. It would be about adults only.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

The state wouldn’t be thinking about the children anymore! Fellow ultra-secularists, I implore you to reconsider, whichever future your goodwill for gays and the infertile may lead you to, do you want it to be one where the state isn’t looking out for our precious, vulnerable younglings?

“Given the marital relationship’s natural orientation to children, it is not surprising that, according to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every indicator of wellbeing when reared by their wedded biological parents. “

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

Never mind that the first study Benson et. al. cite in support of this, is a largely interpretative meta-analysis by the ‘independent’ Witherspoon Institute, isn’t peer-reviewed, is funded by the Templeton Foundation, and when statistical, is purely correlatory; worrying about such matters would be both prejudicial and reductionist. How often in the past have we secular fundamentalists stonewalled discussion by being prejudicial and reductionist, in addition to our use of ridicule and ad hominem? As necessary as it was then, it’s no longer a useful strategy. We need to change.

Never mind that the second study cited by Benson et. al., in as far as it addresses the issue of non-biological parents, concerns non-biological parents married to, or in defacto relationships with, biological parents, not at all considering married adoptive parents, or the use of IVF; such nitpicking would be missing the spirit of the concern. Sampling the population be damned, it takes only a little imagination to see these concerns as applying to gay (and infertile) couples as well. Don’t let statistical scientism prejudice your imagination!

Again, we’ve already won. Religion is an endangered species in Australian politics. We can finally afford to listen, and listen we should; we were all heading for disaster!

“In a liberal democracy, others can form other types of relationships; but ‘marriage’ is a term reserved for a particular kind of relationship that brings with it obligations to others beyond the two parties. Marriage is shared obligation for children.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

In other words, dear gay marriage advocates; think of the children because gay and reproductively challenged parents won’t, and nor will the state if we change the definition of marriage!

Finally, it all seems so… clear!

Honestly, I’m glad I took the time to delve through the cited material and the expressed argument, because in twenty odd years of watching this discussion unfurl, I’ve never seen anyone present a case quite like this. Think of the children! It never sprung to mind!

Never again will I write off an instance of theological ethics as unscholarly from such a piddling detail as the drawing of conclusions not supported by the cited research – this prejudices imagination! Why those pesky, unimaginative sceptics often marginalise alternative medicine in precisely the same way!

Never again will I dismiss the accumulated wisdom of tradition, like the long-established practice of barring non-reproductive heterosexual couples from the institution of marriage. There are rational reasons why traditions become entrenched, and change doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

The major difficulty I have in all of this, is how in light of my own secular totalitarianism, and that of my peers in the movement, I’m going to justify all of this while we send the theological ethicists off to the gulag political margins. I guess it’ll have to be a carefully crafted plagiarism that hides the original source, and the hypocrisy of using it.

We just can’t get by without this wisdom!

~ Bruce

It seems I’ll have to make my own exceptions to Hart’s rules

On pg. 382 of my New Hart’s Rules, ‘20.10 Blasphemy, obscenity, racial hatred, and official secrets’ says…

Publishing a work which contains contemptuous, scandalous, or insulting material relating to the Christian religion is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Note that only the Christian religion is covered by this law and that merely attacking Christianity is not blasphemy: the attack would be blasphemous only if it were contemptuous or insulting.

(New Hart’s Rules, 2005)

Which is to say that any attack is at least tantamount to blasphemy, contempt or insult being as easy to conjure, and as hard to dismiss as an unfalsifiable Freudian diagnosis.

I also don’t like the fact that blasphemy is lumped in the same section as racial hatred. A smear by association – I don’t, as a blasphemer, think it fair to lump me or anyone else with the same tolerant disposition towards race, with bigots.

And at the very least, the discrimination inherent in making a special case for protecting Christianity alone demonstrates that the law isn’t interested in equality. By all means, report the law (actually abolished in the UK in 2008 – after this edition of Hart’s Rules was published), but the unnecessary value judgements are something I can do without.

Oh, and on that part of Western Christianity where you’ll find a long anti-Semitic streak, I’ve left a great big, fat, hot, steaming metaphorical turd. Of course the flies were already there before I metaphorically passed my bowels, being attracted to the scent of a thousand and one shitty Passion plays, Mel Gibson’s included.

I simply shat in what was already a latrine.

I hold the original charge of Deicide in contempt. I hold the concept of The Mark of Cain in contempt, and not just the Jew-hating interpretations.


~ Bruce

Thankyou Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – Happy Easter!

As a part of Easter messages in Australia, atheists have copped an earful. My first thoughts, aside from a mild irritation brought on by the sheer silliness of the claims, were that this was a beautiful thing. Yes.

I still feel this way today.

Dr Jensen

It was reported that Sydney Anglican Archbishop Dr Jensen, as part of his Easter address started out with a critique of atheists, that included sentiments along the lines of…

“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.”

(Miles Godfrey, ABC, 2010)

Oh dear…

I’m not offended. How could I be? It’s like watching Emperor Palpatine lose the ‘Yo Momma!’ fight on Robot Chicken Star Wars. Ah… Ah… Ah… Well… Ah… Yo Momma hates God!

And it’s open to the most delicious reductio.

Dr Jensen’s Christianity represents the latest version of the human assault on The Flying Spaghetti Monster, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that the FSM calls on us to submit our lives to him. Submission to the laws of the FSM which conveniently coincide with my own opinions.

Flattering? No. But it should give any Christians who share Dr Jenson’s sentiments towards atheists, an idea of how silly his remarks look to the godless.

The fact that these ludicrous ideas about atheists are held by one so respected and educated (even if a bit too conservative on industrial relations and the ethics of science), someone so mainstream, is telling. This is why I welcome Dr Jensen’s remarks.

Mr Pell

In addition to some pretty questionable historicism about Rome and Christianity, wherein it was reported that George Pell claimed that in relation to a host of Roman ills, “Christianity changed all this” (in relation to a host of then Christian norms, didn’t Rome change “all of this”?), George Pell reportedly belittled the role of the godless with a particularly silly statement.

“But we find no community services sponsored by the atheists.”

(AAP, 2010)

Mr Pell may be controversial, but he’s no pariah. At least in as far as public discussion goes – he’s taken seriously even if his own congregation aren’t particularly fond of him.

And even allowing scope for interpretation, in case he’s become victim to the ‘Pope… Nazi’ effect (even though his remarks weren’t off-the-cuff like Dawkins’), it’s hard to find an interpretation any less silly. At least I can’t find one.

On-off, over the last ten years, I’ve been a volunteer for the Salvation Army, and I’m an atheist. My mother, an atheist, works for Centrecare – the Australian Catholic welfare agency. I wonder if George Pell’s sermon will be cause for awkwardness when she returns to work next Tuesday.

Non-church-based community services like ITShare, that frankly do better work than the church alternative, community services that don’t turn away support from atheists (or anyone else), are well worth the attention of the George Pell’s of the world. They do their good work in spite of two major obstacles.

  1. Churches have an advantage – they have traditionally been seen as a source of welfare and have historically been a focal point for people’s good will, theist or not. This has resulted in a monolithic welfare infrastructure that newer providers have to compete with.
  2. The playing field is still rigged. It’s easier to become a community service provider if you’re church based. This historical advantage attracts more tender from government (atheists do pay taxes), and the automatic religious tax-exempt status makes it easier going than for secular charities who have to jump through all sorts of hoops to demonstrate not-for-profit status. Church based institutions simply aren’t held to the same standard of accountability, and are the beneficiaries of greater government largess.

If you keep this in mind, along with the fact that non-church based community services don’t usually advertise that they aren’t church-based, and that atheist sponsors and volunteers are largely happy to use the existing infrastructure and to work alongside religious people, you’ll understand why you don’t see “atheist charity” left, right and centre. Atheists have been quiet contributors to the welfare of a secular Australia.

But it’s not just George Pell that thinks this. And even if most Australians don’t think it, they don’t need to in order for the problem to have unacceptable consequences. All it takes is a minority with institutional power, and a public that doesn’t realise that there’s a problem.

I once dropped into SA Unions (then still the UTLC) for a chat with their then youth officer a few years ago. I told her of a workplace in Adelaide run by a powerful member of the Paradise Community Church congregation that at the time, filtered the non-Christians out of their workforce. In response to which she told me that resolving discrimination complaints against religious not-for-profits, were common business.

I can remember having my own naivety broken by this – I was talking about a private, for-profit enterprise. I hadn’t entertained the notion that discrimination was happening amongst the altruistic, supposedly moderate, end of Christian not-for-profits.

Eventually, seeing the relative difficulties non-church not-for-profits had in setting up shop, seeing a couple of non-Catholic teachers being fired from secular roles in federally funded Catholic schools, and later finding out from a appalled staff member, that I’d been denied a secular job position by a religious not-for profit on the grounds of my atheism, the truth hit home. There’s a problem.

Heck, it’s not just that people are being discriminated against that’s the problem. It’s not good for the provision of community service. Things turned out more or less okay for me; I wasn’t that set back by the job refusal. What was absurd was that it turned out that I wasn’t replaced by anyone; the needed, specialised skills that I could have provided were denied the service recipients. It hurt their operation more than it hurt me!

If you really care about the provision of quality community service, then this has to get to you. This, as opposed to just being discriminated against, is why it gets to me.

The support given to religious community services by taxpayers and voluntarily by atheist individuals, and the support of non-church-based community services by atheists, is taken far too much for granted. This occurs at an institutional level, and thanks to poor awareness I think it’s allowed to do harm where institutions are mandated to do good.

Reform to the apparatus of secular pluralism is needed in Australia – especially where taxation, government funding, the church, and not-for profit organisations are concerned.

I welcome George Pell’s comments, bringing attention to the matter. Even if he’s wrong. Especially because he’s wrong.

Mr Fisher

Then we have Anthony Fisher, who is apparently tipped as George Pell’s future replacement, reportedly saying…

“‘Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating; Nazism, Stalinism, Pol-Pottery, mass murder and broken relationships: all promoted by state-imposed atheism or culture-insinuated secularism.'”

(Jacqueline Maley, 2010)

Oh dear. Stalinism and “Pol-Pottery” weren’t pushed by atheism; Stalinism and “Pol-Pottery” pushed atheism. It’s like saying that canned peas pushed Soviet communism; i.e. back-to-front.

You honestly and sincerely have the conviction that canned peas are a good thing? Oh no! We can’t have you going too far in our culture; you may turn our nation into a Soviet state!

And as for Nazi ideology being born of atheism, that’s just plain stupid.

For a start, Nazism, and European totalitarianism of the time in general, were born of a hodge-podge starting conditions – an array of causes. Singling any one cause out is inherently wrong-headed to begin with, but it gets worse.

Nazi ideology selectively borrowed from Christian culture and had plans for its own bizarre Aryan supernaturalism. Mein Kampf talked of the virtue of mandatory religious education in schools. And the anti-Semitism that was integral to the holocaust, where did that come from? Which particular institution had been pushing that particular non-virtue for over a thousand years prior to World War II? Where did the Nazis borrow the idea of the collective guilt of Jews for the death of Christ? Hmmm?

There is obviously a case to be made for the role of modernism in the rise of early 20th century totalitarian ideologies. There is obviously a case to be made that the works of individual philosophers who happened to be atheists were a part of the bigger mix – Marx more obviously for Sovietism, Nietzsche not so obviously for the totalitarian right.

But these instances of atheism are far from the only conditions the totalitarian ideologies were born from, and as far as I can see there’s little indication that it was the godless aspect of these philosophies that led to disaster. Marx, in commenting that religion was “The Opiate of The Masses”, was alluding to its pervasiveness as something that can’t be wiped out. Contrary to some readings.

People seem to forget that living conditions aren’t what they are today. The start of the 20th century was a period of deep unrest with a lot to contribute in the way of angry, authoritarian motivations.

As for Fisher’s implication that godless societies are doomed to selfishness and totalitarianism – this is just empirically false. Denmark and Sweden are largely without God, but their societies are particularly harmonious, and demonstrate a greater than normal level of cooperative norms (i.e. they value welfare more than most nations). Clearly Fisher is wrong.

If Mr Fisher is to become the head of Australia’s Catholics, even if he isn’t well liked by Australia’s Catholics, then he’s likely to be treated with a degree of deference and taken seriously. Yet he harbours absurd notions about a good portion of the Australian population and as he has shown, isn’t afraid to use his position to foment sectarianism. This deference is a problem.

Thankyou and Happy Easter!

Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – I thank you for these gifts. Quite sincerely.

For too long atheists in Australia, especially the noisy ones, have been asked why they’re complaining as if it were self-evident that we live in a society that at least if not made up of a majority of tolerant, secular people, was free of institutionalised sectarianism. At least to the extent of it not being a problem worth complaining about.

This, more than many things, has been an obstacle for Australian atheists trying to get a point across.

Easter of 2010 can now be celebrated when this point of public debate was decided. There is a problem and now it’s obvious.

The message, even if wrong, is welcome.

This isn’t cause for mere atheist triumphalism – a recognition that Australia’s religious leaders are rattled. This isn’t something for atheists to get angry about – it’s too pathetic for that – anyone not already sold on the message of the atheist bogeyman isn’t going to take this bile on board. Australian atheists don’t have to worry about being fired or lynched by Christians any more than they did last week.

This is a win for secularism. Thanks to the credibility of Dr Jensen, Mr Pell and Mr Fisher, the issue – sectarian privilege and contempt over and toward atheists – is now out there in the mainstream; open for discussion. It was never a fringe concern, and now for the first time, it really doesn’t look like one.

I really, quite sincerely, thank these men for sacrificing part of their holy weekend to make functional secularism (and the secular provision of welfare – thank you Mr Pell!) a hot topic. Couldn’t have done it without you, guys!

Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – Happy Easter!

~ Bruce

God = Singularity? Good luck with that

There has been an argument in theological/cosmological circles for a while now that I’ve seen from time to time but haven’t addressed, surrounding the existence of a singularity at the beginning of the Universe. Why?

For some reason that I honestly can’t fathom beyond some possible act of desperation, from time to time I’ve seen the singularity being called “God”. I want to have this post in place for the next time I see an example because I think it’s a really problematic argument.

Personally, I think that Coca Cola would make a better deity; the drink not the corporation. It has about the same capacity to give moral and spiritual guidance as a singularity, but with the added benefit of empirical evidence to buttress any ontological assertions. Although maybe a Coke bottle isn’t enough to hang The Infinite off of.

Yes, yes. Very clever. Grow up. Etc. Blah, blah, blah… It’s a reductio. Give a counter argument to show why it’s invalid, or live with it. I suspect most readers here will do the latter.

In case some of you reading this don’t know, there is no empirical evidence that singularities actually exist. They are simply inferred by our current, limited understanding of the Universe. Particularly the general theory of relativity.

Singularities are inferred in general in two (or more) places – in black holes and at the beginning of the Universe (and at the end in some inflationary models, and at the bounce points of some rebounding Universe models).

Get enough mass in a small enough area, and gravitational collapse will, according to the general theory of relativity, become intractable – down to a single, finite point of infinite density and zero width, height or depth. Time comes to an end (or a boundary) as well.

Why is this a problem? Why are singularities a bad thing to hang God (or anything else) off of?

General relativity, a theory which makes a host of testable predictions (including black holes),  provides an extremely accurate account of the way gravity works in the Universe. Quantum mechanics, which deals with the very small in a similarly successful way, doesn’t deal with gravity at all (at least not yet); gravity which is a very weak force, at the scale of the extremely small, isn’t particularly amenable to study. It’s like trying to study the smallest volume of the most diffuse gas – you don’t have enough to work with.

There is of course one glaring exception where gravity is significant on a quantum scale – the alleged singularity, or at least, the confined conditions at the heart of a runaway gravitational collapse. So what if it’s a weak force? Under these conditions you’ve got a lot of it, so much so that in a black hole, it should dominate the other, stronger forces.

The singularity should ideally be the place for general relativity and quantum mechanics to cross over. Indeed, necessarily if the two theories were to maintain logical self-consistency; by definition, both theories have the singularity within their domain and hence both need to explain it seamlessly.

But this isn’t the case. The situation is far from ideal. All those infinites get in the way of being able to tie one theory to the other. The math doesn’t work. The two theories as they stand, are irreconcilable. One or both has to change. And that’s before considering the fact that quantum mechanics normally deals with matter, while general relativity deals with space-time.

Hence the singularity isn’t something that can be reasonably asserted as actually existing. The singularity is a mathematical product of our current deficient understanding of the Universe, at precisely the point that our understanding fails. The part of theory that predicts singularities is the part that is broken. The singularity isn’t a thing, it’s a place-holder for a gap in our knowlege.

I use the word “gap” advisedly. As in “God of the gaps“.

Although maybe it’s even worse than that.

Traditionally, a God-of-the-gaps argument states that “where there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, God did it”. But this singularity mumbo-jumbo is different. This is a case of “there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, and God is it”.

God of the gaps theology traditionally reduce God’s role in the Universe as human understanding advances. God’s agency being squeezed out like the cream in a Monte Carlo.

However, if the singularity is ever done away with, if a theory of quantum gravity is developed that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics and doesn’t posit a singularity as a mathematical product, then that gap is gone. But instead of God’s agency being the cream in the Monte Carlo being squeezed out, it’s God itself.

It should be obvious that the rejection of the concept of the cosmological singularity is a possible, reasonable outcome of honest scientific conduct. Or even just a part of responsible speculation in an attempt to develop the first hint of a solution to a very difficult scientific problem.

The Hartle-Hawking theory is just such a speculation (see Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for an in-depth explanation). At least in as far as the Big Bang is concerned. By applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to space-time, specifically to the state of a given dimension (uncertainty of space-or-time) – Hartle and Hawking demonstrated in theory that it is possible that space time as we know it emerged from a region of uncertain space-time on the Planck scale.

Which is to say a region of space-time that is very, very small, but not infinitesimal.

Singularities are discrete, infinitesimal points (or rings in the case of a rotating black hole) of infinite density and zero volume, but when space-time is itself subject to the Uncertainty Principle as in the Hartle-Hawking theory, there aren’t any discrete, singular points in space-time in order for singularities to be possible. I’ll avoid using the phrase “impossible initial conditions” because even “initial” is in this scheme is by definition impossible.

At such a small scale, according to the Hartle-Hawking theory, quantum effects would hold sway allowing for time to emerge from a fourth dimension of space, and thus allowing the Universe as we know it to follow.

Still, it’s a speculative theory; testable predictions haven’t emerged from it.

It is useful speculation all the same, because it provides logical refutation against assumptions held to be a priori truths that restrict the way the Universe is theorised about. For example, the assumption that a finite Universe must have a beginning (a reoccurring theme in cosmological arguments for the existence of God) is ruined by the logical possibility of the Hartle-Hawking theory.

It may not cure our ignorance about what may actually lay at the heart of a black hole, but what this reasonable speculation and speculation like it does tell us, is that the singularity (and the “first cause” in general) is an ambiguous and unsafe place to park your cherished ideas!

Maybe somebody should put up a sign.

~ Bruce

Afterword: Aside from being a pre-prepared rebuttal, I’m writing this in anticipation of singularity-dogma, and the casting of singularity-rebuttals as alleged atheist propaganda, rather than responsible inquiry.