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

A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…

StartrailsI first felt the tidal forces wrought by being flung out of social orbit two or three years ago, when silently, both other persons and myself, went our own ways. Their trajectory sent them in professional directions I can’t say I’d endorse 100%, while I may or may not have been relegated to the status of ‘crazy guy they knew on the Internet’.

For my own part in this, I was getting tired. Tired of passive-aggression, of in-jokes (some poorly veiled), and tired of a few people being too egocentric to realise that no, they weren’t dealing with someone who was gullible, they were dealing with someone who was being charitable; someone who was humouring them, not the other way around.

If I regret anything from this particular period, it’s my lame participation in what passed for some of the humour – which often involved my riffing off of someone else’s bad joke.

All the same, while we were friends, I did get something out of some of them, during what was a difficult time for me, mentally. I don’t know if this admission would injure their egos, or comfort them, and I can’t say I’m particularly worried either way.

If there’s anything I’d be concerned about with them, if I hadn’t put them behind me, it’d be the prejudicial assumptions and leading questions; annoying for me, worse for them if it insinuates its way into their journalism.

The greatest imposture in all of this though, comes from my own faculties – particularly my relative inability to forget things, even small things I don’t much care about. Inevitably something comes along to remind me… like goings on over the past few weeks.

At the very least I wouldn’t be recalling all of these details if I hadn’t been reminded.

***

Continue reading “A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…”

Book Review: Freedom of Religion & The Secular State

for-blackfordFreedom of Religion & The Secular State, by Russell Blackford.

Publisher: John Wiley and Sons.

Philosopher and self-styled whipping boy, Michael Ruse, once described Russell Blackford as a ‘Junior New Atheist from Australia’. Ruse fancies himself, amongst other things, as a veteran of secular court battles, and an opener of dialogue between believer and non. Good for him.

I’m not sure, however, that Ruse is being wise in dismissing Blackford.

***

Blackford starts from a tolerant Lockean basis for the separation of church and state, justifying this in a historical context, and comparing it to competing theories, before moving forward to argue how in essence, the Lockean treatment is still applicable to modern disputes.

Anyone familiar with Blackford’s small-l liberal leanings, will not be surprised by his arguing against burqa bans, while those looking for black-and-white posturing will be disappointed; Blackford doesn’t deny there are situations where secular contractual obligations may reasonably require, say an employee, not to wear the burqa in a certain space.

Similarly, against ‘New Atheist’ type, Blackford doesn’t treat the religious establishment’s arguments with categorical derision, notionally agreeing that defensible arguments can be made to indefinitely postpone various secular reforms. This especially where the social costs of reform could exceed the benefits of implementing them.

(This kind of utilitarianism may upset more radical secularists – but at least there’s room for difference in this debate.)

Of course, there are various religious privileges that don’t fall into this category, and it is here, after consideration, that Blackford takes a stronger stance. The idea that Catholics can’t become a head of state, in any modern democracy (or for that matter, any modern soft-theocracy), and ridiculous orthodox notions like these, are given the (admittedly polite) rebuke they rightly deserve. (Malcolm Turnbull, and an Australian Republic, appear in-mind whenever I encounter issues like these in Blackford’s work).

The book is incredibly concise. It doesn’t tarry, taking time to make quips – the necessary technical detail is raised, and in a manner amenable to us laypersons.

(Although I wouldn’t have minded a little needling of Alister McGrath, the respect he’s shown in the section on the history of religious persecution, is more in fitting with the rest of the text.)

Again, against ‘New Atheist’ type, Blackford’s effort isn’t remotely populist, at least in as far as populism is a negative – it’s intellectualism accessible to members of the lumpenproletariat such as yours truly (making it a valuable addition to any public library).

Only the most precious could find the tome objectionable. Blackford for example, doesn’t outright dismiss the possibility of justifiable persecution of religion X, by a hypothetical secular state. Those with persecution complexes will perhaps convince themselves, ‘he means me’, whereas more sensible readers will think more along the lines of ‘sarin-gas-death-cult’.

In being concise, the reader isn’t treated like a dolt – ridiculous interpretations aren’t endlessly qualified against, and this does at some points leave the text open to spurious readings. No doubt at some point, somewhere, a close-reading paranoid, working away in their bunker, will uncover in Blackford’s little tome, the kernel of a ‘New Atheist’ conspiracy to enslave the religious, and crush human flourishing.

Most of us however, should be able to sleep soundly, all the more for not having had our time wasted or our intelligence insulted.

***

I’m left wondering, because I’ve never seen anything like it, how Michael Ruse has made a contribution to the secular public debate at anything approaching this quality. Correct me if I’m ignorant.

More importantly, the Australian discourse on secularism seems wanting. The history of debate surrounding the issue of federally funded school chaplains, erecting their ministries (under a different name) in public schools, seems impoverished after reading Freedom of Religion & The Secular State.

I’m left wanting yet again better justifications from politicians, and much more challenging counter-arguments from the beneficiaries of the current arrangement. It’s not just that I think people have been wrong, I think the debate has suffered from low expectations – the media has been especially compliant in allowing tripe pass as informed comment.

Freedom of Religion & The Secular State will raise your expectations.

This shortfall in discussions of secularism is framed against a bleak political backdrop; Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow, and George Megalogenis’ essay, Trivial Pursuit, can meaningfully lament the dumbing-down and privileged insularity of Australian politics of the age, without resorting to populism, all with the general approval of political wonks. For its part of the broader political debate, Blackford’s treatment of the secular state is met with a needing polity.

I doubt that this is significantly less true in most other modern democracies.

I want for people to read this important book.

I want the Greens to read it. I want the major parties to read it. I want Bob Carr to read it it to see if he thinks it could be a worthwhile subject of discussion in the training of Young Labor members. I want to see the moderates in the Young Liberals to read it to see how it could inform their politics.

I want unionists to read it to see how their views on workplace discrimination are influenced.

I want secular Jains, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Buddhists, and all the other colours of the theist rainbow, to read it.

I want you to read it.

Rating: 5/5

~ Bruce

Note: For those free in Melbourne, this Thursday night, the 12th of April at 6:30pm, Russell Blackford will be appearing at Embiggen Books with Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy to discuss how Australia can move forward as a secular nation. Secularists of all stripes are welcome – theist or non – and I’m planning to be in attendance myself, which means I’d better get back to packing!

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

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

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