29 September 2011

Happy Blasphemy Day!

Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense.

- Robert Green Ingersoll

Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day. It’s an appropriate occasion to reflect on one basic human right many of us take for granted: freedom of expression. Many countries, particularly those with Muslim majorities or theocracies, have laws against insulting or criticising religion. Punishments for transgressing such laws include fines, jail, and the death penalty. Apart from these legal, state-sanctioned punishments, there’s also the informal consequences of social condemnation, ostracism and physical violence inflicted upon those who overtly disrespect religion.

Blasphemy laws have been used to silence and intimidate those who dare to challenge religion’s self-awarded exemption from criticism and mockery. Mortal, fallible men (and they are almost always men) pretend that they are defending the sacredness of their God by creating laws punishing those who slander him, but what they are really doing is imposing their own temporal authority on others. As the 19th century American humanist orator and outspoken critic of religion Robert Green Ingersoll observed:

An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment.

Let’s be clear about the purpose of Blasphemy Rights Day – it’s not an excuse to be a dick just for kicks. As the good folks at the Center for Inquiry explain:

The goal is not to promote hate or violence. While many perceive blasphemy as insulting and offensive, it isn't about getting enjoyment out of ridiculing and insulting others. The day was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs given a privileged status over other beliefs. Criticism and dissent towards opposing views is the only way in which any nation with any modicum of freedom can exist.

If we can make fun of people’s political, philosophical or cultural convictions, we should be free to do the same for their religious ones. Religionists who demand that their beliefs be treated as an exceptional case are like so many naked emperors demanding that their non-existent raiment be unquestioningly admired. But they’re starkers, and blasphemers are simply pointing that out.


27 September 2011

The end of print?

Sam Harris’s latest blog post spells out in brow-furrowing, lip-chewing detail the gloomy future of the printed book. Fellow bibliophiles are going to find it a depressing read. I do.

Martin at Furious Purpose has commented on the rather dire Melbourne bookshop scene. Borders and Angus & Robertson are gone. My regular supplier of ink-on-dead-trees, Reader’s Feast, is now a famine – they shut shop a few months ago. The only bookstore left that is likely to stock the kind of books I’m willing to pay grossly inflated prices for (thanks Australian government! /sarcasm) is Readings in Carlton. If (when?) that place shutters, I’m going to need therapy.

In this digital, Amazonian age we currently inhabit, book lovers need to somehow make the printed word indispensable, hip even. John Waters has an idea on how to do just that.

HT: Martin


Blackford on how religion disparages the good things in life

Earlier this month Russell Blackford participated in a debate organised by Intelligence Squared Australia, with the motion ‘Atheists are wrong’. Blackford along with Jane Caro and Tamas Pataki made up the ‘against’ team, which won the debate (insert smug smile here). In a recent blog post, Blackford comments on how the debate arguments of Tracey Rowland – who was for the motion – reflect a common characteristic of religion: its propensity to “[do] dirt on everything good in life”. Whether it’s social relationships, politics, trade or sex, religion preaches that without God, these things lose their value, or become corrupted. As Rowland, informed by her Catholicism, sees it:

Sexual relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become mutual manipulation; political relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become brutal power; and market relations hollowed out into their material shell give us consumerism and status anxiety.

Blackford disagrees. The presence or absence of a supernatural divinity is irrelevant to the goodness or badness of things like politics or sex. In fact, the religionist insistence that their goodness depends on the existence of a supernatural divinity belittles their inherent worth, as Blackford argues:

Religionists cannot explain how the supernatural makes things that are not otherwise good become so, or how good things are any less so in the absence of some sort of supernatural power. No one has ever shown how that is a coherent way of thinking about the issues. If something has the properties that are required to satisfy certain human needs, desires, interests, etc., then we are quite entitled to judge it as "good" ... whether a supernatural power, such as God, exists or not.

The sort of ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims made by Rowland and her sky-fairyist ilk are rooted in the same emotive soil that feeds anti-scientific criticisms accusing science of ‘disenchanting’ the world. According to its detractors, science sucks the fuzzy-wuzzy, warm gooey caramel centre out of things like love, beauty and ‘spirituality’ (an ambiguous term) with its cold, unromantic, materialist ideology. What tosh. If any ideology is sucking the life-affirming goodness out of human preoccupations, it’s religion, with its perverse delight in seeing corruption, shame and taint in what are actually natural, pleasurable and even beneficial aspects of our humanity.

Blackford rightly asserts that “the religious mind thinks little of human pleasure and desire, and so disparages ordinary kinds of goodness.”

Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is far from being the source of ordinary goodness in our lives. On the contrary, it is an enemy of ordinary goodness. We can lead good and fruitful lives without God or any belief in the supernatural, and that's what I suggest we all do. Life without God is not thereby way diminished or hollowed out. That's an unsustainable claim. It is pathological to think of the world that way.

Quite so.


22 September 2011

More from Christina on fashion (and its frustrations)

It seems that Greta Christina’s previous posts on fashion rubbed some of her readers the wrong way. She felt compelled to address this pushback with another post, where she clarifies her original argument that fashion is a form of communication, whether one is conscious of it or not.

Judging by the raw nerves this subject matter has touched, one thing fashion definitely isn’t is irrelevant. Love it, hate it, apathetic about it – so long as we homo sapiens are subject to both the physical necessity of clothing our bodies and the psychological occupations of our inner lives (status anxieties, moral values, sexual attraction, aesthetic appreciation, emotional needs and cognitive biases), we will inevitably have some kind of relationship to fashion.

I sympathise with Christina’s position, yet I also understand why her views have caused offence. Still, she’s trying to meet her dissenters halfway by acknowledging their grievances against either her arguments or fashion itself. But people being people, I doubt that the controversy surrounding anything fashion related will be tidily resolved by Christina’s latest essay.


21 September 2011

“It’s not the coolness of atheism. It’s the lameness of religion.”

Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams thinks that religion (i.e. Williams’s own Jesus-centric brand of it) is losing the popularity contest to atheism because godlessness is perceived to be ‘cool’. The presumably uncool archbishop opines:

I'm not avoiding the point that the coolness of atheism is very much in evidence. The problem is it's become a bit of a vicious circle. Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.

They get a high profile, and books that say Richard Dawkins is wrong don't get the same kind of publicity because atheism is the new cool thing.

Why of course! Atheism is gaining traction because it’s, like, so trendy now to apply reason and critical thinking to fabulous claims. Asking for supporting evidence is avant-garde! Questioning superstitious, unfounded beliefs is so ‘in’ this season! After all, this fickle, juvenile, ephemeral atheism craze has only been around since the time of Socrates (who actually was one cool cat).

PZ Myers has a characteristically eloquent reply to Williams’s remarks:

[Williams is] making a very common error of perspective. I hate to break the news to all of you, but atheism is not cool. It’s not cool at all. It’s the domain of nerds and geeks and sciencey weirdos with beards and snarky women who are way smarter than the guys chasing them. We are not rock stars. We are not fabulously sexy (well, except for Brian Cox). We tend not to have loud movie star personalities (well, except for Neil deGrasse Tyson). Nothing personal, but if you put together a line-up of one of the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Daniel Radcliffe, and Richard Dawkins, and showed them to the average person on the American street, most of our citizens’ eyes would light up in recognition at the first four, and look quizzically at the guy on the end. And no, it wouldn’t help much to swap in Brian Cox for Richard Dawkins.

But that’s the point: cool is a relative thing. Coolness depends on what you contrast it with. And that’s really Rowan Williams’ problem.

It’s not the coolness of atheism. It’s the lameness of religion.

Exactamundo, dude.

Williams has a pretty strange conception of ‘cool’. So he thinks it’s cool to be the most despised and least trusted demographic group in highly religious societies? That it’s cool to be threatened, harassed and have your privacy violated simply because you associate with atheist groups? That it’s cool to be part of an often persecuted minority in cultures that privilege religion and its believers in various ways, from tax-exemptions to taboos against criticism or mockery?

Atheism and atheists are not ‘cool’. Godless folks may be many other things: courageous, rational, informed, intellectually honest. But not cool. And certainly not lame.


12 September 2011

A woman after my own heart

Greta Christina is really starting to grow on me. Her post on the difference between atheist diplomacy and accommodationism hit all the right notes – she clearly defined what it means to be an atheist who respects religious believers, yet does not surrender her intellectual integrity and commitment to truth and reason.

Now Christina has written an intelligent, provocative essay on another topic of interest to me – fashion.

Those who know me are quite aware of my fondness for certain styles of clothing. And to say that I don’t mind wearing a nice hat would be deliberately coy of me. It’s no big secret; clothes excite me, for various reasons. Christina pretty much nails the key ones in her essay – they’re a form of self expression, they can give aesthetic pleasure, they can be a psychological booster and comforter.

Christina acknowledges the less flattering sides of fashion – the slavish adherence to fickle trends, the arbitrary authority of tastemakers (designers, critics, magazine editors, retailers), the unethical labour and manufacturing practices of many fashion companies, the vacuous superficiality it can (and often does) promote. But Christina makes an interesting comparison between fashion and food that supports her celebration of fashion without ignoring or trivialising its dark side. You’ll just have to read her essay to see what I mean.

So Christina’s a smart, articulate, engaging, passionate atheist and feminist who has a thing for fashion and style. If she wasn’t a happily married lesbian, I might have entertained the possibility of an exclusive, mutually satisfying bond of affection between us. Just don’t call it ‘romance’.


05 September 2011

Against romantic love

If I must name one writer who has had a life-changing impact on me, it would be Alain de Botton. He was my First Philosopher, since his books introduced me to a lot of the more famous philosophers who preceded him. The name and nature of this blog have their ultimate origins in de Botton – although they were inspired by Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, or ‘Attempts’, it was de Botton, in his Consolations of Philosophy (2000), who brought about my fateful encounter with the 16th century French writer and inventor of the essay.

I read de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) when it first came out, and followed his column in Standpoint until it was dropped from the magazine last year. Since then I haven’t read any more of his writing, mostly because I discovered other writers who then proceeded to consume a greater and greater portion of my reading attention. So it was a pleasant surprise when a few days ago I found a de Botton piece in the very first issue of Australian men’s magazine Smith Journal (published by the same folks behind Frankie). It was like bumping into an old friend you hadn’t seen in years. In my case, a friend who had played a large part in making me the person I am today.

02 September 2011

Greta Christina hits the nail on the head

Sometimes you come across an article so well written, so accurate in its analysis of the issue at hand, it practically gives you the shivers. You silently - or not so silently - shout “Yes!”, “Right on!”, “Damn straight!”, “Fuck yeah!”

Greta Christina’s recent blog post on the difference between a diplomatic atheist and an outright accommodationist is one such piece of shiver-inducing, shout-producing writing. This is a memo every sycophant of religion should get, since they seem to have trouble with making the distinction between respecting people and respecting ideas. This may come as news to them, but you can do the former without also doing the latter, especially if the ideas are demonstrably wrong, harmful or just plain idiotic.

I have religious friends who I respect and admire, and even have deep affection for a few, since the values we hold in common greatly outweigh our metaphysical disagreements. I try to be diplomatic by not callously sticking a knife into their beliefs every chance I get. But I do not accommodate those beliefs by pretending that they’re rational or true, or accepting that they’re protected by an anti-criticism force field. And my theist friends know all too well where I stand on the matter of religion.

Forthright critics of theism and the religious structures built around it are often recipients of undeserved invective from nicer-than-thou types. People like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Maryam Namazie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina herself are called everything from arrogant to militant to simplistic by those who either haven’t actually read their work, or have read it but consider any criticism, no matter how valid its basis and measured its delivery, to be a smack to the face.

And all that’s coming from their fellow atheists!

Christina’s article is a much needed corrective to the prevalent misconception held by ‘nice’ atheists that being diplomatic to religionists means bending over backwards to accommodate their irrational, pernicious, baseless superstitions. Whether it’s out of political correctness, or a (misplaced) sense of fairness, or, let’s admit it, fear of being shot, cut down or blown to bloody pieces by death-cult fanatics, the accommodationist wet-dream where critics of religion either play nice or just STFU is misguided, cynical and cowardly.

Christina sums it up beautifully:

Our problem is not with being civil and friendly to believers, or with trying to make alliances with them. Our problem is with bowing to religion. Our problem is with accepting religion’s assessment of itself as a special case, an idea that ought to be above criticism. Our problem is with seeing religion the same way believers see religion, and treating it the way believers want it to be treated… even when it’s grossly harmful, laughably ridiculous, wildly out of touch with reality, or all three at once.

Our problem is not with working with religious believers as equals.

Our problem is with bending to religion as its subordinate.

Accomodationism is not diplomacy. Accomodationism is not necessary for diplomacy. Let’s not treat it as though it is.

Yes. Right on. Damn straight. Fuck yeah.