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Margaret Coffey
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That’s all, folks. Thank-you. - April 1, 2010 by David Busch

This post marks the closure of the Questions of Faith blog. Thank-you to all who contributed posts and comments, engaging a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion. We appreciate the community of interest which has gathered around issues of atheism and belief and around this blog. Thanks also to the Global Atheist Convention organisers. ABC Religion has an ongoing commitment to the issues canvassed here, and much more besides, and we invite you to keep abreast of our programs as well as other programs on the ABC which explore these areas from time to time … and take opportunities to build new discussions.

Comments received after 1 April 2010 will not be posted, but this blog remains available as an archive for those who wish to read our coverage and trace the ensuing discussions.

We’re closing the blog – so, what can I say? - April 1, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

It wasn’t inevitable that ABC Religion would go to the Atheist Convention – other areas of the ABC had staked the territory, and how many times ought one media organisation interview Richard Dawkins? In the end, we went because we were curious about the aim/s of the Convention, its unfolding purpose and direction, the people who would be there, and what it would tell us about atheism as a contemporary position. Then, we discovered that the Convention was fully within our remit not because there was particular attention to ethics; it was virtually all about religion.

At this distance from that weekend – we’re two and a half weeks down the track as we bring this blog to a conclusion – it doesn’t get easier to sum up the Convention or our blog enterprise.  Yes, some  philosphical and scientific claims stay, to be pursued in arenas where conversation is possible and questions can be asked.  And so does the loathing and abomination of hypocrisy in religous institutions.  These things are more than important.  But other aspects come forward, in part I acknowledge because they have been reinforced by the blog process. Thus, often in tension with my recollection of individual attendees, I recall the Convention’s ‘culture’, alongside the quality of content in various presentations, and the tenor of comments from blog readers.

Who came to the Convention? Mostly Australians, with probably fifty per cent, I’m told, from Victoria. It was a cheery crowd, happy to foregather and in the end mildly triumphant about the achievement of the Convention. As Gary Bryson and Chris Mulherrin noted, many we spoke to felt ‘liberated’ or ‘affirmed’ by the opportunity to get together with like-minded people. In what sense were they like-minded? Much of the on-stage and commentary narrative resisted diversity or range – no such stance as agnostic for example. Nevertheless, a recent commentator on the blog has described the Convention attendees as “a bunch of staunch individualists with enormously disparate views on a whole range of issues.” Out on the concourse, amongst the crowd, it was possible to encounter those ‘staunch individualists’ – and we introduced a few of those we met in this blog. (See (Conversing with James, So far, so?All Talk and No Action) We noted the predominance of males, the presence of younger people (interestingly, many of those to whom we spoke were making their way towards atheism from no personal experience of religion). And we noted the increase in attendance on the Sunday, when the headline speakers were to take the stage and to become available for book signings. We noted the intense interest in specific issues, like the influence of creationism in education and in politics, the presence of chaplains in schools, the perceived ‘control’ by religion of the limits of personal freedom, interests that had drawn people to the Convention. But inside the main venue it was difficult to discern individualism, staunch or otherwise. It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’

It‘s easy to describe the Convention culture en bloc as crude, naïve, and aggressive. That’s what it was often like, from the opening night when it first framed religion as comedy and first represented itself as unfairly denied government funding. Certainly the guest comedians hit the spot (hypocrisy, silliness, credulity), but sometimes the cruelty and crudity of the comedy just amplified the anti-intellectual strain of much of the Convention content. I mention naivety: that comes across in the emblematic funding story. It’s clear that obdurate naivety was involved there: a refusal to doff the lens of prejudice in order to see clearly structures of government, bureaucratic processes, necessary objectives. (See this and this.) Naivety was there in the response to Taslima Nasrin and in the axiomatic laughter in response to references like A. C. Grayling’s to the Quran: it is naïve surely to imagine that there is nothing to be known or understood about the Quran beyond what is comprehended in a cheap quip. Naivety was there in the suspension of enquiry: no questions about why the Convention was dominated by white middle class males who carried strong whiffs of atavistic anti-Catholicism (little to do with rationality) and who apprehended atheism as a dimension of the ‘good life’ not yet available to the poor of Africa and India. No questions about what that might say of the atheism they represent and its capacity for critical attention to the world we live in. No question about the curious conjunction of fundamentalisms in someone like Dan Barker. No question about the globalising dynamic of American style creationism: how is it that Turkish Muslim creationists and American Christian fundamentalists can work together in order to defeat Science? And of course naivety was comically there in the teleology proffered by the Convention: its placement of atheism as a point of achievement (purpose?) where the cleverer, smarter etc might be found. As for aggression, that was implicit in the language of attack, contempt and derision.

I’ve been challenged by some commentators on this blog to admit my bias, as if there is one telling bias, religious belief. Well here’s a bias and it’s not half joking: English accents of a certain kind remind me that I’m not so far removed from the colonial experience. I hear in Richard Dawkins and in A. C. Grayling that smooth voice of imperialism, going about quashing languages and symbolic structures as it ‘rationalises’ and ‘improves’, systematises and reduces, ruling out other voices, other experiences and complexities beyond its ken, erasing boundaries and setting up arbitrary borders – and not in the least interested in upsetting the way the imperium works. And I admit to another bias, towards history and the work of historians, who are curious and open and who never imagine that complex reality can be explained by reduction, and who tell us about the harm that imperialism has visited upon the world we live in today. There was no history at the Convention, just doses of pseudo-history.

But I come back to individuals, like some of our contributors, and their concern for issues of equity and justice, and their urgent desire to build a practical collective ethics and indeed to find community. They are memorable. I hope they are able to get to work. I come back to those few speakers, like Leslie Cannold, who stood on their distinctive ground, holding out the prospect of discussion and collaboration. And I’ll hope that next time, the Atheist Convention will get around to developing an ethics for the moment when the persistence of religion (against evolutionary purpose?) challenges our arrival at that religion-less utopia envisioned by atheism’s contemporary advocates. I’ll be interested.

In the meantime, if you are interested in milieux where conversation is possible, try ABC Radio National, and try also a blog site like The Immanent Frame, which attends to ’secularism, religion and the public sphere’.  Check out Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, attend to events coming up hosted by the  ACU’s Faculty of Philosophy and Theology, including the annual Simone Weil lectures.  That’s a start.  Thank you for your attention – and thanks also to my collaborators in this enterprise.  I think we’ve learned a lot!

Reductio ad…… On Taslima Nasrin - March 22, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

Taslima Nasrin’s speech at the convention was unique in the emotional engagement it engendered (Gary Bryson  has described this in a previous post.)   The audience gave Taslima Nasrin a lengthy standing ovation following her peroration:

I am in other words a stranger in my own country Bangladesh and a stranger in neighbouring India and a stranger in the West , where I am now living, Where can I go, nowhere. ….But I have a home, a home that consists of a family of people, men as well as women, who bravely oppose the forces of darkness and ignorance.  These represent my true home. The hearts of people are my home and my nation, my only safe haven, my shelter and my refuge.

….. My home is love, the love I receive from women all over the world, that is my home, the love I receive from atheists, free thinkers, secularists, and humanist[s] is my home, the love I receive from you, that is my home. I do not regret what I have done so far, I do not regret anything that I have written, come what may.  I will continue my struggle against all the extremists, fundamentalists, intolerant forces without any compromise to my death.  I am all the more committed to my cause.

Taslima Nasrin prefaced her speech with brief reference to riots in the State of Karnataka on 1 March, just a fortnight before her appearance in Melbourne.  Fifteen thousand people took to the streets, she told the audience, and two people died, “because a local newspaper published an article of mine about the burqa…” ”The editors wanted to have a healthy debate about the burqa so they published the article.”

In the remainder of her address Ms Nasrin canvassed her childhood arrival at atheism, Mohammad’s deficiencies as a model, and the Quran as a series of injunctions to violence and sexism.  She gave an account of her displacement from Bangladesh and of her subsequent difficulties living in India.  Islam was at the root of her homelessness, and not only fanatics, but liberal intelligentsia who defended the rights of Muslims, threatened her continued security in India.

My interest here is not Islam, the Quran or Mohammad.  That’s for a different post. Suffice to say that Islamic fundamentalism is without question a problem for the security and well being of people, evidently everywhere. And it is a specific problem for women.

But, since the Karnataka events were quoted by Taslima Nasrin to contextualise her criticism of Islam and her ‘homelessness’, I would like to invite you on a tour of the available empirical information.  I want to suggest possibilities for more telling readings of the riots than the one offered by Ms Nasrin.

1.  On Karnataka:  It’s a state (population 53 million) in southern India where the BJP is in power.  The BJP subscribes to Hindutva, an ideology that argues all Indians should subscribe to a Hindu ethos.  The BJP – nationally – has interpreted Muslim population figures and Muslim identity as a threat to the Hindu ethos prevailing in India.  (There’s a strand in Indian secularism which joins in this interpretation.) In Karnataka 83 per cent of the population is Hindu; a mere 12 per cent is Muslim and not quite two per cent Christian. Only 8 per cent of Muslims have government jobs.  Politics in the state are dominated by two caste groupings that comprise 15 per cent and 17 per cent respectively of the population: The access of these communities historically to land, education and government jobs; and more recently to the commercial and business opportunities thrown up by economic liberalisation is the basis for their social dominance. One aspect of their power is the connection of Hindu religious leadership within these groupings to unregulated business enterprise.   In effect, politics in Karnataka is intra-Hindu, with each party balancing its caste equations carefully before it decides how to recruit Muslim votes or Dalit votes etc.  According to the World Bank, political parties in Karnataka including secular parties “have generally not sought to mobilize political support by pursuing welfarist policies.”

Politicians customarily refer to Karnataka is the IT powerhouse of India but this level of industrial advancement is largely limited to the capital Bangalore (a quarter of the State’s economic activity happens there) and to the city of Mysore.  Many other areas of Karnataka are highly underdeveloped.  In 2005 Transparency International ranked Karnataka as the fourth most corrupt state (of 20) in India, particularly in services such as ‘Income Tax, Judiciary, Municipal and RFI (farming)’.

In Karnataka, therefore, there is a prevailing ideology, an entrenched political and social power structure, and a pattern of uneven economic development – all of which provide sources of outrage aplenty , and provocations for outbreaks of communal violence.

2. On Communal violence:  Communalism and resort to riot in India has a long history, much analysed.   But religious based communalism is intimately tied to the identity consciousness produced initially by British ‘empirical’ innovations in census taking and their introduction of elective representation along communal lines.  Communalism is on the rise in India – where ethnicity, language, religion, caste divide and structure in hierarchies people competing economically and politically.

3. What happened in Karnataka on 1 March?: The Karnataka newspaper The Deccan Herald describes the course of events hereThe [Nasrin's] article, about the purported views of Nasreen on the purdah system, led to protest marches in the two cities by Muslims, prompting retaliatory demonstrations by a section of Hindus. The counter-protests, parades and demonstrations worsened the situation and the violence went into a spiral as mobs from various parts of the towns took to the streets, burning police vehicles, smashing cars, stoning buildings and causing damage to  public property.

Of the two people who died in the riots, one person was shot by police, the other killed in the crowd violence. In other words, the event was a complex phenomenon; it was not a matter of 15,000 Muslims taking to the streets.

4. What about the article?: Taslima Nasrin did not write an article for the Karnataka newspaper (Kannada Prabha) which published her piece.  The paper picked up (for its own good reasons in a Hindu majority state) and translated  from English an article published in January 2007,  ‘Let’s think about the burqa’ .  Update: Taslima Nasrin has informed us that the 2007 version of the article was preceded by publication in a Bengali newspaper, Daily Statesman, in 2006.  See Comment below.

Following the riots in Karnataka, Taslima Nasrin issued a statement widely reported in the Indian media: “The incident that occurred in Karnataka on Monday shocked me. I learned that it was provoked by an article written by me that appeared in a Karnataka newspaper. But I have never written any article for any Karnataka newspaper in my life,” she said.
Nasreen said, “The appearance of the article is atrocious. In any of my writings I have never mentioned that Prophet Muhammad was against burkha. Therefore this is a distorted story.”
The author said, “I suspect that it is a deliberate attempt to malign me and to misuse my writings to create disturbance in the society. I wish peace will prevail.”

5. An alternative voice:  Irfan Engineer of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai has written a reflection on the Karnataka riots.  He writes: Minority fundamentalism often becomes existential justification for fundamentalist elements from majority community. Competitive fundamentalism together can erode individual freedoms and threaten democracy. Read the whole article here.

This is a lengthy post.  But I hope it suggests that attention to complexity is preferable to staying with the simplistic.  And preferable to the essentially solipsistic narrative of the Karnataka event presented by Taslima Nasrin.

Here’s an alternative way of reading communal conflict structured around religious identity.  It concerns recent conflict in Nigeria, but it models a way of seeing that illuminates ways forward, rather than reducing us to one impossible but very easy to articulate ‘solution’.

And for a discussion of what goes missing when the detail is ignored of how those two lives were lost in Karnataka, read Gyanendra Pandey, ‘In Defence of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today’. It’s in the Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 26, No 11/12 Annual Number (Mar., 1991)

Listen to Taslima Nasrin [Dur: 43.24; Size: 39.7 MB]

Science and the supernatural - March 15, 2010 by admin

Rachel WoodlockGuest blogger, Rachel Woodlock, takes up a theme of many comments posted on this blog:

As a convert from one faith-group to another (Baha’i to Islam for those interested), I have spent many years grappling with judging competing truth claims. I’ve been humoured by religious, agnostic and atheist family members and friends so that I could pick their brains over the ontological and epistemological niceties of what is true and how can we know it is true.

Al-Ghazali had a go at it nearly nine hundred years ago, developing a process of methodical doubt that went: 1) Sense-perception is unreliable as an arbiter of truth, because rationality can disprove sense-perception (a dinar coin looks bigger when held up to the sun, but the intellect disproves the senses and knows that the sun is the larger of the two objects). 2) Thus, it cannot be discounted that a supra-intellect might falsify the intellect, and rationality alone cannot be the final arbiter of truth. (Did I mention that al-Ghazali wasn’t keen on the Mu’talizah?) Upon realising this, al-Ghazali fell into a profound depression and although he doesn’t explicitly say it, I suspect he became atheist for a time as he wrote: “I was a sceptic in fact though not in theory nor in outward expression” (The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazālī, p.24).

Al-Ghazali’s intellectual scepticism was resolved in favour of experiential Sufism, after quitting his home and undertaking a quest as did so many great spiritual figures before him, whether Moses in the wilderness, Lao Tzu in his hermitage, the Buddha under the Bo-tree, Jesus in the desert, or Muhammad in the cave on the Mountain of Light. (Unlike these days, it seems scholars could afford to take luxuriously long sabbaticals. Al-Ghazali writes of Baghdad: “Nowhere in the world have I seen better financial arrangements to assist a scholar to provide for his children.”)

The great modern-day scholar of religion, Huston Smith, also discounts limiting existence to that which is merely empirically observable and describes science as the most wonderful and useful tool that is absolutely appropriate for explaining natural phenomena but completely useless for ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ the existence of a non-material realm. It is not the tool designed for the job. Teacups floating around a planet and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are both examples of beings that by definition would have corporeal existence, and hence fall into the realm of scientific hypothesis. Because they would conceptually be empirically observable, and we have not observed them, we can say they are non-existent.

Smith explains that science can only accurately describe that which is lesser than us.  It’s the reason why amoebae are much easier to understand, and thoroughly more predictable, in comparison to the human psyche. If we attempt to conceive of beings greater than ourselves, how could we scientifically study them? “If such beings exist, science–the science that can prove its propositions through controlled experiments–will never bring them to view for the sufficient reason that if they exist, it is they who dance circles around us, not we them” (Why Religion Matters, p196). Smith likens the scientific method to a flashlight that is entirely useful for illuminating a path in the dark (the realm of natural world), partially useful when pointed towards the horizon (the realm of human experience) and completely useless for illuminating the heavens (the spiritual realm).

At this point whether one asserts the existence or non-existence of a supernatural realm (e.g. what was ‘there’ before the Big Bang, the unseen realm of the soul, the existence of God), both positions require intellectual leaps of faith.  Although I am not a rational choice theorist, Iannaccone and Berman use Pascal’s Wager to make a good argument for the rationality of positing the existence of the supernatural realm: “Rational individuals will seek to understand and influence the supernatural to the extent that they remain uncertain of its non-existence” (“Religious Extremism: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly” p.113, their emphasis).

But the question then becomes, how to choose between mutually exclusive truth-claims about the supernatural realm, upon which the fate of the soul rests, which is the great problem facing religious pluralists.

Rachel Woodlock is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University

Misrepresenting the other…. - March 14, 2010 by admin

Guest blogger, Rachel Woodlock, has had a good time reading comments on this blog:

So atheist folk and religious folk are complaining about each misrepresenting the other to themselves. Ho hum, welcome to my world. As a Muslim Australian, I am thoroughly used to having my beliefs and practices regularly misrepresented not just by atheists and followers of other religions, but even some fellow Muslims. Here’s one: 72 virgins in paradise is a fake tradition peoples!

It seems to me that once you get past the strawman arguments, the reality of living in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world filled with atheists, agnostics and believers of every different stripe, throws up some exciting and intellectually refreshing questions about how do human beings–who think, believe and do many different things–build the good society?

I’m particularly attracted to a Neo-Mu‘tazili-cum-Rawlsian position on how we govern ourselves when our societies are made up of people who hold to diverse religious beliefs and none, and thus we cannot use the simplistic “because God says so” appeal to authority. For those of you who need a little refresher on your history of Islamic theology and philosophy, the Mu‘tazilah were Islam’s first organised group of rationalists who held that rationality trumps revelation. (Surprised that Islam has rationalists? Just remember what I was saying about misrepresentation before.)

So, this position says that on tricky ethical and moral questions, such as a woman’s right to abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research etc., no-one can make the “God says so” argument and legislate on that basis. Instead, a believer must be able to rationally defend their position to the reasonable non-believer in order to legislate it. This means that religion is not entirely removed from the public realm–as aggressive anti-religious secularism attempts–but the benign secular state does not privilege any one religion because any piece of legislation has to be rationally defensible to the reasonable non-believer.

For example, on the question of abortion, scholars from different religions define the establishment of the foetus’s humanity through its ensoulment as occurring at different temporal points in its existence. Catholics hold this to be at conception. Muslims, somewhere between 40 and 120 days after conception. However neither Catholics, nor Muslims can empirically prove the time of ensoulment, or even the soul’s very existence, because it belongs to the supernatural realm. Hence, neither Catholics nor Muslims can appeal to ensoulment to legislate against abortion in a secular, plural society either anytime after conception (if you’re Catholic) or after 120 days (if you’re Muslim). The recourse they have, is to a rational defence against abortion on scientific grounds that can be accepted by Catholic, Muslim and atheist alike. Hence, the religious and the atheist are on equal footing to engage in discussion with each other over the difficult questions of how we build and govern the good society. This does not prevent the individual Catholic or Muslim refusing an abortion themselves on religious grounds, but it means that their specific religious beliefs about something that is not empirically provable cannot be forced on others.

Does this give atheism–or more correctly rationalism–a higher court of appeal than God, something the religious decry? For me as a Muslim, I locate my answer within my own religious tradition, namely the principle underlined in the Qur’anic passage: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Q2:256). That is, whilst I recognise that God is the source of all truth and wisdom, how human beings understand Him is a completely different kettle of fish. Over the course of human history we’ve made mistakes a plenty (flat earth anyone?) So, I must have the humility to adopt the great Imam Shafi‘i’s caveat: “I am right, but there is a possibility that I may be wrong. You are wrong, but there is a possibility that you may be right”.

Rachel Woodlock is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University and has a blog at:

Sunday – being good, and spiritual – updated - March 14, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

We’re about to begin the afternoon session on Sunday – the final session.  Some talks haven’t yet been noted in the blog – but they will be, as we come out of under the snow of other obligations, like collecting interviews for radio programs,  for example.

But before the day moves on I want to note today’s beginnings of a move towards elaborating ways of practically living out that desire ‘to be the best person you can be’ – without God.

The day began with Stuart Bechman’s affirmation of why he was an atheist: amongst the reasons, his sense of the importance of making sure that moral understanding kept in pace with technological understanding.  He acknowledged the ‘incredible power of community’ : ‘we know that we can have that community without religious belief.’  So it was interesting to hear his account of his organisation’s structures of ‘outreach’ – sponsorship, scholarships etc.   You can find out more here.

Right now, as the afternoon session has got going, an American comedian is telling us about what makes him laugh (it’s an in-your-face taking up of in-your-face hypocrisy) … and that he will be selling his books later  (who isn’t?) .  But a while ago, Ian Robinson’s gentler humour led us to the idea that atheism is a logical conclusion to a spiritual quest. The word spiritual he said had been coopted by religious people and ‘twisted into something transcendental’.  He defined it as a quest to find the essential nature of the universe, a search for answers to the big questions.   And these questions extend to what is the ultimate nature of the universe, is there a divinity and so on.  You’ve got to start without presupposing a material realm and a spiritual realm.

Atheism is also about passion, not just reason, Ian Robinson said.  Passion and reason are not antagonists.  The Western intellectual tradition is notorious for taking two contrasting aspects and turning them into opposites and in competition.  (pace ‘faith without reaon is dead’ ?)

So atheism is a passionate engagement with the the world and with life … and the first passion is love. Atheists in Ian Robinson’s account are in love with truth and in love with the natural world, because that is all there is, and they are ‘with eyes wide open’.

Along with passion, there is reverence – for a natural world that is something wondrous and marvellous. Awe is too passive a notion he said, quoting Robert Solomon, whereas reverence implies an active stance towards the universe. And Darwin he said was the person who best expressed this stance:  “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank ………..”

An update:

Since some comment conversation is about Ian Robinson’s talk beyond that audience appreciated poetic point, here is a summary of what he had to say.  He made three points about attempts to speak of God in terms of, for example, ‘being’ or ’ground of being’.  One, if this purported God is non-trivial then he or she would be detectable by science; if non-detectable then irrelevant; and if detectable, some effects would be palpable.
Two, the idea that there is even such a thing as ‘being’ is a logical howler – it happens when a noun is created from a verb (hence Robinson’s reference to nominalisation and reification).  Linguistics, he said,  cannot create facts about the world and to say that God is being is to say nothing
Third, in his view, the God of the great majority of believers is susceptible to conventional arguments from atheists, since this is not the ‘ground of being’ or some such formulation.

Listen to audio of Ian Robinson speaking on “Atheism as the Logical Conclusion to a Spiritual Quest” [Size:36.9MB; Dur: 40.20]

Being good without God? - March 14, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

Ethics without religion was this morning’s topic for Peter Singer, perhaps Australia’s most prominent philosopher and renowned activist for animal rights, who is now based mostly at Princeton in the US. The talk introduced some light philosophy laced with plenty of intuitively attractive examples to carry the argument.

Oft quoted words from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov are the standard launch pad for arguments about whether we can be good without God. “If there is no God everything is permitted… “ But, says Singer, tongue in cheek, the lie was put to that last night at dinner when someone’s wallet was left unstolen after lying unprotected on a table in a room full of unbelievers.

Singer’s philosophy today started with Plato’s Euthyphro where Socrates asks about the source of the good. Is something good because the gods oblige it, or do the gods oblige it because it is good? Now is not the time to tease out the issues, but it’s no surprise that philosophers and theologians over the centuries have challenged the dilemma in various ways. Nor is it a surprise that Singer hasn’t “seen a satisfactory answer.”

Singer cited examples of Christians selectively cherry-picking morality from the Bible. After various Old Testament examples, Singer said “some will say ‘that’s the Old Testament, we follow Jesus.’ But,” he continued, “Jesus is not really much better.” He cited Jesus’ attitude to divorce and then elided Jesus with his followers by commenting on rich Christians who don’t seem to be following Jesus’ example. (How often the Galilean is judged by those who follow him! A logical fallacy but a powerful wake up call to Christians.)

Singer also challenged the idea that the motivation for being good was to be found in religion, quoting the fact that three of the four biggest philanthropists in history have been atheists (Gates, Buffett, Carnegie. Rockefeller was a protestant.) A poor anecdote to make the point. Singer also emphasised the need to be balanced: atheists don’t have a great history either: Stalin and Pol Pot got mentions.

I resonated with the words of Henry Spiro, a significant animal rights activist and civil rights campaigner, when asked about what drove him to work for others: “I guess one wants to say that one’s life has been more than consuming products and generating garbage… to do whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering.” Applause followed.

So where does morality come from? asked Singer. His answer: morality is a naturally evolved phenomenon. That is why moral practices are more universal than you would expect, given the diversity of religions; because morality has evolved as a common feature of humans. So a comparison of religious cultures reveals common judgements: look after your children is universal, reciprocity (tit for tat in both the  good and the bad) fosters cooperation. Things work better if we work together.

Singer doesn’t agree with those who say that Jesus was a great ethical teacher. He said some laudable things but turning the other cheek is simply impractical. It would lead to perpetrators thriving and reproducing with the result that society will be based on using force to get what you want. So retaliation is a better way to go although ideally through the legal or social system.

Singer alluded to some indications that morality is hard wired into the human brain but warned that even if that were the case we should not take it as a moral guide. (Is he having it two ways here?) Nature and the good are not to be equated, he said, because our moral judgements have evolved for situations we are familiar with and might give us the wrong answers in new situations. For example, while there may be some biological component to an instinctive racism, it “is something we need to get over because the world is a very different place to what it was. We shouldn’t fall into a trap of thinking that a natural response is necessarily right.” For example we have no evolved response to the plight of strangers on the other side of the planet, nor to eating non-human animals, nor to the climate change implications of turning on our air conditioners, driving our gas guzzlers, or eating ruminant animals.

In the end Singer’s measure for morality is rooted, not in the divine, nor in nature but is a subtle version of the pleasure principle: of maximising the well-being of all sentient beings. But this too must be recognised as a moral intuition. It is not grounded in empirical evidence, especially if, as Singer did today, we rule out a naturalistic basis of ethics. I’m not sure whether that will satisfy the ruthless empiricists that dominate this conference.

Finally, an interesting quotation from today’s talk: “A glass has no intrinsic state of good and bad but we do, and non-human animals do too because we have consciousness.” Did he mean to say intrinsic?

Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.

Listen to selected audio of Peter Singer on “Ethics Without Religion” [Dur:28.38; Size: 26.2 MB]  For technical reasons we were unable to record the entire talk.

Guilt, forgiveness and dinner conversation - March 14, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

Last night at the convention dinner a good time was had by all. Good humour, especially from The Chaser who felt free to lampoon prominent atheist philosophers and scientists seated near the stage.  It was an honour for them to be performing to “the largest ever gathering of free thinkers who all believe the same thing.” (Not true, but funny.) There was also good food, although I’m not too sure about the quality of the red wine.

James and Rosemary’s cross-table conversation caught my ear when she protested: “Forgiveness is the ultimate in arrogance.” “No,” said James, “forgiveness acknowledges something has harmed you. You absolve the other person and let go of any desire to hate them. There are two steps: first recognise that I feel you have harmed me, and second, decide I won’t hold anything against you and to resolve the issue.”

At this point Elida, an older Argentine woman seated next to me piped up: “Do you really expect cooperation. Woman have tried for years…” from which we moved on to debate whether the speaker that morning was correct in saying that atheism is a logical outcome of feminism. We eventually finished up talking about the fear of dying and the challenge of coming to terms with the reality of death.

Across the table Philip kept passing me his iPhone as the tweets about the ABC Religion blog came thick and fast. There’s no doubt that atheists are well represented at the cutting edge (yes, a fair enough pun) of cyber conversation. According to Steve, another after-dinner presenter who goes by the pseudonym NonStampCollector, the internet is an atheist factory, especially YouTube. He was proud of at least 20 people who had ‘deconverted’ through his videos. “The era of respect for religious texts is over,” he said. “If you don’t want people to laugh at your beliefs, then don’t have stupid beliefs.” Steve too is an ex-Christian.

Another example of atheist cyber enthusiasm: yesterday I was “pharyngulated”, which is to say that I was mentioned (‘attacked’ but I’m not complaining) by PZ Myers’ on his science blog. It goes by the name of Pharyngula and has tens of thousands of visitors per day. Within hours of his post appearing it had hundreds of comments. I have a science and faith blog … I average one hit every week or two. Loser!

Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.

A religionless world? - March 13, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

Today the Convention is getting meatier, and the talks more contentious. Philosopher Tamas Pataki dared to criticise Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens. I have no jokes, he said, no desire to ridicule religion, I want to do some philosophy and some other speakers are seriously mistaken.  Well, that was food for thought.

Pataki set out to establish terms for the discussion: what was required in rational enquiry. ”Usually we argue to the conclusion which is indubitable on the evidence before us although we acknowledge that conclusion is not incorrigible.” Thus, ”there indubitably is no God but I may be wrong”.

Then more definition: “…the fact is that popular contemporary atheism is not principally about atheism at all – it is about opposition to religion or more exactly to the malign influences of religion especially in its opposition to humane values and rational enquiry.”

[I liked the way that inter alia out of this concern for definition, Pataki’s talk made atheism emerge as a tradition, with a history and a developmental story. He introduced a spot of historical thinking into a context where there has been a dearth of it.]

There is no mutual entailment between atheism and opposition to religion, Dr Pataki said.  And then he added:  he was not convinced that the world would be better without religion.  It was by no means obvious that an entirely religion less world would be desirable, even if it were possible. There are many different categories of religious – and a humanist atheist is obliged to try and understand complexity of religious experience and the social conditions that give rise to it. For religion can go very deep indeed: “many of our prominent atheists have failed in their sympathetic understanding.”

So where was that taking us? In Dr Pataki’s view those prominent atheists have misunderstood the ongoing psychological functioning of religious beliefs, practices and institutions.

“I insist on religion’s many intellectual and moral vices but religion can satisfy profound emotional needs and nobody knows whether religion can be extinguished without problems.” What for example would happen to the ‘wretched of the earth’ (for whom it may function in that little understood way)?  Religion may be noxious, but perhaps for all we know a world without religion may be a worst place than it is today.  We cannot compute all the relevant variables in something as dramatic as the final departure of religion from human life.  So argued Dr Pataki.

And thus, he said, secular humanists are presented with an exquisite dilemma: if religion does all those noxious things (foster superstition, deception and delusion), could any self-respecting person choose to let it survive?  “Can any of us lesser folk participate in the perpetuation of such deceptions and not be consumed by them?”

[Were we travelling down the road to the twentieth century?]

Someone asked if what might happen when religion disappeared had been demonstrated in the experience of Scandinavia.  Not enough data or understanding re that psychological functioning of religion said Dr Pataki.

Outside, an older attendee was intrigued: a difficult idea, that religion might be necessary.

Listen to audio of Dr Tamas Pataki’s lecture: [size: 28.7 MB Dur: 31.22]

A program for action: taxation - March 13, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

Bob Dylan is singing of changing times as we break for morning tea. Behind me people got up from their seats saying something must be done.  They’d just heard from Max Wallace of the ‘purple economy’, religion’s unholy wealth (described in his unavailable in bookshops, Australian Nationall Secular Associaton published) The Purple Economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state.) The main concern of religion is not God and belief, doctrine, liturgy and the eucharist (that religious equivalent of KFC) all that’s smoke and mirrors.  ‘They’ believe they can avoid death, but ‘they’ know they can avoid tax.

And so on.  An appeal to the crowd to donate towards the current High Court case challenging Federal Government funding of chaplains in schools.  And a general appeal to challenge tax free status of religious organisations.  A questioner claims that parliamentarians are running scared of the exemption issue, because they are worried any change might end up in fact affecting the tax exemption status of non Scientology religions.

The catalogue of fraudulence is indeed dismaying.  It’s all there together with every kind of religious relationship with money, tax, finance etc.  As usual, the Vatican looms large: visions of a secret trading room, a fishy hole in the wall, and billions in property.

We’re edging though towards serious issues: how does a pluralist, secular society discriminate, and how does it construct principles by which to do this, and what can individual citizens expect of their tax usage, as opposed to other citizens’ expectations.  And how do we define the public benefit etc.  We’re skirting on the edge .. the expression gets bogged down in the lurid.