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