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.

***

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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