The Powerful New Force: Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise

As published in the Huffpost Australia – Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise – 28 June 2017

 

abc church and state

Take note, Australia: More Australians recorded “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other individual religion or denomination. Surging from 22.3 percent in 2011 to 30.1 percent, non-belief has overtaken Catholicism, which fell from 25.3 percent to 22.6 percent.

Take note, politicians: Observe the irreligious voting block comprising nearly one third of all Australians — a figure comparable to the the 34.9 percent that the ALP polled in the 2016 Federal election. Thus, nonbelievers represent a powerful, new force in politics.

Take note, media: The large non-believing demographic demands a voice. Secular groups and activists are rarely seen on television or radio, even on issues featuring the intersection of religious belief and politics.

Recall the ABC’s ‘Q&A’ special episode on Church and State in April 2016? The topic was secularism, but the panel featured not one secularist. The panel were exclusively Christian, featuring Christian pastors, academics and, of course, the Australian Christian Lobby.

acb christian church and state

Our public broadcaster features numerous religious programs, but none specifically dedicated to discussing non-belief. These programs include ‘Compass’, ‘For the God Who Sings’, ‘Religion & Ethics Report’, ‘Songs of Praise’, the ‘Spirit of Things’, and ‘God Forbid’.

Despite a veritable baptism of religious programmes, the scrapping of the 15-year-old Sunday Nights necessitated crisis talks with Catholic priest, Father Frank Brennan, Baptist minister Tim Costello, and Reverend Elenie Poulos, of the Uniting Church. All this, even though a new half-hour program, ‘Religion and Ethics’, was added to Radio National.

Jesus wept. I don’t have a problem with religious shows, but surely the secular viewpoint deserves a run also. Further, overlooking one third of taxpayers, altogether runs against the ABC’s policy of presenting a diversity of views.

ABC’s online Religion and Ethics, makes a pretence of catering for the secular voice, but only rarely is a rationalist or secular view represented. By and large, the site features religious commentary by local and international academics and apologists. Tellingly, the public comments facility has been disabled and old comments deleted. One suspects, perhaps uncharitably, that it is due to their overwhelmingly negative character.

The diversity of secular views has been, until now, nearly invisible in the Australian media. But, it contains particular value. Focussing on rational thought and empirical evidence would be a breath of fresh air, in a climate of fake news, zingers, and Left versus Right ideological warfare.

In the UK, secular voices such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and AC Grayling appear regularly on panel shows. In the US, Bill Maher fosters are irreverent take on politics, and a variety of nonreligious authors and thinkers including Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking contribute to debate. Additionally, many of the well-known Australians with secular views such as Peter Singer, Geoffrey Robertson, Clive James, and Tim Minchin, are based overseas.

The lack of secular voices in the media perpetuates Christian privilege. Declining religiosity hasn’t lessened the influence of the increasingly unrepresentative lobby groups claiming to speak for mainstream Australians. One key issue is the decline in observance and belief among the religious. A 2012 McCrindle survey showed a third of those identifying as Christian were “more spiritual than Christian”.

Empty churches sit idle on street corners, while in Canberra, Christian lobbyists perpetuate the transfer of religious observance from churches into secular state schools. Schools teaching religion as a comparative subject are the norm in most similarly irreligious countries, such as Finland, UK, New Zealand — some of which have zoomed past us in the international PISA rankings.

While fewer people believe all the tenets of scripture, the religious hierarchy successfully pressures politicians to maintain a biblical view of marriage, to oppose assisted dying, and to continue to over-subsidize Catholic schools.

For many, marking ‘Christian’ represents little more than a cultural affiliation. Emphasizing the nominal nature of their belief, is the fact that a majority of Christians support for same sex marriage, and that 70 percent of Catholics and Anglicans support assisted dying. Of those who support the latter, 84 percent are non-observant. But of those Christians opposing euthanasia, 92 percent are “true believers”: that is, prayerful, church goers. These represent a vanishing minority of Australians, given a mere 8 percent still attend church regularly.

It’s high time politicians abandoned the fallacy that religious outrage is a vote changer. For the vanishing few true believers who swap their vote, there exists an order-of-magnitude-larger group of nonbelievers to cancel them out.

The increase in non-belief marks a seismic shift in our belief landscape. So, it’s about time the voices of the godless were heard in the corridors of Canberra, and their faces became more recognisable in the mainstream media.

The Census surge in non-belief heralds a new secularism

 
Census surge heralds a secular state – The Courier Mail 28 June 2017

MORE Australians ticked “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other belief category. The results, released yesterday, show non-belief surging from 22.3 per cent in 2011 to 30.1, overtaking Catholicism which fell from 25.3 per cent to 22.6.

The change represents a watershed. The number of Christians has fallen from 88 per cent in 1966 to 52.1 per cent in 2016; a free fall which looks set to continue given 39 per cent of adults aged 18-34 now report no religion.

nation of nonbelievers

Christian dominance is ending and, marking a seismic shift in our belief landscape, nearly one third of Australians are now nonbelievers.

The effect should be wide ranging: a new voting block of nonbelievers surely forces us to consider bolstering our rather weak version of secularism.

Providing further impetus to consider this change is the fact that a fading religious belief runs deeper than just the rise in nonbelievers. Many of those marking “Christian” on the Census are expressing a “cultural” preference rather than genuine religious belief.

A 2012 McCrindle survey reported one third of Christians were more spiritual than religious.

In that respect, Australian data on Christian religious observance mirrors that of other western countries such as the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. Less than 10% of us attend church regularly, and the majority of weddings and funerals are now secular events. Caring more about everyday matters, mainstream Christians are mostly nominal, and unobservant.

Driven by our sharp decline in religiosity, we can expect to see our type of secularism become more robust, and more determinedly belief-neutral. In contrast to the US, which has enforced the Establishment Clause strictly, our Constitution’s Section 116 has always been interpreted narrowly (it doesn’t even apply to the states!), allowing a blurry and uneasy relationship between religion and governance.

Which explains how we allow prayers in parliament, along with Christian chaplains and faith-based religious instruction in secular state schools. Bizarrely, blasphemy is still a crime in most states of Australia. The lip service paid to secularism stands, sits uncomfortably with our decreasing piety.

Symptomatic of this decline, parents are increasingly opting their children out of faith-taught religious classes in NSW and QLD state schools. And in Victoria, religious classes were scrapped from curriculum time, in 2015, to allow more focus on core learning.

A new understanding of secularism resists the privileging of specific belief systems in the public domain. As the handmaiden of democracy, secularism insists that Abraham Lincoln’s democratic principle of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, remains pure and undiluted by prioritising the beliefs of one group over another.

A notable disparity exists when taxpayer-funded and tax-free faith groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. So, the taxes of some nonbelievers subsidise groups who actively and legally discriminate against them.

Rising non-belief shines a light on certain areas of public policy where the lobbying of Archbishops and religious groups continue to stonewall progress. Why, for instance, is same sex marriage still not legal? Why is there such a deference to minority views, favouring religious convictions over nonreligious convictions, that the parliament fails to enact popular opinion?

Similarly, consider euthanasia: 75% of Australians support assisted dying and of those who object, 92% have religious connections.

Why does abortion remain technically illegal in NSW and QLD? Providing a safe and legal option for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies is supported by 80% of our populace.

Advancing religion remains a tax free charitable purpose, under laws dating back to the 1600’s, despite a 2016 IPSOS poll showing less than 20% of Australians support the measure. In the same poll, 55% of respondents answered that religion had no public benefit.

2016 census

Necessarily, the freefall in Christianity increases Australia’s diversity of beliefs, emphasizing our pluralism. Each year there are fewer of our fellow citizens who think religious freedom means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Most Australians would agree with the version of religious freedom expressed by article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects theistic, nontheistic, and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right to profess any religion or belief.

From this zeitgeist emerges a New Secularism. Underpinned by overwhelming popular support – 75% of Australians support the separation of church and state – the move towards secularism becomes inexorable now that non-belief joins the mainstream. Non-belief is the new normal. The bright light of secularism will guide us away from Christian hegemony, and towards a fairer, more inclusive, state-neutral approach to matters of belief.

religious chart info

Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism

Naturalism remains undefeated – a rejoinder to the Alvin Plantinga argument used in Post 3 that naturalism is self-defeating. Post 5.

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lightning church

Popularizing the claim that naturalism and evolution are mutually self-defeating, Alvin Plantinga argues in the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (1993), that, given unguided evolution, our beliefs have no intrinsic relation to the truth.

Drawing on previous arguments made by C.S. Lewis and Arthur Balfour, Plantinga claims that if humans are the product of undirected processes, then we cannot reasonably rely on what we perceive. In fact, it’s just “as likely …that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.”

Thus, if we cannot rely on our beliefs, then we cannot rely on our belief in naturalism and thus, naturalism is defeated.

Well, it would be very worrying if we couldn’t rely on any of our beliefs. But evidently, humans have good reason to rely on their cognition, and we do so in myriad situations daily.

We also have no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution and the various mechanisms which operate within it; such as the mutation of genes, natural selection, and genetic drift.

Given there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution, then the argument becomes problematic. Another way of expressing Plantinga’s argument is that we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution. Nonsense.

Second, even if we somehow accepted the unreliability of our beliefs, this would mean only that we could not rely on our belief in naturalism; not that naturalism is untrue. But, nor could we rely on our cognition that it is false. Therefore, if true, the unreliability-of-beliefs premise is either self-defeating for beliefs in naturalism and theism, or not self-defeating for both. Thus, it gets us precisely nowhere.

Third, the argument presumes that theism somehow provides humans with reliable cognition.

Plantinga explains,

“God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge”.

But, inserting a supernatural element (God) as a fact, is a circular argument. Viz. if God exists, naturalism must be untrue, so there’s no use invoking God as evidence that naturalism is untrue. (Prove God exists first!).

Further, the Philosopher William Ramsay has observed how human faculties are, in fact, slightly unreliable – look at our impressive array of cognitive biases! Ramsay further posits that evolution and naturalism explain this better than theism. In fact, the well-established foibles in our thinking pose a considerable challenge to Plantinga’s suggestion that we are the perfect perceivers of truth one would expect as the product of an omnipotent Creator.

Plantinga’s argument trades upon the philosophical knowledge-problem: the difficulty in providing a neat solution to the foundation of knowledge: how do we know we can rely on our beliefs? But this philosophical problem is not specific to either evolution of naturalism: the challenge pertains to all of our beliefs.

In fact, our evolution by natural selection justifies a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties. The brain size of the various human species has increased from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years. In this time, archaic humans developed more sophisticated stone tools, harnessed fire, developed language, and began to use symbolic thought. Natural selection seems to have been effective in providing reproductive advantage by selecting for those traits. Claiming this is “accidental” misunderstands natural selection. Increases in brain size and thinking ability, are selection effects we could expect to correlate to accurate perceptions about reality. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could have survived as a species if our perceptions and beliefs have no relation to the real world.

Nevertheless, Plantinga draws strength from a quote of Darwin expressing worry about the veracity of evolved human thought.

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

— Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881

One can only wonder whether Darwin would have revised his doubts had he been able to witness the magnificent confirmation of his theory of natural selection via subsequent discoveries in the fossil record, and the field of genetics.

Natural selection has become the cornerstone of modern biology. There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.

Indeed, the yearning to understand our world has been a feature in the development of humans. When we observed natural events that we could not explain, we posited underlying causes. Recall, hunter gatherers performing rain dances, ancient tribes sacrificing animals and children. Up until the last 500 years, theology posited supernatural causes for most unexplained phenomena. In the 18th century hundreds of church bell ringers were electrocuted, as they tried to ward off the devils who cast lightning upon the earth.

To the current day, science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world. Science uses the scientific method which relies on hypothesis, testing and prediction, and is always subject to revision. Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities.

But science has uncovered other invisible, underlying causes of natural events. These include things like electromagnetism, gravity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Needless to say, none of these could be arrived at through intuition alone. The gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge, where the work of one scientist enabled another, has helped humans to understand physical forces which are deeply counterintuitive; even, seemingly incomprehensible. Think of how light behaves as a wave and a particle at the same time; how particles can seemingly exist in multiple places at the same time; of how the universe is only 5% matter, the rest being made of dark matter and dark energy.

The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism. We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces. We certainly have no reason to entertain the idea that the discoveries of science are vulnerable to a superimposed truth-giving deity. Plantinga’s argument is but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism. But it relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus, is itself, self-defeating.