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Piers Morgan’s silly attack on atheism, backed up by hapless Philosopher

Philosopher Nikk Effingham makes some monumental philosophical gaffes as he weighs in on the Twitter “debate” about the existence of God between Piers Morgan and Brian Cox. (Text of article below)

Here’s Piers Morgan’s tweet which succeeded in raising the hackles of atheists.

“Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang. They just say ‘nothing’ but they can’t explain what ‘nothing’ actually is. No human brain can, which is why I believe in something that has superior powers to the human brain.”

In answer to Piers supposedly penetrating question Brian Cox offers:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not?”

To this Effingham offers:

“Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations?”

Disturbingly, a philosopher is making a fairly obvious false comparison, confusing science with reality. Science is a method of inquiry – not commensurate with reality itself, and as a series of disciplines investigating reality, it has no bearing whatsoever on what that reality ultimately is. Further, there is no means of inquiry which can demonstrate that all things must have explanations.

He also misses the point. The “why is there something?” question can be turned on it’s head. Why do many assume that something came out of nothing? Why is nothing the default scenario?

And then this howler:

“What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.”

I wonder if this statue is made of straw. Effingham confuses a specific thing (statue) with existence itself. The universe is not a specific article exhibiting a likeness or connection with humans. Quite the opposite.

His point is reminiscent of the classic intelligent design argument which was once so convincing. If you find a watch laying in the ground one immediately senses the need for a designer. For centuries it was accepted folk wisdom that this logic should apply to humans and the world around us. Alas, Darwin found a better explanation in evolution.

Effingingham also makes a silly false comparison between scientists believing in their theories, and religious belief in God. As though most religious believers are simply proposing a hypothesis they think is likely, rather than the reality, which involves devoting themselves to a whole platform of tenets, commitments and rituals which assume the factual truth of the existence of their own specific God, usually to the exclusion of all others.

And this is what frustrates many atheists. Why are apparently intelligent people fooled by bad arguments?

In the absence of explanation for existence we:

  1. Demand there must be an explanation B. Find an explanation from our preexisting belief system B. Rationalise that the answer must be God

Piers Morgan’s argument is preposterous: The human brain can’t explain “nothing” so there must be something superior to the human brain.

Non sequitur. Nothing is suggested by what human brains can’t explain. In the absence of knowledge we used to think evil spirits caused storms. None of the enduring mysteries of existence have so far been explained by God.

The fact that we don’t know, equals an insistence to suspend belief. This suggests atheism and agnosticism. It does not suggest we should just conclude that God did it.

 

 

Piers Morgan and Brian Cox debate the existence of God: a philosopher’s take

Nikk Effingham The Conversation

Piers Morgan started a Twitter debate about God. “Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang” starts a recent tweet posted by the journalist-turned-television presenter. Morgan then moves to the existence of a higher power. A quick scan of the replies shows that the mere suggestion is enough to raise hackles.

Morgan’s tweet is a “cosmological argument” – one that argues that there must be an ultimate cause or explanation for the existence of the universe and that it must be God.

When focusing on causes, the idea is to question what caused, say, the Big Bang? If science finds that it’s a physical cause, we’ve gone nowhere, for what brought that about? And if the cause is non-physical, it must be supernatural. When focusing on explanation, the question is what explains the sum total of all facts? If it’s a scientific explanation, such as the fundamental laws of nature explaining everything, then what explains those laws? And the argument goes round again. If the explanation is non-scientific, then God isn’t far behind.

Piers Morgan: enquiring mind. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

I doubt such arguments prove God’s existence for sensible objections abound. For instance, in response to Morgan, scientist (and television presenter) Brian Cox – who, as any fan of his radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage will know, is not philosophy’s biggest fan – nevertheless turns philosophical and suggests that perhaps nothing explains these things.

Another objection to this kind of argument is that God isn’t a good explanation because what would explain God?

Or consider one last objection. We might say that a prior universe was responsible for the Big Bang, and before that one, there was another. And so on, forever. Because this chain of universes has been around forever, the suggestion is that they need no explanation.

Problems with the objections

To each objection there are rejoinders – if there weren’t, philosophers like myself would be doing it wrong.

Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations? Even particles popping into existence in the quantum foam have an explanation for their existence (namely, the laws of quantum physics) even if they have no specific cause.

And maybe it’s OK for God’s creation of reality to be inexplicable. Some people – “libertarians” – suggest that people’s free choices have no explanation. If our choices were wholly explained (for example, by our brain activity) there would be no free will. So even if scientific explanations always need explanations, God’s actions don’t.

Read more: The psychology of believing in free will

What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.

Good arguments needn’t be proofs

The literature on the cosmological argument is vast. It’s an open question whether the crucial premises are true or not. So it isn’t proof of God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean the cosmological argument is a bad argument. To be good, an argument doesn’t have to conclusively and undeniably prove its conclusion. Good reasoning needn’t be impervious to doubt.

Brian Cox: ‘no personal faith’. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

Intelligent, well-informed adults can be justified in believing different things. Two physicists might disagree over a correct fundamental physical theory. One might say it’s superstring theory. Another might believe it’s loop quantum gravity. And both can be justified, even though they have the same body of information to hand. Indeed, they can be justified even though at most one of them is right. Being justified in believing something doesn’t mean it has to be true. Sometimes rational trains of thought can lead us astray – such is life.

And it’s not just science. Veteran politicians disagree even though they’re privy to the same information. Politics also shows that non-experts can similarly disagree. People who haven’t waded through all of the available information nevertheless get to have justifiable political views. Liberal democracy is founded on the idea that voters make sensible, justified decisions when they vote. You don’t need to be the West Wing’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning president, Jed Bartlet, in order to justifiably believe that lower business rates could work out well, that railway nationalisation is the way forward, or – in short – justifiably have a political opinion.

New atheism and Brexit

The, often outrageously rude, debate on Morgan’s Twitter feed shows that people tend to want religious arguments to meet some crazily high standard of proof. This is not unusual – it characterises a lot of New Atheist debates. But it’s an unfair burden. Churchgoers aren’t simpering morons just because they can’t prove God exists in the same way that we can prove to anyone that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

So Morgan may not be telling atheists why they have to believe in God. Rather, he may be making a claim about why he is justified in believing in God. Those things are different. It’s implausible to believe that 140 characters is going to change the mind of every atheist. But if Morgan is just giving us an insight into his own belief structure – claiming only that his faith is justified – then, since the jury is out when it comes to the cosmological argument’s crucial premises, he’s on solid ground.

In the same way that a scientist may believe superstring theory in lieu of conclusive experimental evidence, or how politician Jeremy Corbyn can think that nationalising energy is sensible even though questions remain (for don’t questions always remain?), Morgan can be justified in believing in God.

This lesson isn’t just one for religious debate. The world (and the internet, especially) would be a better place if we worried less about whether someone was wrong and more about whether they’re justified. As new technologies allow for evermore public clashes of views, such as with the often vicious Brexit debate, realising that intellectually sophisticated adults can be justified in believing diametrically opposed things has never been more important.

 

 

Don’t always accept the prevailing wisdom, its usually wrong

… especially in regards to freethinkers!

 

As published in The Rationalist Journal June 2018

 

One of the key reasons we identify as rationalists, sceptics, or free thinkers, is because we value reason and evidence-based inquiry. We oppose government policy based on superstition, prejudice, or pseudoscience. We oppose charlatans exploiting the gullible. We advocate against magical thinking, fake news and the increasing acceptance of science-denialism. We emphasize the antidote to magical thinking – virtues of reason, science and evidence-based policies. We want to interrogate truth claims, and challenge the prevailing wisdom – after all, most of us know that it’s usually wrong.

And so, it’s disappointing to read articles by local rationalists and sceptics denigrating some of the exemplars of the freethought movement because they supposedly (amongst other things) exaggerate the importance of science and evidence. According to James Fodor “Not So Simple”, and Tim Harding, “A Step Too Far”, the following luminaries – Richard Dawkins, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Peter Boghossian – can all be lumped together, and termed pejoratively as “crude positivists”; guilty of propagating such horrors as “strict evidentialism”, “scientism”, and “pragmatism”.

Both Fodor and Harding are local free thinkers who are thoughtful and insightful in the commentary, but, in this case, I think they have succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy which labels public atheists, and science advocates, as a little too strident, blinkered, and prone to exaggerate the importance of science.

Of course, it’s still fashionable to make glib criticisms of freethinkers – in particular, the movement identified as New Atheism. Efforts to discredit the New Atheists began soon after publication of their books, the End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Because of their uncompromising and devastating attack on organised religion, New Atheists became controversial figures themselves, attracting a multitude of ad hominem attacks from the religious apologists they were actively debating. One conspicuous example was Alister McGrath’s, The Richard Dawkins Delusion – Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, containing ad hominem in its title. New Atheists were accused in pejorative terms of being religious fundamentalists, attacking a narrow interpretation of religion, dogmatism, reductionism, gross materialism, Islamophobia, and scientism. In these emotion-charged debates, mud has been thrown and evidently some of the mud has stuck.

While it’s understandable that some free thinkers would want to dissociate themselves from the bad press, we needn’t go so far as to drink the Kool Aid of religious apology. Invoking words like scientism to demonise the promoters of science is the stock-in-trade of religious apology. But there’s no doubt these criticisms have caught on, perhaps becoming accepted generally. I intend to show these criticisms are based on a narrow caricature of New Atheist views, which necessarily simplify and abbreviate their arguments.

James Fodor labels the above mentioned freethinkers with the “crude positivism” moniker, without feeling any obligation to provide any specific examples or quotes. Evidently, the prevailing view is good enough and no further justification is required. Rather, Fodor makes his case by describing the ways crude positivists allegedly frame their arguments, as follows:

 

  • Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  • Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social science, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge or a distinctly inferior sort.
  • Pragmatism: science owes its’ special status to its’ unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status

 

Evidentialism

Arguing against promoting “strict evidentialism”, Fodor admits that, as an abstract principle, beliefs should be informed by evidence. But he has concerns about how crude positivists apply this maxim in practise.

For example, a crude positivist might refuse to accept the claims of evangelical Christians that they have experienced God in their own lives. Fodor says that “nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something they regard to be ‘evidence’” But he alleges that crude positivists fail to make good arguments as to why this evidence is insufficient, simply demanding that theists provide evidence – especially scientific evidence. Fodor, is of course right to say that we need to explain what constitutes good evidence. However, the New Atheists have been relentless in outlining what sort of evidence would be sufficient for over a decade.

Notice how specifically this extended quote from Peter Boghossian’s, The Limits of Knowledge, answers Fodors’ objection in advance:

 

The problem is that everyone thinks they form their beliefs on the basis of evidence. That’s one of the issues, for example, with fake news. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or just surfing Google, people read and share stories either that they want to believe or that comport with what they already believe—then they point to those stories as evidence for their beliefs. Beliefs are used as evidence for beliefs, with fake news just providing fodder.

Teaching people to formulate beliefs on the basis of evidence may, ironically, trap them in false views of reality. Doing so increases their confidence in the truth of a belief because they think they’re believing as good critical thinkers would, but they’re actually digging themselves into a cognitive sinkhole. The more intelligent one is, the deeper the hole. As Michael Shermer famously stated, “Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas.” That is, smarter people are better at making inferences and using data to support their belief, independent of the truth of that belief.

What, then, can we skeptics do? Here’s my recommendation: Instead of telling people to form beliefs on the basis of evidence, encourage them to seek out something, anything, that could potentially undermine their confidence in a particular belief. (Not something that will, but something that could. Phrased this way it’s less threatening.) This makes thinking critical.

Philosophers call this process “defeasibility”. Defeasibility basically refers to whether or not a belief is revisable.

 

Another example: in a debate with William Lane-Craig, Lawrence Krauss outlined the sort of evidence he thinks is necessary:

 

Evidence is falsifiable; evidence is something I can test.

 

Krauss goes further, mopping out some misconceptions regarding probability and how it relates to evidence:

 

First of all, a probability greater than 50% is not evidence of anything. It’s evidence that there’s a possibility that a construct might be right. There’s also a possibility that it might be wrong. For example, in my own field of dark matter detection, one of the things I work in, there was a recent discovery of several events. And the experiment [unintelligible] that may be due to these dark matter particles, two events, where we predict none. You find out the probability of that being due to pure accident, is one part in ten: a 10% probability of that being a mere accident, 90% probability of it being, perhaps due to dark matter. The experiment, however, did not claim evidence for dark matter because we don’t claim 90% evidence is good enough, especially for an extraordinary claim.

 

In, A Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris provides detailed arguments relating to a myriad of Christian beliefs and why their evidence is insufficient. He does not simply refute them by obstinately claiming they are not “scientific” claims.

There are many more examples, but the point is made. Clearly, the ideas of the above named freethinkers are more complex and nuanced than generally supposed. Indeed, they are not so simple!

It’s also worth noting how our society operates on a universal, well understood idea of evidence. Experiential supernatural claims are not universally accepted as knowledge. Sam Harris has pointed out that when a person claims, for instance, to be the incarnation of Elvis Presley they instantly pay a price – in ill-concealed laughter and derision – for admitting to such a belief.

The separate-domains argument, to which Fodor refers (and happily does not endorse), makes a mockery of the concept of evidence. Evidence, is defined as the information which provides warrant for justified belief. An assertion is not evidence by itself – it must be supported by the information which constitutes evidence. If sufficient information exists, then it must be relatable and go towards sufficient warrant for belief. This is true by definition, since evidence contains information, and information must be capable of informing. Alas, those claiming such other forms of evidence are unable to produce the requisite information which would allow them to justifiably use the word “evidence”. Further, if these claims were imbued with another legitimate form of evidence, then we should find greater general acceptance that these are knowledge claims. The (strict or otherwise) evidentialist would have no problem – as it is evidence they seek!

Imagine if our law courts adopted the “other-realms” view of evidence. Barristers could leap to their feet demanding the court consider “other forms” of evidence which magically prove their case. “Objection, your Honour! My client has had a personal experience which proves that a ghost did it!” There are sound reasons why our legal system fails to support such ludicrous claims, and no-one suggests our courts are guilty of crude positivism.

Our current malaise is not caused by the insistence on evidence, it’s the increasing determination of political actors to ignore the evidence. While neither Fodor or Harding, to their credit, endorse such nonsense, rationalists and sceptics should remain unequivocally in favour of science and evidence, rather than pouring more fuel on the magical-thinking bonfire.

Scientism

Joining the chorus of new age prophets, philosophers, and religious apologists – James Fodor and Tim Harding accuse the defenders of science with “scientism”. This term is carelessly lobbed at freethinkers whenever they suggest an incompatibility between science and faith. The preeminent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has earned this epithet on numerous occasions. But, even in his case, it is dubious as to whether he thinks that the “only legitimate form of … knowledge is … science”.

In a debate with philosopher Stephen Law, for example, Dawkins said, “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”.

Not exactly scientism, in my opinion, however, this brings to mind Sam Harris, who actually does think that science can advise us on moral issues!

Charges of scientism arose following his claims in The Moral Landscape that science will one day be able to solve ethical problems. His claims rely on a presupposition that the well-being of sentient creatures is a natural, and incontrovertible, value and measuring stick for morality. I don’t think we can achieve agreement on objective moral values in this way, nor I am convinced that the presupposition of “wellbeing” must be universally accepted. I’m sure Fodor and Harding would agree that the presupposition of wellness is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Nonetheless, The Moral Landscape remains an influential and useful contribution to public debate, offering a way of framing morality in a distinctly nonreligious, utilitarian manner.

But the allegation of scientism relies on the common view is that science can have nothing to say about morality or ethics. Nothing? Is this incontrovertibly true, or another example of a conventional-wisdom dogma? Consider recent developments in cognitive psychology noting that primate species including humans have evolved with similar moral inclinations based on filial relationships. Consider also the possibility that future neuroscientific and medical discoveries may establish that humans do indeed possess inherent and universal moral inclinations and ethical instincts. Wouldn’t it be of interest to know what these are? Gaping holes exist in our understanding of consciousness, and how it relates to human decision making. It is difficult to predict how a better understanding of our brain and our own human nature may influence future discussions on morality. Perhaps, the assumption that science should be silent on morality is not as ironclad as some appear to think.

The accusation of scientism is, to some extent, a result of different interpretations of science. For instance, Richard Dawkins has an elastic understanding of science: in his view science includes all philosophic reasoning, history and all empirical knowledge. Sam Harris similarly sees science as commensurate with knowledge:

 

In the broadest sense, ‘science’ (from the Latin scire, ‘to know’) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world.                

Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 64

 

So, when they say the word “science” in the broad sense, they often mean “knowledge”. Yet, many are liable to take them as excluding other genuine forms of knowledge such as history, philosophy and social science.

But evidently, even seasoned rationalists and sceptics are unaware of this problem, and therefore argue that we must be extremely wary of promoting a narrow view of science. And then, distressingly, they seek to support this view, by highlighting the limits of science.

To that end, Tim Harding quotes an oft-mentioned argument proposing Galileo’s explanation of gravity was founded upon reason alone, rather than the scientific method.

Considering the question of whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, Galileo imagined two objects, one heavier than the other, connected by string, which are dropped from a tower. Assuming heavier objects fall faster Galileo imagined the string would soon become taut. But, the linked objects would together be heavier than the two objects individually, thus, creating a perceived contradiction, which allowed Galileo to hypothesise that in a vacuum the two objects would fall at the same rate.

In an article in Sceptic Magazine, Gary Bakker answers this argument in devastating fashion by pointing out that Galileo’s discoveries would not be considered knowledge unless they were verified by subsequent testing.

Interestingly, the example of a scientist like Galileo seems strange recalling his treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Standing accused of trespassing onto the sacred ground of theology, Galileo’s discoveries directly challenged Scripture. What was he accused of, if not Scientism?

The historical trespass of science into the rival domains of theology and philosophy provides a useful perspective on present-day accusations of “scientism”. The concrete is not yet dry on the demarcations between science and the humanities. Who can say precisely where they are, and where future discoveries will take them?

Philosopher Stephen Law sums up the use of scientism well:

 

“ In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’“

 

Pragmatism

Fodor and Harding then argue against pragmatism – the belief in the utility of science to produce practical results – because is insufficient to recommend it as a complete picture of reality.

Fodor and Harding appear to suffering under the misapprehension that popular science advocates think they have reality completely figured out. Fodor argues that because scientific theories have historically sometimes worked relatively well in practice, only to have been found to be incorrect as an accurate model of reality, that (his view of) science cannot “alone always provide us with accurate descriptions of reality”. I’m not sure which crude positivist is supposed to hold this view.

He mentions Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos. But even against those who might insist that science does have all the answers, this is a comically fallacious counter argument. Reprising the logic of Gary Bakker, what fields of endeavour updated these incorrect models of reality? It certainly wasn’t philosophy. Was it French poetry? Or, was it Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas after an afternoon of levitating around St Peter’s Cathedral?

Despite allegations to the contrary, scientists are well known for exercising caution in claiming new discoveries. Virtually no-one argues that science represents an absolute or complete description of reality. What’s more, this triviality doesn’t discredit science at all. If science “alone” falls short, it is not as if we witness to other fields of inquiry riding in to the rescue. And yet, Harding proffers “philosophies of mind and metaphysics” as ways of filling in the missing pieces. Does anyone really imagine metaphysics is going to solve the fundamental questions of existence? How will we test the answers? Dare I say…science?

The popular trope that scientists have become over confident and intellectual bullies, results in the desire to take them down a peg or two. Pejorative terms arise out of this idea. It’s true that occasionally scientists do make questionable claims about the superiority of science over other disciplines, but these deserve sensible and measured debate, rather than name-calling. Leading free thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian have made questionable claims over social media. My argument is not that eminent figures in freethought should be immune from criticism. But rather, when we do criticise freethinkers we should use carefully constructed arguments combining reason and evidence.

After all, there is a conga line of well-funded advocates who oppose the Enlightenment values of science, reason and evidence. They promote worldviews which are antithetical to scepticism, rationalism, or humanism. They might propose, for instance, that evidence and science are secondary considerations subject only to a divine will. Or, that the world is only intelligible because of supernatural forces. Or, that we need to focus our efforts on returning society to a prior golden age. And that western democracies will collapse without continued subsidising of supernatural and religious beliefs. Such advocates, do not need or deserve our support.

Stigmatising the promotion of science by labelling it “scientism”; and, erroneously denouncing leading rationalist by making up pejorative labels; are actions antithetical to the ideals of the free thought community. Labelling people such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris in pejorative terms has the unfortunate side-effect of discrediting everything they’ve said or written, and diminishing the freethought community as a whole. We are damaging our own brand. The spectacular contribution of science, and the scientific method, is something we should be championing. What we need to focus on is developing the most persuasive arguments to champion the use of evidence and reason in forming beliefs, and in governing societies. That’s our mission. Let’s not lose sight of it.

RSA Submission to the Religious Freedom Review

 

Click here to view the RSA Submission: RSA Submission To The Religious Freedom Review


Click here to view a recent Fairfax op-ed by our Executive Officer, Tosca Lloyd, calling for an end to religious privilege, power and prejudice: 2018: a year that draws a line against prejudice, privilege and power

Click here to read Barrister Dean Stretton’s excellent submission: A barrister’s submission to the Ruddock Inquiry

 

Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Religion-neutral Secular Shift

As published in Areo Magazine Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Secular Shift – 29 June 2017

The surge in “No religion” in the 2016 Census heralds a more secular Australia. With a rise from 22.3% in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016, “No Religion” has overtaken Catholicism to become the most popular belief category.

Mirroring the trend in similar western countries, Australia has been losing its religion over a long period — Christianity has fallen from 88% in 1966 to 52.1% in 2016. Given one third of Australians are now nonbelievers, and Christianity has fallen to below 50% in six out of eight states, we are now without a dominant belief system.

But “secular” is not synonymous with non-belief. The impetus for a more secular society results from acknowledging the end of Christian hegemony, and in recognizing our increased cultural diversity and religious pluralism. “Secular” means the separation of church and state. Specifically, our Constitution’s Section 116 precludes the Federal government from making “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion…”

The religious neutral approach of our founding fathers was influenced by the “establishment” clause in the US Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But while the establishment clause has been applied strictly by the US courts, the similar words contained in Section 116 only apply to the Federal government, and have been interpreted so narrowly that no court has ever found any law to be in contravention of Section 116.

establishment clause

And so, our increasing pluralism, as evidenced by the Census result, provide a strong impetus to embrace a more robust understanding of secularism. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t emulate the United States in disallowing school prayers and prohibiting teachers from preaching religion. Similarly, Christian prayers have no place in opening Parliament.

Similarly, those in receipt of taxpayer funds, should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of faith. Thus, the blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination law which exist for tax payer funded religious institutions, including private schools, must be reconsidered.

But it’s more than this. Realizing a truly secular state requires a belief-neutral and evidence-based approach to policymaking. Specifically, policy must not become beholden to the religious views of individuals or religious lobby groups. Again and again we see the same old stalemate; as issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, are stymied by the “religious convictions” of a few: as if religiosity grants them a sacred power of veto.

But an equitable and fair minded approach should not extend to banishing faith from the public square. Crucially, the distinction is between state-sponsored religious favoritism, and the secular freedom to discuss the tenets and values embedded in religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Indeed, a secular approach embraces the understanding of religious freedom outlined by Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the freedom to express any thought or belief, religious or otherwise.

Thus, religious beliefs continue to form a key part of our political discourse. Policies can be justified based on the tenets of religion, as long as they do not compel religious belief or worship. For example, the opponents of same sex marriage would continue to enjoy complete freedom to express their views in terms of a biblical view of marriage. Equally, the champions of policy change in abortion could express their views in whatever religious or nonreligious context they see fit.    

A neutral approach does not equate to saying that belief is only a personal matter, and that religion has no place in politics. Secularism is, after all, a tool for liberty, not a restriction on our freedoms. Free expression of all beliefs is the defining element of the secular state, and must be vouchsafed.

In that respect, a secular country is distinguished from an irreligious one. The “wall of separation” provided by the US establishment clause was built and fortified by Protestant versus Catholic enmities. Thus, the oft-repeated pejorative terms of “aggressive” or “radical” secularism, misunderstands the concept. Secularism is about fairness, not unbelief. A more robust form of secularism is evinced in the level playing field — maximizing freedom, and minimizing privilege.

JFK secularism

Thus, secularism cannot be weaponized by the nonbeliever: those who want to wield the “secular” hammer misunderstands it’s meaning. Secularism is not, as is often erroneously asserted, a separate set of irreligious values competing with Christianity in a zero sum game. We do not lose the values which underpin our society, and which are an amalgam of all of our various traditions and evolutionary history, stretching back and beyond the Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C. We do not discard the values of Christianity; just as, we do not junk our democratic values, including the principle of government by the people and for the people.  Secularism simply means that the state cannot promote or dictate particular beliefs systems in preference to others. 

The 2016 Census result shows a significant shift away from Christianity as our dominant belief system, suggesting a shift toward a more secular society. In the long term, a religion-neutral approach would have the dual benefit of levelling the playing field, as well as protecting the rights of individuals and groups to hold and practice an increasingly diverse set of belief systems.

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

Want to stop nativism listen to the tribe

From the Rationalist Journal December 2016

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On August 8 2016, over 100 mourners gathered at the Quetta Civil Hospital in Pakistan following the shooting death of the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi.

Nearby, an unknown member of the Taliban affiliated group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), was strapping eight kilograms of explosives filled with ball bearings and shrapnel to his body. Soon, a sickening explosion ripped apart the emergency services ward of the hospital, killing 70 mourners and injuring over 120.

One of Pakistan’s most loved musicians, Amhad Sabri, was famous for performing devotional songs from the Sufi tradition dating back to the 13th century. He was shot dead by two men on motorcycles on June 22 2016, because the Taliban consider his music blasphemous.

A month later, in a church in Rouen, France, a priest’s throat was cut and four nuns were taken hostage before the two assailants were shot by police. They were later reported to have been “two soldiers of the Islamic State”.

A satellite view sees the Earth rocked by Islamist attacks on almost a daily basis. These always involve a multitude of different motivations: local, political, ethnic, religious, sectarian and other, but they are held together by a common and identifiable thread – fundamentalist, literalist Islam.

quetta-attack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While suicide attacks usually happen a long way away, and the chance of being killed by a local attack is small, it’s not irrational to hold some concern over the growth of militant Islam. In a post 9/11 world, where frequent Islamist atrocities coincide with an exodus of refugees from Muslim countries caused by a war being waged in the name of Islam, it would be astonishing if such concerns did not exist. The horror of Islamic terror – its distinctive methods, such as suicide vests and beheading, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including women and children – is a language which articulates a clash of cultures in an undeniable way. Even the most illiterate of observers cannot fail to notice.

The concerns and fears which fuelled the Brexit movement and the rise of hard right politics in Europe is made comprehensible by the proximity of millions of mostly Muslim refugees. In contrast, the rise of Donald Trump and our own home-grown groups such as Reclaim Australia and One Nation, come from exploiting and exaggerating these fears. Populist policies have been rewarded by the quadrupling in Hanson’s support, and polls suggesting nearly half Australians want to ban Muslim immigration. This poll is not so surprising after considering Pew’s 2016 survey, which noted a median 43% of the populations of European countries have an unfavourable view of Muslims. A 2013 Ipsos survey commissioned by the newspaper Le Monde noted 74% felt Islam was incompatible with French society. Despite the rhetoric of western politicians who’ve promulgated the nothing-to-do-with-Islam narrative, public perception consistently forms the view that jihadism has everything to do with Islam.

Nativist attitudes are exacerbated by the excuses presented for terrorism. Extremism is excused by Western aggression, the invasion of Iraq, and a long list of other complaints. The Grand Mufti of Australia blamed the 2015 Paris terror attacks on “causative factors such as racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention”. It’s difficult to ignore the veiled threat in his warning that “any discourse which attempts to apportion blame” to a “certain segment of society” would “undermine community harmony and safety”.

The explainer for extremist views is radicalisation. Somehow we’re meant to imagine that no sane person could hold such views unless they come under the hypnotic spell of evil recruiters. And, that most people who rush to join ISIS or join terror cells are already vulnerable to radicalisation because they have been brutalised, racially abused or disenfranchised by their own country. “Radicalisation” joins hands with the “nothing-to-do-with-Islam” narrative obscuring the unpalatable truth that terrorism is undertaken by rational actors pursuing an explicit religio-political ideology.

Reflecting upon this, we must acknowledge that the religion and culture of Islam is a broader church than Christianity. Commentators and apologists are right to criticise those who associate all Muslims with terrorism. We can and should focus on the specific groups and ideologies within Islam who explicitly advocate war with the west. Most modern Muslims view the Quran and the Hadith’s in a similar way to the way Christians view the violent episodes in the Bible. It’s those who do not who represent the problem.

islam-dominate

“Radicalisation” joins hands with the “nothing-to-do-with-Islam” narrative obscuring the unpalatable truth that terrorism is undertaken by rational actors pursuing an explicit religio-political ideology.

A simple but key distinction remains. Within the religion of Islam, specific groups under the umbrella of Salafism reliably spout hateful, intolerant, violent and misogynist philosophies. The subset of Wahhabism, the form of Salafism exported to the world by the oil money of Saudia Arabia represents the revivalist ideology in its most puritanical form. Salafist groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS (ISIL), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, the Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba all promote a similar insular ideology predicated on the universal application of hard-line sharia law and an apocalyptic vision where Islam finally conquers the world. Regarding other Muslims such as Shias, Sufis, liberal Muslims and other sects as kafir or heretics, terror groups engage in regular sectarian attacks against them.

These groups and ideas are plain to see. There’s no reason why an attitude of tolerance and acceptance must be extended to the small yet identifiable ideologies within Islam that plot our own destruction. To accept that not all Germans were Nazi’s would not have justified tolerating the violence and anti-Semitism of the growing Nazi party.

Several studies on jihadism in France, indicate that deep religious convictions may not be crucial to becoming radicalised. Most recruits are young, some are religious novices, and many are recent converts to Islam. Olivier Roy 2015 writes that jihadism represents “the only cause on the global market”, and “if you kill yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ you are sure to make the national headlines”.

Even so, these studies provide little succour to those who fear Islamic attacks. It’s remains the case that the ideology of Salafism dictates the goals and the methods used to bring terror. Arising usually from within Islamic communities, jihadists attend mosques, observe Islam, often becoming part of a terror cell which is exclusively dedicated to propagating political Islam.

Similarly, scant consolation is derived from the adage that the victims of Islamic attacks are predominantly Muslims. This only indicates the sectarian nature of the conflict, and bears out the enormous span of the Islamic faith. This platitude if often used to emphasize prosaically that not all Muslims are terrorists. Yes, but if we could just get past this simplistic distinction, we’d acknowledge the sectarian nature of the violence suggests that it has everything to do with the perfervid pursuit of a religious and political ideology.

Moreover, little comfort is found in the fact these atrocities are committed by small minorities within the Islamic community. Yet again, let’s acknowledge that not all Muslims are Islamists, but that jihadists come from attributable groups within the Muslim community.

And since we know the names and character of these ideologies, nothing should stop us from openly discussing them. We should discriminate and mitigate against those who profess them, while guarding against the stereotyping of Muslims.

Further, there’s no reason why it should be unacceptable to discuss which cultural or religious beliefs hold pride of place in our society. We have no trouble discussing and enforcing acceptable community attitudes to sexism or racism or free speech. But we have a curious reluctance to discuss religion, and Islam particularly. If a secular group demanded the right to wear clothing which demeaned women there would be an open discussion. If a secular group wanted to install a separate legal system for its own adherents this would be met with derision. (Yet, sharia councils exist within the UK). Christian views on the sanctity of marriage, right to life, or euthanasia are often the subject of vociferous criticism. Whether a person agrees with these views or not, suppressing debate about them because of religious or cultural sensitivities is bound to result in unresolved tensions building beneath the surface.

For such a small minority at 2.2% of the Australian community, Islam receives undue media attention, but also undue deference. Whether this is because of the success of the “Islamophobia” campaign or fear of reprisals and fatwa’s it’s difficult to know. It’s worth noting the anti-racism leader who coined the phrase “Islamophobia”, UK Labour politician Trevor Phillips, now says, “he got almost everything wrong” on Muslim immigration, with migrants fostering “nations within nations”.

Rather than daring to speak openly about militant Islam, we have government policy operating by stealth. Immigration is offered to other parts of the world rather than trouble spots in the middle east. Malcolm Turnbull proclaims that we have a non-discriminatory immigration policy. But the government has no intention of allowing open slather for Muslim migrants.

If we want to curtail the rise of the xenophobic wingnut right, represented by One Nation, we need to listen to the tribe. Without resorting to farcical policies, such as banning Muslim immigration altogether, we need to listen to the concerns and address the issues. Adopting an attitude of nuance and tolerance entails more than relentlessly reasserting the fatuous claim that not all Muslims are jihadists. We need to discard the obligatory accusations of Islamophobia or bigotry, and engage in an honest discussion which acknowledges the challenges of integration, and the genuine problems within Islam.

The Child is Father of the Man

As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia Journal, September, 2016

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What should we tell a child about the world? How do we distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? Answering this question requires us to reach deep down into ourselves and grasp for the forgotten struts that hold one’s view of the world together. Proceed with caution however, as once the supports are prized away the whole thing is apt to collapse.

childthinking

My atypical view comes as a result of my six-year-old son’s placement in a fundamentalist and evangelical religious instruction (RI) program. Despite us immediately pulling him out of it, and even after I’d written opinion pieces opposing RI in the Australian media, our boy was put back in the class without our knowledge.

The experience brought me unwillingly face to face with the question of what to tell my son about religion. I’d prefer him to find these answers on his own. The conversation went like this: I tried to explain the limits of our knowledge, and cast some doubt on his new found certainty of the existence of a Creator God; while my son grilled me as to what I believed – presumably so he could instantly adopt my position. The resentment at being placed in this position cements and reinforces my opposition to proselytising in schools.

The school curriculum is a perennial source of controversy. Was Australia settled or invaded? Is Safe Schools an anti-bullying program or misguided social engineering? What should we teach children about culture, and religion? Opponents of both religious instruction and the Safe Schools program argue against teaching children contested beliefs or ideologies.

One of the architects of Australia’s National Curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire, recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

“We don’t want material creeping into the curriculum without it being quality assured. You should never outsource the development of a curriculum to any group with a particular agenda, or blindly accept any curriculum material they have provided to be used in schools”.

The issue is fraught by evolving attitudes toward the rights of children – no longer merely the “don’t speak until spoken to” property of parents.

We should distinguish between rights as they apply to learning in three ways: the rights of parents, the best interests of society, and the rights of the child. In western cultures, parents still enjoy inordinately high levels of control over their child’s education.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), parents have the right to bring up their children in their chosen religious or non-religious belief system.

Consider the tension between the rights of parents, and the rights of the child. The child cannot assess what is best for them and can only rely on the assumed best intentions and good judgement of their parents. But what if the parents insist on inculcating their child into an extreme or harmful belief system?

We also need to balance the entitlements of parents with the utilitarian notion of what is best for society, and reflect on the significance of a child’s potential.

As poet William Wordsworth noted “The child is father of the man”.

 

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety

 

Our days “bound each to each” the child begets the adult, connected by a continuous line of experience. The outcomes of what we teach children extend well beyond the lives of the parents, influencing the temper and texture of our future society.

But how can we measure the rights of parents? Beyond chattel ownership, parent’s rights can be measured in maximising the child’s ongoing welfare and opportunity to flourish.

So, to the extent that the parent’s rights rely on satisfying the best interests of the child, then the child’s rights take precedence. The rights of the parent turn on the best interest of the child. Given the prevailing balancing of parent’s rights over children’s rights, this should give us cause for alarm.

Children’s rights aren’t adequately protected when it’s legal to indoctrinate them into closed orders, send them to extremist schools, or proselytise fundamentalist dogma in state schools. Serving the best interest of society involves providing the child with knowledge and arming them with the critical skills to deploy it.

Those arguing against teaching contesting beliefs strike upon the crucial distinction: beliefs are secondary to knowledge. By definition, beliefs lack the verifiability and or universality which would otherwise render them as knowledge.

So, how about this rule of thumb? If adults cannot agree on a particular proposition, don’t teach it to children.

Challenging the generally accepted meme of parental entitlement, involves allowing the child greater autonomy and freedom of thought to develop their own framework of ideas and beliefs. Wordworth’s phrase evokes the unbroken link between a child’s world and the adult world, but it should also motivate us to reflect upon the gradations between belief and knowledge.

man-w-child-inside

The danger of being swamped by confident idiots

 The danger of being swamped by confident idiots – The AIM Network 8 November 2016

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Five years ago, who’d have thought Donald Trump would be the leader of the free world? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but if there’s any lesson here, it’s that too many people prefer fiction to the truth. Conspiracy theories have gripped the public imagination to such an extent that a dangerous novice stands at the White House lawn.

Acting as a mirror for America’s anger, prejudices and grandiose delusions, he relies on the public consuming a diet of lies, conspiracy and misinformation. Working back from whatever outcome would “make American great again, Trump proposes ideas and solutions on the fly – building a $25 billion wall, or deporting 11 million immigrants – seemingly unconcerned with how implausible, dangerous, or just plain stupid these ideas might be. An egomaniac who believes his own latest thought bubble is good enough to become policy for the world’s most powerful country, may soon learning how to operate the nuclear codes.

But evidently, stupidity knows no borders. Closer to home, we have One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s still enthralled by the vintage conspiracy theory that Jewish International Bankers control the world. He may have read Pauline Hanson’s ironically titled book, The Truth, in which she supports the crazy paranoia about the “New World Order”.

Since that déjà vu moment, when her quavering falsetto echoed through the Senate chamber, informing us that we’re in danger of being swamped by Muslims (not Asians), her support has quadrupled.

Mysteriously, the conspicuous failure of Asians to overrun us, hasn’t dampened Hanson’s confidence, or fatally wounded her credibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why is this so?

An answer may be found in the Dunning-Kruger effect: the curious phenomenon of “confident idiots” emboldened by their own ignorance, rather than cautioned by it.

The 1999 Dunning-Kruger study found those armed with low metacognitive skills grossly overestimated their own competence in metacognitive tasks. Those with test scores in the 12th percentile estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

And so, according to David Dunning, those with intellectual deficits are often “blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.

This hasn’t passed through history unremarked: Recall Shakespeare – “a fool thinks himself to be wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

As Dunning states:

“Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack…”

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all humans. Beleaguered by an impressive array of confirmation biases which evolved to allow us to survive in a bewildering world of imperfect knowledge, we’ve adapted in ways which compensate for the gaps by applying greater certainty. The effect is something to be conscious of and to guard against.

Misbeliefs, according to Dunning, arise from cherished ideals, “narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated”.

“And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed”.

Scorn of scientific expertise represents the hallmark of the “confident idiot”. Climate change denial has become the bellwether of a conspiracy theory epidemic, which has taken hold of many otherwise intelligent people. Luminaries such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt think climate change is part of a one world government conspiracy, aided and abetted by the United Nations, our own Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. But somehow they are apparently embarrassed by Malcom Roberts assertions that’s it’s all a NASA cover up. Alternatively, Donald Trump thinks the global warming hoax was created by “the Chinese to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive”.

trumproberts

Increasingly, the ability to discard inconvenient truths, to suspend belief in scientific fact, and to succumb to half-truths and spin, becomes a necessary skill-set used to choose whatever belief butters our bread, or suits our biases. Google provides an easy way of aligning the world to suit one’s prejudices: using the wrong-way round research method of finding the argument to suit the conclusion. Just by falling down a hole in the internet, crackpot theorist’s such as Flat Earthers, 9/11-Truthers, Chem-trailers, and Anti-Vaxxers, can find all the “empirical evidence” they need.

Science is not above reproach, or immutable. But its limits are well established enough. Adhering to established scientific fact should be a prerequisite for participating in public debate. Political correctness might have gone too far, but it’s consequences pale in comparison to scientific incorrectness.

Hopefully, Donald Trump won’t become President of the United States and we’ll look back on his candidacy as a grotesque caricature which appeared briefly, and then floated away, like a blimp at New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the 50 million or so US citizens who’ll vote for Trump represent a more widespread malaise in critical thinking.

Muslims or Mexicans aren’t about to “swamp” us anytime soon. But we needn’t consult our tea leaves or call a psychic to recognise the danger posed by the Dunning-Kruger effect, and to wonder why we’re not doing more to mitigate the influence of confident idiots.

Religious Freedom Doesn’t Care What You Believe, But The Census Does

Religious Freedom Doesn’t Care What You Believe, But The Census Does  – New Matilda 08 August 2016

Ahead of next week’s Census question on religion, spare a moment to consider religious freedom: the right to believe and practise your religion or non-belief.

We acknowledge each other’s rights to believe and disbelieve. Thus, I don’t care if you believe in God or not. Neither do I care whether you believe in a universal spirit, angels, Paleo, or magic beans.

Scientist or a Scientologist, it’s all the same to me. I don’t care if you’re if you’re a Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Pastafarian, an Anglican or an astrologer, Jesuit or a Jedi, or, if you worship John the Baptist or the John Frum Cargo Cult. But I do care if you answer the Census question accurately.

Why? Because the Census helps to determine government policy and funding, and helps explain who we are and how we live. It gives a snapshot of what we’re like and how we’ve changed. This year’s Census will likely show a shift away from Christianity towards non-belief, which might tip the balance towards more secular policymaking.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) ‘no religion’ campaign invites Australians to consider if they’re “Not religious Anymore?”

AFA President Kylie Sturgess says the purpose is to encourage Australians to think honestly about their beliefs, so the Census result provides an accurate indication of religious affiliations.

“We’re letting people know they can mark ‘no religion’ when perhaps they didn’t realise that option was available to them, because until now, it’s always been at the bottom of a long list. You don’t have to be an atheist to mark ‘No religion’,” Ms Sturgess says.

“Many people feel spiritual, and lead moral lives encompassing values like charity, peace, and love without identifying as religious”.

Sportsbet reports ‘no religion’ is a favourite to shoot to number one place in our religious affiliation in the 2016 Census. It’s also giving good odds that ‘no religion’ will jump from 22.3 per cent in 2011 to over 30 per cent – a May IPSOS poll with the same question recorded 38 per cent.

When the 2013 Census answers were similarly reordered in New Zealand, ‘no religion’ leapt from 35 per cent to 42 per cent. In the UK and Wales ‘no religion’ has surged from 25 per cent in 2011, to 48.5 per cent in 2014.

The shift from Christianity to ‘no religion’ has been the topic of much speculation. The number of Christians is in freefall in Australia, only buttressed by the large number of people who record a Christian affiliation without necessarily believing in or observing the religion.

A 2012 McCrindle survey noted one third of Christians considered themselves “more spiritual” than Christian, and less than one in 10 Australians fill the pews regularly.

Australians are far less devout that our US cousins, but our country is also much less secular. Compared to the formidable Wall of Separation in the US Constitution, Australia’s impotent Section 116 (which has never been successfully upheld in Court) is scarcely a rabbit-proof fence, rickety and falling into disrepair, as millions of dollars in funding pass over it every year for religious enterprises.

Australian state and federal governments provide hundreds of millions of dollars for chaplains and for Sunday-school-style faith classes; they pour $11 billion into religious schools, and forgo about $20 billion in tax. Many tax-free faith groups run profitable businesses as well. Taxpayer funded faith-based groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

More tax payer money per student is provided to independent schools run by the secretive Plymouth (ex-Exclusive) Brethren, and those linked to Scientology, than to State schools. While new developments in genetics and evolutionary biology make headlines, we spend a billion dollars on schools teaching Creationism.

The beneficiaries of religious funding are organised faith groups, as opposed to individuals or groups from a cultural tradition. The taxpayer sponsors groups who may discriminate against them, espouse disagreeable views, and provide little or no public benefit.

Since the primary goal of most faith groups (especially Christian ones) is to promulgate their own beliefs, citizens marking the Census should carefully consider whether they still subscribe to those beliefs.

Do they believe in the Nicene Creed? Is salvation and eternal life attained through faith in Jesus? Was Jesus virgin-born? Was Jesus the son of God and made of the same substance as God? Do they believe in Satan? Did Jesus rise from the grave and ascend to heaven?

It might seem counterintuitive, but the higher the numbers for ‘no religion’, the more likely governments will move to protect religious freedom. The more we affirm our secular nature, the greater the pressure on governments to remain religion neutral.

This is the real meaning of religious freedom, as originally invoked by the Danbury Baptists and the Australian Catholics, when both groups campaigned for secularism to be enshrined in our respective Constitutions, to protect themselves from State interference in religion.

Founding Father and former US President Thomas Jefferson epitomized the spirit of secularism thus: “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The problem in Australia is that we allow faith to continually pick the taxpayer’s pocket – to the tune of billions of dollars – despite fewer and fewer of us subscribing to it.

A substantial bump in the numbers marking ‘no religion’ may help illuminate a new understanding of secularism, as well as an old understanding of religious freedom.