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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Some speech deserves to be marginalised

The Good Friday editorial in yesterday's Melbourne Age newspaper gallops over a whole host of issues involving the relationship of religious belief and non-belief in contemporary society. I can't deal properly, or at all, with every irritating sentence. For example, what can I say about the observation, cited from Barney Zwartz, that the atmosphere of Melbourne's recent Global Atheist Convention (GAC) resembled that of evangelical meetings that Zwartz has covered? Well, it's a cheap shot, for a start, and in any event this can only mean he's been to very tame evangelical meetings.

If Barney Zwartz thinks the good-humoured, but relatively sedate, atmosphere of the GAC resembled the atmosphere of an evangelical meeting, then he hasn't been out much. Barney, you need to get yourself along to some wilder and wackier evangelical meetings, like some of the ones I've been to in my time.

Again, I don't want to say much about the issues of whether or not to retain Christmas and Easter in modern liberal-democratic societies characterised by pluralism and by lawmaking based on secular reason. As a non-believer (to use the term popularised by Barack Obama) I'm relaxed about these festivals. They were originally pagan, and they are largely pagan again. I feel no affront that they continue, even if some of the sanctimonious pontificating (as it were) by religious leaders at these times of year makes me want to grab for the nearest sick-bag.*

But one claim in the editorial does merit more than a quick, off-hand comment. This is an issue relating to free speech and to the marginalisation of religious speech.

According to the editorial, "the rhetoric of some militant atheists, which is dogmatic rather than sceptical in tone, should worry anyone who values tolerance and cultural diversity." Oh, go on: please, name names.

It then adds:

It is not only censorship - now rarely encountered in the West - that can threaten freedom of speech, but also any campaigning movement that denies intellectual legitimacy to its opponents.

Well, I'm not so sure that censorship is rarely encountered in the West. This seems like an odd thing to say at the very time when our federal government is planning large scale censorship of the internet that will be wide open for scope creep in future years. But leave that to one side.

Some ideas do merit marginalisation, and some opponents do lack intellectual legitimacy. That isn't to say that these ideas and opponents should be censored. There are many reasons why it is best to allow people to speak their minds. But the political freedom to speak your mind does not entail a right to be taken seriously or given deference, or even to be accorded intellectual legitimacy. Indeed, there are plenty of ideas that people should be free to advocate, but which are so clearly foolish or even repugnant that they will, quite rightly, be ignored or treated with derision. Often, ideas that are treated with respect in one generation come to fall in this category in later generations.

For example, a contemporary defence of slavery would fall on deaf ears. Or it might, depending on its context and the way it was expressed, provoke nervous laughter, scorn, repugnance, or even fear. It would not receive a respectful hearing, and anyone who put this idea forward would instantly lose all intellectual credibility (at least in Australia!).

Of course, we should not censor someone who wants to defend slavery. They should have that freedom. They can plug away with their arguments and try to persuade us to take them seriously. But the playing field is strongly tilted against them, and quite properly so. The onus is on them to explain why it shouldn't be. Likewise for someone who advocates torture or suicide bombing or female genital mutilation or forced abortions.

Furthermore, to take less troubling matters, it is unlikely that anyone advocating public policy by telling us that her proposals are in accordance with the will of Aphrodite or Zeus or Odin would receive a respectful hearing in 21st-century Australia. She should be allowed to put her case, can try to persuade us that it is not so outrageous, that it deserves a respectful hearing, and so on. However, the playing field is tilted against her speech, and again quite properly. The onus is on her to explain why not. Prima facie, the will of Zeus is a very poor reason for public policy, and anyone claiming otherwise will, quite properly, be marginalised in serious policy debates.

While slavery is an extreme case, there are some other cases that are almost as extreme. One would be any proposal to reinstitute the criminalisation of homosexual conduct. I hope that we have now reached a point in our society where any proposal along these lines would be looked at with no more sympathy than a proposal that we reinstitute slavery. Why inflict serious harm - in the form of criminal penalties and stigma - on somebody merely because of his or her consenting sexual practices? The idea is barbaric and outrageous, and it no longer deserves a respectful hearing. It had its chance, and we can put the very idea behind us.

Over time, some speech does become marginalised, and there is nothing wrong with this as long as political freedom remains and the proponents of this speech are not condemned as criminals or otherwise subjected to punishments by the state. In Victoria, where The Age is published, there is a controversial and poorly-drafted code in place forbidding some speech that supposedly "vilifies" people on the grounds of religion. This should be repealed; if it is replaced with anything, and I'm not sure that it should be, it must be a very narrowly-drafted provision that bans only the most extreme kinds of hate speech that dehumanise classes of people (homosexuals for example) or foment violence. We should reduce actual censorship to a minimum.

But some ideas, though not censored, should be given only a marginal place in our society. In every generation, we continue to debate which those are. I am hopeful that future generations will include not only the examples I've given, such as the ideas of reinstituting slavery or punishing homosexuals, but also such examples as the ludicrous idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old (contrary to all conclusions from rational investigation). Likewise for the idea that there is something even "sinful" about (as opposed to grounds for banning) consenting homosexual conduct between sufficiently mature people, or that "sin" attaches to the use of contraceptives or to masturbation. Like the advocacy of slavery, these foolish ideas no longer deserve a level playing field in our society. Let them be freely derided, ridiculed, and driven to the margins. The sooner, the better.

As for religious leaders, they certainly do not deserve the kind of deference they currently receive, or the megaphones they are provided by the news media for their pronouncements. They do not deserve to be looked upon as moral or community leaders, or to be given a privileged voice in public debate. Some - such as those Protestant fundamentalists who claim the Earth is only 6000 years old or the celibate, white-haired dinosaurs of the Vatican who think that the use of contraception is a sin - deserve to be accorded little more intellectual credibility than would be given, in a modern city such as Melbourne, to a slavery advocate.

Not all ideas deserve to be taken seriously and considered respectfully, and not all people deserve to be accorded intellectual legitimacy. We can argue about who and what falls into which category, but there is no doubt that some speech deserves to be marginalised ... and that certainly applies to a lot of religious speech. There's no need to be backward about saying so.

===

* Leaving aside the current mass, so to speak, of extraordinary statements by the Catholic hierarchy as they defend their thin shreds of credibility over institutionalised sexual abuse of children.

29 comments:

Ramases said...

Well said Russell.

I find it annoying that even relatively liberal (in the proper use of the term) people in most respects seem to have such blind spots when it comes to any criticism or questioning of religion. It is enough to do in any way to be labelled an atheist zealot.

The Age editorial was quite funny in a way, spending quite a lot of time tilting at windmills.

A good deal of it was arguing against the proposition that Christmas and Easter should be abolished or renamed. This is verging on the bizarre, as I have never heard a single person advocate this. It was certainly not on the agenda of the atheist convention in Melbourne. To believe you have vanquished the ideas of an opponent by arguing against propositions they have never espoused is hardly a sign of intellectual credibility.

R Holmes said...

Good post, Russell. Far too many people think freedom of speech equates to a right to have their views respected and accommodated.

Ishtar said...

But I think the word 'sceptic' or 'skeptic' has been hijacked. It used to mean someone who was agnostic, someone who would reserve judgement until they had all the facts. So it is an intellectually dishonest statement, to declare yourself as a skeptic with regard to atheism, when all you mean is that you are anti ... anti the idea of a God, even though all the evidence for such a decision is far from in. Here is the Wiki definition of atheist: "Atheism is the position that deities do not exist, or the rejection of theism." So this is not a skepticism which is waiting for all the evidence to come in. The decision has been taken.

Tiuri said...

Isn't it beautiful to see the intelligent und balanced comments by DM?
These will surely stop atheism.

Apashiol said...

Ishtar,
A sceptic doubts the authenticity of certain beliefs. Usually taking the position that without any evidence there is no reason to believe.
It is a bit of a cheek for you to accuse someone of being '... anti the idea of a God' if they haven't explicitly stated that, which I have never seen Russell do, at least what I have read of his.

As to your wittering about the evidence being far from in, what evidence is this you are talking about. The evidence for any deities is lacking, unless you are privy to something the rest of us aren't.

stanleygarden said...

I couldn't comment on your previous post so I'll use this comment thread.

I'm really getting tired of hearing the word 'dogmatic' attributed to atheists. Not only becasue it is overused but because it's wrong. Whoever feels that atheists are dogmatic has to come up with a specific 'dogma' the we atheists have embraced in order to reject zeus, poseidon, krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and Yahweh. Were people fighting racism 50 or 60 years ago also dogmatic?
People need to start substantiating their claims.

Ophelia Benson said...

From the Age:

It is not only censorship - now rarely encountered in the West - that can threaten freedom of speech, but also any campaigning movement that denies intellectual legitimacy to its opponents.

That's a remarkably large claim. You could label any kind of public discourse a 'campaigning movement,' and then you would be claiming that any public discourse that defends the use of reason or evidence or logic or all those is censorship.

Ted Bendixson said...

I think it's sad that just by advocating a position that says the doctrines of religion are false,we are immediately lumped into the "zealot" category. I don't know about you, but I don't see any atheists knocking on their neighbors doors and trying to get them to give up God. Most of us are just trying to take a defensive position. We're trying to avoid praying at family meals and wasting time at church. We want freedom from ideas that put an end to critical thinking.

I think it's difficult for atheists to stay sane when there are plenty of brainwashed people like DM out there who don't even bother to listen. I don't expect to change the world, but damn it sure is nice to know a few people who will actually listen to what I have to say.

Sure, there may be some atheists out there who act like DM, but there are many more religious people like him. For Blackford to claim that the two sides are equal in that regard is preposterous. Let's not fool ourselves. More atheists care about intellectual integrity than their religious brethren.

I don't see any atheists starting forum posts with "CARPET BOMBING... SCIENCE POWER!!!"

Carpet bombing? WTF?

everettattebury said...

You can read about "DM" here:

http://www.evolvedrational.com/2009/04/david-mabus-strikes-again.html

and here:

http://skippytheskeptic.blogspot.com/2008/05/who-hell-is-david-mabus.html

and here:

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/7111/#86414

SaintStephen said...

Furthermore, to take less troubling matters, it is unlikely that anyone advocating public policy by telling us that her proposals are in accordance with the will of Aphrodite or Zeus or Odin would receive a respectful hearing in 21st-century Australia. She should be allowed to put her case, can try to persuade us that it is not so outrageous, that it deserves a respectful hearing, and so on. However, the playing field is tilted against her speech, and again quite properly. The onus is on her to explain why not. Prima facie, the will of Zeus is a very poor reason for public policy, and anyone claiming otherwise will, quite properly, be marginalised in serious policy debates.

Great work Dr. Blackford. This paragraph nails it perfectly. But no theist will see the obvious parallel. The most simple, most effective, most valid arguments are always summarily dismissed in favor of some esoteric horseshit. The same holds true for the argument from infinite regress.

Zeus? That's ridiculous.

Yes, indeed it is, you morons.

Piero said...

As usual, an illuminating comment. Thank you, Russell.

Piero said...

As usual, an illuminating comment. Thank you, Russell.

Wowbagger said...

'It is not only censorship - now rarely encountered in the West - that can threaten freedom of speech, but also any campaigning movement that denies intellectual legitimacy to its opponents'

But religion has no intellectual legitimacy; all it has is pseudointellectual posturing concocted in order to deflect real analysis.

With that in mind, how can we deny something that isn't there in the first place?

it said...

Succinctly put Russell. I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Age asking Barney Swartz to define "militant atheist" and to name the speakers at the Atheists Convention whom he considers militant atheists - yourself, AC Greyling, Taslima Nasrin, Robyn Williams, etc. I saw nobody walking around the conference with a sign around their neck saying"approach with caution - militant atheist"

MH said...

It's strange and somehow telling that the expression "militant atheist" is routinely used and usually passes without comment. What is meant by this is someone who writes an angry blog or makes scathing remarks about religion in public speeches. However, a religious person needs to shoot people or blow something up in order to be called militant.

The lesson seems to be this: there is a common, unspoken understanding that atheists and religious people are to be judged by different standards. Atheists can be expected to act civil, religious people can not. I think it's an interesting and important question to ask whether this position holds any water. It's certainly not very flattering for believers that they get treated as if they were retards.

Russell Blackford said...

What are you talking about, Tex? Where did I ever say what you are attributing to me? I can only hope that when you wrote "Blackford" you actually meant "the Age's editorial writer, whom Blackford is criticising".

Russell Blackford said...

And folks, just ignore DM. He is a well-known troll known as Dave Mabus (though that is not his real name). He lives in Montreal and is known to the police there. He's probably a harmless crackpot, though of course you can never be sure of these things. I simply delete all his posts. I could introduce comment moderation, but I'd rather not if I could avoid it. Blogger doesn't give me the capacity to filter people out individually, so when I tell people they are banned I expect them to accept it and stop commenting. Obviously that's not going to happen with "Mabus".

If problems with unwanted commenters ever get bad enough I'll introduce moderation or even look for a platform with more functionality. For the moment, it's simply not a big enough problem to do either of those things.

ColinGavaghan said...

Nail, head, bang!

John said...

Great stuff again, Russell. I'm constantly told I should "respect" other beliefs, even those that are utterly fanciful (and often offensive!).

Such ideas don't deserve respect, but the people uttering them are (generally) entitled to at least the freedom to express them.

Sadly, it's hard to make progress in debate if you try telling someone "Your ideas aren't worthy of respect". They generally don't like that. Hmm.

By the way, I'm LOVING your book. And I'm proud to have been a student of yours. :)

Frank said...

And WTF is it with our national broadcaster devoting significant air time to covering church services?

S The said...

Thank you Russell for putting our exact thoughts into words.

As for religious leaders, they certainly do not deserve the kind of deference they currently receive, or the megaphones they are provided by the news media for their pronouncements. They do not deserve to be looked upon as moral or community leaders, or to be given a privileged voice in public debate.

Alex McCarthy said...

Maybe it's time we had some "Militant Atheist t-shirts printed so people like DM and BZ can identify the militants from the tea sipping quiet ones?

Chris Schoen said...

If problems with unwanted commenters ever get bad enough I'll introduce moderation or even look for a platform with more functionality.

Switching to Echo was pretty painless for me.

Udo Schuklenk's Ethx Blog said...

well said russell!

Christian Munthe said...

Udo tipped me off about your blog and this was the right time indeed, since I'm working on a blog piece on the concept of religious belief employed in this whole messy debate around religion that keeps popping up everywhere. Good points overall, just one little thing. Those things you say "should be" marginalised; in a democracy they may become dominant if the majority is so inclined. I suppose you're not suggesting that if that happens, democratic decisions shouldn't be respected? In that case, perhaps a better way to make the point would be to say that their marginalisation is no reason for political or legal action.

Russell Blackford said...

Christian, I'm not sure what situation you're imagining or what you mean by "respect". Are you just making the point that if an electoral majority wants, and the legislature enacts, a law providing for, say, slavery, it might still be a valid law (assuming it is constitutional)? Well, yes it might be valid, i.e. properly made in accordance with the process. There might be no doubt that it really is law (in accordance with any plausible rule for recognising the system's laws). But you talk about "respecting" what the majority wants. Are you saying something about whether it is a morally good law, whether it should be obeyed, whether the minority who don't like it should acquiesce, whether juries who don't like it should refrain from nullifying it, and so on? For many values of the word "respect", I don't think that alienated minorities always have to respect truly bad majority decisions.

Christian Munthe said...

Oh, I mean just abiding by the law, of course. As you say, anyone is free to protest it and try to have it changed, that's also a part of democracy.

W Anker said...

Well, a prohibition on masturbation would at least prevent rantings like this.

Sean P said...

Great post Russell.