About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Religion under Scrutiny

Religion under Scrutiny

By Russell Blackford
(First published by Printasia, 6 January 2012. I’m republishing this post in the spirit of keeping as good a record as I can of past publications – as well as presenting it to a new audience.)

Religious teachings seem to promise so much. Think of the great religions of the world – they offer a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives and morally superior conduct, and such extraordinary benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being, liberation from earthly attachments, or a blissful form of personal immortality. All this sounds good, but is any of it actually true?

Many of us doubt it. In 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, Udo Schuklenk and I present essays by atheists and religious skeptics from around the world. All continents except Antarctica are represented.

There’s an overwhelming case to scrutinize religious teachings. Partly it’s the intrinsic importance of religion’s large claims. If any of them are true, let’s find out! In fact, many books have been published arguing for one religious viewpoint or another. Let’s also consider the reasons for disbelief.

The case for scrutinizing religion goes even further. In the 1970s, or even the 1990s, it was possible to think religion had lost its power, and that further challenges to religious doctrines, organizations, and leaders were unnecessary. On this view, all the hard work had been done, and religion was withering away. Against that background, it became almost taboo to criticize religion in the public square; it was widely assumed that religion was retreating, and shouldn’t be fought anymore.

Well, that was premature, and the situation now looks very different, even in the nations of the West. Religious organizations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults.

We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies; and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to specifically Christian moral concerns.

In the United States, religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right. American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

When religion claims authority in the public square, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority. If religious organizations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? When such questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s entirely healthy.

In a different world, the need to scrutinize religion would be still be present, but rather less urgent. There would still be reasons to want to know whether any of it is true, but the debate would have less edge to it.

There are strong arguments that even if some religion or other is true, we should still separate the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture) from the levers of state power, and that public policy should rely entirely on secular principles. It’s important to put those arguments, and I’ve done so in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, my new book from Wiley-Blackwell.

The arguments should appeal to many, or most religious people, as well to non-believers. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State updates Enlightenment views for the twenty-first century. In particular, it presents a clear, modern, relevant version of the ideas of John Locke, who was a religious believer.

I believe the arguments are powerful, but I can be sure that they won’t persuade all people, irrespective of their starting points. Many religious sects, including some or many mainstream Christian denominations, don’t want to distinguish between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power. Some of these groups look to a time when their (allegedly) righteous views will prevail in the political sphere, and be imposed by law. If that’s your starting point, I might not change your mind.

We should go on putting the strong arguments for secular government – I most certainly will. But religion itself also merits our scrutiny. There are now many people who do not believe in any God or gods, or in the truth of any doctrines involving supernatural entities and forces, and are prepared to say so in public. Many have interesting reasons for their views, and it’s valuable for all of them – for all of us, I should say – to speak up. We should tell our stories and offer our arguments.

This is a good time for atheists and religious skeptics to join the public debates. There’s no time like now to voice our disbelief.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday supervillainy: Thunderbolts - "Justice, like lightning!"

I'm reinstating my regular "Sunday supervillainy" feature, starting with a shout out to the Thunderbolts from Marvel Comics, which is now into a new series (scripted by Jim Zub) with a familiar cast of characters.

The Thunderbolts, recall, were originally the Masters of Evil in disguise, pretending to be superheroes for their own complicated and nefarious purposes at a time when other heroes such as the Avengers were unavailable. Some of the Thunderbolts discovered that they actually enjoyed being heroes, though they were, and remain to varying extents, morally flawed individuals.

The new line-up includes the main stalwart of the team over the years, and one of my favourite Marvel villains: Moonstone (Dr. Karla Sofen). As always, Karla thinks that she should be leader, since she is arguably the most powerful. She is a brilliant psychologist and a (near?) psychopath, whose bonding with a cosmic gemstone gives her a wide range of super powers; these make her a competent and formidable opponent even for the likes of Captain Marvel or the Hulk.

Karla is backed up by Atlas (who was the original Power Man - though that title was usurped by Luke Cage a long time ago - and was known at one stage as Goliath), Mach-X (who was originally the Beetle), and the Fixer.

That's a classic and versatile set of Thunderbolts, though some fans will surely miss Songbird (originally Screaming Mimi).

In the new series, the Thunderbolts are now under the command of the Winter Soldier (a.k.a. James "Bucky" Barnes), who has the difficult job of keeping this villainous, headstrong crew under some semblance of control while leading them on missions for the greater good. He has also picked up the task of looking after (and likewise controlling, if he can) the insanely powerful and unpredictable Kobik - a set of Cosmic Cube fragments that has taken on the appearance and personality of a little girl.

When the Thunderbolts are well written, they're a lot of fun. They'd be worth reading for Moonstone's antics alone ... as she manipulates everyone else (with mixed success), tries to assert her superiority, sometimes does manage to pull off small coups, and occasionally connects with others on the team just enough not to look like a complete psychopath.

In fact, what makes the Thunderbolts likeable is the way this bunch of ex-crooks relate emotionally to each other. All of them originally chose to use their powers (or in the case of the Fixer and Mach-X, their inventive genius) for criminal gain. But none of them is all that evil. The Fixer and Mach-X are fairly decent guys when given a chance; Atlas is more unimaginative (and not terribly bright) than a truly nasty piece of work; and even Moonstone has at least developed some fondness and loyalty toward her teammates.

At this stage, just a couple of issues into the new series, the Thunderbolts have got themselves into a mess (as usual), with Kobik having just ripped out Moonstone's gem - nearly killing her - before being persuaded to put the gem back inside Karla's chest. Moonstone is now wandering around in a dreadful state trying to recover from the ordeal, but she and the others have managed to trash a nest of Inhumans' pods that hatched a whole bunch of giant humanoid ... monsters. Having killed all the "monsters" in an unnecessarily destructive brawl, the Thunderbolts now find themselves confronted by a powerful and angry team of Inhumans, led by Crystal. Grab the popcorn!

I'd love to see the Thunderbolts brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How about it, Disney?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion"

For those who haven't already read it, today I'm drawing attention to my article from 2000, "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion" - which you can find on my Academia.edu page or (if that doesn't suit) on my personal website.

When I wrote this piece in response to Gould's book, Rocks of Ages (with its notorious principle of non-overlapping magisteria) I wasn't expecting that years later I would be deeply involved in a public debate about what we now call "accommodationism". At the time, it was just one more article among an infomal series that I was writing for Quadrant, which was then under the editorship of the late Paddy McGuinness. Paddy encouraged my work, so this give me a market to produce articles that might have been too controversial for the more left-leaning literary and political journals in Australia (which tend, for example, to be rather solicitous toward religion). I was writing for a largely conservative readership that would have found many of my views anathema (indeed, there was sometimes a bit of a backlash, especially when I got onto topics relating to bioethics). But in many ways, that was more useful and interesting than preaching (and signalling my moral virtue and political loyalties) to the converted.

I also found Paddy to be a good editor - he had a light hand with my work, but the small tweaks that he did make were invariably improvements.

Over time, it became apparent that Gould's views, though deeply flawed in my opinion, were very influential. Indeed, similar views - insisting on a total compatibility of science and religion - have a long history in the US, and they are almost an orthodoxy with many official science bodies. Opposition to such views requires more than a single article picking apart what is wrong with a particular book. Still, this article does say much of what needs to be said, and I'll go on trying to get people to look at it and consider my arguments.

I've also recently discussed the issues at some length in a piece published at The Conversation: "Against Accommodationism: How science undermines religion." This has a different emphasis - not surprisingly since it was written some 15 years later and after further reading and thought - but the  arguments are overlapping and complementary. Check it out if you haven't done so, though I assume that most readers of this blog will have already done so, as this particular piece attracted a fair bit of controversy earlier this year.

A note on freedom of speech and its enemies

The following is based on something that I wrote on my Facebook wall a couple of years ago - and still seems pretty much right to me.

I'm sick of people who think that freedom of speech is only about freedom from state censorship. That is a very narrow and legalistic view of it (often distorted by thinking that freedom of speech is just what is in the First Amendment to the US Constitution). Yes, resistance to state censorship is at the core of the concept, and perhaps it's the only part that can, in practice, be protected by constitutional arrangements, legal provisions, etc. But the deeper foundations for the idea also apply to attempts to suppress/deter/punish unwanted views through the power of popular opinion and feeling. If you are trying to deter/suppress certain views by organising with others to punish people for expressing them - even if you're trying to do this in informal ways that do not involve the exercise of government power - then you have not grasped the essence of what the concept is all about. If you attempt, e.g. through collective boycott action, to pressure a body such as an employer to enforce restrictions on what can be said on topics of general interest, then you don't get the essential idea of free speech.

On one hand, it's the ability to speak our minds and express ourselves relatively fearlessly, subject only to the risk being criticised (or of losing the friendship of individuals who deeply disagree, since no one has to engage socially with people with whom they are deeply out of sympathy), and even if what we end up saying is abhorrent, ugly, or plain wrong.

It's also about the availability of unpopular views for consideration, even if they are abhorrent, ugly, or wrong.

Please go back and re-read Mill's On Liberty if you think the liberal concern with freedom of speech and individual liberty is only about restricting the coercive power of the state. If you're motivated to use whatever power you can collectively organise to punish, deter, or suppress certain disliked viewpoints, you can't legitimately claim to be a free speech advocate merely because you're not supporting state censorship.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Tale of Two Tribes (on tribalism, morality, the role of philosophy, the meaning of liberalism, and the problem of free will)

Hey folks, I did a long interview with Steven Gonder from the Mediasplainers podcast. We talked about moral-political tribalism, the role of philsophy as an academic discipline or profession, left-wing authoritarians (and the cultural Left's retreat from values that it once prized such as science and reason, freedom of thought and discussion, and sexual liberation); the meaning of liberalism (and why I think left-wing authoritarians should not be referred to as liberals); the concept of "objective morality" (which led to some debate and confusion about the meaning of the word "objective"); and the ongoing issue of whether human beings have free will (whatever "free will" even means!).

A recurrent theme was the slipperiness of language, and I emphasized toward the end the way that ordinary language can be complex in its literal semantic content but even more so in what it pragmatically, non-literally conveys. Tiresome and alienating as it may be for some, philosophers are rightly committed to analysing the vagueness, ambiguity, and frequent incoherence of the language of ordinary people when they talk about large issues that cause them anxiety: issues such as whether or not human beings have free will.

I can never bear to listen to the sound of my own voice in these sorts of recorded discussions, but there's no reason why you can't check it out.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Jenny Blackford and Russell Blackford - power couple!

Okay, my title for this post is a bit facetious, but a couple of nice photos.

Jenny Blackford reading at a recent Poetry at the Pub gig in Newcastle, NSW (reading "Sweet Intertidal Flesh", which won first place in the poetry contest held by the 2016 Connemara Mussel Festival in Ireland). Photo by Martin Kent.

And Russell Blackford, speaking at TAM, in Las Vegas, back in 2013. A great convention that I treasure in my memory. Photo by Jerry Coyne.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Who's Afraid of the Brave New World?"

This article, "Who's Afraid of the Brave New World", was originally published in Quadrant magazine, back in 2003, and it was something of a milestone for me. Let me explain...

The previous year I'd completed a Masters degree in bioethics at Monash University, but my default plan at the time was to return to legal practice as a barrister (a specialist trial lawyer, for US readers). The good feedback that I received for some of the articles that I published around that time - and for "Who's Afraid of the Brave New World?", in particular - influenced my eventual decision to commence a doctoral program in philosophy at Monash. This emphasized philosophical bioethics, but also the issues in legal and political philosophy surrounding regulation of emerging biotechnologies.

During this whole period I was also chipping away at completing a philosophy major through Open Learning, which I did at the end of 2003 with an unbroken run of High Distinction results. I'd studied some philosophy here and there at earlier phases in my academic career, with good results, but it had not previously been my main focus.

So this was the time, around 2002-2004 that set me on my current direction - rather than the one I'd been assuming, tied to professsional legal practice - and "Who's Afraid of the Brave New World?" was a big part of the change.

Check out the article for yourself, if you're interested and haven't already read it. I argue against what I see as the facile view that permitting, say, human cloning would set us on a slippery slope to some sort of horrible society, a sort of Huxleyan Brave New World. I concede that there may be some legitimate, rational concerns surrounding these technologies, especially concerns relating to distributive justice. However, I argue that much of the opposition is irrational, and that these irrational elements should not drive public policy with regulation of biotech. Overall, the argument still seems good to me, although I've delved into the issues far more deeply in subsequent publications, especially my 2014 book Humanity Enhanced (which is, itself, a slightly expanded and considerably modified version of my doctoral dissertation).

I expect to keep returning to these issues.

Monday, June 13, 2016

An interview on philosophy of religion (at The Philotoric, from a couple of years ago)

This interview was conducted with Matt Marasco for his "The Philotoric" blog.


The Philotoric: You were on the brink of becoming an evangelical leader and now you write books on atheism – what happened?

Russell Blackford: I suppose I was already an evangelical leader in a small way, in that I was the Vice-President of the Evangelical Union at my university (the University of Newcastle, here in Australia). Who knows what might have beckoned beyond that? I wouldn’t necessarily have ended up in the priesthood or anything like that, but still… The trouble at the time was that I “had doubts” – as we used to say – and they ultimately defeated my attempts to put them to rest. I could not make any Christian account of the world add up, and by the time my tenure as EU Vice-President was over I’d eventually abandoned any Christian belief. I didn’t make a fuss about it, but I dropped out of evangelical activities and concentrated on other aspects of my life. I had no ill-feeling toward my Christian friends, who were kind and good people; it was just that I, personally, could no longer honestly believe in the Abrahamic God, the Incarnation, the doctrine of sacrificial atonement, or any other Christian doctrines, including specifically Christian moral ideals. This makes it all sound simple, but it most certainly wasn’t. I was going through months of doubt and worry about the truth of my religion, it was a psychologically agonising period.

Those events were many years ago now, back in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate student. It wasn’t until 2009 that I co-edited a book about atheism (with Udo Schuklenk) – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Much had happened in my life and in the wider world during those 30+ years, and many things converged to encourage me to address the issue of atheism – and the pretensions of religion – in a more formal, public way. One aspect was my sense of the growing political influence of religion, even in Western countries where traditional religious belief is steadily declining. Worse, much of that influence comes from especially reactionary and authoritarian varieties of religious faith.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Joel Marks on The Mystery of Moral Authority

I have an Amazon review by Joel Marks of The Mystery of Moral Authority. Marks "gets" and likes the book, so check out what he has to say.

Marks concludes: "'The Mystery of Moral Authority' covers a wide range of material in a very short space, and does so clearly, adequately, and fairly. Anyone in a hurry looking to learn about moral skepticism, or even moral theory more generally, would do well to pick up this book."

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Alice Dreger on left-wing censorship of ideas

This story is such a clear-cut example that I'd be tempted to dismiss it as atrocity propaganda... except that Alice Dreger is a scholar whom I respect and view as honest. If events happened in anything like the way she describes - and I have no reason to doubt her word in what is very much a factual, step-by-step account - we're seeing somebody ostracised and otherwise punished for opinions.

The situation is that she was asked for permission to republish an essay, in this case her piece entitled "What If We Admitted to Children that Sex is Primarily About Pleasure". So far, so good. After some negotiations, the piece was actually republished. But then it was taken down because in other work by Dreger she has expressed views that the publisher disagrees with. That is highly illiberal. It sends the message that your work will not be published, irrespective of its merits, if your publicly expressed views on other matters are not considered acceptable.

Dreger is, of course, well known and she has a range of publishing opportunities. But many other people who share her views on various issues may not have her kind of bargaining power (which she'd probably consider not all that great in any event). The effect is to add to a cultural climate where open, honest debate is chilled.

This is not, of course, government censorship. But if we value the liberty of thought and discussion we will not fetishize government censorship as a unique evil. Indeed, some government censorship, such as efforts to ban revenge porn, may have very little effect on the liberty of thought and discussion: in such cases, no opinions or ideas on general topics are being suppressed. We should all be able to find ways to express our ideas and opinions without resorting to those sorts of attacks on individuals.

Government censorship is, nonetheless, a special concern (partly because of the frightening powers wielded by governments and their agencies). But on the gripping hand, there are many ways, falling short of government censorship, to stifle and distort the free expression and discussion of opinions and ideas. A policy of blacklisting the writings of particular individuals, as has happened here to Dreger, is just one of those ways.

If Dreger has some incorrect views on trans rights issues, then by all means dispute them. But don't ostracise her for them, and don't smear her as some kind of transphobe when she is nothing of the sort. Those are silencing tactics. That is authoritarianism.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Weekly self-promotion - on The Moral Landscape

This week, I'm promoting my lengthy and searching review, from 2010, of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. If you have an interest in moral theory, including metaethics, check it out. My positive views on these topics are developed at some length in my latest book, The Mystery of Moral Authority, but writing a long review of Harris's book, explaining what I saw as its problems, cetainly assisted in clarifying my thoughts.

Much of the review is negative in the sense of raising doubts rather than developing a positive case of my own, but it is not a negative review in the sense of claiming that Harris has produced a bad book or one that doesn't merit an audience (I'm as surprised at the number of people who absolutely loathe The Moral Landscape as at the number who embrace it fairly uncritically). Negative in one sense or not, the review does, partly by implication, sketch a general thesis about moral theory. To see how I developed the full thesis, five or six years later, there's The Mystery of Moral Authority if you're interested.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

A review of X-Men Apocalypse at PopMatters

I liked this review of X-Men: Apocalypse by Jack Fisher on the PopMatters site - and I agree with almost all of it. The movie is, as Fisher suggests, a strong finale to the trilogy that began with X-Men: First Class, and, indeed, it's a fitting conclusion to the six X-Men movies that started with the original X-Men back in 2000. Through a circuitous route - involving an altered timeline as a result of the previous movie's time-travel plot - Apocalypse leaves the franchise in a good place for further instalments. But yes, it's a strong punctuation mark.

If more X-Men movies are made by Fox without a reboot of the franchise, the filmmakers can move on with a workably stable base, and with new potential for storytelling in the wake of Apocalypse's resolution (at least for now) of the dramatic conflict between the visions of Professor X/Charles Xavier and Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr.

This time round, the Xavier vs. Lehnsherr conflict plays out on an enormous scale, reaches a kind of equilibrium (you'll see what I mean), and along with the cataclysmic spectacle offers much that's emotionally moving.

I still hope to give this movie a fuller review, complete with spoilers. I'm a bit sad to see it not doing as well at the box office - especially in the US - as might have been expected. Perhaps it lacks the high concept of Captain America: Civil War, which is about heroes falling out and fighting each other, and it may simply not have had a good hook for mainstream critics who aren't especially invested in the characters and their conflicts. But for my money it may actually be a better movie than Civil War, impressive as the latter is. As Fisher elaborates in his review, Apocalypse has no obvious flaws for what it is ... but more than that, it has plenty of heart.

In addition to the lukewarm reception from mainstream critics, who perhaps wanted more (obviously) novel themes, there have been unfavourable reviews from some fans who seem disappointed by lack of focus on their particular favourite characters. If you're at all invested in X-Men mythos, don't be put off by those reviews. Perhaps the emphasis of the franchise will shift, in future, to younger characters, such as Storm, Cyclops, and Jean Grey, with very well-cast actors now in place for them. But until then, X-Men: Apocalypse takes care of business superbly.