Friday, January 8, 2010

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Telic Thoughts links us to an essay in The Philosopher's Magazine by atheist Russell Blackford who urges a more outspoken and confrontational atheism. He wants atheists to challenge theistic belief more aggressively, the better to discredit it. Here are some excerpts from his column:

In the 1970s, or even the 1990s, it was possible to think religion had been declawed, and that further challenges to religious philosophies, institutions, and leaders were unnecessary. On this view, all the hard work had been done, and religion was withering away after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, Darwin, and the social iconoclasm of the 1960s. Against that background, it became taboo to criticise religion in the public sphere; it was widely assumed that religion was retreating, in any event, and didn't need to be fought anymore. Attacks on people's "deeply-held beliefs" even smacked a little of cultural imperialism.

In the academy, bright minds in philosophy turned to other topics. Bright young atheists and sceptics were certainly not steered into philosophy of religion, which looked like an intellectual dead end.

But the situation now looks very different, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations 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 Christian moral concerns.

It seems a little odd that Mr. Blackford considers abortion and physician-assisted suicide harmless. One might think that whether they're harmless or not depends upon whether one is doing the abortion or being aborted. In the next paragraph he makes claims that are no less peculiar:

The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called 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 (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

I have to say that I meet a lot of Christians and occasionally read some Christian literature, and maybe I'm not as in tune with what's going on as I should be, but I have never actually encountered one of these "dominionists" who wants to establish a theocracy in the U.S. Nor for the life of me do I see how it is that the Bush administration took us any distance at all down the path to such a state. Nor have I ever seen a poll that shows that "many" American conservatives perceive Mr. Obama to be the Antichrist. But even if all of this were true and amounted to something more substantial than the mental residue of Mr. Blackford's night terrors what does any of it have to do with the basic question of whether or not God exists?

He continues:

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising - and totally justifiable - that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations 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?

This is ground I don't think Mr. Blackford really wants to tread. If we're going to be questioning the authority upon which claims in the political sphere are made then Mr. Blackford will have some answering to do as well. For instance, by what authority does an atheist like Mr. Blackford say that we have an obligation to care for the poor and/or the environment, if indeed he thinks we do? If Mr. Blackford thinks it wrong that some in our society don't have health care on what basis does he think it wrong? Indeed, on what authority does he imply that it's wrong for Christians to oppose embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion, and same sex marriage or, for that matter, to promote a theocracy?

Mr. Blackford may not like any of these, but if atheism is true there's no authority by which he can judge any of them to be in some sense morally wrong. In a world without God right and wrong are determined by those who have the power to impose their will on others. Indeed, the only people who have the moral grounds to say that establishing a theocracy would be wrong are theists. The most an atheist can say is that he doesn't like theocracies and hopes we don't get one.

Mr. Blackford concludes with this:

In short, there is plenty of reason to challenge religions and contest their doctrinal claims, not just as an academic exercise, but as a matter of real urgency. Atheists and sceptics should deny the authority of religious organisations and leaders to pronounce on matters of ultimate truth and correct morality. This will require persistent, cool argument, but also moments of outright denunciation or even unashamed mockery of religion's most absurd actions and truth-claims.

We should never flinch from expressing the view that no religion has any rational warrant - that these Emperors really have no clothes - and that many churches and sects promote cruelty, misery, ignorance, and human rights abuses.

Well, I say to Mr. Blackford please do speak out publicly about your atheism. Let's have that debate. Let's examine the authority by which we make moral judgments and the reasons why we believe what we believe. Let's examine the historical record and compare the benefits Christianity has brought to the world against the contributions of atheism. I'm all in favor, but I think Mr. Blackford, once he considers how such a debate would really go, will probably think better of it. Most atheists do.



C-Span president and founder Brian Lamb sent a letter to the White House last week asking that his television cameras be allowed to film the negotiations taking place between the leaders of the House and Senate who are hammering out a compromise between their two versions of the health care reform bill. He was turned down flat. The negotiations are being held in secret, and no one, least of all the public, is being allowed to see the ingredients being kneaded into this particular legislative sausage.

Not only is this a dismaying abuse of power on the part of the Democrats, it represents yet another of the President's broken promises. At least eight times while he was campaigning for the presidency he promised voters that all negotiations that involve bills affecting the American people will be conducted with transparency and even be televised on C-Span so that everyone can see what's going on. Here's the video:

(If this doesn't work go here)

Now, when it's time to man up and keep his commitment to the American public, the President has nothing to say. Little wonder that fewer and fewer people put any confidence in our president's words. Candidate Obama was apparently no more serious about transparency than he was about not hiring lobbyists, giving citizens time to study every bill before it was voted on, closing Gitmo, withdrawing from Iraq, and not raising taxes on the middle class.

Like many other politicians before him Mr. Obama seems willing to say anything he thinks people want to hear in order to get elected, and then, once in office, he turns out to be just another run-of-the-mill pol. It'll be a long time, I suspect, before another politician campaigns on the promise of hope and change, a phrase that Mr. Obama is sadly turning into a joke.

See Big Government for more on the President's failure to abide by his commitment to transparency.