Religion Secularism

Secular World Podcast

One of the people I had the pleasure of meeting at the Global Atheist Convention earlier this year was Jake Farr-Wharton, one of the hosts of the Secular World podcast, produced by Atheist Alliance International. Jake kindly invited me to be on the podcast, and 6 or so months later we finally made it happen. In episode 113, Jake and Han Hills talk about how “no religious affiliation” rises to over 1/5th of people in the USA; How free birth control cuts abortion rates by 62%; Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent; Proof of heaven; Catholic church to have tax exemptions removed in Italy; and the interview with me, starting at  at 1h12m.

Topics we chatted about include atheism vs. humanism as social activist causes, atheism plus, religious circumcision, and the role of religion in shaping South African society.

Religion Secularism

Two “strange world” observations

First, as Beth Erickson has already noted elsewhere on the network, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has removed Mormonism from its list of cult organisations and offered a sort-of endorsement for Romney. From what I can recall of Mormon doctrine, this is quite plainly absurd, in that the Jesus that Christians think so significant is not at all the same Jesus that Mormons also think very significant. The Mormon Jesus is a man – the brother of Lucifer – who becomes a god through good works, instead of a child born of immaculate conception,  and divine from the get-go. For evangelicals, believing in Jesus is quite an important feature of salvation, but in order for this inclusion of Mormonism into the fold to work, the “Jesus” that you’re supposed to believe in would have to be quite a loosely-defined character.

So yes, as The Guardian puts it, this move by Billy Graham does “risk his legacy”. Of course, since the anti-Semitic diatribes on Nixon’s recordings were released, it’s a wonder that anyone can speak of his legacy at all without using scare-quotes. Leaving that aside, though, he risks his legacy not only for the faith-internal reasons that The Guardian’s columnist points out (that Graham risks alienating black liberal Christians, among other things), but also because whatever you think of the man (perhaps, that he’s overly materialistic), he’s at least been firm on representing a reasonably orthodox evangelical Christian line.

What I mean is that, while religion is increasingly being spoken of as being about values rather than literal beliefs in this or that aspect of the divine (as we saw, for example, in the recent RDFS survey on the beliefs of Christians in the UK), Graham has always appeared to be more of a traditionalist when it comes to beliefs. He’s resolutely anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, which makes him a Republican favourite but also easy to square with conservative readings of the Bible. So in endorsing Romney, and being willing to recognise Mormons as roughly Christian, he’s actually sacrificing quite a firm political stance (in terms of the politics of religion, I mean), and siding with the more modern trends in religion (at least in the UK and US), where what you believe matters far less than some sort of nebulous concept of “being a nice person”.

Second, there’s something far stranger – a South African Labour Court has just ruled that being “badly tormented by [your] ancestors” is a legitimate reason to book time off work. When Johannah Mmelodi wanted to go to a course on traditional healing for a month instead of going to work, she was refused permission to do so by her employers. She attended anyway, and dropped off a note from a sangoma (witch-doctor/traditional healer) attesting to the torment-by-ancestors. The ancestors are, of course, dead. And yes, our Labour Court ruled that she couldn’t be fired, because “South Africa [is] a land of many cultures and that traditional Western culture could not be allowed to dominate the African culture of many of the country’s inhabitants”.

When your courts embrace cultural relativism to this degree, it’s cause for serious concern. The one glimmer of hope I’m holding on to is that the full judgement (which I haven’t yet had access to) makes some sense out of what seems a bizarre ruling. I’ll let you know once I do, but I can’t say I’m optimistic – we do take cultural sensitivity quite seriously here. And much of the time, we should – at least in civic life. The courts? I’m not so sure.


On liberal bullying

The Guardian recently re-posted a column by Ariel Stallings (originally published in Offbeat Empire), under the title “Online bullying – a new and ugly sport for liberal commenters“. It’s a quite interesting read, and deals with a concern that I can relate to – namely another variant of an ad hominem dismissal of someone’s arguments, in this case on the grounds of their race, gender, privilege and so forth. But as with all difficult topics, and perhaps especially the emotive ones, it’s all to easy to read this piece as confirming whatever bias you started out with.

It would be a mistake to interpret Stallings as providing you with an excuse to dismiss criticisms based on secondary factors like privilege. As I’ve argued in a more lengthy piece on this topic (which pre-dates reading the Stallings piece), we can separate the epistemic issues from the political ones. With regard to the epistemic virtue of dismissing arguments about (for example) race and related oppression when those arguments are presented by a middle-class white male such as myself, it seems straightforward that it would be ludicrous to think my arguments false of necessity. Then, it would perhaps simply be uncharitable to think my arguments more likely to be false than those of someone who experiences oppression based on race.

Because ideally, we’d always judge arguments on their merits and nothing more. But because of limited time (and other elements of bounded rationality), the heuristics of assuming that group x has some authoritative view on topic y are attractive, and seem to easily take hold. And they almost certainly have merit – at least in the limited application of giving you a reason to think that (on average) a middle-class white male has less chance of understanding the context of a person oppressed on racial grounds.

Of course, you might want to counter by saying that there’s no reason to think that oppression brings objectivity with it, which is one of the points made in this Jeremy Stangroom post. This is where the political, rather than the epistemological, takes centre-stage: those of us who speak from positions of whatever privilege should be cognisant of the fact that – no matter the strength of our arguments – we’ll easily be interpreted as speaking from that position (in other words, be biased by that position), and that this might be one of the factors that results in miscommunication.

Sure, you can argue that it’s an unfair hurdle to jump over in order to be heard. But communication is full of these annoyances, and we don’t do it any favours by simply donning our superhero-logician outfits and insisting that the rest of the world sees things just as we do. Perhaps we’d like them to, and perhaps they even should. But it’s unlikely that you’ll successfully convince someone of that when you sound just like either a stereotype they hold dear, or a sort of person they are justifiably antipathetic to.

And most importantly: the fact that it’s always fallacious to dismiss your argument simply because of who you are does not mean that your argument isn’t fallacious via who you are – because who you are would be a product of education, circumstance, privilege, race, and so forth. Sometimes – even perhaps frequently – we can become blinded to various ways in which we see the world in a partisan fashion. When someone reminds you of that, take the reminder seriously. Because it might well be true.

On a different note, if you’ve perhaps not heard the sad news of Greta Christina’s endometrial cancer diagnosis, go and read what she has to say. And if you’re willing and able to help, she has a few suggestions there as to how you can do so.


Drama free? I guess we’ll see.

In one of the early posts here, John Loftus pledged that Skeptic Ink would be a “drama free network“, and I certainly hope that this proves to be the case. Or at least, that certain sorts of drama can be avoided, because having no drama at all seems the wrong ambition (if you’re not offending or challenging anyone at all, then you’re probably not worth reading). Of late – as you all know – we’ve had drama of a different, sustained, and harmful sort. I’m not getting into that (again), except to say that one can regret what various people (on all sides of the antagonism) have thought it necessary to say and do without being guilty of asserting a false equivalence.

Others can chronicle the history if they choose to. Those of us who aren’t interested in that project should at least ensure that we don’t (intentionally) add to the catalogue of harms, and I’d suggest that the Skeptic Ink mission statement is on relatively safe ground – even if only as a minimal commitment. But just as in any other networks, some breadth and interpretive wiggle-room is useful in allowing for different voices to emerge – and just as in other networks, those who contribute here can’t be assumed to agree with each other unless we say we do.

Arguments should ideally always be judged on their merits, rather than through the lens of history or personality. However, the merits of an argument (or the bona fides of an interlocutor) are sometimes difficult to see when people are yelling at each other, or making no effort to see beyond any stereotypes or prejudicial judgements they might have entered the conversation with. And history is relevant to whether one can be judged as sincere. For my part, I’ll be trying to be consistently fair to the evidence no matter who that involves disagreeing with, and I’d hope that readers would do the same. Please read my comment policy (and of course, feel free to make suggestions in terms of edits) to get a sense of what I believe that to entail.

Towards a Free Society was named thus for two reasons, but where one is really just a marker on the road to the primary reason. The Free Society Institute (FSI) is a non-profit organisation that I founded, and am currently chairperson of, which promotes secularism, social equality and scientific interests in South Africa. So, calling this site something related seemed a obvious thing to do from the viewpoint of consolidating the expressions of “the brand”. But of course, both the organisation and the site are so named for a more substantive reason.

South Africa is a deeply religious (mostly Christian) country, and also a deeply conservative one in terms of things like social justice. Yes, I realise that foreigners might have believed the hype of a liberated and transformed society, but sadly, things like “corrective rapes” for lesbians occur here, and our Chief Justice is a man who believes you can pray the gay away.

So, the FSI has been an advocate for free speech, free thought, gender and racial equality and so forth. We’re also emphatically secular, and almost all of us are atheists. For me, atheism is a simple by-product of critical thought – the inescapable conclusion which follows from the available evidence. This annoys some folk, I realise, but I don’t think atheism all that interesting in itself. More interesting are the thoughts, confusions, biases, cultural forces etc. that lead to religious belief, and the negative consequences that can follow from those factors.

It is these causes of belief – and the ways in which they manifest in society – that will be the primary focus of Towards a Free Society. Because identifying and eliminating these causes is surely part of the strategy for freeing us from dogma, superstition, and also – perhaps especially – prejudice.