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Category: Australia (page 2 of 7)

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher, and author of “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”.

His talk was “How to Tell If You’re an Atheist“.

Dennett started out with a discussion of anasognosia, also known as Anton’s Syndrome, or ‘blindness denial’. Sometimes people are struck blind, and they don’t know it. They know something’s wrong; they just don’t know what it is. In the same way, some people might be going through ‘atheism denial’ — being an atheist and not knowing it. I’m not sure it’s helpful to compare atheism and blindness, but it’s Dan Dennett here! so we’re going to cut him some slack.

Dennett is working on the Clergy Project, kind of a research project and support network for pastors who no longer believe. Even though they’ve relinquished their faith, some of these trained ministers may be reluctant to identify as atheists, either because atheism gets a bad rap, or because they’ve invested so much in their religion. It’s their career — and who’s going to hire a 55-year-old theologian? Dennett says these ex-believers are having a hard time finding each other for support, like gay people in the 50s without the gaydar. Dennett gives a clue to spot them, though. The ones who are active in their works are probably the non-believers; they’re trying to atone for their hypocrisy. The ones playing golf still believe.

Dennett explains some of the appeal of atheism: We’re a happy lot, in part because we don’t suffer under a burden of artificial guilt. We feel bad for our misdeeds, but we don’t call them sins. So you might be an atheist if you’re curious about atheists, and yet you’re a little worried about what you might find out about yourself.

Lots of Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the son of a god. In a recent UK poll (commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), the percentage of people describing themselves as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54%. Of those 54% percent, half hadn’t attended a church service in the previous year, 16 percent hadn’t attended in the past ten years, and a further 12 percent had never done so. And only 44% of that “54-percenter” group believed that Jesus is the son of a god. Asks Dennett: Do you believe that Jesus is the literal son of god? If not, you might be an atheist.

What about believing in something divine, like a benign force? Dennett was once asked by a radio host if, despite being an atheist, he didn’t believe in some kind of force that protects us. “Well, yes,” Dennett replied. “Gravity!” If you believe that God is a “concept” that enriches our spirits and enlightens them, then you’re definitely an atheist! Dennett remarked that even he believed that the “concept” of god exists… as a concept. He believes that thousands of concepts of gods exist — but that doesn’t make him a polytheist.

Science is disciplined. It relies on double-blind studies, accurate measurements, and peer review. There’s nothing like this in religion. In fact it’s just the opposite. Dennett cited the phrase “Fake it ’til you make it!” as typical of religion, and mentioned the case of Mother Teresa, who wrote of feeling like god wasn’t there. The fuzziness of religion enables its impenetrable creeds, and in fact relies on them for its survival; creeds that are simple don’t last long. Religion doesn’t survive too much probing, which is why believers think that talking about religion critically is rude — sort of like, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. Dennett’s response: Don’t ask — Tell!

Technological advances will break down religions. Many of us owe our deconversion in some sense to the Internet, either by exposure to more information, or to the creation of new non-churchy social support networks. The elders of churches will either have to anticipate unwelcome questions from young people, or try and lock the kids away from the technology — and they probably won’t. Eventually, this may lead to religion becoming a semi-transparent myth in our culture, like Santa Claus. Asks Dennett: Wouldn’t it be great if the god myth were semi-transparent like this?

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Dan Barker

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

His talk was entitled Life-Driven Purpose, which is of course, a take-off on Rick Warren’s book. As a pastor, Rick Warren’s purpose is “to glorify God”, which is to say, to bow down to a master. What’s that like? Barker invited us to consider the posture of prayer: Prostrate on the floor, on our knees, hands clasped (shackled?) in supplication, not a threat. A slave. Masters are afraid of slave revolts, which is what atheists are doing. But many people still want to bow down before a king, even those whose ancestors kicked kings out of their country.

You can watch the next bit of Barker’s talk yourself (or something like it).

Barker points out that religion does not enhance your moral judgment. It compromises it. Two stories to illustrate.

Story one: Suppose I were to break into some Christians’ home. I torture them, shoot the dog, and burn the house down. When people ask why I did it, I say, “No reason; the devil made me do it!

Would you consider that person to be moral? Probs not, I’m guessing.

Story two: The story of Job. His whole family is killed by a collapsing house, and Job is tormented with sore boils.

Why did God allow this?

Job 2:3 And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.

In other words: No reason; the Devil made him do it. This is not a moral being.

The good news we offer to the world is that “There IS no purpose of life. And that’s good!”

People often act like there’s some kind of purpose to life, and if only we could find out what that was, we could do it and be happy. But if that were true, we would be secondary. We would be subservient, looking for marching orders, looking outside ourselves to find some purpose. But it’s wonderful that life is its own reward. We want to make the world better, reproduce, have jollity, and so on. But those things aren’t the purpose OF life. There’s a purpose IN life.

As long as there are problems to solve, knowledge to be gained, beauty to create, we have a purpose IN life. Life with purpose, life with meaning. A life-driven purpose.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Leslie Cannold

Leslie Cannold is a writer, activist, and the author of “The Book of Rachel”. Her talk: Separating Church and State: A Call to Action.

It’s one of those funny paradoxes that Americans seem super-religious, when their constitution has provisions for the separation of church and state — and what’s more important, that separation gets upheld in court. Australia, however, allows lots of religious stuff past the legal barriers — and Australians are largely secular. The net effect is that Australia does not really achieve a separation of church and state.

Cannold compared the relevant bits of each country’s constitution. Let’s start with Australia:

Section 116: The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

And the USA:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Both texts read about the same. The difference is that of implementation. In USA, courts have a tradition of “reading it up”, so that an action is prohibited unless it’s explicitly okay. In Australia, they “read it down”, so that it’s okay unless it’s explicitly prohibited. That means a lot of religious stuff gets in.

The difference between the two methods of implementation shows up in two landmark cases, both of which involved the role of the government in promoting religion in schools: McCollum v Board of Education (USA, 1948)

“For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment had erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.”

and The Dog’s Case (Australia, 1981), in which one Justice said:

[Section 116] cannot readily be viewed as the repository of some broad statement of the principle concerning the separation of church and state from which may be distilled the detailed consequences of such separation.

What this means is that Australian taxpayers pay to promote religions:

  • religious festivals (millions of dollars for World Youth Day)
  • canonisations ($1.5 million in the case of Mary McKillop)
  • tax breaks for churches
  • private schools
  • and exposing kids to religion via chaplains

Cannold actually has no objection to Religious Education taught by teachers. However, at the moment we have a situation where access to high school students is thrown open to what can only be described as evangelists. Here’s the head of Access Ministries:

“There is enormous amount of christian ministry going on in our schools, both at state level and at at national level, both at government and non-government schools, but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in christian conversion and discipleship growing”

“Our Federal and State Governments allow us to take the Christian faith into schools. We need to go and make disciples.”

In Cannold’s view, Australia is a soft theocracy. Politicians feign religiosity because they think it will get them votes. Our Prime Minister (who Fiona Patten calls a “non-practicing atheist“) has given religions everything they’ve wanted.

So what can we do?

Cannold emphasises that “we” includes the non-faith community and some religious believers who can’t stand this trend and who consider faith a private matter. We need to find them and form coalitions.

Here are some simple suggestions from Cannold.

Join the Facebook group for Australians for Separation of Church & State
Help with the Australian University Freethought Alliance.
Donate to Ron Williams. He’s single-handedly mounting a challenge against the chaplaincy, and the legal costs are climbing. Throw him some dough.
Engage in web-based advocacy
Build alliances with teachers. There are teachers who agree that scripture shouldn’t be taught in school, but after school. Opt-in, not opt-out.

And foremost — we need to admit that we do not have a secular state in Australia. We think of ourselves as secular and non-religious, and we are. But we’re also kind of conflict-averse, and we need to stop that.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Peter Singer

There were tons of Peter Singer fans in the house. They were soaking it up; I was typing madly, trying to get it all. And here it is, as faithfully as I could reproduce it.

The theme of Singer’s talk could be: The Expanding Circle. He started with this quote from W.E.H. Lecky:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.

This expanding circle of concern for the welfare of others is very encouraging. We’re seeing a decline in violence. We are currently more peaceful, and less cruel than at any other point in human history. (Singer mentioned Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which has been on my list for a while.) It may seem like there’s too much violence, and there is, but compare today to paleolithic times, when an estimated 1 in 7 human deaths were due to violence at the hands of other humans (based on markings of weapons on bones and other forensic clues). At one point, the Aztecs were sacrificing 5% of their population (cf Europe at its worst – 3%).

Why is violence less prevalent and less acceptable? One reason might be the trigger for the Enlightenment — the printing press. As the communication of ideas became cheaper, people began to criticise injustices, including torture, despotism, and slavery. Duelling became less common. People began calling for gentler and kinder treatment of animals.

There’s also been a rise in the awareness of the rights of women, children, gay people, and animals. Imagine this ad from the 50s running in a magazine today.

Singer likens this trend to an escalator. An escalator of reason. You start reasoning to advance your own interests, but then it can take you where you didn’t expect to go. you could fight the escalator and run the other way, but we generally don’t. We stay on the escalator of reason. However, in addition to our increased capacity for reason, we need to add empathy.

Global Atheist Con, Day 1: Student Workshop

Even though you know you’re going to be meeting up with the likes of Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Laurence Krauss, it is still a bit of a shock when they all show up in a room at the same time.

Last weekend I was at the second Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. It’s a great chance to hear some excellent speakers, meet up with other atheists, and participate in a growing community of smart people.

Not much was happening on Friday, so as a faculty helper for the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society, I tagged along to the Student Leadership Conference. There were talks on organising and running a student freethinking group, and even how to do good stuff with religious clubs (which is something I’d like to do more of).

Which is how I found myself having cocktails with the aforementioned gentlemen. Richard Dawkins appeared in a puff of logic just to my left, and I roped him into a chat with a group of Perth atheists. You might think Dawkins would be rather brittle in conversation, but he was lovely and engaging, and quite happy to chat. I told him that I’d just finished reading his book “The Magic of Reality” aloud to Youngest Son, and he seemed pleased about that.

The substance of the talks:

  • Lyz Lidell of the Secular Student Alliance explained the importance of delegating in a student group: You can’t do everything yourself, and you won’t be around forever. That means you need to break the group’s tasks in manageable units, find volunteers, take the time to train them to do what needs to be done, and show your appreciation to your wonderful volunteers.
  • Debbie Goddard gave a brief history of the Center for Inquiry on Campus.
  • Chris Stedman gave suggestions on how and why to work with religious groups.

Why should we work as part of an interfaith effort? According to Stedman, it’s because we as atheists get a bad rap, and we get marginalised. By working together with religious groups, we can challenge misconceptions about atheism and accomplish some good.

He also gave some suggestions as to how to work with interfaith groups: work together on shared causes and values, and have mutual respect within a “mutually inspiring” relationship. This last one is a problem for me. I don’t feel ‘inspired’ by other people’s faith; I actually feel repulsed, or like I’m working with a hazardous substance. But that’s okay — I can work with people I disagree with, and I often do. I just think it should be clear from the outset that any ‘interfaith’ service project is a joint effort, operating from shared values — not religious, not atheistic, just human.

All up, a good start to the conference.

Dollar coins

Americans: Y u no like dollar coins?

The U.S. government, its vaults stuffed with 1.4 billion one-dollar coins bearing the likenesses of dead presidents, has had enough of them. It is going to curtail production.

“Nobody wants them,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday. That is for sure: The Mint says there are enough $1 coins sitting in Federal Reserve vaults to meet demand for a decade, and the inventory was on track to hit two billion by 2016.

More than 40 percent of the coins that are minted are returned to the government unwanted, the Treasury said. The rest apparently sit in vending machines — one of the few places they are widely used — or in the drawers of coin collectors.

Dollar bills are kind of dumb. They only last somewhere around 18 months to 3 years (estimates vary), whereas coins last for decades, making them more cost effective. But people are inertia-driven critters — they won’t use coins until paper is phased out. That’s something that would take more political will than US politicians seem to have, because they’re also inertia-driven critters.

But dollar coins are used in other countries (like Australia), and they’re great! Make them gold in colour, a little heavier, different from other coins, and they’re a fine upstanding member of your numismatic repertoire — something you’d be proud to have in your pocket.

Unlike pennies. Thin, and not worth the trouble. Seriously, Americans: You don’t like dollar coins, but you still use pennies? Really?

You will exercise your right to choose.

I’m a big fan of compulsory voting. And I’m not the only one. Here’s Lisa Hill, from the University of Adelaide.

The most decisive means for arresting turnout decline and closing the socioeconomic voting gap is mandatory voting: in fact, it is the only mechanism that can push turnout anywhere near 95 percent. Places with mandatory voting also have less wealth inequality, lower levels of political corruption and higher levels of satisfaction with the way democracy is working than voluntary systems. Here in Australia, where we love freedom as much as anyone else, we have a mandatory voting regime that is well managed, corruption-free, easy to access, cheap to run and has an approval rating of more than 70 percent.

And when everyone votes, the outcome is much less dependent on turnout. Electoral swings to this or that party aren’t flukes of turnout; they’re big changes in the overall national mood.

But if everyone votes, including low-information voters, doesn’t that just mean that everyone votes stupidly? That’s the view of Jason Brennan, who argues that — dear heaven! — too many people vote already.

The median voter is incompetent at politics. The citizens who abstain are, on average, even more incompetent. If we force everyone to vote, the electorate will become even more irrational and misinformed. The result: not only will the worse candidate on the ballot get a better shot at winning, but the candidates who make it on the ballot in the first place will be worse.

He doesn’t want a democracy. He wants a cabal of elites to make wise choices for everyone.

I once talked to an angry young man who made exactly this argument. I told him that he was a clever person, but (quoting Douglas Adams) “you make the same mistake a lot of clever people do of thinking everyone else is stupid.” Of course, some people are stupid, but there’s no reason to think that all the stupidity or ill-informedness is always located in one or the other party. The stupidity is likely to be somewhat evenly distributed. Random bad answers will be randomly distributed, and they’ll cancel each other out. And along the way, you’ve gotten input from as many people as you can. If we have to err, let it be on the side of more participation.

Advance Australia what?

I’ve read that Christians in Roman times were mistrusted for having allegiance to a king other than Caesar. And now it seems that modern Christians are doing little to dispel such suspicion.

Some private Christian schools are singing an alternative version of the national anthem which promotes religious values and talks of Christ.

Instead of the official second verse of Advance Australia Fair, which starts “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross”, the alternative verse says “With Christ our head and cornerstone, we’ll build our nation’s might”.

The version of the anthem is sung every fortnight at Thornlie Christian College and Christian Schools Australia WA executive officer Ray Dallin confirmed that it was regularly sung at other school assemblies and churches.

Original verses from 1879 in the National Library of Australia music collection do not include the Christian verse.

A spokeswoman from the office of Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that under national protocols, the anthem should not be modified and alternative words should not be used. The two authorised verses were proclaimed in 1984.

This story has been front-page news in Perth, but I’m actually having trouble getting worked up over it. For one thing, I’ve never been big on national fervour, anthems, or the like, so I don’t feel personally affronted that someone has altered it. It’s more annoying than sacrilegious. For another, this is happening in private religious schools, which is bad, but at least I’m not paying (as much) for it.

About the worst thing is that, just like in America, Christians are trying to re-write history, claiming that the original version was intended to be more Jesus-y. This kind of revisionism is SOP for that mob.

h/t to Calico in comments

Education in reverse

Aren’t you glad you’re not a kid going to a private Christian school in Perth, Australia? Because if you were, you’d have assignments like this:

Gay sex ‘sickest of sins’

CHILDREN have been asked whether homosexuality is “the sickest sin” in a school assignment.

The homework given to 14 and 15-year-olds at Armadale Christian College, also also points them to bible quotes describing homosexuality as an “abomination”, and describes “coming out of the closet” as “open sinning”.

Way to go, Christians. Imagine you’re 15, trying to figure out what your sexuality is, and you get handed that as homework. High school students are already cruel enough about ferreting out the gay kids in their midst, without the teachers piling on.

Another question asked what God said about homosexuality and pointed to Bible quotes for the answer, which called it an “abomination”.

The assignment also stated that homosexuality was a “compromise for the need to be loved and accepted”, resulting for many from “low self-esteem (and) gender emptiness”.

Also on the assignment was: “Many people say that homosexuality is an inborn trait. Is a person born greedy, jealous, malicious, gossiper, slanderer, thief, child abuser, serial killer?”

Because being gay is just like all those other things.

I managed to procure a copy of the actual assignment (PDF), and yeah, it’s pretty much the standard anti-gay stuff that gives Christians a hate-on, plus Bible scriptures.

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites…” (1 Corinthians 6:9)

Preliminary Thoughts

1) What is homosexuality?

2) Is homosexuality a new practice? Why do we hear so much about it now?

3) What are some reasons people give to justify homosexual practices?

4) Why are some people tempted with homosexual feelings and others are not?

5) Are feeling and temptations wrong, or do they become wrong when we do something about them (James 1:12–15)?

6) Is there a limit to the power of any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13)?

7) The subject of homosexuality is confusing because everyone calls it something different.
• Is homosexuality a physical or genetic disease?
• Is homosexuality “the sickest sin there is?
• Is homosexuality “natural” for some people, being an inborn trait (Romans 1:26–27)?
• Is homosexuality a legitimate “alternative lifestyle” (Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4)?

8) Most people seem to have no idea how homosexuality can be a temptation to anyone. Therefore we are not very helpful to a person who is struggling with the temptation (cf. Galatians 6:1–2; Jude 22–23). Maybe that can change if we understand a few general things about homosexuality.
• God makes every person unique (Psalm 139:13–16; 1 Corinthains 12:12–27). He may be different, but God does not make him “gay” (James 1:13).
• Homosexuality generally has little to do with sex. The sexual involvement with another person of the same sex, is a compromise for the need to be loved and accepted.
• Some inborn factors may contribute to the development of homosexual attractions, but these are not sufficient to make a person homosexual (James 1:14–15; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
• Factors which lead to each person’s struggle with homosexual attraction are different, but certain stages are common to many—low self-esteem, gender emptiness, gender attraction, sexual attraction, homosexual reinforcement, homosexual identity.

What Does The Bible Say?
1) Is homosexuality a new practice (Genesis 19:1–29; Judges 19:1–28; 1 Kings 14:24; 15–12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7)” Is there anything new (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10)?
2) What did God say about homosexuality under the Law of Moses (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13)?
3) Many people say homosexuality is an inborn trait. Is a person born greedy, jealous, malicious, gossiper, slanderer, thief, child abuser, serial killer (Mark 7:20–23)? Why would people say that homosexuality is inborn?
4) Is homosexuality a “natural” practice (Romans 1:26–27)?
5) Is homosexuality against God’s law or sanctioned by it (1 Timothy 1:8–10)?
6) Homosexuals advocate “coming out of the closet” and being open with their lifestyle. What does the Bible say about such open sinning (Isaiah 3:9)?
7) Men try to lessen the severity of sin by softening its description. The Bible does not describe homosexuals/lesbians as “gay” or living an “alternative lifestyle“. How does the Bible describe such people?
• 1 Kings 14:24—
• 1 Corinthians 6:9—
• Colossians 3:5—
• Jude 7—

8) What two things does 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 teach us about homosexuality?

9) Those who oppose homosexuality are often called “homophobes” or “gay bashers“. Some people really are—but how would you desribe a caring, concerned Christian who wants to help a person overcome his struggle with homosexuality (1 Corinthians 13:4–7; James 5:19–20)?

Practical Solutions

1) Can a person who is engaged in homosexual practices remain in that condition? What much he/she do (Ephesians 5:1–14)?

2) Does God care about our struggle? What are some practical ways that God gives to overcome this temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13)?
• How did Jesus overcome temptation (Matthew 4:1–11)?
• Who can we turn to for help (Philippians 4:13; 1 John 4:4)?
• How must we respond to the devil’s temptation (James 4:7)?
• What activity helps us as much as anything (Philippians 4:6–7)?
• What do we need to try and master (Philippians 4:8; 2 Corinthians 10:5)?

3) After you rid yourself of this practice, what must you do to keep worse sins from returning (Luke 11:24–26)?

4) How is the church to respond to a practicing homosexual who repents (2 Corinthians 2:3–11)?

5) Do you have a closing thought?

Maybe some parents at ACC wouldn’t mind having this assignment plopped down on their child’s desk, but I suspect more than a couple would. And people in the wider community should definitely be concerned that high schoolers are being exposed to the hateful teachings of the Christian bible — subsidised by tax dollars, no less. Remember, this is happening not in the American South, but in good old secular Perth WA, today. It can happen here.

If you want to write your own answers for this assignment, give it a go in comments.

Census ‘No Religion’ billboard from the Atheist Foundation of Australia

Hey, look what just arrived in my neighbourhood.

It’s the new “No Religion” billboards from the Atheist Foundation of Australia.

Australia’s having a census this year, complete with the religion question.

As the next Australian Census approaches (9 August 2011), the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) is preparing for one of its biggest and most important projects. The AFA is campaigning to encourage individuals and families to think about the importance and impact of their answer to this leading Census question: “What is the person’s religion?”

The AFA will be unveiling billboards across the nation in major cities stating “Census 2011: Not religious now? Mark ‘No religion’ and take religion out of politics.”

They’re addressing two distressing tendencies in the census.

One is that people just put ‘Anglican’ or whatever their religion of origin is, even if they’re non-believing. This inflates the religious numbers, and may overestimate the allocation of services to churches, insofar as the government relies on the census to make these decisions.

What is the data on religion used for?

Data on religious affiliation are used for such purposes as planning educational facilities, aged care and other social services provided by religion-based organisations; the location of church buildings; the assigning of chaplains to hospitals, prisons, armed services and universities; the allocation of time on public radio and other media; and sociological research.

The other tendency is to write down some joke religion. Don’t get me wrong; I love the FSM as much as anyone, but I advertise his message on t-shirts, not on serious documents. From the FAQ:

What happens if I write Jedi Knight?

It gets counted as ‘Not Defined’ and is not placed in the ‘No religion’ category. This takes away from the ‘No religion’ numbers and therefore advantages the religion count. It was funny to write Jedi once, now it is a serious mistake to do so.

This year I’m writing ‘Atheist’, which is a legitimate category, and can be taken together with the ‘No Religion’ and ‘Agnostic’ groups.

I’d love to see the number of ‘Nones’ in Australia grow as large as possible this year. If you’re not currently religious, consider the ‘No Religion’ box. It’s more honest and accurate.

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