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A.C. Grayling in Australia and the way forward

March 8, 2010

A.C. Grayling is currently in Australia for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention and yesterday he spoke at the Sydney Opera House on the topic of The Anatomy of a Quarrel: Religion and Anti-Religion From the Latter Point of View. It was a wonderful talk to a receptive audience of people who are sometimes, I think, a little cut off from the rest of the world for intellectual discussions of this magnitude. I have never seen him talk live before and it was quite good to see a very large crowd attend.

Grayling made a number of key points, the main one being that organised religion has an influence on society that far outweighs its following and a disproportionate influence on education, government and society. Given that in the UK less than 3% of the population are active, once a week, church goers and I believe that the numbers are similar here in Australia, whereas they manage to have 4 weekly programs on the government funded BBC and an almost instant right to comment on any social or moral question. This is a problem in a world where at least 20% and possibly more of the global population is agnostic/atheist, as it means religious views are disproportionally large compared to their following. In Australia last year, the government forked out millions of dollars to support the Pope’s visit to Sydney. Could you imagine governments doing the same for an Atheist convention?

So, how can the influence of religion be reduced? Atheists need to become better organised and give themselves a clearer voice in the world. Evangelical Christians are extremely well organised and very aggressive in getting their point of view across. If a media outlet says something they don’t like, or a politician has a slip of the tongue, they pounce on them with a well organised information (or depending on your point of view, a disinformation campaign) to ‘correct’ what they believe is an incorrect view of the world. This has two effects; firstly it gives news outlets something easy to publish and being slightly controversial, it sells. It also has the effect of scaring politicians into always seeking the views of religious leaders, to save themselves embarrassing press later on. There are two keys that will help change this attitude, better communication and more aggression.


It is the mass media that is the key to giving atheism a voice and dampening those of religion. Without a better organised voice, atheism will never become a ‘mainstream’ voice, despite having more adherents that most religions. This does not need to be a top-down, hierarchical approach like the Catholic Church and views among our members can be many and varied, just like Evangelical Christians or Muslims. What is needed though is more effective co-operation and co-ordination, better fund raising efforts (anyone ever registered an atheist charity in Australia with a website that can easily collect small sums of cash?). Every topic needs to be pounced on, every religious view needs to be countered with a secular one and it needs to not only happen quickly, but also from many different sources. Finally, it must be made easy for the media. Journalists like it when their stories are spoon fed to them; therefore any response needs to be written in such a way as to be instantly publishable by the press.


Why is it that Christians can publish up to 3,000 books per year in the US while Atheists only manage about 6 in almost 10 years? Why are we not beating on the door of the publisher DEMANDING equal access of our views? Because we are generally too nice; too willing to hear what other people have to say, too humanist in our views. Atheism seems at times to be amateur discussion hour by a bunch of leftwing academics than an effective media campaign. Tolerance and free exchange of ideas is all very nice, except when the other side don’t. We need to take a leaf out of the religious rights book and be much more aggressive. We need people to rant, so that the way is easier for the rest of us.


Realistic Religion

March 5, 2010

I like to consider myself conservative (economically) and a social liberal. I also believe that we need to think realistically about the world and that sometimes our idealism about how the world should be, must be tempered with how the world actually is.

Many, particularly European countries, have been debating recently whether to allow Muslim students to wear headscarves to  government run schools. This has been particularly topical in France and the Netherlands. Because of fears of Muslim domination of society, these states have moved to ban the wearing of religious symbols in public schools and in the government bureaucracy. A noble gesture striking a blow not only for women’s rights (women of course being subjected to the shackles that are the barque), but also for the separation of church and state. Except that the consequences of such actions are far worse than the relatively minor debate about what people do and do not wear.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for freedom of expression and freedom of speech. I also passionately believe that the church should have no part in the running of the state. I’m even dubious on the tax breaks the church gets for its religious activities. However, we need to be realistic about the alternative and what could happen if we force muslims out of mainstream schooling.

One of the best ways of ensuring the young muslims become a part of mainstream society is to ensure that they feel part of society and adopt the norms and other cultural cues that the rest of us hold dear. School is a very important part of this and a very important part of shaping their view of the world. If we force these students out, because of religious ideas that they hold, they will find education in muslim run schools, outside of mainstream education. This will lead to them feeling marginalised by society and they will not necessarily learn societal norms and cultures. This then leads, in some instances, to radicalization and (potentially in the very extreme cases) terrorism.

So, lets not alienate one sector of our community over what are relatively unimportant dress code matters. Let’s embrace all those who live in our society and accept all for who they are. The marginalisation of one sector of society can only lead to isolation and radicalization.

Art and Religion

January 11, 2010

I recently listened to a podcast by Camille Paglia, an American author, teacher and Professor of the Arts in Philadelphia. What I found very interesting about this talk was her argument that religion should be taught. Which is surprising, coming from someone who is an avowed atheist and feminist. I started listening with some skepticism, but you know what? By the end I could see her point and I actually think I agreed with some of what she had to say.

Essentially, she argues that an understanding of religion and their symbols is essential to understanding art and culture, in particular our cultural legacy and history. For example, you cannot understand much of the last two thousand years of art, up until the mid 19th century, without understanding the context of that art; and that context was for the most part religious. How can you understand the work of De Vinci or Botticelli without understanding the religious stories behind the work.

Now, personally I love much of the religious art work for its aesthetic beauty, despite its religious connotations and after listening to her arguments agree that you actually cannot understand a lot of what these painting, sculptures and drawings are doing unless you understand the stories behind them.

Overall, an interesting podcast none the less and certainly one that we should give thought to. With the ending of religious education in many schools, quite rightly done under the seperation of Church and State, much of this historical background is being lost. Maybe we should teach religion in a historical sense in schools? Not as part of ‘religious’ classes per say, but as part of an understanding of where our European heritage comes from (assuming of course that is your background). For a white European, understanding the background to Christianity is important (whether you a religious or an atheist) as it drove much of our history and politics. For example the 30 year war and the reformation, the flight of the English to the New World or the Spanish inquisition’s effect on scientific and artistic thought.

Maybe it should be taught as part of an art appreciated class?

Airport baggage

January 7, 2010

I was reading this article this morning on a bungled terrorism training exercise in Europe. Essentially police in Slovakia placed explosives in the luggage of a number of airline passengers then proceeded to go find them (the explosives that is). Unfortunately, explosives placed on one unsuspecting passenger, who was travelling to Ireland, was missed and the passenger boarded the flight to Dublin. Then, the Irish police failed to detect the explosives coming into the country. The news article makes a big deal about security forces missing the explosives and how embarrassing it is for them that this could happen.

However, what the article fails to do question is why on earth policy were using an innocent victim’s luggage to test their security screening processes. Using a random passenger’s luggage for an exercise like this is simply trouble waiting to happen.

The article then goes on to state that the man was arrested but later released and will not face any charges.

Arrested? Later released without charge?!? Thank goodness for that! What sort of world are we coming to where an innocent man is arrested for a police bungle? Imagine that he had travelled to the US (or Australia for that matter). Would we find him placed on some terrorism watch list, forever stigmatized with the ‘terrorist’ tag? Would the AFP be trailing him for months, spending millions of dollars tracking down every school classmate he ever had to interview him, in order to ‘complete their investigations’? It beggars belief as to the sort of world we are coming to.

Humanist Day

January 1, 2010

Why not make new years eve a global day of celebration? Religious faiths have their own day of glory. It would be good if there could be a day where the whole world comes together to celebrate life. The foundations are already there and it has many advantageouses over christmas.

Firstly there is not the massive social pressure to consume. Modern Christmas has, to a large extent, been hijacked by commercial interests so that we are ‘forced’ to buy stuff far inexcess of our actual wants and often of our desires as well. We buy too many presents for our kids, drink more than is good for us and purchase food (a lot of which is wasted) that could feed a small African country. The mere fact that retailers years are made or broken on the back of this Xmas spending binge just shows how far wrong it has gone.

Likewise with family gatherings. The time around Xmas has the highest rate of domestic violence and other family breakdowns, driven mainly by the pressure to ‘be with the one’s you love’, which often ends up being an oxymoron. It is in a lot of families not a time of happiness but a time of massive stress.

So my suggestion is this. Let’s return Xmas to it’s rightful owners, the religious Christians, as a religious festival and forget about all it as a family celebration. Once we have done that we can have a truely global celebration of life and humanity on new years eve.

NYE has many in-built advantages for a day of celebration. Firstly it is global in nature, with all people around the world celebrating in their own ways. Secondly there is not the consumerist binge that christmas entails. True, there is often a lot of alcohol consumed, but this is comparable to Christmas celebrations. Finally, there is not the massive social pressure to spend time with family; you can in fact spend it how and with you wish. From a small intimate gathering of friends through to joining one of the huge street parties that occur all over the world. The good nature of these events, family friendly atmosphere and lack of violence despite the amount of alcohol consumed makes it a perfect event to celebrate humanity.

So it is time to make NYE a celebration of not just the beginning of a new year but of humanity as a whole.

I’m back

December 31, 2009

I’m back after a very long absence. A whole year has passed since I last wrote a blog; too long. It seems that whenever I get out of the work mindset for a while, the urge to write and think about the world rears it’s head again and so it is again this summer.

I’ve been reading a lot over the last week or so on a very wide range of topics. I’m currently reading Cambrai by Bryn Hammond. It’s a pretty good account of the first real combined arms attack of WW1. I’m getting more into the First World War recently, having just finished Frommells as well.

Happy new year to all.

Public Nudity, the beach and a bit of controversy

January 4, 2009

The beach. A place of sun, sand, waves and, if you live in Australia at any rate, bikini clad women and sometimes even topless women. However, there appears to be a small number of people who find the sight of so much flesh amoral and slightly disturbing.

Don’t you find it odd that some people find such nudity offensive? I’m not referring here to full frontal nudity, strip-club style or wandering around the suburbs completely naked, but about the attempt by Rev. Fred Nile to ban topless sunbathing on Sydney beaches. Other conservative MPs have also come out in support. This raises a question; is why do some people get offended by naked, particularly womens’, bodies?

Now there are some religions, Islam springs to mind, where their religious texts bad the womens’ body from sight. And in fact I believe that showing any skin is frowned upon [please enlighten me if I’m wrong on this, my knowledge of Islam isn’t huge]. However no such issue occurs in Christianity. Nowhere in the Bible, as far as I can remember, does it say that a man cannot look at another women. You cannot covet another man’s wife, but it doesn’t prevent you from coveting an unmarried women. In fact some of the characters in the old testament had more than one wife!

So, to be helpful for those non-Muslims, I’ve listed out a couple of points below.

Reasons not to get offended

The best reason I can think of NOT to get offended by the sight of women’s breasts is that about half the population have them, and pretty much everyone has sucked on them at some stage, usually as babies, sometimes as adults. Although, if you believe MLC David Clarke, our children should not be faced with such offensive sights. Personally, I can think of a lot more offensive sights, such as various forms of extremism, that children should not face rather than bare skin. In fact every child that I know are indifferent to the sight of naked flesh – its only the adults who get offended by it. Additionally, almost all children are breast fed, at least initially. Therefore, we’ve all seen them, its not like its anything new.

The female form should be loved, cherished and admired. I’m not sure how any heterosexaul man out there could not admire the beauty in a women’s body.

However too Much of a Good Thing

I can, however, think of one very good reason to ban topless sunbathing and that is to reduce the instances of skin cancer. We spend lots of money educating people about the dangers of too much sun, from the old “slip, slop, slap” campaigns to newer, more graphic advertising. Therefore, we should discourage public nudity for the sake of skin cancer and saving a few lives [and skin from the leathery effect it gets with too much sun]. Maybe if Fred based his arguments on concern for the young womens’ health he might get further.

Our politicians have sensibly refused to endorse this issue. Lets hope it all dies off when we return to work in January.