I hesitate to post this here, as some say I should stick narrowly to the mechanics of our successful campaign, and that addressing “Scarlet A-holes” invites controversy, which some feel “is off putting” to the fragile ears among the silent majority. There are some things however that must be said.
If you have no interest in the petty politics that attaches to the public expression of “atheism” then, nothing to see here move along. However, if you are among those fulminating at FIRIS, and are part of the rump faction who are “upset”, specifically about the suggestions I have made, about the need for a “Victorian Model” on Chaplains in Schools, then read on.
I want to address the people who’ve been offended at my quip that they are “Scarlet A-Holes”. You will not be getting any apology from me. If you frequent the FIRIS facebook page because you see FIRIS as aiding and abetting your cause of ridding the world of superstition in general, and religion specifically, and who have bought into the idea that its a good look to wear a Scarlet A, then I’m speaking to you.
Many of you are in QLD or SA, and you’ve come here, at least in part because you like what FIRIS has been doing. You may not know me, but you’ve “liked FIRIS” and in large measure, this means that you like me too.
However, like Charlie Brown, and his abuser, Lucy, you feel like I’ve snatched away the football. There is a clamor, lately, of discord against me specifically, and there have been even direct demands, directed at other parents who work on FIRIS, in the form of ultimatums, to “deal with me”, almost as if you have some role in running FIRIS. It has been suggested that if I am allowed to continue to influence FIRIS that there will be trouble in paradise!
Here is an example:
First, a note of thanks to Tracey, who I have never met, but who had the good sense to point out the absurdity of what was being said there. Also, an observation that the reason you are visiting the FIRIS page, commenting on things, is that what we’re doing, attracts you. However, you reckon, there is a “single person” who has now caused FIRIS to work “against your interests”! This isn’t one isolated comment, it can be heard in a lot of places where people gather in the name of “atheism”. This guy Scott is bad news. Trouble on a stick.
Since both Atheists and the Australian Christian’s political candidates agree on as a self evident truth. I couldn’t be happier. I’m even happier to be accused of being both religious and non religious at the same time, but both extremes of the religious and non religious spectrum.
But on with the substance of the claim being leveled at FIRIS, and me, more specifically, of having an “anti-secular” agenda. This is worth doing not because of personal pettiness, or any need to settle this, but because of the importance of the substance of the claim.
Let’s be clear that secularism, as I define it, is a political idea.
Also, as a point of order, FIRIS, has “aims”, but it has no “members”, it is a campaign, and to be clear, “liking” on facebook does not mean you are a member, it might mean you support our aims, but if you think your small thumbs up, gives you a vote, you are wrong. Campaigns are not democratic, they are run by leaders and people who want and understand how to get to some stated end. Because of this, the success or failure of FIRIS can be measured. Not by likes on FB, not by whether we please groups incorporated to further the causes of humanism, atheism, other ideologies, but by whether or not there is or is not SRI in our state schools in Victoria. That is what FIRIS was set up to do, and the that it does.
FIRIS can’t claim “victory” but it can claim that the situation in Victoria is better than it was. There has been at least a 30% decline in SRI, and if you’re following us, you know that there is more on the way. We aren’t out of the woods though, because when you succeed at something, the person whose interests are being impacted sometimes decides to push back. A campaign is a kind of a battle, for territory (or office) that can be won, or lost. It was necessary to create FIRIS, because no one was doing anything about what was going on in our schools. Now there is.
But lets go back to this claim about FIRIS and me, being “anti-secular”.
There is a confusion here, between “atheism” and “secularism”, which is unfortunate. FIRIS is interested in “politics” (even more narrowly, a policy), and in my experience, atheists (and I’d extend that to include the groups in Australia who call themselves Humanists), don’t do politics (at least not effectively).
What these groups do is anti-theist polemics. While I am not un-intrested in these, I consider them personal matters, on par with a hobby or a personal passion. I view a person’s religion, or lack of religion as firstly, their business, and in general I am careful about how and when I discuss these things, much in the same way that am careful about when I am naked, religion is something which attaches itself to both social norms, which I respect, but also to constitutional protections.
If you wish to ignore history, culture, and the constitution, and focus instead on the “truth claims” made by religion, be my guest, but know that you and I live under laws, thank God, and you can not wish these away because you have decided to define religion as “a hypothesis” and “a truth claim”. I’m sympathetic that Dawkins felt pushed to the breaking point by the Ken Hams (made in Australia), but you don’t have to take down “religion” to take back science class from him, and you definitely should not go around claiming that if human beings were “reasonable” that things would be fine. Put away your Hitchens and pick up your Haidt.
In setting up a strategy for FIRIS, I chose to work with people whom I think of as religious moderates. An example of the kind of people I mean are the ones who appear in the film I produced “Mission Field: Education Not Expected“, and in general, it has been my experience that a viable secular campaign (which I consider FIRIS to be) is composed of “religious moderates” and of course non-believers. I’d add too that I have had nothing but disappointment from groups who are organised around “non religion”, so I’m not “prejudiced” but I haven’t got much good to say from the experiences I’ve had. There is a point at which not learning from experience is stupid, and one must derive theories about cause and effect. My theory is that atheist polemics have a negative influence on the way atheists think and act. But that’s just a theory.
While I don’t wish to see an end to anti-theist polemics, I feel that, in the matter of politics, these polemics are like pissing in your pants. If you don’t like religion, it feels great when you are doing it, but then, after awhile, the chill sets in. In my experience, atheists (regardless of what you call yourselves) by making polemic into your policy, your “point”, as it were, you are making it impossible for people who are religious, to not just only work with you, but you make it impossible for them to stand being in the same room with you.
My version of secularism, doesn’t focus on metaphysics, it concentrates on politics. This is why religion bashing leaves me bored, since the criticisms haven’t changed much in half a century, but you’d be blind to not see that politics in Australia has, despite a putative decline in religion, taken on a decidedly religious cast. Ask any politician if the religious right in this country doesn’t has clout and see what you find.
Even though FIRIS is skewed much higher to women (ie, the demographics of FIRIS are different from the demographics of atheism, which skews male), you don’t have to look far to find typical “atheists running off mothers” bullshit. I can not keep track of the gleeful atheistic know nothings, whom mothers have taken me aside to tell me how distasteful they are:
I am not however, insensitive to the complaints of people who don’t like be called “Scarlet A-Holes”, I get this. You have picked up a flag, you have your heroes, you have your causes, and you don’t like it when they are insulted. If you are bothered by this, imagine how Jew, Muslims, or Christians, or any of the people whom you identify yourself in opposition to, feel? All I can say is that if you are a “public atheist”, the very least you can do is be gracious when you feel you are insulted. At the very least, show, via your example, how you expect others to handle being insulted.
However, please know this, I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to help you, in so much as you have political interests, the only reason I’ve ever said anything “un-kind” is because I genuinely disagree that you are being effective. You might say, “but you are being mean”, perhaps I am, but that doesn’t change the substance of what I’m saying, it only means you don’t like the way I’m saying it.
Let’s look however at this claim of being “anti-secular”. I think the problem here stems from a false hope held by atheists, that flows from their deeply held ideal, that they wish to live in a world in which people did not look to the divine for guidance or consolation.
I have bad news for you: secularism will not help you get there. Secularism neither convinces people of God’s non-existence nor the contrary. Rather, it tries to build a firewall against those who wish to transpose their conception of God’s will into a government’s policy (in FIRIS case that policy is 2.2.11 of the 2006 Victorian Education Act, just so were’re clear).
While the agenda of secularism may share many goals upon which atheism may strongly agree, the conflation of these two things may be good for atheism, but it is not good for secularism. It is especially disastrous because secularism is far too important to be draped over your wolfishness, like a fleece, so that you can oppress others.
So this charge of being “anti-secular” is important to air, because, I think what is being said is I am not being supportive of an “atheist” agenda.
FIRIS emphatically has a “secular” agenda, one that is clearly spelled out in its aims, but one that strongly agrees with the intellectual framework set out by Maddox and Sherlock. I’m not sure if Atheists are paying attention, but the reason that FIRIS is successful is that our key intellectual support comes from theologians. This may come as a shock, but its a fact. The other fact is that most families are apathetic about their own religious beliefs but they generally respect and feel deferential toward other people’s religion.
It is therefore mistaken of atheists to confuse polemic (which are pleasing to you) with policy, because most people do not enjoy polemic!
Let me close, with a brief restatement of my feelings about the court “victory” Ron Williams had over the “funding” of chaplains, and restate my personal views about what would be a secular response to the problems that the NSCP and the Federal funding of chaplains has brought us, because I sense that the substance of the dispute between myself and “atheists” lies here, these are my personal views, which touch on FIRIS because the main SRI provider in Victoria, ACCESS Ministries is funded by this program.
First, it is my view that the “victory” in Williams is, Pyrrhic. It was strategically unwise, to purse Chaplains via the constitution, because the threat of litigation was stronger than using litigation. Second, because victory sought by atheists really had nothing to do with the power of the federal government, it was to do with church state separation. It was sold on these grounds, and promulgated purely by “anti religious groups”. I agree with Maddox and others. Who have discussed why the court ruling against Williams on 116 was a problem. Maddox:
In actual fact, his last visit to the High Court had the same side-effect as every other section 116 case has had: the provision’s potential now looks narrower, its use apparently slighter — and Australians’ religious freedoms therefore flimsier — than before.
The question however, now that these events have taken place, and Williams has managed to hand conservatives some brick bats to hurl at, “an out-of-touch alliance of Greens, gays and atheists”, by pursing a legalistic, and even absurd, Federalist line of attack that at best has almost everyone lining up to support the very concept of Chaplains! The “tone deafness” of what has happened is staggering, watch poor Ron fend off even the people who support him in theory:
Add to this the fact that at best he has not dented the “idea” of what he’s opposing, Chaplains are still “motherhood” in OZ, and we have to ask ourselves, “what next”.
Atheists seem to think that winning is winning, and now, what is going to happen is that Chaplains will go away.
I disagree, for reasons that people don’t seem to like hearing, and which I won’t go into here, but they have to do with the fact that there is in fact no mechanism by which the wishes of the majority can be thwarted on this question. This fact is not one you can change by calling for me to be silenced. The constitution is a valid tool to protect the rights of “a minority”, which is how it has been used in America, but if you haven’t noticed, the wheels are coming off that bus, and in OZ, its not clear that the bus ever had wheels. Heck if you read the DOGS decision, the plaintiffs who lost, actually argued their case based on the American Constitution. Get a map folks and don’t get emotional about laws you don’t understand.
Australians, especially Australian Atheists, are going to have to accept this. They are going to have to grow up, and they are going to have to get smart, and they are going to have to stop acting like “a minority” because secularism here means figuring out “majority politics”. Most importantly learning to advocate for “a secular Australia” in ways that resonate with “Australian-ness”. As strange as it is for me to give it, here is my advice:
1. Recognise that you have some pretty fantastic religious people in Australia with whom an exciting secular coalition could be made. I know this because they have helped me make FIRIS successful and they are lovely world class minds. Love these people. Listen to these people. Specifically, examples of these people would be, Marion Maddox, Peter Sherlock, Bob Faser, Waleed Aly, Bob McGuire, and Barney Zwartz, Michael Kirby, to name a few who have helped FIRIS, but are devout or at least not the least bit “anti-religious”. Go ask them, “what should we Atheists do to be politically effective”? Ranting at me, won’t be one of their suggestions.
2. Recognise that you are a country, for God’s sake! You are lucky as hell. To quote Jesus, “everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). If quoting Jesus makes you tune out, then we could paraphrase Spider-Man’s words to reflect another biblical truth: “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” So I say, take your own history much more seriously than you seem to, learn why you have a secular democracy and learn to talk about it intelligently. Learn the stories of your heroes, if they are dead, all the better, because they can be improved. If they are bronze, even better, they will not rust. Know that no one in American or the UK, knows anything about your history, and don’t confuse theirs with yours, you’re Australians … own it. Whatever you do, don’t let your wonderful history be re-written by political factions who want to fuse religion and politics, or take away things like reproductive choice, or oppress gay people, by using the same tactics that the religious right uses in the USA. A few great examples of how this looks are Nick Cater’s creation myth narrative, and Chrys Stevenson’s recent talk on Bentham. It is vital that people don’t believe things about themselves that aren’t true!
3. Get serious about Australian Secularism. All the work is a head of you, especially where it concerns the expansion of religious minorities in Australia. You have a lot of work to do in this area, because, everyone knows that there is an ugliness here which can and does explode. Secularism can’t solve this, but as far as I can tell, its one of the few mechanisms that can help. This isn’t paradise, but as Nick Cater says, “you’ve yet to have your first witch burning”. Race riots and race beatings, and race rants however … that is another story. Atheists have got to learn to accept that secularism grows out of a protestant movement in England … you inherited it, but you also made it via your “religion” not via your non-religion. Just as it kept things fairly good here for Catholics, so too will it for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, etc … but not if you remake it, or convert it into atheism. Australia’s model of church state separation is legally weak, but socially strong. You must, take this seriously. The scale of this task, given the intellectual commitments of Atheists to drone on about “the divine” is not good, and the need for intellectuals who can speak to the political, social and legal reality of this nation, on this issue, is huge. My only advice is to see #1 above. There is no greater example of this than in Education, but it is right across social services. I have to admit, the prospect of an “Australian Secularism” gets me down, simply because there just seems to be such a thin intellectual interest in it. See #2 above.
4. Forget Atheism. Yes, that is right, unplug from Atheism, stop paying Richard Dawkins to fly here and debate George Pell, stop holding conventions that bring people from other countries here to fawn on them. Australians have won the lottery and are one of the few places on earth where Atheism is the norm, no one cares if you are an atheist, but by listening to Americans and British intellectuals, and by acting like a persecuted minority, you just play into the hands of the religious right, who are a tiny minority, but punch way above their weight, because they do politics well and you don’t. Richard Dawkins is a fine polemicist, but a lousy tactician. His “foundation” is a serial screw up. You are simply providing him with “an audience”. Forget Atheism because it doesn’t matter here, and its lousy politics. Secularism is about politics. Set goals and work on those goals, if you are an Atheist, honor yourself by not talking about what you don’t believe learn to talk about what you do believe. If you really want to help “atheism” model it in an authentic Aussie way, by helping Americans and the British see how you do it here. Make your own rules and stand up for your way, like Aussies did with gun control, Americans should envy you.
If you look in the mirror, and see a Scarlet A-Hole looking back at you, then you are dressed the way an American and Brit have clothed you and you’re not thinking about what makes you special. Remember, the only ideology that you can meaningfully renounce is your own.
Good luck … I’ve enjoyed my time here in Australia. I wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed working with Australian Atheists.