Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Bishop Tom Frame is, among other things, a past Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Forces, the author of twenty books, and an academic of no small repute. He recently delivered the annual Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom. The subject was “Does Secularism Provoke Religious Extremism?” The podcast can be downloaded from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigideas/stories/2008/2166565.htm.

During the lecture Dr Frame mentioned the Secular Party of Australia. The SPA has among its stated aims being against “all forms of religious coercion and theocracy”. They state on their website that “The Secular Party holds that religious beliefs impose and give rise to an increasing intrusion on civil liberties and provide an unwelcome source of social disharmony.” Simultaneously they state they are not anti-religious and endorse freedom of religion. (Well, thank you for that!) They call for, in essence, the complete removal of religious-based discourse in the public sphere.

It should be noted that in Australia we already enjoy full religious freedom. Tolerance for others’ beliefs is widespread and could be characterized as a basic Aussie value – a subset of the “fair go”.

The sorts of aims outlined above seem to be heavily informed by the well-documented positions of Richard Dawkins and other “New Athiests”. I’m not a particular fan of Dawkins et al. I agree with many of the arguments they have presented. I do not agree with the sarcasm, condescension, and general ridicule that pervades their work. It actively devalues the inherent "superior" position that is posited. If the argument is that good, why does it need to be coloured with such disdain? Yes, there are Christians who I could run intellectual rings around. So what? I’m quite sure there are atheists out there of whom I could say the same. There are strange elements in any movement you care to name. I have the distinct pleasure to know many Christians who are highly intelligent and whose critical faculties are nothing short of superb. (If, dear reader, you’re a member of the Lifestream congregation, or if your name is Laurel, then yes, I’m probably talking about you. Applause!)

Dr Frame makes a very cogent and reasonable argument that a truly secular society, as we have in Australia, should not abide religious intolerance of any stripe. Radical atheism does not improve the reputation of athiesm overall; by its very stridence it runs the risk of falling afoul of the same intolerance and intelluctual blindness that it ascribes to theism.

I regret to admit that I was halfway down this path of “radical atheism” (to borrow a term from Douglas Adams). I continue to firmly hold that my stance as an avowed atheist is correct and reasonable. I absolutely maintain that the theory of evolution is empirically correct. (You may believe that acceptance of evolution creates many issues for your particular brand of theism. With my tongue only halfway in my cheek – if you do have that problem, then it is your problem, and if it leads you to start questioning the literal truth of all of the Bible, then I’ll stand back and hold that door open for you.)

I do not endorse intolerance expressed in any creed, belief, or non-belief, system. To paraphrase Dr Frame, a secular society should respect the differing viewpoints of its citizenry and embrace them as contributing to the whole. Being a part of a democratic society gives us all the right to express our views, in politics, education and public discourse. Input from the religious sphere is completely valid and has the unique characteristic of providing a moral and ethical viewpoint that otherwise could be overlooked. Rabid intolerance in the name of atheism is, in my view, worse than the same behaviour from established religions. They have an excuse; they are instructed to evangelise and proselytise. Atheism, as a rationalistic viewpoint, should be more moderate.

As a science-fiction fan and aspiring author, I’ve observed with enormous interest the various debates about the moral application of scientific advances. Stem-cell research and cloning are two such highly controversial areas. This is a topic that probably deserves a post in its own right, but it’s becoming clear that the capabilities of the human race are fast outstripping our ability to deal properly with the consequences. We’re heading for a sharp clash between technical capability advances and ethical frameworks, as medical technology in particular becomes more and more of an information technology. Information technology doubles in terms of return of power on investment every twelve to eighteen months; this has been well-established since the 1950s and has remained absolutely consistent. As technologies become more based in IT, they get picked up by this curve and the advances they present come more quickly. On one hand, if computer technology had to pass a public dialogue regarding its ethics and morality, then we’d still have the technology of the 1970s (at best). However I’m increasingly of the view that it is vital to society’s best interests to have the open, public debate on the moral and ethical applications of advances in biotech, at the least. It’s my prediction that biotech and IT are going to converge radically in the near future, and if we think we have moral and ethical issues now, then whoa boy, we’re in for a ride. Anyone for a debate on the implications of allowing self-replicating nanotech into the human body to repair damage, enhance intelligence, and improve physical performance? We’re in for some fun then (and I use the word advisedly).

So who could be counted upon to be the voice of fundamental morality and conservatism in such debates? The religious sector, naturally. And that, to me, is entirely welcome.

Thank you, Dr Frame.

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