Russell Blackford – 50 Voices of Disbelief

October 02, 2009

Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, philosopher, and critic, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His new book, edited with Udo Schuklenk, is 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Russell Blackford explains the need for 50 Voices of Disbelief. He argues that there can be no more important question than whether religion and faith deliver on their promises. He explores whether religion will persist. He contends that religious leaders are not our society’s moral leaders. He discusses a number of contributed essays in the 50 Voices collection, such as James Randi’s, entitled “A Magician Looks at Religion,” which explores how a background in magic may inform one’s understanding of religion, and Peter Adegoke’s essay, which argues that religion is impeding Nigeria’s social, economic and scientific progress.

He talks about how the book includes contributions from people all over the world and from every continent, except Antarctica. He discusses essays by Sumitra Padmanabhan and Prabir Ghosh that explore the harms that religion cause in India, and alternatives to religion, such as humanism. He talks about how the diversity of views in the essay collection show that there is “no party-line of atheism.” He comments on essays by psychologist and parapsychologist Susan Blackmore (“Giving Up Ghosts and Gods”), and philosopher Philip Kitcher (“Beyond Disbelief”). He discusses recent controversies over CFI’s International Blasphemy Day, and opposing views of Paul Kurtz and Ron Lindsay regarding criticism of religion, and whether “moderate religion” should be criticized or viewed as an ally to advance secular, pro-science values. He talks about the relationship between atheism and progressive social values. And he argues that religion should not be allowed to remain private, and therefore beyond public scrutiny and critique.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 2nd, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of Enquirers, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Russell Blackford. He’s an Australian freelance writer and editor. He holds an appointment in the School of Philosophy and Bioethics at Monash University. And he’s editor in chief of the Journal of Evolution and Technology. His new book, editor with Goudeau Shoot Link, is 50 Voices of Disbelief. Why We Are Atheists. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Russell Blackford. 

Thank you, T.J.. Glad to be here. 

Russell, this book, 50 Voices of Disbelief Why We Are Atheists. It’s a collection of essays from a really diverse set of folks. And it’s been getting quite some kudo’s out there. The blogosphere, a lot of book reviewers. You have people like AC Grayling, Julian Baggini, Peter Singer, Mark Couser, Shermer, Randy Ofelia Benson, Austin Dacey, many of the folks we’ve had on point of inquiry. So, Russell, to start off, why is there a need for yet another book on Athie ism? Hasn’t disbelief been voiced enough already? 

Well, I don’t think it has been voiced enough already. I think it’s important that we all stand up and express our disbelief. We have a wide range of authors who are not the four horsemen. You know, it’s not Richard Dawkins. It’s not Sam Harris. It’s not then then at not Christopher Hitchens. Right. It’s another 52 people in all catting the editors who have been prepared to stand up and say why they don’t accept the Christian God or other really disbelief as to why it’s necessary. Well, no issue could be more important, really, than whether religion can deliver what it says. It delivers personal salvation, greater insight into the nature of the universe. 

Reason to be good personal fulfillment. All that stuff. 

All that stuff. So that’s one side of it from a personal point of view. 

There can be no more important issue, but it’s more than that. We live at a time when we thought perhaps that religion was fading. In particular, we thought the social and political influence of religion was fading. But that’s turned out not to be true. I’ve been here in the U.S.. We have a well organized campaigns to try to stop the teaching of evolution in government schools. We have a well-organized dominionist movement out there wanting to gain political control that perhaps is a bit overoptimistic on their part. But nonetheless, it seems to me that the Bush administration went further down that path that anyone should be comfortable with. 

So you’re really seeing the need to voice disbelief as part of the culture wars, providing opposition to the reigning kind of religious culture out there. 

Well, that’s right. There’s too much deference to religion. And I think we should be prepared to stand up and say that there is too much deference. These people who claim to be our moral leaders, press fitters, priests, Pontoise, whoever they are, are not our moral leaders at all. You know, these emperor has no clothes. 

I want to survey some of the essays in the book, even though you didn’t write them yourself as as an editor of a book. You can give our listeners kind of a glimpse of the various voices of disbelief in this book. In other words, why readers should get this book, read this collection. Let’s start off with James Randi’s piece. Favorite of mine. It’s entitled A Magician Looks at Religion. I found it kind of a great discussion about how a background in magic actually might go so far as to inform one’s skepticism of God’s existence. 

Yeah, James Randi, the amazing Randi knows something about deception and he knows something about self-deception. The Condra promises to deceive and does that, he concludes. Yeah, we do. But you are amused and entertained. Not not swindell. You you deliberately buy into the illusion and you’re not fooled in any way as you are if you defer to religion. 

Hey, hey. Is appalled. He says that the society in which he finds himself. Yes. To laugh accepts the mythology of religion to the point where serious efforts are made to prohibit the teaching of established facts about evolution. So, yes, he has the same kind of concern that I had when we started out with this book. There are just too much differences given to religiosity in Western societies and other societies. Indeed. And it does have to be challenged. 

Mm hmm. You have a really diverse set of contributors, not just the kind of the standard skeptic types, not just the magicians, you know, James Randi, but and not just the skeptics like Michael Shermer and and other kind of professional paranormal investigator types. You have philosophers, social activists, of course. Yes. The paranormal investigators, but also like teachers and child education experts. The one thing I get from this is even though there are 50 voices of disbelief in their diversity, they are really emphasizing that there is not one monolithic, atheistic kind of subculture. That’s absolutely right. 

There was no party line that people had to tow some of the essays, yet take different views. They disagree with each other at various points. You know, we’re not there to put forward some comprehensive view that everybody has to subscribe to. Rather, we wanted to highlight the diversity of your reasons for disbelief rather than some monolithic belief system, two two way against the belief systems of the religion. 

There’s a lot of cultural diversity in the collection to folks from India, Africa, all over Europe, of course. You have a healthy dose of kind of Anglo voices, you know, for Australia, England, a bunch of Americans. But the point I’m getting from this book is that ageism is not just a white Western male sort of thing. 

No. And we wanted to emphasize contributions from people from all over the world. We have people from every continent except Antarctica in South America, from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, of course, from Australia, from North America. It’s not just a monolithic culture. That’s right. 

And the issues that arise in different countries will vary depending upon the culture of that country, the religious traditions of the country. In India, for example, things look rather different from how they might look in Germany or in the U.K. or in Canada. 

And talk to me about puter at a Go Ki’s essay. He’s connected with the Center for Inquiry there in Nigeria. And from his essay and from some of the other essays of people coming from developing countries, Athie ism is not just kind of an intellectual exercise. It’s kind of a social justice sort of thing. 

Well, that’s right. And in the case of Peter ADIC. Okay, you know, he’s worried that the country is being held. 

By the great emphasis on religiosity, it’s being held back in terms of scientific development, economic development and in other ways. 

And of course, his own experiences as highlight that he has studied religion himself. He’s had training in a seminary, but he decided if he puts it to not kispert kick religion goodbye from an experience that he had. 

And there were other voices from developing countries. 

Well, yes, in South America. And I’m interested particularly in the two essays from India, where there’s a powerful rationalist and in a country that’s been very dominated by various kinds of religiosity through its whole traditions. So we have there two contributors previa. 

Ghosh, a very well-known rationalist there, and Savitch Padmanabhan who describe a quite different experience where they have pushed humanism was a kind of alternative to religion. There are cultural issues in India that make them not inclined to use the word racism because it’s hard to give that word any kind of positive meaning in India, something that resonates a bit perhaps in the United States. 

Right. And maybe we’ll touch on that in our conversation. I’m struck, though, that in India, one of the big secular charities has been the atheist center. So while it’s not a popular word, it’s still been used and hasn’t completely undermined the efforts to do the charitable work that the atheist center there has done. 

I’m unfamiliar with the atheist center. I’m sure it’s doing excellent work, but I’m really not familiar with it. It’s it’s been necessary, at least in the experience of prayer there and submitted to move away from that atheist word, which, you know, in India is Nestico means. Yes, of non belief, and that has negative connotations. So they’ve tried to adopt what seems like a more positive line in talking about humanism while we’re still on the topic of India. 

I’m excited to report that the Center for Inquiry’s branches in India. You were mentioning religions affect kind of so pervasive in the culture. Well, CFI India has launched a campaign to rethink the caste system, which, as you know, comes out of fervent religious belief and leads to a wholesale social inequality. And it’s really just all coming from religion. 

Yes. Well, look, that’s a great initiative. Yeah. That’s an example of how religion not only historically supports injustice, but it kind of fossilize as injustice. Even though you had a crisis that has never made sense. But even your traditional morality, traditional social structures that may once have made sense at some earlier time in history get preserved and get this aura about them that they must be respected and deferred too long, long after any value that they might have had has passed that that’s that’s a great problem with religion. I don’t claim that religion never had benefits historically. 

I do worry that religion fossilize, as you know a lot, that comes from a more barbaric time. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of 50 Voices of Disbelief Why We Are Atheists through our website. Point of inquiry dot org. Russell. Sue Blackmore, the psychologist. The parapsychologist. She draws a connection between disbelief in ghosts as a paranormal investigator and then disbelief in God. 

If A seems like more. Yeah, there’s a link between belief in gods spook ghosts. It’s all part of our urge to explain things in terms of something paranormal or supernatural or some kind of super agency in the world. Now, she has many years of experience in researching the paranormal. 

As a result of which she basically decide there’s nothing in it. 

You know, there are more rational explanation for all of these things that God speaks and it goes well and it bridges the divide that historically there was always between the skeptics movement and the humanists of the atheist movement. So a lot of skeptics would say, yeah, out. I’ll talk about any supernatural or paranormal claim except religion. And the atheists only ever wanted to talk about religion, but not the paranormal. And she she says, wait, that’s be an equal opportunity skeptic. Let’s equally apply the skepticism both to God and ghosts. 

Yes. And more strength to her arm, because why shouldn’t we interrogate explanations of involve an omnipotent spiritual being just as much as we interrogate, you know, the sort of ground level local ghosts and spooks show. Is there some sort of essential difference? 

Russell, the essay that I liked most. No intention to disparage any of the other essays because as editor, I’m sure you’ll say all of them were excellent and I appreciated all of them. But one I really, really liked was Philip Kicker’s Essay. Beyond disbelief, he’s arguing in a sense that even though he’s an atheist and he doesn’t buy the claims of religion, Athie ism as just Athie ism isn’t enough. 

If kitchens, they say, is a very interesting line, he puts powerful arguments as to why supernatural religious belief should be rejected. He argues on the basis of science. 

He argues that you can’t square what we know from evolutionary biology with the idea of a providential, loving God. Right. And he puts that case, I think, as powerfully as I’ve ever seen it. Paul Fidalgo. Mm hmm. He then says, well, let’s look back into the providence of these religions. Let’s look at the textual historical scholarship on the holy books. Does that reassure us that there must be some kind of answer to these sorts of problems or not? And clearly, when we start digging back into the providence of the holy books, it just makes us more skeptical, puts that barreled argument very powerfully. But then he goes on to say, all that said, it’s not enough just to be destructive. 

We still need some way of providing for community for discussion of the good life and so on. And that has been provided traditionally by religion in some parts of the world, including some parts of the United States. When you take that away, when you take the religious provision of those things away, there may be no obvious alternative. So he is writing an essay that’s powerfully destructive of supernatural religious belief, but also contemplating what might follow and what might replace it. 

That it’s not enough to rip the rug out from under people, but many people want something to put back there. You know, without supernatural foundations, but something nonetheless community. The kinds of institutions you have in maybe northern Europe that you have less of here in the United States that take care of people’s social and and kind of very human social primate needs. So he’s saying Athie ism isn’t enough. Yes, start with that. But then you need something. Sounds like he’s describing something like secular humanism. 

Well, it does sound like that. And look, he doesn’t put forward a kind of comprehensive plan as to what we should do. But he certainly wants to start a discussion about what is going to replace the provision of community, that the discussion of what is a moral life or a good life. Once you look beyond religion, once you see that supernatural religion just doesn’t stand up. He is actually quite conciliatory to non supernatural religion, the non literalist views that you might have found in the Anglican Church back in the 1960s and they still find in parts of the Anglican Church. But of course, there’s a problem there, and that is that those views don’t really seem to be prevailing on the world’s scale within religion Jim Underdown. 

Right. And more than that, when you denude religion of all of its supernatural mumbo jumbo, which is a kind of sucker to some people, not soccer, but soccer. Right. And then then it’s denuded of all of its magic. No longer provides meaning for a lot of folks. 

That’s right. Some people may find that just the ritual plus the community plus maybe some very thinned out notions of the divine or maybe not just the metaphorical notion of divine is enough. Some people clearly do find that enough. But it’s not something that seems to be psychologically attractive to large numbers of people. And as we look at what kind of religion is starting to prevail in developing countries. You know, it’s not that kind of non literalist religion at all. You know, it’s the most moderate kinds of religion that are prevailing. We currently see within the Anglican Church, for example, a split along the developed world in developing world lines over issues such as the ordination of women, the attitude to homosexuality and so on. On a global scale, the liberal or progressive views on those things are not prevailing. 

Right. So talking about Kichwa and you mentioned in India, the atheist is kind of a bad word. It brings up the question some fault lines may be in American or Western, let’s say more broadly, Western Athie ism as a movement of the same kinds of discussions that have been going on a lot lately. So this supposed debate, or maybe it’s a real debate between the new atheists and the all the humanists. Do you think there’s much to that or is it much ado about nothing? 

I think it’s complex. There are different views about 80s and humanism. 

What attitude we should take when we criticize religion, whether it’s a good idea to criticize religion at all. Some of the disputes have become quite acrimonious in recent times. There was a dispute recently, even within the CFI, about what role CFI should take in respect to Blasphemy Day. That that’s one example. 

Right. All the hullabaloo about whether blasphemy is bordering on a kind of racism or whether it’s instead standing up for the right of free expression. So internally, like in-house, there was this kerfuffle between two or three people about the right course. Externally, it’s from my vantage anyway, it seemed like it was less of a big deal than some people were making it out to be. 

Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, I do have a view on the issue, but I think it was mainly an internal debate. And I think there are more important debates than that one. 

My own view is it’s up to the CFI, what sort of brand image it wants to project. Right. And the if I may well have reason to reject the more state, if that’s the right word, or a more concerted, thoughtful kind of brand image. And that’s a worthwhile debate internally for the CFI to have. I think it becomes more worrying when you see fundamental questions raised as to whether we should be criticizing so-called moderate religion. I would put the word moderate in inverted commas there at all. 

A lot of this so-called moderate headed religion is really just a religion that accepts the facts of biological evolution. They can accept those facts without being particularly moderate about other things. You know, the Roman Catholic Church does accept the facts of evolution. But in many other ways, it’s not moderate at all, not in its attitude, for example, to gay rights, to abortion rights at the moment. 

We seem to have a number of high profile prolific thinkers who seem to be telling us that we must not criticize so-called moderate religion. 

We must accept the existing demographic in the United States and elsewhere, which includes people who are either moderately religious in that sense or religious in some other sense, and try to persuade them to accept science. 


Right. To get moderately religious people or even fundamentalists to turn into moderates, moderates to turn into a kind of science booster religionists. You know that those religionists are the evolution educators, best allies, and it’s folks like Dawkins and Dannette and the kind of atheist scientists who are making science education hard work in in the West or especially in America by somehow suggesting or coming close to suggesting that science equals atheists. 

That’s right. That’s the view that’s taken in the country view, of course. Now, it’s the view that I take, which is that there are many reasons why we should be criticizing religion, criticizing it from many angles. Jim Underdown even moderate religion. 

Yeah, even so-called moderate religion. Now, I’d distinguish between this moderate in inverted commas, religion and a kind of non literalist religion that Philip Kitchin might be I feel sympathetic towards. You know, it’s it’s one thing to say, look, here we have this very liberal kind of religion where perhaps we don’t even literally believe in God. We study the Bible to see what kind of insight it may provide us. But we study it as a text, much as we might study, say, Shakespeare’s plays. We have a certain kind of community. We have a certain kind of valuing of the tradition and so on. And that kind of highly liberal theological point of view can also be associated with highly liberal political points of view. But that’s a very small component of religion, the kind of inverted commas, moderate, close, inverted commas. 

Religion we’re talking about may be politically quite conservative or even reactionary. You can be moderate in the sense that you accept good science while being quite moderate in the attitude that you take, say, the homosexual conduct, which you might think of as a sin. You know, you might resist abortion law reform, you might resist stem cell research. And I was just a whole lot of things. Jim Underdown. 

And here, Roswell, your arm doing what seems natural to me to do as well, which is taking a fearsome and somehow aligning it with a progressive social gospel in a sense, or the progressive social agenda. You know, liberal leftist ideals. 

That’s true. Now, of course, there are racists who don’t share those. Right. But but from my point of view, where we see power and influence exercised by religion opposing those kinds of deal, that gives for good political reason to say, hang on. 

As I said before, these supposed moral leaders are not moral leaders at all. 

They’re often putting positions that I find quite immoral. And they have no moral authority from which to do that. 

We should not accept that they have that moral authority. We should question where they get that moral authority from, where do they get it from God. So they get it from some kind of tradition that contains insight and wisdom. Well, let’s have a look. Let’s have a look at the wisdom of that tradition. Let’s have a look at whether that God even exists. I think we should quite naturally and properly ask those questions. 

So you’re saying take religion seriously enough to look at its claims and test them, even its moral claims, and not just let someone say, oh, this is my private religious beliefs. So therefore it’s be on critical examination. You’re kind of doing then new atheist line of, hey, let’s get it all out there in the open and let’s debate it. That’s what public discourse. That’s what the virtues of democracy are all about. You know, let the best ideas rise to the top and none should be off limits. 

Absolutely. I think we should scrutinize it there. But we should certainly scrutinize religious ideas, see what kind of epistemic authority here, what kind of moral authority they they really have, you know, are there their claims, their claims of truth. Actually, something that stands up to a combination or not. 

So, Russell, in this book, there are 50, 52, including the editors you said essays. Those are way more than we could touch on in our short chat. Let me just ask you, is there more where this came from? There are thousands of voices of disbelief out there waiting to be voiced. Right. Are you. Are you going to have a second voices of disbelief? Is this kind of a a way for everyone to get their disbelief off their chest? 

There’s actually 50 essays. Two of them are co-written. So with 52 people involved with 50 essays. It’s too early to know whether there’s likely to be a sequel to the book. 

But what I will say is that as I travel and meet people, I find many people who are quite prominent once again in their fields or in their countries who would have welcomed the opportunity to be involved in this book. 

And if I would never have thought of in some cases, I’m sure, yeah, we could find another 50 or 52 people and produce another book just as good. That, of course, depends on the success of this book and so on. That is very early days with the book just having been published. But I’m sure there could be more where this comes from Jim Underdown. 

So on a very basic level, 50 voices of disbelief is a way for some prominent and influential, thought provoking essayists to come out of the closet and have this discussion. But it’s also a way to show what a diversity of views there are. And we’ve talked about some of that. So, Russell, I appreciate, you know, you’re taking time out of your travel schedule to have that conversation with me. Thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Jonathan. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.