This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 20 9th, 2010.
Welcome to Point of inquiry.
I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and to the grassroots. My guest this week is skeptic Warren Bonus of In Biggin Books, an independent bookseller with a unique store specializing in skeptical and science titles. Warren is also the editor of. And a contributor to The Australian Book of Atheist Him. This project includes 32 essays about religion and secularism written by preeminent Australian atheist, rationalist, humanist and skeptic thinkers.
Warren, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Thank you very much, Karen. Sir, a pleasure to be here.
And I have to say that finally I’m interviewing someone with an accent I can understand.
That’s not a knife. This is a knife.
So let’s get started. You own a unique bookstore in big in books that promote science and skepticism and concentrates on pro rational books. So what’s motivated you to open a store that specializes in these themes?
One thing really, and that is I wanted to create a place that was more accessible to people to find this sort of material than is normally the case in most bookstores. You’re going to go in and have a look in the science section. It’ll be hidden at the back somewhere. It’ll be half a shelf and it’ll be largely filled with New Age books.
And I have always been deeply disturbed by that. So we’ve got our science books up front. We’ve got 3000 of them. You can’t miss him and you won’t find a single New Age book in the shop. So it was about creating an accessible place for the material. So you don’t have to join a group. You don’t have to become an ism or an east. You don’t have to go to a university or attend a particular function. You will just find it by walking in off the street into what looks like a regular bookstore.
And it’s very heartening, too, that you can sustain an entire stall with these topics.
It’s not easy. I have to say this area that we’re in is a very much a new age center in Australia.
There is a large amount of spiritualists of all different flavors up here, but also from the skeptical viewpoint. There’s also a great deal of strange medical practices of all kinds, from coffee enemas to treat cancer to be true infusions that put directly into the blood. All sorts of really bizarre things that I find quite upsetting.
And we get people in here looking for special cancer cures because the doctor has told them they don’t have any chance. And will we supply them that book? That’s on the coffee enemas or something like that. And then we have those quite moving and upsetting conversations sometimes with people who are either terminally ill or have a relative that’s terminally ill, that’s being peddled something by these people in the area. And we try and find them the material that is useful, that is real and is representative of evidence as opposed to lies. And again, it’s it’s not easy to do. It’s it’s not easy to find a book that’s going to be compatible with someone who’s in that position.
And you’ve said previously that you wanted to become involved in skepticism and that owning a bookstore was a great option for you. And you’ve just touched upon this, that it’s not an ideology or a movement or an organization. But you’ve still managed to turn your bookstore into a culture of science and skepticism. So how have you achieved this?
It’s really just by trying to stick to the material and not trying to really go beyond that too much. One of the things about the movement of skepticism, the Nazi ism and rationalism and all of those things that I find a little bit difficult is that when you become part of a group or movement, there’s instantly a form of internal politics that you need to deal with. And I’ve never really been good at that. I’ve been wanting to work out a way that I can contribute. And other than just by writing something, I wanted to find a way in which I could find something that would be inclusive of people who didn’t want to join a group. I didn’t want to become an ism. And and this seemed to be the most successful way I could think of.
It’s it’s just something that a bookshop on the street that sells science books. And so people send people here because they know we’ve got material that people I know that would be interested in. So it was it just ended up being a great way to create access for others. It was a way that felt sustainable to me for my personality.
And you’ve also set up a skeptic society and you regularly hold science and philosophy talks.
Yes. That was part of the M.O., really, of the shop in that we didn’t want to just sell the books. We wanted to create a place where people could come and ask questions and we would try and help them find responses to those questions that meant something.
So we’ve had some extraordinary speakers in the shop. We’ve had Robin Williams, not the comedian.
Robin Williams in Australia is a host of the program called The Science Show, and he’s been hosting that for over 30 years. And he has done more in this country for advancing science education and literacy than pretty well anyone. An extraordinary man really giving of his time and very communicative across a whole range of different subjects.
And you stole. You were talking about the location earlier. Your stores located in Noosaville on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which happens to be right me where my mum lives. Ironically, this is a hub of spirituality in the new age. And you’re right next door to an organic shop. Can you tell us a little bit about the area and how you fit into such a contrastive environment?
Yeah, fit in. Yeah, I think we are a little bit of sware pigs and ran holds. Most people who know what we’ve done up here say, oh my.
What have you done. You’ve gone and landed in enemy territory.
And just some extent we have. I mean, just down the road from us, there’s a combination psychic and hairdresser.
I think I investigated her a long time ago for The Australian Skeptic magazine. She gives free readings with haircuts.
Yeah. During the GFC, it went the other way round.
She gave free gas with readings, but at the same time, we’ve enabled the scientists to keep their heads up above the parapets and go home.
There are others like me here. That’s terrific. And. They have been amazing to find.
And so if a new customer walks in off the street, someone who didn’t identify as a skeptic, what books would you recommend to them to introduce them to skepticism and critical thinking rather than hitting them immediately with the God delusion?
Well, there’s a range. In fact, one of Dawkins books is one of them waving the rainbow.
I think a purpose with a short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson is also brilliant for getting across the wonder of science from a nonscientists perspective and putting the humanity into science because he describes the people know warts and all. And the politics behind each discovery and things like that. But also the other book which has got to come. Number one for me is Demon Haunted World.
How do you mean that? It is just such a superb piece of work. Every paragraph has something you could use as some where in it a quote. It’s just beautiful writing.
And he does it in such a way which is quite non confrontational to most, you know, to reasonable ease, or everyone will find confrontation in some phrase or other. But they would be among my top books.
And once I get a little bit further in it, I try and respond to what their interests are. So if they’ve read the Bill Bryson, what what what about it? Did they most like. Which part of it did they most like?
And if they like some say some of the references to the descriptions about the age of the Earth, I might direct them towards Richard Forty’s book Earth, which is a superb book on the history of the planet. If they like some of the references to some of the physics, I might direct them towards Brian Greene’s elegant universe or fabric of the cosmos. Those books, again, quite accessible and well-written.
So I try and tylor it to what the person is interested in because I think it’s you can very quickly turn people off simply by thinking you’ve got the book, one book or one thing, which is a cure all.
There are no cure alls. You’ve got to try and tailor. And sometimes it may even be a novel.
For instance, in the novels by Greg Egan, an extraordinary exploration of speculative thought in physics. And sometimes that might be a way in. But most of the people that rate him are generally already sold hook, line and sinker on the physics. So that one might not be the best method.
But there are a number of other books that might be useful in history books too. Sometimes a good way forward because we can learn a lot from history.
You’re a bookseller with a duty of care, and I agree that there’s no quick fix. That’s something that a skeptic should be against. No one answer. But what titles would you recommend to introduce young readers to critical thinking and science?
There there are a few is, in my view.
None of them spectacularly brilliant, though there are there are a couple is that a book by Steven Law?
I think it’s really, really big problems or really, really big questions. I can’t remember off the top of my head, and that is actually pretty good. And it’s sort of a fairly large format, thin hardback. There’s Daniel Luxton Evolution, which is, of course, excellent for getting across evolution. There’s also one by Peter Sis, which actually explores explores Charles Darwin and who he was and predeceases a wonderful illustrator. And it’s a great book for a number of reasons. Illustrations are quite old fashioned and there’s a lot to explore in each illustration. So it could actually take you quite a long time simply to leave one page spread. So Peter, books in that regard? I think a good he’s one. Charles Darwin on one. On Galileo, Starry, Starry Night. I highly recommend listeners to have a look at those where pretty well the only place in Australia that stocks them as just we have them on our shelves.
We don’t just order them in. We have them actually on our shelves so people can stumble across them.
But the Charles Darwin one from Peter Sis used to be distributed here, but now no longer is. So we pull it in from the US.
So the US listeners will easily find those books and are very good in Australia. There is also books by Philip Cam on critical thinking, and that’s more for people who are involved with kids in helping to critically engage. So that one’s not directly aimed at kids. There are some good other good science books, but a whole range of effective science books by Dorling Kindersley, which are absolutely brilliant for engaging gaging kids in science, less so than the critical thinking.
And then I’d come to my probably my number one for kids. And this is age about eleven three to probably about fifteen, sixteen. And that is Dr Kao. Dr Collen, Australia is our equivalent of the science guy in America. Bill Nye, The Science Guy. He’s quite wacky and extremely well-informed and really interested in kids along with Robin Williams. He’s done a lot in this country to advance scientific literacy.
So some great recommendations there. Thank you very much. And now you’re a bookseller. Hughes also edited a book. The Australian Book of 80S is your project. It’s like Hitchins, the portable atheist, or Russell Blackford is 50 Voices of Disbelief bots featuring essays by contemporary Australian authors. So what inspired you to compile this collection?
Yes. It’s an idea that came to me when I was still living in London, where I lived for about 20 years. And when I came back to Australia, I met up with a bunch of fellow atheists, in particular a woman by the name of Chris Stevens.
And I mentioned the idea to her and she said, well, let’s do it then. Okay, that’s great. Let’s do it. And so she helped me very much in those early stages.
Find the people that should go in this book.
And after that, it just became a lot of letter writing.
But the initial motivation came from listening to people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris several years ago, use Australia as an example to America of how a well functioning, basically secular society can work without high levels of religiosity. And it struck me as erroneous.
It just seemed that there was a lot under the surface in Australia that was simple, simply wasn’t talked about and even or even acknowledged even by Australian atheists themselves.
And so I wanted to explore that and put that idea right. And also to maybe start a trend if we’ve now done The Australian Book of Atheist with exclusively Australian authors, to a large extent, a lot of them talk about specifically Australian things, which I think is important to give those Australian context out there into the wider world. I’d really love to say that taken on by an Indian book basis of the African book of AC ism so that we can build them as atheists.
A an accurate picture of what is happening around the world. And so we don’t just continually hear the same voices whose voices I love, I might add.
But I think. It’s important to get those range of views and voices across to as many people as possible because you never know which is going to be the voice, which is going to be the one which you hear.
Is a very big discussion going on at the moment in the skeptic community and the atheist community about what is the best way to convince these people and persuade people of our point of view. And my response is, there isn’t one way. I’ve been involved in brand design and advertising for 20 years.
And believe me, if there was one way of doing that, we’d be using it in our advertising and brand design. There are people who spend millions, if not billions every year to try and persuade people of their product. And there is not one way. There are many ways.
Sometimes we need the infomercial, which is just, you know, fairly rational, calm, well presented. Guy or lady doing just speaking to a camera. Sometimes we need something a little bit more in your face.
They all of these methods at different times will be useful to a person. And you never really know which one’s going to be the way forward. And we can’t just sit one. So it was that was another aspect of the book was I wanted a range of voices. There are people in this book which are agnostic, and there are people in this book who are critical of what they view as the more aggressive kinds of ISIS out there.
So I wanted that range because I think the range is important.
And so this book includes 32 essays about religion and secularism that are written by preeminence, Australian atheist, rationalist, humanist and skeptic thinkers. And me and the subjects covered in the book are very diverse, too. I remember that you asked your authors to choose from a set of topics, so you had a very specific vision for the book. And so you’ve really treated some of the topics. What are some of the other themes that you treat in the book?
Yes, I did give a range of topics and quite a few people didn’t want to write on those. But I’ve asked for things on evolution versus creationism because it is actually a fairly big deal here in Australia today. Creationism is actually taught in a lot of schools in Australia, and intelligent design was so potentially effective here that the former head of the opposition party said that he saw who was, I might add, a doctor.
So I saw no reason not to include intelligent design in the syllabus because it was about choice. Real choice. No, Dr Brendan Nelson. It’s about science, real science. So we’ve got a couple of horses riding on that. Dividing the book up into an overview in which we get an overview of history of free thought in Australia by Chris Davidson, an overview of the nature of our Constitution in relation to church and state separation.
We’ve also got a legal framework that religion and law.
Exploring legal precedents in separation of church and state in Australia. We’ve got treatments on education. We’ve got people looking at various social issues. I mentioned abortion before.
We’ve also got your your essay, which looks at more spiritual traditions and how that might be connected to an atheist framework.
Yeah, I think mine is a crossover between skepticism, monotheism and looking at spiritual and pseudo scientific beliefs and practices as replacements to religion. That’s right.
It was and was an area that I really wanted nailed in this in this book, because in Sensus reflection of any society, atheists is a certain percentage now, certain percentage of atheists. And that would actually argue that the bulk of ISIS are still spiritualist.
That does seem to be the case when you explore the split between what makes up an atheist to be Laska, a general spiritualist up here who might have leanings towards all sorts of different spiritual traditions, whether or not they believe in God. Largely say no, whether. And then if you explore that question a little bit further and say, I do believe that there is something there that will say, yes, that’s a different it’s still effectively the same thing.
They’re not atheists. They think of themselves as atheists.
It’s broader still if you look at practices as well and what a person’s definition of new age and spiritual is.
Yes. Is. So I felt it was important to get that argument into this book because a lot of atheists out there really think that because the Australian. Has us reflected as being about 15 to 20 percent of the population, if not more than.
We’re in a pretty strong position when in fact, we’re not. When you break up the atheist demographic into the different kinds of potential new age spiritualism, the people who end up believing in or not believing in any supernatural thing becomes a much smaller group. There was a really good poll that was done in 2009 by the Nielsen Group Nielsen Group.
I guess maybe our equivalent of the Pew report or something like that, that they did a a good overview of Australian religious belief. And they found that about 35 per cent of Australians identify as not believing in any God of any kind. And most surveys were men. There was quite a distinct split between them.
The women believed in what men believed, which is actually quite horrifying. Women were far more likely to believe a whole range of different non evidence based things. And men like far more likely up to twice as likely in many different instances, except in one instance where men are far more likely to believe in UFOs than women.
Interestingly, women were far less likely to accept evolution as being a true scientific explanation of the natural world than men like, far less likely, about 20 percent less likely.
But 34 percent of Australians believe in UFOs, and a similar percent believe in witches. And that was a roughly a similar amount to how many people didn’t believe in God. So it’s not necessarily a reflection of our rationality that we had 34 percent of people believing that there is no God, because there are some of those people who make up the people who believe in witches and UFOs and and other forms of spirituality.
Christopher Hitchens, the portable atheist, is subtitled Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Is the Australian Book of is intended for the atheist readers specifically or intended to persuade religious people or both?
Well, I think initially in any book like this, the first people you’re communicating with is your own tribe. And I think of it quite, very much in a tribal sense. If we divide up society into not just believers and nonbelievers, but there’s a whole range of different tribes within the believers subset as well. And they all tend to defend their boundaries with various degrees of force, ranging from suicide bombers to reasoned argument.
And that, strangely, is some kind of weird continuum of cultural defense between these groups.
So I think initially it is aimed at atheists who believe that a religion isn’t particularly a problem in Australia because there are a large number of them who defend religious belief within a society as if it’s just okay and relatively harmless. And most ISIS I speak to tend to think that, you know, this it’s okay. You know, what is religion? It’s really just a few cake stalls on the weekend to raise some money.
It’s helping people when they need consoling. It does good in society and charitable works, things like that. And that’s pretty well the end point at which most atheists seem to regard religion in society. And I base that judgment on just my own anecdotal experience without having conversations with a vast array of atheists. You have no interest whatsoever in joining an atheist group or going to an atheist convention or even listening to an atheist speaker. They’re the same atheists who might call Richard Dawkins strident, which I find that one of the most strange and sticky names that has entered into the vernacular to call Richard Dawkins strident is is it or a militant secularist. It’s kind of odd if if you think of a militant religious person, you think of a person with a gun or some bombs or who performs genital mutilation. If you think of a militant secularist, you think of someone who argues a little bit forcefully. And so the use of militant and strident and vitriol in those circumstances has become a little bit meaningless. A very sticky description, unfortunately.
But if it’s stuck and it stuck with a lot of atheists and a lot of agnostics and it’s simply not true if you use the definitions of the words as they really intended.
So I wanted to, I guess, address this book at those. As much as anything, because I wanted them to see that one, there was a range of different ways of talking about this thing, but also that it was really easy for anyone to be branded strident. No matter what they said.
And the blurb for the Australian Book of 8000 says that this book showcases the unique character of Australian Athie ism. So can you tell us what is unique about 80s in Australia and what issues is specific to Australian society?
Well, I think one of the very specific things is that it’s just it’s largely not been discussed in particularly open way.
We do have a couple of authors that have really been very prominent. One of them in particular, Phillip Adams, who’s another radio journalist and in print journalists. But he’s written quite a bit on it.
But that’s about it in terms of people that you would openly identify as being atheist.
And so I think one of the unique characteristics is that the Americans and the English have been very prominent on the international scale in criticizing religion in their own countries and in other countries.
And the Australians have largely been unheard.
Strangely, I think the reticence that she’ll be right, mate, character of Australians, which is the maxim by which a lot of Australians would live by. She’ll be right to say that she won’t be right is combated with a kind of nationalism, which is if you don’t like it, you can leave.
That particular part of the Australian character is what we’re addressing in the book in terms of the Australian character, our argument. I don’t actually think there’s that much of a difference between the way we go about criticism as it as any of the others. I think it’s just about intellectual, reasoned conversation. There’s not that much of a cultural difference between countries that that there’s anything specific other than that she’ll be right.
Mate approach. And these are some of the Australians who find that actually she wouldn’t be right if we don’t get off our backsides and do something about it.
I think there’s a view as well that not only people outside of Australia have, but a lot of Australians have. That is, we’re naturally skeptical people somehow because of our background, our history and our sense of humor, and that perhaps we’re too cynical somehow to be religious.
And I think that to some extent that that’s true. But I think that, like all things, your strengths can be your weaknesses and they can be exploited. So initially when Australia was first being set up, there was quite a strong anti religious feeling because a lot of the people that were coming to Australia were coming.
So as convicts and they were all you needed to do to be a convict in Australia in those early days was pretty well the Irish. And the reason the Irish were a problem was because they were the wrong religion. And so that was quite a strong antiauthoritarian approach to the initial Australian mindset. And that’s come very well in Chris Stevenson’s essay, which she’s going to expand into a book at some point because there’s so much material on it. So whilst that has been useful to some extent, that largely manifested itself as we don’t need you, the people at the top telling us how to live, we’ll just live our way. And consequently, I think that they’ve become vulnerable to systematic approaches from institutions over long periods of times. Institutions like churches to exploit the isolation of that Australian mindset. If you are an isolated individual or group and then an institution starts to target you over a very long period of time, at some point they’re going to get a toehold. And consequently, pretty well every town in Australia has a church in it.
So despite this cynicism, we still support through tax exemptions and subsidies. Hundreds of thousands of church properties around the world, around Australia. So it’s not that cynical. And we also have to remember, too, that the titular head of our country is also the head of the Church of England. In some respects, where form of soft theocracy in that respect seems to part of the Commonwealth.
And could you compare and contrast for us the state of religion and belief in Australia versus the United States?
I guess we have less of the prominent evangelical types than the Americans do.
We have a growing number and they seem to have automatic place in the media. For instance, as Danny Nahlah of the Chert Fire Assemblies stretches. I think it’s now just the Church of God.
It’s change its name a couple on the Assembly of God Church who after the absolutely horrific fires in Victoria, which is a state in southern Australia which claimed hundreds of lives and and cost billions of dollars. He was reported in the papers across the country as saying that it was Victoria’s fault for allowing abortion to happen. And so it was God’s way of punishing us.
Now, why did that make the paper?
Yeah, it was very much like the criticisms directed towards some people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Exactly. And so in some respects, I say Australia was following that American evangelical style. You know, we did. The government did fork out one hundred and fifty million dollars to allow and help pay for the World Catholic Youth Day. It does allow creationist super camps in different states and council regions as well with, you know, creationism is taught to will be exposed to several thousand people and and scientists, inverted commas are brought in to explain how it’s a valid theory. So I think it’s the main difference is that the.
Atheists here and the religious people here aren’t quite as loud as the American versions.
We don’t have a Bible Belt.
I think we do. But I don’t. I simply don’t think it’s as loud with the Bible Belt. And I guess we would be a part of it where we are now. Queensland is effectively our version of Texas, I would say is is that is more of a Bible stronghold. There is certainly a stronger conservative element here. In fact, there’s a small free newspaper here called The Hinterland Voice, and the owners of the Hinterland Voice once tried to get part of Queensland to secede from Australia and call the Christian free state of Queensland. That was an unsuccessful bid, but they did try.
And that paper, although most of us would laugh at every single thing that’s in this paper, you know, they they promote the idea that vaccination is is an international plot to control the minds of people brought about by the Jewish Zionist Rockefeller elite. I don’t know how they combine all of these things, but they do. So most of us would tend to laugh at it. But it does have a circulation of about eighty thousand.
So just in closing, the Australian Book of Autism is going to be available appropriately just in time for Christmas. So it’s something that we can read in church on Christmas Day.
Oh, absolutely. I’m actually going to have a I’ll be doing a bookstand, Tam, this year. We’re traveling down to Sydney to operate the big in books. Stand at Tam Australia. Yay! Can’t wait for that. And we’ll have that book on sale there.
That’ll effectively be its launch. We won’t be doing any talks or anything like that, but that’ll effectively be where we launched the book.
Great. Well, Warren, thank you so much for joining me. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
Thank you, Karen. It’s an honor to be on point of inquiry. It really is.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry and Big in Books and the Australian Book of Athie ism can be found online at and big in books dot com to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow.