This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.


← Russel Blackford reviews Attack of the Theocrats

Russell Blackford's Avatar Jump to comment 12 by Russell Blackford

Viveca - since you've asked a question about my book ... no, it is not about how secularists should organise. That's an important topic, and Sean Faircloth's book does go into it to some extent. I'd be happy to discuss it either on the internet or at conferences. However, let me state clearly that anyone who buys or reads Freedom of Religion and the Secular State hoping for advice on how secularists should organise will be disappointed.

Nor is the book a political manifesto. It's what it purports to be - a philosophy book, with all that that involves (attempts to define terms, draw important distinctions, and understand concepts; attempts to analyse arguments as objectively as possible; attempts to be honest about such things as not misprepresenting the other side's arguments, and about addressing their apparent strengths, rather than their weaknesses; and so on ...). It's written in a style that's intended to be accessible to a wide audience, and aspects should even be entertaining, but it's still a philosophy book, with the sorts of rigours that involves.

But don't underestimate the usefulness of philosophy. Developing unified, principled, intellectually respectable, and fairly comprehensive positions on a subject - looking at the arguments from both sides but reaching some solid conclusions - is still a worthwhile thing to do, even from a practical perspective. It helps other people develop their own views, and it provides a resource for anyone who wants to use it. Other things must be done as well, but there's no substitute for creating think tanks, taking part in them, developing ideas, and, yes, writing these sorts of books (which doesn't mean, though, that you have to read such books if it's not a priority!). All this was certainly not lost on the Religious Right in the US as it organised itself in recent decades.

One thing that I will say in my own favour, though. I don't have Sean Faircloth's sort of full-on party political experience, but I do have a fair bit of relevant life/professional experience. I've been in the federal public service in my own country at a fairly high level, so I know a bit about how the political decision-making process works; I have some experience in public relations and political lobbying; I have quite a lot of experience in overseeing litigation and in courtroom appearance work. There's always going to be a slightly hard-nosed quality to how I analyse things, whereas some academic types who don't have these experiences can be a bit on the ... hmmm ... impractical and idealistic side. Readers will definitely see how it comes through when I discuss the best policies on a whole range of hot political topics. You'd also see it if I were involved in conversations about how secularism should organise - but again, the book is not about that.

Now, at the risk of making myself unpopular, here's one bit of hard-nosed practical advice while I'm commenting. Talk of separating "the state and superstition" is okay for joking around in a forum of like-minded people such as this. Also, far be it from me to deny that religion is, in essence, superstition. I'm no accommodationist, and I'm not going to deny that there's a place for talking about religion as superstition. There clearly is such a place.

But doing that is most definitely not a politically savvy move when we're talking about secularism in the wider world. The time-honoured phrase "separation of church and state" is recognised and respected, and it's too good a slogan to abandon. If we want to use other phrases from time to time - try "separation of religion from politics" or, simply, "secularism" (though this can be ambiguous) or, my personal favourite, "secular government".

The thing is, when you're advocating for secular government (to employ that phrase) you'll find that a lot of religious people, and people who are on the fence about religion, can actually agree with the idea. They can accept the arguments for it, see where it leads on particular issues, and mobilise and vote on the same side as atheists, humanists, and religious sceptics. They are never going to rally behind a phrase that involves calling religion "superstition", because they don't make that equation, but many of them will rally behind "separation of church and state" or "separation of religion from politics" or "secular government".

That doesn't mean turning into accommodationists. Accommodationism is essentially the view that a scientific understanding of the world leaves room for supernatural beliefs. I don't think it does, and I'll go on saying so as and when appropriate. However, there are plenty of people who disagree with me on this ... but who'd rally behind such ideas as secular government. We can successfully advocate secularism to people who'd resist the idea of atheism.

So the more general tip is to be aware, at all times, which issue we're currently dealing with and who it's an issue for. Secular government isn't just for anti-religious people. It offers something for many religious people and fence-sitters, as well.

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 09:03:35 UTC | #931504