Interview With Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk

With atheist best-sellers flying off the book-shelves, people are now finding their beliefs questioned, probed and examined. Lumping all arguments together, many dismiss the new wave of intellectual concern as a crass form of schoolyard bullying, calling all those critical of religion “new atheists”. But what is forgotten in these discussions is the human side, the reasons for not believing and what that means in our lives. Many know the arguments against belief but now the point has come to ask another question: why does that matter? In an effort to do just that, two philosophers, Russell Blackford from Australia and German-born Udo Schüklenk have co-edited a book which seeks to solve recent problems for the modern non-believer. 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists, was published recently by Wiley-Blackwell.

For many who have spent some time involved in any form of engagement in these matters, the names should appear familiar: from the great AC Grayling to the revolutionary Maryam Namazie. Finally, in one book we can hear their stories – if not about themselves, then about the aspects of religion or lack thereof they find most important. If all these contributors were speakers at a convention, it would be sold out many times over. Udo and Russell kindly agreed to delve further into the background of the book.

Someone with no knowledge on this subject might ask why is a project like 50 Voices of Disbelief is so important in today’s climate? And what does this project do that other “atheist” books don’t?

Udo: As we say in our Introduction, it’s important because there are numerous attempts made the world all over the stifle atheists’ and humanists’ freedom of speech, in our case the right to criticise religion. Even the UN and its misnamed human rights council is in on it. So yes, it is more important than ever before to let voices of reason and rationality be heard. There cannot be special rules for religious organisations that exempt them from critical inquiry and scrutiny.

Our anthology is unique because it gives a voice to a very wide range of contributors, including philosophers, writers, journalists, even a magician! They all responded to our call to explain in their own words why they do not believe in the God the monotheistic religions have been peddling to us for centuries. The book is eminently readable and fun, to my mind, because it includes so many personal accounts of well-known writers on why they are atheists.

You have a range of spectacular contributors, ranging from AC Grayling to Maryam Namazie. But I imagine there were many more to choose from. How did you decide on the contributors and why?

Udo: We chose them based on professional standing, expertise and capacity to say something original and readable.

All three of us study philosophy academically and a common question is asked about philosophy’s purpose in the modern world. How big a part did philosophy play in your views and in the creation of this project?

Udo: Of course, I am very strongly influenced by the values of enlightenment philosophy. Works by Holbach, Descartes, Voltaire, Kant and others had a huge impact on how I formed my views of the world. Their work and that of others like them, undertaken under much more difficult circumstances, motivates me to keep the light of reason alight.

Russell: My own reasons for disbelief are philosophical, and I realized over 30 years ago that the Christian view of the world, which concerned me most among the world’s religions, just doesn’t add up. Take the problem of evil, for example. Many people claim to have solved it, or that someone else has solved it, or in any event that it has been solved or is solvable. But the supposed solutions are highly implausible, often even absurd or irrelevant, and anyone who thinks the problem has been solved doesn’t really understand it (or doesn’t take it seriously).

Again, the doctrine of sacrificial atonement makes no moral or other sense, and we have no rational grounds to accept claims about the empty tomb and the resurrection of the apocalyptic Jewish prophet known to us as Jesus of Nazareth. However, my motivation to speak up, and express my disbelief publicly, after keeping my peace somewhat for quite a long time now, is not just philosophical; it is more political. Various religious groups, often deeply reactionary in one way or another, have been consolidating their social and political influence in Western societies, even though the percentage of believers has declined. In developing countries, Christianity and Islam are rapidly winning adherents – and the varieties of Christianity and Islam we are talking about are in no sense liberal or even moderate. All in all, “God is back”, and I think that we’ve reached a point in human history when silence is not an option for people of reason.

What books do you recommend to those who have not really considered these questions before? Aside from obvious choices like Dawkins and Hitchens, are there any other talented writers that people should be aware of?

Russell: There are many writers beyond the so-called Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Sam Harris), so much so that any list will be extremely incomplete. The state of the art in academic philosophy by atheists continues to advance. A generation ago, the writer to watch out for was John Mackie, whose work is still very worth reading. But now the leading books are probably those of Michael Martin and Graham Oppy. Also watch out for the work of Michael Tooley, Nicholas Everitt, J.L. Schellenberg, among many others.

For a slightly more popular level of work that challenges Christian apologetics, try Dan Barker or John W. Loftus. I recently read Barker’s Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, and I totally recommend it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s personal story in Infidel is compelling, and there are now many feminist writers tackling the way religions treat women – Ophelia Benson, Maryam Namazie, and Christine Overall come to mind.

On the origins of the Christian texts, see Bart Ehrman. For wide-ranging discussion of Islam, see Ibn Warraq. Then, not always focused on religion, there is the whole body of work by Michael Shermer. Victor J. Stenger and Taner Edis are among those who tackled the issues from a perspective very much grounded in current science. I also recommend Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness without God: A Defence of Philosophical Naturalism.

Really, though, there is such a rich body of work now available, and I am failing to mention many superb contributors to the debate. If you’re not looking for something highly academic, perhaps start with the book by Barker that I mentioned. If you want the full academic approach, try Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism and then perhaps tackle Oppy’s Arguing About Gods. Or start with 50 Voices of Disbelief and sample the ideas of many contemporary writers and activists.

Udo: If you don’t mind, may I take this question as asking what works have most influenced me in this context? Truth be told, it’s not so much recent literature, even though there is some excellent work out there. I have been greatly influenced and impressed by works such as Jean (Abbe) Meslier, Testament de J. Meslier (Mémoire contre la religion), d’Holbach’s Christianisme dévoilé, as well as his Le Système de la nature, Voltaire’s Candide of course, Russell’s Why I am not a Christian as well as the German author Karl-Heinz Deschner’s works. Not surprisingly most, if not all of these works were critical of Christianity as the hegemonic ideology in Europe. I am glad today we find more works addressing the ideology of Islam, such as for instance Warraq’s analyses or Ali’s Infidel.

Speaking of Ali and Benson, why do you think there are so few women engaged in the great god debates? Do you think this is a problem?

Russell: First, it’s a problem in many ways. Partly because the situation will tend to replicate itself over time. That’s unfortunate, because women have much to gain by freeing themselves from religion, and also because the broad rationalist movement needs the involvement of people with widely varied experiences of the world, not just wide variations in male experiences of it. Even with little or no overt discrimination against them in some enlightened places, women still face more subtle kinds of discrimination, and even if that is overcome, they need to see other women as role models and potential colleagues. Women will be more attracted to write books, produce movies, generally become active in defending atheist and rationalist positions, when they see other women doing so. All that acknowledged, we should not forget the enormous contributions that some women are, indeed, making right now – Margaret Downey, comes to mind, as does Maryam Namazie for her ongoing opposition to political Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sumitra Padmanabhan in the humanist movement in India, and many many others.

Udo: I think this is much to do with the fact that the traditional domain of secular analysis and thinking was philosophy and that discipline has historically been male dominated. This is changing and so we see increasingly women’s involvements with these sorts of questions – think of Overall’s works, Purdy’s, as well as downright – and very much needed – activism such as Downey’s, Namazie’s and others. I have no doubt many of the early feminists would have been secular in outlook, but their focus – understandably so – wasn’t to do with the God delusion but women’s reproductive rights and such issues that were closer to home.

What are the implications for religious pandering occurring in the upper echelons of the UN and other bodies? And what would you say to those who think it is intellectual imperialism to criticise people’s religions?

Russell: The implications won’t be as straightforward as the creation of a binding UN convention in some horribly onerous form, or the enactment of massive restrictions on freedom of speech in, say, the US. Nonetheless, the more resolutions we see from UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, the more the high moral ground is given to theocrats and dictators, and the more the morale and effectiveness of local opponents of free speech in Western countries are strengthened. In the West, there are plenty of opponents of free speech, especially speech that criticises religion. Those opponents exist on both the Right and Left of politics – the Right because of its religiosity, the Left because of its sensitivity to traditional cultures. As for the second question, I am very suspicious of this whole idea of intellectual imperialism. Intellectual ideas, both good and bad, belong the whole world and all its people – otherwise we wouldn’t have now have worldwide use of algebra and the zero sign. This talk of intellectual imperialism often seems like an excuse for theocrats and dictators to deny rights and liberties to their local populations.

Udo: Well, this coming from the German-born Pope during a recent visit to Africa where he propagated his ideology to the African peoples is a tad bit rich! Anyhow, I am not a friend of the currently existing UN, its corruption and its many utterly useless agencies, so I don’t care too much about the shenanigans in this organisation that reminds me so very strongly of Andersen’s naked emperor. Stopping my exasperated UN-related hand-waving now, there’s a serious issue, however: these attempts at shielding religious beliefs (as opposed to any other beliefs) from sharp criticism and – yes – ridicule sets a dangerous precedent for free speech and, indeed free inquiry. That’s why we got to oppose it. We should all deliberately and routinely be subversive on blogs, in letters to newspapers, in articles, on Facebook and other networking sites and so on and so forth, by way of overstepping the boundaries set by the UN Human Rights Council on this issue. The more people there are who undertake such actions the less likely it is that these rules will actually become societally acceptable norms of behaviour.

Talking about free-speech, do you think outright mockery is a necessary step in the ongoing debate? Or should we, as Paul Kurtz has suggested, defend those who mock but not criticise in such crass ways ourselves (by “ourselves”, he was referring to his organisation the Centre for Inquiry, which publishes numerous magazines that your contributors have written for. James Randi, for example, has a column in one)?

Udo: A necessary step to achieve what end? It’s difficult answering this question without knowing what the ends are that such means are supposed to realise. Mockery has traditionally had a legitimate place in political debates and arguments. Enlightenment philosophers have often used mockery to show how absurd an ideological (frequently religious) stance was that was considered sacrosanct during their times. Mockery is one way of saying ‘this view does not deserve to be taken seriously’, and that is fair game to my mind, if one is also able to show on a more serious level, why the view in question does indeed not deserve to be taken seriously.

Russell: I think it’s reasonable for a corporation, or some other kind of collective, to establish a brand image that appeals to a certain membership or potential membership. E.g., it might want to welcome a broad range of people, some of whom would be offended by certain tactics. In that sense, Paul Kurtz may have a legitimate point about what the CFI should be doing. The CFI needs to sort that out, and I’m not sure in this particular instance, but people who take Kurtz’s view of its approach are certainly entitled to argue for it.

Does that mean that atheists, in general, should never engage in “crass” tactics? Not at all. My own view is that it is, indeed, crass to mock religious believers just for the sake of it – or simply to offend them. But there is certainly a place for satire, comedy, even outright mockery. When we are confronted with absurd ideas and practices, it can sometimes be futile, and seem rather ponderous and silly, to try to demonstrate exactly why they are absurd. It might be possible in principle, but not concise or rhetorically persuasive. Sometimes you just do have to cut through and expose the absurdity for what it is, by making humorous comparisons, calling names (as when I call the Catholic Church “the Cult of Misery”), or engaging in whatever forms of ridicule and disrespect are needed to get the point across. When absurd dogma is combined with abuses of human rights, threats to liberties, dangers to human life or flourishing, I think the gloves should come off. In those cases, ridicule can be our best weapon against religious bullying or outright theocratic oppression.

Perhaps, Udo, “the necessary step” should be “a necessary step” – one of many, in ascension toward contentment with uncertainty. This is to realise that nothing we say is beyond failure and in the sense you describe, nothing is therefore beyond mockery. Are you saying that mockery, though delivered in a humorous way, is serious in scope?

Udo: Yes, mockery can well be a more ‘deadly’ argumentative tool than the best logical argument.

Do you think that there can be such a thing as a militant atheist, a dogmatic scientist or are they merely terms of dismissal? It seems that some people do completely revoke religion and replace it with something else. I am inherently cautious of standing behind labels but do you think it is necessary to call oneself an atheist, a humanist and so on? As AC Grayling has pointed out, humanism isn’t even a philosophy, it is a mode of thought (similar to what Michael Shermer says about science).

Udo: There ‘can’ be militant atheists as well as dogmatic scientists. There could be atheists that bully and threaten, atheists that discriminate pro-actively against those who disagree with their views, and so on and so forth, i.e.: there could be atheists that on their atheistic crusade (sic!) take no prisoners, much like adherents of militant Islam take no prisoners. However, I was careful to say that there ‘could be’… I have yet to meet an atheist that behaves like that. So, while it is theoretically possible, I have yet to encounter a militant atheist. The same applies to the question of the dogmatic scientist.

Russell: I’m not as worried as some people by the term “militant atheist”. Militancy is sometimes just the opposite of passivity or gentility; it doesn’t necessarily connote violence or bullying. I attempt to be civil in debate and to be kind to people even when I’m being tough on issues, but sometimes a certain degree of forthrightness or aggression is needed. Atheists are entitled to be militant in that sense. Of course, we are usually about the last people to resort to violence.

I don’t doubt that some atheists and scientists can be stubborn or opinionated, like anyone else, but the one expression that I despise is “fundamentalist atheist”. A fundamentalist atheist would have to be someone who adheres to the literal words of something like a holy book, even in the face of evidence. Okay, there may be some atheists like that somewhere in the world (perhaps some doctrinaire Marxists for example), but they are rare. They are very atypical of what we see in the current wave of explicit atheism, represented by people like Dawkins and Dennett, and our contributors. Generally, people become atheists because of the lack of evidence for particular religious beliefs, or because of positive evidence against certain beliefs. It is not because they have been socialised, or otherwise convinced, to put their blind faith in Das Kapital, or On the Origin of Species, or Why I Am Not A Christian, or The God Delusion. That’s not how it works.

As for accepting or adopting labels, I’m ambivalent. I do identify as an atheist, if asked … and sometimes even if not asked. But I completely understand why some people prefer to call themselves humanists, skeptics, or agnostics, or something fancier (philosophical naturalists, perhaps … I like that one myself).

All of these terms can have varied meanings in different times or places, or for different people, so no one should be pressured to label herself in a particular way.

Also, in many circumstances, we may not need to identify as atheists (or whatever) at all. E.g., I think that atheists have good reasons to be active in the defence of freedom of speech. However, our arguments, once we become active on that issue, are much the same as anyone else’s. In defending freedom of speech, we should concentrate on the arguments, not on the fact that we might have a particular motivation for getting involved. The same applies to other issues that we might wish to take up, whether or not our views about religion give us some of our motivation.

Why are you philosophers as opposed to, for example, scientists, physicians or presidents?

Udo: I have become a philosopher mostly because I am interested in investigating normative issues in our daily lives. Other professionals focus on other kinds of questions.

Russell: When I was younger I contemplated politics – but not for long! I have too many skeletons in my various cupboards to be a politician of any sort, let alone a president or a prime minister. They may not be large, very disreputable, skeletons … but they’re large enough to be a liability. And I keep doing my best to add to them – just in small ways such as making fun of the pope whenever I get a chance. My record of doing that wouldn’t help me in politics.

Besides, there are few jobs in the world that enable you to say what you really think and explore the truth as you see it. Provided they can make a living, philosophers can do that. By contrast, politicians are bound by party discipline and the need to court popularity with the public. I’ve worked for two or three years as a lawyer, and for many years in quasi-legal work. I especially enjoyed courtroom advocacy, which I was quite good at – and I strongly considered becoming a barrister at one stage. Actually, that would have been great, but ultimately I chose to do a second doctorate (in philosophy). As a result I am much poorer than I might have been. I think it’s too late for me to start at the bar now that I’m on the wrong side of fifty, so I’m unlikely to make my fortune at this late stage. Still, I have the luxury of thinking, writing, and speaking about the things that really matter to me.

Finally, who have you encountered – aside from your contributors of course- that you think will be making a difference in today’s world for the better? Organisations and maybe individual people, perhaps?

Udo: I think anyone who is prepared to think about how their actions can contribute to increases in the happiness of people or others who are capable of enjoying their lives. If each of us made the life of just one other person who is worse off than we are a bit better the world would be a much better place. I suspect there are plenty of people like that.

Russell: Many people are making a positive difference. Some are our contributors, of course, but there other people who are fighting hard to protect our liberties, or to extend the basic requirements for human survival more widely. Others are creating art that lifts our spirits or provokes our thoughts. Still others are pushing back against superstition or extending human knowledge. You know, this world does not look much like one that an all-benevolent God would create. Look at all the suffering, malice, and preventable loss of life. Yet it could be a lot worse, and there are plenty of people who are working hard to make it better.

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