Aussie wisdom

By Ken Perrott 08/12/2010

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism Edited by Warren Bonett.

Price: AU$35.00
Format: Paperback (448pp )
Size: 234mm x 153mm
ISBN (13): 9781921640766
Publisher: Scribe Publications (November 2010).

This is a book by Aussies, for Aussies. But given our similar histories and cultures there is a lot here for Kiwis as well.

It’s a collection of short articles by 33 Australians. They cover personal recollections and reflections. National history, education, social and cultural areas. Politics, philosophy and science. There is even a section on ’Religion and the Brain.’

As is the nature of such collections most readers will find something of interest. And different readers will inevitably have different favourites. My review reflects my own interests.

Why an Australian Book on Atheism?

And why now?  Aussies, like Kiwis, are easy going. We don’t easily get our knickers in a twist — especially about religion. We feel our societies are secular. And why not ’live and let live?’

The editor, Warren Bonett tells us why in his article ’Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?’ And his reply is relevant to us as well. Despite our illusions, Bonett argues, religion is embedded in the political systems of our countries.  It has ’an automatic and largely unquestioned place in the public forum.’

Australian paid over $150 million for ’Catholic World Youth Day.’ And $1.5 million to help celebrate the canonisation of Mary MacKillop.  Society places faith-based groups in charge of social services. Religious spokespeople appear to have unlimited access to politicians. And any criticism of religion provokes a response which ’sounds like aggression.’ How often have we heard such criticism, or indeed those making the criticism, described as ’aggressive, strident, and intolerant?’ Even ’fundamentalist.’ There is an unspoken rule ’You can’t criticise ideas of they are religious beliefs.’

And the privileges! Not least of which is the subsidy* we pay for with tax exemption purely based on supernatural belief.  Religion also gets almost automatic, and unwarranted, recognition for authority on morality and ethics, education, human rights, healthcare and social services. Rarely are spokespeople for the non-religious consulted.

A New Zealand example of this is the work of our own Human Rights Commission on religious diversity. It treats this as a purely interfaith project thereby effectively excluding the non-religious sector from our diversity. Resulting publication give only lip-service, if that, to the non-religious. A typical example is their religious diversity police handbook which helps culturally sensitive behaviour from police in dealing with various religious groups. But no consideration of non-religious groups despite the high proportion of the population (one-third in the last census.) (See Police ignore non-religious).

Warren ably argues the case for the book. And, despite our illusions, he is not wrong.

Humour, history and theology

Many readers will welcome the inclusion of the words for Tim Minchen’s poem/song Storm. This is a real modern classic and I appreciate having the words easily accessible in a book I own. It’s something I am sure I will come back to often. To relive the performance.

Chrys Stevenson begins the book with a history of atheism in Australia (Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-wing Loonies.) It is fascinating. One day I hope someone produces a similar history for New Zealand.

Peter Ellerton’s article ’Theology is Not Philosophy’ attracted me. It is fashionable today for theologians to hide behind the label Philsophy. To use the word as if there is only one version of philosophy and it is the one they peddle. To try to give respectability to their dogma and pronouncements by labelling them ’philosophy.’

Ellerton, who teaches secondary school philosophy critiques theology by showing that, in contrast to real philosophy, theology does not encourage critical thinking and reasoning skill in pupils. As he says: ’theology promotes an acceptance of avoiding, minimising, or otherwise refashioning philosophical analysis, inductive reasoning, and deductive logic, while dishonestly brandishing them as the legitimate tools of its trade.’ It is ’difficult to avoid circular reasoning within a teleological framework.’ And ’it is this inescapable aspect that neatly cleaves off theology from the rest of philosophy.’

Well worth reading.

Meaning, Purpose and morality

I am pleased to see several articles confronting the issues of ethics, morality, meaning and spirituality. Areas where religion claims special skills and tries to deny to unbelievers. Dr Robin Craig’s article ’Good without God’ develops an argument for secular ethics. It rejects the religious monopoly and argues that secular morality does not conflict with the old ’is-ought’ problem which by critics of secular ethics often trot out

Professor Peter Woolcock argues for meaning and purpose in the lives of non-believers in his article ’Atheism and the Meaning of Life.’ And the President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Ian Robinson, talks about spirituality in ’Atheism as a Spiritual Path.’ This pleased me as I think spirituality is a word we sometimes avoid because one of its meanings relates to supernatural ideas. In doing so I think we often enable our critics to extend the meaning and argue that we cannot appreciate the higher things in life, art, music, culture and even nature.

Another section that interested me was that on ’Religion and the Brian.’ This includes two articles ’The Neurobiology of Religious Experience’ by Dr Adam Hamlin, and ’Neuroscience, Religious Experience, and Sensory Deception’ by Dr Rosemary Lyndall Wemm. Necessarily brief these give a taste for some of the current research literature in this field.


Last March I attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. So I recognise some of the authors in this collection who also spoke at that convention. Sometimes their articles summarise those talks. Both that convention, and this book, has helped me understand the huge depth of atheist thinking in Australia. In this collection the authors have widely diverse backgrounds. There are historians, politicians, writers, lawyers, broadcasters, social workers, doctors, musicians, comedians, teachers, engineers, philosophers, scientists, bloggers, social scientists, anthropologists and psychologists. And then there are a few who hold positions in Australian atheist, humanist and sceptics organisations.

Warren Bonett, the editor, seems ideally placed as editor. He owns a bookshop, Embiggen Books, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which specialises in scientific and sceptical books. This generalist approach must explain his ability to contact such a wide and representative sample of authors.

I recommend this book to anyone at all interested in atheism down under. Even if your interest is limited to a narrow aspect like law, philosophy or education, rather than the movement as a whole. You will find something of interest and relevance here.

*A useful appendix in this book (’The Cost of Advancing Religion’) includes a table itemising the ’Cost of Religious Exemptions and Subsidies to Taxpayers.’ The estimated total for Australia is $31.1 billion!

See also: Warren Bonett – Down Under Reason. A point of inquiry interview where Bonett discusses this book.

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0 Responses to “Aussie wisdom”

  • Again, there is too much to comment on! I was going to touch on some of these issues in an earlier posting of yours, Ken, but a busy life caught up with me for a week or so and it seemed as if the blogosphere had moved on.

    Regarding the unfair support of faith groups: Much of Western society is built on Christian versions of the concepts of justice and the value of humans as something of more importance or mana than the rest of Creation. Unfortunately, it has been well over 100 years in major decline so that laws and systems are changed according to the whims of politicians and those who elected them, and not so much according to foundational principles. Prior to this decline, there was much that was seen as being of value from Christianity which was why it was legislated in favour of, and has continued (though at an ever decreasing rate) up until now.

    It was the rock-solid foundations, in the revealed word of God, for ethics and principles of love and positive community development that was why it was favoured.

    “Common” Christianity has changed so much as it has departed from the careful biblical interpretation of the Reformers that I don’t think it something worth supporting above secular “ways of life” any more.

  • OK, I’ll bite. <Much of Western society is built on Christian versions of the concepts of justice and the value of humans as something of more importance or mana than the rest of Creation.
    1. Many of the environmental problems we face today can be traced back to just that viewpoint. And unfortunately it’s one that remains quite prominent among the movers & shakers in countries like the US.
    And 2. – why is it that until recently, in Western societies that were presumably built upon these concepts, women and children were seen as having inherently fewer rights than men?

  • “there was much that was seen as being of value from Christianity’

    only if you were a white heterosexual male in the middle or upper classes!

    “Much of Western society is built on Christian versions of the concepts of justice and the value of humans as something of more importance or mana than the rest of Creation”
    As Alison has pointed out, this attitude has resulted in significant environmental problems.
    Furthermore the basic principles of justice and human values can be derived rationally and empathically without having to use christian (or any other religion) as its base.

  • @Alison:
    One of the original roles of men and women from Genesis was to be good stewards of God’s Creation. Pollution, anthropogenic climate change, excessive resource consumption, etc. are clearly not in line with respecting all that God has made. It’s not loving your neighbour (or successive generations) to contribute to this either. I don’t think anyone would try to justify such things from the Bible. They’re more a product of unchecked capitalism and selfishness of those with the power to increase their wealth perhaps?

    If you take the view that the trees, minerals, etc of the world/universe are of equal importance to people, then it is not necessarily unreasonable to sacrifice human life if it came down to a choice between one or the other. Within such a system of belief, that presents an interesting moral conundrum for justifying favouring humans! It would be easy to take Agent Smith’s position from the Matrix in that humanity is really just a virus.

    Recently I heard an account from Don Carson (I think) of how Martin Luther, one of the chief leaders of the Reformation during the 16th Century, would have extremely heated debates about scripture with his wife in the presence of his students. As you can imagine, such practise would’ve been unheard of at the time. The Reformers were well known for their uncompromising adherence to scriptural principles. While this account is not necessarily typical, it does show that the underlying principles are not restrictive of women in this context where our presupposition might believe otherwise. But for more concrete principles, it is true that the husband is expected to make the final call when a decision for the family must be made, and the wife and children are expected to submit to this. However, as my wife pointed out to me when we were studying the related passages in Ephesians prior to getting married, the husband is expected to listen to his wife and make the fairest and best informed decision for everyone; even to the point of sacrificing his own comfort or life for their welfare. Also, he can not force his wife to go against her conscience as she is ultimately answerable to God for her actions.

    From my perspective it seems that the Roman Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of the oppression of women in the west. I would say that they have a lot to answer for regarding oppression of anyone who was not the church hierarchy. You might not like it when Protestant Christians distinguish themselves from Roman Catholics, but the fact is that they are fundamentally different religions where it counts. Those differences play such a huge part in how each side of the divide propagates itself and how it interacts with the world. Instead of making this comment even longer, I’ll finish this part by saying that I’m sure there are more causes – nothing in life or history is ever so neat when it comes to human moral decisions. We can say that oppression and abuse of women and children is not in keeping with Biblical principles.

    But what is the fixed standard or guide upon which these principles would rest? Majority decision? Might is right? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Spock? Do we design society so that people can pursue their sexual appetites without inhibition as Julian Huxely postulated?

  • @samhight

    “But what is the fixed standard or guide upon which these principles would rest?”

    That’s a very good question and not one I think I can answer precisely. But my point is that “christian values” should not be treated as a default setting.
    I would certainly be more comfortable with a social and justice system based on logic tempered with empathy rather than based on religious writings of unconfirmable historical accuracy, written to guide behaviour in completely different societies which contain ideas and beliefs that have been disproven by science.
    I will say at this point I find some of the morality of christianity very laudable, however, these same beliefs can be arrived at from a purely secular and rational approach about how best to behave.