Kohn-descending: The Spirit of Things on secularism

16 12 2007

It strikes me that the most strident reaction to the recent work of atheism’s “Big Four” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens) has come from so-called moderate or liberal theists. For example, Terry Eagleton produced a scathing critique of The God Delusion soon after its release, in the blog Stanley Fish writes for the New York Times he disparagingly refers to Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens as “The Three Atheists,” and earlier this year Archbishop Rowan Williams himself got stuck into Dawkins. Sean has already posted on Tom Frame’s attack on secularism in <i>The Australian</i>.

Closer to home, ABC Radio National’s Religion Report and Rachael Kohn of The Ark and The Spirit of Things have been quite hostile to atheism. Kohn demonstrates this admirably on a recent episode of The Spirit of Things, “Secular Alternative?,” which in spite of its title–yes, Rachael, “secular” and “atheist” have different meanings–turns out to be another vehicle for Kohn to bag (her strawman definition of) atheism, either directly or via those she interviews.

Kohn has three guests on the show, which first aired prior to the 2007 Federal Election: Ian Bryce, an engineer and skeptic, and one of the Secular Party‘s NSW candidates for the Senate; Mark Vernon, a journalist and former priest who identifies himself as a “Christian agnostic” in order to distance himself from the strawman version of atheism he erects in his interview; and John Bacon, a philosopher at the University of Sydney who (as far as I can tell) would fall into the “agnostic theist” camp. The interviews with Vernon and Bacon would have to rank among the softest in the history of journalism. When Vernon remarks, “I can’t give up on religion,” Kohn responds with a hearty “Good for you!” When Bacon rather pompously asserts that “but I’m still trying to find the truth, whereas many of my colleagues have given up on that project,” Kohn’s refrain is “Well I hope you do find it.” Bryce, on the other hand, is not interviewed: he is patronised and talked down to, in that sickeningly saccharine sing-song voice for which Kohn is infamous (or ought to be). The difference in tone is stark, and the ABC should be ashamed of itself.

It’s not that the policies of the Secular Party shouldn’t be open to critique. Elsewhere, for instance, I’ve opposed their call to ban the wearing of religious garb in schools. That policy is not mentioned on The Spirit of Things, but there are a couple of elements of their position on religious education (at least as Bryce puts it) that I’m not altogether comfortable with. Certainly their advocacy of comparative religion as opposed to religious indoctrination is commendable. However,

we would [also] teach them the true origins of mankind, based on the origins of the solar system and the earth and the sun, and life on earth and animals and the human race. And that way they will see that religious beliefs that they’ve perhaps been taught at home, arose very late in the development of mankind, and are simply a cultural system rather than an underlying truth.

The true origins of mankind? It’s the language more than the sentiment that I object to here. If by “true” Bryce meant to say “scientifically factual,” then what he is advocating is entirely reasonable. Schoolchildren should be given access to scientific/evidence-based knowledge in the classroom, including evolution. And if such knowledge contradicts the dogmas students may have picked up elsewhere, so be it: such cognitive conflicts can be educational in themselves. But I think that in the absence of a good deal of qualification, the scope for which is limited in a radio interview, those who are critical of religious dogmatism and its influence on public policy should avoid lines like “the true origins of mankind.” Stick to fallibilism. Even dodgier is their proposal to replace religious instruction with the teaching “universal ethics,”

where they started with the idea that we’d respect beings which are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, sentient beings, hence the gold rule, which has always existed in human culture, to treat others as you’d like them to treat you; and universal ethics based on things like compassion and freedom and honesty and justice, and I believe that that sort of education system would help to dilute any indoctrination that they’re getting from home or from their clerics, and would lead to a more tolerant society.

Sorry, but as admirable as these ethical prescriptions may seem to me personally, the notion that they are universal is far from self-evident; it must be argued for, as do each of the ethical precepts the Secular Party deems to be “universal”. Otherwise, what you end up with is a set of dogmas that happens to have the label “Universal Ethics” appended to it. Same ol’, same ol’.

Perhaps the Secular Party would be better served if it advocated in favour of schools teaching skepticism and critical thinking: a by-product of which might be a more skeptical approach to religious nostrums, and a more rational approach to decision-making and policy.

Interestingly, Kohn doesn’t raise this objection. She seems perfectly at ease with the idea that we needn’t give a moment’s thought to why this or that ethical precept ought to be observed, as long as we can appeal to Divine Authority:

I can’t think of anything more reasonable than establishing a society based on laws that a community gives its assent to, and governs themselves by. Isn’t that what Moses did when he brought the Ten Commandments to the Israelites? Now there you have a situation where you’ve got a reasonable set of laws that have a religious base.

Bryce promptly points out the Commandments that are far from reasonable, and Kohn makes no effort to defend them. Instead she pulls the old atheism=communism card from the bottom of the deck, suggesting that societies “run with religion out of the picture” were “responsible for massacres on a grand scale.” Bryce rightly responds that such societies represent the opposite of what secularists advocate: that “all minorities, in fact all majorities and people of all persuasions and all genders and sexual preferences and races and so forth, should be treated with respect, and treated equally.” I would add that such examples do not in fact aid Kohn’s side of the argument, since they demonstrate what can happen when politics and policy-making is dominated by dogmatic thinking. If you think Kohn is scraping the bottom the barrel with her intimation that the Secular Party wants to transform Australian society into Stalinist Russia, strap yourselves in, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride from here. Kohn’s next question reads as follows:

So if this was the 1950s you wouldn’t be a member of the Communist party?

Is this your ABC, or World Net Daily?

Kohn asks:

How can you respect a religion or those who hold a religion when you believe that they’re absolutely false, as you say in the Secular Party website? I mean it’s incumbent upon you to confront the untruths of religious beliefs, so how can you foster this culture of tolerance and respect for religious beliefs?

This is Kohn at her most anti-democratic. Respect for those with religious affiliations does not mean we must respect the beliefs they hold, and it certainly doesn’t mean we must agree with them.

As for the remaining interviews, it is difficult to see exactly what they have to do with the topic of the episode–unless one accepts the (false) notion that secularism = atheism, which would just about rule out the possibility that one could be a Christian and yet still support the separation of church and state. Following Bryce, Kohn talks to one Mark Vernon. We find out that Vernon used to be a priest, then became an atheist, then became an agnostic. We find out that he’s written a book called After Atheism, which is founded on the strawman that atheists dogmatically believe that “everything can be explained by science,” and which argues that the world would be a better place if we all became agnostics like him. We also learn that he’s “religiously inclined” and that he’s “one of these people that tends to go to church quietly, maybe mid-week during the said services.” (In other words, he’s a non-theist who still wants to be part of the theist in-crowd.) But what we never learn is what any of this has to do with secularism, or with the role of religion in politics.

Likewise with John Bacon’s interview. We discover that he still thinks about God, and that he doesn’t think much of The God Delusion. He joins Kohn in misreading it. Again, we get his life story, but nothing remotely connected to the topic at hand. Who gives a shit? What atrocious journalism. What atrocious radio, and on the eve of a Federal Election, no less.

ABC: lift your game.

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4 responses

17 12 2007
seantheblogonaut

I found that all three interviewees left something to be desired. I winced at some of the things Bryce said and was yelling at the radio when he forgot to say things.

Vernon was bearable but wishy washy and I switched off when Bacon came on.

Kohn-Descending = priceless. I always thinking think that Kohn should be going to San Fransisco with flowers in her hair. She could do 1900 calls for the religious with that voice.

17 12 2007
AV

I winced at some of the things Bryce said and was yelling at the radio when he forgot to say things.

That was my impression also, but he seems to come across a lot better in the transcript. Nerves, perhaps? I do think he needed a lot more preparation–a glance at Kohn’s execrable diatribe against Dawkins’ Root of All Evil? in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year.

17 12 2007
AV

. . . would have helped.

17 12 2007
The “cult” of atheism and its detractors; faux-academics and the theologically partisan media « The Thinkers’ Podium

[…] Update: More shameful, prejudicial and dishonest anti-atheist bigotry at the ABC; this time its Rachael Kohn. […]

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