As many of you may know, Warren Bonett one of the owners of Embiggen Books has been working for 18 months on editing the book The Australian Book of Atheism. It collects together many of the best voices in Australian freethought of recent years, some well known in the regular media others less so but active at the grassroots. Here’s what some of these Australian atheists have to say on the book: Chrys Stevenson, Russell Blackford, and Kylie Sturgess.
Below we’ve included the contents page as well as the first couple of pages of the introduction to give you a flavour of the book. Note the book will be on sale at TAM Australia in Sydney (Nov 26-28) and all other bookshops from the 1st of December. The book showcases the thoughts of prominent humanists, skeptics and atheists on religious matters on the Australian social, political and educational landscape.
Here’s the editor, Warren Bonett in an interview on Point of Inquiry podcast and radioshow. You can also see him deliver a talk at the 2010 Australian Humanists Convention. Also here’s Russell Blackford in his talk at Embiggen Books.
• Chrys Stevenson (Historian), Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies- The history of Australian atheism
• Max Wallace (Australia New Zealand Secular Assoc), The Constitution, Belief and the State
• Clarence Wright(Lawyer, Brisbane Atheists), Religion, and the Law in Australia
• Robyn Williams (The Science Show, Radio National), A Part-time Atheist
• Dr Colette Livermore (former Sister of Mercy nun), Atheism: an explanation for the believer
• Tanya Levin (former Hillsong member, feminist, author People In Glass Houses), Above Rubies
• Hon. Lee Rhiannon (former MP, Senate candidate), Growing up Atheist
• David Horton (BA, BSc, MSc, PhD, DLitt – biologist, archaeologist), Agnostics are Nowhere Men
• Tim Minchin (entertainer), Storm
• Hugh Wilson (Australian Secular Lobby), Public Education in Queensland
• Peter Ellerton (Australian Skeptics, Winner of the 2008 Prize for Critical Thinking), Theology is Not Philosophy
• Professor Graham Oppy (Philosopher of Religion), Evolution vs Creationism in Australian Schools
• Graeme Lindenmayer (Rationalist Society of Australia), Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory
• Kylie Sturgess (Podblack Cat/Token Skeptic), Atheism 2.0
• Dr Martin Bridgstock (Senior Lecturer, Biomolecular and Physical Sciences), Religion, Fundamentalism & Science
• Dr Philip Nitschke (Founder/Director Exit International), Atheism & Euthanasia
• Alex McCullie (blogger, CAE tutor on Atheist Philosophy), Progressive Christianity: A Secular Response
• Dr Leslie Cannold (Bioethicist), Abortion in Australia
• Jane Caro (Author, Social Commentator), Why Gods are Man-Made
• Dr Karen Stollznow (Point of Inquiry Podcast Host, Bad Language Blog), Spiritualism & Pseudoscience
• Rosslyn Ives (Council of Australian Humanist Societies) Life, Dying & Death
• Hon. Ian Hunter MLC, Prayers in Australian Parliament
• Lyn Allison (former Senator), Ever Wondered Why God is a Bloke?
• Michael Bachelard (Journalist), Politics and The Exclusive Brethren
• Dr Russell Blackford (Philosopher, co-editor 50 Voices of Disbelief), Free Speech
• Dr John S Wilkins (Philosopher), The Role of Secularism in Protecting Religion
• Warren Bonett (Editor), Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?
• Dr Robin Craig (Geneticist, Philosopher), Good without God
• Ian Robinson (Rationalist Society of Australia), Atheism as a Spiritual Path
• Professor Peter Woolcock (Humanist, Ethicist), Atheism & the Meaning of Life
• Dr Tamas Pataki (Philosopher), Religion & Violence
• Dr Adam Hamlin (Neuroscientist), The Neurobiology of Religious Experience
• Dr Rosemary Lyndall Wemm (Neuropsychologist), The Neurology of Belief
It’s often proclaimed that Atheism is another religion, and that as atheists we are just attempting to replace god-based religions with the worship of materialism and rationality. Such criticisms assume atheists are all of one mind, probably Richard Dawkins’. Some atheists believe we should sit back and let the secularising hand of history slowly take its toll; others, that we should lobby for specific and widespread changes to religious tax exemptions and the preferential treatment religion receives in the media; and still others don’t even think there’s any problem at all. The Australian Book of Atheism is the first attempt to bring to light the range of thought among Australian atheists about these issues.
The idea for this book first germinated when I was living in London, where I saw videos of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins speaking about how well low-religiosity societies function (in terms of education, crime rates, politics, et cetera) in comparison to America. They named Australia as one of these countries. After many conversations with friends and family, it became obvious to me that most people I knew, and even those I had seen in the media, felt that Australia was largely uninfluenced by religion in most ways that mattered. I had so many factoids bubbling away in my head that I felt refuted this but, other than a little blogging and online forum discussions, there seemed to be no way of bringing them to a wider audience. And who was I to do so, anyway?
My thought was, we need more Philip Adameses and more Jane Caros, and perhaps a locally based Christopher Hitchens or two. So after a little researching with my friend Chrys Stevenson in early 2009, I wrote to around 80 Australians who at one time or another had publicly expressed discomfort with the position of religion in Australian society, and we were off. As we reached the 25-contributor mark, the Atheist Foundation of Australia announced that they would be co-hosting the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne the following year. This prompted a bit more public discussion than usual. One common question was: if atheists don’t believe in anything, what do they have to talk about?
In order to fully answer this question, we need first to explain what it is we mean by ‘atheism’. Given that atheists are frequently derided as immoral, intolerant, cold-hearted, evil, racist, strident, misguided, and ‘just waiting for that last-minute conversion before death’, it’s probably a good place to do this. The Atheist Foundation of Australia defines atheism as ‘the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural’. While compelling on its own, this definition isn’t quite enough to form a strong naturalistic atheist stance because, as Carl Sagan has written, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.
In all our observation and analysis of the universe, using everything from electron microscopes to radio telescopes, we’ve never found anything that even vaguely corresponds to a supremely powerful ‘thing’ of natural or supernatural character. That is a substantial tick in the absence-ofevidence-for-God box on your next census form. For me, the evidence of absence is given strong support by the masses of data described and verified by anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology that reveal humans to be a pattern-seeking species prone to finding agency in anything from lightning bolts to cheese on toast.
By way of illustration, did you ever notice the instant flash of anger a person displays towards an object after stubbing their toe? An instant reaction that bypasses reason, holding the object responsible for their injury, even if only for a split second. In pre-scientific times, it wasn’t just compelling to believe in spirits, demons, and gods imbuing objects and phenomena with causality; it was simply the only thing that made sense. Today, we’ve learned that storms and famine don’t happen because the gods are angry. Given that such ideas arose from errors of perception combined with cultural tales, it seems to me there’s no good reason whatsoever to even entertain the idea of a supernatural causal agent. So without such perceptual mistakes made by our distant ancestors, the stories surrounding them probably wouldn’t have arisen, and the notion of a god may have never emerged, so the religions which grew around them would not have formed.
With this knowledge about ourselves on one side and the lack of evidence for a deity on the other, I feel confident enough to call myself a strong atheist — in the same way that I’m strongly of the view that malicious gremlins don’t inhabit my dreadful internet connection and Santa Claus isn’t coming down my chimney at Christmas time.
Another important point in terms of defining atheism is that even believers are ‘non-believers’ — toward gods that are not their own. For instance, a Muslim or a Christian doesn’t believe that the ancient Greek gods exist, so they can be said to be atheist towards Greek gods. They are probably also non-believers as far as Kali, the Rainbow Serpent, Uzume, Osiris, and Woden are concerned. Full atheists merely go one god further. You’d think this would give us plenty of common ground but, ironically, theists often unite with other believers in their condemnation of atheists, while using their own atheism about other faiths to keep from cooperating to any meaningful degree on almost everything else. It’s quite perplexing that they find nonbelief a bigger threat than the political and military power of other faiths that would prefer them either permanently sidelined, dead, or perhaps just tortured for eternity in the lava pits of hell. Unless they convert, of course — which is an option right up to the last minute!
Even armed with the knowledge that our cause-seeking brains are predisposed to jump to supernatural conclusions based on limited information, and that most religions in history are now defunct, many atheists agree with theists that religion and belief in God remains both good and necessary for the human condition — in particular, the idea that religion and belief in something ‘more’ keeps the bleakness from our lives and helps console the grief-stricken. It’s simply accepted by a large segment of society, many atheists included, that religious scriptures and tradition provide meaning.
(This is an excerpt from the Introduction of The Australian Book of Atheism, courtesy Scribe and Warren Bonett©, 2010)