Sunday, April 19, 2015

How to end faith in a generation

I’ve been wondering for some time how it would be possible to end faith in a generation, and I’ve found some direction and hope.

I’ve just read Peter Boghossian’s ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’. He is a teacher of philosophy and critical thinking at Portland State University. His approach is one I can learn a lot from.

He defines faith as pretending to know something you don’t know. Faith is a failed epistemology (study of knowledge). An atheist is a person who does not think there is sufficient evidence to warrant a belief in God(s) who would believe if shown sufficient evidence, so does not pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to the creation of the universe, the purpose of life and so on. Being atheist is not an identity because if it is, then not believing in flying unicorns, or a teapot orbiting space would also be an identity. He uses Socratic questioning to talk to people of faith. He asks questions such as: what would it take for you to review what you think you know about your faith?+ He is not antagonistic - he is simply helping people to become better thinkers. His aim is not to win debates, but to lead people to question what they believe and why. He is respectful of people, but not of sloppy thinking. Like a parent, you can be respectful of the child, but criticise the child’s behaviour. He says we need to model openness and that it is important to maintain good relationships.

There are lots of issues he raises. For example, the idea of identity politics. Faith is not to be regarded as a point of identity like other factors such as gender and race. He talks about relativism - epistemological (the idea that any way to come to knowledge is as good as any other) and cultural. He takes the academy to task, covering classical and social liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, tolerance and Islam.

His direction forward is multi pronged. It includes challenging people about their faith wherever possible. We need to call out claims that don’t deserve respect. We need to call out faulty thinking. He wants our culture to include resources for children and adults that send the message that good thinking is a good basis upon which to make decisions and that it is OK to say you don’t know something. We should be comfortable with not knowing rather than believing things we have no evidence for. We need to value reason and rationality. We need to divorce morality from faith. We need to stop pretending people of faith are more moral. We need to stop treating religious groups as special. We need to treat faith claims with the same condemnation we treat racism. People who want to participate in making policy decisions who claim to know things they cannot know don’t deserve a seat at the table. Religious groups need to pay tax like every other group. We need to stop allowing religious groups into schools and running their own ‘educational’ institutions. In Australia we need to stop outsourcing government agencies to church groups - this is my addition. We need to adjust our use of language so that the word ‘faith’ is only used in religious contexts, and not as a synonym for ‘trust’ or ‘hope’. We need to stop using language that elevates faith, such as referring to gospel truth, God bless you, acts of God, thank God, in good faith etc. And we need to  change the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, to include religious delusion as a mental illness. At the moment there is an exception for religious faith*. These steps are all possible.

And, of course, many parents are raising their children to use reason rather than pretending to know things they don't know.

Surely this will be a big step towards world peace, gender equality, and basic human rights (so long as we also revise Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights regarding the right to freedom of religion and belief, and the right to manifest that religion and belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance - I’ll ask Peter about this when I meet him).

+For example, what if the bones of Jesus were found? Would that change people’s knowledge that Jesus rose from the dead? (No resurrection = no Christianity) If that is a possibility, how strong can that knowledge be?

And if the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damscus turns out to be caused by a falling meteorite, would that be cause to review belief in Jesus as saviour?

*DSM definition of delusion:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (eg, it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgement, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility. (2000, p. 765)  

On Volunteering

I have been a stay at home mum for fifteen years. I have been on P&Cs (my tenth year at primary school), been on the management committee for the local community centre, been on the committee for the preschool and the child care centre, written newsletters, made cookbooks, worked at uniform shop, mended costumes, approached business for donations for a Trivia Night, read with students, taught ethics, helped with school sport and fetes and made crafts, baked, started a local babysitting club, visited a local nursing home, been active in causes I support including being involved in a political party, in contributing to feminist and atheist causes, run bookgroups, and helped organise Mamapalooza festivals (supporting and promoting mothers in the creative arts). Other volunteers run sporting clubs, band committees, charities and campaign for change.

Stay at home mothers volunteer at school and in the community. (Of course, other parents do too - bear with me.) Some do this to boost their resumes. Some do it to take a break from their families. Some do it to socialise. Some do it to be taken seriously amongst adults.

Volunteering can be beneficial to women at home with kids, but it can also turn into a double edged sword. Being away from the family in the evenings may cause resentment amongst the fathers (or co-parent) who don’t want the responsibility of cleaning up after dinner and putting children to bed. Voluntary work can put a strain on family relationships in the same way that paid work does. It means the parent is thinking of other things besides being with children and running the household. I’m not suggesting women should always be thinking about their care work in the home - I’m not. I’m just saying volunteer work is work that takes time and thought. I certainly spent a lot of time on the phone at home when I was president of the local community centre (even though I, and other members of the executive, didn't live in that community).

Part of the problem is that women’s work is not valued. A woman’s voluntary work may be building social capital, but it doesn’t bring in money. When women are doing voluntary work they are giving it away for free. Their skills aren’t acknowledged. They are working in a parallel, alternate economy. Just as child-care workers are underpaid because mothers do similar work for free, so it is in fundraising and organising for social groups.

What does this mean for feminist mothering? It means that women are contributing to the bigger community when they may not otherwise have a voice. But it also means that women, by doing voluntary work, and fulfilling their needs that might otherwise be fulfilled by paid work but without being paid, creates a problem. It has longterm implications for a woman’s lifetime income. It may mean paying rent out of her pension when she is older since she doesn’t earn an income to buy property and hasn’t worked long enough to accumulate superannuation. It means depending on a partner for economic security and, perhaps, compromising personal happiness in her relationship due to economic factors.

What does it mean in terms of feminism and social change? Volunteering has always been the way to make change happen. None of the great change movements would have happened without people volunteering their time and skills to make change happen. But there is a personal cost. It would probably be more effective to make change happen whilst employed and climbing the career ladder to hold positions of authority.

For me, volunteering has meant connection with people in my community. This is something that is important to me for its own sake, but has had unexpected consequences. When I started the babysitting club in 2004 I could not have foreseen how the members of that club would rally around by creating a dinner roster for my family when I was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012.

Enforced volunteering is still used by government for people who are long term unemployed. What were once government services are now privatised and run by church groups. These church groups enforce the rule that people who have been unemployed for a year need to volunteer for fifteen hours a week in order to stay on Centrelink benefits. Guess where they ask people to volunteer? At their church run charities. Obviously, this is a rort and unethical. Does my fifteen years of volunteering count? No it doesn’t.

When the UK introduced austerity measures a few years ago and shut down community programs for people in need, David Cameron announced that more people would have to do more volunteering the fill the gaps. No.That's too much to ask of people who already carers.

What I’m seeing now is volunteer burnout. Schools and community groups are set up to run on the availability of volunteers. Those volunteers are often no longer available, or, if available, concentrating on one group and not others. You can’t do everything. Just as school canteens were once run by volunteers but are now outsourced to businesses, other services are being outsourced, and maybe they should be. Schools can now employ people to run the uniform shop, or to apply for grants. These are jobs that suit people who would otherwise invest their time and skills without reward. What I’m seeing is the constant call for volunteers in all sorts of community groups. I really can’t do everything, and I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve done plenty of work for free and now I need to be paid.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone was expected to have a separate volunteering resume? Could this be recognised by government and contribute towards superannuation in some way? Wouldn’t it be good if people asked the question ‘where do you volunteer?’ as a matter of course rather than the usual status defining questions. Is there more of a culture of volunteering in countries where
work/life/family balance is more of a given. Wouldn’t it be healthy for everyone to contribute to community efforts. I see an impossible expectation placed on parents of school aged children. Wouldn’t it be good if people without care responsibilities could help out? Wouldn't it be good if volunteering gained credit that counted towards superannuation, or some other system of economics that counts in a capitalist society. Otherwise, we need to just wind everything down.

I’m turning the focus of my voluntary work to bigger issues. If we had proper funding and resourcing of services that matter, we would not need so much volunteering. You might remember the t shirt that went something like  ‘If only the government funded schools properly and had a cake stall to buy fighter jets’.* Well I’m now concentrating on policy and politics. That’s where it’s at. 

I'm certainly not helping raise funds for bands to go on overseas trips.

*tea towel here

Monday, April 06, 2015

Half Baked Ideas after Reading Helen Razor and Bernard Keanes’ 'A Short History of Stupid'

Identity Politics

At a conference I attended last year a guest speaker introduced herself by stating her identifying factors - she was cisgender, temporarily able bodied, mother to a gay son and so on.

This is the thing now, that we must declare ourselves so that we are clear we are only speaking for ourselves and not for anyone else. As a white women I can’t speak on behalf of a black woman. As a Catholic raised atheist I can’t speak on behalf of Muslim women. But our identifying factors can go on forever. Some of my identifying factors might overlap with other people’s. Others won’t.

Is this in any way helpful? Are we doing it to prevent the accusation that as a white feminist, educated, temporarily able-bodied but with a cancer experience, blah blah, I can’t speak for any other type of woman. I can’t speak for transgender women. It also means we need some new words to identify who transgender, intersex, gender fluid people have sex with because homo/hetero/bi isn’t very specific unless you are cigender. And what about asexuals? Do they need to declare themselves? I’m thinking it is all getting so silly we should drop identifying ourselves and just accept people as people and move along. What we want to talk about shouldn’t be defined by our identifying factors, or are our stories about ourselves the core thing about us, rather than what ideas we might have and how we might think?

Which leads into the problem I have with the idea that the personal is political in feminism and women’s studies. Yes, we need to hear women’s stories, but we also want women to think, to contribute, beyond their own experiences. It also ties into my problem with creative non-fiction - that the writer is core to the story. Frankly, I don’t care about Helen Garner’s dreams and what she ate for lunch when she is telling someone else’s story.

Then how do we define our common spaces and common experiences? If I start a Feminist Book Group should it be open to anyone who identifies as feminist, even though we might have different definitions? Are people who trans from female to male rejecting the feminine? Are people who trans from male to female autoeroticising? Are we all just performing our identifying factors because we’ve been socialised to anyway?

I can see it was useful some years ago - identifying which groups were not gaining access to power. Is there any value in this, identity politics, or is it all now wankery?


A little recap on Derrida. He’s the French philosopher and linguist who said ‘There is nothing outside the text’. From this, all meaning is relative so there is no dependable truth, morality or ethics. He invented deconstruction, which enables a reader/viewer to focus on an arbitrary thing, because there is no core meaning to a text and no foundation of meaning. And since language consists of binary opposites, one privileged over the other, to name something is to state what it is not. Something is absent. This provides an opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a text, which, I’ve been trained to think, is worthwhile.

After these ideas school students can study texts which some people, such as Christopher Pyne and Kevin Donnelly, would deem unworthy of serious study. All this has fallen out of favour in recent years, but some basic ideas of Derrida’s survive. I think we now agree that some texts are more meaningful and worthy than others, generally speaking. But, Razor argues, we still try to find meaning where there is none, for example, in pastries created by contestants in cooking shows. And we now have many more texts and fewer shared meanings and ways of knowing what is important and what isn’t.

So what? Well, this brings to mind conversations about studying the bible, a text Christians would say is meaningful and important. They study it as a closed text - there is nothing outside the text. I’ve done this in my studies of literature, which is fine, but it isn’t OK if you don’t talk about the purpose of the text, or if you treat it as an historical document or as an exclusive instruction for how to live. To use it to prove events in history would require corroboration from other sources. What is it? Because, following Derrida, if there is nothing outside the text (the bible) then there is no core meaning (in the bible). The same could be said of any sacred text treated the same way. In my experience it is religious followers, moral absolutists,  who complain about moral relativism. If you read a sacred text as a closed system, you are a relativist.

My other issue is, as a teacher of literature, the syllabus focuses on studying texts within a concept, looking at purpose, context, tone, and literary techniques and how they shape meaning. We still assume there is meaning. I’m trying to encourage students to not just cruise along with the perceived meanings of texts, handed down over time, but to read them for themselves to find their own meanings. For example, on a recent reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I noticed Puck ends the play with a list of birth defects he hopes the lovers’ children won’t have. In terms of Bottoms’ ass-head being central to the play, what could you argue in a reading based on disability? This is how I’ve been trained to read. Such a reading from an HSC student would garner a decent mark, I suspect. But does it really change the meaning of a text, which could also be about the randomness of love, and that we aren’t in control of our own lives? We teach students that they can argue any thesis, the more original the better, so long as the thesis is supported by the text. And the text can be a closed system. Doesn’t mean the text is an instruction on how to live, or it could be, but it doesn’t purport to be an exclusive instruction. Different readings create different meanings. And how does this fit with intertextuality?

And, I’ll add, it irks me that ‘deconstruct’ is now used as a verb synonymous with ‘analyse’ in the English classroom. Confuses me. And will confuse students when they get to university and study critical theory.

Anyone with more time, fewer interruptions or a bigger brain than mine - please help me make sense of all this. Or feel free to advise me to give up on sense and just have fun.

Adventures in War

I’m interested in how the adventure of war will be given meaning for the commemoration of the landing of Gallipoli at a time when were are trying to stop young men from travelling to find adventures in war.

How do we reframe our story of Gallipoli?

In 1824  Lord Byran fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and died. Should Byran have had his passport cancelled before he could fight overseas?

What of the Spanish Civil War, in which, it is estimated, 35,000 foreign volunteers fought? This was a cause supported by many mainstream writers between 1936 and 1939.

When I worked in the public service in 1984-5 I was friends with a man who had fought with the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. A lawyer, he was at the time campaigning for election as a Liberal candidate. I’m thinking this part of his background has since been expunged. He is a barrister.

Schools teach critical thinking (which I like to call ‘thinking’). Schools teach for social justice and encourage students to be active for change, by being good global citizens.

How do these fit with young Australians going off to fight in the Middle East? How do we redirect the energies of potential fighters, who may end up on the wrong side of history?

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Mamapalooza 2015

Here’s what we’re doing for Mamapalooza 2015.

We are hosting an art show at ANU School of Art, called Intertwined, starting Monday 4 May. There are nine exhibiting artists, most of whom will be speaking to their works on Saturday 9 May.

We have a Mama Comedy Night, hosted by Lou Pollard, at Django Bar, Marrickville on Thursday 28 May, 7.30pm. I think I laugh loudest at our Comedy Nights.

And we are endorsing plays about domestic violence, called RHYMES WITH SILENCE A collection of plays about domestic violence. These are produced by Joy Roberts, who put on the Mothers plays last year. The plays are running 15 May - 23 at Project 107 Redfern.

See you there!