Aussie wisdom

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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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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16 responses to “Aussie wisdom

  1. THis book is certainly one of the best books i have read on the subject of Bullshit aka. Religion. I am a bedraggled refugee from the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church. 40 years ago I got some sense and became Atheist. For about the last 10 years since having the Internet I have been able to learn to TRUTH about Religion and the foundations of Judea/Christianity and how and when the “Holy” Bible was written. I am a paid up member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia. I had a fantastic time at the Global Atheist Convention listening to words of wisdom from people with brains.

    The Australian book of Atheism is a valuable work. not only for Atheists, but for any Christians who are having doubts about Religion. Even I found information I did not know. I doubt if brain poisoned Christians would read it. They would not understand it, more is the pity.

    Christianity is dying fast in Australia. I hope this book will finish it off quickly. I wish I could be as confident about the United Christian States of America. But that is another story – a very sad story.


  2. “I doubt if brain poisoned Christians would read it. They would not understand it, more is the pity.”

    It is this sort of statement that makes me not take atheists seriously. Discussing philosophy with people with different views is something I enjoy – but I so often find that militant atheists are incapable of doing so without resorting to name calling.


  3. Great poem!


  4. I don’t think you are a Christian of the “brain poisoned” type, Max, so I imagine Robert isn’t talking about you. You probably would understand much of the book if you read it.

    I agree name calling is not helpful – but a glaring example you used aitomaticaly is “militant” atheist- this seems to be one of the popular emotive terms used by certain Christians (dare I call them “militant”, angry”, “strident”). Terms like this almost seem inevitable in such articles.

    I think non-theists have been fair game in the abuse department ever since the Psalm verse described us as “fools”, “hopelessly debauched and immoral” etc.

    Understandable if we sometimes retaliate. I must admit I do use the terms “militant” and “strident” a bit. Where I think it justified.


  5. “…but a glaring example you used aitomaticaly is “militant” atheist….”

    Yes. That was somewhat ironic wasn’t it…


  6. Yes, good points made, Ken. As I do not know where you and Max live I am at a disadvantage. I am beweldered at how many Americans call themselves Christians – about 93% is the last number. Of those 40% believe the bible is the inerrant “Word Of God” and that the World was “created” in 6 days beginning on the 3rd. October 4004 BCE at 9: am. I am also disgusted at the State of Texas requiring “Creation/Creation Science/Intelligent Design” to be taught in State Schools preferrably instead of the TRUE FACTS of Evolution as proved by Science. I hear that other Bible Belt States are considering the same actions.

    I also know for a fact that Atheist are the least liked and trusted people in America. You hear much name calling spewed out at them from the pulpits of bible thumping FundaMENTAList Preachers such as Pat Robertson etc.
    This is why I am strident in my comments about “Brain-poisoned” Christians.

    To conclude: Max, Have you read the Australian Book of Atheism? If not, do so. Then you might learn something.


  7. I am beweldered at how many Americans call themselves Christians – about 93% is the last number.

    Well, a percentage of that is cultural inertia.
    Happens in Australia too, which is why there’s an awareness campaign about it.

    Atheism has done surprisingly well in America in a very short space of time.
    In many respects, it’s following the pattern established by the gay rights movement of the 70’s.
    What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement :: SSA 2010 New England Leadership Conference


  8. Robert, I am a Kiwi (living in Hamilton). Max lives in Dunedin and, I think, is also a Kiwi.

    I attended the Melbourne Convention and was impressed with some of the Aussie speakers as well as the international one’s. Hence my interest in the book.


  9. “Max, Have you read the Australian Book of Atheism? If not, do so. Then you might learn something.”

    I am sure I would. Fortunately – I guess – the Christians I have met in Dunedin have not resembled the American version you talk about… I have never really met people like that in large numbers, which is why I find I can’t relate to a lot of atheist objections to Christianity… they are just not attacking something I am really that familiar with.


  10. I have books by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchy and Dennet on my shelf, … am I going to find anything new in this book that would make it worth buying?

    (serious question – not being factitious)


  11. Max,
    Thanks for that reply.I live on the Gold Coast, Queensland. I now know you don’t bite as much as I thought you might. Is that correct that you have been a Bible student? Studying Bible can lead to Atheism. I too have to books you have plus “Unearthing the Bible”, Finklestein and “Godless” by Dan Barker whom you wuld have heard at the GAC.
    Yes, buy the Australian Book of Atheism. It is a suprisingly good book.


  12. Yes – I study biblical studies… New Testament stuff. A lot of people who come to University as biblical literalists/fundamentalists tend to get quite a shock if they take any Biblical Studies papers. Less so if they take Theology papers sadly… they are not the same subject area. Biblical studies utilizes tools taken from archeology, history, literary analysis and many other disciples. But I did not find that my studies led me to atheism – quite the opposite. I was more leaning towards atheism or a spong-style liberalism when i started to study – but find my studies have strengthened my beliefs.


  13. That suprises me Max. Are they teaching you correctly? Archaeology and History does nothing to prove the Bible, even the NT. In fact they disprove the Bible. What did they say about Josephus? That his passage in Bk XVIII of “Antiquities” : “There was a man named Jesus, if you can call him a man—-” was a later forged addition by Eusebius for the benefit of Christians. Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus were NOT Eyewitnesses, nor were Saul/Paul nor the persons unknown who wrote the Gospels. Did they teach you about the First Council of Nicea 325 CE where Constantine I founded the Roman Catholic Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire for political purposes and how he directed which scriptures where to me in the Bible and which ones were to be destroyed?
    There is no evidence Jesus ever existed. His “Sayings” in the Gospels are only taken from passages in the Psalms. My reference for that is John Dominic Crossan: “Who Killed Jesus”. He is a former Roman Catholic Priest, still Roman Catholic, but quesions much in the bible.
    But many people more qualified than you and me in Biblical Studies have turned Atheist because of their studies. Dan Barker is a noteable one, a former Evangalical Pastor, now very active Atheist.
    I agree that you have the right to your beliefs. I am not trying to convert you.
    I will just say this. If you believe in Genesis and Exodus, think again. There is not one scrap of evidence that the Exodus ever occurred. 2 million Hebrews escaping from Egypt thus depleting it’s estimated population of about 3 million, then wandering the Sinai for 40 years. Archaeologists have been digging there since 1920 and found NOTHING. I mean qualified Archaeologists who do not dig with a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other hand, not quacks like Ron Wyatt.

    em hotep
    “May your god go with you”. (Dave Allen)
    Rev. Dr. Robert Tobin (Minister, First Church of Atheism) PhD Heresy, PhD Disbelief (Logidea University), FCD.


  14. “That suprises me Max. Are they teaching you correctly?”

    Sigh. Who is this ‘they’? Given i have read papers and books written by scholars from Universities all over the world I guess you are asking me do people who are experts in their field and have dedicated decades to studying a topic know what they are talking about. I would say that is a self-evident yes.

    “Archaeology and History does nothing to prove the Bible, even the NT. In fact they disprove the Bible.”

    I am not sure what you mean by “prove” the Bible – much less what “disproving” the Bible would consist of. Prove or disprove what in particular? This is a far too complex issue to get into here. Now I don’t want to be boastful – and I am no real scholar – but I have been studying these texts in their original language (to the best of my ability) full time for several years – you surely can’t think that the questions you are asking are new to me – or ones I have not considered?

    Do “They” teach me about all the things you mention. Yes. I have been studying this area for several years. And “they” (ie. the scholars of the world) do actually mention things to do with Bibilical studies. (shakes head in disbelief)

    “What did they say about Josephus?”

    Do you expect me to summerize the last few years of scholarship on Josephus for you?!

    “Constantine I founded the Roman Catholic Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire for political purposes and how he directed which scriptures where to me in the Bible and which ones were to be destroyed?”

    The formation of canon is a complex story and not summarized by this simplistic sentence of yours! (whatever the Da Vinci Code might tell you 🙂 )

    “There is no evidence Jesus ever existed.”

    Smile :). I thought you might have been reading someone like Crossan when I read this! I think even the biggest Jesus-mythers (who are a vast minority of historians – even secular atheistic ones) would say there is SOME evidence Jesus existed. They might say it is poor evidence.. but to say there is NO evidence makes you sound like a foil on the head conspiracy theorist.

    “I will just say this. If you believe in Genesis and Exodus, think again.”

    Now what do you mean by “believe in” here? But before you start “being amazed” at my faith you could ask what it is first! I realize that you come from an environment where “believe” means to take every word of the Bible as God’s literal inerrant word.. but this is not what I mean, and it is mildly frustrating to have people assume this when you say you are a believer.


  15. Max,
    I think we shall have to agree to disagree. Just a couple ot points:
    “I have been studying these texts in their original language “. Good on you. I am too old to learn to read Hebrew and Classical Greek. But what Codices have you been reading? You do realise they are all bad copies of copies with many mis-translations. Again, we do not have any original authored Manuscripts, and unverifed copies would not be acceptable in Court of Law.
    “whatever the Da Vinci Code might tell you” I see your smile, but why did you introduce the Da Vinci Code into this conversation? I never did and never would. I do like it. I have the book and movie, but never use it in any discussion about Christianity. It is not relevant.

    Next: “I realize that you come from an environment where “believe” means to take every word of the Bible as God’s literal inerrant word.”

    Environment? The Roman Catholic Church! I spent 12 years of my valuable youth in a Jesuit “Concentration Camp”, Xavier College in Melbourne. We never did much of the OT – only Genesis and Exodus. The rest with all the Genocide, Slaughter and Debauchery is an embarrasment to the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church. As far as Christians in Australia are concerned, very few would be fundamentalist Christians like the American ones: “Literal Inerrant Word of God”.

    I love your assesment of Crossan, ex Father John Dominic Crossan, still a Roman Catholic. It’s a wonder the CDF has not been after him, Herr Papst Ratslinger’s Gestapo, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly know as ths Holy Office of the Inquisition.
    em hotep.
    Rev. Dr. Robert Tobin PhD.


  16. ” You do realise they are all bad copies of copies with many mis-translations. Again, we do not have any original authored Manuscripts….”

    Did you not get the part about how I have been studying this discipline full time for several years?


    Thanks for the personal background – good to see some honesty on this website! I have many friends who would find your flippant use of the term concentration camp rather offensive – but lets let that one slide. Sorry you had a hard time of it though. HOWEVER – I think you are confusing a church school with a reputable secular university department. Not quite the same thing. 🙂


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