50 Voices of Disbelief, an interview with Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenkby
Have you ever wondered why Michael Shermer is an atheist, or Margaret Downey, or A.C. Grayling, or James Randi, or Victor Stenger, or many other well known atheists? You will be able to find out this coming fall. The new book “50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists” by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk is a collection of essays by some of the most prominent on why they are atheists. Inspirational stories and philosophical monologues will provide a doorway into the author’s life, and shed some light on their journey to the land of non-belief.
Both authors agreed to a small interview to tell readers more about their book and why they’ve decided to create it. If you’re intrigued by this book, read this interview and you will see that it is a must read for any atheist. If you’re still hiding in the “closet”, this book will inspire and give you energy to kick the door open and tell everyone that you’re an atheist. Just think about it, reading these stories is like having conversations with Austin Dacey, Peter Singer, Lori Lipman Brown, and many more. Why not immerse yourself into the lives of your favorite authors and people you admire?
Udo Schuklenk. Photo credit: Landry Karege
Whose initial idea was it to create this book and why?
Udo: I think it was my idea. I have been involved in academic publishing for some 15 years or so by now and at one point one gets a reasonable sense for what might or might not work in the market place. We have seen a series of monographs by folks like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, all of which were wildly successful. It seems the time is ripe for a project where high-profile people from all walks of public life are given an opportunity to declare their disbelief, as well as their reasons for not buying into the fairy tale of an all-knowing, all-powerful, good God. I guess my main motive was some kind of frustration (that’s putting it mildly) about religious people’s published musings about how they "struggled to find God" only to eventually succumb to the delusions we all know too well. It seemed only fair game to me to let reality-based people explain why they did better.
Russell: Yes, it was Udo's idea. Of course, I jumped at it when he asked me to come on board. I was enthusiastic about the idea and flattered that he thought my skills would be useful.
Russell Blackford. Courtesy of Russell Blackford.
How did Russell get involved in this project?
Udo: Russell and I knew each other professionally. He and I studied and worked at one point at Monash University, both of us work within bioethics, and both of us are known atheists. I asked him how he felt about putting together an anthology of Voices of Disbelief (the title was conceived in the end by Russell), and it didn’t take much to persuade him that this was a viable project.
Russell, on your blog you mentioned that the book was originally called Voices of Disbelief. Did the publisher recommend a different title or was there something else that brought the change?
Russell: Voices of Disbelief was our working title for most of the project, but we discussed a number of possible variations even during the earliest phases, before we found a publisher. At one stage we were thinking of something like Why I Am Not A Believer: Voices of Disbelief. Throughout the process of putting the book together, we returned from time to time to the question of the final title - in discussions with each other, with editorial staff at Wiley-Blackwell, and, on a few occasions, in talking to individual contributors.
The important thing, was to have something punchy and commercially attractive, while also emphasizing the many and diverse perspectives, or "voices", included in the book. The specific reference to atheism in thre sub-title was proposed by Wiley-Blackwell staff, insofar as it signals that the book contributes to the same debate about religion as the so-called "New Atheist" books of Richard Dawkins and others whom Udo has mentioned – though there's a question about what the New Atheism really is …
Also, it became apparent towards the end of the work on the book - as we got a clearer and clearer idea of the final line-up - that the eventual number of contributors/essays would be very close to exactly fifty, a nice round number. We've actually ended up with fifty essays, fifty contributors in addition to the two editors, and fifty-two contributors in total (since each editor has written an essay, but two of the essays have two co-authors each).
Along with the folks at Wiley-Blackwell, we brainstormed several variations of these elements, as well as some possible titles that would have been quite different. The way I remember it, I made a suggestion at the end that involved using the "50" on the cover, though I didn't actually mean as part of the title. The final title was a version of my suggestion that then came back from the folks at Wiley-Blackwell. It brought together everything that we'd been talking about. We signed off on that version straight away. It felt right to both of us.
People say don't judge the book by its cover, but before we get inside the book we need to know what the cover represents. From my research I understand that there was another cover considered, a collage of images of contributors. Why a blown out candle with smoke floating off to the side?
Udo: My own preference was for a cover featuring thumbnail images of each contributor, but we faced logistical difficulties getting those organized. Also, the publishers’ marketing people were probably rightly concerned that this just wasn’t a striking enough cover design to motivate people perusing books in bookstores to pick up the volume and open it.
The flickering candle is normally understood as a symbol of believers’ connection with their imaginary God. Our intention, of course, is to sever that link and accordingly we blew the candle out on our cover. I am curious whether people who see the cover will see it that way…
Russell: There may be some confusion around arising from the fact that Roy Natian was kind enough to put together a very simple collage of some of the contributors to go on the book's Facebook group, pending the final cover being decided. But the Facebook image that Roy created was only a place marker, and we never looked at an actual cover along those lines – as Udo says, it was logistically difficult to do it properly. We actually considered a large number of images, but settled on the candle design for its power and for its classy appearance.
Actually, though, I don't "read" the symbolism in the way that Udo describes. I expect that that will be how most people see it initially, but I hope they'll then do a cognitive shift to seeing it as the candle of reason or Enlightenment, which is blown out in so many places and circumstances by religious nonsense. As we say in the book's introduction, it is very difficult to keep the candle of reason alight at a time when unreason in many forms is resurgent. But each essay is one small effort on behalf of the candle of reason, one contribution to keeping it alight. That reinterpretation is reinforced by the interior design: when you open the book, you see one lit candle for each essay, on the essay's first page!
This reminds me of Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”. In this book he writes,
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
I think this is the perfect example of how a blown out candle is a result of religious superstition, invading the light of reason and logic. I’m just curious, did Carl Sagan’s popular “candle in the dark” metaphor play any role in the cover?
Russell: In my case, yes, I was aware of Sagan's imagery at the time we were choosing the cover, and of the passage you've quoted, though other authors have also used this image and I don't know whether Sagan was the first. Whether or not he was, he certainly popularized it, and the passage is one that's worth remembering and returning to from time to time.
Udo, your March 17th, 2009 blog entry mentions publication date as September 10th, but Amazon lists it as October 19th. Why was the date pushed back?
Udo: Nothing sinister here, simply small delays in the production process.
Russell: We are still looking at September 10 in the UK and October 19 in the US, but we were originally hoping for something more like August. The exact date of publication of any book is always a little bit flexible – even if a manuscript is delivered on time, which ours pretty much was, there is always a great deal that happens in the production process between then and final publication.
Is this book part of the New Atheism movement? Why or why not?
Russell: Well, what's the New Atheism movement? I think the expression is often used pejoratively to attack anyone who argues against religion. The best sense that I can make of "the New Atheism" is that it is a return of normal transmission – a return of perfectly normal and proper criticism of religion in the public sphere, after this seemed to become taboo during the 1980s and 1990s. We have to thank Dawkins and others for breaking the taboo, so in that sense I suppose the book can be seen as part of the so-called New Atheism.
But note that there's no party line that our contributors had to follow. For example, some essays express strong agreement with particular views associated with Dawkins; others, however, are critical of Dawkins. The contributors were free to express their own views about religion, the various arguments for and against it, and the future role of religious organizations, without fear that we'd attempt to get them to conform. As Udo likes to say, we're not the Vatican. Hey, we don't even agree with each other about everything, not even in this interview.
Russell, your April 7th, 2009 blog entry says, “I expect to see more and more people speaking up. There are plenty who have been holding their fire until now, as Udo Schuklenk and I found when we began to put together Voices of Disbelief .” You were talking about New Atheism, religion, and bioethics in this entry. What did you mean by “holding their fire until now”? How did this book brought this up?
Russell: In that blog post, I gave, as an example, my strong sense that many people in the bioethics community were fed up with religious meddling – what I see as a religious resistance to rational bioethics. That was only one example, but it's a good one. In matters of life and death, such as choices about reproductive technologies, abortion, euthanasia, and so on, people with views grounded in religion have demanded a kind of deference to their assumed authority. Often, they have gone a long way towards wresting the discipline of bioethics from secular philosophers.
But this is just one example of the deference that religionists have claimed, with considerable success.
All too often, religion demands and receives deference in the political sphere. And yet, over recent decades it became taboo to criticize religion strongly in public. Partly, there was an assumption among those who might be expected to oppose it, such as members of the academic Left, that secularization was inevitable, that religion was receding as a social force – so it was no longer necessary to oppose it actively. There was also a feeling that criticizing religion somehow involved a taint of Western imperialism. Remember that a large part of the intellectual output of the academic Left in recent times has been devoted to attacks on the Enlightenment and modernity. Of course, most elements of the Right (not all, but certainly most) have always found wisdom in religion. One way or another, something of a social consensus formed that religion must not be criticized and must be treated as either harmless or beneficial.
Not all of us agreed with this, but speaking out was discouraged by many elements of society. Although I chafed at this situation, I held my fire – as I put it in the blog post. I kept it to mysef. I had many reasons for this, including the fact that the various jobs that I held through most of the 1980s and 1990s until 2001 involved roles where it would have been inappropriate to speak out strongly on matters of religion. For example, I was a fairly senior public servant at one stage. But as I say in my own essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief, I also tended until about the late 1990s to subscribe to the inevitable secularization theory. It's notable that even academics and professional writers, people with great freedom to speak up and be controversial, tended not to criticize religion in any way and to frown on those who did.
Things have changed. Secular bioethicists are one group who are particularly fed up. But many events have shown that religion and its political power are not going away in a hurry. This includes the rise of Islamic terrorism, the politicization of Christian fundamentalism in the US, and the many attempts to control our private decisions on matters of how we live and die. I think that more and more people who have avoided talking about religion in public are now keen to speak out and say what they really think.
I don’t know if you’ve seen a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show but in this episode he said that “Democrats are the new Republicans.” Generally speaking we would see Republicans as the Right and Democrats as the Left, of course with some exceptions. But the point I’m trying to bring is what if this shift didn’t happen in politics? What if it was a larger shift of the Left closer to the center, while the Right began to bury itself in religious fundamentalism, which is so popular in America. This is where New Atheism comes in, it is the answer to the conservative shift of the Left. Russell, you said that new atheism is “a return to normal transmission.” Isn’t this exactly what it is? People are not used to the normal - this is why they criticize New Atheism as extreme.
Russell: I haven't seen that episode – I don't see Bill Maher's show regularly, but only if there's a particular reason – but I do agree strongly with your last point. Once it becomes taboo to discuss religion in any way other than the most deferential, or to criticise it in any way other than the most detached and impersonal, usually tucked away from the public in philosophical journals or expensive academic monographs, the point is soon reached where any kind of normal criticism of religion can be depicted as extreme. It never ceases to amaze me that Dawkins is characterized as "strident" or "extreme"; sure, he can sometimes be blunt or passionate, but most of what he says and writes is in a very courteous and measured tone, carefully qualified where needed, and often enlivened by humor. Some other authors, Christopher Hitchens among them, do go closer to the sort of robust language that is used all the time in criticising political opponents. But I resent the fact that critics of religion are branded as uncivil and destructive, often even by fellow unbelievers, and even when their tone and rhetoric might be quite mild by the standards applying everywhere else in public debate about ideas – about political agendas or economic theories, for example.
Udo: I concur with your analysis of where the Republicans and Democrats are located on the political spectrum. I always tell my US friends and colleagues that the Democratic Party in the US is probably closest to the conservative wing of the Conservative Party in my native Germany, and that the Republican Party likely would be monitored by the security services as a clear a present danger to the democratic state. The mainstream political spectrum in the USA is located much further to the right than it is in Europe and Australia/New Zeland. There is a broad consensus in the US mainstream political discourse that rails against public health care, for absolute freedom of speech, and such issues that you wouldn't find supported by most Europeans, including myself. I doubt, however, that what you call the 'New Atheism' could realistically be the answer of the political Left to this US peculiarity. The reason for this is that there are plenty of very right-wing (in economic terms, in terms of social justice etc) atheists. Vice versa, there's plenty of left-wing Christians, for instance. I am probably closer to the views of many Catholics on the issue of international justice and poverty eradication than I am to the views of libertarian atheists. In short: I doubt there is a straigtforward connection between atheism and the political Left beyond the rejection of the idea of God. To my mind that is good news. I'm perfectly happy to join forces on the God issue with atheist right-wingers. When we are done with 'God' we can have a rational debate about other political issues.
Udo, what is your experience with “holding their fire until now” statement in which Russell mentioned you?
Udo: I think this probably is country-to-country and culture-to-culture dependent. In Canada where I moved only about two years ago you have a predominantly secular society. Amongst most of my colleagues in the Department of Philosophy it's taken as a given that you are an atheist or agnostic of some kind or other. People probably wouldn’t even think it’s worth speaking out about this, because it’s so self-evident to them that you cannot be reality based and believe in the God the monotheistic ideologies are marketing to us. The same is more or less true for France. In Britain on the other hand, where I also worked on and off, you have a much more militant atheist community. There is a very long tradition of speaking out. After all, Roman-Catholic Tony Blair led the country into a futile war against a predominantly Muslim country, aiding and abetting his fellow Christian crusader George W. Bush. In those sorts of countries people do speak out against the belief in God precisely because much more is at stake. Religious belief in those countries causes untold harm, hence the backlash from reality based people is growing stronger. Mind you, you can even see this in a country as backwardly religious as Jamaica, for instance, where debates between atheists and the religious establishment are raging even in mainstream newspapers. The tide is turning as ever more people speak out against religious fairy tales. Reminds me of Richard Dawkins who said (I am paraphrasing here): There is more to religion than vicars giving tea parties, there are evil consequences!
Udo you call this book “a humanist/atheist coming out party “, do you think it will inspire atheists who are still “in the closet” to come out?
Udo: I hope so. With a bit of luck the book might be adopted for college courses and might encourage students to join us in speaking out. Who knows, people might use it as an alternative Christmas gift and so initiate discussions with their believing friends, relatives and colleagues. Especially in societies that are very religious, books such as ours could have a significant impact. They have the potential to make skeptical people realize that they actually are not alone at all in their doubts.
Udo, Russell, what course, do you think, would benefit from this book as textbook? Philosophy? Ethics? Or something else? And are you planning on using it in your own classrooms?
Russell: I'm not likely to be doing any teaching after this year – I hope to maintain some kind of honorary research position at Monash or another university, but will otherwise be writing and editing full time. However, I can see the book being used in a range of courses. Most obviously, it could be used in philosophy of religion courses, but, for example, a course in sociology might also look at contemporary debates about religion. That could include the New Atheism phenomenon, however that is best understood.
Udo: Yep, I agree with Russell. This volume could be used in any number of courses and disciplines ranging from philosophy to cultural studies, and politics.
When you approached the publisher, how did they react? What did they say?
Udo: This has not been difficult at all. I have been working with Wiley-Blackwell for close to a decade and produced books as well as academic journals for and with them. They were very excited and very supportive from the start about the project.
While contacting contributors, what was the general feeling you got from them about the project?
Udo: We have not had serious difficulties attracting contributors – in fact, we had to turn down a few who approached us when word spread about the forthcoming anthology. It is true that a few authors we would have liked to attract turned us down, but this was not because they did not see the value of the project. They were plain overwhelmed with other work, tragedies in their family lives, the types of things that prevent you sometimes from doing the things you would like to do. I can’t think of anyone who turned us down because of doubts about the project.
Russell: Reactions varied of course, but we were generally met by a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. It even came from some of the people who were too heavily committed to contribute. No doubt different individuals had different motivations varied, but there was a strong mood that this was going to be a timely book, an opportunity for many people to have their say, all in one place, as to why they reject religion and the authority over us that it claims. We were tapping into a lot of widespread resentment, all over the world, of religion's claim to be able to tell us how to live our lives, and, in many cases, to tell governments what conduct to permit or not permit its citizens.
Lastly, why should anyone buy it? How will it enrich their lives?
Udo: Honestly, what surprised me most is how many of the contributors took our invitation seriously and divulged their personal reasons for being atheists. I found their essays most enlightening and entertaining. It’s greatly enriching to learn about these well-known people’s struggles that led them down the reality-based path. There are also contributions that are strictly academic and analytical in nature. As a philosopher I appreciate a carefully constructed and expressed analysis. So, in a sense, the mix and diversity of our voices is what makes this volume such a rich anthology.
Russell: What Udo said … and I want to emphasize the sheer diversity of the book. The contributors don't always agree with each other on such things as the future of religion, or how conciliatory we should be towards its more liberal manifestations. But that just makes the book even more thought provoking.
Pre-order your copy of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists today on Amazon.com