Unbelief 2016

Writing the previous post prompted me to consider what had changed since 2008 for belief and unbelief in Australia.

  • Public opinion of the honesty and ethics of ministers of religion has continued to decline to the lowest level in 20 years. The ongoing horror stories of child abuse within religious institutions has taken its toll on trust.
  • I will probably need to read this book.
  • The landscape of belief becomes more fractured – with young people especially less interested in institutional religions.

Overall, every day conflict between different belief groups seems to be low – we do not live in a society riven by sectarian conflict. But we do live in a country with a lot of public noise about an issue that seems to have become a focus for the conflict between identities – marriage equality. The level of vitriol and passion that this topic generates is immense – and confusing. I say confusing because it is not that big of a deal*. Some comments:

  • It seems to have become an identity marker. If you are a progressive individual then you support gay marriage. If you are a religious conservative then you oppose it.
  • Nevertheless, the public seem to have changed their opinion on it from “mainly against” to “mainly for” in the space of a decade.
  • This issue has become highly politicised with the internal wrangling and electoral manoeuvring of both parties pushing it out far longer than it need be.
  • Marriage has always been an important symbol. A symbol for the couple in front of their family and community. A symbol of the connection between the family and the state. It sits at the centre of many things.
  • The focus of religious conservatives in Australia on gay issues (especially any recognition by the state that homosexuality is an acceptable or normal activity) is bewildering to an outsider. The three headline issues for the Australian Christian Lobby (which seems to have emerged as the voice of conservative Christianity in the last few years) are 1. Ending the Safe Schools anti-LGBTI bulling education initiative 2. Preventing from ADF personnel from marching in the Mardi Gras parade in uniform and 3. ISIS persecuting Christians. This obsession is not shared by potential allies – as David Marr’s recent essay on Pauline Hanson makes clear, One Nation voters couldn’t give a stuff about this. To be honest, I just don’t get it. Yes, I get that Scripture condemns same sex acts but why this one above all the other many things that Scripture condemns?

*If gay people can marry then it has no impact on the marriages of those who disapprove. Their marriages are at far greater risk from financial difficulty, neglect and infidelity. Likewise, all states and territories recognise de facto unions – which offer many, if not all, of the benefits of marriage. And critiques of marriage equality don’t just come from conservatives.

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Unbelief – Silence in the Valley of Meh

“I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of ’em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little believies; they make me feel good about who I am.”- Louis CK

Beliefs matter. Not all the time. And what we say doesn’t always match what we do but our beliefs about the nature of world and our place in shape our actions individually and collectively. Therefore understanding those beliefs – our own and those of others – matters. And those beliefs can be messy.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, I want to hold off explaining my own beliefs.

As far as I know there has only been one book written about unbelief in Australia and that is Losing My Religion by Tom Frame. Published in 2009, I read it over the weekend with a mix of fascination and frustration. The author is both an academic and a former Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force (some of these details matter). A significant amount of research and thought obviously went into this book and its mostly worth the effort. Lets work our way through the content.

Chapter 1 sets the scene. It introduces the concepts of “believing, behaving and belonging” as interrelated and also acknowledges that this stuff is… complicated. Working through exactly what other people belief is difficult business – answers on a survey do not necessarily reflect the spiritual life of the respondent. He’s not impressed with the beliefs of many Australians:

In my judgment, the culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australian does not compel people to grapple with ideas that will expand their horizons, nor does it oblige them to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort. Much of what purports to be Christianity in this country is a form of religious therapy whose aim is to make people feel better about themselves or help them gain more enjoyment out of life. The notion that religion is concerned with the reorientation of the world’s power structures, beginning with radical self-denial, would come as news to most Australians, both within and beyond the church. It is easy to be disinterested in the highly self indulgent religion often encountered here. A religion that disturbs individuals and disrupts society never evokes disinterest or indifference. (p. 15)

This chapter highlights the main structural problem with the book (we’ll come to the methodological problem later). The writer simultaneously pursues both social science and also theology. The book seeks to both understand and judge. These are activities that do not sit well together and too often the understanding is curtailed to get on with the judging. For instance, the questions that this passage evokes – How does therapeutic Christianity work? Why are people attracted to it? What value does it offer to people? Why might they see it as superior to more austere or disruptive forms of religion? – are lost. N.B. I often have sympathy with the author’s judgments but their swift enactment makes for a less engaging book.

Chapter 2 deals with definitions. Chapter 3 covers the role of religion and unbelief prior to federation including a lengthy discussion of debates around the role religion was to play in the Constitution. These debates matter because they are often resurrected in present-day arguments as to whether Australia is “Christian” or “secular” country. Chapter 4 continues the historical narrative to 2008, the subtitle being “The decline of religious belief”. The TL;DR version being:

From my own study of Australia’s religious history since 1788, I have come to share Patrick O’Farrell’s conclusion that ‘in Australia … what is most significant historically about religion is its weakness, its efforts to achieve some strength, its tenuous and intermittent hold on the minds and hearts of the Australian people, its peripheral or subordinate relation to their main concerns’. (pp.83-84)

Chapter 5 is an investigation in to the Census data and other data available around religious identity. It’s a thorough review of the data – and while care should be taken in interpreting it all, the overall trajectory is clear: Australians as getting less likely to identify with established religious institutions over time.

This first third of the book is excellent – perhaps because the social science receives more attention than the theology. The next three chapters – looking at the relationship between belief/unbelief and philosophy, science and theology respectively – lean more to the theological side of things. Their focus is ideas. Ideas are important. They matter. But they do not matter as much as historians of ideas think they do. Way back in chapter 1, Frame has cast doubt on the notion that non-belief (or much that passes for religious belief for that matter) is the product of theological reasoning or scientific research. So why expound at such length? One gets the impression of indulgence on the part of the author.

Chapter 9 kinda brings us back on track again. The first half of this chapter is an attempt to gauge what makes up objections to theistic belief by analysing the 500 online comments relating to three articles in the Australian about religion, atheism and agnosticism. The themes identified are unsurprising. Then the author briefly reviews two books (This I Believe and I Believe This) containing the beliefs of 200 prominent and not-so-prominent Australians. These get short shrift which is a missed opportunity. The online comments are likely to be from a minority of individuals motivated to comment on the topic (the small minority of passionate atheists and agnostics), at least the comments in the books emerge from a range of views. This chapter highlights the methodological problem hinted at earlier – the lack of primary, qualitative research. The book is extensive (nay, exhaustive) in its deployment of secondary sources but the voices of everyday non-believers (as opposed to public commentators) are absent. I agree with Frame that the majority of Australians are unengaged with religious institutions. They live in the Valley of Meh. What this book lacks are voices from that valley.

The judge-y thing arises again towards the end of the chapter (“Tolerance or laziness?”) however this is partly redeemed with a spray against ANZAC Day commemoration services (pity Frame if his heresy is uncovered by the NewsCorp inquisition). At the same time, I wonder why this consolatory religion is so very bad.

Chapters 10 & 11 see the return of theology. This time the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are wheeled out along with some local equivalents. I agree with Frame’s labelling of them as “anti-theism” and a discussion of them in a book about unbelief seems inevitable. As Frame has already noted, atheism is a niche activity in Australia so I’m not sure why they deserve 2 chapters.

This authorial choice echoes an ongoing issue with the public discussion of belief and unbelief in Australia. The For God’s Sake debate is an example of this (although any “religious” edition of Q&A will also fit this model):

  • First of all, it’s framed as a debate. We put fighte-, er, speakers in different corners.
  • We pick an atheist (probably a scientist) along with a Christian (a Protestant and a Catholic if you have room), then a Muslim, then maybe a Jew. Mostly Buddhists and Hindus don’t get a look in.
  • We let them have at it while we chow down some popcorn.

This adversarial model works well for the anti-theists (I suspect that Christopher Hitchens greatest fear was not death or disgrace but rather having no one to argue with). But it is also attractive for Christian public intellectuals. They loathe the tepid apathy of the Valley of Meh but debating its members is rather like wrestling jelly. One suspects that this situation is to the benefit of all concerned. Indeed, one reason why atheism seems a bigger deal than it actually is would be that Christians have given it that status. For example, the Centre for Public Christianity has 92 articles on “Atheism” compared to 19 on “Islam” and 8 on “Miracles”. What this conflict does not do is engage with the bulk of Australians beyond providing intellectual spectacle.

OK – back to the book. Chapters 12 and 13 run together and concerned with the role of organised religion in the public sphere and the extent to which that role is perceived as legitimate by other actors and by the public at large. Let me say that here I agree with Frame that religious groups should have the right to contribute to public debate. It is neither desirable nor possible to eliminate religious actors from politics. However politics is a bruising business. And if a religion becomes entangled with politicians then politicians will demand their due. The anodyne civic religion centred on national rituals that Frame excoriates elsewhere is a likely to be a demand of such entanglements.

The final chapter outlines both the trends the author expects to unfold and the actions that the Church needs to undertake in order to be successful. The proposed solutions do not necessarily align with the research in the rest of the book. Frame’s vision for the Church seems to be one after his own heart – committed, intellectual, somewhat austere. However the points where Australian engagement with Christianity have been strong (the late 19 century, the period immediately after WW2) have been marked by the public deciding that the Church gives them something that they want that they cannot get elsewhere (respectability in the first instance, stability and spiritual order in the second). Will the market for austerity be as strong enough to sustain the Church? A doctrinal rigidity appeals to the likes of George Christensen – but then can Frame’s Anglican tradition compete with the likes of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in that respect? Or are other options available?

Now to come clean to my own beliefs. I was raised in an evangelical branch of the Baptist Church in the UK in the 70s/80s/90s. Hence I know my way around a Bible (and I can speak in tongues at the the drop of a hat). I no longer participate in organised religion nor believe in a supernatural god but have many friends and family who do. I do not think Christians (or other participants in organised religion) are stupid. Neither do I think religion is likely to disappear any time soon. People want satisfying answers to where they come from, why they are here, what they should do, who they should be with and what happens to them when they die. Satisfaction with an answer is not related to its truth. I disagree with the anti-theists in that as religions are human creations, they reflect us – insightful, beautiful, confused, destructive. And also worthy of engagement.

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Give me liberty or give me… $20

There was a minor moment on the twitters on Monday that caught my eye. Simon Breheny of the IPA said: “…if we want Australia to be the most democratic country that it can possibly be then we want for Australia to implement voluntary voting”. This led me to reflect on my own experience of the democratic process and the arguments for and against compulsory voting.

Firstly some background for non-Australians. Australia has Federal, State and Local levels of government and holds elections for each. The actual voting system used in Australia is a complex preferential voting system – especially for federal and state upper house seats. Here is a picture of the NSW upper house ballot paper held by Anthony “Mr Election” Green – he could have chosen to wear it and not put his modesty at risk.

Voting is compulsory. If you do not show up to vote then you are fined $20. While in theory you must cast a valid vote, as we shall see, a significant number of people do not do so and face no sanction as a consequence.

I spent my formative years in the UK where voting is voluntary so I was initially bemused by the Australian practice. I had a few conversations with Australians about this and I have formed my own opinions on the matter – which I will explore by examining some data and some questionable claims.

First the data. While voting is compulsory in Australia, it is not the case that 100% of Australian citizens contribute to the electoral outcome (as in many nations, most non-citizens cannot vote). Those that don’t fall into 3 categories:

So the actual “contribution” figure is around 80% – which is less than many of the figures that are bandied about. However voting is in Australia is more of a “thing” than in many other developed countries. And it really is a “thing”. Moving more into the realm of personal anecdote, voting in Australia is a norm. The penalty is relatively small – yes, for some people $20 is a big deal but not for most. And yet large numbers of Australians will go to their local polling booth, run the flyer gauntlet, do the voting thing and then exit via the sausage sizzle. It doesn’t hurt that election day is always a Saturday. But the $20 is about more than $20. This is something that is signaled as a responsibility that you as a citizen undertake as well as a right that you enjoy. And on some level, most people acknowledge that.

And now on to the questionable claims. Following on from Simon Breheny’s word-blast, I visited the IPA’s website to see what this was all about. The IPA* have published a number of articles on the topic of voluntary voting but this one written by James Paterson (now a senator) seems to the most involved. It’s an odd piece of writing. Lets break it down.

  • It begins with a poll that is admirably honest – most Australians do not have a strong desire to change the status quo.
  • It then mentions “democratic coercion”. For libertarians, compulsory voting is an example of unnecessary state power and therefore illegitimate. As a philosophical position, it straight-forward and consistent. However, agreeing to it is dependent on sharing that position. Given that the aforementioned poll indicates that most people do not share this position, then more arguments are required.
  • The first such argument is one that I partially agree with. I have seen no compelling evidence that compulsory voting encourages civic engagement. However, neither have I seen compelling evidence that voluntary voting encourages civic engagement. Civic engagement is a red herring for both sides.
  • Next it is claimed that a switch to voluntary voting would not impact voter turnout. This is were the article starts to go off the rails – but we have to wait a paragraph or two for that to fully play out. For now, let me say that I agree that our turnout is already below 90% (see above) but the evidence is that voter turnout would drop. My unscientific view is that we’d probably lose an additional 10% (down to about 70%) to end up somewhere between New Zealand and the UK. We might end up at that level with compulsory voting still in place.
  • It is now that things get truly odd. Having argued that voluntary voting will not significantly decrease turnout, the next few arguments are dependent on… voluntary voting significantly decreasing turnout (or at least threatening to). The basic argument as I understand it is that the current system leads to a focus on marginal seats at the expense of safe seats and pork-barrelling around those seats. There is a wealth of evidence that this goes on. However I have not seen compelling evidence that switching to voluntary voting solves this problem. Pateron admits that we “see pork barrelling in countries with voluntary voting” but claims that it is less. What is frustrating about this claim is the lack of evidence to support it. As far as I can see, the phenomenon of safe and marginal seats is a function of which groups are within a specific electoral boundaries. If you want to break up these patterns then voluntary voting seems an ineffective way of doing it. Likewise the notion that voluntary voting would solve pork-barrelling seems to be hopelessly optimistic. If you want to solve that problem then the Grattan Institute’s suggestions are probably a good start. Again safe/marginal seats and pork-barrelling are red herrings (and yes, metaphors are getting mixed but I can totally imagine a pork / herring barrel being a thing in Sweden).
  • Underpinning all this seems to be a belief that having fewer people involved in the democratic process is better. If only we could get rid of those pesky light-weight, middle-ground, floating voters. Then parties could focus on their bases – i.e. politics nerds. It would be politics for politicians. How awesome would that be.

Our democracy does have problems. However I don’t see voluntary voting solving those problems nor do I want to pretend that it will to undergird otherwise unconvincing arguments.

*Note – the IPA has nothing to do with IPA. These are Melbourne gents in nice suits, not tattooed hipsters knee deep in hops and malt.

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Disrupt Sydney 2016

Disrupt Sydney 2016 was another fascinating event. This time I was purely a tourist – not responsible for anything except taking it all in.

  • Dr Karl opened with his schtick – which is superior edutainment. Lots of science stuff. Lots of pictures of his trip to the Antarctic. Robots. Pillars of salt that will save us from climate change. OK. Good morning.
  • Juliet Bourke talking about the importance of diversity in collaboration. Nice frameworks. Some good research. AICD book worth a look.
  • Jennifer Wilson talking about MyQuitBuddy – with comments on gamification and reinforcement.
  • Arthur Shelley talking about the Organizational Zoo.
  • Claire Marshall on the sharing economy.
  • Kai Riemer getting all Thomas Kuhn on Clay Christensen.
  • A design thinking session run by Cap Gemini.
  • A final session on Blockchain, Bitcoin, Privacy, Trust, YaddaYaddaYadda – which actually tackled key issues around this much-hyped technology.

I enjoy the eccentric and exploratory vibe (yes, “vibe” is the right word here) of this event. This is the 4th one and I do hope that the DDRG will continue to make stimulating things happen.

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IKO 2016: Competencies & Taskonomies

Innovations in Knowledge Organisation 2016 was very enjoyable. I had a hectic Friday afternoon – delivering a case study pitch, variations on the case study 3 times, a keynote, and co-facilitating the activity afterwards. However I cannot complain because the event is always a wonderful mix of the welcoming, the practical, and the intellectually stimulating. Many thanks to Patrick, Maish, David and the whole team in making it happen and Panviva for enabling me to be there.

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The Silicon Valley Consensus and what it means for information professionals

This is the 24th article that one or both of us has written for Online Currents over the course of six years. The first topic was “Enterprise collaborative bookmarking” – which was a hot topic with a number of start-ups in 2009. As of 2016, it is dead in the water and some of the technology companies mentioned in that article are no longer going concerns. Since then we have discussed big data, mobile, enterprise social networks, search, email, cyber-security and SharePoint. Researching these topics and trying to formulate 3,500 words on them has been a valuable learning experience.

However this article is a little different. We will be taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. The example of enterprise collaborative bookmarking indicates that not all hyped ideas will be successful and the mixed fortunes of the other topics demonstrates that there are complex forces at play in the world of technology. This article wants to explore the gaps between the hype and the reality and mark out a possible path for information professionals.

Download the article

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Reporting on the Knowledge Organisation Competencies Project

More info here.

Matt Moore and Patrick Lambe developed a draft competency framework for knowledge organization professionals in support of the inaugural “Innovations in Knowledge Organization” conference held in Singapore in June 2015. With the support of ISKO we then tested this framework within the larger professional community through a global survey attracting almost 150 responses from knowledge organisation professionals and researchers around the world. In this session we discuss the findings of the survey, and the key development areas, gaps and development opportunities we identified. The findings will help those working on knowledge organisation roles identify gaps and self development opportunities, and it will help those working in KO teaching and research roles to identify useful areas of focus. We will also report on the planned next steps in this research project. We will then break out into workshop discussion to identify the implications for professionals working in knowledge organization.

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