Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review - 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' by Steven Pinker

I started reading ‘The Blank Slate’ back in late February and finished it just last week. You might be thinking that it wasn’t a good book, being it took me so long to read.

You would be wrong. If I had the time, I would have not put it down.

This book is perhaps the best book I have read so far in my life. That might not be saying much, being I haven’t read a lot (something I plan to rectify).

The central theme of the book is human nature and what causes it. To me, I had always thought it to be quite obvious that both our genes and environment contribute to our behaviours. However, as noted by Pinker throughout the book, many individuals fall into the false dichotomy between nature and nurture; it is either one of the other in their minds. Rooting those who fall on the side nurture is the dogma of ‘the blank slate’; the idea that, at birth, our minds are blank slates, filled by what our parents and society teach us. Following from this premise, one can conclude that the problems of society are learnt, not inherited.

Pinker spends the first part of the book explaining the official blank slate theory and the other ideas that seem to be connected to it (the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine), why they are not supported by the evidence and the current ideas that are replacing them. In the next part, he goes through why the idea has taken so long to be proven ineffective (and, in a more general way, why science and politics shouldn’t mix). In the third section, he explains the reasons why people wished the blank slate idea to be true and how to overcome their fears of the alternative. In the final two parts, he goes on to show how the current ideas of human nature can be applied to many fields, from understanding language to childrearing.

The book has its flaws, but they are few and far between. I would recommend it to anyone, from your average lay person to anyone studying psychology, and everyone in between.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Response... But No Apology

For those who did not see the opinion piece published by Peter Kavanagh in response to my letter, you can find it here.

Needless to say, I still was not impressed with his superficial analysis of the issue and that he had ignored my discussion on secularism. Rather than write into the Advertiser again (that word limit is a bitch), I decided to email him directly. If you feel like doing the same, his email address is: But please, keep it civil.

Here is my own email response:


My name is Jason Bishop and I was the one who responded to your letter regarding atheism’s connection to the governments of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pot. I read your response today and felt I had to reply once more. However, given the amount of time it takes for a reply and the word constrains on letters into the Advertiser, I thought email would be the best approach.

Hitler’s religious beliefs may not be known entirely or accurately, but he was most definitely not an atheist. He may not have believed in the Christian God, but he most certainly believed in a Creator. Unless you define atheism as ‘not believing in Christianity’, which would be ridiculous, he was not an atheist.

While I would definitely agree that Hitler expressed mixed messages regard the Catholic and Protestant churches, this does not mean he was an atheist. The reason why this is the case is that being critical of a religious organization does not mean you are critical of the religion; just the way they practice it. I have heard and read many complaints from Baptists about how the Catholic Church has it all wrong and visa versa, with every denomination.

Communism may have a more superficially plausible connection to atheism, yet I hope to demonstrate why it wasn’t their motivation. Most Communist regimes were based the works of Karl Marx, who wrote that religion is a tool utilized by the ruling classes whereby the masses can briefly relieve their suffering via the act of experiencing religious emotions, thus preventing them from questioning the real source of their suffering (the upper class and the economic system according to Marx). He refers specifically to religion, not a belief in God. While you may see it as splitting hairs, I do not. I know many people who dislike religion, yet still believe in a God. They see religion as a institution.

It is true, however, that the Communist regimes of did have state supported atheism. The link though between atheism and the genocides committed is still non-existent. The logic behind this is that atheism by itself wouldn’t have lead to these atrocities. It had to be coupled with another belief system (Marxism) to lead to those outcomes. Marxism can lead to genocide, if interpreted as that all the groups he mentioned (upper class, intellectuals, religions, ethnic groups etc.) stand in the way a society in which everyone is happy. The problem isn’t that Marxism was tied to atheism; the problem is that people mindlessly followed the dogma of Marx without thinking about it. Atheism has no dogma to follow. It is a position on one question; do you believe in a god?

The more important part of my response was the part about secularism and why it is not the same as atheism. Our government is secular, as stated in Section 116 of the Constitution:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

This part of the constitution is incredibly important; it is what keeps the religion that is held by the majority (Christianity in Australia) from imposing its will on the minority (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists etc.). Statistically speaking, the amount of representatives in the government would more or less reflect the averages of the population; we have a majority of politicians being Christian. If it were not for this law, there would be nothing stopping them from passing laws that restrict other religions and promote Christianity.

The same goes the other way of course. In Japan, where around 65% of the population is non-religious, they are prevented from passing laws that restrict those who are religions by Article 20 of their Constitution:

“(1) Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all.
(2) No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
(3) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice.
(4) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”

This is the fairest system one can have in place, as it prevents any majority, be it religious or atheist, from imposing their views on the minority. This a major problem with any dictatorship, be it an atheist or religious one.

Thank you for your time,
Jason Bishop."

Let me know if you think I missed anything or have incorrect information.

Lord Bishington.