Dr. Meredith Doig, OAM is the President of the Rationalist Society of Australia. Here we talk about her background, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Dr. Meredith Doig OAM: Born and bred in Melbourne Australia. Australia is now a ‘softly’ secular country but was, according to the census, 96% Christian when six separate colonies federated into a united nation in 1900. My family was middle class professional, dominated by medicos – father, grandfather, uncle all doctors. While I did sciences at school, I was also fascinated by Greek myths, psychology and philosophy, so at university, I took Classical Civilisation and Linguistics, while majoring in Pure Mathematics.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Doig: After graduating, I taught maths for several years and then headed off to Europe for my ‘grand tour’: a year in Greece (during the fall on their military junta), a year and a half in Israel, working at a Field School on the shores of the Dead Sea, and backpacking around the rest of Europe for a while. Exhilarating, but my mind was atrophying and so I returned home to build a career.
That career grew so that I became a senior executive in large private sector corporations in the automotive, mining and banking industries. During the last 15 years I have been a professional company director, on commercial, public sector and university boards, and more recently on half a dozen not-for-profit boards.
Jacobsen: The Rationalist movement and set of critical thinking tools and worldview heuristics have been around for a long time. Indeed, the Rationalist Society of Australia has been around since 1906. What are rationalist values? How do these associate with other philosophical worldviews or, simply, sets of cognitive tools for skeptical evaluations of claims about the world?
Doig: RSA bases its policies on universal human values, shared by most religious as well as non-religious people. We believe in human dignity and respect in our treatment of one another. We support social co-operation within communities and political co-operation among nations. We think human endeavour should focus on making life better for all of us, with due regard to our fellow sentient creatures and the natural environment.
We believe humankind must take responsibility for its own destiny.
We believe morality is the natural product of human evolution, not dictated by some external agency or recorded in some written document. But morality is neither static nor absolute. As history shows, our ideas about right and wrong evolve as we learn more about ourselves, the creatures with whom we share this planet and our environment. Our beliefs about what is right and wrong, therefore, should be subjected to periodic reflection and review, using science, reason and due regard for human dignity.
RSA believes the scientific method is the most effective means by which humans develop knowledge and understanding of the physical universe. And we believe human progress and well-being is best achieved by the careful and consistent use of science and evidence-based reasoning.
Jacobsen: Why are rationalist values and ways of thinking important in the current moment with the rise of movements making deliberate assaults on the public through campaigns of misinformation and simply lies for political gain?
Doig: Some years ago I visited a Humanist School in Uganda, one we have been supporting with funds and advice. While there I was asked to give an impromptu lesson to a fascinated class of students. Among other things (like “Why are there kangaroos only in Australia?”), they asked “What is a Rationalist?” I responded with my usual elevator quip of “We’re in favour of science and evidence as opposed to superstition and bigotry” but in retrospect, this was too glib an answer.
What I should have said was: “A Rationalist is someone who believes that the natural world we see around us is the only world there is and therefore we don’t believe in heaven or hell. We believe the best way for humans to improve their lives is through the use of the scientific method – the systematic observation of the natural world – and the use of the human capacity to reason. We believe that as humans, we are responsible for our own lives, not any external Being, Force or Destiny, and we must take responsibility for being good and doing good.”
These three pillars of modern rationalism – the real world of facts, the use of science and reason, and human responsibility – are still the best way to counter fake news, the excesses of postmodernist nihilism, and the worrying rise of populism fuelled by emotionalism.
Jacobsen: What have been the perennial issues or problems facing the Rationalist Society of Australia?
Doig: Since the 1950s the RSA has fought against the perennial encroachment of evangelical religious organisations into our government school system – which is supposed to be secular. But all States and Territories in Australia have exceptions in their Education Acts, which allow for religious instruction (not religious education but doctrinal instruction) for 30 minutes or an hour a week. We have been fighting against these exceptions ever since, with some notable successes.
Also, in Australia we have three school systems: the government system, the “independent” system (which is mostly Anglican) and the Catholic system. Over decades, the Australian public has become used to public funding of the Independent and Catholic systems, defended on the basis of “parental choice”. But of course this is simply using public funds to reproduce religious formation. While we don’t expect to change this entrenched system in the short term, it is something that’s on our long term radar.
Jacobsen: What are some of the newer problems arising for the Rationalist Society of Australia? How can there be assistance from the public, from the government, and other national and international rationalist/rationalist-oriented organizations and public commentators to combat these newer problems?
Doig: Of more recent times, our Federal Government has introducted a major program to fund “chaplaincy services” in the school systems. Chaplains are not supposed to indulge in any religious instruction but there is no monitoring and there are anecdotal stories about evangelical proselytising. We are challenging the National Chaplaincy program in the courts.
Also, over the last few years there was a very high profile Royal Commission into Child Abuse by Religious Institutions which exposed the sex abuse perpetrated by the Catholic church and other religious organisations. We are now campaigning to ensure the findings of this Royal Commission are implemented.
Jacobsen: Who are exemplars in the work of the Rationalists in Australia? Who are perennial – individuals or organizations – agitators for, broadly speaking, unreason or the irrational, e.g., magical thinking, anti-science, fundamentalist ideologies of the nation-state or of faith, und so weiter?
Doig: Our Patrons have been chosen for their renowned contributions to rationalist values:
- Michael Kirby AC CMG, is a former High Court judge and long time advocate for secularism.
- Professor Gareth Evans AC QC, is Chancellor at the Australian National University and a former Attorney-General of Australia. An advocate for human rights, international co-operation and critical thinking.
- Dr Rodney Syme is urologist and advocate for law reform in favour of voluntary assisted dying (which was ultimately successful in Dec 2018).
- Professor Fiona Stanley AC FAA, is a world-renowned epidemiologist and former Australian of the Year. She is particularly known for her advocacy of science and an open society.
In addtion, we have two RSA Fellows, recognised for their particular specialist knowledge:
- Dr Luke Beck is a law academic at Monash University, with specialist knowledge of s116 of the Australian constitution (the “religion clause”)
- Dr Paul Monk is a public intellectual and author, with specialist knowledge of the history of Western civilisation and secularism.
Jacobsen: What books and organizations are other good resources for the rationalist movement? Also, why should rationalists, skeptics, humanists, and others gather together to work on the common concerns of science education, logical thought, critical thinking, secularism, and so on, at an international level in order to coordinate efforts?
Doig: There are too many good books to mention but I would highlight Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as almost a Rationalist’s bible. Good use of data and evidence, good use of clear thinking and logic.
Why should rationalists etc work together? Some years ago I established an umbrella organisation called “Reason Australia” which brought together humanist, rationalist, atheists and secular groups from across the country.
Unfortunately, it fell apart because of differences in focus among the groups. Instead, the leadership of these various groups now collaborate as and when required, while maintaining our separate identities. This seems to work better than trying to force an amalgamated national group.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, and so on?
Doig: As a volunteer run organisation, we have limited resources to organise and must priortise our efforts carefully. Apart from becoming a formal Member, supporters can subscribe to our daily bulletin, RSA Daily, which enables us to communicate our views and activities on a regular basis. Donations towards our campaigns are always welcome.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Doig: As our patron Michael Kirby has said, “The principle of secularism is one of the greatest developments in human rights in the world. We must safeguard and protect it, for it can come under threat …”
When I was growing up, religion was simply irrelevant to the way I lived my life; I learned my values from my parents and my school, and got my social involvement from community projects.
But I became aware of the secretive and unaccountable political power wielded by religious organisations – particularly the Catholic Church – in education, in our parliaments, in our health system.
I frankly don’t care what people believe in the privacy of their own minds but I do care when they try to impose their views on the rest of us, particularly using the organs of the state. That’s why I think freethought organisations like the Rationalist Society and the Atheists are so important.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Doig.
Doig: You’re welcome!