The Global Atheist Convention. From March 12-14 I was in Melbourne to attend it. It even has its own web page here.
The most asked question: what did you do there?
Short answer: people (mostly atheists) from around Australian and the world listened to more than twenty people from different fields/disciplines –including philosophy, ethics, journalism, psychology, demographics, stand-up comedy, economics, education (to name a few) – talk about issues relating to atheism. Amongst the speakers were Australian broadcasters Philip Adams and Robyn Williams, and former fundamentalist Christian preacher turned atheist, Dan Barker; the ‘headline act’ was well-known atheist spokesperson, scientist and author of the controversial The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins.
Long answer: keep reading.
Well, I am an atheist, so there’s that. But I know plenty of people who are atheists and have expressed as much surprise at the idea of an atheist convention as those people I know who are religious. So, there had to be more to it than that - so I’ve come up with three more specific reasons.
I’d been reading and contributing to a website called Pharyngula for several years and its owner/author PZ Myers was one of the speakers at the convention. Also, several other Australian regulars from the blog who I’d become friends with were also planning to attend - so this would be a chance to meet them (and, most likely, have a few beers and some laughs with) in person.
Atheism is (if you’re unaware) the lack of belief in gods1. That’s fairly simple in practice – I’d been living my life without concerning myself with gods for as long as I could remember. But if you’re even vaguely interested in things like philosophy or ethics then it means you’ve got a little bit more to think about: namely, if we weren’t created by god/s and weren’t given instructions by one or more of them as to how to live you life, what – if anything – is our existence all about? Why should we be good to each other? What makes us happy?
I’m the sort of person who likes thinking about these things – and, since some of the speakers were philosophers and would be talking about just that, I felt it’d be a good learning experience.
1Some prefer to define it as believing that gods don’t exist; yes, it may not seem like much of a difference but it’s actually a fairly contentious point amongst non-believers.
Religion seems to be playing a bigger part in Australian politics these days – the leaders of both the government and the opposition – and several other prominent politicians - make frequent references to their religious affiliation. Despite the continuing decline of church attendance amongst Australians, and the increase of those indicating they aren’t religious on polls and in the most recent census, it seems those in power are bowing down more to the vocal religious minority and their desire to force all Australians to live by their standards.
I’m very much against this. Obviously, I have no problem whatsoever with people believing what they want to believe; I do, however, have a problem when those beliefs lead to the shaping of public policy that restricts and infringes upon the rights of those who don’t share those beliefs.
Internet, film, videogame and literature censorship; abortion and birth control; euthanasia; stem-cell research; gay marriage; religious vilification laws – these are just a few issues where politicians are choosing to bow to a religious minority and allow them to force their views on those who don’t share them.
That’s something I’d like stopped. The convention would be a way of sending a message to the politicians that Australian atheists wanted to make their presence felt, and I wanted to be part of that.
The convention itself
I won’t write about everyone who spoke, for two reasons: a) it’d take too long, and b) because I’ve come to the sad conclusion that there are people who I don’t remember well enough to comment on what was said. So, what I’ll try and do is distill it down to capture the essence of what happened over the three days and nights.
Friday night was a lighthearted, fun start to the weekend, with very little of the ‘heavier’ discussions which I knew would be forthcoming.
Sue-Anne Post – Australia’s only six-foot, lesbian, ex-Mormon standup comic. She gave us some insight into some of the lesser-known (for reasons that became obvious) Mormon beliefs and what it had been like to grow up feeling terribly out of place before coming to the conclusion that it was all nonsense.
Catherine Deveny - newspaper columnist and standup comedian - described her shift from wannabe Catholic altar girl to fully-fledged atheist. Her routine was funny but it struck me that, compared to what I’d been reading over the last few years, this wasn’t anything new to me – thanks to visiting US-based atheist blogs I’d become accustomed to hearing the best responses to religious claims to validity and veracity. But it was still good to hear someone saying it out loud.
Saturday began far too early. I’d had too little sleep and too many beers; with only a banana and honey Up & Go inside of me I negotiated the Melbourne tram system and got myself to the convention centre. The people I distinctly remember are listed.
Philip Adams – broadcast, filmmaker, author and general all-round clever person – was one of the people I was most interested in seeing. Which doesn’t really explain why I don’t remember too much of what he said – though I can put most of that down to it being 8.45am and my only having had four or five hours of not-especially-restful sleep.
I do remember that he wanted to impress on us the need to not take a ‘fundamentalist’ approach to atheism - something that’s a constant topic of discussion amongst the atheist commentators on the internet.
The problem (as I see it) with that is that many of those who oppose atheism – and let’s not kid ourselves; they exist in no small number - seem to consider making any kind of statement about non-belief whatsoever to be ‘strident’ and ‘militant’ and ‘aggressive’. I can understand why those who have these labels applied to them get annoyed and make the kind of genuinely inflammatory remarks that are associated with people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
I – personally – don’t feel that being insulting to people about their beliefs is especially productive, but it’s important to remember that openly disagreeing with a claim does not necessarily constitute ‘insulting’ – and it’s been a trick of religious commentators (and symapthisers) for years to play the insulted card in order to shut down dissent and criticism of religions; it conveniently allows them to avoid answering the difficult questions asked.
Finding the happy medium isn’t easy, though.
Note: you can find the transcript of Adams's speech here.
Australian writer, philosopher and blogger Russell Blackford had some problems with his slides but managed to get across some important messages, such as reminding us of the need to continue to fight for liberty, freedom of expression and secularism (the separation of church and state) - while also remember to stress to believers that such ideas benefit them as well.
Russell Blackford's blog is called Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. I wish I'd asked him why.
Probably the most important speaker at the convention, Taslima Nasrin lives in exile; she cannot return to her native Bangladesh because she has criticised aspects of Islam and, as a result, has a price on her head. She told us the story of growing up, doubting Islam and daring to speak out against its anti-women practices and how even publishing a column in a newspaper in India leads to riots, property damage and murder at the hands of the ‘faithful’.
Her story reminded me of how (relatively) easy atheists in a country like Australia have it – yes, we’re stuck with laws determined by a religious minority and forced upon us by disingenuous politicians desperate for votes, but we don’t face death for criticising them for doing it.
Still, that shouldn’t mean we should sit back and let those whose beliefs we don’t share determine how we live our lives. I just wish there was a way we could extend the freedoms we have – and the education and sociocultural evolution through which we achieved them – to countries where backwards beliefs lead to the kind of injustice that Taslima has had to face her whole life.
A panel featuring five women - Lyn Allison, Leslie Cannold, Tanya Levin and Jane Caro; Maggie Millar was down to chair but called in sick to be replaced by someone whose name I now don’t remember and whom no-one else seems to have noted on any of the blogs or articles written about the convention.
This was a great section because the preponderance of male speakers at these kind of gatherings has been a constant topic of conversation amongst atheists. To have a five-woman panel on top of the other women speaking over the weekend did a great deal to show how it can be done.
All five were good; Leslie Cannold stood out because she technically isn’t an atheist but an agnostic2 cultural Jew who also cautioned against extremism in irreligion, preferring a more moderate approach to ensure the religious who share the common goal of secularism aren’t alienated. This isn't an uncommon position to take, and one that therefore - even if it isn't agreed with - is important to remember.
2I don’t particularly like the term – I think it’s redundant – but now’s not really the time to discuss it since it’d take too long.
Tamas Pataki rubbed nearly everyone the wrong way when he chose to insist that atheism is the denial of the existence of God (or gods; I can't recall if he was specific) – which isn’t the way everyone feels.
I don’t ‘deny’ the possibility of a god existing – it’s pretty much impossible to rationalise such a claim – I just assume that, since there’s neither evidence nor compelling argument for the existence of gods (and a vast array of compelling arguments against the existence of gods – at least, any proposed by the major religions throughout human history), I can live my life assuming that they don’t.
Look at it this way: I don’t bother to deny leprechauns exist – but nor do I look for pots of gold at the ends of rainbows either.
So, Pataki took what is commonly referred to in atheist circles as the ‘accomodationist’ approach to the issue3 – and he flat-out alluded to supporting the idea of letting certain kinds of people continue to believe because the consequences of them not believing would be worse than their belief continuing.
This struck me as more than a little patronising, since I saw it as endorsing the position that people like us, in ‘civilised’ countries, are allowed to be atheists because we can cope in a world without gods and miracles and whatever other carrot/stick arrangement the less-aware societies seem to need to keep them from devolving into complete chaos.
But maybe that was just me. But he was – unequivocally - questioning whether a world without religion would be a better one than a world with religion. Which is a valid point – though, considering he was speaking after Taslima Nasrin, who is about the best advertisement around for one particular aspect of religion we can all do without – it seemed a little ignorant of certain realities.
The answer to his question, though, can only be that we don’t know. We’ve probably never had a world free of religion. Still, countries with dwindling religiosity – like Sweden, for example; in the Q&A one audience member asked him about that directly, but his answer wasn’t clear – seem to be doing pretty well. Though correlation isn’t causation; there may be any number of other factors involved.
3That atheists should try their hardest to ‘accommodate’ – i.e. not challenge – religious beliefs or claims. This, as you can imagine, doesn’t go down well with many, especially those in places where they have to fight tooth and nail to keep creationism out of schools.
Another philosopher, AC Grayling – an awe-inspiringly clever man, and one of the most comfortable public speakers I’ve ever watched – broached the topic of whether or not science and religion can be considered to be compatible, and then proceeded to explain exactly why they can’t. He also said one thing in particular that resonated with me – that science and religion have a common ancestor: ignorance.
I agree wholeheartedly with that, since they both seek to provide the answers to questions. The difference, however, is that science does it through a process to discover what those answers are, discarding that which is not; religion, on the other hand, claims to have the answers without ever providing any justification for them – or, more significantly (from my way of thinking) how it is that one religion’s answers (gained through revelation) are correct while those of another religion (gained exactly the same way) are not.
In many ways – since it was his blog that a) got me involved in discussing atheism with people on the internet, and b) made me aware of the convention in the first place – PZ was the reason I was at the convention.
He, too, spoke about the incompatibility of religion and science and, since he’s a very active voice in the teaching of science in the USA, it’s a subject very important to him; it’s also one that, because of his position on the subject, he’s attracted more than a little criticism from those who disagree.
Basically, there are those who say that religion and science are incompatible, because to believe in the claims of religion means to accept the supernatural – and that is the very antithesis of science. The way he sees it is that claims that religion and science can be compatible is using the legitimacy of science as a cloak to sneak religion into the building and lend it the authority it needs to be taken more seriously.
But there are those who disagree will cite a list of scientists who are also religious, claiming that this is evidence that religion and science are compatible.
At first glance that doesn’t seem that unreasonable, does it? However, PZ pointed out how invalid this defence actually is, illustrating the point using the example of Dennis Rader, a convicted serial killer currently incarcerated in the USA; his confirmed victims number 10 – and he’s a Christian. Basically, what PZ asked by presenting this comparison is this: is being a Christian and a serial killer compatible? By using the same logic as the defenders of compatibility apply to make their claim, it must be true.
Or – as is the case with science and religion – it can be the case that a person can hold two mutually exclusive and incompatible worldviews simultaneously without the one having either a positive or negative impact on the other?
Saturday Night Dinner
A less formal affair, the dinner had speakers Non Stamp Collector – who makes hilarious, satirical YouTube videos – and two of the guys from The Chaser, Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel. So, the night was more lighthearted and comedic than the daytime sessions. We were able to freely mingle and talk to the speakers who were there; I ended up talking to AC Grayling (after some initial concern that I wouldn’t be able to think of anything he’d consider worthwhile) and being more than a little impressed that he was not only happy to talk to me but seemed – to my slightly inebriated brain – interested in what I brought up.
Another far-too-early morning and another Up & Go; the trams were being weird so I caught a cab with another convention attendee I bumped into at the tram stop. I was even more hungover than I’d been on Saturday morning, and it didn’t help that the queue to the coffee bar was far too long, and the water bottle vending machine was empty.
Australian philosopher and ethicist who divides his time between Princeton in the US and Melbourne, Peter Singer looked at atheism from philosophical perspective, and discussed how morality and ethical behaviour are far better explained by human social evolution than by the existence of deities. He used (amongst other things) the Euthyphro dilemma – from Plato’s Dialogues; it captures the logical impossibility of ascribing morality to god(s) – to illustrate this.
To demonstrate how godlessness is no barrier to charity he revealed that three of the top four biggest individual philanthropists in history were/are atheists: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Andrew Carnegie4. However, he was careful to note that atheism isn’t in any way a guarantee to better behaviour.
One very important point he raised is that we should be free to criticise religion, since the idea that if people get used to being okay with religion being criticised – because for the most part, it isn’t – then it will eventually lose its influence. This is something with which I wholeheartedly agree; why is every other idea in the marketplace of ideas subject to criticism, but religion is off limits? It seems a little unfair – and that’s the way the defenders of religion seem to like it.
4The single believer in the top four being John D Rockefeller, a Baptist.
Kylie Sturgess – who had spoken earlier in her capacity as co-host of the event - was very entertaining and had some interesting data from her research into belief and gender – men, apparently, are more likely to believe in UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster; women are more likely to believe in psychics and astrology.
Kylie's blog is called Podblack.
ABC science broadcaster Robyn Williams (who’s male, by the way) was another great speaker, reminiscing about his years reporting on science and including some great anecdotes.
He also included an hilarious – and sadly accurate, considering the man he’s describing is an elected member of our government – line: ‘I can give you a devastating argument against creationism in two words: Senator Fielding.’
Another standup comic – this one from the US – Jamie Kilstein went on an insanely fast-paced rant (if you know who Bill Hicks is, imagine him on speed) that had the audience roaring with laughter. I’d love to know how many words per minute he got to. His new ten commandments – for a church he intended to begin called The Church of the Smiling Vagina - was especially brilliant; you can see it here (warning – contains adult concepts).
A sample (if you can’t be bothered watching the video):
“Seven: we will not spend money on billion-dollar churches because there are too many people who don't have homes; so, maybe we don't need a giant feelgood palace to validate our fucktard beliefs. “Well, Jesus must have turned water into wine because this giant building has stained-glass windows and it's pretty". What are you, fucking nine? There are people freezing to death and I'm pretty sure if Jesus was real he'd turn this giant homophobe factory into a homeless shelter and let people sleep in the pews which is pretty much what people want to do on Sundays anyway.”
Jamie Kilstein's MySpace page has links and video.
One I’d been really looking forward to, since Dan Barker is one of the most interesting atheist speakers in the world since he’s a former fundamentalist preacher. He recounted his story of growing up ‘in the faith’, through becoming a travelling preacher, moving (in his mind at least) from extremist belief through to more liberal interpretations before finally realising that everything that he’d believed was a falsehood.
After his deconversion he’d gone on Oprah – on an episode about atheism - to talk about what happened; he expressed what it was like to experience a negative reaction from the strongly Christian audience (a new feeling for him, having been a preacher used to adoration and unthinking attention) and feeling a rapport with the other atheist guests on the show.
What he also expressed – when asked in the Q&A – that religious belief isn’t about lacking intelligence; he gives himself as an example of someone who did believe and who now doesn’t – and his ‘intelligence’, as such, hasn’t changed.
This is an important point to remember. Not all believers are uneducated hicks who only believe because they haven’t the capacity to grasp that what they cling to is a bunch of ancient (and mostly irrelevant by today's standards) hooey; there are those amongst the faithful who have constructed astonishingly complex reasons to remain adherent – and plenty more who’ve learned to use these arguments when challenged.
I didn’t become an atheist because I’m smart; I remained an atheist because I never saw a reason to believe in what was presented to me – in a way I was very, very lucky; I can’t honestly say that I’d be an atheist had I been raised in an environment of strong religious faith.
Dan Barker is a great reminder about faith and how it works; if he – a fundamentalist preacher – can see his way to atheism, then anyone can.
There was an upsurge of energy in the room prior to Richard Dawkins’s entrance, which he prefaced with the clip for Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now – which features an animated, evolutionary-like progression through stages of development. He did not launch into a criticism of religion; he spoke – at length – about the beauty of the world that we can see, a world we can appreciate (and explain) without having to turn to the guesswork of religion to explain and justify.
“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”
That we should be grateful – an idea that he turned on its head and explained that the reason we (well, some of us) want to believe in a god (or gods) is because of a misfiring in our brain; that we evolved the way we did – and are capable of thinking such things – is because having such thoughts made us more likely to survive to pass our genes on to the next generation.
While it wasn’t the best Dawkins speech I’ve heard – there are better ones available on the internet – it was still entertaining, interesting and inspiring.
The Q&A session was a bit more lively; it got a bit awkward when a woman stood up and identified herself as Christian and tried to trip Dawkins up by asking him to explain what DNA was – she was booed by some of the crowd (‘try Wikipedia’ was one cry), but Dawkins told them to be quiet and then answered the question in a thorough but succinct fashion. According to those nearby as she sat down she whispered to her neighbours, ‘he doesn’t know’.
After being asked about Mary McKillop’s sainthood he referred to the canonisation process as ‘pure Monty Python’ and as was (mis)reported in several news sources, he did say something along the lines of ‘Pope...Nazi’ – but he wasn’t referring to the current Pope Benedict, but Pius XII who’d been Pope during WWII and whose actions at that time are questionable (at best) and who’s also up for canonisation.
This article, which includes video of the speech, makes it clear.
Near the end he was asked about dealing with religions such as Islam, with its history of violent reprisals against any who criticise it – his response was to say, ‘I personally believe we shouldn’t go out of our way to do things that will get our heads cut off.’ - but he also stressed the importance expressing why, and getting across to those who would kill us for our dissent – ‘...because I fear you. Don’t think for one moment it’s because I respect you.’
He was also asked about linking atheism to intelligence; he responded by saying, ‘We aren’t necessarily smarter than them...’ but also noting that ‘...it’s odd that people who in everyday life use perfectly logical reasoning don’t do so when it comes to religion.’
And that was pretty much it.
Incidentally, contrary to numerous descriptions of Dawkins as ‘militant’ and ‘strident’, he is actually quite quietly spoken; the only person who came across as less aggressive over the entire weekend was AC Grayling – since they’re both English it may be something in the accents.
Reflecting on the experience
In some ways I don’t believe I learned a great deal since, after several years of reading blog posts and articles, I’m familiar with most of the rationale (at least the underlying principles) for rejecting religion. But to hear people as clever and accomplished expressing – and expanding upon - ideas almost identical (in some cases) to what I’d managed to conclude from my own contemplation of the issues was reassuring.
Part of it was just about being around other atheists. Being an atheist is a big part of who I am and I spend time thinking (and talking and writing) about what that means. It’s not something I can discuss with many other people – if they are atheists they may well not care about it; if they are religious, there’s the chance that – thanks to the misrepresentation of atheists in the media and by much of the religious establishment – they’re going to react negatively to my even broaching the topic. Being able to discuss a topic openly – without having to justify it – was refreshing.
On the topic of the media: considering the ridiculous attacks on the convention in much of the mainstream media (see the list of articles here) – using misquotes, misrepresentation and flat-out lies – I’m extremely happy that the convention served as a catalyst for those who attended to start speaking out more against those who choose to try and keep atheists quiet and powerless.
I’ve got heaps of new blogs to read and podcasts to listen to, as well as dozens of new people to follow (and be followed by) on Twitter; now, when there’s an issue we need to raise awareness about we can do it in a way that keeps others informed and allow us – as a group – to take action. If a news media outlet publishes something ridiculous on the internet we can let each other know and go to the comment section to present arguments against them, or - since many of them don't allow comments - we can write our own articles to rebut them.
Knowing that we’re going to be heard – despite all the attempts to shame or bully us into silence – is invigorating.
Meeting people I’d only known on the internet was also an interesting experience, and I think it actually helped me with what had developed into a kind of low-grade social phobia in the months leading up to the convention. I had a lot of fun just drinking and telling jokes and swapping stories and getting to know people – something I do precious little of anymore.
So, to sum it all up I'll say this: bring on the next one!