The 2010 Global Atheist Convention – a view
Cordelia Hull reflects on the Global Atheist Convention of 2010.
A few subjective comments on the Atheist Convention (Melbourne 12-14 March 2010) - from a middle-aged secularist feminist with her own humanly-created version of what some people might call God.
Friday night was light-hearted. Free drinks were on offer for an hour or so while registration proceeded so there were a number of drunken interjections from the audience once the comedians took the stage. But I’ll skip the clever put-down of the former by the latter and start with Saturday morning.
First speaker, Phillip Adams. If your goal in life is to see more action in the area of social justice, then you would have been heartened by his suggestion that atheists should put their egos in their pockets for a while and link arms with those from the religion camp who have similar social justice goals. I settled back, hoping for a weekend of further conciliatory proposals.
But next came the interruption of a salutary lesson for all speakers, anywhere, anytime - amateur, professional, atheist, religious or Calathumpian. If you are going to deliver a talk to an audience of thousands in the huge Melbourne Convention Centre, either have some idea of what you are going to say or bring with you a few old-fashioned speaking notes. It’s not a good idea to simply put your trust in the god of dodgy technology. Russell Blackford’s talk was a disaster. His mind contained barely the gist of his prepared talk, it was all in the powerpoint, so when the God of technology failed him . . . well, at least he had the grace to leave the stage quickly.
Max Wallace was next. His dream is to make a film exposing all the many tax breaks enjoyed by Religion Inc. ‘Put your money where your mouth is’ was his message, ‘to help me get this film made’. I think I’d prefer to give my money to Michael Moore who already has credentials in this area.
The following speaker was someone who has the guts to put much more than her money where her mouth is; she has put her very life on the line. If you want goosebumps running up your arm and a huge lump of admiration in your throat then rise with a thousand others in a standing ovation for one truly courageous woman, Taslima Nasrin. She spoke quietly and movingly of the power of patriarchal religion to oppress women and instil fear into its adherents. She herself has braved the fatwa and the mullahs, the expulsions and the hatred, and numerous other despicable ‘punishments’ for daring to openly question the religion of her birth. She deserved every ounce of applause the audience gave her.
So, that was Saturday morning, although I have skipped John Perkins, a local Melburnian who spoke briefly before Taslima, on a similar theme to her. I should perhaps also mention here the co-presenters: Kylie Sturgess, an entertaining young woman who was to give a brief outline of her thesis the following day (on the differences between male and female belief patterns); and Stuart Bechman, President of the Atheist Alliance International and a Liberace look-alike.
Saturday afternoon began with a panel of four women. Now, if you are a 1970s feminist like me and thought maybe atheism represented a step away from patriarchal religion, you would be forgiven for fuming at the notion of four excellent female speakers - Lyn Allison, Leslie Cannold, Tanya Levin and Jane Caro - being given roughly the same amount of time (BETWEEN them) as that reserved for EACH of the male speakers. But I guess one can be thankful they were not out the back, washing dishes.
For the next speaker, Tamas Pataki, you needed a degree of staying power to stay focussed, and preferably a degree in philosophy as well, to help with the comprehension. It was mid-afternoon and Tamas admitted up front that he had no jokes on offer (that was the only laugh he got for the next hour). He even predicted he would be the least popular speaker of the weekend, which was an accurate prediction, judging from conversations I had later with various people - those in the long lines waiting for the women’s toilets, for example, or the friends I had dinner with that night.
But for me, Pataki was the second best highlight of the Convention (after Taslima Nasrin). For a start, he understood how religion worked and he also offered some deep insights into human nature. I think he was the only speaker to fully explore the psychological, and therefore the sociological, dangers of trying to abolish religion. I have often found myself questioning atheists about a very similar point - Where does all the evil go once you abolish religion? But I invariably get howled down on that one, so we won’t go any further down that path.
The last two speakers for Saturday were A.C. Grayling and P.Z. Myers. (Unfortunately I did not attend the formal dinner on Saturday night so I cannot comment on the Chaser team or the various other post-dinner entertainers).
Anthony Grayling stole some of Myers’ thunder by straying into the old Science vs Religion debate instead of sticking to his own topic of Atheism, Secularism and Humanism (which might have proved fascinating). But if I was annoyed by Grayling’s divisive approach on Science and Religion, I was about to be aghast at Myers’ approach to the same.
I cannot for the life of me see why so many otherwise intelligent scientists cannot, or will not, see the difference between scientific fact and the ‘mythic truths’ presented to us in art, poetry and much religious thought. Most secular humanists and progressive religious folk can see this difference quite easily. They know and accept that Science deals with evidence-based facts and that Religion deals with myths to help you live a better life. They also know that the two can live comfortably side-by-side but should never stray into each other’s sphere of influence.
But does P.Z. Myers see this? No, he does not. After the thunderous catcalling and cheers from his scientist blogging audience, Pee Zee (he’s an American) began his talk, seemingly without having done one iota of research into the difference between, say, a Karen Armstrong and some rabid literalist tele-evangelist. He proceeded to deride all religious thinkers vehemently and indiscriminately, to the riotous amusement of all the aforementioned science blogging audience. The shots were cheap and easy and at the level of a third grader who has just ousted God along with the tooth fairy. I began to long for a more nuanced approach.
Sunday was a mixture. We began (after housekeeping announcements from Liberace) with Peter Singer. Consistently good, consistently logical, consistently reasonable. But, a) because I’ve heard him speak many times before and b) because I already give his recommended ‘5% of my income’ to a worthy cause and c) because I had needed to rise at 5 am to get to the Convention Centre in time for his talk, I promptly fell asleep. Stupid, I know, and I wish I could have instead waited to close my eyes for the next speaker, Ian Robinson.
Now Peter Singer, Ian Robinson and I have something in common - we all began studying Philosophy together at Melbourne University at the same time (in the mid 1960s). And look at each of us now !!! Actually I would rather NOT look at Ian Robinson, or at least not hear him. He was rather a disappointment. especially coming after Peter Singer. Robinson’s talk was not even memorable enough for me to make a comment, sorry. (I’m writing this from memory only, no notes taken at the time.)
So we will move on to the last speaker of Sunday morning, the debonair and amusing Robyn Williams. In fact, it was disappointing that many of Williams’ clever allusions and asides went straight over the heads of many in the audience. Was this an ‘age’ thing or what? The crowd that stomped and cheered for ‘cheap shot’ Pee Zee was obviously too young or too literal-minded to appreciate the subtle humour of a distinguished and experienced science journalist like Robyn Williams.
Sunday afternoon was excellent value but might have been even better if I had lingered a little longer over my lunch. I might then have missed the confrontational blabber of a loose-lipped, poisonous comedian with a huge chip on his shoulder about religion and gays. Now I am aware of the argument about gays and religion and I do feel quite strongly about it (my gay brother had a clergyman for a father, for example, so I do understand). But when I observed the reaction to this comedian I again felt a big divide between a) those who fervently and derisively seem to hate religious people and b) people like Phillip Adams, Peter Singer and Tamas Pataki who are more constructive and nuanced about it all. It may be the ‘age’ thing again, I don’t know.
What it can’t be though is an ‘American’ thing (although the thought had crossed my mind - maybe religion in America is stronger than religion in Australia so American atheists need to be more vehemently against it?). The next speaker was, like Pee Zee, an American. But Dan Barker was a delight to listen to, and had experienced religion from both sides. Before ‘seeing the light’, he had been a convinced, and convincing, evangelical speaker. Like many other speakers at the Convention, including Phillip Adams, he addressed the issue of whether it was best to let religion die of its own illogical accord or to speak out about one’s ‘atheist truth’. A variety of stances on this point was evident amongst the weekend’s speakers and it is an issue worth thinking about. But Dan Barker, ex-evangelist, claimed he would have welcomed atheists coming up to him, when he was still an evangelist, saying, “It ain't true, you know”.
Finally, the last speaker, the great man himself, Richard Dawkins. He was my other main reason (after Taslima Nasrin) to pay good money to attend the Convention. Yes, I have had many thoughts about Dawkins and have at times called him unnecessarily confrontational. But I learnt much from his talk on Sunday afternoon, including some scientific notions that my son has tried many times to explain to me. This was Dawkins at his best - explaining and celebrating science.
There is just one last observation I would like to make as I think it goes a long way to disprove the detractors of Richard Dawkins who say he is arrogant and dismissive. At the end of his talk, a young woman fronted up to the microphone to ask him a question. She freely admitted she was not an atheist but she would like to know what DNA was. Well, the jeers and hisses from the Pee Zee types began in earnest and could have completely taken over. But Dawkins silenced the mob and proceeded to respectfully and comprehensively answer the young woman’s question, in the clearest of terms. I was very impressed. And I think I will read his new book.