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2500 people with nothing to talk about?

Rocco

Rocco

The Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne next month has sold out, nearly six weeks before it opens, as I report in The Age today. All 2500 tickets available for the Sunday session are gone, while the Friday and Saturday sessions are in smaller auditoriums because the organisers – with little idea of the numbers to expect - were reluctant to gamble.

The convention, spearheaded by Richard Dawkins and some fascinating international speakers, is a remarkable achievement, especially as it has been done without any government help.

But, if the atheists who post on this blog are to be believed, they have nothing in common with each other except a lack of belief in “imaginary friends”. They stand for nothing together, hold no ethical precepts in common, hold no ambitions in common (except, perhaps, a desire to see a religionless world). So what on earth (given that heaven is ruled out) will they talk about?

Will they exchange recipes? Knock knock jokes? Will they go door to door, evangelising Melbourne, saying “have we got a non-belief for you”? *

I was rebuked in a recent threat by an atheist who pointed out that lack of belief in a divine being didn’t mean one had to take a reductionist, mechanist line about the universe. Atheists can and do believe in astrology, ghosts, New Age philosophies and many other things we might categorise as paranormal.

This is theoretically true, but it’s a safe bet that the convention will deal only with a reductionist, mechanist universe. I don’t see any seminars on astral travelling or crystals.

That aside, what I do see listed looks fascinating, and I am looking forward enormously to covering it.  Some speakers, including Richard Dawkins, broadcaster Philip Adams and Atheist Alliance International president Stuart Bechman have yet to identify their topics, but here are some of the highlights of those who have: Muslim activist Taslima Nasrin on her struggle for rights and secularism; English philosopher A.C. Grayling on atheism, secularism and humanism; Australia’s Peter Singer on ethics without religion;  biologist P.Z. Myers on the conflict between science and religion; former evangelist Dan Barker on how his journey to atheism; lesbian comedian Sue-Ann Post on “20 years of kicking God in the shins”; and Max Wallace on how tax-payers subsidise religion.

Looking at the speakers’ abstracts, I was surprised to find myself part of one of the topics for discussion, apparently endorsing something I certainly didn’t know I believed - but that will add a certain spice for me.
 
I expect a fine line in rhetoric, exemplified by organiser and Atheist Foundation of Australia president David Nicholls remarks to me yesterday. He voiced a modest ambition:  to make the entire planet “free” (that is, non-religious. Atheists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.  I seem to have read something like that somewhere else.)
 
And if anyone wants to know, I unequivocally think this convention is a good thing, though in future it is highly probable that I will criticise individual speakers . Like (I imagine) those attending, I think people should own their beliefs and worldview, not inherit them.  My chief hope, unlikely to be fulfilled, is not too much fundamentalism please, and a fair representation of what they attack.  

What do you think? Long overdue, or likely to be a lot of hot air?  December’s Parliament of the World’s Religions brought together people with some profound disagreements – will this do the same, and if not does that make it less relevant? What points do you hope will emerge? If you’ve bought tickets, tell us who you are going to hear, and why.

* This is a joke. I know atheists are never short of things to talk about.  (That’s a joke too.)

NOTE: It appears that in the new blog program used by Fairfax, comments copied into the comment window from Microsoft Word create a conflict and disappear into the ether. They do not reach me as moderator. Please type straight into the comment window, or copy from a plain-text file such as Note Pad. Thanks, Barney

675 comments so far

  • This convention is long over due. Its amazing that the organisers have put together this together with zero funding from the governement as compared to the $4 million the PoWR received. I have my tickets and I cannot wait to hear from an amazing line up of speakers and meet with other people who are fed up at the atrocities committed in the world in the name of religion. This is our chance as atheists to stand up and show the rest of Australia and the world that we are a voice, we vote and we need to be heard!!

    Commenter
    Cheeses of Nazareth
    Date and time
    February 02, 2010, 2:48PM
    • I thought I made it very clear to you, Barney. I guess you misunderstood. The freedom I mention is the freedom from religion, which is lacking in a very big percentage of the planet including Australia.

      Atheism is freely-chosen by individuals and it is not imposed by some tyrannical regime, as you seem to be hinting at. It does not result from indoctrination, as do the numerous religions.

      I think the Global Atheist Convention will pleasantly surprise you. There will certainly be no mention of forcibly getting rid of religion, nor should there be. For informed mature persons to choose any of the religions on offer without coercion is a choice that most Atheists respect. Not agree with, but respect.

      However, we do not respect and should not be expected to respect the indoctrination of children into faiths, which have no evidential support. This is especially so if that is produced with supernatural threats and promisees, which have no evidence.

      The resultant adults will make political decisions based on empirical knowledge and not dogmatic interpretation of ancient words. Freedom will follow.

      Barney, I look forward to the Rise of Atheism Convention and your presence amongst us.

      David
      President AFA

      Commenter
      David Nicholls
      Location
      South Australia
      Date and time
      February 02, 2010, 3:03PM
      • While atheism does not directly imply a shared values or moral code, humanism, rationalism and skepticism (all atheistic perspectives) certainly do. The New Atheists' appear to be the only ones willing to stand up for science, reason and secular values in today's society, against irrationalism, dogma and superstition. All power to them.

        An atheist who believes in astrology is probably an atheist by default, as opposed to someone who bases their life in reason. I would expect those who see atheism as an integral part of their identity are the ones attending this convention, and they indeed have much in common.

        Commenter
        Jason
        Location
        South Yarra
        Date and time
        February 02, 2010, 3:08PM
        • Barney says:  Hi David. No, I understood that's what you meant. Looking at what I wrote, I don't see that as inconsistent or implying the use of force.  But when you say you lack freedom from religion in Australia, that sounds a strong claim.  Who forces religion of any sort on you. Perhaps you could amplify what you mean? And of course atheistic parents bring up their children as atheists. Few send them to church so they can make a "choice". This indoctrination by religion versus the purity of atheism is another dearly beloved fantasy of many fundamentalist atheists.

          Commenter
          Barney Zwartz
          Date and time
          February 02, 2010, 3:08PM
          • A mechanist, reductionist world it may be, but the benefit of hearing from such great speakers is that they help to highlight how such a world is nevertheless chock full of glory and splendour, far in excess of anything found in religion - it's a case of reality trumping mythology at every turn.

            I'm one of the fortunate ones to have secured a weekend pass and can't wait to attend. As you say, the list of speakers is excellent and we're particularly priviledged to have so many of them available in one place.

            What will we swap? Probably stories about the abuses of religion, the dangers of treating stories as truth, the spread of irrationality and the human cost we all incur as a result, no matter what we believe. There's plenty to learn, and it certainly won't be dry reinforcement of dogmatic biases.

            Barney, even though tickets are sold out you should use your clout as a journalist and get an invite - you won't be short of conversationalists :-)

            And finally, please stop dragging out the old "fundamental atheist" argument - you're better than that. The people attending the convention are as far from being fundamentalists as it is possible to be. We leave that to the religous. Or is that an unfair representation?

            Commenter
            James Bannan
            Date and time
            February 02, 2010, 3:16PM
            • Barney says: Hi Jason. I agree that such atheists have much in common. That was the point! On this blog that has often been denied by atheists. Not sure about the second part of the claim. I also apply reason. A large number of scientists are Christian, who do not see a contradiction.

              Commenter
              Barney Zwartz
              Date and time
              February 02, 2010, 3:24PM
              • Barney says: Thanks for your good wishes, James. I shall certainly be there (DV, as we Christians say - God willing! Just teasing.) Over the history of this blog I have carefully defined what I mean by fundamentalist atheists, who are a tiny minority but may be quite common at the convention. They are the ones who are evangelical about spreading their views; not only do they not believe, they will not be content until no one does, until everyone sees the world exactly as they do. They are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists, who want the same. They often  come from engineering or science backgrounds, and do not realise how artificial and value-laden a construct "reason" is, and refuse to consider the implications of that. In the real world, very few atheists are in that camp, but in the blogosphere they are like a plague of self-righteous locusts.

                Commenter
                Barney Zwartz
                Date and time
                February 02, 2010, 3:29PM
                • Ian Robertsons abstract looks to be the one you are talking about you put in the position of 'endorsing' a religious view .. his mention of apologists.

                  I personally agree with this assessment after reading quite a number of your articles and wincing at the way you seem to support religion while claiming you have nothing to do with it. You can be an atheist, and an apologist for religion I don't doubt.

                  Indeed in your response to Mr Nicholls you come across as though you do not at all accept that religion 'pushes' itself upon us, even when we are constantly seeing this in the news, ethics classes in schools, equal opportunity issues, taxation, pastoral programs, funding and recognition of worth etc etc.

                  Your attitude in this regard is apologetic of religion, and supportive of the framework that maintains rights for religion above and beyond others in society because of their belief in a sky fairy. This attitude of what appear ridicule to me, is what brings myself and other to come to the convention.

                  I am looking forward to Ian Robinsons discussion on the topic.

                  Commenter
                  Davo
                  Date and time
                  February 02, 2010, 3:40PM
                  • Barney says: Hi Davo. You seem to have misunderstood pretty comprehensively. You are right that I refer to Ian Robinson. I'm afraid you will just have to accept that I know my own theological position better than you do, and better even than Ian does. Though he is a commentator I respect and a man I like, in this instance he is wrong. 

                    In my articles I do not support religion, unless they are opinion articles or essays, and I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise. I wrote warmly of the atheists' convention. On my blog it is different because I deal with my own opinions. I do not claim to have nothing to do with religion - and I cannot imagine how you came to this conclusion.  I identify myself as a Christian.

                    Second, if by "religion pushing itself on us" you mean that it is in the news etc, then that is exactly true of atheism, though to a lesser extent. According to your logic, I am now pushing atheism down your throat by writing of the atheist convention - in the newspaper and on the blog. That a Christian is doing so, and writing approvingly, should make you reconsider the highly simplistic view you espouse. Perhaps I will see you at the convention.

                    Commenter
                    Barney Zwartz
                    Date and time
                    February 02, 2010, 3:59PM
                    • In relation to your statement "of course atheistic parents bring up their children as atheists. Few send them to church so they can make a "choice". Do you really mean what you say? First, we don't raise our children 'atheists' - all children ARE by default atheists until either indoctrinated by parents or others (and I think you might be surprised at the exposure atheist parents give their children to a VARIETY of religions in an objective way - sending them to Church does not achieve this, as the 'faith' is taught as 'fact' which, unless you actually seek to indoctrinate the child, simply serves to confuse (and often terrify) them). As is now frequently (and accurately) stated, 'Atheism' is a 'belief' like 'off' is a TV channel (or a variant of that nature)

                      Second, exactly how many Christian parents do you think send their children to mosques or synagogues or Hindu Temples so that they may objectively assess the merits or otherwise of a variety of religions? Of course they don't ... they indoctrinate them into their own, either deliberately or passively.

                      What do atheists have in common? Apart from the obvious, a clear desire for science and reason to govern political activity, free from the constraints of religion. Yes, people seek to impose religion on us and deny us freedom from it, either directly or indirectly through political lobbying.

                      Commenter
                      Julie
                      Location
                      Geelong
                      Date and time
                      February 02, 2010, 4:02PM

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