2500 people with nothing to talk about?
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