Monthly Archives: April 2012

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Eight)

The (New) Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse

And then came the moment we had all been waiting for – the Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, minus Christopher Hitchens but including his worthy successor, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Photo by courtesy of: Michael Barnett -

Ironically, it was explained that Ali was supposed to have been on the panel which evolved into the Four Horsemen DVD, but was unable to attend. So, it is only fitting that she should now move into the chair so sadly vacated by Hitch.

Daniel Dennett began the discussion by questioning Ali about her charge that it is Christians rather than atheists who are doing the most to oppose Muslim fundamentalism.

Perhaps part of the problem, Dennett suggested is that liberal Muslims don’t want to ally with atheists.

Also, he said, “We have to stop being afraid of being thought racist or Islamaphobic.”

What is more racist? Ignoring the plight of women or children under Islam because they are Muslims, or opposing it because they are human beings?

Dennett insisted that we need to speak out against harmful cultural practices like genital mutilation.

“If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off there would be outrage!” Dennett reminded us. “Is it not racist, not to oppose this practice because the targets are Muslim girls?”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali agreed.

“By doing nothing, you are worse than racist, you are complicit!”

Dennett expressed concern about the attitudes engendered by  ‘hypermulticulturalism’ and ‘postmodernism’; not all religious, traditional or cultural practices should be tolerated. The mutilation of children or the abuse and oppression of women  is not culturally subjective.

Offering his take on why liberals are reluctant to take on Islamic fundamentalists, Richard Dawkins added dryly, “The threat of having your head cut off is something of a deterrent.”

He repeated his mantra to Islamic extremists:

“I fear your barbarism, but don’t for one moment confuse it with respect. I don’t respect you, I despise you.”

Dawkins noted that it would be easier to stand up against Islam if there was some kind of solidarity in the West. He told the story of Peter Mayer, the Chairman of Penguin publishing.

Mayer bravely published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In the outcry that followed:

[Mayer] received many death threats, including one scrawled in blood. An anonymous telephone call told Mayer that “not only would they kill me but they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall.” Cohen takes up the story:

Far from rallying to defend an innocent girl and her innocent father, the parents of her classmates demanded that the school expel her. What would happen, they asked, if the Iranian assassins went to the school and got the wrong girl? And Mayer thought, “You think my daughter is the right girl?”

 [From: “It’s Part of their Culture”: Reading Nick Cohen in the light of the Jaipur Affair by Richard Dawkins]

“Yes!” agreed Daniel Dennett, “How about sharing the risk?”

Dennett recalled that after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie was pretty much ‘left cut off by himself’.

Dawkins noted that, at the Reason Rally, it was suggested we should “withhold respect from those who believe in transsubstantiation.”

But Dawkins did not entirely agree.  He thinks the stock reply to those who give credence to such ideas should be:

“I respect you too much to believe that you could possibly hold such ridiculous beliefs!”

“We should challenge Catholics who purport to believe in transubstantiation to defend the idea or admit that they are not really Roman Catholics at all,” said Dawkins.

Dennett wryly observed, “There is no gentle way to tell someone they’ve devoted their life to a folly.”

But Harris was quick to correct him, “Wasted their life! It’s time wasted!”

Dennett believes that many church leaders don’t believe what they’re preaching. They speak on two levels, he said.

They preach the gospel in order “to placate the old folks, but in such a way as to let the younk folks know you don’t really need it.”

This prompted Dawkins to recall some typical Aussie humour.

“When someone asked why there were always so many old people in church,” he said, “an Aussie dryly suggested, “Craming for the final?”

Dawkins admitted that he was not enthusiastic about allying with Christians, although he could see the political value of doing that.

Dennett noted that, “Many people view their pastor as a reliable source of information.”

Accordingly, he suggested, we need to target the pastors and the leaders who encourage the pastors to tell these preposterous stories.

These are the ‘villains’, said Dennett; their congregations are more victims than villains.

Dawkins mused about the value of attacking ‘the mild strain of the virus’.

At this point, just as a stage technician was adjusting Sam Harris’ microphone and earpiece, Ayaan Hirsi let loose with a tremendous sneeze, nearly blowing out Harris’ ear-drum!

It was a lovely moment which made these four luminaries appear so much more human!*

“Bless you!” grinned Daniel Dennett.

Recovering his composure, Harris said, “We want people to think scientifically.”

Still, said Dennett reassuringly, “Religion is losing ground everywhere. Their leaders are getting frantic.”

“But,” he wondered, “what happens when all is left are the fanatics?”

What happens when we lose the “buffer zone” of the moderates?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked that the fragility of belief was exemplified in advice being given to Muslims in the USA:

“Don’t become police [i.e. join the police force] – you are in danger of becoming impressed by that system of law.”

Dennett noted that the information revolution has wrought a radical change in the “selective environment in which religions live”.

“They will have to evolve rapidly or go extinct,” he said.

Ali raised another question, “Why do middle class, highly educated [Western] women convert to Islam?”

Harris conjectured that it was “To cut through the superficiality of life.”

Harris went on to suggest how we might counter religion.

“Theologians are not lazy,” he warned. “They are burning a lot of fuel trying to make sense of their doctrines.”

“Islam,” he said, “is a huge collective to which the individual much commit completely.”

The way to attack it is to push individualism and through ridicule.

“We need to develop a competing narrative that creates a cognitive dissonance,” he said.

Dawkins noted the paradox that, “Religions prosper by making life hard for their followers.”

He suggested that religion should be subjected to the same kind of education campaign used against drunk driving.  Drunk driving was once acceptable, it is only through the recognition of the harm it does and extensive public education that its incidence is being reduced and its practice has become publicly unacceptable. It was an excellent analogy, I thought.

(For theists who may read this with ‘conspiracy theories’ in mind, there was no suggestion that the practice of faith should be made illegal – only that those who practice it should be treated with the same kind of disdain as those who drink and drive. It is the change in public attitudes, not legislation which was Dawkins’ point.)

But Dennett remains concerned about the ‘vacuum’ that might be created by eradicating belief. We can already see it being filled by, “… new age babble and conspiracy theories.”

We need to address the problem of “infectious stupidity” he said.

This reminded Dawkins of a quote by GK Chesterton:

“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”

So, as the Global Atheist Convention 2012 comes to a close, and we all return to our everyday lives,  how do we move on from here?  The view from the ‘Four Horseman’ was clear:

Keep in contact  – and keep on celebrating reason together.

There was a standing ovation and tremendous applause as the new Four Horsemen stood, joined hands, and bowed to the audience.

Photo by courtesy of Michael Barnett:

One could not help but feel that a new chapter in the fight for reason and secularism had just begun.

Chrys Stevenson

* For more on the ‘human face’ of the Four Horsemen, see Kylie Sturgess’ “I kind of got kidnapped by Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Global Atheist Convention”.

This is the last of my write-ups on the presentations given during the 2012 Global Atheist Convention.  I plan to follow up in a day or two with a post summarising the main themes and highlights together with a book list, given that there were so many interesting books recommended during the event.

In the meantime, for an excellent video summary of the Convention, I highly recommend Andrew Skegg’s, “The Global Atheist Convention” (featuring me!):


I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts.  If so, you might consider subscribing to my blog – see the top of the right hand side-bar.


If you have been inspired and want to DO SOMETHING NOW,  might I encourage you to make a contribution to Ron Williams’ legal costs for his High Court Challenge against the National School Chaplaincy Program. The verdict is due soon, and Ron really should not be left out of pocket for so bravely defending the cause of secular education in this country. Any donation, small or large will be greatly appreciated.

For information on how do to donate go to:  High Court Challenge


Michael Barnett is the photographer who provided the images for this post. He is a passionate campaigner for gay rights and yes, he’s one half of the couple in that famous kiss during the convention. You can read his blog here:  Mikey Bear.

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Seven)

Sadly, I won’t have time to blog tomorrow so I’m providing a ‘bonus’ blog to followers of this GAC series today.

Lunch – Sunday

After PZ Myers spoke on Sunday we adjourned for lunch. I was too busy grabbing food and catching up with friends like Jonathan Meddings, Warren Bonett and Kirsty Bruce from Embiggen Books, Marie Fisher from the Queensland Humanists and Bruce Everett to notice the commotion going on outside.

Sadly, I also proved that, as a ‘celebrity author’ I need a great deal more practice!  One lovely reader of The Australian Book of Atheism bounded up to me with a copy of the book for me to sign. He caught me just as I spilled the contents of a rice paper roll all down my front. I’m sure that never happens to JK Rowling!

The incident compounded my ineptitude of the previous evening when the delightful Nick Andrew (aka @elronxenu) with whom I’d dined so happily on Thursday night, brought his copy of TABOA for me to sign. While chatting to Nick, I was interrupted by another convention-goer called Martin and, muddle-headed wombat that I am, carelessly signed Nick’s book, “To Martin, thanks for a great night out! Chrys Stevenson.”

Poor Nick’s face turned white.

“But my name’s not Martin!” he exclaimed.

“Oh dear!”

I would have bought him a new book but he already had signatures from other authors. I felt awful and about 2″ high.

So, abject apologies to Nick for ruining your book and, I promise, if I ever write or contribute to another one – I’ll send you a free copy!

Islamic Protest

As I was distracted by my minor (perhaps I should say ‘miniscule’) celebrity inside the Convention Centre, far more interesting things were going on outside where a group of fundamentalist Islamic protestors had gathered.

Carrying signs predicting that atheists and, in particular, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christopher Hitchens were destined to burn in hell, they presented the manic face of Islam and succeeded only in showing what an embarrassment they are to the majority of educated, moderate, tolerant and peace-loving Muslim-Australians.

Of course, as PZ predicted, give sheep a microphone and all you get is amplified bleating. Also as predicted, they only succeeded in calling out the wolves. Atheists flocked outside and easily outnumbered them.

“Where are the women?” chanted the atheists – followed by a rousing chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life!” and then the simple, but effective chant, “Bull-shit! Bull-shit!”

“I’m lucky I’m in Australia! I”m lucky I’m in Australia and not in your country!” said one observer to the protestors.

It’s funny, looking at the video the Islamic zealots appear small and ridiculous – like the cartoonish caricatures of humanity they are. Symbolising all that is worst about religion and human nature they are dwarfed by the noisy but good natured and peaceful reaction from those they wish to condemn to eternal hellfire. I guess, as Josh Thomas suggests, threatening an atheist with hell is about as effective as a hippy threatening to punch you in the aura.

And then, for me, the moment that symbolises the difference between religious zealots who stand for divisiveness, intolerance and hate, and those they condemn. Two men who I am proud to call my friends stepped out of the crowd – Michael Barnett and Gregory Storer. Their answer to the vitriol of the Islamic fundamentalists was simply to stand before them and kiss.

Photo by Pete Darwin of The Caudal Lure blog:

(See also:  Michael Barnett’s own account of the incident, and the YouTube photo collage of the events leading up to ‘the kiss’.)

To me, the juxtaposition of hate and love was a powerful symbol of the whole atheist convention – indeed, our whole ethos.

In that one gesture, Michael and Gregory comprehensively said, “Look! We are kissing. Where is the harm? What is the problem? Who does it hurt? It’s love – isn’t that what life should be about?  Shouldn’t you be happy and loving and tender, not angry and intolerant? Who serves humanity best? Us or you? Who gives most dignity to the human condition? Which of us elevates humanity and who brings us down to the lowest common denominator? Who exemplifies what is best in us and what is worst?”

It was a lovely moment that gained international publicity.  When I had dinner with Michael and Gregory on the Tuesday after the Convention they were still reeling, and on quite a high, from the overwhelmingly positive reaction to their spontaneous gesture.

I might add, in response to some silly rumours that appear to have been circulating – yes, Michael and Gregory are gay, and yes, they are a couple.  It was not a ‘stunt’ for the cameras. It was a gut reaction to the kind of vilification and hate that gay people face all through their lives. And what a wonderful gut reaction it was!

I was just sorry I missed it!

Christopher Hitchens Tribute

Back in the auditorium, the next session was a tribute to the late, great Christopher Hitchens. There has been some criticism that Hitchens was ‘deified’ at the Convention. I don’t believe that’s true. We were simply honouring a man of incredible intellect whose words were not only influential in forming the ‘atheist movement’ but also in changing so many individual lives.

When Hitch became ill with oesophagul cancer, one of my friends, Tracee Doherty, from the tiny outback Queensland town of Moree wrote him a letter, thanking him for changing her life.  In the glamorous world which Hitchens inhabited she was a no-one from nowhere, and yet he wrote back personally in a touching note in which he thanked her for her letter and mentioned how touched he was by these kinds of unexpected tributes.

Tracee was not in the GAC audience this time, but Robert Tobin was. Robert went through his own battle with oesophagul cancer in parallel with Hitch – and drew great strength from Hitch’s refusal to give in to the ravages of his disease. Ultimately, Robert survived and Hitch didn’t. A pensioner, Robert was unable to afford the cost of attending the Convention, but with the generosity of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, and a quick whip around my Facebook friends, we quickly raised enough money to bring him to Melbourne. It gave me great joy to see him literally bounding around the auditorium, wearing his funny “St Patrick’s Day” hat and a swag of blasphemous buttons and taking to the microphone to quiz the speakers. A true triumph of the human spirit. Hitch would have been proud.

Hitch was not perfect and he wasn’t always right. He drank too much, he smoked too much. Many of those who laud him for his fight against fundamentalism and the oppression of dictators also disagree with him vehemently on his stance on the Iraq war and his rather quaint, old-fashioned views on women.

As such, he is, perhaps, the perfect human symbol of atheism – an imperfect human being, doing the best he can to change the world for the better – just like the rest of us (although, admittedly, far more effectively!).

Richard Dawkins introduced the tribute to Hitchens.  Although he did not know Hitchens well, Dawkins paid tribute to his skills of rhetoric and oratory. These, said, Dawkins, were Hitchens’ ‘artillery’.

Dawkins noted that contrary to the view there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, Hitchens sought them out; travelling all over the world to places where people were being abused and oppressed.

“He felt real solidarity with the victims of the tyrannies he abhorred”, said Dawkins.

“Christopher hated dictators and tyrants. His fight was political, not religious.”

Here is the Christopher Hitchens Tribute played at the Convention:

Later on Sunday afternoon I ran into Jane Caro. Jane was anxious to discuss a strange phenomenon that occurred during the Hitchens Tribute.

“All through the convention,” she said, “people have been tweeting during the speeches.”

She was right. Nearly everyone had an iphone, android or Ipad and you could watch the #GAC2012 and #atheistcon streams rolling past as each speaker made his or her presentation.

“But,” said Jane, “during the Tribute to Christopher Hitchens, the twitter streams stopped dead. Nobody tweeted.”

“People doubt that crowds can ‘self-discipline’, they insist that people need ‘rules’ to act decently and respectfully – that we need direction from authority. And yet here, in a hall full of 4,000 atheists, with no direction whatsoever, 4,000 people instinctively stopped tweeting out of respect for a fallen leader.”

It was another powerful statement about the essential morality of human nature which I will think about for a long time.

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Six)

PZ Myers

PZ Myers gave my favourite presentation of the convention – comedians included. Like Leslie Cannold, he energised the crowd with his ‘take no prisoners’ style. I defy anyone to sleep through a presentation by PZ!

No polite accommodationism for PZ. The mild-mannered, bewhiskered professor from the tiny town of Morris, Minnesota, ambled onto the stage and called for an assault on heaven and the killing of God.

“In the beginning,” said PZ “was the blood”; people were bound by familial ties.

But, he said, this was limiting, They needed a new way to join together in larger groups.

At length, allegiance to a particular king became the new symbol of identity and the size of social units grew.

Next, came identification with a particular city – for example, “I am an Athenian!”

All of these identifications, he said, are built on the arrogance of pride.

But, cities fall, bloodlines fade and kings die.

And so it was that the Jews invented a new form of group identity – through allegiance to ‘the Word’, they became ‘the people of the Book’.

Words,” said PZ, “have a persistence that cities cannot have.”

In fact, when Jersualem fell the social cohesion of the Jews was strengthened.

This identification with abstract stories and histories, combined together in a ‘sacred’ book, “made Christianity bullet-proof”.

Words –  stories –  are “ecumenical”. A  common belief can cross borders – ideology is not restrained by geography.

PZ spoke of “the power of an unkillable idea”, referencing the comic book series and 2005 film V for Vendetta.

I’m not a reader of comics and I hadn’t seen this film, but I’ve subsequently learned that the main character ‘V’ is the embodiment of an idea which has persisted at least since Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted to kill the English King and overturn his Protestant government by blowing up the Parliament with gunpowder:

“People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  (V for Vendetta)

The film opens with a recitation of the verse:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Over the centuries, the character of Guy Fawkes has come to symbolise those who challenge the status quo. Notably, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V in the movie is used as the icon for the protest group Anonymous and has begun to appear in the world-wide ‘Occupy’ grass-roots protest movement.

In writing V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, was, apparently concerned principally to demonstrate the power of ideas.

Moore has said, “You can’t kill an idea; and ideas can change the world.”

Changing the world is “something WE want to do”, said PZ but he disagrees with Moore on one important point.

“You CAN kill an idea,” PZ insists.  Christians have succeeded in doing this in the past, which is why they are so afraid that WE will now succeed in ‘sacking the city [i.e. idea] of God’.

“Christians,” he said, “are reacting to the rise of the new atheists the way the Romans reacted to the arrival of the Visigoths on the horizon!”

He called for “an ecumene of people united under something other than faith”.

How do we kill ideas? “We kill ideas with a better, more powerful idea.”

Religion is man-made, planned, persistent and politically strategic – “Holy books were not ‘magicked into existence in an instance,” PZ reminded us.

But Science is our weapon; our ‘God killer”.

“The Bible stories,” said PZ, “are narrow, bigoted and false”.

The power of Science is that it tells our story, it reflects us; our DNA.

Religion is divisive; Science bridges differences. People can unite in an appreciation of the natural world.

Science, he insists has real power. 

“Science shows how stuff actually works, rather than what we wish worked.”

Scientists deal directly with the subject of their study.

“I’ll have more respect for theologians when they start to question the subject of their study directly,” he said.

“They never use supernatural information,” PZ observed, “… almost as if it didn’t exist.”

Nevertheless, the “demented ghouls of the end times are a significant political lobby in the US”.

Dangerously, they believe that “Israel must be restored in order to be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust which will bring about the ‘second coming’.

“If I actually believed Jesus was coming to destroy the world in 2050,” said PZ (only half-joking), “I’d be stocking up on timber and nails.”

It is true, he said, that liberal Christians do less harm than their fundamentalist cousins.

“But,” he said, dismissing them as ‘cafeteria realists’, “they are still doing harm to foundational principles. They are promoting unreason by saying it’s okay to believe in some things without evidence.”

PZ took on the charge that atheists have nothing in common; that we do not have the unity and strength of purpose required to form a viable social (revolutionary) movement.  He insisted that he was not imposing a definition on atheists as a group, but merely observing that a broad consensus is emerging.  This consensus he believes is based on:

1.  A dedication to seeking out ‘the truth’ through learning and discovery.

2. A commitment to autonomy – a global movement in common cause with those oppressed by racist, paternalistic cultures.

3. The forging of a new kind of community.

PZ acknowledged the role of women in atheism, reminding us that, “Atheist meetings, for a long time, looked a lot like Mormon meetings!”

He also warned that, “Being an atheist doesn’t make you a rationalist.”

He spoke of the connections between atheism, feminism and LGBT rights.

“If you are a human being with real world concerns,” he said, “you should be one of us; truth and justice are our common causes. That’s what makes us part of a community.”

Although we have “good reason to be angry with a society that does stupid things in the name of ‘the Lord’ atheists,” said PZ, “are not ‘grim nihilists'”.

He told us about the Reason Rally held recently in Washington DC.

“Twenty-thousand people on the Mall in DC,” he said, “everyone smiling!”

“If I were a grinch,” he said, “my heart would have grown THREE SIZES” at that sight.

“We’re not grim and sour at all!”

In fact, he reminded us, he’d even participated in a ‘hug off’ with atheist blogger, Martin Pribble, during the convention!

“We need to value working co-operatively,” PZ advised. “It’s how we’ll win in the end.”

He spoke dismissively of the religious (Christian and Islamic) protests attracted by the convention.

“So, that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone,” he said, “… amplified bleating.”

“They didn’t realize they were calling out to the wolves.”

“LET’S DO IT!” said PZ, “Let’s form a ‘hunting pack’ and work together. Let’s make them tremble and demolish the City of God.”

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Four)

Parrot – A Short Film

After morning tea on Sunday, we were treated to the world premier screening of the short film “Parrot” by Sydney-based filmmakers Emma McKenna and Craig Foster. McKenna and Foster of Myrtle Street Pictures have made a remarkable film that reflects the experience of many whose loss of faith threatens the loss of family. While the film is a testament to how divisive religion can be, it also speaks to the strength and resilience of familial love.

Parrot was beautifully produced and directed, production values were high and the acting was natural when it could so easily have been forced. The drama was perfectly tempered with moments of humour and pathos. And, importantly, it was not coercive. The story was laid out honestly but without undue bias, allowing the viewer to draw their own meaning from the art.

After the film, McKenna and Foster said they made the film because there was a ‘void’ in the representation of atheists in television and movies. When atheists are portrayed on film, they are often, like Hugh Laurie’s Dr Gregory House, people of questionable morals. They wanted to show a sympathetic atheist character; to show the human face of atheism.

Their reasoning? “You can’t hate something you empathise with.”

The film stars some familiar faces, including Barry Shepherd (Rake, McLeod’s Daughters, Home and Away), Fiona Press (Oscar and Lucinda), Gig Clarke (Home and Away, Rescue: Special Ops) and Anthony Slater (co-host of Cybershack).

I must congratulate the Atheist Foundation of Australia for helping to finance and promote this fine film. I can highly recommend it. McKenna and Foster are now trying to enter it into film festivals to get it shown as widely as possible. Keep an eye out for it, and if you get a chance to see it, grab it – you won’t be sorry.

You should be able to keep up with future screenings by checking their website: Parrot

Here’s the trailer and ‘blurb’.

“Parrot is a tale of a family divided by faith. Todd, the youngest son of Ruth and Edmund Senior, has over the years drifted away from his strict Catholic upbringing. Too afraid to break the truth to his mother, he would feel as a complete stranger within his own family were it not for his brother Edmund Junior who shares the same secret.

When a terrible tragedy befalls the family, Todd and his parents are forced to confront their differences at the worst of all possible times. With the truth out, can they find a way to accept, support and love each other or will religion fracture this family forever?”

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Three)

Sam Harris

I have always been interested in spirituality (see my blog post Fashion Faux Pas and Literary Lunacies: How Dawkins and Harris overhauled my intellectual wardrobe). Like many of my generation, I stopped off in ‘New Age Spiritualism’ on my journey towards atheism.

I found Sam Harris just as I was on the outskirts of Atheistville. I still had some souvenirs of “New Age Spiritualism” hanging around my neck, but I’d divested myself of most of the  ‘woo’ before I bought End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation – ironically with some ‘Christmas’ money given to me by a crystal-gazing aunt.

It was after reading Letter to a Christian Nation that a little light bulb went on in my head. I remember thinking, with some surprise, “Oh! I’m an atheist!”

As a new ‘gnu’ atheist, I found The End of Faith incredibly confronting with its negative portrayal of Islam – I was, and still am, far more concerned about fundamentalist Christianity.  Islam is dangerous but it’s out in the open and easy to spot.  The encroachment of fundamentalist Christianity is insidious, often silent and invisible.  We don’t recognise its stranglehold on our secular institutions until it’s happened.

Having been introduced by Harris to the ‘new atheist’ genre, I moved on to read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Like Harris, they didn’t make me an atheist, they just made me realize I was one. More importantly, they politicized me and made me realise I should get off my arse and do something about the religious assault on secularism, human rights and individual autonomy.

Sam Harris took to the GAC 2012 stage and immediately acknowledged the late, great Christopher Hitchens.

Hitch, said Harris, “had more wit, style and substance than a few civilisations I could name.”

Fittingly, perhaps, Harris then went on to talk about death.

“The ‘good news’ of atheism,” said Harris, “is that nothing happens after death. We return to nothingness; so there’s nothing to worry about.  If we’re right, death is not a problem; life is the problem.”

“To not believe in God,” he said, “is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.”

Harris spoke of how religion makes the world  worse, not better.

Because of the interference of the Catholic Church, they are still arguing in the US about whether women should have access to contraception. This,  he said, “while the church nurtures ‘an army of child rapists’!

Harris also spoke of religion’s ‘misuse of human energy’ and its ‘manufacturing of human unhappiness’.

Harris accepts that we can’t make the world a paradise – and who would want one?

At university, when I studied utopian thought, I quickly realised that one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.  Harris is not concerned with creating a ‘perfect’ world or a ‘perfect society’, but he is concerned with the human condition – with making lives happier, more meaningful, more productive and, surprisingly, more ‘spiritual’.  More ‘gross national happiness’, perhaps.

And then, the important question, “What does atheism have to offer?”

If we are to argue for an ‘End of Faith’ what do we propose to put in its place?

Harris accepts that as ‘mere disbelief in god’ atheism doesn’t have much to offer. But, he said, “Atheism clears the space for better conversation.”

But can atheism do what religion does?

Harris acknowledged, for example, that religion can help people make sense of tragedy. It provides the answer that most people think they need.

“If your child dies in a car accident,” said Harris, “believing she’s in heaven with Jesus has to be consoling.”

So, we have to ask, “What is lost when we jettison religion?”

And, at least part of the answer is, “Total consolation in the face of death.”

If we are to argue for a world without religion, said Harris, “we have to build a bridge to deal with this fact.”

“We spend most of our lives tacitly assuming we’ll live forever,” he said. “There’d better be a heaven if we’re going to waste our time!”

Accepting that we have one life, and that is all we get, is a great motivation to make the most of our time.

But, if you don’t believe in God, “What is the point?”

It’s a sensible question, said Harris, and there is an answer. But, the answer requires a change of attitude towards life.

We need to learn to live in the present moment, he said,  reminding us that  “It is always ‘now‘.”

It is a ‘liberating truth about the nature of the human mind’, he said, “that the past is a memory; the future is merely a thought arising now”.

“We need to attend to the present moment. We need to consciously experience ‘now’; “because consciousness is everything”.

“How can we truly be fulfilled in life?”

“How can we make our lives worth living?”

The answer, said Harris, is that how we think about an experience determines how we feel about it.

It was at about this time that I felt I’d tumbled down some GAC rabbit hole and ended up in at an Eckhart Tolle lecture.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, was Oprah Winfrey’s poster boy for a while.  He was a bit too full of ‘woo’ for my taste but he did have a lot of good ideas if you stripped away the woo.

At 29, according to Tolle, he underwent an ‘inner transformation’ that led him to experience a constant ‘state of bliss’.

To his credit, Tolle says that religions “have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured”, that they have become “to a large extent … divisive rather than unifying forces” and become “themselves part of the insanity”.

To me, Harris’ message seemed to echo Tolles words’:   “the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness”. He says that awareness is “the space in which thoughts exist” and that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it”.

Harris confirmed that he was speaking about ‘secular spiritualism’ and that meditation was one method to help achieve the ‘mindfulness’ he was speaking of.

“The antidote to  fear of death is to live life in the present,” he said.

“We have to create a world we want to live in; and religion is a bad way to do that.”

What happened next was, to many bizarre – to others, the highlight of the convention.  Harris took us through a guided meditation.

I had sat through many guided meditations during my stay in ‘New Age Spiritualism’, but I hadn’t expected to experience it in downtown ‘Atheistville’.  I admit some discomfort at being thrust into it unexpectedly. It’s not that I objected, or that I was offended. I guess I see meditation as a rather personal thing, something I’d like to be prepared for rather than having it ‘sprung on me’ .  But, I was up for any experience, so I closed my eyes and listened to the admittedly relaxing tones of Sam’s voice.

I was speaking to my friend Anthony, at the Sunshine Coast Atheists meeting tonight. He attended the convention and said he was quite moved by the experience of Harris’ meditation.

Me? Not so much.  Three late nights in a row, no breakfast, and the soporific sound of Sam’s voice soon had me nodding off.  I was putting too much effort into staying awake to really concentrate on anything else.

For me – and this is entirely subjective – the session would have been better in the first session of the day or after morning tea or lunch when we were a bit refreshed.  This isn’t a criticism of the organisers at all. I’m not sure that they knew what Harris planned to do and it’s difficult to shuffle speakers around because one of them might happen to put the whole audience to sleep!

I know that opinion was divided on the meditation. I’m perfectly willing to take the blame for the fact it didn’t do much for me, and I’m happy for those who found it a deep and meaningful experience.

Harris was aware that what he’d done might be thought strange or controversial.

“I’ve smuggled mindfulness meditation into this talk and foisted it on 4,000 atheists!” he laughed.

But, he explained, it’s important to know how to clear your mind and focus on ‘the now’.

“It takes a long time to realise how much thought is clouding our present experience.”

He felt that mindfulness and meditation can be useful in moments of crisis.

“Relief can be gained by bearing down on the present moment; it erodes the pain.”

I think there’s a lot of value to be had in Harris’ pursuit of ‘secular spirituality’.  I also think that living in the ‘now’ is good advice for those who want to maximise their happiness (and who doesn’t?).

What Harris didn’t talk about, but Eckhart Tolle does, is monitoring your ‘self-talk’; listening to and taking note of the silent conversations you constantly have with yourself and working to expunge negative feedback.  If you actually listen to your self-talk you’ll often find yourself saying some pretty hurtful and irrational stuff about yourself!  The ‘trick’ is not to accept the truth of what you tell yourself, but to challenge it and try to change the negative thoughts ‘looping’ through your head to something more positive.

Something else Harris didn’t discuss, but which I practice in my own life , is living in gratitude – trying to be constantly aware of how lucky I am to be alive and enjoying a life of such comparative luxury that many people in the world could not even imagine such good fortune.  I know that Dawkins often touches on this.  I find this an excellent way to put life’s small tragedies into perspective.   I’m not always ‘zen’ in the moment of crisis, but I think it helps me recover more quickly and move on. Not always, but mostly.

So, is meditation and mindfulness enough to fill the ‘void’ left by religious belief?

I doubt it. People are lazy and meditating effectively takes time and dedication.

“Jesus loves me, God will fix it,” is much easier.

I don’t think meditation is a discipline most people will practice; unless of course there’s a huge culture change and meditation is taught in schools and encouraged in the workplace.

And, is  it even necessary or desirable  to fill the religious ‘void’?  I think we need to have a conversation about that!

Is there even a ‘void’ to fill?

I can only speak for myself. Certainly my ‘New Age’ belief in an afterlife helped enormously to ease my grief when my father died. In fact, I think it may have eased it too much.  I loved him deeply but, to this day, I’ve never shed a tear at his passing.  I regret that.

When I realised – after reading Harris – that I was ‘an atheist’, I thought, “Oh dear, I guess I’m going to have to give up this idea of life after death!”

But, at the time, that idea was painful. I liked to believe my Dad was watching over me;  it gave me comfort and did no-one any harm. I knew it was irrational – I half knew it was fantasy – but it was a security blanket I wasn’t prepared to part with …. yet.

So, I didn’t push myself.  I just let it sit there, completely out of place with my other beliefs, until one day I thought, “Oh, it’s gone!”

And it didn’t hurt at all.

Speaking for myself, I’m not afraid of death. I see death as exactly the same as ‘before birth’. I don’t spend a moment regretting the years I missed before I was born, and I’m quite sure I won’t spend a moment regretting the years I missed after I’ve died.  The two states are the same – nothing/non-existence.

Pain is another matter, I’m quite afraid of pain.  If there’s going to be a lot of pain, let me die quickly!

I don’t know if it’s a good thing to ease the pain of a death of a loved one. Perhaps it’s a right of passage – something we just have to work our way through. Certainly I now regret that my grief at my Dad’s death was numbed by an irrational belief that he wasn’t ‘really’ dead.

I’ve given it quite a lot of thought over the past week and I think building strong, supportive communities is more important than encouraging atheists to take up meditation to fill the alleged ‘god shaped hole’.  My friends who have left religion behind often say the biggest loss was the support of a close, co-operative community.  Of course, when my friends admitted their atheism, those loving Christian communities pulled down their shutters and put out their ‘closed for business’ signs. Share the delusion or share nothing seems to be their credo.

I draw great strength and inspiration from the atheist ‘community’ – both real life and online.  Here I’ve found friendship, laughter, emotional support and (even more important) IT support!

Personally, I don’t feel a ‘god shaped hole’ in my life at all. I know how to meditate but I don’t find it particularly helpful.  That’s not to say, of course, that others won’t.  My sense of  ‘spirituality’ comes from love and service and laughter and gratefulness.

I think Sam Harris had some important things to say. I’d like to read more. But on the strength of his GAC 2012 speech, I can’t say I’m completely buying the whole package.

Chrys Stevenson

If you’re interested in meditation, you might like to read Sam Harris’ “How to Meditate”.

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday 15 April (Part Two)

Back in 2009, in an effort to live up to their name, Atheist Alliance International decided to start hosting atheist conventions throughout the world.

With that in mind, they approached the Atheist Foundation of Australia, offering to provide seed funding for an AAI conference here in Australia.

The plan was to  give AAI a greater presence in Australia. This didn’t really happen.

Something got lost in translation (or ambition).  The AFA took the money and ran with it. They changed the name of the conference to the Global Atheist Convention, the AFA made a name for themselves and the AAI found themselves effectively sidelined. AAI became the ‘junior partner’ although the Convention was their idea and made possible with their money.

Having severed my relationship with the AFA (I don’t like the way they operate), I don’t know what’s happened in the interim but there’s been a changing of the guard and AAI had a higher profile (though not high enough IMHO) at this Convention.

Stuart Bechman, a delightful man who was president of AAI in 2010  (and MC at the 2010 Convention) has since stepped down. Replacing him is Tanya Smith an investment banker from Australia.  Tanya was on the original 2010 Global Atheist Convention organising committee and was also involved in the 2012 Convention.

It was good to see AAI given a chance to promote themselves at this Convention as I felt strongly that they’d been substantially short-changed for their investment in 2010. (That is my opinion, not necessarily that of AAI.)

Tanya Smith – Atheist Alliance International

Tanya’s speech was titled, “How do we change the world?”

She introduced Atheist Alliance International (AAI) as a global alliance of atheist groups and individual members.

One of the key functions of AAI is to help establish atheist groups, especially in countries where this is difficult. Tanya spoke, for example, of AAI’s role in establishing the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics back in August 2011.

AAI also fields questions from around the world, from people asking about atheism, for advice and support in establishing atheist organisations, and for guidance in combating religious assaults on human rights and freedom.

The AAI now has a global convention program.  Tanya echoes my own view that making personal connections with each other is critical if we are to make an effective stand for atheism and secularism.

I was delighted to hear that AAI has been instrumental in opening the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda. The school opened early in 2011 and now has 300 students, and growing. Uganda has been the victim of Christian fundamentalist dominionism. Educating children in a secular school is a brilliant strategy to help them fight back against this rampant religious imperialism.

You can learn more about the Kasese school on its website. You can also get involved by sponsoring school fees for one or more students,  or a teacher’s salary.

Here are the kids singing and shouting “Humanities!” on assembly:

Another priority for AAI is to gain international status for atheists. To that end, they are seeking to gain consultative status with the United Nations.

You can apply to have your organisation affiliated with AAI, or join as an individual member – or simply donate to the great work they’re doing.  Members also receive issues of AAI’s excellent “Secular World” magazine in which I’m very proud to have been published … twice!

For more information go to the Atheist Alliance International website.

Annie Laurie Gaylor – Freedom from Religion Foundation / Freethought Radio

One of my major complaints about atheists and atheist organisations is that we talk a lot but we really need to get out and DO SOMETHING!  That’s one reason I’m very happy to promote Atheist Alliance International which seems to be doing much more than self-promoting and putting signs on buses.

Another organisation I’m delighted to promote is America’s Freedom from Religion Foundation – run by feminist, Annie Laurie Gaylor and her husband, former evangelical preacher, Dan Barker.  FFRF has 18,000 members and functions primarily as a watchdog on violations of America’s constitutional  separation of church and state. They filed 50 lawsuits last year and won many.

Annie Laurie and Dan also have a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast: Freethought Radio.  It’s well worth subscribing to their podcasts.

Annie Laurie began by confessing that she had ‘PM’ envy. Our atheist PM may not be ideal, but an atheist President in the US is currently an impossibility.

“There is a defacto religious test for office in the USA,” she said.

It seems that it’s not only non-Americans who view America’s ‘God fixation’ with a degree of fear.

“A superpower which looks to the supernatural is just plain scary!” said Annie Laurie.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is a third generation freethinker. She believes it is immoral to indocrinate children with fear and neuroses.

Annie Laurie said she was sorry to hear that Australia’s state/church separation had been subverted (due to the 1981 High Court decision in the DoGS case).

Annie Laurie urged us to keep defending Australian secularism, “You don’t want the religious right in your country!” she said.  Unfortunately, Annie Laurie, they’re already here!

She was also adamant that the state should not fund religious programs (like the National School Chaplaincy Program).

“Where public money goes,” she said, “public accountability must follow.”

“Public money should not fund divisive programs.”

Annie Laurie told us about Jessica Ahlquist, a 16 year old atheist from Rhode Island who lobbied successfully to have a prayer removed from the wall of her high school – where it has hung for 49 years. Jessica has been vilified and threatened for doing nothing more than asking her school to uphold the Constitution. State Representative, Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, even called Jessica “an evil little thing” during a radio interview.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has supported Jessica and awarded her a $13,000 scholarship for her activism.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this kind of thing here in Australia and actively encourage our brightest young people to stand up for a secular Australia?

Another initiative of the FFRF has been to encourage Catholics to stop supporting the Catholic Church with their ‘membership’.  We already know there are many Catholics who are appalled at the actions of their church in relation to contraception, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion, the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups,  etc – but they fail to take that extra step and quit. In particular, the Catholic Church in America is opposing the inclusion of contraception in the new Health Care Plan.

In response, in March this year, The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, headlined:  “IT’S TIME TO CONSIDER QUITTING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.”

The ad reminds Catholics that the Church “hasn’t persuaded you to shun contraception” and encourages Catholics to leave the church – en mass (another brilliant ‘bon mot’ from Dan Barker).

Notably, the NYT would not publish the advertisement as submitted. The original headline was “IT’S TIME TO QUIT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH”.  It had to be modified before the paper would print it.

The FFRF also produced a television commercial in response to (failed) Presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum’s claim that John F Kennedy’s landmark speech on the separation of church and state almost made him throw up.

Annie Laurie noted that the background music which we would recognise as “God save the Queen” has another lyric in the US, “Let freedom reign”.

I’ve spoken previously about the dangerous symbolism of prayers in parliament. Annie Laurie agreed.

“Government prayer is an affront to Reason!” she said, urging politicians to, “Get off your knees and get to work!”

“There is a time when religion ruled the world,” she said, “It’s known as ‘The Dark Ages’.” Hear, hear!

America is facing its own ‘dark age’. Annie Laurie noted that the US Supreme Court is now dominated by right-wing conservative Catholics who vote as a block. The ‘land of the free’ is turning into a theocracy.

This is one of the reasons I keep urging Australians to sit up and take notice of what is happening here. It’s this insidious infiltration of religious extremists into our parliaments, legislative bodies, public service and schools which will take us down the same path as America. Fundamentalists are quietly waging an assault on Australian secularism, and we are blithely standing by (with the exception of people like Ron Williams) and letting them.

Wake up and DO SOMETHING!

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part One)

I ‘Resurrect’ after the Gala Dinner

I woke early on the morning after the Gala Dinner wondering how many more Atheist Conventions I had in me! The pace was gruelling, my brain was overloaded, and my poor feet were throbbing! But, another day beckoned, so, zombie-like, I raised my arms and shuffled back into the fray.

The Hilton Hotel and the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre are connected at the first floor level.  Hilton guests need only go to the first floor, walk through some heavy doors, through a large reception area, and down an escalator and they’re in the main exhibition area of the MCEC.  Riding down the escalators in the morning to the sight of 4,000 massed atheists was really something to make my secular heart sing.

As one journalist noted, 4,000 people may not seem a lot compared with Hillsong’s congregation, but Hillsong’s congregation don’t have to pay $400 each to attend or fly in from around Australia and 40 countries around the world. That takes a huge level of passion and commitment to a cause.

Having attended the Convention twice now, I can verify that the people attending are mostly not the kind to whom $400 and an interstate (or international) airfare is a mere bagatelle. These are ordinary working folk, students and retirees who have made a real financial sacrifice to stand up and be counted.

Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott was the first speaker of the day. A gracious, elegant woman,  Eugenie is, nevertheless, a fierce campaigner against the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools.  MC, Laurence Leung, noted that she has been dubbed ‘Darwin’s golden retriever’ (an allusion to Darwin’s friend and contemporary, Thomas Huxley, who called himself ‘Darwin’s bulldog’).

Eugenie, (I’m going to refer to her by her first name, ‘Scott’ just doesn’t sound right somehow), began by noting that there are different kinds of creation ‘theories’. Broadly speaking there is Young Earth Creationism (YEC), Old Earth Creationism (OEC) and Intelligent Design.

YEC posits that God created the earth and  the life upon it more or less in its present form 6,000-10,000 years ago, within the time-frame given in the Old Testament.

OEC accepts that the earth is far older than 10,000 years and teaches that God created life, sequentially, through time (thereby explaining the distribution of plants and animals in the fossil record.)

While YEC and OEC may accept some forms of micro-evolution within ‘kinds’, they do not accept that one species can evolve into another.

Intelligent design accepts much of evolutionary theory including natural selection, but argues that the complexity of certain body parts and the progression from one species to another is too complex to occur ‘naturally’ and, therefore, must have required the hand of an intelligent ‘designer’.

More information on the different kinds of theories is available here:  The Creation/Evolution Continuum by Eugenie Scott.

Eugenie spoke about various interpretations of the sedimentary deposits in the Grand Canyon and nearby geological features, the Zion and Bryce Canyons.

Young earth creationists believe (naively!) that Noah’s flood explains the sedimentary deposits.

“5,000 feet of sediment deposits in one year!” exclaimed Eugenie, pointing to the absurdity of the hypothesis.

She showed us a photo of the Coconino Sandstone which has a layer of ‘wind lain’ sediment between two layers of water-lain sediment.

This tends to bugger up the young earth creationists theory that the Grand Canyon was created in ‘one go’ within the space of a year by Noah’s flood.

No problem! The YEC-ers simply argue that geologists are mistaken and the wind-lain strata of the Coconino is actually water lain. It must be – otherwise they’re wrong and that’s simply not possible!

There’s a flaw in their theory, however. There are footprints in the middle strata of the Coconino Sandstone. This is entirely consistent with it being wind-lain, but rather bizarre if the footprints were laid and fossilized under water!  Nevertheless, a YEC scientist did some experiments with salamanders (back in the late 70s) and determined that footprints could, indeed, be laid underwater.

There’s just one small glitch – the trackways in the Coconino show the prints of apparently fast-moving insects such as spiders and scorpions.  (Try putting a spider in an aquarium and see how you go getting it to leave tracks in the sand!)

If you’re interested in this, there’s an excellent article here:  Coconino Sandstone (startling evidence for Noah’s Flood) by Gary Neyman (Answers in Creation).

The Coconino theories, says Eugenie,  illustrate how young earth creationists fail to consider refuting data.

“They only seek out data that confirms their views,” she says.

“It looks like science … but it isn’t.”

But, she said, at least creation ‘science’ makes fact claims that can be tested. Intelligent design makes none.  Intelligent design, she said is ‘stripped’ of fact claims.  ID provides: no historical narrative, no pattern, and the process (micro-evolution) is only ever inferred.

Why this aversion to evolution?

“Evolution,” Eugenie explained, “undermines the concept of ‘original sin’.”

If there was no ‘original sin’, there was no need for Jesus to be sacrificed on the cross (at least in the minds of creationists).

But, more broadly, Eugenie believes intelligent design is based upon an animosity towards philosophical materialism. If science does not support a Biblical world-view, then we have to change how science is done!

Eugenie spoke of the Discovery Institute’s ‘culture warriors’ and its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, headed by Stephen Myer (author of the Wedge Strategy).  This, said Eugenie, is a “radical assault on material culture and the science behind it.”

Indeed it is. The Wedge Strategy document states that:

“[The] Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.”

But, Eugenie was at pains to point out that not all materialists are atheists. There are two kinds of materialism, she said: methodological and philosophical. They are not the same, although ID proponents like to conflate them.

Science is methodologically materialistic. It makes no claims about the supernatural – it neither believes nor disbelieves. Science is concerned with describing and explaining nature.  Therefore, its focus is on that which is natural rather than supernatural. The supernatural is not something about which scientific assumptions can be made. As  ‘there is no way to contact, detect, or otherwise empirically observe the supernatural’ it is outside the purview of science [see Rational Wiki for more detailed explanations].

Philosophical materialism, on the other hand, does make the claim that the natural, the material, is all there is.

Contrary to what ID proponents would have us believe, Eugenie explained, not all methodological materialists are philosophical materialists. Many are, but not all. There are certainly many mainstream scientists who respect the materialism of science but, nevertheless, hold a philosophical belief in a supernatural intelligence.

Eugenie mentioned Phillip Johnson’s manifesto against scientific materialism, The Wedge of Truth.  Johnson appears to believe that our materialistic society rests upon a pillar of scientific materialism. That pillar is embedded in the foundation of evolutionary theory. This gives rise to the hypothesis that, if evolutionary theory can be destroyed, the whole structure will topple; “…  the walls of naturalism will fall” and  the Christian gospel will provide the “new foundation for thinking – not just about science and religion but about everything that gives human life hope and meaning.”

There is a belief that we have to open up science to allow for miracles, says Eugenie. (And I am moved to say, “God forbid!”)

Eugenie stressed that creationism and intelligent design are not about science – they are ideological and political. The push to ‘teach the controversy’ about evolution in schools has nothing to do with science, but is a part of America’s on-going culture wars.

Read the (National Center for Science Education) news alerts, she said. “Sort for the state of Tennessee – it’s very depressing!”

She’s right! Lead stories detail the passing of an anti-evolution “monkey bill” in Tennessee which allows (compels?) science teachers to ‘teach the controversy’. Eugenie has, of course, responded, warning that:

“Telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is miseducating them. Good science teachers know that. But the Tennessee legislature has now made it significantly harder to ensure that science is taught responsibly in the state’s public schools.”

During questions, Eugenie recommended theist, Ken Miller’s book,  Finding Darwin’s God.

While conceding that Miller suggests (in a separate part of the book) that God may have intervened at a quantum level, she says that his initial argument “lays waste to creationism”.

She said that she would not reject Miller because of his concession to intervention.

“I take allies wherever I can get them!”

Eugenie concluded by stressing once again that intelligent design has no basis in science.

“It is a political position – not a scientific one.”

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Gala Dinner

One of the big decisions facing those attending the Global Atheist Convention is whether to pay the exorbitant price of a ticket to the Gala Dinner.

I received a free ticket to the dinner in 2010 (apparently in lieu of a mention on the program for my many months of work – yes, it still smarts).  This year, I chose to fork out the $150 based on my very positive 2010 experience.

Was it worth it – well, yes and no.

I should preface this by saying it’s not really a criticism of the GAC organizing committee who did a superb job with the whole convention. I guess it’s more a matter of misjudgment than anything – and misjudgment made for all the right reasons, I expect.

The first issue is that $150 is a very large amount of money for dinner for one. For those of us old-fashioned enough to believe that one should dress up for a gala dinner, there’s the considerable added expense of clothes and jewellery. Yes, I know, this is entirely optional – but it’s something one has to factor in.

In 2010 the food provided by the Melbourne Convention and Entertainment Centre was superb. It was way beyond what I expected and, as I recall, everyone was raving about it. This year’s offering was very different.

The entree was a pretentious nouvelle cuisine mish-mash of mismatched tastes.  It was pretty, but that was the only sense it satisfied.

Main course for non-vegetarians  was either fish or lamb – served alternately. I hate that. I know you can swap around with people at your table, and I know that it’s probably the only workable method for such a huge crowd, but for $150 I’d really like to be able to choose my own main. Small quibble, but there it is.

I was lucky – or so I thought. I had the lamb plonked down in front of me. It was an unappetising hunk of brown meat with a tiny squirt of tasteless sauce (probably a ‘jus’ given the pretension of the entree).  The lamb was overcooked and stringy. It was supposed to have been accompanied by Potatoes Dauphinoise – misspelled Duphinoise  on the menu. Perhaps the missing ‘a’ excused the fact that it contained none of the standard ingredients of a Dauphinoise – cream, butter and cheese. Instead, it was an insipid, under-seasoned, flavourless square of potato slices which no self-respecting Frenchman would have touched with a barge pole.  A couple of forlorn baby carrots sat drearily on the plate as the ‘token’ vegetable.

The desserts were very good, but tiny. I had some kind of lemon sorbet thing and a chocolate mousse in a chocolate basket which surely came from a different kitchen than the pap served previously.

Now, none of this is the fault of the Convention organisers, but I know the MCEC can do better – and they really should have.

The entertainment for the night is my next gripe. I can understand that the organisers wanted to give us maximum value for money, and I do appreciate the thought. The entertainment program was packed – over-packed.  The thing is – the Saturday night dinner is one of the only chances Convention-goers have to catch up with each other. We find each other far more entertaining than most of the acts.  This, unfortunately, proved true as people increasingly got frustrated and just talked over the top of the entertainers.  It wasn’t fair on the entertainers, but it wasn’t fair on the dinner guests either.

Simon Taylor was the MC for the night. He did a professional job, but why book someone with Taylor’s talent as an illusionist and not have him perform?

I love Brian Dalton aka Mr Deity but a technical problem took the wind out of his sails and, I think, the momentum was lost for the whole evening. I don’t know whether the problem was the tech crew’s or Dalton’s, but having an international speaker floundering at the podium unable to launch his video wasn’t a good look.

And then there was the startling omission (again!) of Dan Barker – a brilliant musician and song-writer from our own international atheist community.  Supposedly the reason given for not including Dan was the expense of hiring a piano. I’m sorry, but if I had a chance to book Dan Barker I’d organise the budget to include the cost of a piano.

There were some laughs to be had from the other entertainers, but the sound was not great and most people just decided to chat amongst themselves.

I was blown away by Catherine Deveny’s performance at the 2010 GAC. It was a real tour de force. This time her performance seemed to lack verve and including her 2010 spat with Cardinal George Pell just seemed like she was stretching for material. Sorry, Catherine, I do love you, but the Pell thing is over – move on!

So, on the strength of the food and the entertainment, the investment of $150 for the gala dinner was definitely not worth it. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The chance to dine in the company of Michael Barnett (@mikeybear), Gregory Storer (@GregoryStorer), Kieran Dennis (@dolmiogrin), Linley Kissick (@postielinley), AronRa, Andrew Skegg (@askegg), Robert Cope and Sean Jelinek (@SeanJAus) was priceless.

It was also great to catch up with Carol Wocker, @MsPraxis and @Tradrmum, OJ Lesslar, Kazza from Queensland, Martin Pribble (@MartinPribble), Colin Mackay, Russell Blackford (@Metamagician), Jonathan Meddings (@TheCarapace), Jin-Oh Choi (@JinOhChoi) and many more.

I spent quite a lot of time talking with Dr David Leaf from Dying with Dignity (NSW) and new friend, Neil Francis, head of Your Last Right. One of my new interests is forging closer links between us ‘generic’ atheists/secularists and those targets of religious propaganda and interference whose interests are more specific – e.g. voluntary euthanasia, women’s reproductive rights, scientific research, secular education, gay rights.

In this same vein I was delighted to have time to chat with Jane Caro about government funding for private schools. Perhaps because I was educated (in part) at a private school I’ve never objected greatly to reasonable funding to that sector – based on the premise that the parents of private school students pay a portion of their tax for education facilities and are entitled to the benefits of that. I have to say even a brief chat with Jane had me re-examining my stance on this.  I look forward to chatting with her further and maybe blogging on the pros and cons of government funding for private schools.

I’m not much of a ‘fan girl’, so hunting down celebrities is one of the things I’m least likely to do. One ‘celebrity’ I did want to meet, though, was Fiona Patten, leader of the Australian Sex Party. I’m not tied to any political party – nor do I intend to be – but I admire Fiona Patten greatly and she’s generously retweeted links to some of my work in the past.  But, before I had a chance to go hunting for Fiona, she found me, saying, “Chrys Stevenson? I really wanted to meet you!”

Wow! That was my ‘memorable Convention moment’ right there! Fiona turned out to be a lovely, down-to-earth gal and another person I’d like to spend far more time with.

One event at the Gala Dinner, I think, epitomised what the night should have been all about – fun and making real human connections. I’ve never thought much about the convention of sitting all the VIPs down the front – why not spread them amongst the hoi-polloi? Do we really have to set up this artificial ‘us and them’ division at atheist conventions?

PZ Myers is one of the most accessible of the Convention speakers. Throughout the Convention, PZ and Australian blogger Martin Pribble got involved in a good-natured spat over their respective rankings in a poll for the best atheist/agnostic blog for 2011.  As (mock) tensions rose during the Convention it was decided that a duel was in order and, as no duelling pistols were to hand, a hug-off seemed a reasonable compromise.

And here it is, captured for posterity by Andrew Skegg.

Yes, folks, that’s what we ‘militant atheists’ do when we get together. We hug each other – frightening, isn’t it?

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, “Was it worth attending the Gala Dinner?”
“Definitely, yes!”
But if we do it again, can I ask the organisers to consider something more informal and something which allows much more free time for Convention attendees just to ‘hang out’ and chat and hug and make real life friends out of cyber-friends. Because, you know, that’s really what we’re there for.  And, ultimately, building stronger real-life links within our various ‘communities’ is going to pay far greater dividends for secularism than watching any comedy act – no matter how good it is.

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Seven)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the books Infidel (2007) and Nomad: From Islam to America – A personal Jorney Through the Clash of Civilizations (2010) took the stage accompanied by thunderous applause.

Hirsi Ali’s key concern is the treatment of women under Islam but her most recent book takes a broader perspective in examining the relationship between Islam and the West.

Hirsi Ali referred to the grass-roots uprisings in Arab countries during 2011 – dubbed the Arab ‘secular spring’.  But, said Ali, if Arab nations are enjoying a secular spring, what would an Islamist winter look like?

Before answering that question, Hirsi Ali paused to tell us about Fatima Abdallah. This ‘detour’ so early in her speech seemed to be a deliberate attempt to gain the attention and support of the previous speaker, Geoffrey Robertson.

Fatima Abdallah’s story can be read here. Briefly, she was a divorced and barren Muslim woman, living (in a tense relationship) with her family in Florida.  Fatima died from having her head repeatedly bashed against a coffee table. She suffered broken ribs and her blood was spattered all through the house. Her family did not call 911 until 2 1/2 hours after her death.  Their testimony is riddled with inconsistencies. And yet, in an apparent concession to Sharia law, Tampa police bizarrely accepted the family’s story that Fatima committed suicide.

Hirsi Ali pleaded with Robertson to help her reopen the case, or point her towards other lawyers who may be able to help.

She then returned to the subject of her speech.

“Fellow unbelievers,” she began, “You godless lot …”

She paused again, for a moment to express her grief at the loss of Christopher Hitchens but soon moved on.

“What would a secular spring mean to the societies in North Africa?” she asked.

It would bring:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • the end of corruption
  • an end to human rights violations
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom of the press
  • freedom of conscience
  • freedom of religion
  • women’s rights – including laws to protect women from domestic violence
  • peace with Israel
  • recognition of the right of Israelis to have a Jewish state
  • and the end of Islamic terrorism

And these progressive changes, she said would lead to economic growth sourced from greater foreign investment and burgeoning tourism.

Importantly, with greater freedom and better economic conditions, Muslim youth would begin to develop confidence in ‘life before death, as opposed to life after death.’

But, said Hirsi Ali, the uprisings have not brought a ‘secular spring’, but an ‘Islamist winter’.

Hirsi Ali was highly pessimistic about the changes wrought by the Arab protests.  In places like Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, she said, Islamists are already in power, or soon will be. The situation in Syria is ‘ongoing’.

Islamist governments, she said, bring ‘religiously sanctioned corruption’. They promise tolerance to non-Muslim women, but these promises are broken. They are jailing authors and artists on charges of ‘provoking society’.

“Provoking society!” said Hirsi Ali, “What else is an artist supposed to do?”

As Islamists move in to fill the void left by the expulsion of the dictators, human rights will be violated and excused as the will of Allah.  There will be no freedom of speech, no freedom of conscience.

The legal age of marriage for girls will be lowered to nine.

Women will live in a state of perpetual guardianship.

Sharia law will justify violence against women – both in public and in the home.

There will be no peace with Israel – although Islamic governments will continue to make noises about trying to achieve it.

“The double-speak will continue,” said Hirsi Ali, “but they do not support the two state solution.”

Domestic terrorism will increase.

Elections have been held but it is significant that the secular parties did not do as well as the Islamists. These secular parties are not atheistic, she said, but they do support the separation of church and state.

It was a bleak assessment of the result of the popular uprisings which had given many of us hope for change in the Middle East and North Africa.

But, said Hirsi Ali, there is hope, and it comes from pressure being exerted by the Muslim diaspora.

She also spoke of young, pro-democracy activists like Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi poet and former columnist for the Saudi daily newspaper, al-Bilad.  On the day of the ‘prophet’s birthday’ in February this year Kashgari sent a series of tweets:

  • On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.
  • On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.

Kashgari made the tweets to make a point about human rights and freedom of expression.

He also enraged his critics by saying that Saudi women “won’t go to hell ‘because it’s impossible to go there twice.'”

Soon, there were 30,000 tweets calling for Kashgari’s death.

Kashgari is in deep trouble. But there is pressure being exerted from more moderate voices in the diaspora. For example, the Association of British Muslims has called on the Saudi King to drop any charges against Kashgari, arguing that:

“Thought crime is no crime at all, … Any state enforced penalty for perceived blasphemy runs contrary to the true spirit of Islam, and of our Prophet, peace be upon him, who was compassionate even to those who scorned him. … No one should be legally prosecuted, imprisoned or detained for simply expressing themselves.”

Secular forces in Muslim nations need help from the West, said Hirsi Ali. Their secular parties need our help to win Islamic hearts and minds. But help is not forthcoming. Why?

She spoke of the tendency to ‘romanticize’ the primitivism of ancient cultures – to view Islam, in a way, through the distortion of our own dissatisfaction with Western civilization.

She spoke of ‘white guilt’ – that special sort of embarrassment we in the West feel about our inability to defend the ideas that liberated African-Americans and women.

She said that it was conservatives and Christians who had stepped up to defend free speech and to defend Israel – not liberals. For example, said Hirsi Ali, it is a Christian group which has taken on the case of Fatima Abdallah.

Personally, I’m not sure that I agree with much of what Hirsi Ali said in this part of her speech – although I may change my mind after reading her book. I think perhaps there are at least four things which prevent Western secularists from charging into the internal politics of Muslim nations:

1) fear of reprisals – who wants to risk a fatwah against them?

2) fear of being accused of being racist or Islamaphobic

3) a feeling that we don’t understand Islam sufficiently to fight it in the same way we oppose Christian assaults on freedom of democracy

4) a feeling that while we have a ‘right’ to criticise Christianity (because that’s our culture) we have less right to attack Islam

5) a feeling of helplessness (and hopelessness?) and a lack of direction – we don’t know what will be helpful, and the problem seems just too large.

Hirsi Ali called on Westerners to:

1.  Develop a secular/liberal narrative to counter Islamist doctrine and methodology.

2. To help build up liberal institutions in Muslim nations.

3. To help secular activists with policital and policy training.

It is time for action, said Hirsi Ali.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has suffered greatly for her apostasy. Even at the Global Atheist Convention she was flanked by security guards.  Outside the Convention Centre, the day after her speech, Islamic protestors held placards that read, “Message to INFIDEL Ayaan Ali Hirsi [sic] BURN IN HELL FOREVER”

During her speech Hirsi Ali explained how the Dutch government first housed her in a ‘bullet proof’ house – and then moved her to one that was ‘bazooka proof’. She has endured the murder of her friend and collaborator, Theo van Gogh.

Her life is constantly at risk. Her freedom curtailed by the threats of religious extremists and fanatics.

And yet, as she concluded her speech (and the day’s proceedings – for me*) at the Global Atheist Convention she said, “Infidel is a label I now wear with pride and joy.”

On that, I think, we can all agree.

Chrys Stevenson

* I do have to apologise to my readers.  Richard Dawkins spoke after Ayaan Hirsi Ali but by then I was so tired I had to make a choice between staying to hear Dawkins or forgoing the Gala Dinner.  I have already heard Dawkins speak twice and so I made the difficult decision to choose a sleep and a bubble bath instead. Sorry Professor!

I heard that his speech was particularly good, so if someone has written it up, please let me know and I’ll link to it.  I’d make a poor war correspondent, wouldn’t I?

“Ooops, sorry, missed that battle, I fell asleep in the bath!”

Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Six)

Geoffrey Robertson

The hugely impressive Geoffrey Robertson gave the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Memorial Lecture at Melbourne’s 2012 Global Atheist Convention.

Laurence Leung introduced Robertson, assuring the ghost of Hitch that if he had, indeed, ended up in Hell as his critics predicted, Geoffrey could probably talk the sentence down to three months detention and a good behaviour bond.

Robertson took to the stage and opened with a disclosure, “I’m not actually an atheist … I’m a lawyer. I can argue both sides.”

Like many speakers he took the chance to take a poke at Pell.

“I hear that Pell believes atheists can go to Paradise. I don’t know about lawyers; God has to draw the line somewhere.”

I wondered, for a moment, whether Robertson was pinching his wife, Kathy Lette’s, material; or whether she might pinch his!

Robertson reminded us that Hitch was “like a small boy, pointing out the emperor had no clothes.”

His, was “a life spent puncturing the hypocrisy of others – including himself.”

Hitch was driven, said Robertson, by a ‘passion for justice’. He believed that criminals should face retribution now, rather than in hell or in the pages of history.

If you read nothing else of Christopher Hitchens’ great works, said Robertson, read “Chidhood’s End”, his Vanity Fair exposé of Ugandan, Joseph Kony of The Lord’s Resistance Army.  Read, said Robertson, about the support this monster receives from crazed evangelicals in the US.

It was Hitch, he reminded us, who came up with the idea of suing the Pope for crimes against humanity.

Robertson noted that here in Victoria, there have been [at least?] forty suicides in the past decade as a result of clerical abuse and the church’s failure to deal adequately with its victims. He urged the Baillieu government to institute a Royal Commission.  Immediately following the Convention, Baillieu announced a parliamentary inquiry into the matter – sadly not a Royal Commission, but a step forward, at least. One can only hope it will not be a bureaucratic whitewash. My friend, Rodney Chiang-Cruise reminded me at dinner last night of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s caution: “Never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.”

Robertson challenged the legitimacy of allowing any religion to indoctrinate children at a very early age and convincing them that the priest had ‘supernatural’ powers. This has a powerful emotional and psychological effect on children, he said. When children’s awe of an infallible ‘superpowered’ authority figure is combined with the infantile celibates we call priests, it is a dangerous combination which too often leads to sexual and psychological abuse.

We must raise the age at which children are formally indoctrinated into their parents’ religion. The Vatican refuses to acknowledge this as a problem and, in fact, wants to lower the age of communion from seven to five.

Robertson said that the law should ban any formal induction until a child is at least 13 years of age.

The Catholic Church, says Robertson, blames everyone and everything but itself for clerical abuse: homosexual infiltration, aggressive secularism, the devil, Jewish journalists on the New York Times, even modernity!

And, the Australian taxpayer – that proverbial ‘mug’ – pays for Australia to have an embassy at the Vatican in addition to the embassy we already have in Italy. Even Ireland, said Robertson, has closed its Vatican embassy due to the deceitful behaviour of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, expelled from Ireland – and sent where? To Australia!

Robertson opposes tax exemptions for religious institutions. While other worthy, secular organisations like Human Rights Watch cannot get exemption, religious institutions receive this privilege ‘as of right’. We need a Bill of Rights, said Robertson. Religious institutions should pay the going rate in corporations tax.  In the meantime, perhaps the Atheist Foundation of Australia should declare its belief in Christopher Hitchens.

It is notable that Robertson, one of the world’s leading lawyers, states unequivocally that the convention of saying prayers in the Australian parliament is unconstitutional. How good would it be if we could get pro-bono legal assistance to challenge this in the High Court! I do understand there are greater problems facing Australian society, but symbolically this would be an important victory and bring a great deal of attention to the other assaults on Australian secularism. ** (Please see clarification of this section in my comment below.)

Robertson reminded us how fortunate we are to be able to assert our disbelief without fear. Cruelty, he reminded us, faces atheists in many parts of the world. He spoke of the ‘atheophobia’ in many Muslim countries. (Atheophobia is a real word, Robertson assured us – “I checked it with Stephen Fry!”)

In places like Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia and Iran, he said, atheists risk imprisonment and death because they share our belief.

The problem in Iran, is grave.  In the late 80s, said Robertson, thousands of atheists were killed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. They were hung from cranes, four at a time – or shot by firing squad – and buried in mass graves. At least 7,000 atheists were killed – perhaps as many as 30,000. Their only crime, Robertson insists, was their atheism; although the Iranian government lies about this and tries to cover it up.

What is worse,most of the perpetrators of this atrocity are still alive and hold high positions in Iran’s government, including Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader; a man Hitch described as “a semi-literate megalomaniac”.

Robertson made the chilling prediction that Israel may stage a military strike on Iran before the year is out.

Meanwhile, the religious fanatics who lead Iran believe that nuclear war will create the kind of chaos that will bring the second coming of the 12th Imam. I hadn’t heard of the 12th Imam, so I did a little research.  Apparently:

“Critics of the Islamic Republic allege that Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader would even go so far as to hasten a nuclear showdown and cataclysmic strike — perhaps an attack on Israel and inevitable retaliation — to hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam. Ahmadinejad has even called for the reappearance of the 12th Imam from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. During his speeches within Iran, Ahmadinejad has said that the main mission of the Islamic Revolution is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam.”

As Hitch said, “Religion poisons everything.”

“Hitch!” cried Robertson, “Where are you now? Looking down, perhaps from Cardinal Pell’s heaven?”

Hardly an achievement, Robertson reminded us, “If Mitt Romney dies he’ll get his own planet!”

“It’s a crazy world!” said Robertson. “Hitch tried to make it a saner place.”

Hitch is gone now and we know he’s not going to make a second coming. I guess if is work is to continue, it’s all up to us.

Chrys Stevenson