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

Dan Barker – Freedom from Religion Foundation

I love listening to Dan Barker’s  and Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Freethought Radio podcast, and I loved Dan Barker’s book, Godless,  so it was great to see him on stage again at GAC 2012.

As I keep droning on about the threat of Christian dominionism in this country I was heartened when Dan opened with the comment, “The religious right does want to take over – don’t let them do it!”

Like Leslie Cannold, Dan was keen for us to know about Vashti McCollum’s fight for a secular education for her children.  He recommended her book, One Woman’s Fight. It’s confronting to think that what Vashti McCollum was fighting for in America in 1953 is essentially the same thing that Ron Williams is fighting for here in Australia in 2011.  Why has it taken over 50 years for Australia to recognise the importance of a secular public education system for our children!

As a former minister, Dan Barker has a particular interest in clergy who have lost their faith.  He told us that thousands and thousands of ministers, priests and clergy find that, having learned ‘too much’, they are struggling with their faith.  Together with others he has started the Clergy Project ‘a confidential online community for active and former clergy who [no longer] hold supernatural beliefs.”

The project launched just last month and already more than 200 clergy have signed up, including 50 who are still actively working as clergy.

There are many people still preaching, says Dan, who no longer believe.  The aim is to help and support atheist clergy and, in the future, assist them with retraining.

Dan announced that his next book will be called The Good Atheist. He said that, in response to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, he had wanted to call it The Life Driven Purpose. The World, Dan explained, has been enriched by the contributions of good atheists. He wants to give them credit.

Despite his early life as an evangelist, Dan now sees God as a slave master. He noted that the posture of people in prayer – on their knees, head bowed – is that of a subservient slave before their master and the position of the hands during prayer echoes a slave’s hands in shackles.  Atheists, said Dan, are revolting against the slave master.

Dan made a brilliant analogy about God’s ‘good news’, darwing on John 3:16. He suggested that we imagine one of our neighbours standing out on the street each morning as we pass by entreating us to come and hear his ‘good news’.  For days we ignore him, but at last we decide to listen to what he has to say.

“I have good news for you,” says the neighbour, “You don’t have to go down in my basement torture chamber!”


“Yes! I was going to send you down there, but instead I sent my son down there, and that satisfied my anger, so now you don’t have to go. So now, if you just say thank you to my son we can all go and live up in my attic forever.”

“What would you do?” asked Dan. Take up the offer, or would you just keep on walking?

Dan drew a similar analogy about God’s torture of Job (Job 2:3). Anyone who would do what God did to Job, he said, is a moral monster. It was, said Dan, the original “the devil made me do it” excuse.

Morning Tea

After Dan’s talk we broke for morning tea. What a bun rush! At morning tea I saw Steve Payne who seems to be perfecting omnipresence. Also great to catch up with Deb (@Tradrmum) and Jeannie Dare who’s generously offered to give me a lift to the airport on Thursday. Coffee and biscuits are great sustenance but the best reviver was a big hug from the lovely Mikey Bear, Michael Barnett.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion was next on the programme. Radio presenter, Derek Guille, was the moderator with a panel comprised of:  former St Kilda Mayor and secular Jew, Dick Gross; Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland; academic Marion Maddox, author of God under Howard; and leader of the Australian Sex Party, Fiona Patten.

I was surprised to see Dick Gross get a guernsey because he was downright rude about the 2010 GAC and I don’t know that he added much to the panel discussion. I spoke to Jane Caro later and she was raging that neither Dick nor Colleen seemed to understand the gravity of the government funding religious schools to the detriment of the impoverished state system.

On this ‘vexed issue’, Gross said he wasn’t really concerned about it, although he conceded that education in Australia is critically underfunded. Gross didn’t think we had a large creationist movement in Australia but said that if schools were found to be teaching creationism, it should be grounds for the withdrawal of government funding.

Hartland agreed. She was more concerned about religious instruction in schools, arguing that it was about recruitment and should only occur outside the state system.

By this stage steam was coming out of Marion Maddox’s ears (perhaps she was channelling Jane Caro!). Marion accused Dick and Colleen of being ‘wish washy’, reminding them that the government gives more money to some religious schools than it gives to state schools.  These religious schools, said Maddox, are getting away with substantially amended curricula which expunge certain concepts and words from science and English in deference to religious sensibilities. In some schools there are even exemptions which allow for corporal punishment – an abuse which is outlawed in all other schools. The aim of these schools, said Maddox, is for children to be soldiers of the Lord ready to take on the enemies of the Lord and their dominions. Yet another voice of support for my claim that dominionism is alive and well in Australia!

Maddox disagreed that Australia didn’t have much of a creationist movement. There’s a strong creationist movement here, she said.

Maddox is not an atheist. She’s a Christian and a theologian. And yet, of all the panel members it was she who argued most strongly for an equitable and robust state education system which is free, compulsory and secular – just as our founders intended.

In response to what can only be described as an outraged rant by Maddox, Fiona Patten turned to her and said, “I didn’t realise it, but I love you!”

Fiona said that she strongly disagreed with religious schools being exempted from anti-discrimination laws. She also said she was looking forward to the outcome of Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program.

There was general agreement on the panel that, if religion is to be taught in schools at all, it should be as an academic subject taught by qualified teachers, not by ‘good-hearted volunteers’.

Marion Maddox noted that PhD student, Cathy Byrne is researching in this area and has found that Australia is way behind in the way we do religious education. It should be academic and it should include a wide range of world-views, including atheism.  My notes for this part of the discussion note that “MM is in full flight”. She was, frankly, magnificent in defence our secular education. Had Ron Williams been there I’m sure he would have been standing on his chair cheering her on.

Fiona Patten agreed wholeheartedly with Maddox.

“We don’t need volunteers teaching in state schools. State schools should be funded well enough so we don’t need volunteers.”

Gross was concerned, however, that funding a cohort of religious education teachers would be unduly costly – especially in a system where we so badly need teachers of science and maths. Is it really that important to teach kids about religion at all, asked Gross?  There are more important things.

“I’d choose sex education over religion any day,” Fiona Patten piped up, causing much laughter from the audience.

Maddox took the proposition seriously, however, noting that in many European countries where education is properly funded, children receive the benefit of both sex and religious education.

Same-sex marriage was the next topic for discussion.  Dick Gross noted that the government does need to regulate marriage because marriage is ‘messy’ – it involves money and violence and the government needs to have some form of control.  However, he does support same-sex marriage and saw his failure to push it through during his term in politics as one of his failures.

Fiona Patten felt that the religious wanted a ‘prohibition on pleasure’.

“They just don’t like people having fun!” she said.

But Marion Maddox reminded us that many Christians are far more moderate than the noisy fundamentalists and share our views on many of these issues.  We need to build coalitions with them, she said. The Australian Christian Lobby does not speak for Australian Christians.

Maddox said that although the ACL talks as if it is a peak body, it is a private company with no organisational members.

“I’d bet its constituency is smaller than the number of people in this room,” she said.

Maddox noted that statistics consistently show that most Christians support same-sex marriage and abortion.

Dick Gross jumped on one of my hobby horses in criticising the moderate churches for not being more vocal in condemning the ACL and distancing themselves from its extremist views.

Maddox said that many were trying but their media releases weren’t being picked up. I’m not sure I completely buy that excuse.  There was plenty of publicity when the Victorian Council of Churches issued a statement against the ACL last year. Let these other moderates stand up and be counted.

Greens MP, Colleen Hartland said that politicians were wrong to be frightened of ‘rocking the boat’ by supporting progressive issues.

Marion Maddox noted that, contrary to what the ACL would have politicians believe, people in churches don’t generally vote as a block.

“I’m winning on the strength of my support for those issues,” she said. The electorate is ‘for’ these things, not against them. Politicians are far too scared of these lobbying organisations. They need to listen more to the people.

“I don’t find the Australian Christian Lobby powerful,” she said, “I think they’re pretty pathetic.”

Former politician, Dick Gross said that, politically, we have to learn how to leverage off minority positions. We need to consider that we have quite a lot of power.  He agreed that Christianity needs to ‘own up’ to its outliers. To name them and distance itself from them – just as atheists need to do the same with those who claim to (but don’t) speak for our community.

Chrys Stevenson

4 thoughts on “Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Two)

  1. andy fitzharry

    “Greens MP, Colleen Hartland said that politicians were wrong to be frightened of ‘rocking the boat’ by supporting progressive issues.”

    So, just when are the Greens going to stop Hanson-Young from spruiking her support for chaplains, which is a reflection of Green policy, and adopt the NSW Greens policies, which support secular public education, no RI, and no chaplains in schools and certainly no Commonwealth funding for them.

    Talk is cheap (particularly when it dribbles from the mouth of a pollie), but action is resisted as strongly on this in the Greens as it is in the ALP.

    Let’s not get carried away with this ‘atheist community’ lark either. It’s about as much a single community as Christianity is.

    No one speaks ‘for’ atheists at all.

    And we all know that only God can speak for all Christians, and sure as Hell, Jim Wallace is not God, nor even a god.

  2. Sarah Pye

    Chrys, I am really enjoying your outline of what’s happening each day at the convention. As someone who was unable to go, it makes me feel I am not missing out all together.

  3. Pingback: The Bear Necessities « Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

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