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

Daniel Dennett

Lawrence Leung was a wonderful convention MC (along with Kylie Sturgess) providing some memorable ‘zingers’. But, when he introduced the great Daniel Dennett it was Dennett’s humour that was highlighted.

Lawrence said he’d been chatting to Dennett in the green room and Dennett mentioned that he got most of his best ideas while he’s in the shower. That seems to work for him, because when his wife complains he’s spending too long in the shower, he replies, “Honey, I’m WORKING!”

Dennett’s convention speech was titled “How to tell if you’re an atheist”.  He believes that there are many, many people who don’t believe in God who, nevertheless, don’t recognise themselves as atheists.  He likened this to a very rare form of anosognosia, called Anton’s Syndrome. People with Anton’s Syndrome have gone blind through some accident, illness or trauma but don’t know that they’re blind and deny it when told this is the case. These people aren’t stupid or insane, said Dennett, Anton’s Syndrome is a brain disorder.

Atheism denial, he said, is a much more common affliction.

Dennett spoke, for instance of the phenomenon of clergy who no longer believe but would never, in a million years, call themselves atheists. He referred to his 2010 article in Evolutionary Psychology (with LaScola), “Preachers who are not believers“.

He said that ‘atheist’ had come to have a terrible connotation and that even people who are happy to concede their non-belief are at pains to say they’re not atheists!

Dennett pointed to a survey undertaken by the Richard Dawkins foundation and reported in the New Statesman, based on the UK’s Census. The 2001n Census found that 70 per cent of Britons identified as Christians. This was much celebrated and exploited  by church leaders. In the aftermath of the 2011 Census – prior to figures being released – the Richard Dawkins Foundation commissioned an independent survey and found that it was likely this figure had dropped from 72 per cent to around 54 per cent. Significant in itself.

But, as the advertorial salesman would say, “Wait! There’s more!”

The survey showed that, of that 54 per cent who identified as ‘Christian’, half had not  attended a church service in the previous year, 16 per cent hadn’t done so for at least ten years and 12 per cent had never been to church.  Further, only 44 per cent believed that Jesus is the son of God!

This kind of study highlights how misleading the Census is in terms of religion. It shows how ridiculous the Australian Christian Lobby is when it uses the Census figures to suggest that Australia is a ‘Christian’ nation.

Dennett admitted that he was speaking to ‘two audiences’ at the GAC – ‘US’ and those who are curious about us.  It seemed to work. I was speaking to one liberal Christian later who said he’d come intending to be a ‘unbiased observer’ but found himself, throughout, mentally punching the air and shouting “Yes!”.

“I am THIS close to joining you guys,” he said.

So, said Dennett, you MIGHT be an atheist if you are reflective enough to be curious about us, or afraid to listen because of what you might learn about yourself.

“Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?” asked Dennett.

“Do you believe God literally listens to prayers and intervenes?”

“Do you believe God is on ‘our’ side, in war? In ball games?”

If not, you MAY just be an atheist.

Dennett conceded that many would respond, “We don’t believe in that nonsense, but we do believe in ‘something divine’ – a benign force …”

He produced a photo of Yoda on the screen.

Star Wars was a fantasy he reminded the ‘undecided’ in the audience.

Dennett told a story about appearing on American radio. The interviewer was incredulous at Dennett’s claim to atheism.

“You mean, you don’t believe there is a force that directs our lives? A force that protects us?” said the reporter, aghast.

“Well, yes, I do, I do believe in such a force,” said Dennett mischievously, “I call it gravity.”

If you believe that God is a ‘concept’ that ‘inspires’ people, said Dennett, you’re an atheist. God is NOT a concept. The CONCEPT of God is a concept!

Dennett moved on to explain a term he has coined – deepity.  Deepity refers to an apparently profound observation that is ambiguous; it is either (or at the same time) obviously false, or trivially true.  An example might be, “Love is just a word”.

“Love is not a word,” said Dennett, with a twinkle in his eye, “You can’t find love in a dictionary!” (Think about it!)

Dennett agrees that the concept of god helps some people to lead better lives but, he insists, there are better ways.

Dennett was also keen to promote the Clergy Project mentioned previously by Dan Barker. The Clergy Project has been initiated to help clergy who no longer believe to move beyond their faith. Dennett noted that the privacy of those who sign up to the Clergy Project is closely protected. Not just anyone can join. You actually have to provide your clerical credentials and have them checked out.

As Dan Barker mentioned, 200 have signed up to the Clergy Project, 50 still actively preaching. But, said Dennett, he’s been told by one clergyman that if the project can raise sufficient funds to offer job retraining the project would have “10,000 new members tomorrow”.

Church leaders all know this is true, said Dennett, but nobody knows exactly how big the problem is. Clergymen, it seems, are losing their faith in droves.  Atheist clergy are often isolated – they don’t dare admit their loss of faith to their family or to other clergy. In fact, Dennett told the story of one man who had confided in his best friend, a member of his congregation. He promptly found his confidence betrayed and he was fired from his job.

Atheist clergy, said Dennett, are like gays in the 1950s – but without gaydar. It’s very hard for them to find each other for help and support. The Clergy Project hopes to remedy that.

Dennett, however, had a suggestion as to how to spot an atheist clergyman. The ones out playing golf still believe he said. The ones working hard to tend to the poor are those who have probably lost their faith and are working hard to atone for their hypocrisy.

It’s hard, said Dennett, to really know what anyone really believes. What they profess publicly may not be what they believe privately. And if they profess to believe, for instance, in the resurrection of Jesus – do they mean they literally believe or in some kind of metaphorical sense?

Religious belief, says Dennett, seems to have made an evolutionary adaptation and survives by being impenetrable.

“Religions thrive in an environment of ignorance.”

However, he said, the new transparency of information has brought a drastic change to the selective environment inhabited by religions. They will either have to adapt very quickly or go extinct.

So, how do you ‘deconvert’ someone? Dennett advises against confrontation. Instead, he advocates gentle exposure to mountains of facts, casually dropped into conversations. We should speak of God as we speak of Santa Claus; with the assumption that all grown up people realise he’s not real.

Chrys Stevenson

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

  1. memeweaver

    The non-believers who would never call themselves atheists would be likened to that segment of the population who are referred to as “men who have sex with men” but who do not categorise themselves as gay/homosexual. (This is especially true in societies where only the “receptive” partner is seen as homosexual, or where it’s the norm to have same-sex relationships before different-sex marriage.)

    1. memeweaver

      (My second paragraph was lost.)

      The message is don’t confuse the behaviour with the (pejorative) label. That is equally true of Christians who are only ‘culturally’ so, rather than having any faith in the supernatural or live by the canonical texts. So we have to keep reminding politicians that bishops and lobbyists who co-opt the numbers of all ‘Christians’ ( or all Jews / Muslims / whatever ) are overstepping the mark.

  2. Linda pearson

    Considering that the number of “practising” christians is only about 10% of the Australian population, they have far too much influence in our political processes and culture in general.

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

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