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.
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!
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.
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.