Monthly Archives: April 2012

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 NCSE.com (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

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

Lawrence Krauss

Take a pinch of nothing, some random particles, add gravity, quantum mechanics and a soupcon of quantum fluctuation and voila - your own universe - or croquembouche - or something tasty, anyway.

When I was a high school we had a horrible, grumpy science teacher called Mr Fendley.  Mr Fendley didn’t think girls should learn science and I was all too happy to co-operate with a teacher who preferred me to sit in the back of the class day-dreaming than working.

Result? While I topped the state in English, I got 2/100 for my last high school science exam. I recall looking at the paper, casually ticking a couple of multiple choice questions, then strolling nonchalantly out of the room, knowing it would be a completely wasted effort to continue.

I’ve tried to make up for it since, but I fear I have not caught up sufficiently to be able to do justice to the next GAC 2012 speaker, physicist, Laurence Krauss.

I was really looking forward to Krauss’s speech on how the universe could have just ‘appeared’ from nothing. I imagined my next debate with a fundamentalist.

“So,” they sneer, “how did the universe just ‘pop up’ out of nothing?”

And I’d look sickeningly superior and say, “Well, let me tell you ….”

Alas, I fear, that’s another fantasy I’ll never fulfill (that and bonking George Clooney or winning the Grand National like Velvet Brown).

I did try to be attentive. It’s not that he wasn’t interesting and engaging but by the time we got half way through my head was swimming and I’m afraid I rather nodded off.

I can remember thinking, as my chin hit my chest, “I’ll just have to buy the book.”

And that may have to be my advice to you, gentle reader!  I’m sure it’s a very good book, and I will be buying it myself.

It’s called, A Universe from Nothing.

But, I will not wimp out completely, I will try to give you some idea about what this fascinating (but ultimately soporofic) speech was all about.

The important point is that we now know enough about the physics of the universe to say that, theoretically, it is possible for a universe to pop into existence from nothing.

I take it this is roughly equivalent to me peering into the fridge at the end of the week and managing to produce dinner for two out of a couple of stale bits of cheese, a couple of glasses  of cask wine, a slightly brown bit of ageing garlic,  and a six day old bit of left-over French baguette.

Krauss promised to talk about this ‘complex subject’ in a way that even Cardinal Pell would understand.  Either he didn’t succeed or my IQ has dropped alarmingly since I was last tested – I was sure I was at least a little smarter than Pell!

(Krauss did comment that Pell was unique among men, having never thought deeply about anything in his life.)

OK, OK, Lawrence, I’ll buy the bloody book and I’ll think until there’s steam emanating from every orifice to make amends for falling asleep during your speech! OK?

Krauss explained that there are three different theories on what ‘shape’ the universe could be:  Open (i.e. able to expand outward forever), Closed (i.e. able to expand but then prone to contract into a ‘big crunch’), or Flat (in which the expansion will, eventually, slow down*).

Krauss said.we live in a flat universe and this knowledge provides us with the first inkling that something can come from nothing.

Seventy per cent of the energy of the universe, said Krauss, resides in nothing. They know this by weighing the universe.

Now, don’t ask me how they do that, but apparently they can, and when they find that the universe weighs a whole lot less than it should, .they know that 70 per cent is hiding away over there in ‘nothing’.  If only I could do that with 70 per cent of my weight – I could have appeared at the GAC 2012 dinner as a svelte size 10!

“Chrys! What happened to all that weight you were carrying?”

“Oh that? I lost it.”

“Well, good on you!”

“Oh, it was nothing!”

I’d love to tell you that I understand how this all works, but Lawrence has a booby-trap in every corner.

“If someone tells you they understand it,” he says, “they’re lying.”

Well, I’m telling you I don’t understand it, and I can assure you I’m definitely not lying!

The key point seemed to be that empty space – nothing – has energy. (Which is a lot more than I can say for me after three days at GAC 2012!)

We know from experiments that if you create a vacuum ‘virtual’ particles tend to pop in and out so fast you can’t see them, but they can be detected. (Please! Don’t ask me how!)

If you apply gravity, says Krauss, those particles can appear and stay with impunity.

The key point here seems to be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.

So somehow – perhaps in the same way that Adriana Zumbo makes that impossible croquembouche on Masterchef – combining gravity and quantum mechanics and mixing well allows space itself to appear from nothing. Smear on a little icing and you can have your very own universe for tea!

But, if you want to be very clever, add some quantum fluctuation and voila! You will have both space and time! Hardly more difficult than tempering chocolate, I would think.

That thundering sound you just heard is hoards of physicists leaving this blog in droves.

My abject apologies to Professor Krauss. I really was interested and just think, my inability to explain your speech coherently means that many more people will have to buy your book and make you even richer.  I really think I deserve some credit for that!

What’s that, Professor?  2/100 for the effort?  Well, it’s not like I’m unaccustomed to that kind of result for my efforts in science.

*That’s what I have in my notes, but later he said the expansion was speeding up, not slowing down.  Oh dear! My head hurts. Quick, someone pass me another wine!

Chrys Stevenson


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

MC Lawrence Leung was having fun watching the ‘twitter wars’ between competing hashtags #GAC2012 and #atheistcon. He was a bit concerned, however, that some atheists insist on spelling the word ‘athiest’.

He offered a handy reminder: “Remember, i before e … except if there’s no god.”

AC Grayling

British philosopher, AC Grayling was next to take to the stage. I met Grayling at GAC 2010 and found him to be a very charming, affable and kind-hearted man. It’s nice to meet people you admire and find they not only live up to, but exceed expectations.

During the convention a friend of mind (not mentioning any names, Geoff Cowan) asked Grayling whether conditioner was the secret to his beautiful mane of long gray hair.

“No, I don’t use it,” he said, eyeing off Geoff’s balding head, “and I see you don’t either.” Touché!

Grayling’s speech was titled, “What next for atheism?”

His was an optimistic view. Generally, he believes things are trending in a positive direction; that increasingly, more people are coming to think they might be atheists.

What does history tell us about the present phenomena?

Grayling looked back to the 16th century after the Reformation, the 18th century Enlightenment and the 19th century after Darwin and the rise of Biblical criticism in Germany and suggested that then, as now, the Catholic church fought back bitterly against this assault on its power and influence.  In fact, he said, the church ‘fought back like a cornered animal’ – just as it is doing now.  This has to be a good sign that we’re making a positive impact!

The result of such movements, said Grayling, is that a lot of people are motivated into activism – either ‘for’ or ‘against’.  The contemporary  ‘culture wars’ can be understood in the context of these other social revolutions.

As social progressives we need to capitalise on the positive momentum that has been created by a greater awareness of atheism and secularism. But what should we DO?

1. We need to engage in metaphysical debates about the nature of the universe we occupy. We need to consider the question of ‘supernatural agencies’ with rationality and evidence.

Children, said Grayling, are credulous for good evolutionary reasons. It is important for a child to believe an adult is telling the truth when they say, “Don’t eat that berry, it’s poisonous” or “Don’t stand too close to the edge of the cliff, you might fall off”.

Religion puts both children and adults into this credulous state and is assisted by powerful, social reinforcement. It’s taken by our governments, for example, that the advancement of religion is a ‘good thing’, worthy of tax exemptions!

But, said Grayling, we need to get people – both adults and children – to start thinking critically and rationally about religion.

We need people to know more about the origins and history of religion.

We need people to look at the fruits of religion? How do nations fare under religious governments?

Churches are anxious to obscure upleasant facts about the past; historical ‘amnesia’ is useful to them.

We are termed ‘militant’ atheists, but what was once the church’s response to those who challenged it? It burned people at the stake. What do atheists do? We just ask questions.

Grayling reminded us of a quote from Thomas Huxley (known as Darwin’s bulldog):

Bishops are like pigs. If you poke one, they all squeal.”

Religions are ‘slippery’ said Grayling. When the weight of criticism becomes to great, they shift to avoid it; they keep shifting the goal posts.

His comment reminded me of the Mormon church which banned African-Americans from its American universities, until the government told them that unless they changed their policy, public funding would cease. As if by magic, the head of the Mormon Church received a revelation that God had changed his mind about admitting African-Americans, and the funding was retained. Incredible!

2. We need to talk about secularism and consider where the religious voice is positioned in the public debate.

Separation of church and state needs to be a matter of public policy. We need to explain that it is NOT a threat to freedom of religion. Grayling noted that while the religious obviously have a right to be heard in the public square, religions currently have a massively inflated presence when one considers the actual number of active adherents. We need to speak out against this over-representation.

Tax-payers money should not be spent on  socially divisive, faith-based schools. There is a two-word argument against this, said Grayling: Northern Ireland.

Neither should public money be spent on religion, to support religious groups or the advancement of religion. Religions are corporations. Like trade unions, they are self-interested lobby groups. We need to make them see themselves for what they are. We need to vehemently oppose their consistent message, “We don’t like it, so you mustn’t do it.”

And, most importantly, said Grayling, religious institutions should not be allowed to proselytise to children.

We need to significantly diminish the presence of religion in the public square because most people are functionally secular. Religious views are not representative of the majority view of most Western nations.

3. We need to start a debate about the ‘humanist’ view of ethics and talk about how, as atheists, we live our lives ethically.

David Hume talked about the subjective nature of beauty – that nothing is intrinsically beautiful – beauty is a attribute we assign to things. Grayling tends to disagree, arguing that there are some things like love and compassion which are intrinsically beautiful; things we should nurture and celebrate.

Things ARE getting better, says Grayling. There is a powerful trend running through history driving us to take back possession of the positive aspects of humanity. And, he insists, these positive aspects are not expressed only through religion.

So, what do we need to DO?

We need to challenge the claims of religion. We need to challenge their version of history and their versions of their own histories. We need to point to the man-made origins of religion. When the religious make impenetrable statements (what Dennett might call ‘deepity’) we need to keep asking, “What do you MEAN by that?”  And we need to challenge their representativeness – their right to hold the power in society they currently claim ‘as of right’.

And, says Grayling, we need to show that living our lives for ‘good’ does not require a belief in the supernatural.

Chrys Stevenson

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