My friend Jess and I went to Melbourne to attend the Global Atheist Convention (GAC) 2012. This is my report on my experiences there.
To check out what Jess and I (and for the last few days, Emily) got up to while not at GAC, please check out my blog postings on Qaz.zaQ.
As well as the pictures scattered throughout the report, you can see the full gallery of images here. (Gallery includes images from the whole trip, not just GAC.)
The Convention was held in the Melbourne Convention Centre - the same place where we had attended WorldCon in 2010. It was nice to be able to go back to familiar haunts for this Convention.
Things were exceptionally well-run. All the speakers kept to their allotted times, the MCs kept the Q&A sessions moving along, and the food was great. Somehow they managed to have food pouring out of the kitchens so fast that they could feed 4000 attendees without anyone having to wait very long.
I was interested to note recurring themes across the talks. It would seem that there is a very tight correlation between atheism on the one hand and left-wing ideals on the other: concern for the rights of women, gays and minorities, and support for pro-choice and right-to-die were often expressed. I was also very gratified to hear many speakers remark on issues of animal rights and wellbeing. While there's no obvious reason why these left-wing ideals should correlate with atheism, it seems they do. As one of the MCs (Lawrence Leung) put it, "We are a community of freethinkers... who all think the same thing." (Leung also came up with a great mnemonic for how to spell "atheism": "Remember, it's 'eye before ee except when there are no gods'.")
I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic nature of the attendees. There was little evidence of the "old white guy" problem that lots of organizations seem to have. There were all sorts of people in attendance, lots of women, and even a strong contingent of 20-somethings who one might have expected to be at the beach on a hot Melbourne weekend rather than in an auditorium.
In between sessions the bookstall and signing sessions were well attended, and I got the sense that books were being hoovered up at an impressive rate.
There were protests outside the convention centre. On day two a small group of Christians set up, waving banners and enumerating our sins via loudspeaker. One of the banners was most peculiar, lumping atheists and homosexuals in with drunkards, thieves, and church gossips as worthy of condemnation. (Specifically church gossips - apparently watercooler gossips get a free pass.)
The Muslim protest on day three was an altogether nastier affair. They had signs saying that atheism was a mental disease, and that Christopher Hitchens was currently burning in hell. The worst sign was this ugly thing:
(Ayaan Hirsi Ali being one of the presenters at the Convention.)
At lunchtime the Muslim protesters were surrounded by a big crowd of atheists, and it would be fair to say that the dominant mood of the crowd was one of derision. Things got a little heated at times, with one counter-protester being carted away kicking and screaming by Centre security staff. Chants started up among the atheists, ranging from the unhelpful ("Bullshit! Bullshit!") to the amusing ("ZZ Top! ZZ Top!" - a reference to the conspicuous beards on display) to the poignant ("Where are the women? Where are the women?" - a reference to the fact that only male Muslim protesters were present.)
The Convention got underway with a meet-n-greet in the evening, after the fastest-ever registration process (rock up, hand over your tickets, receive dogtags, done). It was fun to mingle and spot the famous people in the crowd, and the food was spectacular, with chefs on hand to make sushi to order.
The formal proceedings got underway with an introduction from David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and organizer of the Convention. He talked about how attendance had increased from 1500 for the first GAC in 2010 to 4000 for the 2012 event, an increase he interprets as evidence for a world-wide groundswell, and described us as a force that governments need to take notice of. He attributed some of the rise in atheism to a rethink of the role of religion forced by 9/11.
The rest of the evening was taken up with a series of stand-up comedians.
Ben Elton was brilliant. He did the best job of the evening of interleaving hilarious comedy routines with thoughtful observations of the world. For example he claimed that religion is fleeing to the extremes, leaving a vacuum in the center which used to be filled with "warm fuzzy undemanding faith" that made people feel good. And since nature abhors a vacuum, that empty center is now being filled with astrology and crystal healing and other New Age ideas.
Young is a tiny woman who was born severely disabled. She lives her life in a motorized wheelchair. ("I became an atheist when I heard that there is a stairway to heaven.") She dropped the C-bomb multiple times ("cripple"). Most of her routine dealt with the difficulties and absurdities of life as a cripple, including turning our attitudes back on ourselves ("You normal people. You're so inspirational!") My favourite joke of hers was when she was talking about how uninhibited children can be. One little boy stared at her for ages before walking over to her and saying, "Are you imaginary?" (Apparently the boy had heard about his friend's imaginary friends and had wondered if the odd apparition before him was to be his imaginary friend.)
Jeffries was exceptionally funny, especially when talking about his experiences in Iraq (he was there to entertain the troops), but he walked the humour/discomfort line a little too closely. He used the C-word a lot, to no obvious purpose beyond offence, and talked about dead babies not going to heaven if they hadn't been baptized ("If you weren't smart enough to have a pedophile in a dress sprinkle water on your baby, it's your fault they didn't go to heaven.") He also told a misogynist joke that didn't sit well with lots of people: "I could never be gay, as I could never fuck someone I respected."
Jeffries' crossing of the line notwithstanding, it was a fun evening, and an unusual but excellent way to start the Convention.
Singer started out by saying that he wanted to present a positive message, to talk about all the things that reason has achieved, rather than a negative religion-bashing message.
He talked about the "expanding circle of moral concern", which he saw as people initially caring only for members of their own family, then of their class, then of their nation, then for the whole of humanity, and then finally for the animals.
He presented Steven Pinker's findings that - despite appearances and the horrors of the 20th Century - that things are getting better over the long term. People are far less likely to die a violent death at the hands of other humans than at any other time in history, wars of all kinds have reduced in number and severity, and interest in the rights of women, gays, minorities, and animals has increased. Even our IQ appears to be increasing over time. (A person rated today at IQ 100 [=average] would score about 130 on tests used a hundred years ago.)
What has caused these beneficial trends? Singer claims the following as factors: the State monopoly on force, the invention of the printing press, and the switch from superstition to reason.
Cannold started out by comparing Section 116 of the Australian Constitution to the United States First Amendment. They cover similar areas, although the Australian version is much more verbose than the American ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [...]"). She claims that US judges have judged the First Amendment "up", leading to a clear separation of Church and State, while Australian judges have judged Section 116 "down" (inexplicably in her opinion), leading to no such separation in Australian law. This has led to Australian state funding for religious events and canonizations.
She described public schools as "mission fields" for intolerant Christianity to make young converts - an opinion backed up by a public statement to this effect by the leader of an organization that sends missionaries into Australian public schools, on the public dime.
She ended by calling for atheists to form coalitions with tolerant religious people who care for the secular state.
Barker used to be a preacher before becoming an atheist, a process he described as "dumping out the bathwater and noticing that there wasn't a baby there." He used to write Christian songs, and noted with amusement that he still gets royalty cheques from those songs (money that he donates to secular organizations).
He has started something called the "Clergy Project" to help out preachers who leave the church: "Who's going to hire someone with a divinity degree?"
He talked about how religion, while claiming morality to be within its field, actually compromises moral judgement. The example he gave of this was the horrors that god inflicts on Job in the Book of Job in the Bible: any person inflicting such horrors would be rightly considered an amoral monster, and yet some religious people maintain that what god did was moral.
He declared that life has no purpose - and that that is good, as it means we are free to set our own purpose, without being beholden to a slave master.
This panel, consisting of a moderator and four panelists, covered a lot of the same ground that Cannold did, dealing with issues of the separation of Church and State and the public funding of religious schools. One panelist (Marion Maddox) is a church-going Christian, and the funniest comment came after two other panelists had expressed only mild concern at religious teaching in schools. She called them "wishy-washy atheists" for not objecting more strongly. She pointed out that some private religious schools in Australia receive 87% of their funding from the government, and that they were exempt from some bias laws.
She also made the point that the organizations that claim to represent Christians in the public debate in fact don't. She said that a study of church-going Christians has shown that 55% support gay marriage, 80% support abortion in some form, and 80% support euthanasia in some form, which is not the impression you'd get from public proclamations of organizations claiming to be the voice of Christians.
Dennett's talk was an odd fish. It was explicitly directed not at the atheist audience, but at religious people who might be watching the talk later on YouTube. His central claim seemed to be that many nominally religious people are functionally atheist, in that they don't really believe the theology they profess to. He called this Atheism Denial, and likened it to the bizarre condition Anton's Syndrome, in which recently-blind people deny that they are blind. He asserts that many people who are actually atheist maintain that they are religious because of the "Concord Fallacy" - when you have many years of emotional commitment to something, changing your mind feels like those years have been wasted.
In support of this claim he mentioned a recent survey of UK citizens. 54% self-identified as Christians, but 12% of those had never been to church, and 66% did not believe that Jesus was the son of god. When asked why people were self-identifying as Christian while apparently not believing the theology, they said things like, "I wanted to be seen as a nice person."
Dennett's argument, for me, took on preposterous proportions when he said that he suspected that the Pope was an atheist - after all, surely he must have noted by now that his constant prayers for world peace have had no effect at all?
He discussed why theology tends to be very convoluted ("a thicket in a swamp in a fog"), concluding that creeds that are penetrated too easily just don't last long, and thus cultural evolution forces them to be arcane and impenetrable.
He said that for millennia religion thrived in ignorance, but now the new transparency of information (for example, via the Internet) was leading to a drastic change in the selective environment.
He said that religion has no sense of humour, and religious people are masters of playing the "How Disrespectful" and "I'm Offended" cards rather than facing the issues.
For me the best part of his talk was his introduction of the notion of the "deepity" (a term coined by a teenager). A deepity is a phrase that by one reading is trivially true while by another being self-evidently false. The example he gave was "Love is just a word."
Grayling divided the question into three areas:
Krauss's talk was a high-speed, high-enthusiasm summary of the material covered in his book of the same name. Having just read the book I was able to follow the talk, but I suspect I would've gotten lost had that not been the case.
He talked about the (now solved) question of whether we live in an open, closed, or flat universe, about how we went about "weighing the universe" only to find that 70% of the mass of the universe resides in empty space. We have no idea why - and that's great! (As it means there is more to learn.)
The total gravitational energy of the universe is zero - which is consistent with a universe from nothing. He asserted that quantum mechanics plus gravity enables space itself to appear from nothing, and that nothing is unstable and tends to spontaneously degenerate into something.
Showing a photo littered with thousands of galaxies and a few Einstein rings, he remarked that the real universe is far more inspiring than the fairy stories of religion.
He talked about all the possible ways that universes could evolve, concluding that the only universe that can have been created from nothing and survive long enough for us to ask why there is something rather than nothing is a flat universe - like the one we happen to find ourselves in.
I was not familiar with this speaker, but his talk was one of the highlights of the Convention. He came across as a deep thinker, an erudite, well-informed, well-spoken and compassionate man. He started with, "I am not an atheist, I'm a lawyer. I can argue both sides."
He catalogued the hideous course of the Catholic pedophilia scandal. He called into question the legitimacy of allowing any religion to indoctrinate children at a very young age. He claimed that this was one reason why the Catholic church is particularly bad: because the children are indoctrinated so early in their lives, they don't speak out when they are abused. He called for a minimum indoctrination age of about 13. He asserted that the Vatican is NOT a state, despite claims that it is. ("It's no more a state than Disneyland is.")
He pointed out that in Australia religions are exempt from tax, which he described as massively unfair. If you're a secular do-gooder it's very hard to get exemption, but exemption is automatic if you're a religious organization, no matter how crazy. Religions are businesses - they should not be exempt from taxes. Prayers start Australian parliament sessions, even though Section 116 of the Constitution appears to prohibit this.
Atheiophobia ("It's a real word - I checked with Stephen Fry") is rampant in many parts of the world. For example you can be executed for being an atheist in Saudi Arabia, and in Indonesia it's hard to register a wedding if either party is atheist, despite UN Article 18 prohibiting such behaviour.
Iran has killed more atheists for being atheist than any other country. In Iran in 1988 between 7,000 and 30,000 people were hung by perfunctory revolutionary courts for having no belief in Allah. Most of the perpetrators of these crimes are still alive and in high office.
Liberals in the West sometimes say, "Why shouldn't Iran have nuclear weapons? Other states in the area have them." Robertson cautioned against such reasoning, claiming that Iran is waiting for the Second Coming of the 12 Iman, and the prophecies have him returning out of a chaos that sounds a lot like a nuclear war, the implication being that the Iranian state might just be crazy enough to instigate a nuclear war to create the circumstances for the return.
He finished the talk by concluding that it's a crazy world, and that it could get crazier.
Hirsi Ali started by saying that a secular "Arab Spring" might mean an end to corruption, freedom of press and conscience, laws to protect women from violence (especially domestic violence), and an end to terrorism as young men would develop confidence in this life rather than the next. But she fears that the Arab Spring is turning into an Islamist Winter, as Islamic states get voted in or imposed on the countries involved. For example she sees authors and artists being arrested and being charged with "provoking society" ("Surely that's their job?"), the lowering of the age of marriage to nine, and women not being regarded as capable adults, and calls for the destruction of Israel. She fears that an Islamist Winter will mean no freedom of press or conscience, and for terrorism to become state policy.
She does see some signs of hope, with Islamic secular parties getting some support in elections, in the Iranian uprising of 2009, and in the swelling ranks of an organization for ex-Muslims.
She criticized secular liberals in the West for failing to help secular Muslims, which she sees as being caused by "romanticization of primitives", and of white guilt towards blacks over slavery and segregation.
She said that radical Islam must be defeated, and that she now wears the label of "infidel" with pride and joy.
Dawkins call was to take back words and phrases hijacked by religions. For example religion has hijacked morality for centuries.
Let's take back "pro-life" and apply it to groups like Médecins Sans Frontières, to people who are working to improve the lot of humankind.
Let's take back "spirituality" and apply it to the sense of wonder we get when looking up at the night sky.
Let's take back "Intelligent Design" and apply it to the crowning glory of our species - the ability to design. Let's intelligently design our ethics. The idea that we get our ethics from the Bible is a sick joke.
Darwin and Huxley would be considered racist today - the moral zeitgeist increases as times go by. 19th century morals are different from 20th and 20th are different from 21st. Dawkins distinguished between absolutist morality ("it's just wrong") and consequentialist morality ("it's wrong because it does this specific harm"). For example take the case of late-term abortion. Does the foetus suffer? Probably, but certainly less than an adult non-human animal would when killed.
He jokingly asked which of a set of mono-zygotic triplets gets the soul?
When talking about the morality of "designer babies", he asserted that most people are ok with negative eugenics - making changes to prevent bad outcomes, but most people (including Dawkins himself) have a problem with positive eugenics - introducing desirable traits into a foetus. But is using positive eugenics to produce a great musician really worse than getting the same result by education?
Did religious belief give our ancestors a survival advantage? Maybe, but the evidence is weak. Did religions culturally evolve? Indoctrination of children is essential for the survival of religions.
Dawkins ended with the results of a fascinating study conducted in the wake of the UK riots. A rumour started on Twitter that a tiger had escaped from a zoo, and the researchers followed the propagation of the rumour (and its counter-claims) through thousands of Twitter posts.
On the Saturday evening Jess and I attended the Gala Dinner with about a thousand other GAC attendees. It was fun to meet the fellow atheists randomly assigned to our table. Dinner entertainment consisted of a singer singing atheist songs, and a couple of comedians. I felt rather sorry for the acts, as it seemed that most people were more interested in chatting with each other than listening to the entertainment, which tended to get drowned out in a babble of voices, especially as the night wore on.
When friend Fi first heard of GAC, she immediately dubbed the event "SmugFest", and I have been calling it that ever since. So I was delighted to hear one of the comedians say, "There is no-one more smug than an atheist. Except maybe a vegan. Or a cyclist." As an atheist vegetarian cyclist I immediately reported this to Fi, who replied, "You are just a few dairy products away from Smugvana!"
Scott was introduced by the MC as "Darwin's Golden Retriever". She started off talking about the geological principles of sediment deposition, especially in the context of the Grand Canyon, and mentioned creationists' attempts to argue that the entire Grand Canyon was laid down and carved out in the space of a year during Noah's flood. Of particular problem for creationists is that some of the layers consist of wind-lain sediments, while others above and below them consist of water-lain sediments, which of course would be a neat trick for a year-long process. She said that some creationists have actually done some good work on the possibility that layers currently considered wind-lain might have actually been deposited in water, but they always ignore plenty of contrary evidence. She drew an interesting distinction between Creationism and Intelligent Design, saying that Creationism does a much better job at trying to be scientific than Intelligent Design. She said that Creationism is an internally-consistent belief system that happens to be wrong.
Intelligent Design on the other hand concentrates solely on trying to prove evolution wrong. Why are they so down on evolution? Scott claimed that this is because they see evolution as antithetical to their notion of salvation, and that they oppose modern materialism, which they see as based on "scientific materialism", which is in turn based on the notion of evolution.
Smith is president of Atheist Alliance International, an organization dedicated to supporting atheist organizations around the world. They recently helped set up the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics organization, a brave organization in a country where being convicted of apostasy can lead to execution.
They also helped set up the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.
Smith said that changing the world is not easy. "If it was, someone would have done it already and we could all have slept in this morning."
Gaylor runs the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that works in the US as a watchdog for the separation of Church and State. More than half of the US population reject evolution, which she called "Just plain scary." She noted that no women appear on US banknotes, and that the phrase "In God We Trust" (added to banknotes only in 1958) is unconstitutional. She said that the Founding Fathers knew perfectly well the problems caused by having a state religion.
The organization works to uncover and prosecute violations of the principle of the separation of Church and State, such as instances of prayer during algebra lessons, exorcisms being conducted at schools, and religious displays set up in public spaces. In one such space they set up a banner that said, "No-one Died for Our Sins." The banner was stolen overnight. They replaced it with a second that said, "No-one Died for Our Sins. (PS: Your god says Thou Shalt Not Steal.)"
She said that there was a time when religion ruled the world - it's called the Dark Ages.
In the US, atheists are at the "bottom of the totem pole".
She talked about the recent case of Jessica Ahlquist, a 16 year-old school girl who took her school to court (and won) for having a prayer banner on the wall. She has since received death and rape threats, and the state representative publicly called her an "evil little thing". When the FFRF tried to send her roses as a gesture of support, no florist in Rhode Island would accept the order.
The FFRF is currently financing an "out" campaign, modeled on similar gay campaigns, in which billboards are produced featuring prominent atheist members of society and their position on religion.
I had been looking forward to Harris's talk, but in the event I was greatly disappointed. He had some interesting (but pretty obvious) things to say about death and consciousness, but then he dog-legged into New Age territory.
He pointed out that the denial of death is central to religions, while atheists uniquely admit that death is real.
He contrasted the lives of iPad users with the lives of the people in the factories who make them, concluding that religions accept the injustices on the basis of fate, whereas to not believe in god is to accept that it's up to us to fix things. Real social progress is a very recent phenomena, and the needless manufacturing of human misery boggles the mind. Atheists have good reason to make the most of life.
He posed the question: how can we create lives that are fulfilling knowing that they will come to an end?
Religious thought always comes down to death - even opposition to evolution ultimately derives from this: if evolution is right, then religion's notion of an afterlife is wrong.
The idea that loved ones are in heaven is consoling - but then why grieve, knowing they've gone to a better place? What is lost when we jettison religion is not the holidays, but the consolation provided in the face of death. Atheists have to deal with this fact in order to build a bridge to believers.
We're always in the now. We're always locked in the present moment with our memories and our iPads. The past is a thought arising in the now. So is the future. Internal dialogue is the mechanism of inflicting unhappiness on ourselves.
So what is the solution? The way of replacing religion's consolation in the face of death, the way of living happy lives in the face of death? Apparently, meditation. He had the whole audience close their eyes and took them through "mindfulness meditation". Harris himself admitted that "the line between timeless wisdom and banality is fine," and (jokingly) accused himself of committing deepity. He repeatedly said that he didn't want to come across as New Age (even though that's how he came across), and that he wasn't saying that thinking was bad (even though that seemed to be exactly what he was saying). I thought the whole thing was bizarre, but he received a rapturous ovation, so perhaps I missed the whole point.
This was the premier of a short movie called Parrot. It was touted as an atheist movie, although I'm not sure why. Sure, the central conflict was between Catholic parents and their atheist sons, but there was no resolution supporting one side or the other, and you could just as easily call this a Catholic movie as an atheist one. And one scene depicted a nominally atheist man having a corporeal conversation with a dead brother, which seemed to strongly support the notion of life after death. It wasn't a bad short movie by any means, but I would hope the atheist community could do better.
Ball is the president of the Freethought University Alliance (described by the MC as the One Direction of atheism). The FUA is an umbrella organization set up to support secular organizations on Australian university campuses.
He had an interesting deconversion story to tell. Growing up in largely-secular Australia he had no particular interest in religion either way. So it was quite a shock for him when at age 17 he went on a school exchange to Kansas, where he encountered people immersed in religion who maintained that the world was 6000 years old.
He said that secular youth had the reputation of not being civic-minded, and that there was evidence to support this reputation. But he claimed that the problem was that the secular students lacked a church infrastructure within which to do community work, and that was one of the things he hoped his organization would provide.
This was the talk I was most looking forward to, and Myers didn't disappoint. His speech was the closest thing we got to a firebrand speech, a call to arms. As he said, sometimes his militancy dial is set to 10, and sometimes he cranks it up to 11.
He has a grand plan, for the assault on heaven and the killing of god.
Initially people's loyalties lay solely with their family or clan, then it spread to their king, then their city, and then to their religion. Christianity's brilliant idea was to open up their community to everyone.
It's commonly supposed that you can't kill an idea, but you can kill an idea, by replacing a bad idea with a good idea. Some religious people know this and are afraid, reacting to the New Atheists the way the Romans reacted to the Visigoths. We are now uniting people under something other than faith: science is our weapon, science is our god-killer. Science has real power: it works. Our only authority is reality. Science has taken bickering savages and turned them into bickering savages who sometimes walk on the moon and who sometimes cure diseases.
Questions of environmental concern should be decided by evidence. In the States people deny evidence in favour of dogma. They say that we don't have to worry about environmental degradation as the world is about to end anyway. 40% of US citizens believe that the Jewish state must be preserved so that it can be destroyed in the end-times.
Even religious moderates do harm in a rational society. They promote unreason by saying that it's ok to not require evidence for some things.
So what principles should the good atheist of the 21st century operate under?
He had a word to say about the Christian protestors outside. He said that they were sheep engaging in "amplified bleating", and they were so mindless that they didn't even realize that they were sheep calling out to the wolves...
They started this session by playing a movie consisting of a collection of clips of Christopher Hitchens being his acerbic self. Then Richard Dawkins and Laurence Krauss gave moving eulogies of the man, and fascinating accounts of what it was like to be his friend. My favourite line came from Krauss, who described himself as "Christopher's personal physicist."
The "Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse" (with Ayaan Hirsi Ali replacing the original fourth member, Christopher Hitchens) sat on stage and talked in a directionless fashion on various topics of interest to atheists.
The issue of Western liberal guilt was raised. Do people not protest the injustices perpetrated in Islamic countries out of fear of being perceived as racist? Or for fear of their lives? ("The threat of having one's head cut off is something of a deterrent.") Hirsi Ali said that remaining silent was worse than being racist: if it was white girls having their genitals mutilated wouldn't the Western liberals be vocal in their opposition?
They talked about life under a fatwa, about how Salman Rushdie had trouble placing his daughter in schools, as the schools felt that the other students would be in the firing line if someone came for her. Hirsi Ali encountered something similar first-hand. She was moved from safe-house to safe-house in the Netherlands before being settled in a bullet-proof house. The neighbours sued and forced her to move on, fearing that they might be caught in the cross-fire should she be attacked. Harris said that it was perfectly reasonable for people to react this way, and that it was up to the philosophers to stand up and choose to share the risk of attack by criticizing Islamic practices.
They talked about whether it was a good idea to use moderate religions (like the nice god of the Archbishop of Canterbury) as a buffer between secular society and the extremists, and what the end-game might be like. Will there be a time when the only religious people left are fanatics? What will that time be like? Why do religions prosper by making life hard?
They discussed what the persuasive power is that converts people to religion after childhood. Hirsi Ali was particularly astonished that any liberal Western woman could choose to join Islam. Harris replied that he could understand why some women would want to cut through the superficiality of life, to no longer have to worry about looking good, or about dealing with men, or about having a career.
In the Q&A session someone asked if religious thinking was simply lazy thinking. Harris replied that theologians are certainly not lazy thinkers: it takes an awful lot of energy to try and make sense of the dogma.