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Celebrating life beyond belief

From The Australian:

THEY came from everywhere, the true unbelievers: from Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, New Zealand and beyond. There was a honeymooning couple from North Carolina who had met on an atheist internet site; and two friends from rural NSW, both extroverted women who had been raised Catholics and were now seriously annoyed with it. 

An Iranian man who had seen unspeakable things done in the name of religion asked a speaker, philosopher A.C. Grayling, how it was that humans could be so kind and yet torture and kill each other.

An Iraqi who migrated to Australia 40 years ago gave $4000 of his money to support this unusual gathering: the 2010 Global Atheists Convention, held in Melbourne at the weekend.

The idea of atheists congregating seems counterintuitive. After all, they are defined only by an absence, a belief they don't have. But congregate they did, their numbers reaching 2500 yesterday, at the Melbourne Convention Centre on a perfect autumn day.

"But what will you talk about - nothing?" someone had asked David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and co-convener of the conference. Far from it: most sessions ended before the audience was ready to let the speaker go. Nicholls had been asked, he said in his opening remarks, whether delegates were going "to worship the devil, or plot world domination", and it wasn't clear whether he was joking.

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Perhaps one genuine aim was the luxury of being surrounded by the like-minded. "Isn't it a magnificent feeling to be in the majority?", he asked the assembly.

It was a high-spirited gathering. People were unusually interested in conversation with strangers. There were fewer white-haired men with beards and axes to grind than one might have expected, more fashionably dressed 20- and 30-somethings with a sharp line in reasoning.

The convention was the brainchild of Stuart Bechman, a political activist and president of Atheist Alliance International. Bechman was at college when he lost his Arizona family's mild Methodist beliefs. He lived with the loss for years, he said, before discovering that there were many people like him and some had organised into groups. A political activist by nature, he threw himself into it.

"Half the atheists I know were raised that way," Bechman told The Australian. "The other half came out of a religious background and the demeanours of the two camps are very different. I think those who come from a religious background often come with anger for having been deceived or betrayed in some way, or they are just closer to it and they see the harm that is done."

He decided to get organised, in part, because he saw "a need to counter that harm". His brother ultimately broke with the family when he joined a fundamentalist church. Bechman's aim, he said, is to help atheists build a community of science and reason and critical thinking.

He has been mounting conventions in the US where, he said, there isn't as much hostility as less religious Australians might expect. He decided the conventions should go global and invited Australia to stage the first on another continent.

It sold out. The venues on the first two days were smaller, the result of caution. The organisers chanced a bigger hall yesterday when Richard Dawkins was invited to speak, but could have sold more tickets on Saturday, when philosophers Grayling and Tomas Pataki and the hilarious American biology lecturer and science blogger P.Z. Myers gave talks.
The crowd was hardcore. Few gasped when comedians - lesbian former Mormon Sue-Ann Post, ex-Catholic columnist Catherine Deveny and the New York writer, radio host and stand-up comic Jamie Kilstein - blasphemed without restraint. (Dawkins succeeded in provoking gasps when he referred to the pope as a Nazi.)

Grayling was received like a rock star; the crowd shouted with laughter when Myers spoke. Pataki's denser argument - an atheist himself, he cautioned against the prevailing wish to see religion fade away - was received more quietly, with bemusement. He spoke of people's emotional need to be heard and loved by a non-existent personal deity, if no real person could fill the role.

The least atheist of the speakers was bioethicist Leslie Cannold, who claimed to be agnostic and a cultural Jew, and raised plenty of laughs notwithstanding. The other speakers were tougher in their opposition to religion, though most nodded respectfully toward progressive religious people who cared for the poor and sick. The wealth of established religions, and of contemporary hucksters who invented their own, came under repeated attack.

The mood sobered when Taslima Nasrin arrived and three dark-suited security men arranged themselves around the base of the stage.

The Bangladeshi writer and women's rights activist, who was exiled from her homeland 14 years ago, then physically attacked in India when she sought refuge in Bengal, placed under house arrest and finally hounded out of there too, still has several fatwas hanging over her and a price on her head. India, the country that likes to think of itself as the largest democracy in the world, she pointed out, placed the religious rights of its Muslim minority above her freedom of expression.

She recalled her doubts about religion as a child, and how she troubled her mother with questions: why do we have to pray in Arabic - if God is omniscient, can't he understand our prayers in Bengali?
She was six when her mother told her her tongue would fall off if she said anything against God.

Already the empirical scientist (she is a doctor), she locked herself in the bathroom, said "God is a son of a bitch", "God is a pig" and other choice Bengali epithets, and then waited in front of the mirror. After a few minutes, she knew that what her mother said wasn't true.

She saw through the inconsistencies in the Koran, she said, the first time she read it, in translation in Bengali. "All religion, but particularly Islam, is for the interests and comfort of men," she said, "Why would women believe in any religion?"
Women who wore the burka could not be feminists, she said in answer to a question, because they subscribed to the idea that women were sex objects responsible for the uncontrollable passions of men. "Women have desires, too, but that doesn't lead to men covering up," she said.

Later a panel of Australian women, including former senator Lyn Allison ("Ever wondered why God is a bloke?"), social commentator Jane Caro ("Religion has made women over-responsible and men under-responsible, which stops us all from growing up"), and Tanya Levin, a former member of the Hillsong Church ("I'm finally getting to hang out with the grown-ups this weekend"), spoke of the experience of Australian women.

Myers took issue with the notion of a good and all-knowing God, suggesting that if "God is so powerful he refuses to be bound by some arbitrary demand like he make a goddamn difference in the world", couldn't he have given us some useful suggestions at least? "Like `Wash your hands'? We waited till the 19th century for doctors to learn that. Instead we got in the Bible a detailed order to snip off the ends of our penises."

John Perkins, an economist who works on resource depletion and global warming, spoke on the connection between Islam and terror. He shared Nasrin's security detail.

Peter Singer, the famous Australian philosopher who commutes between the universities of Melbourne and Princeton, spoke of the ethical world as inhabited by both believers in God and non-believers.

The golden rule, common to all religions, also predates them: it is a function of our development as humans who feel pain, take time to raise our helpless young, live in social groups and need to co-operate, he suggested.

As for the more rigorous rules of the New Testament, such as the order that the rich give away their possessions to the poor, there are a lot of very rich Christians around who are clearly giving little thought to the future of their souls, he said. Americans who, according to polling, are far more religious than Europeans, don't even approach the welfare measures largely secular Scandinavian societies take to protect the vulnerable in their society.

Singer also pointed out that three of the four great philanthropists of the 20th century were professed atheists: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Andrew Carnegie. (The exception was Nelson D. Rockefeller, a Protestant.)

Speaking of money, no tier of government funded the conference: the organisers and speakers worked gratis and depended on the charity of well-wishers for the unavoidable costs. Much was made of this by some speakers: the federal government gave $20 million towards the Catholic World Youth Day last year, and the Victorian government gave $4.5m towards the Parliament of World Religions - but in this supposedly secular society, requests for funding an atheist conference were turned down.
There was much talk too of the chaplaincy system in supposedly secular government schools, begun by the Howard government and expanded by the Rudd government. Ian Robinson, president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, pointed out that, of course, harassed principals would say it was a good idea when polled: a chaplain represents an extra person on the ground. What might the principals have said, Robinson asked, if they were told, "We have a few extra thousand dollars - would you like a nurse, a social worker, or a chaplain?"

Robinson finished his speech with a quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another educated, outspoken and formerly Muslim woman with the price of apostasy on her head. "The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance," she wrote, "is atheism."

The final speaker was, of course, Dawkins. The biologist gave a nuanced lecture on the wonder of evolution and the sense of gratitude even atheists feel for the glories of the material world. He also lived up to his reputation for bluntness, with remarks equally sharp towards Catholics and Muslims. Asked about the sanctification of Mary MacKillop and the uncritical way it had been reported, he paused as if lost for words.

"The idea of creating saints today is pure Monty Python," he eventually said. "It completely gives the lie to the claim that sophisticated theologians can look down on the fundamentalist wingnuts. They're all the same."

As for dialogue with Islamists, he said it was "a remarkably effective tactic to say `If you try to argue against me, I'll cut your head off' ", but that the argument came from a position of intellectual weakness.

"I don't think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn't do any good to get your head cut off," he continued. "But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it's because I fear you. Don't for one moment think it's because I respect you."