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

8 thoughts on “Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Six)

  1. Vicki says:

    Thanks for the update. I almost feel I am there. Big hugs to you XXX

  2. andy fitzharry says:

    Good to see Robertson has caught up with Dr. Max Wallace at last. Time for David Nicholls to make an effort to understand this too, along with the battle for the Church-State issue to feature in AFA thinking. After all, what point is there in wasting money on bus adverts and billboards when the AFA could be funding a couple of genuine battles in the High Court, and getting Robertson to put his time where his mouth now is, in there fighting for taxes on all religions and no funding whatever for religion from taxes?

  3. g2-5bba245eb6db01d36e28de6648a6336a says:

    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/04/16/3478495.htm

    Does this help ?

  4. ** There’s been some question as to whether Geoffrey Robertson actually said that prayers in parliament are unconstitutional. That’s how I remember it, and that’s what it says in my notes, but I concede I may have misheard. I’ve copied the following Facebook conversation across to this blog for clarification.

    Brendan Lloyd: Well written, as always, Chrys. One difference of recollection though: I don’t recall Geoffrey Robertson saying the parliamentary prayer was unequivocally unconstitutional (and that isn’t the view of George Williams on the black letter of the law). Rather he pointed out that embedding the prayer in Standing Orders rather than law has the effect of stealthily bypassing the narrowly worded constitutional clause for non-imposition of religious observance. This, he said, was worthy of question before the High Court: whether using executive or administrative orders to effect that which would *otherwise* be unconstitutional in law is valid and legal. Interestingly, this touches on themes in the Williams case (ie. can the government legally fund programmes like the NSCP without specific legislation for it) so depending on the outcome of that, there may be implications for other similar situations, including the parliamentary prayer.

    I wonder if the imposition of the Lord’s Prayer on the “public office” of Speaker of the House and President of the Senate counts as a “religious test” because if it did, that might be an alternative grounds for constitutional challenge of the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament.

    Max Wallace: That’s well said Brendan. I touched on this distinction in Realising Secularism: Australia and New Zealand at p.62 where I cited Professor Richard Ely’s letter to The Age of 21 April 1980 where he wrote that after s.116 was inserted into the Australian constitution ‘a small margin of freedom … remained to the Commonwealth to have ‘dealings’ with religion. The 1901 decisions of the Upper and Lower houses of Federal parliament to open daily with sessions of prayers – a decision involving standing orders and not a law – seems to have been predicated on belief’ in such a margin.’ (Note the qualifying ‘seems to have been’. Maybe it could be argued the prayers are unconstitutional. From: Max Wallace.

    Brendan Lloyd: If only there was a public interest advocate willing to put this to the test, pro bono.

    • jc says:

      false gods, false angels, false prophets are always amongst us. no right or wrong not dealt by one against the other. choose your path. make your bed. meet your maker. as always good weighs evil. one path survives. one a path to an end.

  5. Louella says:

    Really enjoying these GAC updates, Chrys. Thanks so much. I’m the 5-star voter each time. (Don’t know if you can tell who’s voted or not.)

  6. […] * CounterPunch * Mike Stuchbery * Mitch Sullivan posted a very pithy summary of GAC criticism * That’s My Philosophy has run-downs on pretty much every speaker * Lots of photos thanks to […]

  7. […] Part Six – Geoffrey Robertson […]

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