Monthly Archives: April 2012

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Eight)

The (New) Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse

And then came the moment we had all been waiting for – the Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, minus Christopher Hitchens but including his worthy successor, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Photo by courtesy of: Michael Barnett - http://mikeybear.wordpress.com/

Ironically, it was explained that Ali was supposed to have been on the panel which evolved into the Four Horsemen DVD, but was unable to attend. So, it is only fitting that she should now move into the chair so sadly vacated by Hitch.

Daniel Dennett began the discussion by questioning Ali about her charge that it is Christians rather than atheists who are doing the most to oppose Muslim fundamentalism.

Perhaps part of the problem, Dennett suggested is that liberal Muslims don’t want to ally with atheists.

Also, he said, “We have to stop being afraid of being thought racist or Islamaphobic.”

What is more racist? Ignoring the plight of women or children under Islam because they are Muslims, or opposing it because they are human beings?

Dennett insisted that we need to speak out against harmful cultural practices like genital mutilation.

“If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off there would be outrage!” Dennett reminded us. “Is it not racist, not to oppose this practice because the targets are Muslim girls?”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali agreed.

“By doing nothing, you are worse than racist, you are complicit!”

Dennett expressed concern about the attitudes engendered by  ‘hypermulticulturalism’ and ‘postmodernism’; not all religious, traditional or cultural practices should be tolerated. The mutilation of children or the abuse and oppression of women  is not culturally subjective.

Offering his take on why liberals are reluctant to take on Islamic fundamentalists, Richard Dawkins added dryly, “The threat of having your head cut off is something of a deterrent.”

He repeated his mantra to Islamic extremists:

“I fear your barbarism, but don’t for one moment confuse it with respect. I don’t respect you, I despise you.”

Dawkins noted that it would be easier to stand up against Islam if there was some kind of solidarity in the West. He told the story of Peter Mayer, the Chairman of Penguin publishing.

Mayer bravely published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In the outcry that followed:

[Mayer] received many death threats, including one scrawled in blood. An anonymous telephone call told Mayer that “not only would they kill me but they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall.” Cohen takes up the story:

Far from rallying to defend an innocent girl and her innocent father, the parents of her classmates demanded that the school expel her. What would happen, they asked, if the Iranian assassins went to the school and got the wrong girl? And Mayer thought, “You think my daughter is the right girl?”

 [From: “It’s Part of their Culture”: Reading Nick Cohen in the light of the Jaipur Affair by Richard Dawkins]

“Yes!” agreed Daniel Dennett, “How about sharing the risk?”

Dennett recalled that after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie was pretty much ‘left cut off by himself’.

Dawkins noted that, at the Reason Rally, it was suggested we should “withhold respect from those who believe in transsubstantiation.”

But Dawkins did not entirely agree.  He thinks the stock reply to those who give credence to such ideas should be:

“I respect you too much to believe that you could possibly hold such ridiculous beliefs!”

“We should challenge Catholics who purport to believe in transubstantiation to defend the idea or admit that they are not really Roman Catholics at all,” said Dawkins.

Dennett wryly observed, “There is no gentle way to tell someone they’ve devoted their life to a folly.”

But Harris was quick to correct him, “Wasted their life! It’s time wasted!”

Dennett believes that many church leaders don’t believe what they’re preaching. They speak on two levels, he said.

They preach the gospel in order “to placate the old folks, but in such a way as to let the younk folks know you don’t really need it.”

This prompted Dawkins to recall some typical Aussie humour.

“When someone asked why there were always so many old people in church,” he said, “an Aussie dryly suggested, “Craming for the final?”

Dawkins admitted that he was not enthusiastic about allying with Christians, although he could see the political value of doing that.

Dennett noted that, “Many people view their pastor as a reliable source of information.”

Accordingly, he suggested, we need to target the pastors and the leaders who encourage the pastors to tell these preposterous stories.

These are the ‘villains’, said Dennett; their congregations are more victims than villains.

Dawkins mused about the value of attacking ‘the mild strain of the virus’.

At this point, just as a stage technician was adjusting Sam Harris’ microphone and earpiece, Ayaan Hirsi let loose with a tremendous sneeze, nearly blowing out Harris’ ear-drum!

It was a lovely moment which made these four luminaries appear so much more human!*

“Bless you!” grinned Daniel Dennett.

Recovering his composure, Harris said, “We want people to think scientifically.”

Still, said Dennett reassuringly, “Religion is losing ground everywhere. Their leaders are getting frantic.”

“But,” he wondered, “what happens when all is left are the fanatics?”

What happens when we lose the “buffer zone” of the moderates?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked that the fragility of belief was exemplified in advice being given to Muslims in the USA:

“Don’t become police [i.e. join the police force] – you are in danger of becoming impressed by that system of law.”

Dennett noted that the information revolution has wrought a radical change in the “selective environment in which religions live”.

“They will have to evolve rapidly or go extinct,” he said.

Ali raised another question, “Why do middle class, highly educated [Western] women convert to Islam?”

Harris conjectured that it was “To cut through the superficiality of life.”

Harris went on to suggest how we might counter religion.

“Theologians are not lazy,” he warned. “They are burning a lot of fuel trying to make sense of their doctrines.”

“Islam,” he said, “is a huge collective to which the individual much commit completely.”

The way to attack it is to push individualism and through ridicule.

“We need to develop a competing narrative that creates a cognitive dissonance,” he said.

Dawkins noted the paradox that, “Religions prosper by making life hard for their followers.”

He suggested that religion should be subjected to the same kind of education campaign used against drunk driving.  Drunk driving was once acceptable, it is only through the recognition of the harm it does and extensive public education that its incidence is being reduced and its practice has become publicly unacceptable. It was an excellent analogy, I thought.

(For theists who may read this with ‘conspiracy theories’ in mind, there was no suggestion that the practice of faith should be made illegal – only that those who practice it should be treated with the same kind of disdain as those who drink and drive. It is the change in public attitudes, not legislation which was Dawkins’ point.)

But Dennett remains concerned about the ‘vacuum’ that might be created by eradicating belief. We can already see it being filled by, “… new age babble and conspiracy theories.”

We need to address the problem of “infectious stupidity” he said.

This reminded Dawkins of a quote by GK Chesterton:

“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”

So, as the Global Atheist Convention 2012 comes to a close, and we all return to our everyday lives,  how do we move on from here?  The view from the ‘Four Horseman’ was clear:

Keep in contact  – and keep on celebrating reason together.

There was a standing ovation and tremendous applause as the new Four Horsemen stood, joined hands, and bowed to the audience.

Photo by courtesy of Michael Barnett: http://mikeybear.wordpress.com/

One could not help but feel that a new chapter in the fight for reason and secularism had just begun.

Chrys Stevenson

* For more on the ‘human face’ of the Four Horsemen, see Kylie Sturgess’ “I kind of got kidnapped by Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Global Atheist Convention”.

This is the last of my write-ups on the presentations given during the 2012 Global Atheist Convention.  I plan to follow up in a day or two with a post summarising the main themes and highlights together with a book list, given that there were so many interesting books recommended during the event.

In the meantime, for an excellent video summary of the Convention, I highly recommend Andrew Skegg’s, “The Global Atheist Convention” (featuring me!):

Subscribe

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts.  If so, you might consider subscribing to my blog – see the top of the right hand side-bar.

DO SOMETHING!

If you have been inspired and want to DO SOMETHING NOW,  might I encourage you to make a contribution to Ron Williams’ legal costs for his High Court Challenge against the National School Chaplaincy Program. The verdict is due soon, and Ron really should not be left out of pocket for so bravely defending the cause of secular education in this country. Any donation, small or large will be greatly appreciated.

For information on how do to donate go to:  High Court Challenge

—————–

Michael Barnett is the photographer who provided the images for this post. He is a passionate campaigner for gay rights and yes, he’s one half of the couple in that famous kiss during the convention. You can read his blog here:  Mikey Bear.

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Seven)

Sadly, I won’t have time to blog tomorrow so I’m providing a ‘bonus’ blog to followers of this GAC series today.

Lunch – Sunday

After PZ Myers spoke on Sunday we adjourned for lunch. I was too busy grabbing food and catching up with friends like Jonathan Meddings, Warren Bonett and Kirsty Bruce from Embiggen Books, Marie Fisher from the Queensland Humanists and Bruce Everett to notice the commotion going on outside.

Sadly, I also proved that, as a ‘celebrity author’ I need a great deal more practice!  One lovely reader of The Australian Book of Atheism bounded up to me with a copy of the book for me to sign. He caught me just as I spilled the contents of a rice paper roll all down my front. I’m sure that never happens to JK Rowling!

The incident compounded my ineptitude of the previous evening when the delightful Nick Andrew (aka @elronxenu) with whom I’d dined so happily on Thursday night, brought his copy of TABOA for me to sign. While chatting to Nick, I was interrupted by another convention-goer called Martin and, muddle-headed wombat that I am, carelessly signed Nick’s book, “To Martin, thanks for a great night out! Chrys Stevenson.”

Poor Nick’s face turned white.

“But my name’s not Martin!” he exclaimed.

“Oh dear!”

I would have bought him a new book but he already had signatures from other authors. I felt awful and about 2″ high.

So, abject apologies to Nick for ruining your book and, I promise, if I ever write or contribute to another one – I’ll send you a free copy!

Islamic Protest

As I was distracted by my minor (perhaps I should say ‘miniscule’) celebrity inside the Convention Centre, far more interesting things were going on outside where a group of fundamentalist Islamic protestors had gathered.

Carrying signs predicting that atheists and, in particular, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christopher Hitchens were destined to burn in hell, they presented the manic face of Islam and succeeded only in showing what an embarrassment they are to the majority of educated, moderate, tolerant and peace-loving Muslim-Australians.

Of course, as PZ predicted, give sheep a microphone and all you get is amplified bleating. Also as predicted, they only succeeded in calling out the wolves. Atheists flocked outside and easily outnumbered them.

“Where are the women?” chanted the atheists – followed by a rousing chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life!” and then the simple, but effective chant, “Bull-shit! Bull-shit!”

“I’m lucky I’m in Australia! I”m lucky I’m in Australia and not in your country!” said one observer to the protestors.

It’s funny, looking at the video the Islamic zealots appear small and ridiculous – like the cartoonish caricatures of humanity they are. Symbolising all that is worst about religion and human nature they are dwarfed by the noisy but good natured and peaceful reaction from those they wish to condemn to eternal hellfire. I guess, as Josh Thomas suggests, threatening an atheist with hell is about as effective as a hippy threatening to punch you in the aura.

And then, for me, the moment that symbolises the difference between religious zealots who stand for divisiveness, intolerance and hate, and those they condemn. Two men who I am proud to call my friends stepped out of the crowd – Michael Barnett and Gregory Storer. Their answer to the vitriol of the Islamic fundamentalists was simply to stand before them and kiss.

Photo by Pete Darwin of The Caudal Lure blog: http://thecaudallure.com/

(See also:  Michael Barnett’s own account of the incident, and the YouTube photo collage of the events leading up to ‘the kiss’.)

To me, the juxtaposition of hate and love was a powerful symbol of the whole atheist convention – indeed, our whole ethos.

In that one gesture, Michael and Gregory comprehensively said, “Look! We are kissing. Where is the harm? What is the problem? Who does it hurt? It’s love – isn’t that what life should be about?  Shouldn’t you be happy and loving and tender, not angry and intolerant? Who serves humanity best? Us or you? Who gives most dignity to the human condition? Which of us elevates humanity and who brings us down to the lowest common denominator? Who exemplifies what is best in us and what is worst?”

It was a lovely moment that gained international publicity.  When I had dinner with Michael and Gregory on the Tuesday after the Convention they were still reeling, and on quite a high, from the overwhelmingly positive reaction to their spontaneous gesture.

I might add, in response to some silly rumours that appear to have been circulating – yes, Michael and Gregory are gay, and yes, they are a couple.  It was not a ‘stunt’ for the cameras. It was a gut reaction to the kind of vilification and hate that gay people face all through their lives. And what a wonderful gut reaction it was!

I was just sorry I missed it!

Christopher Hitchens Tribute

Back in the auditorium, the next session was a tribute to the late, great Christopher Hitchens. There has been some criticism that Hitchens was ‘deified’ at the Convention. I don’t believe that’s true. We were simply honouring a man of incredible intellect whose words were not only influential in forming the ‘atheist movement’ but also in changing so many individual lives.

When Hitch became ill with oesophagul cancer, one of my friends, Tracee Doherty, from the tiny outback Queensland town of Moree wrote him a letter, thanking him for changing her life.  In the glamorous world which Hitchens inhabited she was a no-one from nowhere, and yet he wrote back personally in a touching note in which he thanked her for her letter and mentioned how touched he was by these kinds of unexpected tributes.

Tracee was not in the GAC audience this time, but Robert Tobin was. Robert went through his own battle with oesophagul cancer in parallel with Hitch – and drew great strength from Hitch’s refusal to give in to the ravages of his disease. Ultimately, Robert survived and Hitch didn’t. A pensioner, Robert was unable to afford the cost of attending the Convention, but with the generosity of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, and a quick whip around my Facebook friends, we quickly raised enough money to bring him to Melbourne. It gave me great joy to see him literally bounding around the auditorium, wearing his funny “St Patrick’s Day” hat and a swag of blasphemous buttons and taking to the microphone to quiz the speakers. A true triumph of the human spirit. Hitch would have been proud.

Hitch was not perfect and he wasn’t always right. He drank too much, he smoked too much. Many of those who laud him for his fight against fundamentalism and the oppression of dictators also disagree with him vehemently on his stance on the Iraq war and his rather quaint, old-fashioned views on women.

As such, he is, perhaps, the perfect human symbol of atheism – an imperfect human being, doing the best he can to change the world for the better – just like the rest of us (although, admittedly, far more effectively!).

Richard Dawkins introduced the tribute to Hitchens.  Although he did not know Hitchens well, Dawkins paid tribute to his skills of rhetoric and oratory. These, said, Dawkins, were Hitchens’ ‘artillery’.

Dawkins noted that contrary to the view there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, Hitchens sought them out; travelling all over the world to places where people were being abused and oppressed.

“He felt real solidarity with the victims of the tyrannies he abhorred”, said Dawkins.

“Christopher hated dictators and tyrants. His fight was political, not religious.”

Here is the Christopher Hitchens Tribute played at the Convention:

Later on Sunday afternoon I ran into Jane Caro. Jane was anxious to discuss a strange phenomenon that occurred during the Hitchens Tribute.

“All through the convention,” she said, “people have been tweeting during the speeches.”

She was right. Nearly everyone had an iphone, android or Ipad and you could watch the #GAC2012 and #atheistcon streams rolling past as each speaker made his or her presentation.

“But,” said Jane, “during the Tribute to Christopher Hitchens, the twitter streams stopped dead. Nobody tweeted.”

“People doubt that crowds can ‘self-discipline’, they insist that people need ‘rules’ to act decently and respectfully – that we need direction from authority. And yet here, in a hall full of 4,000 atheists, with no direction whatsoever, 4,000 people instinctively stopped tweeting out of respect for a fallen leader.”

It was another powerful statement about the essential morality of human nature which I will think about for a long time.

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Six)

PZ Myers

PZ Myers gave my favourite presentation of the convention – comedians included. Like Leslie Cannold, he energised the crowd with his ‘take no prisoners’ style. I defy anyone to sleep through a presentation by PZ!

No polite accommodationism for PZ. The mild-mannered, bewhiskered professor from the tiny town of Morris, Minnesota, ambled onto the stage and called for an assault on heaven and the killing of God.

“In the beginning,” said PZ “was the blood”; people were bound by familial ties.

But, he said, this was limiting, They needed a new way to join together in larger groups.

At length, allegiance to a particular king became the new symbol of identity and the size of social units grew.

Next, came identification with a particular city – for example, “I am an Athenian!”

All of these identifications, he said, are built on the arrogance of pride.

But, cities fall, bloodlines fade and kings die.

And so it was that the Jews invented a new form of group identity – through allegiance to ‘the Word’, they became ‘the people of the Book’.

Words,” said PZ, “have a persistence that cities cannot have.”

In fact, when Jersualem fell the social cohesion of the Jews was strengthened.

This identification with abstract stories and histories, combined together in a ‘sacred’ book, “made Christianity bullet-proof”.

Words –  stories –  are “ecumenical”. A  common belief can cross borders – ideology is not restrained by geography.

PZ spoke of “the power of an unkillable idea”, referencing the comic book series and 2005 film V for Vendetta.

I’m not a reader of comics and I hadn’t seen this film, but I’ve subsequently learned that the main character ‘V’ is the embodiment of an idea which has persisted at least since Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted to kill the English King and overturn his Protestant government by blowing up the Parliament with gunpowder:

“People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  (V for Vendetta)

The film opens with a recitation of the verse:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Over the centuries, the character of Guy Fawkes has come to symbolise those who challenge the status quo. Notably, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V in the movie is used as the icon for the protest group Anonymous and has begun to appear in the world-wide ‘Occupy’ grass-roots protest movement.

In writing V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, was, apparently concerned principally to demonstrate the power of ideas.

Moore has said, “You can’t kill an idea; and ideas can change the world.”

Changing the world is “something WE want to do”, said PZ but he disagrees with Moore on one important point.

“You CAN kill an idea,” PZ insists.  Christians have succeeded in doing this in the past, which is why they are so afraid that WE will now succeed in ‘sacking the city [i.e. idea] of God’.

“Christians,” he said, “are reacting to the rise of the new atheists the way the Romans reacted to the arrival of the Visigoths on the horizon!”

He called for “an ecumene of people united under something other than faith”.

How do we kill ideas? “We kill ideas with a better, more powerful idea.”

Religion is man-made, planned, persistent and politically strategic – “Holy books were not ‘magicked into existence in an instance,” PZ reminded us.

But Science is our weapon; our ‘God killer”.

“The Bible stories,” said PZ, “are narrow, bigoted and false”.

The power of Science is that it tells our story, it reflects us; our DNA.

Religion is divisive; Science bridges differences. People can unite in an appreciation of the natural world.

Science, he insists has real power. 

“Science shows how stuff actually works, rather than what we wish worked.”

Scientists deal directly with the subject of their study.

“I’ll have more respect for theologians when they start to question the subject of their study directly,” he said.

“They never use supernatural information,” PZ observed, “… almost as if it didn’t exist.”

Nevertheless, the “demented ghouls of the end times are a significant political lobby in the US”.

Dangerously, they believe that “Israel must be restored in order to be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust which will bring about the ‘second coming’.

“If I actually believed Jesus was coming to destroy the world in 2050,” said PZ (only half-joking), “I’d be stocking up on timber and nails.”

It is true, he said, that liberal Christians do less harm than their fundamentalist cousins.

“But,” he said, dismissing them as ‘cafeteria realists’, “they are still doing harm to foundational principles. They are promoting unreason by saying it’s okay to believe in some things without evidence.”

PZ took on the charge that atheists have nothing in common; that we do not have the unity and strength of purpose required to form a viable social (revolutionary) movement.  He insisted that he was not imposing a definition on atheists as a group, but merely observing that a broad consensus is emerging.  This consensus he believes is based on:

1.  A dedication to seeking out ‘the truth’ through learning and discovery.

2. A commitment to autonomy – a global movement in common cause with those oppressed by racist, paternalistic cultures.

3. The forging of a new kind of community.

PZ acknowledged the role of women in atheism, reminding us that, “Atheist meetings, for a long time, looked a lot like Mormon meetings!”

He also warned that, “Being an atheist doesn’t make you a rationalist.”

He spoke of the connections between atheism, feminism and LGBT rights.

“If you are a human being with real world concerns,” he said, “you should be one of us; truth and justice are our common causes. That’s what makes us part of a community.”

Although we have “good reason to be angry with a society that does stupid things in the name of ‘the Lord’ atheists,” said PZ, “are not ‘grim nihilists'”.

He told us about the Reason Rally held recently in Washington DC.

“Twenty-thousand people on the Mall in DC,” he said, “everyone smiling!”

“If I were a grinch,” he said, “my heart would have grown THREE SIZES” at that sight.

“We’re not grim and sour at all!”

In fact, he reminded us, he’d even participated in a ‘hug off’ with atheist blogger, Martin Pribble, during the convention!

“We need to value working co-operatively,” PZ advised. “It’s how we’ll win in the end.”

He spoke dismissively of the religious (Christian and Islamic) protests attracted by the convention.

“So, that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone,” he said, “… amplified bleating.”

“They didn’t realize they were calling out to the wolves.”

“LET’S DO IT!” said PZ, “Let’s form a ‘hunting pack’ and work together. Let’s make them tremble and demolish the City of God.”

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Five)

Olivia (OJ) Lesslar

A Fresh Generation of Freethinkers is Among Us

Another one of my hobby-horses is encouraging young people into the atheist/secular movement.  This is not to say I support the indoctrination of young people or the Christian method of roping ’em in before they’re old enough to think for themselves.

I’m speaking here of older teens and people in their twenties – even early thirties. I feel strongly that we need to change the face of atheism from ageing white men (as brilliant and lovely as some of them are), to a multicultural collage of young people, campaigning together for a better, more peaceful, more equitable world.

That’s not to say that we older people don’t have a role to play.  We have valuable experience, knowledge and street-smarts to contribute. But I think, too often, we older ones cling on to leadership positions where we would do better standing aside to let the young ones through and make our contribution through mentoring.

It was great to see so many young people at the Global Atheist Convention.  But still, too many of our organised groups and speaking programs are too heavily weighted with over-40s.  I’m not for a moment suggesting that we need less over 40s!  But I’d love to see a leavening of younger people – and that includes my own Sunshine Coast Atheists group.  Alas! We’re yet to achieve that.

Scott Sharrad

Yet, I’m inspired by the young leaders we have emerging in our community.

I enjoyed speaking with Scott Sharrad  and Sean Jelinek from the Adelaide Atheists, two very impressive young men with the intelligence, creativity and energy to really move things forward in that state – and nationally if given the opportunity and support.

In Queensland, Olivia (OJ) Lesslar is a great hope for the future of atheism.  OJ founded the Bond University Rationalist, Secularists and Freethinkers.  Of Asian descent, OJ is intelligent, articulate and committed – but her considerable talents are being under-utilised.

Sean Jelinek

Also in Queensland, Jonathan Meddings  is a level-headed, quietly spoken yet highly effective voice for humanism, freethought and science.

Felix Bloomfield is another quiet achiever with a devastatingly high IQ. Leader of ANU’s League of Godlessness (previously the League of Extraordinary Atheists), Felix is exactly the kind of person we need to promote secularism and skepticism in Australia.

In New South Wales, film-maker and law student, Jasmine Marosvary of Startail Tumbler productions never ceases to amaze and impress me. A tireless campaigner for a multitude of causes she is brilliant, quirky and charismatic – and, again, sadly under-utilised.

Jasmine Marosvary

There are others, too:  Dave Singer of Dave the Happy Singer dot com and the podcast In Vino Veritas (with Jason Brown), blogger, Pete Darwin, Ingrid Skiaker (Bond University), Lawson Regan from Western Australia, author and podcaster, Jake Farr-Wharton of the Imaginary Friends Show,  Robert Cope, Luke Weston, Linley Kissick of The Lone Deranger blog, Kieran Dennis (@dolmiogrin), Reidar Lystad, skeptic and vaccination campaigner, Martin Bouckaert, Alan Conradi and Rachel Macalpine of the Western Sydney Freethinkers, aspiring Labor politician, Kurt Hopkins, dedicated Tasmanian skeptic, Jin-Oh Choi, brillliant young science educator Jack Scanlan and many more.

Fortunately, many of these young people are now being nurtured (and can I say ‘coralled’) by the Australian Freethought Student Alliance (formerly the Australian Freethought University Alliance), headed by another highly impressive young man who has incredible future ahead of him – Jason Ball.

Jason BallAustralian Freethought Student Alliance

Jason Ball

I remember saying two years ago to anyone who’d listen, “We have to get Jason on to the international speaking circuit!”

I’ve been delighted to see that happening and I was so proud to see him speaking at the Global Atheist Convention, I thought I might burst (which might have been rather messy)!

Jason has the brains, the media savvy, the presentation and personality to make a brilliant young ambassador for atheism and secularism.  In fact, he already is!

I’d say we need a hundred Jasons, but we already have them (as you can see above!)  We just need to identify, nurture and train them and give them a chance to shine; and the Australian Freethought Student Alliance is playing an active role in that.

Jason’s convention speech was appropriately titled:  A Fresh Generation of Freethinkers is among Us

Jason began by explaining how religion was not even ‘on his radar’ as he grew up. It was not until he went to America as an exchange student in 2005 that he was exposed to full-on Christian fundamentalism. Placed with a family in Kansas, Jason said this experience gave him a window into the effect of religion on individuals and society.

“I was the only kid in school who believed in evolution!” he said.

Jason said he did not reject the religion of his hosts outright.  He happily attended church and youth group. Uncommitted either way, he said, “I only cared about what was true.”

Ironically, being ’embedded’ with a fundamentalist family opened Jason’s eyes to science and he came home to Australia with his ‘eyes open to the effect religion was having on Australian society.”

Enrolling at the University of Melbourne, Jason was astounded to find thirteen religious clubs, but no atheist or secular society. So, he started one.

But, says Jason, he is not an anti-theist.

“We need to work with religious groups to work for secularism,” he says.

Jason is a firm believer that atheism, rationalism and skepticism must be among the many world-views available for students to sample on campus.

Finding his own university awash with the promotion of evangelical Christianity, Jason and his friends devised a ‘Chalk of Reason’ campaign.  Tired of seeing promotions for Christian groups and Bible verses chalked onto the campus pavements, they retaliated with quotes from atheists and secularists – much to the delight of other students.

In 2010, Jason (and others), with the support of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Australian Skeptics and the Council of Australian Humanists, formed the Australian Freethought University Alliance (AFUA). The intent was to encourage and support freethought groups in universities across Australia. The AFUA (now the Australian Freethought Student Alliance) now has 21 affiliate groups.

The AFSA must be congratulated for a range of initiatives aimed at enabling students to attend the GAC.  These included providing free tickets, arranging ‘couch surfing’ accommodation and even helping with travel grants.

At the gala dinner  I met a student who had won a grant to attend the convention.  He and his family told me that, as freethinkers, they felt quite isolated in their Far North Queensland town. I was happy to be able to offer to find some like-minded thinkers for them to socialise and converse with.  This is just one of the benefits of these kinds of gatherings.

If you are a student (or teacher or parent) and would like to know more about forming a freethought group at your university or school, you can contact the AFSA through Facebook or Twitter (@freethought_au).

Australian Freethought Student Alliance

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Four)

Parrot – A Short Film

After morning tea on Sunday, we were treated to the world premier screening of the short film “Parrot” by Sydney-based filmmakers Emma McKenna and Craig Foster. McKenna and Foster of Myrtle Street Pictures have made a remarkable film that reflects the experience of many whose loss of faith threatens the loss of family. While the film is a testament to how divisive religion can be, it also speaks to the strength and resilience of familial love.

Parrot was beautifully produced and directed, production values were high and the acting was natural when it could so easily have been forced. The drama was perfectly tempered with moments of humour and pathos. And, importantly, it was not coercive. The story was laid out honestly but without undue bias, allowing the viewer to draw their own meaning from the art.

After the film, McKenna and Foster said they made the film because there was a ‘void’ in the representation of atheists in television and movies. When atheists are portrayed on film, they are often, like Hugh Laurie’s Dr Gregory House, people of questionable morals. They wanted to show a sympathetic atheist character; to show the human face of atheism.

Their reasoning? “You can’t hate something you empathise with.”

The film stars some familiar faces, including Barry Shepherd (Rake, McLeod’s Daughters, Home and Away), Fiona Press (Oscar and Lucinda), Gig Clarke (Home and Away, Rescue: Special Ops) and Anthony Slater (co-host of Cybershack).

I must congratulate the Atheist Foundation of Australia for helping to finance and promote this fine film. I can highly recommend it. McKenna and Foster are now trying to enter it into film festivals to get it shown as widely as possible. Keep an eye out for it, and if you get a chance to see it, grab it – you won’t be sorry.

You should be able to keep up with future screenings by checking their website: Parrot

Here’s the trailer and ‘blurb’.

“Parrot is a tale of a family divided by faith. Todd, the youngest son of Ruth and Edmund Senior, has over the years drifted away from his strict Catholic upbringing. Too afraid to break the truth to his mother, he would feel as a complete stranger within his own family were it not for his brother Edmund Junior who shares the same secret.

When a terrible tragedy befalls the family, Todd and his parents are forced to confront their differences at the worst of all possible times. With the truth out, can they find a way to accept, support and love each other or will religion fracture this family forever?”

Chrys Stevenson

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday, 15 April (Part Three)

Sam Harris

I have always been interested in spirituality (see my blog post Fashion Faux Pas and Literary Lunacies: How Dawkins and Harris overhauled my intellectual wardrobe). Like many of my generation, I stopped off in ‘New Age Spiritualism’ on my journey towards atheism.

I found Sam Harris just as I was on the outskirts of Atheistville. I still had some souvenirs of “New Age Spiritualism” hanging around my neck, but I’d divested myself of most of the  ‘woo’ before I bought End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation – ironically with some ‘Christmas’ money given to me by a crystal-gazing aunt.

It was after reading Letter to a Christian Nation that a little light bulb went on in my head. I remember thinking, with some surprise, “Oh! I’m an atheist!”

As a new ‘gnu’ atheist, I found The End of Faith incredibly confronting with its negative portrayal of Islam – I was, and still am, far more concerned about fundamentalist Christianity.  Islam is dangerous but it’s out in the open and easy to spot.  The encroachment of fundamentalist Christianity is insidious, often silent and invisible.  We don’t recognise its stranglehold on our secular institutions until it’s happened.

Having been introduced by Harris to the ‘new atheist’ genre, I moved on to read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Like Harris, they didn’t make me an atheist, they just made me realize I was one. More importantly, they politicized me and made me realise I should get off my arse and do something about the religious assault on secularism, human rights and individual autonomy.

Sam Harris took to the GAC 2012 stage and immediately acknowledged the late, great Christopher Hitchens.

Hitch, said Harris, “had more wit, style and substance than a few civilisations I could name.”

Fittingly, perhaps, Harris then went on to talk about death.

“The ‘good news’ of atheism,” said Harris, “is that nothing happens after death. We return to nothingness; so there’s nothing to worry about.  If we’re right, death is not a problem; life is the problem.”

“To not believe in God,” he said, “is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.”

Harris spoke of how religion makes the world  worse, not better.

Because of the interference of the Catholic Church, they are still arguing in the US about whether women should have access to contraception. This,  he said, “while the church nurtures ‘an army of child rapists’!

Harris also spoke of religion’s ‘misuse of human energy’ and its ‘manufacturing of human unhappiness’.

Harris accepts that we can’t make the world a paradise – and who would want one?

At university, when I studied utopian thought, I quickly realised that one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.  Harris is not concerned with creating a ‘perfect’ world or a ‘perfect society’, but he is concerned with the human condition – with making lives happier, more meaningful, more productive and, surprisingly, more ‘spiritual’.  More ‘gross national happiness’, perhaps.

And then, the important question, “What does atheism have to offer?”

If we are to argue for an ‘End of Faith’ what do we propose to put in its place?

Harris accepts that as ‘mere disbelief in god’ atheism doesn’t have much to offer. But, he said, “Atheism clears the space for better conversation.”

But can atheism do what religion does?

Harris acknowledged, for example, that religion can help people make sense of tragedy. It provides the answer that most people think they need.

“If your child dies in a car accident,” said Harris, “believing she’s in heaven with Jesus has to be consoling.”

So, we have to ask, “What is lost when we jettison religion?”

And, at least part of the answer is, “Total consolation in the face of death.”

If we are to argue for a world without religion, said Harris, “we have to build a bridge to deal with this fact.”

“We spend most of our lives tacitly assuming we’ll live forever,” he said. “There’d better be a heaven if we’re going to waste our time!”

Accepting that we have one life, and that is all we get, is a great motivation to make the most of our time.

But, if you don’t believe in God, “What is the point?”

It’s a sensible question, said Harris, and there is an answer. But, the answer requires a change of attitude towards life.

We need to learn to live in the present moment, he said,  reminding us that  “It is always ‘now‘.”

It is a ‘liberating truth about the nature of the human mind’, he said, “that the past is a memory; the future is merely a thought arising now”.

“We need to attend to the present moment. We need to consciously experience ‘now’; “because consciousness is everything”.

“How can we truly be fulfilled in life?”

“How can we make our lives worth living?”

The answer, said Harris, is that how we think about an experience determines how we feel about it.

It was at about this time that I felt I’d tumbled down some GAC rabbit hole and ended up in at an Eckhart Tolle lecture.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, was Oprah Winfrey’s poster boy for a while.  He was a bit too full of ‘woo’ for my taste but he did have a lot of good ideas if you stripped away the woo.

At 29, according to Tolle, he underwent an ‘inner transformation’ that led him to experience a constant ‘state of bliss’.

To his credit, Tolle says that religions “have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured”, that they have become “to a large extent … divisive rather than unifying forces” and become “themselves part of the insanity”.

To me, Harris’ message seemed to echo Tolles words’:   “the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness”. He says that awareness is “the space in which thoughts exist” and that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it”.

Harris confirmed that he was speaking about ‘secular spiritualism’ and that meditation was one method to help achieve the ‘mindfulness’ he was speaking of.

“The antidote to  fear of death is to live life in the present,” he said.

“We have to create a world we want to live in; and religion is a bad way to do that.”

What happened next was, to many bizarre – to others, the highlight of the convention.  Harris took us through a guided meditation.

I had sat through many guided meditations during my stay in ‘New Age Spiritualism’, but I hadn’t expected to experience it in downtown ‘Atheistville’.  I admit some discomfort at being thrust into it unexpectedly. It’s not that I objected, or that I was offended. I guess I see meditation as a rather personal thing, something I’d like to be prepared for rather than having it ‘sprung on me’ .  But, I was up for any experience, so I closed my eyes and listened to the admittedly relaxing tones of Sam’s voice.

I was speaking to my friend Anthony, at the Sunshine Coast Atheists meeting tonight. He attended the convention and said he was quite moved by the experience of Harris’ meditation.

Me? Not so much.  Three late nights in a row, no breakfast, and the soporific sound of Sam’s voice soon had me nodding off.  I was putting too much effort into staying awake to really concentrate on anything else.

For me – and this is entirely subjective – the session would have been better in the first session of the day or after morning tea or lunch when we were a bit refreshed.  This isn’t a criticism of the organisers at all. I’m not sure that they knew what Harris planned to do and it’s difficult to shuffle speakers around because one of them might happen to put the whole audience to sleep!

I know that opinion was divided on the meditation. I’m perfectly willing to take the blame for the fact it didn’t do much for me, and I’m happy for those who found it a deep and meaningful experience.

Harris was aware that what he’d done might be thought strange or controversial.

“I’ve smuggled mindfulness meditation into this talk and foisted it on 4,000 atheists!” he laughed.

But, he explained, it’s important to know how to clear your mind and focus on ‘the now’.

“It takes a long time to realise how much thought is clouding our present experience.”

He felt that mindfulness and meditation can be useful in moments of crisis.

“Relief can be gained by bearing down on the present moment; it erodes the pain.”

I think there’s a lot of value to be had in Harris’ pursuit of ‘secular spirituality’.  I also think that living in the ‘now’ is good advice for those who want to maximise their happiness (and who doesn’t?).

What Harris didn’t talk about, but Eckhart Tolle does, is monitoring your ‘self-talk’; listening to and taking note of the silent conversations you constantly have with yourself and working to expunge negative feedback.  If you actually listen to your self-talk you’ll often find yourself saying some pretty hurtful and irrational stuff about yourself!  The ‘trick’ is not to accept the truth of what you tell yourself, but to challenge it and try to change the negative thoughts ‘looping’ through your head to something more positive.

Something else Harris didn’t discuss, but which I practice in my own life , is living in gratitude – trying to be constantly aware of how lucky I am to be alive and enjoying a life of such comparative luxury that many people in the world could not even imagine such good fortune.  I know that Dawkins often touches on this.  I find this an excellent way to put life’s small tragedies into perspective.   I’m not always ‘zen’ in the moment of crisis, but I think it helps me recover more quickly and move on. Not always, but mostly.

So, is meditation and mindfulness enough to fill the ‘void’ left by religious belief?

I doubt it. People are lazy and meditating effectively takes time and dedication.

“Jesus loves me, God will fix it,” is much easier.

I don’t think meditation is a discipline most people will practice; unless of course there’s a huge culture change and meditation is taught in schools and encouraged in the workplace.

And, is  it even necessary or desirable  to fill the religious ‘void’?  I think we need to have a conversation about that!

Is there even a ‘void’ to fill?

I can only speak for myself. Certainly my ‘New Age’ belief in an afterlife helped enormously to ease my grief when my father died. In fact, I think it may have eased it too much.  I loved him deeply but, to this day, I’ve never shed a tear at his passing.  I regret that.

When I realised – after reading Harris – that I was ‘an atheist’, I thought, “Oh dear, I guess I’m going to have to give up this idea of life after death!”

But, at the time, that idea was painful. I liked to believe my Dad was watching over me;  it gave me comfort and did no-one any harm. I knew it was irrational – I half knew it was fantasy – but it was a security blanket I wasn’t prepared to part with …. yet.

So, I didn’t push myself.  I just let it sit there, completely out of place with my other beliefs, until one day I thought, “Oh, it’s gone!”

And it didn’t hurt at all.

Speaking for myself, I’m not afraid of death. I see death as exactly the same as ‘before birth’. I don’t spend a moment regretting the years I missed before I was born, and I’m quite sure I won’t spend a moment regretting the years I missed after I’ve died.  The two states are the same – nothing/non-existence.

Pain is another matter, I’m quite afraid of pain.  If there’s going to be a lot of pain, let me die quickly!

I don’t know if it’s a good thing to ease the pain of a death of a loved one. Perhaps it’s a right of passage – something we just have to work our way through. Certainly I now regret that my grief at my Dad’s death was numbed by an irrational belief that he wasn’t ‘really’ dead.

I’ve given it quite a lot of thought over the past week and I think building strong, supportive communities is more important than encouraging atheists to take up meditation to fill the alleged ‘god shaped hole’.  My friends who have left religion behind often say the biggest loss was the support of a close, co-operative community.  Of course, when my friends admitted their atheism, those loving Christian communities pulled down their shutters and put out their ‘closed for business’ signs. Share the delusion or share nothing seems to be their credo.

I draw great strength and inspiration from the atheist ‘community’ – both real life and online.  Here I’ve found friendship, laughter, emotional support and (even more important) IT support!

Personally, I don’t feel a ‘god shaped hole’ in my life at all. I know how to meditate but I don’t find it particularly helpful.  That’s not to say, of course, that others won’t.  My sense of  ‘spirituality’ comes from love and service and laughter and gratefulness.

I think Sam Harris had some important things to say. I’d like to read more. But on the strength of his GAC 2012 speech, I can’t say I’m completely buying the whole package.

Chrys Stevenson

If you’re interested in meditation, you might like to read Sam Harris’ “How to Meditate”.

Global Atheist Convention – Sunday 15 April (Part Two)

Back in 2009, in an effort to live up to their name, Atheist Alliance International decided to start hosting atheist conventions throughout the world.

With that in mind, they approached the Atheist Foundation of Australia, offering to provide seed funding for an AAI conference here in Australia.

The plan was to  give AAI a greater presence in Australia. This didn’t really happen.

Something got lost in translation (or ambition).  The AFA took the money and ran with it. They changed the name of the conference to the Global Atheist Convention, the AFA made a name for themselves and the AAI found themselves effectively sidelined. AAI became the ‘junior partner’ although the Convention was their idea and made possible with their money.

Having severed my relationship with the AFA (I don’t like the way they operate), I don’t know what’s happened in the interim but there’s been a changing of the guard and AAI had a higher profile (though not high enough IMHO) at this Convention.

Stuart Bechman, a delightful man who was president of AAI in 2010  (and MC at the 2010 Convention) has since stepped down. Replacing him is Tanya Smith an investment banker from Australia.  Tanya was on the original 2010 Global Atheist Convention organising committee and was also involved in the 2012 Convention.

It was good to see AAI given a chance to promote themselves at this Convention as I felt strongly that they’d been substantially short-changed for their investment in 2010. (That is my opinion, not necessarily that of AAI.)

Tanya Smith – Atheist Alliance International

Tanya’s speech was titled, “How do we change the world?”

She introduced Atheist Alliance International (AAI) as a global alliance of atheist groups and individual members.

One of the key functions of AAI is to help establish atheist groups, especially in countries where this is difficult. Tanya spoke, for example, of AAI’s role in establishing the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics back in August 2011.

AAI also fields questions from around the world, from people asking about atheism, for advice and support in establishing atheist organisations, and for guidance in combating religious assaults on human rights and freedom.

The AAI now has a global convention program.  Tanya echoes my own view that making personal connections with each other is critical if we are to make an effective stand for atheism and secularism.

I was delighted to hear that AAI has been instrumental in opening the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda. The school opened early in 2011 and now has 300 students, and growing. Uganda has been the victim of Christian fundamentalist dominionism. Educating children in a secular school is a brilliant strategy to help them fight back against this rampant religious imperialism.

You can learn more about the Kasese school on its website. You can also get involved by sponsoring school fees for one or more students,  or a teacher’s salary.

Here are the kids singing and shouting “Humanities!” on assembly:

Another priority for AAI is to gain international status for atheists. To that end, they are seeking to gain consultative status with the United Nations.

You can apply to have your organisation affiliated with AAI, or join as an individual member – or simply donate to the great work they’re doing.  Members also receive issues of AAI’s excellent “Secular World” magazine in which I’m very proud to have been published … twice!

For more information go to the Atheist Alliance International website.

Annie Laurie Gaylor – Freedom from Religion Foundation / Freethought Radio

One of my major complaints about atheists and atheist organisations is that we talk a lot but we really need to get out and DO SOMETHING!  That’s one reason I’m very happy to promote Atheist Alliance International which seems to be doing much more than self-promoting and putting signs on buses.

Another organisation I’m delighted to promote is America’s Freedom from Religion Foundation – run by feminist, Annie Laurie Gaylor and her husband, former evangelical preacher, Dan Barker.  FFRF has 18,000 members and functions primarily as a watchdog on violations of America’s constitutional  separation of church and state. They filed 50 lawsuits last year and won many.

Annie Laurie and Dan also have a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast: Freethought Radio.  It’s well worth subscribing to their podcasts.

Annie Laurie began by confessing that she had ‘PM’ envy. Our atheist PM may not be ideal, but an atheist President in the US is currently an impossibility.

“There is a defacto religious test for office in the USA,” she said.

It seems that it’s not only non-Americans who view America’s ‘God fixation’ with a degree of fear.

“A superpower which looks to the supernatural is just plain scary!” said Annie Laurie.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is a third generation freethinker. She believes it is immoral to indocrinate children with fear and neuroses.

Annie Laurie said she was sorry to hear that Australia’s state/church separation had been subverted (due to the 1981 High Court decision in the DoGS case).

Annie Laurie urged us to keep defending Australian secularism, “You don’t want the religious right in your country!” she said.  Unfortunately, Annie Laurie, they’re already here!

She was also adamant that the state should not fund religious programs (like the National School Chaplaincy Program).

“Where public money goes,” she said, “public accountability must follow.”

“Public money should not fund divisive programs.”

Annie Laurie told us about Jessica Ahlquist, a 16 year old atheist from Rhode Island who lobbied successfully to have a prayer removed from the wall of her high school – where it has hung for 49 years. Jessica has been vilified and threatened for doing nothing more than asking her school to uphold the Constitution. State Representative, Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, even called Jessica “an evil little thing” during a radio interview.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has supported Jessica and awarded her a $13,000 scholarship for her activism.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this kind of thing here in Australia and actively encourage our brightest young people to stand up for a secular Australia?

Another initiative of the FFRF has been to encourage Catholics to stop supporting the Catholic Church with their ‘membership’.  We already know there are many Catholics who are appalled at the actions of their church in relation to contraception, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion, the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups,  etc – but they fail to take that extra step and quit. In particular, the Catholic Church in America is opposing the inclusion of contraception in the new Health Care Plan.

In response, in March this year, The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, headlined:  “IT’S TIME TO CONSIDER QUITTING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.”

The ad reminds Catholics that the Church “hasn’t persuaded you to shun contraception” and encourages Catholics to leave the church – en mass (another brilliant ‘bon mot’ from Dan Barker).

Notably, the NYT would not publish the advertisement as submitted. The original headline was “IT’S TIME TO QUIT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH”.  It had to be modified before the paper would print it.

The FFRF also produced a television commercial in response to (failed) Presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum’s claim that John F Kennedy’s landmark speech on the separation of church and state almost made him throw up.

Annie Laurie noted that the background music which we would recognise as “God save the Queen” has another lyric in the US, “Let freedom reign”.

I’ve spoken previously about the dangerous symbolism of prayers in parliament. Annie Laurie agreed.

“Government prayer is an affront to Reason!” she said, urging politicians to, “Get off your knees and get to work!”

“There is a time when religion ruled the world,” she said, “It’s known as ‘The Dark Ages’.” Hear, hear!

America is facing its own ‘dark age’. Annie Laurie noted that the US Supreme Court is now dominated by right-wing conservative Catholics who vote as a block. The ‘land of the free’ is turning into a theocracy.

This is one of the reasons I keep urging Australians to sit up and take notice of what is happening here. It’s this insidious infiltration of religious extremists into our parliaments, legislative bodies, public service and schools which will take us down the same path as America. Fundamentalists are quietly waging an assault on Australian secularism, and we are blithely standing by (with the exception of people like Ron Williams) and letting them.

Wake up and DO SOMETHING!

Chrys Stevenson