It’s Friday, 13 April. The Global Atheist Convention opens this evening and already heathens are pouring into town by the hundreds. My Facebook and Twitter streams have been popping!
I arrived yesterday morning, hobbling through Tullamarine in a badly chosen pair of high heeled boots. My first act in Melbourne was to collect my luggage and change my shoes. I think those boots may end up in the Yarra some time over the weekend!
I checked in to the Hilton South Wharf and had a bit of a rest (middle age is a bitch) before heading down to the Hilton Bar in the evening.
It was great to run into PZ Myers who was looking remarkably well. PZ admitted his looks belied his jetlag. All he wanted to do was find somewhere to eat and head back to bed!
It was also lovely to run into Glen and Helen McBride from the Sunshine Coast Atheists who joined me, and Townsville atheists Jean and Eric, for drinks.
Next, it was off to Embiggen Books for a lively panel discussion featuring Graham Oppy, Meredith Doig and Russell Blackford. I arrived late (due to shocking traffic on Collins Street) but soon picked up the gist of the debate.
The ‘working document’ was Sean Faircloth’s 10 point strategy for a Secular America. The panel were discussing how relevant this strategy might be for Australia and what other issues may have to be prioritised here.
Russell made the point, for example, that Australia has no constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech (although there is some implied freedom of political speech). We don’t have the legislative protections available to Americans, so this may be something important to add to any Australian version of the secular strategy document.
Another issue was how to engage people with such a strategy so that they just don’t nod their heads in agreement, they actually get up and DO something!
There was some discussion about the threat of the Islamicisation of the West (and Australia?). Most seemed to think it was not a huge issue here. I argued that the threat from fundamentalist Christianity is far greater: the fundamentalist infiltration of our public institutions and political system is silent, invisible and insidious. Muslim attempts to change laws, at least, are highly visible and openly debated.
However, a good point was made that there are already parallel law systems in Australia – e.g. canonical law – and we should be on guard against attempts to allow this, especially where such laws may conflict with basic human rights.
Predictably, politics and education was a major preoccupation for the panel. There seemed to be agreement that SRE should not be allowed in state schools, but that it was important for children to receive information ABOUT religion in an academic format.
Meredith Doig noted that ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) does not favour a special course in religions and worldviews, but thinks instruction on religions and other philosophies should be integrated within a Civics and Citizenship course. Meredith was insistent that this should NOT be an addition to SRE, but instead of.
There was some discussion about schools teaching creationism. Meredith said that schools which teach scientifically discredited views should not receive public money.
Russell Blackford agreed that there should be a policy that all Australian children must be taught proper science.
Meredith pointed out that the best education system in the world appears to be Finland’s. Finland only has state schools – there are no denominational schools and no private schools.
Another fascinating discussion centred upon how much right the state has to override parents’ wishes for their children. The consensus seemed to be that there is a role for the state in producing a non-divisive, peaceful population and that in areas where parents views conflict with this, there is a role for the state to intervene. Meredith Doig provided an example from Quebec, where the schools attempted to narrow the Catholic/Protestant divide with a mandatory course on ethics and religious cultures. When some parents objection the issue went to court and the state won. It was decided that it is the role of the state to socialize children into a common set of values, with no privilege to any particular religion.
Russell Blackford thought we were getting into dangerous territory trying to teach children ‘values’ at school. The government has a responsibility to teach children the ‘values’ of being good citizens, but not of being good people.
A burning question was, don’t parents have a right to freedom of religion? Yes, they have the right to educate their own children about their religion in their own home and church/temple/mosque/synagogue. It was argued that the UNHCR right of freedom of religion does not mean that a religious education has to be delivered by a school, and certainly not at the expense of taxpayers.
It was an excellent and thought-provoking discussion. The only frustration for me was that despite the panel’s determination that ‘something’ needed to be done and that apathy was our worst enemy, there was no suggestion (at least while I was there) as to how this strategy might be implemented or by whom.
I understand the discussion will continue on Russell’s Metamagician and the Hellfire Club blog if you want to join in.
After the discussion it was great to catch up with some old pals.
I hadn’t seen Warren Bonett and Kirsty Bruce, proprietors of Embiggen Books, since they left the Sunshine Coast, so it was a lovely reunion. Both, of course, were working so there was limited time, but Kirsty and I managed to sit and hold hands and squeeze a three hour discussion into the space of five minutes (a particularly female talent, I think!).
It was great to meet Bruce Everett of the excellent Rousing Departures blog in person (one generally only sees half his face in his icon!). I got a massive hug from the beautiful and talented Geoff Cowan – a brilliant photographer and passionate skeptic. I also got to meet Facebook friend, Alice Knight, for a quick but intense discussion on abortion. Val Lewis from the Sunshine Coast Atheists was there, but I didn’t get a chance to catch up with her. I also missed saying hello to Colin Kline.
I met Steve Payne (@twinarp) at TAM (the Australian Skeptics meeting) in Sydney and we were keen to reprise the excellent dinner we’d had there. So, after Embiggen we snuck off, with Nick Andrew (@elronxenu), to a brilliant little Mexican Restaurant called Mamasitas. Steve promised their barbecued corn was better than crack, and it was. Sweet and tender and rolled in chipotle mayonnaise and cheese, then sprinkled with paprika and lime juice, I may be persuaded to commit immoral acts to raise the price of having more, more more! Tiny, tasty tacos followed and then hot as hades tortillas. An absolute taste sensation. If you’re in Melbourne, I can highly recommend it – although you may have to wait for a table, it was hellishly busy and very, very noisy!
And now, it’s Friday morning and the GAC starts in earnest tonight. I’m still in my pyjamas, but outside, Melbourne is bright and crisp and clear and the day is full of promise. My coffee and danishes have just arrived, I have some ironing to do, and then its off to the Waterside Hotel on Flinders Street for the Secular Party lunch at 12.00pm. Looking forward to catching up with Margaret Morgan and Robert Tobin there and, later, David Leaf of Dying with Dignity NSW. I’m also hoping to collect a long-promised hug from Mitch Sullivan (@MitchSully) later today! Of course, I also have to track down those two reprobates, Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett who seem to think I’m in Melbourne to re-enact some kind of Carrie Bradshaw ‘Sex in the City’ scenario. If only!
Tonight is registration and the official opening and then we are on the full convention roller coaster and there’s no getting off until Sunday. No time for sex, people, we’re heathens!
I’ll try to keep you informed whenever I get a spare moment – probably between the hours of midnight and dawn!