An early morning start this morning to beat the crowds and find a good seat for the first full day of the Global Atheist Convention 2012.
As I enter the huge auditorium, music plays and atheist quotes flash on to the screen. Bon mots, such as:
“If there is a God, atheism must seem to him as less of an insult than religion.” Edmond de Goncourt.
“Reality is what it is, not what you want it to be.” Frank Zappa
I spot Glen McBride, an elderly, white-bearded Professor of Biology from the Sunshine Coast. Robert Tobin, whose battle with oesophagul cancer mirrored that of the late great Christopher Hitchens – except Robert has survived to arrive at the GAC handsomely decked out in a huge ‘cat in the hat’ style St Patrick’s Day hat! Adding to the carnival atmosphere, the fellow sitting behind me is nursing a colander containing a Flying Spaghetti Monster wrapped in red ‘meatballs’, while the two people in front of me are pouring through a Bible.
The house lights dim and MC Kylie Sturgess comes to the stage and introduces Peter Singer. There is huge applause. Singer recommends that students of reason should read WEH Leckie, a 19th century historian of ideas. There is still much to be gained, says Singer, from Leckie’s histories of the rise of rationalism in Europe and European morals.
Singer also speaks of an old book of his which has recently been re-released, “The Expanding Circle”, and recommends Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”.
Singer believes we are on a positive trajectory. Reason is bringing us more peaceful, less violent societies. He speaks of the brutish lives of our hunter-gatherer forebears and the civilising process as we’ve come to live in nation states. And then, came the invention of the printing press, revolutionising communications. This was soon followed by the Age of Enlightenment – the Age of Reason – and its accompanying civilising impact.
During this period of massive social change, says Singer, human voices were raised against slavry, torture, despotism, dueling, extreme punishment and animal cruelty. The ancien regime crumbled.
Of course, the path to enlightenment has not been steady. There are notable regressions such as the horrors of the twentieth century holocaust. But, says Singer, despite the dips and falls, the parallel pathways of reason and peace persist. Since 1989, he says, there has been a decline in wars of all kinds. The twentieth century has seen a revolution in our understanding of the rights of women, children, gay people and animals.
Reason and empathy work together to achieve this progress, says Singer. Change comes when we start to realise that those we consider ‘other’ are just like us.
Singer also noted the ‘Flynn effect’, which suggests that the average IQ has been steadily increasing over the last century. Scientific reasoning has spread, says Singer, and these two factors make a difference, morally. Reason, he says, leads us to consider all the consequences of our actions and teaches us not to be in thrall to superstitions and traditions.
One day, says Singer, we will look back and wonder how people could ever have been so stupid and so superstitious.
Leslie Cannold is next to the stage. She strides on with great confidence and begins with a question for the audience.
“If you think Australia has a separation of church and state, raise your hand!”
Several people raise their hands, but most of our hands stay down.
“You’re smarter than I thought!” says Leslie, “Australia has no constitutional separation of church and state.”
Leslie goes on to explain the similarities between Section 116 of the Australian Constitution and America’s First Amendment. The difference, she says, is that when these very similar (almost identical) pieces of constitutional legislation were challenged, the Australian High Court (DOGS case, 1981) read Section 116 ‘down’, while the US courts read the First Amendment ‘up’.
Leslie was sad to find that most of the audience had not heard of Vashti McCollum v Board of Education. The story of McCollum’s fight for a secular education for her children is described in the documentary, “The Lord is not on trial here, today.” It was a landmark case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that religious classes were unconstitutional in American public schools. But, importantly, the court noted that this did not mean that either the court of the government were hostile to religion – they were simply upholding the principle of separation – a principle introduced to protect, not threaten, freedom of religion.
Leslie went on to describe the effects of our High Court ruling in 1981 that Section 116 could not be read as providing the same protections. Our governments spend millions supporting religious events, we provide tax breaks for religions, we fund private religious education and we let our public schools systems be mission fields for intolerant Christianity.
In our state schools, says Leslie, we have volunteer religious instructors telling our children, “Jesus loves you more than Mummy” and “If your parents don’t believe in God, they will go to hell.” I know this is true. Just recently a friend’s son came home from school upset that the religious instruction teacher had told one of his friends his parents would go to hell because they were divorced!
The lack of separation, says Leslie, means that parents who don’t want their children indoctrinate in state schools have to opt them out of classes. Kids don’t understand why they’re being treated differently – maybe being made to sit outside the principals office during religious instruction. It’s divisive.
And there’s no doubt about the aims of the fervent evangelists we’ve admitted into our schools. Evonne Paddison of Access Ministries – the organisation which provides both religious instruction teachers and chaplains to Victorian schools – has described our state schools as a ‘mission field’. These people, says Leslie, are using their access to 5, 6 and 7 year olds – without their parents – to get more bums on their pews!
She notes (after Max Wallace) that without a separation of church and state, Australia is, in effect, a ‘soft theocracy’.
Leslie mentions the ‘amazing’ Ron Williams and his battle against school chaplaincy. His case mirrors that of Vashti McCollum – although a verdict in Ron’s case is yet to be delivered. In Victoria, parents have also taken the government to court over the discriminatory practices of religious education in schools.
Meanwhile Julia Gillard continues to ‘feed the religious monster’.
So, says Leslie, what can WE of the ‘non-faith’ community DO? WE are in important part of the fighting force against the theocratisation of Australia, she says. But WE are not the only ones. There are many people of faith who believe in a secular state as well. We need to be forming coalitions with more tolerant religious people. We need to be saying, “Believe what you want, but don’t impose your religious beliefs on others.”
Some things that WE can do immediately, says Leslie is:
Go to Facebook and ‘Like’ Australians United for Separation of Church and State.
‘Like’ the Freethought University Alliance on Facebook.
Be counted. Join a secular group – numbers are important to politicians. We need to be more visible and marshal our numbers.
Donate towards Ron Williams massive legal costs still outstanding from the High Court Challenge. You find out how at the High Court Challenge website.
Ask your politicians to push for legislation to separate church and state.
Contribute to the Foundation Beyond Belief secular charity – and show that people without faith also do good. (I understand that Avi Chapman is soon to bring this secular charity to Australia – stay tuned!)
We need, says Leslie, to be an effective fighting force. We need to do better at campaigning. We need to influence elections and policy-making. We need to show we have voting power. We need to establish contemporary organisations with modern campaigning methods, including web-based advocacy and a one-stop campaign shop. We need to allow for different levels of involvement. And we need to build alliances with those who share our views.
Importantly, says Leslie, we need to ‘talk it up’! Stop being reluctant to discuss religion among friends, family or in the workplace. Let people know what is happening in Australia. Start discussions. Parents, talk to each other about why this stuff matters. Have discussions with the parents at your kids’ schools. We have to risk conflict to get the word out.
So, my faithless friends, I’m nowhere near through the proceedings of the first full day of the GAC 2012, but the rest will have to wait. Day two is soon to get underway and I’m keen not to miss a minute.
More updates soon!