Secular Charity – A Life-Saving Project

Tonight, I launched the Jode Mathews Cancer & Family Appeal at the Brisbane Skeptics Society’s Brisbane Skepticamp at the Hamilton Town Hall.

This is a vitally important campaign and one I hope all my readers will support – whether by donating or by promoting it to your networks.

Here is the text of my short speech.

Ad and Jode Kiss
“Those of us in the sceptical and secular communities hear a lot of bullshit that we are not as charitable as Christians, that we are selfish, unethical and immoral because of our lack of religious faith.

Penn Jilette

All evidence is to the contrary and non-believers are increasingly joining together to form charitable groups and organisations .

We are great supporters of causes, and I’ve seen many instances where individuals in need find support through our various online communities.

Tonight, I’m here to launch an appeal for a member of our Queensland community of skeptics and freethinkers. Jode Matthews and her husband, Adam, were founding members of the Sunshine Coast Atheists. Jode provided editing assistance on Warren Bonett’s The Australian Book of Atheism.

Jode and Adam are skeptics, humanists and atheists. They care about the issues we care about. They move in the circles we move in. They have put their hands in their pockets to support the causes we support. They are contributing members of our online community.

Adam is a cancer survivor. He battled cancer for 13 years before going into remission 10 years ago. Now, Jode, who is just 46 years old, has Stage 4b metastatic cervical cancer. Despite chemo and radiation, the disease is spreading to her other organs. It’s as serious as it gets and, frankly, without some extra intervention, Jode’s prognosis isn’t good.



But there is hope. There’s a drug called Avastin which may extend Jode’s life expectancy. Trouble is, it’s about $20,000 per course. The Matthews don’t have that kind of money.

Jode’s cancer may even go into remission if she can access a drug called Nivolumab. It’s showing great results in the treatment of melanoma and lung cancer and the Yale Medical School is now trialing it for use on patients with cervical cancer. Jode can apply to enter the trial, but if she’s accepted, she’ll have to travel to the US and stay there for an extended period. The Matthews have had an awful run of one financial disaster after another and they simply can’t afford that option.

I think we can help. That’s why Danny Jarman, vice-president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Ron Williams, president of the Humanist Society of Queensland and I have set up the Jode Matthews Cancer & Family Appeal.

I don’t have a lot of time tonight, but you can read all about Jode’s story and the Appeal on our website:

We also have a Facebook page. Please find it and like it.

Ad and Jode Wedding 2

We already have the support of some of Australia’s leading sceptical and secular organisations. Now, we need your help in spreading the word about this appeal and, if you can afford it, making a donation – however small.

The success of this appeal depends on the networking power of our sceptical and secular communities. It’s true, we don’t have the organizational structures or financial resources of religious groups, but we have a strong, well-connected, international community and with your help we can make a damned good stab at saving Jode Matthews’ life.

We all know that skeptics and atheists OWN the internet.

And, you know, when prayer doesn’t cut it, practical people pitch in.

Thank you

Chrys Stevenson

To donate to the Jode Matthews Cancer & Family Appeal, please visit the appeal page at:

Vaccination: Stay Classy University of Wollongong

Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong and fancies himself as a champion of whistleblowers. When the whistle-blowing is legitimate, that’s a fine and honourable pursuit. But, when someone in a position of authority can’t tell the difference between whistleblowers and conspiracy theorists it’s cause for concern. When those conspiracy theorists actively endanger lives, it’s cause for alarm.

Professor Martin has been a staunch defender of Meryl Dorey and her appalling Australian [anti] Vaccination Network. He is the PhD Supervisor for anti-vax campaigner Judy Wilyman. Wilyman’s Masters degree is currently the subject of investigation for academic misconduct.

But Professor Martin claims he has no ‘strong views’ about vaccination;  that his interest in the anti-vaccination debate is all about free speech.

Free speech is all very well. But, when propaganda and misinformation from uneducated rabble-rousers endangers the lives of children and vulnerable people, I think we can rightly argue free speech must have limits.

Whether or not Professor Martin is an anti-vaxxer himself, his work enables these anti-science, numb-skulled conspiracy theorists. The connection with Professor Martin and the University of Wollongong lends credibility to them while tainting him, and more importantly, the university that supports his and (by association) their work.

Dr Matthew Berryman, author of the complexitydaemon blog,  is appalled by Professor Martin’s involvement with some of this country’s most prominent anti-vaccination propagandists. Dr Berryman is an academic at the University of Wollongong. His degrees are in science, mathematics, computer engineering and systems analysis.

Berryman is the co-author of the 2013 paper “Answering human papillomavirus vaccine concerns; a matter of science and time“, published in Infection Agents and Cancer, an open access, peer-reviewed online journal.

In an interview with the Illawarra Mercury in 2012 regarding Judy Wilyman’s PhD candidature, Dr Berryman said:

“While I’m a big supporter of academic freedom, I somehow don’t think that academic freedom extends to … making unscientific claims discouraging people from seeking appropriate preventative measures for life-threatening diseases.”

In a blog post, published today, Dr Berryman draws our attention to a book chapter written by Dr Martin in Nonviolence Unbound. Martin’s chapter deals specifically with the clash between the Australian [anti] Vaccination Network and Stop the AVN, a Facebook-based citizens group which doggedly opposed and exposed the AVN for years, effectively bringing it to its knees – for now.

That this was all achieved legally, backed by decisions against the AVN’s dodgy practices by various Australian health and regulatory authorities, does not seem to deter Professor Martin one iota. Instead, in Chapter 8 of Nonviolence Unbound he suggests a number of strategies the AVN might use to circumvent the Australian laws which have so constrained them.

You can read all about it on Dr Berryman’s blog:

The AVN fought the law and the law won: AVN stopped

The University of Wollongong must be so proud that one of its academics can, so cavalierly, aid and abet an organisation which actively compromises the health and lives of Australian children. Stay classy, U of W.

Chrys Stevenson

PS: Ms WIlyman thinks very highly of me, too.


I Run!

“Go!” yelled the event director and I took off in the middle of the pack. Soon, the fastest runners began passing me. Then people who were clearly older and (ahem) larger than me trotted past, followed by people with dogs, ladies with prams and (oh, the humiliation) seven year old children! At one point I looked behind me and there was no-one there. I was dead last of the runners.”

Chrys - Before and AfterOn Christmas Day, 2012 I weighed 129 kg. On 22 August 2013, I walked into the local gym for the first time, weighing 126.6 kg (having lost no fat but an ovary or two in the interim). On 21 March 2015, weighing 65kg, I ran 5 km for the first time in the Golden Beach parkrun. Here is my story, published in parkrun’s national newsletter this week – “I Run!”

Chrys Stevenson

Christians Supporting Equal Marriage

Christians4EqualityIn 2012, I wrote a blog post about Christian clergy who opposed equal marriage.

Within that diatribe I included a list of churches, pastors, ministers, rabbis, etc who don’t agree that Christians should oppose marriage equality and who are proudly aligning themselves with those of us who think that love should be celebrated and recognised, regardless of gender.

Recently, it has been brought to my attention that including that list of liberal clergy in the same post that catalogues the fundamentalists and kooks inadvertently links the names of those who support marriage equality with those who don’t on a Google search.

So, I have uncoupled that list from the original blog post and I’m placing it here.

On a day when it’s just been announced that the Senate supports the call for a conscience vote on marriage equality , I think it’s very appropriate to remind ourselves that the majority of Australian Christians  (and those of other faiths) are not homophobic. Most Christians support marriage equality, and politicians like Fred Nile, political parties like Family First and Rise Up Australia, and lobby groups like the Australian Christian Lobby represent only a fringe group of right-wing fundamentalists.

So, let’s celebrate the ‘goodies’ as our dearly beloved PM would say!

Back in 2011, the following clergy signed a letter of support for marriage equality. Let’s give them some recognition and a hearty round of applause:

  1. Rev Penny Jones, Anglican Priest, Queensland
  2. Rev Leigh Neighbour, Metropolitan Community Church, Brisbane
  3. Bishop-elect Timothy Mansfield, Apostolic Johannite Church Sydney,
  4. Rev Bill Crews, Uniting Church Sydney
  5. Rev Michael Hercock, Baptist Minister Sydney
  6. Rev Dr Paul Walton, Uniting Church Minister, Queensland
  7. Fr Rod Bower, Anglican Priest, Gosford NSW
  8. Rev Chris Bedding, Anglican Priest, Perth
  9. Rev Steve Thompson, Uniting Church Minister, South Australia
  10. Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky, Adelaide
  11. Rev Eileen Ray, Uniting Church Minister, Victoria
  12. Rev Shane Andersen DD, Senior Pastor, Outreach Ministries Church Fellowship, Sydney
  13. Rev Natasha Darke, Anglican Priest, Adelaide
  14. Rev Julie Leaves, Anglican Priest, Brisbane
  15. Rev Canon Dr Nigel Leaves, St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane
  16. Pastor Karl Hand, Metropolitan Community Church, Sydney
  17. Rev Dr Rowland Croucher, Baptist Minister, Victoria
  18. Rev John Clapton, Anglican Priest, Perth
  19. Rev Boris Kleiner, Church Of the First Creation, Queensland
  20. Rev Roger Munson, St James Uniting Church, Canberra
  21. Rev Dr Jonathan Inkpin, Anglican Rector of the Parish of St Luke, Toowoomba
  22. Rev Susan Pickering, Uniting Church Minister, Brisbane
  23. Rev Jonathan Chambers, Senior Anglican Chaplain, Victoria
  24. Rev Dr Ian Mavor OAM, Uniting Church Minister, Queensland
  25. Fr Thomas Leslie, Anglican Priest, Victoria
  26. Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, Uniting Church Minister, Victoria
  27. Rev Dr Craig de Vos, Uniting Church Minister, South Australia
  28. Rev Tony Johnson, Uniting Church Minister, Victoria
  29. Rev Canon John Fowler, Anglican Priest, Victoria
  30. Rev Andrew Prior, Uniting Church, South Australia
  31. Rev Joan Riley, Anglican Priest, South Australia
  32. Rev Judy Redman, Uniting Church Minister, New South Wales
  33. Rev Murray Fysh, Uniting Church Minister, Queensland
  34. Rev Andrew Eaton, Anglican Priest, Victoria.
  35. Rev Dennis Webster, Anglican Priest, Victoria.
  36. Rev Josie Nottle, Uniting Church Minister, Queensland.
  37. Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Senior Rabbi, New South Wales.
  38. Rev Tracey Gracey, Anglican Priest, South Australia.
  39. Rev John Maddern, Uniting Church, Past Moderator, South Australia.
  40. Rev Peter Weeks, Uniting Church Minister, Victoria.
  41. Fr Stephen Clark, Anglican Parish Priest, Blackwood, SA
  42. Rev Bruce Stocks, Anglican Priest, Adelaide SA
  43. Rev Caro Field, Uniting Church Minister, Victoria.
  44. Rev Dr Geoffrey D Scott, Uniting Church Minister (ret.), South Australia.
  45. Rev Bill Harris, Deacon, Uniting Church, South Australia.
  46. Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black, Victoria.
  47. Rev Christine Garner, Uniting Church Minister (ret.), South Australia.
  48. Rev Dr Michael Godfrey, Anglican Priest, Northern Territory.
  49. Rev Leanne Jane Jenski, Uniting Church minister, South Australia.
  50. Rev Susan Wickham, Uniting Church minister, South Australia.
  51. Rev Brendan Byrne, Uniting Church minister, Victoria.
  52. Rabbi Paul Jacobson, New South Wales.
  53. Rev Andrew Mintern, Anglican Priest, South Australia.
  54. Rev Sandy Brodine, Uniting Church minister, Victoria.
  55. Rabbi Jacki Ninio, New South Wales.
  56. Rev Lucas Taylor, Church of Christ minister, Victoria.
  57. Rev Mark J Dunn, Uniting Church minister, Victoria.
  58. Rev Dr Christopher Page, Baptist minister, Victoria.
  59. Wilma Davidson, Clerk, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), ACT.
  60. Pastor Nathan Nettleton, Baptist minister, Victoria.
  61. Rev Narelle Oliver-Braddock, Priest, United Ecumenical Catholic Church, Queensland.
  62. Roy Freeman, Melbourne. (Jewish Community Supporting Marriage Equality)
  63. Rev Ian Hunter, Uniting Church minister, South Australia.
  64. Prof Emeritus Rev Gary D Bouma, Anglican Priest, Victoria.
  65. Shaku Jo’on Gregg Heathcote, Shin Buddhist priest, New South Wales.
  66. Rev Matt Glover, Baptist Minister, Victoria.
  67. Rev Michaela Tiller, Uniting Church minister, South Australia.
  68. Rev Peter McDonald, Uniting Church minister, South Australia.
  69. Rev Don Catford, Uniting Church minister (past Moderator), South Australia.
  70. Rev David Hunnerup, Uniting Church minister, Tasmania.
  71. Rev Tony Duncan, Uniting Church minister, Tasmania.
  72. Rev Colin Gurteen, Uniting Church minister, Tasmania.
  73. Ms Ann Hamblin, Correspondent, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), WA.
  74. Ms Jennifer Hole, Correspondent, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), WA.
  75. Rev Ojitha Goonetilleke, Uniting Church minister, Victoria.
  76. Rev Dr Richard Mallaby, Baptist minister, Victoria.
  77. Rev Nigel Eynon, Universal Life Church minister, Queensland.

The Unitarians, Quakers and Metropolitan Community Church at Granville NSW also support same-sex marriage at a denominational level in Australia, while the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, Asia and New Zealand put their support for marriage equality on the record in June 2011.

The Victorian Council of Churches, while not necessarily giving blanket support for same-sex marriage has certainly distanced itself from the obsessive homophobia of the Australian Christian Lobby and their ilk.

In Queensland the Very Reverend Peter Catt, the Dean of St John’s Cathedral heads, A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia), set up to provide an alternative to the unrepresentative hate-based agenda of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Similarly, Blackwood Uniting Church minister, Leanne Jenski (with her partner, Rev. Susan Wickham) formed the Christians For Gay Marriage lobby group noting, “Be assured there are many Christians out there who stand in solidarity with us.”

Also to be lauded is Christians 4 Equality. Among others, this group includes broadcaster, Exodus Foundation founder and Ashfield Uniting Church minister Bill Crews and Rowland Croucher of John Mark Ministries, one of the most influential Baptists in Australia.

Standing against the ACL’s homophobic position on gay marriage, Crews wrote:

“Today in Australia we all live in a secular non-discriminatory society. Gay couples should be as free to marry as any other human couple. If people wish to be married within a religious or spiritual institution’s framework then they should accept the rites and rules of that institution. However it is the state that legitimises all marriages.”

Similarly, Croucher says:

“How can I, a heterosexual who’s been very happily married for 50 years, tell anyone else they don’t have the right to form a loving, committed, lifelong union and enjoy the fruits of marriage as I have done? Marriage is not a club to be restricted to some – like the Gospel, it is a blessing to be shared.”

Amen! – or Ramen! – whatever floats your boat!

Chrys Stevenson

Voluntary Euthanasia and the NSW election

Dying with Dignity NSW – Pollies Register: A searchable survey on the position of sitting members and candidates for the forthcoming NSW election on voluntary euthanasia/assisted dying.

DWD Right to Choose

The NSW state election is to be held on 28 March 2015.

There are many issues which impact on a voter’s decision to back one political candidate over another. But, at the heart of any decision we need to ask, “Will this candidate accurately represent the needs and wants of their electorate?”

Being a political representative is not about getting into parliament to advance your own particular interests and ideology. It is about being a voice for the people you represent.

No! That doesn’t mean politicians have to ‘give in’ to populism.  It’s give and take. If a politician sees that his or her constituents have based their opinions on misinformation or are lacking vital information there is certainly a need  to exercise leadership skills by informing and persuading  them towards an alternative viewpoint.   But, to do this, a politician should act honestly in presenting well-researched data and evidence from mainstream, credible sources – even if that evidence does not support their own prejudices and preconceptions.

This is the mark of that rare beast, an honest politician.

One way in which a politician’s commitment to honest and fair representation can be measured is by their answer to the question, “Should terminally ill patients be able to end their lives with medical assistance?”

A recent survey of NSW residents by the ABC’s Vote Compass found a total of 72 per cent agreed (either ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’) with this proposition, compared with only 16 per cent who did not.

Substantially more than 50 per cent of Greens, Labor and LNP voters supported legalising voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill. And yet, when the issue was last put to the NSW Parliament, not one LNP candidate voted in favour. Not one. How representative is that?

Further, Vote Compass found that 68 per cent of NSW Catholics (somewhat or strongly) support voluntary euthanasia. That’s right! The Catholic Church does not even represent its own constituency on this issue.

The figures are nearly identical for those who identify as Protestants.

The voters of NSW want voluntary euthanasia legislation and there is no good reason they should not have it.

Ideological objections aside, there is simply no reason for this legislation not to be introduced. VE or assisted dying are already legal in 13 countries and jurisdictions around the world. The practices are well-tested, incredibly well researched and scrupulously monitored. Not only is it proven safe, but credible research shows that where VE is legal, the rate of euthanasia performed without the specific consent of the patient tends to fall (not rise, as is often claimed by its critics).

DWD Graph

Source: YourLastRight based on official Dutch and Belgian statistics.

In Australia, voluntary euthanasia is already practiced routinely in hospitals and nursing homes throughout the country, despite it being, technically, illegal.

Here, having your end-of-life wishes respected is a matter of happening upon a sympathetic medical practitioner who is willing to negotiate the loopholes in the law which allow them to end your life without spending the rest of theirs in prison.  It’s a crap shoot. That’s not how our health care system should operate!

Legalising euthanasia in NSW (or elsewhere) won’t make it any more or less prevalent. It will, however, bring it under the control of the government, make it transparent, introduce rigorous monitoring systems and ensure those patients who wish to avail themselves of it can, and those who do not have that clearly documented. It is about choice not imposition or coercion.

There is no evidence, anywhere in the world, that legalising voluntary euthanasia results in anyone being euthanized without their prior consent or for very, very good reason.  While it is true that consent may not always be possible at the point at which the medication is administered, the consent of the family (in consultation with a medical team) is obtained in a vast majority of cases. Those few cases where consent has not been obtained are properly documented and explained to the satisfaction of the relevant authorities. Legalising the practice makes it transparent.

When Cate Faehrmann MLC presented her Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill to the NSW Parliament in May 2013, it was defeated after an outrageous but determined campaign of propaganda and misinformation by the religious right and operatives representing the Catholic Church’s shadowy Opus Dei.

I contend that, ultimately, the bill was defeated by cowardice and laziness:  NSW politicians were either too scared to represent the views of their constituents on this issue for fear of losing ‘the religious vote’ or they were too lazy to seek out accurate, credible, mainstream research and evidence on legalised voluntary euthanasia.

The people of NSW do not deserve a Parliament which does not represent their wishes. They do not deserve politicians who won’t do independent research. They don’t deserve politicians who are in politics to advance their own religious and ideological views. Nor do the people of NSW deserve politicians who are too frightened to stand up against churches, their party or other vested interests to deliver legislation which the vast majority of the electorate (Protestant, Christian and ‘nones’) support.

But, how do you know which politician you can rely on?

Dying with Dignity NSW has put a huge amount of time and effort into making the task easy. Over the last eight months, members of DWD NSW have been writing to sitting MPs, asking for their view on legalising voluntary assisted dying. Since the candidates contesting the forthcoming NSW election were announced, they have also been approached and asked to share their views.

As a result of this work, DWD NSW has compiled a Polies Register, which sets out the responses of Lower House candidates for the 28 March NSW election.

Here, you can easily check to see the views of your local member and candidates and factor this in to your voting decision.

If you are a supporter of voluntary euthanasia, may I suggest you contact your local member and candidates, let them know you have viewed the DWD NSW register and tell them that, while it may not be the only issue influencing your vote, it is an important indicator of how well they will represent the views of your electorate. You might also point them towards the Vote Compass research.

If you’re a NSW voter, please share the link to the Pollies Register with your own networks through Facebook, Twitter, etc. or on your own blog.

If you are in contact with people who are centres of influence in the NSW community, please let them know about the register and ask them to share it too.

Voluntary euthanasia needs to become a ‘hot topic’ in future elections. We are all going to die and it is in everyone’s interest to have the best death possible – for them.

For some, this means eking life out to the very end. For others (like me) it means being able to choose when to make a graceful exit.

If your political representative will not support your right to die with dignity – for you to make your own end-of-life decisions rather than have them imposed upon you by someone else’s religious views or ideology – how will they represent you fairly on other issues?

Their stance on this issue is a good indication of what kind of representative they will make in general, I think.

Dying with Dignity NSW – PolliesRegister: A searchable survey on the position of sitting members and candidates for the forthcoming NSW election on voluntary euthanasia/assisted dying.

Chrys Stevenson

Related Content:

Dr Catherine Lennon – Any Means to a Moral End?

Dr Catherine Lennon, Doctors for the Family – NSW Hansard

Related Links:

Dying with Dignity NSW

Voluntary Euthanasia Party




Richard Dawkins – An Aquired Taste?


I’d never heard of Richard Dawkins until the release of his 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion. Around the same time, I’d been reading about Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation (which I still think is the best book of the three). Until then, despite a lifelong interest in critical texts on religion, I had never given ‘atheism’ much thought.

When an elderly aunt gave me $60 for Christmas in 2006 and told me to ‘buy books’ I purchased Dawkins’ and both the Harris books and took them with me on holiday.

By the time I read all three I remember feeling like I’d been hit by a lightning bolt.

“Shit!” I thought, “I’m an atheist! Who knew?”

This revelation was quickly followed by the discomfiting realisation that, if I was an atheist, I was, by definition, not a Christian.

It’s true that, apart from a brief period in my teens, I’ve never been a practicing Christian. My father was an atheist, my mother and grandmother both spiritualists. I tended more towards spiritualism but was never dogmatic nor wholly convinced.  But, if presented with a Census form and a question about religion I would have ticked ‘Anglican’ without a second thought. I was a ‘cultural Christian’.

Telling people I was an atheist was not particularly difficult. But, the first time I said, “I’m not a Christian” it did feel rather momentous – like a statement in need of a fanfare or a drum roll! It felt a little like the repudiation, not of God, but of my cultural roots. Still, eh bien, cultural schmultural, I cast off my Christian pretensions and haven’t missed them since.

Dawkins and Harris made me realise I’d been an atheist for quite a long time – a university education will do that to you – but I’d never put a ‘name’ to my growing conviction there was no God. They didn’t make me an atheist; they just put a name to it.

At that time, I was still holding on to some remnants of my spiritualist upbringing. For some time after, I resigned myself to being an atheist who believed in reincarnation. I really struggled to let go of the thought that, one day, I’d see my Dad again. But, as I read more widely and connected with a community of fellow atheists on the internet, I gradually let that comforting belief fizzle out; importantly, in my own good time.

In 2008 I joined an online community called Atheist Nexus. Soon after, I was invited to Skype into a conference in the USA at which Richard Dawkins was the key-note speaker. Coincidentally, at the time I skyped in, Dawkins was nearby signing books. I’d become rather a big fan of Dawkins so I was rather taken aback when I saw and overheard the following conversation:

Enthusiastic conference-goer (with copy of The God Delusion in hand): Mr Dawkins, I loved your book. Would you please sign it “To Harry …”

Dawkins (grumpily): I’m not signing names. If I sign names I’ll be here all day!

Not particularly gracious considering these were the people who had brought him international fame and fortune!

‘Grumpy Dawkins’  later become immortalised in an interview with Andrew Denton on ABC TV’s ‘Elders’.

(Part 3 – Part 1 and Part 2 available online)

Still, I reasoned, why should Dawkins be likeable? He isn’t a pop star or an actor or even a politician. He is a scientist, not a celebrity. Why shouldn’t we expect him to be as rude and irascible as any other ordinary human being? After all, that’s what he is – an ordinary human being with some extraordinary talents!

At that point I put away any ‘fan-girl’ feelings I may have had for Dawkins but remained grateful for the part his book played in my ‘atheist awakening’ and on-going scientific education.

In 2010 Dawkins attended the Global Atheist Convention. There had been a huge mix up in booking him resulting in the rather comical scenario of the (then) president of the AFA calling me at home and asking if I had a contact number for Richard Dawkins. I had a pretty good contact network by then, but Richard Dawkins? No, Dick and I hadn’t swapped home numbers, as it happened. Still, against all odds, I managed to find a phone number and Dawkins generously agreed to fly to Melbourne for one day in order to appear at GAC.

Yes, he was paid, but it was an extraordinarily generous thing to do seeing as someone (I never found out who) had seriously mucked up. He earned a few brownie points for that.

At the GAC, I heard a rumour (which I won’t repeat here) which put Dawkins’ later ‘Dear Muslima‘ comments in context (comments for which he has, subsequently apologised).

I began to realise that as enlightened as he was about religion, Dawkins’ views on women and feminism were verging on the antediluvian.

Again, I had to ask myself, “What did you expect of a man of his generation and class?”

By then (and certainly subsequently) we had plenty of evidence to suggest that being an atheist does not necessarily make someone a feminist, or a skeptic, or even a half-decent human-being. The biggest question was, “Why were we surprised?”

Richard Dawkins is not the Nelson Mandela of atheism – and why should we expect him to be? Even great heroes like Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy were badly flawed as people. Does that negate their key messages or the benefit their genius brought to the world?

Why do we have to deify great men? (Funny, we rarely seem to deify great women, do we?)

If, as a community, we are ‘over’ Dawkins, is it because we built him up to be something he never was and then rushed to burn him at the stake when he failed to meet our impossible expectations?

Atheism has moved on since 2006, and I think it’s true to say the atheist community has, largely, moved on from Dawkins. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think even Dawkins would agree we should be encouraging a new generation of young speakers and thinkers to carry the movement on – while not forgetting our ‘elders’ entirely.

Dawkins has, unwisely to my mind, become involved in some unbecoming online stoushes and rather tarnished his ‘brand’. I expect he doesn’t give a shit about his brand and, you know, that’s OK too. But, there’s quite a lot of chatter on Facebook and Twitter which suggests he is no longer the drawcard he once was.

In some respects, I think Dawkins has been unfairly treated – his words taken out of context, his intentions misinterpreted. On the other hand, I think he probably deserves some of the vitriol now directed towards him from the international community he helped to create.

I don’t pretend to know Richard Dawkins at all, but the few little insights I’ve had into the man suggest he’s not particularly likeable – nor particularly concerned about being likeable. He is the epitomy of the privileged, middle-aged, white Caucasian male and we were, perhaps, a little (perhaps a lot) naive to build up expectations that he would, or could be, anything else.

It is profoundly obvious from the Denton interview (particularly the third video) that Dawkins is excruciatingly uncomfortable talking about himself. At that time, at least, he could see no reason why anyone should have any interest in him personally; he prickled at the intrusion into his private thoughts.

None of which takes away from Dawkins’ brilliance as a leading evolutionary biologist, his important work in popularising and defending evolutionary theory or his role in creating a vibrant, growing, politically engaged international community of atheists.

If it weren’t for Dawkins, I doubt atheists would, today, be enjoying the books and blogs of those who followed in his wake, including this blog.

As we castigate Dawkins for his flaws, we should equally acknowledge his contribution.

Dawkins has recently published the first instalment of his autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. 

It’s probably no surprise that the book’s reception has been mixed. Criticised for its ‘indulgent superiority’it’s also been described as ‘warm and generous’. It’s very possible – given Dawkins is a somewhat complex chap – the book displays a bit of both.

You don’t have to be a fan of Dawkins-the-man to acknowledge and respect the importance of Dawkins-the-writer-and-scientist. And I’m excited about getting more of an insight into what shaped Dawkins – for good and for bad.

That’s why, when I heard the Atheist Foundation of Australia was hosting a series of interviews between Richard Dawkins and my friend, bio-ethicist, Leslie Cannold, I happily stumped up the money for a ticket. I should disclose that, subsequently, the AFA generously offered to provide me with a complimentary ticket. There were ‘no strings attached’, but I thought I should write about Dawkins’ forthcoming Australian tour and respond to those who sniffed rather grandly when I mentioned I was going that they ‘didn’t like the man’. I hope this post makes it evident that this is no ‘paid political announcement’.

Whatever one thinks of him, Dawkins is an important scientist and an infuential public intellectual. I don’t have to like him to want to hear what he has to say, and I can think of no-one better to interview him than the fabulously smart and savvy Leslie Cannold.

I’ll be going to hear Dawkins speak in Brisbane on 1 December and I’m sure I’ll come away with some new insights on science, religion and on Dawkins himself. Like him or not, Dawkins is a historic and iconic figure in the global atheist movement and we owe a debt of gratitude to the AFA for bringing us speakers and thinkers of this calbre.

I think his tour deserves our support.

Chrys Stevenson

ACL the ‘Embarrassing Uncle’ at the Canberra Hyatt’s Party

Sir_Les_Patterson_Allegro3You know the old trope of the embarrassing uncle? The blathering black sheep of the family who insists on turning up at family gatherings? That ghastly, politically incorrect bigot who inevitably embarrasses himself with his anti-social behaviour and ruins the party for everyone else?

I just can’t help envisaging the Australian Christian Lobby as a Sir-Les-Pattersonesque mad uncle who has just rolled up at a party hosted by the very classy Canberra Hyatt – trashing, through association, the Hyatt’s otherwise-stellar reputation.

About now, I imagine, the management team at the Canberra Hyatt are wishing they’d shut all the doors and windows and just pretended they weren’t home when mad uncle Lyle Shelton and his despicable band of bigots came knocking.

Instead, the Hyatt agreed to host the Australian Christian Lobby’s annual conference this weekend – inconveniently forgetting their own pro-gay policy which stands in stark contrast to the obsessive bigotry and bastardry of the ACL.

Should anyone be in doubt that the Australian Christian Lobby exists, primarily, as an anti-gay hate group, consider this graph, compiled by Jacob Holman in 2012:

ACL Graph

Now, as a general principle, I would not object to a commercial venue accepting a booking from the Australian Christian Lobby. As the Hyatt has, rightfully, pointed out, the ACL is not involved in illegal activity and venues can hardly be expected to vet every client to assess whether their ‘values’ are in line with those of the managers and/or proprietors.

In a former life I was the Queensland manager of a large international hotel chain. I certainly wouldn’t have expected my hoteliers to refuse bookings for accommodation or conferences on the basis that the client’s views conflicted with their own. And I certainly understand that hosting an event for profit does not imply the venue endorses the views of its client.

But, I think there are some circumstances where a venue may be well-advised to steer clear of a business relationship with a controversial individual or group. I would not, for example, want the brand of my accommodation house tainted by association with a group which was clearly racist (e.g. Stormfront or Restore Australia) or one whose efforts endangered lives – the Australian Vaccination Sceptics Network springs readily to mind here.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that homophobia is analagous to racism and that the high rate of LGBTI suicide – particularly among youth – is directly linked to a toxic, anti-gay culture fuelled by the likes of the ACL. The ACL functions to make homophobia respectable just as America’s Southern Baptist Convention once functioned to make racism seem part of God’s loving plan.

I don’t want to be inconsistent or hypocritical here. When The Grand Hotel in Mildura cancelled Catherine Deveny’s accommodation booking after she made some controversial comments about ANZAC Day, I objected on the grounds that it was none of the Grand’s damned business what opinions their guests might have.

“Apparently, it’s a new policy being tried out – guests’ political and social opinions must conform with management’s before a booking can be honoured,” I wrote.

“What’s next, party political hotels? The Quality Hotel Mildura LNP Grand? The Tullamarine Airport Greens Hotel? The Laverton Labor Inn?

Those clever bunnies at Quality are set to revolutionise the hotel industry! Just watch! Next we can segregate based on religion and race too. What fun!”

The ACL/Hyatt situation is, I think, rather different.

Increasingly, businesses like the Hyatt find their brands are strengthened by embracing positive values like diversity, equality and inclusiveness. Yes, it’s all very warm and fuzzy and good-corporate-citizenish for the Hyatt to publicly endorse human rights, marriage equality and oppose the bullying of LGBTI youth. But, it’s also good business. It’s a stance designed to make guests feel more warm and fuzzy about staying in Hyatt Hotels or holding corporate events at these venues. It’s hard to say that the Hyatt exploits the goodwill of the LGBTI community for fun and profit without sounding ungrateful for their support. But, ultimately, companies which support LGBTI rights are doing so, at least in part, because the goodwill of the LGBTI community and the vast majority of straight people who support their aims is good for the bottom line. And there’s nothing wrong in that! It’s a win-win situation.

Where things went pear-shaped with the Hyatt Canberra is that, while ‘exploiting’ their pro-gay credentials on the one hand, the hotel accepted a conference booking from Australia’s most high-profile, virulent, anti-gay lobby group – effectively assisting them to spread their malicious misinformation and blokey bigotry and lending the conference the cachet of the Hyatt’s name.

Had the Hyatt taken no position on LGBTI issues, I would have had no issue with them hosting the conference. I might have thought it was a dumb business decision, but I wouldn’t have protested against it. What has inspired me to take fingertip to keyboard in this case is the hypocrisy of the Hyatt taking a public (and profitable) pro-gay stance and then making money by hosting a group which devotes the vast majority of its considerable resources to opposing gay rights and pumping outrageously false anti-gay propaganda into the public square. That’s what differentiates this situation from that of Deveny and the Grand Hotel, Mildura.

Now the Hyatt has been educated about the fuck-wittery of these fundamentalist fools, they have been thrown into major damage control. But it’s too late to uninvite mad-uncle Lyle and his sorry band of sodomy-obsessed side-kicks. However, my friend, Troy Simpson has taken a calm and level-headed approach to the issue and, today, spoke directly with the folk at the Hyatt. Troy reports:

“Initially, the Hyatt faced a barrage of online messages calling for the Hyatt to cancel the ACL’s booking. But, today, the Hyatt has reached out to the LGBT community in three positive ways.

First, the LGBT community will be holding its own event at the Hyatt at 6.00pm this Friday: the Australian People’s Lobby Party. The Party will be an opportunity for the LGBT community to support and affirm one another, provide an opportunity for the Hyatt to reaffirm its commitment to the LGBT community, and provide public faces to the people whose rights and dignity the ACL wish to deny.

Second, the LGBT will urgently contact Rodney Croome and Ivan Hinton of Australian Marriage Equality (AME) to see what the Hyatt can offer the AME cause, such as donating a getaway at a Hyatt venue as a prize for an AME fundraiser.

Third, and most significantly, tonight the Hyatt will speak with head office in Chicago about issuing a statement that unambiguously reaffirms the Hyatt’s commitment to the LGBT community and suggesting that, next year, the ACL might find a different venue that better matches the ACL’s own “values”.”

The remarkable result is that, while the ACL will get to have their conference at the Hyatt, they come out of this looking like the massive embarrassment they are. They will be the embarrassing uncle at the Canberra Hyatt’s party. They will be tolerated rather than welcomed. They will be treated respectfully and courteously but they will clearly be there under duress – and there will be a huge, collective sigh of relief when they’re gone. What’s more, it seems their conference will, ironically, work to further the cause of marriage equality.

So, in the end, it’s a good outcome, But I expect, next year, when the ACL comes knocking at the Hyatt’s (or any other respectable event venue’s) door they may find the pervading stench of their presence acts as a powerful deterrent against anyone accepting their booking. The price of any kind of association with the ACL is increasingly not worth the stain it leaves on the corporate brand. It seems those embarrassing uncle types never stagger out the door without leaving behind a nasty stain on the carpet – and homophobia is such a disgusting and difficult stain to shift.

Chrys Stevenson