What I Learned at the Global Atheist Convention

In honor of Zombie Jesus Day:

What I Learned at the Global Atheist Convention

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.
It was held over a weekend at Melbourne’s Exhibition and Convention Centre and included a line up of international and Australian speakers including Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Peter Singer, AC Grayling and Dan Barker.

Although a couple of the talks were a tad simplistic and overly reliant on bad Powerpoint clip art, the vast majority were informative and entertaining.

Some of my favorite presentations included philosopher Peter Singer talking about systems of morality without god, PZ Myers on the clash between religion and science, Taslima Nasrin on being forced into exile because of her opposition to the Islamic view of women, and Richard Dawkins on the improbability of being born.  

Dawkins is sometimes unfairly criticised as trying to remove the sense of wonder from life.  His talk showed that his arguments are about the exact opposite of that.
“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”
Obviously the words of a bitter, life-hating reductionist.

There were funny presentations by Phillip Adams, Robyn Williams, Jamie Kilstein, Sue-Ann Post, Leslie Cannold and Catherine Deveny.  Many speakers commented on how religion was holding back women’s rights, medical research, scientific research and education.  There was also a lot of discussion about the separation between church and state and the inappropriateness of state funding of religious activities.
I didn’t attend the Saturday night dinner, but I heard that the Chaser team did a fun presentation.

You can listen to a few of the keynote speeches at one of the ABC web sites.

Although Richard Dawkins was the star attraction of the convention it was probably Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin who got the loudest standing ovation.  It’s one thing discussing the wonders of science and how it’s inappropriate to teach demonstrably false agendas such as creationism in schools and another to talk about how you can’t visit your home country because people are trying to kill you because of what you’ve written.

The attendees were a mixture of old and young but at times it did feel a bit like being at a science fiction convention (not that that’s a bad thing).  There were a lot of bearded middle-aged white men.  At least one of the speakers was a science fiction writer and one of the best-selling books at the convention was a collection of essays, including a few by science fiction writers.
The other generalisaton I could make about the crowd is that atheists like buying books.  Many of the speakers’ books sold out and I had to wait more than an hour to get Richard Dawkins’ signature.

Quite a few of the speakers made the point that it was nice not to be in the minority for once.  That’s something that hasn’t worried me in the past.  Many of my friends are science fiction fans and/or computer programmers and/or Asian and religious beliefs aren’t that common in many of my social circles.

For me it was also interesting to notice the use of Twitter during the convention.  I hadn’t found Twitter that useful in the past.  It seemed a lot of the information available revolved around user’s breakfast habits.  The friend I went with to the convention had Twitter on his iPhone and it was interesting to note the comments of members of the audience as they reacted to and discussed the speakers as they made their presentations.

Most presentations allowed time for questions at the end.  Although there were some interesting questions, there were also a lot of people who despite repeated prompting had trouble asking a question rather than wanting to share their own opinion with everyone.

Most communities have arguments that are endlessly trotted out and just aren’t that interesting.  In science fiction it’s discussions of the difference between science fiction and fantasy, in computing fields it’s arguments about whether Windows or Macintosh is better.  In discussions of atheism, it’s the question of the difference between atheism and agnosticism and why people think either position is the only valid one.  A few members of the audience raised these familiar questions and one of the speakers spent a lot of his talk covering the topic.  It basically boils down to how you define the words.

Some of the criticism in the media directed at the convention was that it was strange to hold a conference based on a negative concept – a lack of belief in god.  But that ignores the existence of other organisations founded on negative concepts – the society for prevention for cruelty to animals for example.

Why have the convention?  What was the purpose of it?
It wasn’t designed to convert people to atheism.  Although there were a few Christians in the audience, the vast majority of attendees seemed to be non-believers.  For me, the convention was simply a great opportunity to hear some smart and funny speakers.  In that way it was similar to Melbourne’s Writer’s Festival.
Others used the convention in a more practical way for networking.

The conference generated quite a bit of coverage in the Australian press.

The best article I saw was the Australian’s summary of the conference.

By far the dumbest and nonsensical response came from former footballer Gary Ablett.

The convention was sold out well in advance.  Although the convention was the largest ever event of its kind in Australia (and probably the world), the audience (2500) was small compared to the attendance at a Hillsong church event for example.  It was surprising to see how personally threatened by the convention many Christian commentators seemed to be.

Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney used his Easter speech to attack atheists and called them “believers who hate God.”

To define atheism as just another religion is a sad way of viewing the world.  The YouTube comedian NonStamp Collector makes the point that if atheism is a form of religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby and off is a TV channel.

Some of the commentators on the Radio National blog criticised atheism as being arrogant and went on to say:
“It’s easy to describe the Convention culture en bloc as crude, naïve, and aggressive. That’s what it was often like, from the opening night when it first framed religion as comedy and first represented itself as unfairly denied government funding.”

Some of the Radio National people seemed to take particular offense at the presence of comedians at the conference.
“Comedians, while good for boosting ticket sales, are as inappropriate at an atheist conference as they would be at a science conference. The organisers’ failure to recognise this basic point suggests that many take comfort from sneering at those who disagree with them. Comedians, who are paid to outrage rather than inform, are unhelpful when pragmatism is sorely needed.”

The fact that they’re afraid of comedians says something about their world view.
Comedy is one of the most effective ways of making your point.

I’m a big fan of Bill Hicks’ brand of comedy.

While some speakers such as broadcaster Phillip Adams urged attendees to be respectful of religious people and pointed out the good works done by religious charities, American biologist PZ Myers had this to say about the Christian apologists attending the convention:
“They’ve got an agenda that is going to be disappointed, and I predict they will continue to complain in their oblivious fashion. They’re out there in the audience, watching, hoping, and maybe even praying that someone will say something nice about their superstitions; their definition of a good convention is one that reassures them that we don’t think their bliss-ninny belief system is an unsalvageable stew of raw sewage spiced with smug ignorance.”


Perhaps the most relevant point was made by NonStamp collector – “If you don’t want people to laugh at your beliefs, then don’t have stupid beliefs.”

I’m a fan of H.L. Mencken and I like his quote on the subject:
“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children are smart.”

British writer Philip Pullman was recently asked if he was worried that his new book would offend Christians and gave this elegant response.

“But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. “

Richard Dawkins in particular is often characterised by his opponents as being strident, militant and outspoken.  Jane Caro pointed out the similarities with the characterisations of feminists who are often dismissed as being “militant”.  If you can’t find any fault with someone’s argument (and it’s hard to argue against the equal treatment of women) then criticise the person themselves or their manner of delivery.

What I Learned at the Global Atheist Convention (absorbed from various speakers at the convention):

God loves newts more than he loves human amputees.

Every time a gay couple adopts a child, a terrorist gets his wings.

If you consider all of the genocides that have taken place, God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.

It makes you wonder when you visit a church that has an old sign with peeling paint and the sign reads: Jesus is coming soon.

The meaning of life is to do something more than consume products and produce garbage.  To try and reduce the suffering of others.

Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

The Church of the Smiling Vagina sounds a lot more inviting than any other religion I’ve encountered (with the possible exception of congregational hedonism).

Human morality evolved to deal with small kin groups and encourages us to help our family and those close to us.  But our evolved responses also include the fear of strangers and those different from us and mean we have trouble empathising with people in distant countries.

If male Islamic suicide bombers are promised eternal life in the gardens of paradise with 72 virgins to play with, what happens to unmarried female suicide bombers?  They get to tend the gardens of paradise.

Ontogeny doesn’t recapitulate phylogeny.

The shape of the banana is the best proof for God’s existence.

God can’t speak Bengali.

The best definition of a new atheist is one the church no longer has the power to burn alive.

After you die, your pets will be given the power of speech and called as witnesses when you are judged by God.

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4 comments on “What I Learned at the Global Atheist Convention
  1. Brendan Carson says:

    Serious question here – how do you reconcile this kind of stuff with your experience of meeting Christians who, at time of writing, have not attempted to burn you alive, or show you photos of the seventy two virgins?

    I know the fire alarms at Clarion went off a couple of times, but it wasn’t me.


  2. Aidan says:

    I’ve got no problems with Christians or followers of any other religious persuasion as people (Well I might have doubts about Cthulhu worshippers).

    My uncle whom I have great respect and admiration for is a Catholic priest in small-town America. I’ve never seen anyone as admired and popular in their own community.
    I have plenty of friends of various religious persuasions, your good self included.

    As we’ve discussed before, the majority of people, religious or otherwise are good people. We might disagree over where to place the edges of what we view as the unpleasant extremes.

    Organised religion itself (as opposed to religious people) is what I don’t like. The behaviour of the Catholic church at the moment is an example of that.

    I am interested in religions and mythology from their storytelling point of view. I did philosophy of religion at university and I’ve been to Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings and taught English to Buddhist priests.

    Buddhism I have mixed feelings about. Some people would argue it’s not even a religion.
    There are plenty of admirable ideas in Buddhism, but there are still dubious practices (usually linked to ways of making money) and evangelical cult-like Buddhist groups like SGI.

    Of course I respect the right for people to join whatever religious group they please. (And religious groups do provide good work through their charities and fostering sense of community and so on. I think on average they do more harm than good though). But I also reserve the right to make fun of said religious groups as well.
    I don’t think certain topics should be designated as off-limits to humor.

    You know you want to admit it was you that set off the fire alarms. Confess and you shall be absolved.

  3. Brendan Carson says:

    That is reassuring, and it is what I suspected – it didn’t quite come across as well in the first post. I do suspect that a lot of what we believe we believe in common – organised religion, the rule that humour always has right of way, that kind of thing.

    My own feeling about the New Atheism is that it’s better than the New Romantics, New Age or New Cuisine, but probably not up there with the New Adventures of Queen Victoria, the New York Times or the New World primates. The fact is, a lot of what it says is a true, and a lot of the criticisms are well founded.

    Seriously, a lot of what you say is what we’ve been saying since the 1830s. It would probably surprise you how much.

    Organised religion, like the afterlife, like atonement, like a God who punishes sex, like so much else we have inherited, maybe served a purpose at some stage in history, but it’s difficult to imagine it serving any purpose for us now.

    Anyhow, drop in next time you’re in Adelaide – even in fire ban season.


  4. Aidan says:


    When the New Atheists round up the religious folk and send them off to the concentration camps, I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you.

    I haven’t read that much steampunk, so I’ve missed out on the New Adventures of Queen Victoria.

    But I have read some of Robert Ingersoll’s works from the 1870s, which I thoroughly enjoyed. He covered much of the New Atheist material back then.

    The New Atheism is only new in that it has got a lot more attention in recent years, probably because of a reaction against religious bigotry as represented by George W. Bush, the September 11th attacks and the moral collapse of the Catholic church.

    Are you coming to Melbourne for WorldCon?

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