by Dick Gross
April 16th, 2012
via National Times
The Global Atheist Convention has been run and won and the results were reasonably splendid. Considered to be one of the largest congregations of atheists in the world, it was in a sense a seminal moment.
The place was packed to the gunwales, with 4000 paying $400 to attend. The overwhelming impression was the youth of the audience. Battalions of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed twentysomethings crowded the place, queueing breathlessly for the signatures of the new deities.
While 4000 people are dwarfed by Hillsong Church’s claimed audience in Sydney of 20,000 every weekend, it is still an achievement, given the cost and the time demanded. This vibrant crowd, like that of the Hillsong devotees, showed that the young are still excited by existential ideas and discussions.
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This flies in the face of the stereotypical image of an atheist – a retired, elderly man with a bushy beard, appalling clothes sense and dubious personal hygiene. This audience was young and vibrant. The ambience was, accordingly, devoid of the usual ennui, pessimism and time-worn impatience. Who’d have thought it? And the pejorative image of atheism as dusty and dull was utterly repudiated. It was a weekend of laughs. For the atheist community, it was an important morale booster, demonstrating that we can have jamborees that are stimulating – even if we don’t sing and dance like some faiths.
What gave the frisson to the conference was the presence of the heroes of atheism. Richard Dawkins, Geoffrey Robertson, Daniel Dennett, AC Grayling, PZ Myers, Ben Elton and the simply amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali are huge international attractions and there was a palpable air of enchantment buzzing through the place. Dickie Dawkins gave a clever but unremarkable address, and yet spontaneous outbursts of adulation pulsated from the crowd. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house. My more sober assessment is that his extraordinary intelligence is tempered by a seeming absence of a sense of humour.
Here are my edited highlights.
In the absence of liturgy and ritual, what do atheists have other than interminable speeches? Well, at this global confab we had stand-up comedians. A third of the contributors were stand-ups. It was as if the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which is on now, had coughed up some underutilised performers to double-gig at the Atheists’ Love-In. They were often hilarious and only occasionally misogynist. I am always in awe at the courage and narrative skills of stand up comedians. The one difficulty is that the overwhelming comic device was to bash those of faith as universally stupid, paedophile dress-wearers … and did I mention, stupid. The stand-up comedians were tremendous but lent, at times, a one-dimensional ambience.
The star in my view was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A former Muslim who has been genitally mutilated, she has been the subject of numerous threats and fatwas for opposition to Islam and now lives in the United States under permanent guard. She analysed the Arab Spring of 2011 and found that despite the failure of North Africa to embrace democracy universally and the pre-eminence of the Muslim Brotherhood in those few elections that have been held, there is hope in a growing secular movement and the influence of diaspora communities. She was scathing of Iran and warned that the nuclear issue is real and dangerous. This warning was reiterated by Geoffrey Robertson, who documented the enormous and under-reported killing of atheists and religious minorities in Iran. Both challenged the atheists to do more on Islamic abuses when we are often the victims and when the heavy lifting is being done by those of Christian and Jewish faith.
Daniel Dennett is almost as popular with the intellectual twentysomethings as the boy band One Direction is with prepubescent girls. Before you ask “Daniel who?”, let me assure you he is an international star of atheism. It was a joy to see lines of young people queue for an autograph or photo. It was less of a joy to observe that no one queued for my autograph on my book, but I’ll put that debilitating humiliation to one side. It is a phenomenon I am sadly growing used to. Daniel is an analytic philosopher with a Father Christmas look and beard. He is one of the famous “Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse of Atheism”, with Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. He analysed the level of unbelief in the clergy, arguing that belief in the old faiths is so sclerotic that unbelief reaches into the high echelons of faith, but that ministers are too comfortable to confess this.
The scientists, Dawkins and the breathtaking physicist Lawrence M Krauss did not pussyfoot around when it came to the meaning and purpose of life. There is none in the scientific and atheistic world view. While the godly have the purpose of serving God, and extract meaning from being part of God’s plan, this ontological consolation is not available to those of no belief.
What do we make of a life devoid of purpose? Those at the conference were not apparently discomfited and welcomed a view where the meaning of life was simply life itself, which expired upon death. How you react to this depends on each individual’s response. Some see this as forbidding prospect but those at the conference did not. What is your view on meaning?
One cannot leave this conference without alluding to the response of the extremes of faith. Before the conference I was informed that I would be sent a newspaper, which I duly received. Prayers were said to save the souls of the speakers. At the conference, both Christian and Muslim groups demonstrated, expressing their shared conviction that we were all going to spend an eternity rotting in hell.
This common bonding seemed to be our contribution to world peace. It made our day to deserve such attention and to be such a threat to God that he was going to torture us until the end of time.
You can’t beat the theatre of a threat of eternal damnation. It was the final inspiring touch to one of the world’s biggest godless conferences.