Apr 18 2012

"Why would you want to go to a convention about that?"

I've been hearing this question a lot recently. The event was the 2012 Global Atheist Convention and I'm an atheist, so one would think the question has a simple answer. However, it's clear that many people (perhaps including you?) are genuinely baffled as to why someone would care enough to go, and what on earth we'd talk about while we were there.

This is my attempt to answer the questions I've received. Now that it's over, my answers are based on what actually happened. I've tried to keep them as factual as possible, reserving my opinions for the footnotes, so skip those if you don't want an argument :)

"Why do you care so much about not believing?"

Why so serious?
Some might say us caring about not believing is simply an equal and opposed reaction to these guys. Why so serious?

This was a common question. Many people didn't see what there is to be passionate about. After all, how can you feel so strongly about what you don't believe in?

As it turns out, we do have something we believe. The convention tagline was "A Celebration of Reason". If you believe that the ability of humans to reason is a great thing, you would have been right at home [1]. If nothing else, it was great to spend time with people who you know use their minds rationally, and that you know care about doing so [2].

We didn't just gather for the camaraderie. The speaker lineup was so impressive that it had the attendees labelling the event "the Atheist Woodstock". I won't list them, as I'm assuming that a list of speaker names won't mean much to you - the only one you have probably heard of is Richard Dawkins. But for those of us who are "actively atheist", the lineup really was stellar.

So, good company and good content - two fine reasons to go to any convention. But what issues were on the attendees' minds? What did we talk about? What, in other words, had made us currently "care so much about not believing?"

Secularism

Loosely described as "the separation of church and state", Secularism was topical. "The separation of church and state" might sound a little confusing, so here's a simple explanation: It's the idea that the government of a country should not do anything that favours one religion over another. Note that it's not that the country should be free from religion - merely that anything the government does should not take sides.

This idea is supported by many, including many religious moderates. It's a "live and let live" policy towards people's religious beliefs, and I thoroughly support it. You could be Christian, your neighbours could be Muslim, and a secular country would mean you could both practice your faiths without fear that the government will take sides with your taxpayer dollars.

Secularism was discussed for two reasons. First, it's been noted for a while now that the first country in the world to have secularist principles embedded in its founding documents - USA - is highly religious. Various organisations fight a constant battle on such fronts as keeping prayer out of the classroom, or the ten commandments from being hung in government buildings [3].

Secondly, as the convention was in Melbourne, the school chaplaincy programme in Australia came in for a lot of criticism. The government allows each school to include half an hour per week of religious instruction, which may be carried out by any "well meaning volunteer" - i.e., not a teacher. It's "opt-out" - and children who are opted out by their parents end up sitting in hallways or in front of the principals office, not understanding why they're missing out. It was disappointing to attendees, given the Australian constitution includes wording that suggests Australia is meant to be secular. An aggravating factor is that Juila Gillard, an openly atheist prime minister, has apparently been bending over backwards to appease the religious by expanding the chaplaincy programme [4].

Morality

Busy times at the convention
With around 4,000 attendees, the place was full of happy, smiling heathens.

A common refrain from the religious is that "without god, how would you know what is right and wrong?". This question was hardly discussed by the attendees, and as we all seemed to get on like a house on fire without raping and pillaging, you would think the religious might be forced to conclude that they don't have as strong a question as they thought. A dry remark - "I know I haven't killed anyone for weeks" - by one of the speakers was the only coverage I noted of this question [5].

However, morality was a large theme. For many atheists, morality is largely tied to the wellbeing (and suffering) of life. As such, the point was well made that women have even more reason to be enraged at religion than men, given the way they're treated by religions. In Islam in particular, women are still treated dreadfully, if you define morality the way atheists do.

The Catholic Church came in for a heavy pasting over its position on homosexuality, its contribution to the spread of AIDS in Africa, attempts to lower the age at which children are Confirmed, and of course the disgusting scandal that is the child rapists in their midst, largely immune to the rule of law [6].

Heavy criticism was also levelled at liberals, who were accused of failing to stand up for human rights and free speech. Ayaan Hirsi Ali alleged that through a combination of political correctness, guilt and a romanticised view of Islam, liberals were failing to help Christians and other minorities in the Arab world, who are badly suffering. I suspect fear is involved too. Islam is the most dangerous religion to be an enemy of these days, as they can and do use violence to get their way. Richard Dawkins offered a powerful response for anyone threatened by them. "I am backing down because you have threatened me, but do not by any means think that I respect you. On the contrary, I despise you!".

Something From Nothing

A smaller, but significant, theme was the rebuttal of the classic religious argument "you can't get something from nothing", used to justify the existence of god. I wouldn't do the science justice trying to describe it to you, but it turns out that our traditional notion of "nothing" doesn't appear to exist. Even in a total vacuum, particles are popping in and out of existence all the time, and it turns out that "nothing" actually weighs something! Here's some reading material if this idea interests you.

Why People Believe

You gather a bunch of non-believers in a room. If they can't discuss what they believe, then what's the next question? Why other people believe, of course!

One of the best talks of the convention was about death. Sam Harris suggested that the religious are united in their fear death - they can't accept that one day, their consciousness will end [7]. Atheists however, accept this. Perhaps, he speculated, it's the one fundamental difference between us.

"Don't you just bash god for a few days?"

I hope you've seen by now that we discussed many things beyond the low hanging fruit of god. In fact, the god-bashing was largely left to the comedians on the first night. Perhaps that helped "get it out of our systems"? I know in my case, it was never "in" my system - I didn't want the convention to be all god-bashing, and it certainly wasn't.

The comedians had a field day with the topic. The religious probably find this boring, but as the comedians themselves pointed out, comedy is about speaking truth to power, pointing out the absurd - and religion is a fertile topic for rational minds to pick over. Personally, I didn't feel the comedy was required, but I still enjoyed it [8].

"Isn't it just like church but for atheists?"

Jin-oh Choi and I
Jin-oh Choi and I. The convention was great for making new, visible friends.

I don't think so. Remember, it was a convention. The last one was two years ago, and it cost money to attend. Church is weekly, and free. The religious have conferences; it would be fairer to compare this event to one of those.

It is true that we sat and listened to speakers, just like you'd do in a church. But then you'd do that at any other convention too. If this was just like church, then almost any other conference is just like church as well.


I hope you've not got a "feel" for what goes on at an atheist convention, what we talk about, and why we do it. It might not be your idea of a good time, but for a few days, four thousand of us had a blast, and I know I can't wait for the next one!

If you have a question about the convention, please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll be happy to answer. Civility is mandatory, thanks. This is my website, not yours.

[1]Note that I said "great". Most people readily say they feel the ability to reason is merely a "good" thing. Many at the convention, on the other hand, stronly believe that it's one of our finest attributes.
[2]Surely, you might think, most people use their minds rationally? You'd be right - almost everybody does, in many areas of their lives. However, a significant portion of the population have large blind spots in certain areas. It can be frustrating to talk to otherwise rational, smart human beings, who then profess a belief in something completely nonsensical. It can quite easily derail a conversation, and I've had to train myself to ignore such comments in the interests of civility.
[3]Their task is growing harder. The US supreme court is now dominated by Catholics who vote as a bloc.
[4]You might have expected for atheists to call for religious education to be expunged from the cirriculum entirely. In fact, many were calling for comparitave religious studies to be taught instead - i.e., teaching facts about all religions, done by trained teachers. I only partially agree. I think that such a topic would be a worthy part of Social Studies, but I don't see why it needs its own subject, unless it was strictly optional. I'd rather see critical thinking and ethics become subjects first...
[5]It's widely accepted by atheists that our morality comes from within us, and has been shaped by our evolution. If we didn't have it, we certainly wouldn't have made it as far as Mount Sinai.
[6]Some will say, "bashing the Catholics again, how dull". We keep doing it because it matters. Africans are still dying, children are still being raped, and the Catholic Church is one of the richest, most powerful organisations in the world. If we don't fight for their children, who will? "Moderate" catholics should be complaining the loudest, but of course they have the most to lose...
[7]You might not like this idea. To atheists, whether an idea is agreeable or not doesn't matter. We care more about what is true. While we don't know what it's like to be dead, we can speculate based on what we know. For example, as you damage a brain, it loses functionality - for example, you lose memories, or skills. We've seen no reason to believe, that if you damage a brain totally - killing it, in fact - that somehow part of you will depart your body, remembering your life and knowing how to speak English.
[8]It's the first time anyone has ever got me to laugh at a dead baby joke, which I won't repeat here. But I will assert that, if you have a rational mind, you would have laughed too, perhaps while cringing. Comedy does that sometimes.

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