“How many of you are happy?” asked one of the speakers, and almost the entirety of the 4,000-strong audience clapped, cheered, waved, or let out triumphant whoops. The speaker was P.Z. Myers, the famous biology professor behind the blog Pharyngula, and the crowd had gathered for the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which was held in Melbourne last weekend. And the atheists had every reason to be happy; between open buffets of fresh sushi and oysters they were served up some of their favourite intellectual heroes, including A.C. Grayling, Peter Singer, Leslie Cannold, Dan Barker, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and more.
Although the moniker of ‘Biggest Ever Gathering of Freethinkers’ was nabbed by the Reason Rally in March, when 20,000 people gathered in rainy Washington D.C., the Global Atheist Convention was still a historical event. The line-up reads like a hit list of influential atheists, and the audience loved it. With a responsiveness that would leave any university lecturer green with envy, they applauded every significant point and gave standing ovations to their favourite speakers. People cheered, whistled and whooped, and some weren’t afraid to boo or yell out “shame!” at appropriate moments.
Many attendees were hoping for protesters and they weren’t disappointed. Scenes outside the convention centre on both days – first involving a small cadre of evangelical Christians, then one of Muslims – proved that respectful dialogue in pursuit of common ground and with a full appreciation of our shared humanity is still, sadly, a rarity. The angry religious men were surrounded by hundreds of angry atheists in a joint demonstration of humanity’s apparent love of a fight. Slogans meaningless to an atheist like, “You need Jesus, you need the sinless saviour!” were met by insults such as: “Fucking get raptured already, will ya?”
Back inside the mood was (slightly) more demure, with speakers covering a remarkable range of topics. A.C. Grayling’s softly-delivered argument for the ejection of religion from the public square was immediately followed by Lawrence Krauss bounding on stage to explain the entirety of contemporary astrophysics in his charismatic Canadian-American accent. Peter Singer spoke about the fruits of cultural progress in the West just before Leslie Cannold pointed out how far we have to go, explicitly calling upon those present to become an “effective fighting force” for political change in Australia.
And what kind of change? Although numerous speakers recognised the political diversity that exists in the atheist community, the tacit assumption – backed up by the vocalisations of the audience – was that those present were committed to small ‘l’ liberalism. A majority (but by no means all) appeared to hold progressive stances on gay rights, abortion, and euthanasia. However the topic that got by far the loudest responses was education; atheists are clearly passionate about changing the way scripture classes and the school chaplaincy program work in Australia.
Inevitably, there was religion-bashing. The Roman Catholic Church fared the worst, with Sam Harris’ comment that it is “nurturing an army of child rapists” probably being the most polemic; our own Cardinal George Pell received more snipes than Jesus; creationists got a fair beating; and the jury was split over whether religious moderates were enablers or allies. The only religion visibly represented in the crowd was the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bobby Henderson’s parody religion begun in 2005 to challenge creationism in Kansas schools. I spotted at least two devotees, clearly identified by the colanders sitting proudly atop their heads. Others had FSM lapel pins, and a man wearing a FSM headpiece was blessing people at the Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.
The most notable theme of the convention was, however, a pursuit of a positive stance for atheism; an exploration of how atheists can contribute to a common discussion on how to live fulfilling lives, both as individuals and in societies. Both A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins spoke of a need to reclaim ‘spirituality’ from religion in the form of an appreciation of the natural world. Sam Harris spoke of how “atheism doesn’t offer real consolation” in the face of death, and offered a heightened awareness of the present moment in response. P.Z. Myers spoke of a respect for truth, autonomy, and community being the sign of a good atheist. In these ways and others the atheists were trying to go beyond anti-theism and find new grounds for morality, community, and fulfilment.
Everyone laughed when ex-preacher Dan Barker said: “All you people are going to hell.” At least we’ll be in good company.