The Church That Wasn’t – #AtheistCon – By Rohan Harris
Guest Post by Rohan Harris
Martin S Pribble
My girlfriend and I are rationalists. Or atheists. Or teapot agnostics. Or humanists. Or whatever term happens to suit the discussion and the person who asked. We’ve been this way, well… for much longer than the 7 years we’ve been together. Most of our friends use similar monikers – or at least consider themselves agnostic and get just as grumpy as us at door-knocking churchies and people who’d push religion on us through government.
Over the past few years, we’ve slowly drifted from being casual sorts who’d just get critical when people act irrationally around us, to reading many books and watching many debates for and against religion, lectures and books on physics, evolution, philosophy, history and geo-politics.
We’ve met friends who came out theocracies like Iran. Who grew up in countries (the Soviet Union) which turned political ideology into a religion. Who grew up in small towns – in the US as well as Australia – where calling themselves atheists was enough to become ostracized, belittled and even beaten up. Whose parents have disowned them for losing their faith, or even finding faith in a different religion.
Now, I’m not sure there’s no God. How can I be? The argument is almost perfectly structured to be impervious to positive or negative arguments of any kind. I’m sure there’s no evidence for God, but there’s also no evidence that a giant invisible dragon with three tails lives under our bed and comes out only when we aren’t home to try on our underwear. I wouldn’t give the dragon / underwear theory much credibility, so why do we give the idea of God so much import?
There is at least one answer to this. One is this: that regardless of how wildly different peoples’ beliefs are (you can’t even get people of the same denomination to nail down the properties of ‘God’, never mind people of entirely different beliefs) – they use some variation of the same term (‘God’) to describe their chosen entity-of-worship, and thus it ends up in the same umbrella. The deities of Islam and Hinduism couldn’t be more different, and yet somehow the various sects band together to tell atheists that we are clearly wrong. Never mind that their own beliefs are usually completely incompatible with each other, somehow we atheists become the greater enemy.
It’s that last bit – the phrase “we atheists” – that I want to talk about.
I mentioned that we have friends who had been oppressed, emotionally or physically harmed, or just generally had their personalities and lives adversely affected by religion. Thing is: that’s not us. My parents encouraged me to think for myself, and didn’t push any religious indoctrination on any of their children. They may have had their own beliefs, but my upbringing seemed largely secular. Most of my childhood friends are in a similar situation – their parents either didn’t have time for religion, or didn’t press their own on their children. In the larger cosmopolitan cities in Australia, this seems to increasingly be the norm for middle-class children.
So when my girlfriend and I looked at the lineup of fascinating scientists, journalists, philosophers and comedians scheduled to appear at the Global Atheist Convention, we decided to go. Where else would we get a chance to hear Lawrence Krauss talk cosmology & physics, Sam Harris talk about morality and Dan Dennett & AC Grayling talk philosophy? This was our principal reason for going – not to congregate with 4000 other people who probably identify themselves as atheists. We bought our tickets as the week got closer, I found a curious reaction from people when my answer to “what are you doing this week?” was “going to the Global Atheist Convention”.
This wasn’t the reaction from religious friends, either – this was from fellow left-wing, little-L liberal atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists and Pastafarians. This was commonly followed by something to the effect of “[hard-core] atheists are nearly as annoying as fundamentalist Christians”. I’d heard this before, of course, but this was the first time that this kind of snide response was followed by unfollows on twitter, derisive remarks in person and rolling eyes like I’d just said I’d started watching “Lost”.
This reaction was firmly implanted in my mind as we went to the convention. I began to wonder – what if they were right? Was I walking into a collection of Dawkins groupies who’d mob him at every opportunity and take his every word as gospel in the most ironic situation since the time anarchists formed a political party?
The first clue that this wasn’t the case at all came when I realised some of the speakers weren’t even retiring back-stage or to their dedicated reserved seats out the front. Between talks and book signings they’d mill about the main chamber, talking to people about their books and papers, or just chatting about the weather in Melbourne. Dawkins himself was seen a few times quietly sitting in the back rows during other sessions, taking notes on one talk or another – and the reaction from the 4000 atheists? At worst, a polite nod of acknowledgement.
Another of my favourite snide retorts to “I’m going to the Global Atheist Conventions” sprang to mind mid-way through the second day of the convention: “What would atheists have to talk about? How much they don’t believe in God?” or “I love the way when atheists get together what do they talk about? Religion.”
The latter of these has a grain of truth – the talks did have, unsurprisingly, one running theme – a lack of belief in a God and/or a critical eye towards religions. But even then, that’s where the similarities ended. Lawrence Krauss’ talk was only on topic in so far as that it was about how modern physics theorizes that due to the net amount of energy in the universe being zero, the universe existing is not proof of some kind of voodoo causing its creation. Even one or two of the “stealth Christians” in the audience clearly enjoyed his talk very much, judging by their tweets.
Some talks were much more critical – it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that the unashamedly confrontational PZ Myers was sledging religion and lazy thinking savagely and without remorse. Other talks were different again – in complete contrast to Myers’ talk, Sam Harris discussed how the general desire amongst rationalists to attribute no importance to numinous experiences is a Bad Thing(tm), and Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke about how she felt that oppressed men & (especially) women in the Muslim world were being helped more by conservative Christians than by western liberals.
The question that plagued me was – how were people taking these talks?
Well, probably more than any other cross-section of society, the disparate group who label themselves “atheists” have almost nothing assuredly in common with each other beyond that label, and this became beautifully clear to me as the convention progressed. On the way out of each talk we’d often strike up a conversation (or overhear one) with people who just happened to be sitting near us, and you could never tell what they’d have to say on any given subject.
Some would be engaged in a heated debate about how Sam Harris’ ideas on free will were clearly incorrect. Others would be praising Dennett’s wonderful new term (the hilarious and useful “deepities”) but noting that they didn’t agree with his position on the natural & parasitic nature of ideological belief. Not all the attendees were people who read philosophy books for fun or have four PhDs, either – I once heard “Mate, I became an atheist cause I think that religion stuff’s a load of shit, eh?” from someone seated behind me.
My fears of a Dawkins cult were assuaged, too – if anything, he got more criticism leveled at his talks both during and afterwards at our beer-assisted pub debates. This is important, as the perception of Dawkins as some kind of ‘atheist messiah’ seems more based on his particular style of antagonistic debate getting viewers to watch late-night televised debates rather than his content actually being hugely popular amongst atheists.
None of this did much to stop me thinking about the hugely negative reaction from other left-leaning atheist liberals at the very idea of an atheist convention. Why do they have such an issue with this great collection of brain-food and debate-fodder existing? I’d heard it called the Cult of Dawkins (which it clearly isn’t), Smugfest and the First Church of Atheism. I’d even read an article claiming that atheism is the new fundamentalism.
When I questioned some of these people, it became apparently that many of them felt that by talking about the kind of worldviews that are possible with an atheistic starting point, we were offending religious people – far more than simply having a different religious belief about the word. That by wanting to discuss religion at all – regardless of if you’re a Muslim wanting to talk to a Christian, a Raelien talking to a Hindu or an atheist talking to a Jew… we are somehow causing a problem that doesn’t otherwise exist. We are being insensitive. That their fear of confrontation or offending that their grandmother might somehow find out her grandson or granddaughter isn’t a Christian might somehow cause a problem.
It’s hard to debate that kind of position. By simply stating that the question or debate is offensive in some way, any further discussion tends to just make the other side grumpier – or at best you get statements like something to the effect of “Dude, we live in Australia. There was no religious bias in my upbringing and I don’t think there was in yours, so can’t you just shut up and focus on something which is important?”
Okay, so you don’t think the debate is important. You’ve decided that it’s simply okay to have religion so ingrained in our culture and government that our atheist Prime Minister is so terrified of reprisals and judgements from the religious right that she bends over backwards to please them. Or, perhaps, you’ve just decided that you’re tired of hearing about it. That’s fine. We’re not inviting you it. We’re not knocking on your door and asking you to come to a science lecture. Just mute the hash-tag, temporarily unfollow the attendees or do whatever you have to and get on with your life.
Are there any other public debates right now where people get so smug about being a fence-sitter?
I’ve never seen anyone actually treating it as a good thing that they have no clue about global warming, and certainly not that they, say, *think* global warming is an issue but “why the hell would you have a debate about it?”
I met a few people at the convention who surprised me. They were from small towns in rural Australia, and had not told anyone – not family or friends – that they were coming to the convention. They knew how atheists were treated, and were terrified of ‘coming out’ as someone who even questioned religion in their area.
One had never met a homosexual before – an idea that boggles my mind quite a bit.
They were so excited to be around people who didn’t judge them for that, and who were eager to help and discuss anything they wanted. Not around “people who believe what they believe” – because we often don’t – but that we were happy to have any conversation with him. They were excited to be in an environment where free discussion of ideas was not only okay – but the entire point of the gathering.
A gathering where, when confronted with ten angry Muslim protestors claiming we were all going to burn in hell, the first action taken by the 400 atheists who milled about was to politely ask “Why aren’t there any women in your protest group?” and for whom the second action was to start singing “Always look on the bright side of life” by Monty Python.
I don’t think everyone needs to care about whether or not there’s any truth to one religion or other. I don’t think everyone needs to pick a side on the difficult discussion or “is there any use for religion?” But I do think that not only can having the discussion do no harm, but that just having meet-ups and conferences – large and small – with people discussing this is inherently a good thing.
Because not everyone is lucky enough to grow up in a supportive, secular family in a part of a cosmopolitan city which is largely unaffected by the touch of religion (whether good or bad). Because having these meetings and these groups can be the most helpful thing in the world for some people – it can encourage them to live their lives the way they want, and be just that little bit less afraid of having to shed their support networks by daring to question the existence of an iron-age mythology or the harsh scriptures which tell them that it isn’t okay to be attracted to or associate with certain kinds of people.
Because not everyone is lucky enough to live in a world where secularism is something that can be taken for granted.