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Ostracised among the Godless

(I have wanted to write this piece for the past few weeks – both for myself and über Monkey ariffjunior, who asked if I would like to contribute. I thought I would “kill two birds with one stone” (For you Jo), finally penning some thoughts and making my first post.)

You would have noticed the increased number of news stories and attention surrounding the topic of atheism in the past few years. This polemic issue exploded in 2004 when Sam Harris published his book The End of Faith. In it he explores the inevitable clash between faith and reason.

Since then, public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have released hugely successful books of their own on the subject of atheism.

Last month I attended the Sunday session of the Rise of Atheism Convention in Melbourne. It was touted as the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The event sold more that 2500 tickets and hosted a large number of speakers who participated in lectures, Q& A sessions and book signings over three days.

I do consider myself a non-believer, however, the idea of an atheism convention did not excite me greatly. What did excite me were some of the speakers that were going to be present: Australian ethicist Peter Singer, ABC science journalist Robyn Williams and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to name a few.

It struck me upon entering the event how homogenous the crowd was. The demographic rule – white, middle aged, middle class men with creases in their jeans and beards but no moustaches. Any other day and it could have been a scene from the Retired Geography Teachers Convention.

None of this should have surprised me though, as a friend later pointed out, “Only white people have enough time to go to conventions.”

Huge Turnout

While in high school I read Peter Singer’s book The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush. It opened my mind to the idea that our decisions made as conscious beings should be consistent with our moral values. In the book, Singer uses George W. Bush’s presidency as a case study. Being the world’s most powerful man, his decisions arrived at through moral reflection have serious real world consequences.

Singer gave the days opening lecture, an extremely insightful and eloquent address on our moral obligation as humans to help those suffering when we accept the idea that we give morality to religion, and not the other way around.

While many of the speakers took easy stabs at religion to get a cheap laugh – Ian Robinson, President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, asked if there were any religious people in the audience? “Ok, I’ll speak really slowly”, Singer stuck to intellectual reasoning to make his points.

Singer asked the audience to imagine that we are walking to work. As we are walking we see a child drowning in a pond. You are the only person around that can save the child. According to Singer, almost everyone would jump into the pond, even if it meant ruining your new suit. He made this analogy in order to highlight the fact that there are millions of children dying from preventable causes around the world, and we in the West have the ability to save them by donating money to credible aid organisations.

The truth is, most of us don’t. This is because, as Singer argues, or morality has not yet evolved enough for the image of a starving child on TV to initiate the same emotional response that a child drowning a few feet away from us would.

Peter Singer

After these first talks there was a break. I went outside and joined the circle of smokers. A man said to me “welcome to the ostracised among the godless”. I politely smiled and allowed him to think he had made a witty remark but what I was really looking at was the man standing behind him. It was Richard Dawkins, taking in the view of the Melbourne CBD from the banks of the Yarra.

From watching his documentaries and interviews to then seeing him so close, I have to admit made me a little star struck, although, to be fair I had the same feeling when I met Deal or no Deal presenter Andrew O’ Keefe in St Kilda one night.

Dawkins was the final speaker of the day. He spoke in beautiful prose of the wonders of evolution and the natural world and warned the audience against complacency and just blindly accepting what we are told. We should instead to use science as a tool for rational exploration of the unknown.

Richard Dawkins

While many of the speakers presented weak anecdotal evidence to back up their arguments, Dawkins landed some heavy blows against the belief in an interventionist creator. What separates Dawkins and others, such as philosopher A.C. Grayling and biologist P.Z. Myers from the rest is that they present original research, their conclusions are based upon their own ideas and not cherry picked from others.

Dawkins could not help himself when he referred to the current head of the Catholic Church as “Pope Nazi”. Though, this must have been calculated the statement dominated the news reporting of the convention and trivialised much of the more important issues that were discussed. However, the controversy of this statement is nothing compared to the situation the Pope now finds himself in through his action (or inaction) in protecting and hiding pederasts within the church while he was a cardinal.

The day was entertaining and definitely intellectually stimulating, although there was an air of pseudo-intellectualism amongst the crowd and I couldn’t help but notice that the whole thing had a semi-cultish feel to it. On any other occasion the MC for the event could have fit right in at an evangelical gathering. From his crisp white suit to his southern accent and bouffant hairstyle, he fit the part perfectly. The catering on the other hand was excellent and good food is always important in judging the success of an event.


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