Brief thoughts on the Global Atheist Convention (#atheistcon)

Earlier today I completed the seemingly endless sequence of flights that brought me back from the Global Atheist Convention, held over this past weekend in Melbourne. Both a feeling of being distinctly sleep-deprived and/or jet-lagged, as well as the fact that I need to write up and reflect on the notes I took during various presentations, mean that all I’d like to offer now are some very general impressions. First, Melbourne was quite charming – well-worth a visit if you get a chance.

But while a large amount of time was spent sitting in the sun eating and drinking with fellow heathens, the conference was what we were all there for. On the whole, it was a great event – certainly the best such gathering that I’ve been to, partly because of the great line-up of speakers, and also because of the organisation. There were no parallel sessions, so you could attend everything, and timekeeping was meticulous (well, except for the fact that some people in post-talk Q&A should have been given far less time, or no time at all in some cases. Like the guy who asked why it is that evolution hasn’t resulted in a brain that’s larger than the universe).

Of the 4000 in attendance, you’ll no doubt find dispute as to what the highlights and disappointments were. One thing I found to be a weaker element was the proportion of time set aside for comedy, where a fair amount of this comedy was geared at the ridicule of religion. Now I don’t mind that per se, but at a conference billed as a “celebration of reason”, it didn’t always seem appropriate to pluck the low-hanging fruits of religious absurdity. In fact, one of the highlights was the contribution made by the one theologian (Marion Maddox) who participated in the official events – she came across as far more strongly in support of secularism in education than the atheists on that panel. Another problem with the comedy was that some of it – Jim Jefferies in particular – didn’t quite manage the balancing act between provocation and offence in his jokes involving gender.

Peter Singer was also disappointing. He gave what amounted to an overview of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence in modern civilizations. It seemed a lucid and comprehensive overview of Pinker’s book (I haven’t read the book yet), but filled a slot in the programme that could perhaps have been better utilised through Singer presenting some of his own ideas. But the presentations that were good were very good, starting with a Dennett talk on free will on Thursday night (at the University of Melbourne, and not part of the official conference programme). Dennett did a great job of summarising the key elements of his compatibilist position, and it was somewhat of a pity that there wasn’t more discussion of this, especially in light of the new Harris book, and Harris’s explicit disagreement with Dennett on this topic.

In the main programme, I thought Dennett, Krauss and Harris the standout presentations, along with the “3 horsemen” panel, now with Ayaan Hirsi Ali added as a horsewoman (she was always meant to be part of the conversation that resulted in the 4 horsemen DVD, but had to withdraw at the last minute). Hopefully this will all appear on YouTube at some point, and I’ll certainly say more about these later on, once I’ve had a chance to read and think about my notes from those talks. Harris was probably the most provocative, and you can get a sense as to why I say that by reading Martin Pribble’s post about his talk. It was a thoughtful reflection on the inevitability of death and what that means for how we should live, but the thing that made a bunch of us feel rather weirded-out was the session of mindfulness meditation that he decided to get these 4000 atheists (and therefore probably skeptics too) to participate in.

And yes, these sorts of things easily give rise to accusations that we were indulging in some sort of “religious” gathering ourselves. This is also something I hope to write about later, including a confession that I was rather disappointed by the way some of our number responded to the Christian (on Saturday) and Muslim (on Sunday) protesters that gathered. Both of these groups of protesters said things they shouldn’t have – especially the Muslims with their “burn in hell” chants directed at Ali – but there were times when I thought the atheists crossed over from justified retorts into juvenile insult.

Lastly, I’d say there were many who felt deeply moved by the Hitchens tribute that was screened, and then also by the memories of Hitchens recounted by Dawkins and Krauss (especially the latter, as Krauss was a close friend of Hitch). The video of the tribute is below, and is well worth watching. In summary, I’m very glad to have been there, and to have met many great people – see you all again in two years.

Daily Maverick Politics Religion

“New atheists”, stridency and fundamentalism

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

During the Easter period we had the usual opportunity to read and hear plenty of content on religion and atheism, including ongoing debate around “New atheists” and their alleged stridency or militancy. But regardless of how particular individuals in this debate might choose to engage, we shouldn’t forget that it’s not automatically strident or militant to assert a point of view, no matter how much any participant might disagree with the view being expressed. More importantly, we shouldn’t forget that tone has absolutely nothing to do with the truth or falsity of what is being said.

Yes, atheists can be dogmatic. Anyone can be dogmatic, but while Catholics (for example) have little choice but to consider the Pope as at least broadly representative of their world-view, atheists have no obligation to fall into line behind a Dawkins or anybody else. One key advantage of an evidence-based worldview is that you can be persuaded by good arguments, and not persuaded by weak ones, regardless of who makes those arguments.

This isn’t to say that some atheists aren’t fundamentalist, nor that some aren’t uncritical disciples of some bestselling celebrity atheist. Both sides of these culture wars make the mistake of over-generalising, and both sides make the mistake of being unwilling to pick and choose between various potential points of view, based on the quality of the arguments for those points of view.

As I’ve argued previously, there are better and worse ways to encourage reflection on these issues – one way that certainly seems unhelpful to me is to caricature a point of view into labels such as “Islamophobic”, or to lump an incredibly disparate group of people together into a collective of “New atheists”. Some atheists are frequent offenders in this regard in asserting that “Muslims” or “Christians” believe one thing or another.

We should all stop doing this, but it might sometimes be slightly more difficult than atheists like to think it is. If you start from a position of thinking that a naturalistic worldview (in other words, one that can’t accommodate at least gods or souls, but often – and certainly for me – even things like free will) is our best guide to the truth, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an epistemological advantage over others, more generally.

Atheists can be fundamentalists, not only in their atheism, but also on other emotive topics like climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views.

But fundamentalist atheists typically only cause offence and irritation, while fundamentalist religious folk have been known to cause significantly worse outcomes – although these are becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of theocracies. (Lest someone feel inclined to yell out “Hitler” here, let the man speak for himself: “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter.”)

The Kim’s of North Korea are themselves gods, so their misdeeds clearly can’t count as evidence of evil atheism. Stalin was a fanatical Marxist, possibly a psychopath, and while he was certainly strongly opposed to religion, his potential atheism hardly seems the most plausible explanation for his atrocities. One could problematise any such example, and just as atheists shouldn’t cite the Reverend Fred Phelps as representative of Christians, Christians shouldn’t think of these murderous dictators as representative of atheism. Fanaticism, not only belief, kills – and the only question of importance is whether one type of belief (broadly metaphysical) is more likely to lead to fanaticism than the other (broadly naturalistic).

Of those readers that are Christian, few – hopefully none – will read the Bible as a literally true handbook on science, history or morality. Instead, it’s a sounding board for debate against the backdrop of a commitment to a certain sort of life, exemplified in the figure of the Biblical Jesus. That this is a better route to peace, economic equality and so forth than a fundamentalist reading of any religious text goes without saying, and critics of religion who don’t recognise this are certainly not playing fair.

But that this route is better doesn’t mean it’s the best route, and this is the point that is often emphasised by more sympathetic critics of religion. If we were to imagine starting afresh, disregarding the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed, we’d arrive at a different understanding of religion.

When faced with the choice between centuries-old texts that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational, we’d be far less inclined to take them seriously today if they were not so embedded in our cultures. They might well continue to serve a powerful role in our lives, but they wouldn’t lead to wars or to children dying while having demons cast out of them.

There are of course also more recent books that can serve the purpose of inspiration or guidance without including false or outdated claims, capable of interpretations that allow for misery. And while it’s true that many, perhaps even most, religious believers don’t reach for those interpretations, others do find them plausible – and it’s this ongoing possibility that is at issue for many atheists, particularly of the non-fundamentalist sort.

The believers of the type highlighted by the recent Dawkins survey are of little concern to me, because they aren’t the sort to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those who are inclined to do such things could count the moderate believers as being among their number (even while recognising their relative lack of commitment), and that larger number is the one generally cited in censuses or when a politician says that we are a “Christian” country.

As I often remark to my religious friends, if they were more active in denouncing Errol Naidoo, Fred Phelps, or Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau (not equivalently evil people, of course), many atheists would be left with little to do – at least in the supposed “name” of atheism. The (majority) of religious believers share many of the goals that non-believers do, and I do think it an obstacle to these shared goals that stereotype and caricature are so prevalent in the language of both the faithful and the faithless.

Leaving aside these regular misrepresentations of religious believers, it nevertheless remains true that atheists have things to legitimately be angry about – and also that it’s sometimes difficult to express these concerns without appearing to be dogmatic and hostile. While concerns around winning a public-relations battle shouldn’t lead us to forget those things that motivate the anger, persuasion remains impossible unless people are willing to communicate.

I don’t believe that encouraging communication needs to (or should) entail things like Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0”, but it at least needs to involve dealing with real people and their sincere beliefs instead of preconceived versions of these, designed for ridicule. But those sincere beliefs can be criticised, and doing so isn’t necessarily shrill, strident or militant. Labelling them as such can be a way of simply ignoring them, just as labelling a religious person as a superstitious fool can be a way of ruling them out of (a conception of) rational discourse.

We should all care about eliminating unfounded or dangerous beliefs, whether ours or our opponents’. At root, this is a key premise of naturalistic or atheist positions, and it’s indeed a pity that many who hold those positions sometimes appear as dogmatic as those they criticise. But how ideas are expressed only makes a difference to how they are received – not to their truth. All of us could sometimes do with a reminder of this, whether we celebrated Easter or just a few days off work.


Dennett in South Africa

While it’s unlikely that any real person exists who a) hasn’t heard about this and b) would only learn about it here, I’ll nevertheless urge anyone who is/can be in Cape Town (31 March) or Stellenbosch (1 April) to attend these lectures by Daniel Dennett. I went to Durban last week to hear his talk on Religion as a natural phenomenon, and will certainly be attending both lectures in the Cape – he’s a wonderful speaker, and as any of you who have read his books know, also a thinker well-worth paying serious attention to.

Also, he worked the Sax Appeal debacle into the Durban talk – since then, I gave him copies of the cartoons, as well as the VC’s response and my comments on those. So there’s a chance that this may get a more thorough airing in Cape Town.