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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.