Reports on Global Convention Indicate Trouble in Atheist Paradise

March 17, 2010

Richard Dawkins at The Rise of Atheism

"In summation: religion sucks."

This last weekend, thousands of atheists convened in Melbourne, Australia for The Rise of Atheism: the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. Reports from the event indicate that it was more concerned with mocking religion than it was with focusing on building a cohesive, values-based secular movement — a seeming epidemic in secular community-building today.

Barney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age, wrote: “If it was to validate hardline atheists to themselves and give them confidence, it was a triumph. If it was to take a mature look at how to advance the cause of secularism, politically and socially, the speakers should probably have spent less time ridiculing religion and more on positive and practical ideas.”

Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun said the event was so mean-spirited that it made him want to believe in God:

“I’ve never felt more like believing in God. Especially the Christian one. My near conversion occurred because the convention’s speakers managed to confirm my worst fear. No, it’s not that God may actually exist, and be cross that I doubted. It’s that if the Christian God really is dead, then there’s not much to stop people here from being barbarians… Yes, I know godlessness need not mean good-lessness. I’m agnostic myself, yet think myself morally serious. But I’m certain both the Pope and Fielding would feel their Christian faith prevented them from vilifying Dawkins as his fellow atheists freely vilified them. So why do leading atheists, so sure of their superior morality, feel licensed to be meaner than leading Christians? Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”

Melanie Phillips wrote in The Australian that the event functioned much like the religious fundamentalism it claimed to critique:

“Such indoctrination is a hallmark of the fundamentalist who knows he is not just right but righteous. So all who oppose him are by definition not just wrong but evil. Which is why alternative views must be howled down or suppressed. This is, of course, the characteristic of all totalitarian regimes, including religious inquisitions. Which is why Dawkins can lay claim to being not the most enlightened thinker on the planet, as his acolytes regard him, but instead the Savonarola of scientism and an intolerant closer of minds.”

Rachel Holkner of The Guardian reported this bit of strong anti-religiousness:

“When a Christian stood up to ask a question of Dawkins, there was a vibe not only of hostility, but impatience and frustration – even a sense of violation, as no one expected anyone with honest-to-god beliefs to pay the not-inconsiderate ticket price to learn about atheism. This was a great shame. Part of the challenge of atheism is extending our visibility and educating theists on rational thought. Continuing to play to the stereotype of being scary and intolerant will not help anyone. Atheists need to develop a reputation for patience and approachability.”

Responding to that, Gina Welch of True/Slant noted that the conference was very antagonistic to any religious presence, writing that it contained the “same fearful insularity poisoning many churches. Atheists should welcome questions and challenges from believers, shouldn’t we? Why shy away from a little repartee?”

Tim Roberts of Eureka Street wisely observed in advance of the conference that the program reflected a problematic insularity:

“Failing to include debating panels with religious moderates is a missed opportunity… Forging links with moderates against religious extremism should be the first goal of any atheist movement. Change cannot be achieved by eliminating religion, as people’s personal beliefs cannot be forcefully harangued into shape. Only by respectfully forming alliances with the moderate religious community will atheists be able to preserve the elements of society that they value most, such as freedom of enquiry and the separation of Church and State. The ego-driven, take-no-prisoners approach dooms atheism to remain an exclusive and tiny club… Despite its many worthy contributors, the convention will drown in a sea of bile unless the movement’s adherents realise that they can’t remake the world in their own image. Padding the program with snide comic relief puts the event in danger of being dismissed as a weekend of navel-gazing, rather than a genuine attempt to deal with intolerance. And that would be a pity.”

Is this really how we want to be seen? As anti-religious zealots and self-important isolationists patting ourselves on the back for our beliefs while refusing to practice the open-mindedness we preach? I sure don’t. Dick Gross of the National Times offered some shrewd counsel for the movement regarding this problem in his write-up in advance of the conference:

“For atheism to progress as a movement we need to go beyond bashing all believers and explore the common humanity which exists between the two camps. We unbelievers will never walk in harmony with those of trenchant and fundamentalist belief. That will never happen and should never happen. But our future growth lies in finding those believers with complicated notions of the deity who are tolerant and progressive. I am sick of seeing these people being bashed to bits just as I am sick of atheism remaining a marginal movement centuries after this incarnation of unbelief began.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m attending two secular conferences next month — I hope they will reflect a more open-minded desire to engage difference respectfully than this conference seemed to.

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13 Responses to “Reports on Global Convention Indicate Trouble in Atheist Paradise”

  1. jpjesusss said

    As a small bit of devil’s advocacy:

    There are at least two kinds of complaints that religious folks have about “mean” atheists:
    1. Complaints that atheists are mean when atheists call them on stuff. I’ve had folks get upset with me when I point out the possible harms that the Catholic Church, perpetuated through Mother Teresa, may have done regarding actively campaigning against condom use. Unless I couch my language by noting how extremely cool Mother Teresa is, folks often don’t like to hear this stuff, and call me mean.

    2. Complaints that atheists are mean when atheists are being jerks. This includes a lot of what is described in the articles you quote, but I think some of that stuff probably falls into #1.

    What I want to guard against are oversimplifications about so-called “atheist fundamentalists”. I think it’s a genuine problem, and I don’t think I want to hang out with atheists who are quite that militant, but I don’t think they present the exact same problems to any atheist/agnostic/atheist political movements that religious fundamentalists pose to all of us.

  2. Xtine said

    I appreciate this report on atheists who bash more than help. I sometimes struggle to balance satire and serious. There needs to be room for both, but there also is a time and place for both. If you get a room full of atheists together, it seems like a waste of time and space to play the same holier-than-thou shtick that is found in many gatherings of Christians. Believe it or not, I avoid many atheist websites because of how “mean-spirited” they are. I call myself an empathetic atheist and strive to balance freedom of expression with explaining and empathizing with the minds and hearts of Believers. So – it is good to see fellow non-theists call the Global Atheist Convention on this.

  3. […] NonProphet Status « Reports on Global Convention Indicate Trouble in Atheist Paradise […]

  4. eanling said

    If a bunch of non-smokers got together, what would they talk about? I think there is something inherently limiting about gathering as self-identified not believers in something, just as non-smokers are non-doers of something. By definition, all that atheists, as atheists have in common is their disbelief. Hence, I submit that an atheist gathering is motivated by political concerns. It’s the only way the few and far between of us can feel a sense of safety in numbers. And what else have we got to talk about (as atheists) but the frustration of being surrounded by people who insist on the existence of something they have never seen? It’s maddening, really.

    Personally, I think we need a new brand. Something that typifies what we do affirm and do with atheism as the given. “Humanist” is the closest we’ve got, but unfortunately, it 1. doesn’t categorically eliminate theists and 2. sounds so generically nice that it doesn’t connote anything specific. We need a name that says, “given the utter absurdity of the existence of a supreme being or force, we know/believe/focus on/dedicate ourselves to, etc. ____________. That will make much more gratifying fodder for convention talk, I think. And a more profound statement of understanding, to boot.

  5. Toxic Max said

    Lets move on from the old Religion stuff. Nobody who has received any education still gives two shits creationists. I mean we could be talking about what is replacing religion in contemporary culture: sports, antidepressants, democracy, ecology, reality TV, etc. Lets study how we can fight all the memes that divert us from rational thinking, and especially the ones that are gaining momentum today.

    • OzAheist said

      The problem is the creationists won’t go away. Both in the USA and Australia (and elsewhere for all I know) the creationists, often in the guise of “Intelligent Design”, are trying to teach creationism to school students, including in public schools!

  6. gfish said

    “When a Christian stood up to ask a question of Dawkins, there was a vibe not only of hostility, but impatience and frustration – even a sense of violation, as no one expected anyone with honest-to-god beliefs to pay the not-inconsiderate ticket price to learn about atheism.

    If you read the accounts of the attendees, you’ll note that the Christian in question was peppering Dawkins with creationist canards refuted endlessly by just about anyone who’s ever written about evolution or sat through a biology class. She did not come to learn about atheism. She came to challenge an atheist because she could. This is why there was hostility to this kind of thing.

    Trust me, I deal with plenty of creationists and religious zealots who like to “school me on evolution” by throwing out outright lies and anti-scientific proclamations, then refuse to listen to anything you say in reply. After the 322nd time, it starts getting really, really annoying.

    If Phillips cared about anything other than making the atheists looks bad, she would’ve noted this and questioned why this hostility was present. But she doesn’t. She’s just interested in atheist bashing and seeming really high minded and above the fray, just like most writers who pen these “Atheists are total meanies” pieces.

  7. […] to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic […]

  8. Colin Sparrow said

    How many atheists were asked to `moderate’ at the Council of Churches? Do Atheists get invited to provide critics as part of a balanced panel each Sunday? Somehow it seems that for the first meeting of Atheists in this Country is expected to be even handed whilst a millennium of theist nonsense every weekend has never had to be so.

  9. OzAheist said

    “You have to knock it down before you rebuild it”

    Yes there was a fair bit of “religion bashing” at the atheist convention, but there were also some positive ideas and calls for atheists to be more moderate. Whilst two wrongs don’t make a right, considering the bashing that atheists get from the religious it’s hardly surprising that sometimes we “bite back”.

    There was a lot of negative reporting from the media, but not surprisingly a lot of that media weren’t even at the convention! (including some of the ones youv’e quoted)

    What most people don’t even consider in this ‘debate’ is that this was the first ever event of its kind. How much can you achieve in 2 1/2 days?

  10. […] I’m not sure I want to call myself secular.” To quote Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun’s reflection after attending the Global Atheist Convention: “I’ve never felt more like believing in […]

  11. […] way to achieve this. Ironically, I believe their approach has the opposite effect, creating only more conflict and pushing fundamentalists to entrench themselves even further into their religious […]

  12. […] to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic […]

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