Atheist Convention – General Impressions
(Investigator 145, 2012 July)
attended the Global
Atheists' Convention held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition
Centre from 13th to 15th April. When I got out of the car, none other
than Richard Dawkins walked straight past me.
Dawkins is one of
the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse". "The Four Horsemen" is a play on
the corresponding figures in the Book of Revelation (chapter 6). The 4
horsemen are outspoken figures for the new atheism movement. The other
three are Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.
Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens died of cancer last year but the
other three were there. Their key books are shown in the following
is not Great
to a Christian Nation
There were about
atheists in attendance. Throughout the convention, it was assumed that
the atheistic world view was correct and there was virtually no attempt
to justify that belief.
the GAC I had a
number of conversations with atheists. I told them I was not an atheist
but an observer and that I was setting up a chapter of Reasonable Faith
in Adelaide. All of the people that I spoke to were friendly and
interested. One woman said something like, "I suppose you are going to
write nasty things about us". I assured her that I wouldn't.
summary spans the
speakers and provides my overall impressions.
opening address was
given by David Nicholls. David lives in Maitland in South Australia. He
is the current president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA).
conference theme was
"Celebration of Reason" and it was commonly attempted to associate
reason, logic, truth, philosophy and evidence-based science with
atheism, whereas religion stifles questioning and is a force of
darkness. David also claimed that reason is opposed to faith. Atheists
have faith in reason, but Christians have blind faith without reason or
Islamic terrorists flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York,
killing over 3,000 people. This was done in the name of Islam. Islam is
a religion, so all religions must be evil. This event was probably a
significant trigger in the New Atheist movement.
the quality of
speakers varied greatly. About half of them were excellent. Some were
balanced and readily admitted weaknesses in atheism and acknowledged
merit in opposing views. In my view Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Leslie
Cannold, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Lawrence Kraus, Eugenie Scott and Jason Ball
were of this ilk. I even agreed with many of Richard Dawkins' comments.
Lawrence Kraus gave the only talk that contained significant scientific
content. It was an excellent presentation and I have subsequently read
his book, "A Universe from Nothing".
the speakers were
quite restrained, but the final speaker, Paul Zachary Myers, was
aggressive. His grand plans are an assault on heaven and the killing of
God. His talk was roughly as follows:
started with the
family, then centred on the king, the city and then the world. Jews
were a people of the book and the book persisted beyond the city. The
ideas of Christianity are also captured in a book and so the ideas
persist longer than the people. Ideas change the world, but you can
kill an idea. Churches are reacting to the new atheists. We have a
better idea and science is the God killer. We are the people of reality
and you Christians are false. We are products of the natural world but
are also members of a universal tribe. Science bridges the differences
between tribes since science works. Our only authority is reality.
Science and religion are in opposition. Assertion is the enemy of
science. What matters is what is true. Apocalyptic views are an excuse
for laziness, relying on a left behind book that is clearly lacking
attacked the morality
of the atonement. He then attacked various Christian extremes
(outliers) but he then turned towards Christian moderates. "I don't
like you!" he said. A good atheist is interested in truth and evolution
is a fact. Atheists like being rebels and are proud to be different. We
are cranky individualists. There are no shepherds. We are hunting. We
are wolves, we plan to conquer and Christians have cause to tremble.
The crowd cheered and the rattles waved. Bring it on!
of Church and State
button for atheists
was the separation between church and state. They considered it unjust
that religion, especially Christianity, should receive any preferential
treatment, such as tax breaks, the opportunity to proselytise within
schools or the use of school chaplains. It is OK to teach comparative
religion, but this should be done by professional teachers.
competition for what is taught in the curriculum. Some of the speakers
freely admitted that separation of church and state was actually
promoted by Christians. Some speakers did not want funding of Christian
or private schools. I don't think this argument is completely
convincing. If people pay taxes and want their children to go to
private schools due to lack of confidence in the public schooling
system then the fact that they pay taxes means that some government
funding is justifiable. The real issue is the actual distribution.
was a strong
interest in ethics at the conference. It was often claimed that we can
have ethics without God. Ethics should be based on reason to minimise
harm and we don't need religion to tell us what is right and wrong. We
have arrived here by chance and for no reason. Thus it is up to us to
create our own morality. Dawkins claimed that we don't get our morals
from religion but from reason. Richard Dawkins mentioned the instance
where a man was stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Number 15:
32-36). He did not consider the context sympathetically.
that we use our own reason to evaluate Biblical morality and thus our
reason is a higher authority than Biblical revelation. Thus we should
rely on our own sense of right and wrong. Morality also develops with
time. We have 21st century morals. Darwin and Huxley were racist and
would be considered revisionist now, as they were people of their own
time. Morality should be based on consequences in order to prevent
harm. Eg in the area of abortion there is nothing inherently sacred
about humans. He was pro euthanasia but the slippery slope should be
taken seriously. Designer babies are a viable option to remove bad
genes. At least the issue should be discussed. Suffering and pain does
have a purpose, at least as a deterrent.
the impression that
liberal left ethics were assumed to be true such as:
came to one of the Reason for Faith seminars claimed that there is no
uniformity in atheists' ethical beliefs. They have no hierarchy and
there are no approved sets of beliefs.
Pro-gay marriage based on the equal rights argument,
abortion based on a woman's right to choose,
Permissive sexual values etc.
as a Moral Monster
theme is that we
should not get our moral values from the Bible, as the God of the Old
Testament is a moral monster. Jim Jeffries did a very clever and
entertaining parody of God as a party pooper. God is self-obsessed. He
wants people to sing praise songs to him. He hates fags and anyone who
doesn't do what he wants. Dan Barker also cited the case where Satan
incited God to destroy Job without reason (Job 2:3).
morality of the
atonement came under frequent attack. Is man really evil? Don't we have
a natural inclination to do good? Why original sin? Why should we be
held responsible for being born into sin? Why should God become a man
and die to satisfy his own requirements? Why can't he just forgive?
Eternal punishment in hell seems to be an over-reaction.
Hirsi Ali is a
North African woman who was brought up as a Muslim but has since
defected. Hence she has 2 bodyguards.
perspective on those countries where Islam dominates, usually
associated with bribery and repression. Islam is far worse than
Christianity. Islamic countries have discriminatory tax practices,
persecute Christians and Muslim minorities, suppress freedom of speech
and freedom of the press, suppress women, practice genital mutilation
and enforce marriage of young girls, as young as 9 years old. According
to Ayaan they are all actually devoted to the destruction of Israel and
have no commitment to a 2-state solution with the Palestinians. However
atheists and the liberal west are often soft on Islam and often attack
Christianity more than Islam. This may be due to white guilt, a
romantic perspective on primitive cultures or just plain fear of
reprisal. It is often the case that serious Christians are more
effective at identifying the issues and providing effective opposition.
Christianity may be the major force that holds back an Islamic winter.
Doing Bad Things
compere asked "Who here is a lapsed catholic?" About 1,000 people put
up their hands. It was obvious that the problems in the Roman Catholic
Church are a significant factor in people becoming atheists. Likewise
common targets were Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, the US
religious right, those who oppose gay marriage, abortion or euthanasia,
or those who impose their values on others (bigots). I don't think that
all of these targets are necessarily bad, but it is obvious that one of
the churches' major enemies is itself.
not be judged by their worst examples. At one stage it was observed
that every group has their outliers and it is not valid to judge groups
by outliers. Atheists do not like being aligned with Stalin, Mao Tse
Tung and Pol Pot.
that I met was a
former Assemblies of God minister, who is now an atheist. He used to
speak in tongues and had participated in healings. The healings that he
saw he now considers psychosomatic or temporary. He was a nice guy and
spoke openly about his experiences. Unfortunately we did not have much
time to talk and he had to leave quickly but we departed on very
Harris on Death
Harris is one of the
4 horsemen and has a PhD in neuroscience.
supposed to talk
on free will, but changed his topic to the subject of death. As an
atheist, this was a very brave move. You could hear a pin drop. The
following is a summary of what he said.
and its denial are
fundamental to religion, but death is the end and there is nothing
after death. Death is not the problem; life is the problem. Life is an
emergency and everyone has a run of bad luck but we must still try to
make this world a better place. Real progress is a recent phenomenon.
We cannot make this world a paradise and there is no satisfying way to
hold on to the past. Atheism itself does not have much to offer, except
only as a (supposed) corrective. Science, art and philosophy fill the
void. Most people believe for emotional reasons. How can people make
sense of tragedies? Religions provide an answer that most people think
they need. Belief in heaven is consoling but atheism does not offer any
to deal with
this. We should admit that we waste a lot of our time caring about the
wrong things and petty concerns. We spend a lot of our time in denial.
We should rather make the most of the present time. What is the point
of life? The answer is a change in attitude to live in the present
moment. It is always now. The past is just a thought arriving in our
memory. We are hoping to be happy in the future and we are always
solving a problem. How can we be fulfilled in the face of death? We
want fulfilment and a lack of suffering, even though some suffering is
desirable for progress.
everything and your mind is all you have. What about our
might-have-beens? We suffer from neurosis. Self conversations are a
source of sorrow. We are constantly creating and repairing a world in
which our minds want to live. We must see the sacred in the secular.
reminded me of
Bertrand Russell's quote (A Free Man's Worship):
the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were
achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves
and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of
atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling,
can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours
of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday
brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast
death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's
achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe
in ruins – all these things, if
beyond dispute, are yet so
nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm
foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's salvation henceforth
be safely built.
Perhaps it is
expressively captured in this famous quote from Macbeth,
and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
in this petty
pace from day to day,
last syllable of
all our yesterdays
have lighted fools
way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
but a walking
shadow, a poor player,
struts and frets
his hour upon the stage,
then is heard no
more. It is a tale
by an idiot, full
of sound and fury,
Reason for Living
the major themes
that came through was the contrast in the reason for living. The
atheist believes that there is nothing after death and this life is all
we have. Thus we should live for this life and make the most of what we
have rather than wasting our time preparing for the next life. This was
one of Dawkins' themes. He advocated redesigning our morality and
social institutions in accordance with a naturalistic world view.
contrast living for
God is a master/servant relationship. According to Dan Barker, holding
our hands together in prayer is a symbol of shackled hands. Why live
for another? We arrived here by accident. We should be autonomous, we
should decide our own morality and we should make our own decisions
about how we live and manage this world, rather than relying on an
Harris' talk on death
was pertinent. Ultimately the atheist has very little to say to console
in the face of tragedy or injustice. Death ends all and life is
ultimately meaningless. However, this is not a knock down argument for
the Christian. If the atheist is ultimately right then it is better to
accept life's limitations rather than believing a lie, just because it
makes us feel better.
for Faith Conference
the conference I
helped Melbourne City Bible Forum with their Reason For Faith Festival,
which was held in response to the GAC. My main contribution was in
handing out pamphlets at railway stations. I found this emotionally
draining due to the frequent rejection. Only about 20% of people
accepted the pamphlets and I felt that I was an imposition on their
lives. A few people stopped to talk, but these were mainly Christians.
However, it was still obviously a worthwhile activity as almost half of
those who attended some of the meetings were there due to the pamphlets.
event, which was a
discussion panel between some Christian scientists and some atheists, I
met Graham Oppy. He is an atheist, an Australian and a world class
philosopher. He is also a very nice guy. He has had written debates
with William Lane Craig on the Kalam Cosmological argument and the fine
tuning argument. I had about a 15 minute discussion with him in which
he briefly covered some of the issues with the arguments. I didn't
understand or remember all he said, but I intend following up his
was an element of
hubris at the conference. Atheists think they are the smart, rational
people. They are the "brights", the rationalists and the free thinkers.
They bolster their self image with these self-complimentary terms.
However, as a Christian, I believe in reason, logic, truth, questioning
and evidence based science just as much as they do (or even more so).
In fact, Lawrence Leoung joked, "We are all freethinkers; and we all
think the same". Many a true statement is made in jest. There is no
necessary or logical link between these values and atheism. In fact
these values arose out of a Christian context, which they generally
fail to acknowledge. Thus their arguments were generally applied in a
one sided manner. For example, Daniel Dennett stated that it is very
hard for people to change their beliefs. This is very true. However, he
was referring to the difficulty of believers changing their mind
towards the supposed truth of atheism, but did not seem to consider
that it is also true in the reverse direction. In fact nearly all of
his arguments could be applied in the reverse direction, but he seemed
blissfully unaware of this.
other hand there
were many things that I agreed with during the conference:
I am sympathetic to separation of church and state.
believe we should work to make this world a better place.
the area of morality, we face new issues today that were not imagined
2000 years ago and we have to work out new solutions.
also share their concerns about Islam.
there are deep
fundamental differences with the Christian world view. The atheist
wants to be autonomous and optimise this life in some way. Autonomy
entails making our own decisions without reference to any other
authority. By contrast, Christians believe that the Bible is a
revelation from God. The purpose of life cannot be understood without
that revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 states, "In the past God spoke to our
forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but
in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed
heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe." So God has
spoken to us. The other fundamental difference is our highest
fulfilment is found not by pleasing ourselves but by doing the will of
God. As Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny
himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save
his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet
forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?"
Hitchens' themes was that "religion poisons everything". In the past
2000 years some dreadful things have been done in the name of Christ,
but, as admitted at the conference, it is wrong to judge a movement by
its outliers. The following Sunday I returned to my local church. It is
a small affair of mainly working class people. However, there are a
substantial number there in whom the gospel has borne fruit. They are
warm, self effacing and wonderful people whom I can only aspire to
copy. Does religion poison everything? Naah, it just ain't true.
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