The night before the Global Atheist Convention, God came to me in a dream. All day I had been anxious about how the historic meeting would turn out; whether it would be a celebration of reason or just a self-congratulatory back-pat fest. God was clear: “Nick, atheists are self-important fundamentalists who worship at the alter of Dawkins and pick on the religious to make up for their own crippling emptiness - the moral and spiritual vacuum left when religion is rejected. Go, if you want to talk about nothing for three days.”
“God”, I cried, “I fear you are right! No one set of beliefs follows logically from atheism. What a group of atheists talk about when together depends on each person’s associated beliefs, which could be sensible or insane, thoughtful or completely irrational! Which ideas will come to the surface this weekend?”
“My son”, God soothed me, “I will join you for this carnival of un-belief. I will show you, throughout the next three days, that atheism is just a fashion, a fashion as irrelevant to the rest of the modern world as tight black jeans.”
So it was that God transformed into a nondescript young man and met me at the Melbourne Convention Centre on Friday evening. After enjoying the nibbles and a few pit stops at the generous bar, God led me to a seat and the meeting was underway. He scoffed when the President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia announced that the conference would focus not on nothing/Satan/world domination but on a co-operative way of living the one life we know we have. He pursed his lips severely when the MCs asked Him to take the chance for mass conversion and perform a miracle or a mass smiting. He sat stone-faced through the opening talks, two of them ex-religious comedians who went for His throat and shook it furiously and hilariously.
God shook his head as we left. “You see my son, atheists are angry and negative. There are no positive messages to be taken from people who believe in nothing.” As impressive and entertaining as the acts had been, He was right that things had been negative. The next morning we met again and God strode in, confident that we were in for more proof that He was right.
He was wrong. The second and third days offered a feast of positive ideas and a range of slap-downs for anyone who thought they were superior because of their atheism. From the very beginning, the audience was reminded that as a group they were nothing particularly special. God looked quizzical as Phillip Adams explained that religion was disintegrating on its own, largely deaf to criticism from New Atheism and its devotees. Each ex-religious speaker described their renunciation of faith not as the result of reading rationalist or secular books but instead as the result of their own personal realisations concerning the ridiculousness and misogyny of religious belief.
God looked confused as He heard ex-evangelist Dan Barker chide an audience member for thinking that atheism meant increased intelligence. His confusion grew as philosopher after author promoted the idea that atheism does not at all equate to anti-religiousness, and that the religious should, unless violent, have their views respected and heard with understanding. He gave a paroxysm of shock when Richard Dawkins shouted “Please, please, let her finish!” to a growling crowd about to shout down a religious believer trying to ask an ill-mannered question.
God was surprised by these examples of tolerance, but as I found out in chats with Him during the breaks, what came as more of a shock were the principles and ideas promoted alongside atheism. The central idea at the convention was (arguably) the defence of secularism and certain liberal principles, such as freedom of speech, which are inconsistent with the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. As philosopher A.C. Grayling argued, what should be sought is not the eradication of religion, but simply the turning down in volume of religious voices in politics to the level appropriate for such exclusivist interest groups.
Philosopher Tamas Pataki described as unjustified the belief that society would necessarily be better off without religion, and that atheism does not necessarily entail this belief. Bio-ethicist Leslie Cannold argued that atheists should define their mission as the defence and promotion of secularism, in order to include those religious believers with secular beliefs.
A competitor for central idea of the conference was the equality of women and men. God was astonished how many speakers talked of the ease in which feminism leads to atheism. Former Senator Lyn Allison talked of the legacy left by sexist monotheism, such as women being instilled with the “virtues” of submission and ignorance. Author Jane Caro explained religion as a means of controlling women and their bodies. She argued that phenomena like the burqa make women responsible for how men react sexually to them, and that men need to take that responsibility in order to grow up. How could any feminist defend religions that served male interests so explicitly and shamefully?
This talk of liberal principles and gender equality are examples of a focus on the dark side of religion. This was clearest in the talk given by physician and writer Taslima Nasrin, an exile from her home country of Bangladesh. God squirmed in his seat as Taslima explained the violent riots and death threats that saw her flee Bangladesh in 1994 and India in 2007. He continued to squirm as she picked up on a theme by the previous speech of atheist activist John Perkins, who had explored the fundamentally violent and intolerant messages of the Koran. I did however see God trying to hide a tear in his eye as Taslima talked of what she had missed due to exile, such as deathbed goodbyes to her parents, and the fact that she could find a home only in the hearts of those who oppose ignorance and darkness. He denied it afterwards, He said there had been something in His eye.
Perhaps the most evocative moment was the quote broadcaster Robyn Williams read from an article called Rape of the Congo by Adam Hochschild. In it a Congolese woman named as Rebecca Kamate describes being raped 12 times on top of the dismembered corpse of her husband. When she gained consciousness, she heard the cries of her daughters as they were raped in the next room. As Williams remarked, “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist”.