Last weekend 2,500 non-believers packed into Melbourne’s glossy new hi-tech Convention Centre for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention.
It was the biggest gathering of atheists ever in Australia and even, some said, in the world.
However, although the Convention had its star turns - British philosopher A.C. Grayling, courageous ex Muslim Taslima Nasrin, our own Peter Singer, the great man himself, Richard Dawkins, and many more - the real stars of the conference were the participants, the audience, who had come from all over Australia and even the far side of the earth to participate in this so-far unique event.
The surprising thing about them was their heterogeneity. Stereotyping was impossible. They ranged from teenagers to university students to 30-somethings to middle-aged married couples to retirees to old men and women barely able to walk, with no one group predominating. They were united in their love of reason and logic and in their rejection of superstition.
They came, no doubt, to hear Richard Dawkins, but they also came to be with like-minded people for a weekend. The whole three days were a celebration of free-thought and secularism, and the people luxuriated in the sense of being among fellow travellers, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
For generations, people with no belief in God have felt like outsiders in Australia, and if not exactly shunned, at least treated as in some way as weird and somehow defective.
Today, thanks to the writings of people like Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling in England, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in the USA and Tamas Pataki and Peter Singer in Australia, the tide is beginning to turn. The myriad of inconsistencies in religion, its implausible claims, its lack of evidentiary support, its delusional mental set are being systematically exposed. Rather than a rational response to the world, it is more and more exposed as only being sustained by rationalisation, by trying to explain away the inexplicable, justify the unjustifiable.
Moreover, religion no longer has the monopoly on morality. The research of Gregory Paul has shown a strong correlation between religiosity and social dysfunction in first-world countries. A country like the USA, which is highly religious, also has a higher rate of such things as homicide, juvenile mortality, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion than the more secular democracies, for example Sweden. And, as Peter Singer pointed out in his presentation, secular Sweden gives away a much larger proportion of its GDP in aid and has a much more effective welfare system than the supposedly loving and caring Christian USA. And three of the four greatest philanthropists of the 20th century (Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates), identified themselves as atheists, not Christians.
So last weekend the non-believers came out and mingled and enjoyed their escalating legitimacy in the community. In the words of Hillsong Church escapee, Tanya Levin, they were “the grown-ups”.
Between lectures, the people milled in the vast expanses of the Convention Centre foyer, and talked and shared their stories and generally felt good about being atheists together.
For example, one guy talked about his frustration at a London airport at having to go through such stringent and disruptive search procedures and how he felt like saying to them “I’m an atheist - we don’t blow things up”. Perhaps, he mused, there should be a fast lane for atheists at airport security, or even special exclusive flights for us which would be free from the threat of terrorism.
Queensland artist Ben Beeton was there, putting the lie to the myth that atheists are uncreative and only cerebral, as he regaled us with reproductions of his stunning oil paintings and computer programs that celebrated evolution.
The author was a presenter at the Atheists Convention in Melbourne 2010.