Accused of being an atheist, the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot replied, ‘It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.’ Diderot was what we might today call an ‘apatheist’, someone who is untroubled about whether God exists or not, and who considers the question neither meaningful nor relevant.
The 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, while understandably lacking in apatheists, was chock full of scientists, philosophers, comedians, and what must surely have been the most single-minded and concordant audience gathered anywhere outside of a symposium of Star Trek fans. Let’s face it, any convention that can bring more than 2,500 people together around a shared belief in nothing has to have something going for it.
The atheists it attracted were by and large the real deal; rational non-believers fully committed to filling in any theoretical ‘God-shaped hole’ with a distinctly Darwin-shaped plug, embracing evolution, the scientific method, and a wide-ranging secular humanism which supports pretty much everything on the hate list of conservative religion.
Nothing wrong with that. Except that, as Ali Sayed has pointed out elsewhere on this blog, this huge convention of like-minded people, hyperbolically calling itself ‘The Rise of Atheism’, had apparently no political objectives at all; no setting in play of forceful new movements for example, no raucous plenary session hammering out action points and strategies. No frenzied pamphlets pointing the way forward. The convention, it seems, had no ambitions to harness the forces of change.
So what exactly was it for?
A clue can possibly be found in the answers people gave me to the question, why are you here? While some said they hoped to learn something, or contribute to the debate, the majority told me they were here to see the big speakers; Richard Dawkins especially, but also AC Grayling and Peter Singer. They bought their books, too, by the truckload. I don’t have figures for the number of books sold over the weekend, but it was seriously good business, if the long queues for signings were anything to go by.
And the convention itself seemed often to be less about “the rise of atheism”, and more about the rise and rise of celebrity atheists; less a convention even, and more an extended festival, a carefully wrought piece of show business, a big production number, complete with stars and support acts, stirring music, comedic interludes and even the obligatory prima donna directors (I had the misfortune to spend some time in the control room and I can tell you there were more histrionics in there than backstage at So You Think You Can Dance).
Does any of this matter? Well, there’s nothing wrong at all with celebrity, or with using big names and comic acts to attract an audience. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with selling books at a convention, or t-shirts, or anything else really. So why is it then that this particular convention left me with a curiously unsatisfied feeling, like eating a meal consisting of nothing but wilted salad leaves? I’m not saying it didn’t have its highlights; its moments – if not quite of transcendence – then at least of intellectual clarity and emotional depth (see my enthusiastic response, day two). I’m not even saying that the convention failed as an event; clearly it was appreciated by most of those in attendance. And it must rank as one of the biggest – if not the biggest – gathering of atheists in the southern hemisphere.
What I am saying is that the feel-good like-mindedness, the close sense of community and camaraderie, the blatant preaching to the converted that emanated particularly from the celebrities, was in fact the raison d’etre of this event. AC Grayling called it “a warm bath feeling” (in an interview with me which will be aired on Encounter on April 18). Again, there’s nothing wrong with a warm bath, though it’s quite a different thing from a convention where ideas are sytematically debated or discussed, or put under the microscope, or even politicised in any useful way. The backdrop to this warm bath – the mis-en-scene of a kind of faux atheist triumphalism – only succeeded in over-hyping the celebrities while underplaying the presentations of lesser mortals, some of whom actually had something new or useful to say on the matter.
So who were they, exactly?
I have to start with two speakers who dared to be critical of atheism in its contemporary form. Phillip Adams, an atheist of impeccable credentials, (and yes, a celebrity, too, though he wasn’t pushing a book) urged us to beware of falling into the trap of ‘atheist fundamentalism’, and of pursuing atheism with a ‘missionary zeal’; Tamas Pataki, an atheist philosopher, raised philosophical doubts about whether you can categorically say there is no God. And he asked us to consider what a world without religion would look like. We can’t know for sure, is the answer, and such a world could logically be much worse than one with religion in it.
While Adams largely got away with his gentle chiding about zealousness and his call to work with like-minded religious folk on matters of social justice, Pataki sparked the ire of a large section of the audience seemingly untrammelled by anything as necessary as doubt. It became clear at this point that doubt was a quality generally in short supply, and that ideas which nibbled at the atheist vision of a promised land free of religion had no place in this particular warm bath; the evil torpedo of doubt threatening the rubber duck of truth.
The next person on my list is a doubter of a different kind, Bangladeshi author, Taslima Nasrin. Arguments about whether Nasrin’s views on the burqa sparked the recent riots in Karnataka have been discussed elsewhere in this blog. But in any sane world Nasrin would have every right to criticise Islam or any other religion as much as she likes, and the fundamentalists (Muslim or Hindu) would have no right whatsoever to riot in the streets, let alone issue death threats or force people into exile. Nasrin’s every public utterance against the excesses of fundamentalist Islam is a victory for moderation, and her courage in speaking out sends a clear message; we – atheists and moderate believers alike – will never tolerate a religious fanaticism which is a danger to others, which oppresses women, and which violates the human rights of those who have a mind of their own to doubt with.
And finally, honorary mentions go to the panel of women – Lyn Allison, Leslie Cannold, Tanya Levin and Jane Caro – for reminding us that religion, organised or otherwise, can only too often be an expression of misogyny; and to Max Wallace for his presentation on the surprising and troubling extent to which taxpayers subsidise religion and what we can do about it. Useful, practical stuff.
As for the stars, well, to paraphrase Diderot horribly, it’s very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but not at all so to watch or not watch celebrity atheists strut their stuff on stage.
Depends what you’re after, I suppose; debate, doubt and the struggle of the intellect? Or the pleasant sit-back-and-soak-it-up feeling of a soothing warm bath?