It wasn’t inevitable that ABC Religion would go to the Atheist Convention – other areas of the ABC had staked the territory, and how many times ought one media organisation interview Richard Dawkins? In the end, we went because we were curious about the aim/s of the Convention, its unfolding purpose and direction, the people who would be there, and what it would tell us about atheism as a contemporary position. Then, we discovered that the Convention was fully within our remit not because there was particular attention to ethics; it was virtually all about religion.
At this distance from that weekend – we’re two and a half weeks down the track as we bring this blog to a conclusion – it doesn’t get easier to sum up the Convention or our blog enterprise. Yes, some philosphical and scientific claims stay, to be pursued in arenas where conversation is possible and questions can be asked. And so does the loathing and abomination of hypocrisy in religous institutions. These things are more than important. But other aspects come forward, in part I acknowledge because they have been reinforced by the blog process. Thus, often in tension with my recollection of individual attendees, I recall the Convention’s ‘culture’, alongside the quality of content in various presentations, and the tenor of comments from blog readers.
Who came to the Convention? Mostly Australians, with probably fifty per cent, I’m told, from Victoria. It was a cheery crowd, happy to foregather and in the end mildly triumphant about the achievement of the Convention. As Gary Bryson and Chris Mulherrin noted, many we spoke to felt ‘liberated’ or ‘affirmed’ by the opportunity to get together with like-minded people. In what sense were they like-minded? Much of the on-stage and commentary narrative resisted diversity or range – no such stance as agnostic for example. Nevertheless, a recent commentator on the blog has described the Convention attendees as “a bunch of staunch individualists with enormously disparate views on a whole range of issues.” Out on the concourse, amongst the crowd, it was possible to encounter those ‘staunch individualists’ – and we introduced a few of those we met in this blog. (See (Conversing with James, So far, so?, All Talk and No Action) We noted the predominance of males, the presence of younger people (interestingly, many of those to whom we spoke were making their way towards atheism from no personal experience of religion). And we noted the increase in attendance on the Sunday, when the headline speakers were to take the stage and to become available for book signings. We noted the intense interest in specific issues, like the influence of creationism in education and in politics, the presence of chaplains in schools, the perceived ‘control’ by religion of the limits of personal freedom, interests that had drawn people to the Convention. But inside the main venue it was difficult to discern individualism, staunch or otherwise. It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’.
It‘s easy to describe the Convention culture en bloc as crude, naïve, and aggressive. That’s what it was often like, from the opening night when it first framed religion as comedy and first represented itself as unfairly denied government funding. Certainly the guest comedians hit the spot (hypocrisy, silliness, credulity), but sometimes the cruelty and crudity of the comedy just amplified the anti-intellectual strain of much of the Convention content. I mention naivety: that comes across in the emblematic funding story. It’s clear that obdurate naivety was involved there: a refusal to doff the lens of prejudice in order to see clearly structures of government, bureaucratic processes, necessary objectives. (See this and this.) Naivety was there in the response to Taslima Nasrin and in the axiomatic laughter in response to references like A. C. Grayling’s to the Quran: it is naïve surely to imagine that there is nothing to be known or understood about the Quran beyond what is comprehended in a cheap quip. Naivety was there in the suspension of enquiry: no questions about why the Convention was dominated by white middle class males who carried strong whiffs of atavistic anti-Catholicism (little to do with rationality) and who apprehended atheism as a dimension of the ‘good life’ not yet available to the poor of Africa and India. No questions about what that might say of the atheism they represent and its capacity for critical attention to the world we live in. No question about the curious conjunction of fundamentalisms in someone like Dan Barker. No question about the globalising dynamic of American style creationism: how is it that Turkish Muslim creationists and American Christian fundamentalists can work together in order to defeat Science? And of course naivety was comically there in the teleology proffered by the Convention: its placement of atheism as a point of achievement (purpose?) where the cleverer, smarter etc might be found. As for aggression, that was implicit in the language of attack, contempt and derision.
I’ve been challenged by some commentators on this blog to admit my bias, as if there is one telling bias, religious belief. Well here’s a bias and it’s not half joking: English accents of a certain kind remind me that I’m not so far removed from the colonial experience. I hear in Richard Dawkins and in A. C. Grayling that smooth voice of imperialism, going about quashing languages and symbolic structures as it ‘rationalises’ and ‘improves’, systematises and reduces, ruling out other voices, other experiences and complexities beyond its ken, erasing boundaries and setting up arbitrary borders – and not in the least interested in upsetting the way the imperium works. And I admit to another bias, towards history and the work of historians, who are curious and open and who never imagine that complex reality can be explained by reduction, and who tell us about the harm that imperialism has visited upon the world we live in today. There was no history at the Convention, just doses of pseudo-history.
But I come back to individuals, like some of our contributors, and their concern for issues of equity and justice, and their urgent desire to build a practical collective ethics and indeed to find community. They are memorable. I hope they are able to get to work. I come back to those few speakers, like Leslie Cannold, who stood on their distinctive ground, holding out the prospect of discussion and collaboration. And I’ll hope that next time, the Atheist Convention will get around to developing an ethics for the moment when the persistence of religion (against evolutionary purpose?) challenges our arrival at that religion-less utopia envisioned by atheism’s contemporary advocates. I’ll be interested.
In the meantime, if you are interested in milieux where conversation is possible, try ABC Radio National, and try also a blog site like The Immanent Frame, which attends to ’secularism, religion and the public sphere’. Check out Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, attend to events coming up hosted by the ACU’s Faculty of Philosophy and Theology, including the annual Simone Weil lectures. That’s a start. Thank you for your attention – and thanks also to my collaborators in this enterprise. I think we’ve learned a lot!