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More audio available - March 19, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

Access Richard Dawkins’ lecture here.  And Peter Singer’s presentation here.  (His early remarks are missing due to a technical issue.)  AC Grayling is here.

There is audio also of Taslima Nasrin and John Perkins.

All these links take you to the audio as it is embedded at the foot of a relevant post.

To access the audio directly, go to the Audio tab at the right of this page.  It’s beneath the tab listing ‘Recent Comments’.

A response to the Convention - March 18, 2010 by admin

Stephen Ames was at the Convention and now as a guest blogger he reflects on some of the Convention themes and on some of his Convention encounters:

Many atheists and believers have trouble recognising themselves in each representation of the other.  The Convention brought to mind my meeting NS, an atheist friend, in Federation Square, Melbourne. A few years ago we had attended a public event for social justice but met by chance afterwards. Neil was in tears. He was hurt and very angry.  He had been standing with a group of Christians who, on discovering he was an atheist, started to bag him as a bad person.  Neil asked me why so many religious people think atheists are bad people.  He knew that I am a Christian from when we first met in the late 1960s doing our doctorates in physics at the University of Melbourne; he knew that I had never thought of him that way.  I felt dreadful that he and many like him should be treated so badly by Christians.  NS is a Marxist and deeply committed to social justice. What a travesty.  I simply said that I knew he was a good man.   So, I appreciated the more moderate views of some of the speakers at the Atheist Convention, for example, Philip Adams’ more balanced assessment of religious people.  I have a comparison in mind.  For the last eight years I have been lecturing in ‘God and the Natural Sciences’, a second and third year subject at Melbourne University.  My colleague NT, a lifelong atheist, is a co-lecturer. Over a hundred students from all over the university enrol each year. About 40% of the students are committed atheists and another 40% are committed to a religious tradition, and 20% are agnostics.  Neil and I conduct a constructive public discussion in which we disagree on the fundamental question of God.  The Atheism Convention organisers come out of a different kind of conversation.   In fact it would appear that for many of the presenters and the audience the conversation is over.  The point was made by the comedian Sue-Anne Post on the first night. “There is no evidence for God. We are over arguing about it. There should be more mockery.”  Thankfully, this isn’t the only option.

Recalling the encounter with NS brought me back to the Convention.  There were many speakers who clearly felt that Christians could not affirm the truly good character of an atheist.  This is partly because of questions put to atheists about ‘why be good if there is no God’ or the idea that it is impossible to be good without God.  One of the emotional currents running in the Convention showed up in the cheering and applause whenever a speaker affirmed the possibility of living a good life without religion and especially without the denigration of this possibility by religion.  I have some sympathy for the atheist objection.   It resonates with the scene in Matthew’s gospel, concerning the last judgement.  The sheep and the goats are on the right and left hand of Christ.  The sheep are saved, the goats are not.  This will already be too much for many people.  But I ask you to wait.  It is the criterion that is of interest.  Those who end up at the right hand of God are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison.  The key point is that the text shows these people as never having heard the gospel, as acting without reference to God or Christ or even their own salvation.  The person in need was sufficient motivation.   Atheist friends say to me that this is not the message they have received from the church.  Well there is more to say of course.  But an ensuing conversation would not deprive us of this point from Matthew.

Richard Dawkins spoke on the theme, The evolution of gratitude and gratitude for evolution.  Evolution gives us reason to be thankful.  This evoked surprise in the audience and of course Dawkins gave it a rhetorical emphasis, ‘give thanks?’, ‘to whom?’   This ‘gratitude’ is another example of what Dawkins call a ‘misfire’.  A behaviour hard wired by evolution ‘fires off’ in a vacuum, another context where its evolutionary rationale no longer holds. In his God Delusion this is how he explains what he calls the ‘Good Samaritan’ in each of us – the tendency to feel compassion for strangers.  In the case of feeling gratitude for being alive, he suggests it is a misfiring of the early childhood learning to calculate what is fair or what is owing.  So we find ourselves thankful for all the green lights that give us an easy drive.  This is the basis for Dawkins’ strong exhortation for us to be thankful and to be inspired by the fact of our existence.    As I reflected on his exhortation, I was reminded of the theme of ‘thanksgiving’ that is part of my life as a Christian – thanksgiving for all life as a gift from God.  This is central to the meal and the conversation that is at the heart of worship for many Christians.    This gift and thanksgiving is what I wake up into and why I get out bed in the morning. It frames everything else, come what may.

For Dawkins this is just another example of misfiring, with my gratitude projected onto a non-existent God.   This is part of what Dawkins calls the “weird” Christianity espoused by the Cambridge paleontoligist, Simon Conway Morris. One reflection I have is that I would need something better than a ‘misfire’ to follow Dawkins’ exhortation.  Recall his own words, ‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”   I think this places the suggested gratitude for life due to  a  ‘misfire’ in a larger context.  Indifference, especially pitiless indifference, doesn’t warrant gratitude.

On the other hand, like many people, I am grateful for being alive.  Yes, I am thankful and amazed at the evolution of life in the physical conditions of the evolving universe, as this has been brought home to me by the scientific story about the universe.  But I was thankful for life long before I knew the scientific story, even though my gratitude is now deeply informed by that story.  From early in my life, before I became a Christian, I had a strong sense of the unconditional value of life.  I still take this as one of the clues to reality, even when, or especially when, this value is dreadfully violated.  (Robyn Williams wanted to know where God is in these circumstances.)  This sense of value does not accord with a world view, a metaphysics, in which everything conditions everything else.  The unconditional value of life must have its roots in something that transcends all the conditions of life.  My gratitude for life comes from recognising life is a precious gift.  The Christian message illuminates this gift and promises it will be honoured.   ‘At bottom’ I think there is a gracious giving of existence and the giver is the living God who will have the ‘last word’ for the whole created universe and it will be ‘Yes!’    And by the way, if someone says God is the source of all that exists, it is not logically possible to ask, ‘what created God?’ There is nothing prior to God to do that creating.  Other objections to this saying about God may be offered but not this one.

I know my atheist colleagues and friends think this way of recognising life is just a form of ‘misfire’, a delusion.  They find support for their view from the natural processes like a tsunami or a congenital disease, which appear to be indifferent to the value of life.  But these are some of the consequences of the processes that produce life.  In conversations with students this quickly leads them questioning my belief in God: ‘why would God use natural processes, including evolution by natural selection, to bring life into existence?’ and ‘why would God use any process at all, why not just create the world in the intended end state, if the world is supposedly created for some purpose?’   Will our faith and theology be up to answering these questions? The answer has to be robust enough to address Dawkins saying the universe is, at bottom, pitilessly indifferent.  I regard these as excellent questions for which there are good answers.  But these would take more than this blog to set out.  It is one part of a larger conversation working out the rationality of faith.  This reference to ‘reason’ is deeply Christian in a Christianity that has reason to believe the divine Logos has become flesh in Christ.

At the end of her vivid, witty segment Catherine Deveney gave us this word: “Seek the truth and the truth will make you free. Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of never having really lived.  Peace be with you.”  These are also deeply Christian themes, at least one being a direct quote.   CD says ‘God is bullshit’ – that is her gig at the comedy festival.  Taking a line from Dan Barker, a speaker at the Convention, this is culturally resonant with speaking about God as a shepherd in Jesus’ own day. But could the truth, life and peace she commends to us enter into a conversation with the truth, life and peace that Christians value?  Catherine Deveney, would you be interested in another gig?

Stephen Ames is a priest in the Anglican Church and a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. For the last eight years he has lectured in ‘God and the Natural Sciences’ at the University of Melbourne.  He is also the coordinator of Science, Religion & Society, a programme of Trinity College.  Stephen has two PhDs from Melbourne, one in physics and the other in philosophy of science.  His most recent publication is a paper, ‘Why would God use evolution?’ to be published by the Australasian Theological Forum.

Photo courtesy of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne.

Credo with Commentary - March 17, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

On Monday I posted Credo affirming 10 things that I, as an orthodox Christian believer, have in common with many atheists. Well, I’ve been thinking… and it won’t surprise my atheist sparring partners to know that my own Credo goes beyond the 10 things in common. This Credo with Commentary is a personal response to things heard at the convention and that I’ve read in this blog.

1. We believe that we live in a wonderful and ordered world, where the law of cause and effect is the norm…

True, but hold on…  there is no scientific argument to say that the normal law of cause and effect governs everything. This might seem like common sense (and it was assumed by most speakers at the Convention) but in fact it is a commitment based on induction from past experience. And why should we trust induction from past experience? Because it has worked in the past? There’s the rub. Philosophers call it the problem of induction. Our confidence in induction is based on induction. A circular argument. Either we remain open to the possibility of ‘non-scientific’ truth or we admit that we have a basic and unprovable commitment (or belief, or faith) in induction and causality.

…and where human rationality is, in some extraordinary way, able to comprehend much of its amazing complexity.

But the limits to all possible knowledge can never be known because we don’t have an Archimedean viewpoint (colloquially known as a ‘God’s eye view’.) Unless we knew the whole, we could not know how close we were getting to it. Discretion is the better part of valour and humility demands that we be more agnostic than atheist.

2. We believe that science is the major source of truth about the physical universe in which we find ourselves…

Yes, but there’s more. See number 3 below.

More than that, we put our trust in the consensus of scientific experts in their respective fields…

Absolutely… but notice the word ‘trust.’ No individual knows everything. I trust my physics lecturer, she trusts her instruments. Richard Dawkins chooses which experts in other fields he will trust. Science is a web of trust. Religious people sometimes use the word faith for trust. Being open-minded or a true freethinker means conversing with those outside your web of trust.

3. We believe in the old-fashioned and common sense concept of truth…

I would argue that the roots of our word truth are  found in the Greek which means roughly ‘revealing’ or ‘uncovering’ and that the Gospel of John, especially the first chapter, is worthy of study on that topic. Things beyond the limits of human reason will never be found. They can only be revealed or else they will never be known.

4.  … climate change won’t go away. It is not just “another metanarrative.”

5. We believe human beings need to activate their little grey cells…

6. We believe in the problem of evil. Appalling things happen in our world. All is not good. Something must be done about it.

Why bother? I know very well that being an atheist does not make someone immoral. And I accept that being a Christian does not make one moral. But I would ask two questions: 1. If we truly find ourselves “in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which we emerged only by chance,” then how does morality get a hold on us? Why am I subject to anything but my own desires and the will of those who have power? Peter Singer recognised in his talk at the Convention that ethics cannot be rooted in evolution or nature. It seems that Dostoevsky got it right: if God is dead, everything is permitted.

7. We believe in the problem of evil…  this time the issue is the theological problem of evil. For both of us, the question of how a good God could allow evil demands an answer.

Here it is. Number 7. The big challenge for Christians, and, the way I see it, the one powerful argument in favour of atheism. There are no slick theological arguments here. We could talk of free will and the possibility of evil that goes along with free will. We could talk of what it means to live in what Christians call ‘a fallen world.’ But they are pointers not answers. And we could talk of the suffering God of Christianity who is not the distant God of the philosophers. This is the God who was ‘in Christ,’ the ‘man of sorrows,’ full of compassion, who suffered and died. In that mystery lies a clue to the problem of evil: God himself experienced evil in its full force and in some way that we barely comprehend, will ‘make all things new.’

8. We believe that atheism can be a rational and internally coherent worldview.

Yes, and if I weren’t a Christian I think I’d be an atheist. But there are more things in heaven and earth that can’t be answered by that philosophy. I can’t squeeze myself into that box: it leaves out so much. For example, I don’t think it has convincing answers to issues such as: i. The experience of moral conflict within me between what I believe is right and how I behave; ii. My conviction that I really do have free will and responsibility and that my actions are not determined causally by neuronal firings or by random happenings at a sub-atomic level; iii. Historical truth is not open to positivistic scientific method. But orthodox Christianity centres on a historical happening outside the city of Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. With St Paul I say: if Christ was not raised, my faith is in vain. Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he a liar? Was he a lunatic? Or was he Lord? Empirical science cannot answer these questions.

9. We believe that intolerant fundamentalism is a bad thing.

10. We believe that Monty Python is funny and that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was ground-breaking science fiction.

I admit: I left out the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Apologies to Douglas Adams if he’s listening. And if he is, he knows the answer is not 42.

Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.

Audio from the Convention - March 17, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

We’re adding audio from the Convention: first to appear are Tamas Pataki (sadly without that important question and answer re Scandinavia – we didn’t record it) and Ian Robinson. You can find Tamas Pataki here and Ian Robinson here. Scroll through to the foot of each post. More audio will be added tomorrow.

Email from JC - March 17, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

I got an email from JC last night. Julie Clarke has been an avid blog follower and a prolific and thoughtful commentator (‘JC’) – perhaps because she’s in a writing mood as she finalises her doctoral thesis. I asked Julie to give us some impressions of the Atheist Convention.

Why did I go to the convention? I think there were several reasons.

First, of course, I have read some of Dawkins’ books and was keen to hear him speak. As a person who loved science in High School, but pursued a career in law, I jump at any opportunity for a ’science lesson’ from an expert and find evolution particularly interesting (if we were taught it in High School I don’t remember it).

Second, it’s nice to get together to talk to people who share similar views (at least on this issue) and discuss the issue openly – it’s something we tend not to be able to do as freely in our day-to-day lives (or at least have trepidation in doing) for fear of ‘offending’ colleagues, friends or family.

A related reason (and probably the key motivating factor) is my concern about the intrusion of religion into the public sphere. As I’ve previously noted, I suspect the Convention – if it was held at all – would have been much less popular if it wasn’t for concern about the influence of religion in politics and in schools/education. With a 5yo about to start school next year this is of immediate concern for me; I do not want to make the decision to have her either sit in on a Christian ‘RI’ class or have to be segregated into another room for the duration.

As to the convention itself, overall I was impressed – I missed some sessions on Saturday morning (courtesy of my thesis!) but attended most of the weekend and the highlight for me was Anthony Grayling – I would happily pay to go and listen to him again. I enjoyed the other speakers too and thought the variety of issues covered was good, including the attack atheists confront most regularly – how can you possibly be ‘moral’ if you are an atheist. As an atheist I have no doubt at all about my ability to be moral without any supernatural rule-book or heavenly incentive, but it’s not always an easy concept to explain – I feel better equipped to meet that challenge now. I don’t think you could argue that we simply met to talk about ‘nothing’ as some religious commentators would like to believe.

Finally on the issue of bias, I think it’s more interesting to present a range of view points and to be up-front about that. No matter how much you could claim you had no bias in reporting on issues of this nature, if you were a practising Catholic you would not have been able to report on Dawkins’ lecture in a completely objective way. I’m sure the same could be said of an atheist who had a pre-existing admiration for the man – but that said I would still be interested in a Catholic view of the issue. My concern is only that bias (or affiliation) is acknowledged up front.

Post-convention events - March 16, 2010 by admin

We’d be interested to highlight events that pick up the themes of this convention and continue the discussion. This will be an expanding list as we become aware of them (please inform us of any we miss).

“Science and God: Incompatible?”
A panel discussion with various scientists who are Christians including Emeritus Professor of Physics at Monash, John Pilbrow. Wednesday March 17, 8.00 pm, St James Conference Centre, 12 Batman St, West Melbourne.

“Two Philosophers in Discussion: Does God Exist?”
Philosophy in a pub with Bruce Langtry and Doug Adeney, both Senior Fellows in Philosophy at University of Melbourne, one Christian, one atheist. Thursday, March 18, 8.00 pm, University Hotel, Cnr Lygon and Grattan Sts, Carlton.

Credo - March 15, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

While some of the rhetoric sounds like atheists and theists are diametrically opposed on just about everything, the Atheist Convention left me thinking we have much in common.

More than once we heard that there is only one thing that atheists themselves have in common: their non-belief in God or the gods. But the mood of the Convention revealed a broader consensus. People shared more than simply that distinctive “non-belief.” In fact, at times some speakers seemed to want to move from a minimalist agreement to a broad platform for world change.

So, what are the cords that bind this particular orthodox Christian to many of those present at the convention? I acknowledge that, firstly, this is my personal view, not representative of all Christians, and secondly, I refer to many but not all atheists. What is our common creed?

1. We believe that we live in a wonderful and ordered world, where the law of cause and effect is the norm and where human rationality is, in some extraordinary way, able to comprehend much of its amazing complexity.

2. We believe that science is the major source of truth about the physical universe in which we find ourselves, from the microscopic to the macroscopic level. More than that, we put our trust in the consensus of scientific experts in their respective fields, recognising that while they might be proven wrong in one way or another, we would be foolish not to believe them.

3. We believe in the old-fashioned and common sense concept of truth. When it comes to factual claims about the world or about God, we agree that we can’t all be right. In such matters we are frustrated with a so-called postmodern relativism that talks of tolerance as an excuse not to deal with the issues.

4. We believe that, because of 2. and 3. above, these issues matter. Climate change won’t go away. It is not just “another metanarrative.” It is not “true for me but not for you.”

5. We believe human beings need to activate their little grey cells (please say that with the accent of Monsieur Hercule Poirot.) We have been created with brains; we ought to use them.

6. We believe in the problem of evil. Appalling things happen in our world. All is not good. Something must be done about it.

7. We believe in the problem of evil. No, I am not repeating myself: this time the issue is the theological problem of evil. For both of us, the question of how a good God could allow evil demands an answer.

8. We believe that atheism can be a rational and internally coherent worldview.

9. We believe that intolerant fundamentalism is a bad thing.

10. We believe that Monty Python is funny and that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was ground-breaking science fiction.

On these beliefs we stand united.

Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.

Science and the supernatural - March 15, 2010 by admin

Rachel WoodlockGuest blogger, Rachel Woodlock, takes up a theme of many comments posted on this blog:

As a convert from one faith-group to another (Baha’i to Islam for those interested), I have spent many years grappling with judging competing truth claims. I’ve been humoured by religious, agnostic and atheist family members and friends so that I could pick their brains over the ontological and epistemological niceties of what is true and how can we know it is true.

Al-Ghazali had a go at it nearly nine hundred years ago, developing a process of methodical doubt that went: 1) Sense-perception is unreliable as an arbiter of truth, because rationality can disprove sense-perception (a dinar coin looks bigger when held up to the sun, but the intellect disproves the senses and knows that the sun is the larger of the two objects). 2) Thus, it cannot be discounted that a supra-intellect might falsify the intellect, and rationality alone cannot be the final arbiter of truth. (Did I mention that al-Ghazali wasn’t keen on the Mu’talizah?) Upon realising this, al-Ghazali fell into a profound depression and although he doesn’t explicitly say it, I suspect he became atheist for a time as he wrote: “I was a sceptic in fact though not in theory nor in outward expression” (The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazālī, p.24).

Al-Ghazali’s intellectual scepticism was resolved in favour of experiential Sufism, after quitting his home and undertaking a quest as did so many great spiritual figures before him, whether Moses in the wilderness, Lao Tzu in his hermitage, the Buddha under the Bo-tree, Jesus in the desert, or Muhammad in the cave on the Mountain of Light. (Unlike these days, it seems scholars could afford to take luxuriously long sabbaticals. Al-Ghazali writes of Baghdad: “Nowhere in the world have I seen better financial arrangements to assist a scholar to provide for his children.”)

The great modern-day scholar of religion, Huston Smith, also discounts limiting existence to that which is merely empirically observable and describes science as the most wonderful and useful tool that is absolutely appropriate for explaining natural phenomena but completely useless for ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ the existence of a non-material realm. It is not the tool designed for the job. Teacups floating around a planet and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are both examples of beings that by definition would have corporeal existence, and hence fall into the realm of scientific hypothesis. Because they would conceptually be empirically observable, and we have not observed them, we can say they are non-existent.

Smith explains that science can only accurately describe that which is lesser than us.  It’s the reason why amoebae are much easier to understand, and thoroughly more predictable, in comparison to the human psyche. If we attempt to conceive of beings greater than ourselves, how could we scientifically study them? “If such beings exist, science–the science that can prove its propositions through controlled experiments–will never bring them to view for the sufficient reason that if they exist, it is they who dance circles around us, not we them” (Why Religion Matters, p196). Smith likens the scientific method to a flashlight that is entirely useful for illuminating a path in the dark (the realm of natural world), partially useful when pointed towards the horizon (the realm of human experience) and completely useless for illuminating the heavens (the spiritual realm).

At this point whether one asserts the existence or non-existence of a supernatural realm (e.g. what was ‘there’ before the Big Bang, the unseen realm of the soul, the existence of God), both positions require intellectual leaps of faith.  Although I am not a rational choice theorist, Iannaccone and Berman use Pascal’s Wager to make a good argument for the rationality of positing the existence of the supernatural realm: “Rational individuals will seek to understand and influence the supernatural to the extent that they remain uncertain of its non-existence” (“Religious Extremism: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly” p.113, their emphasis).

But the question then becomes, how to choose between mutually exclusive truth-claims about the supernatural realm, upon which the fate of the soul rests, which is the great problem facing religious pluralists.

Rachel Woodlock is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University

Conversing with James – from Chris Mulherin - March 15, 2010 by Chris Mulherin

My conversation with James Sharpe at the Convention dinner prompted an interview. James is an artist who works on video games.

So what brings you to the Atheist Convention James?

I guess one of the biggest reasons is the quest for community. We’re all very similar genetically and there is a need for people of no faith to have the same level of community that people of faith have. In the secular world we haven’t created a good alternative to the communities that people of faith have.

I think that one of the things I find is that the secular world is not as good at talking about emotional stuff. There’s definitely a need for that sense that you can open up to people and talk about things that trouble you. My view of the church and religious organisations is that they create the environment where people can walk in off the street and talk about what is going on in their life. In the secular world it can be very lonely if you don’t have the right kinds of friends.

I think the next thing the secular community needs to address, which is far more important than taking on religion, is looking after our emotional needs and creating that support base.

So is this a spiritual quest?

Yes. Atheism is part of a spiritual quest, not the end but just a step along the way. And perhaps not the most important step. It’s about coming to terms with ourselves as emotional creatures. You don’t have to be an atheist to do that… I think I am most interested in keeping the question open: atheism is more about accepting you don’t know.

Hold on: wouldn’t a lot of people here at the convention disagree with that?

Possibly, but I think it is important to have meaningful definitions of your beliefs. I don’t call myself an agnostic because I am agnostic about everything and for me that means that agnosticism has no meaning. If I am to choose a label then it needs to communicate my behaviour and values, so I am an atheist because my actions are based on the assumption that a God does not exist.

I think that there is a certain sense of insecurity and frustration within the atheist community, perhaps because we don’t have a solid support structure. We don’t express ourselves emotionally in a healthy manner so there’s a danger of us becoming passive aggressive. If we are angry we need to say so, to be honest about how we feel and work out how we deal with that.

Are you angry?

Probably at some level but it doesn’t dominate me because I’ve put effort into expressing myself in a healthy manner. It’s more frustration than anger, not necessarily specific. It’s about how confusing life is and how hard it is to sort out the good information from the bad and to work out the correct course of action. The overwhelmingness of the consequences of our decisions… I feel sometimes we are in a world of the blind leading the blind, you follow someone for a way then realise they don’t know where they are going either. No one really knows what’s going on. You’ve got to question the traditions and the uncertainties of life… to accept that no one really knows the answers.

Surely that’s not the tone of this convention? Are you amongst friends here on that score?

I’m sure we all disagree about a great many things. This is a coming together of people who have formed a conclusion about a single topic: at the very least most people here would agree that there is not sufficient evidence to justify a belief that there is a God. Or at least they have not been presented with sufficient evidence.

My reading so far is that the mood here is not nearly so questioning as you seem to be. Don’t you hear a more definite and strident tone?

Absolutely. I think there are a lot of people here who have a stronger stance than I do. But I understand their position. The same way people of faith believe so strongly in their beliefs, there is a pressure to have strong convictions about our lack of beliefs. There are people here who would say not only that they lack a belief in God but that they believe there is no god. That would be me.

The dismissal by people here of the idea of a God might be out of frustration: there are a lot of theologians out there who offer poor arguments for their beliefs and you might be seeing a frustration or a rolling of the eyes because people won’t realise they do not have evidence based beliefs. The most successful theologians are those who say ‘I believe this because it feels true to me but I don’t know why.’ That position doesn’t require you to make up a ridiculous argument. But I know many would disagree with me: the feelings and intuitions can be deceived but at the same time we do trust our intuitions.

So if Christians want to convince people, should they drop the logical, philosophical, apologetic approach and talk more about feelings and intuitions?

I’m not sure you can convince people about religion without evidence. Until there is objective evidence then religion can only ever be a personal thing. You can’t convince someone to be religious.

What about relativism? One thing that strikes me here is that atheists and believers such as myself are agreed on an idea of truth that doesn’t allow the sort of “what’s true for you is not necessarily true for me” response. Rather, we agree that either the atheist or the theist is right but not both.

I’m very against the sort of post-modernist philosophical relativism. An example: if a meteor hits this building right now my non-belief in meteors will not protect me. That thought experiment throws the idea of epistemological relativism out the window. There is one truth but it is hard to know.

For me the most interesting part of the conference has been to talk to people who have a position that is not similar to my own. That is how we learn: by taking the ideas of others that conflict with our own. That way our own ideas become more refined and we can have a better faith in our own judgment. All people, whatever they believe, are advantaged by talking to people who disagree with them. The truth is best served by talking with people we disagree with.

There’s more coming …. - March 14, 2010 by Margaret Coffey

There’s more coming on the 2010 Global Atheism Convention … lots to report yet.  But we’re taking a break this evening, post the Convention’s closing.  Back shortly.