Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why I am going to the Atheist Convention: a response to some puzzling accusations

In 2010, Melbourne hosted the Global Atheist Convention. I hadn’t read The God Delusion then. My atheism was intuitive rather than cogent, born out of common sense and some nifty philosophy lectures I’d been to as an undergrad. The convention is on again this year, albeit on a considerably bumped up scale. It’s happening at Melbourne’s rather large Convention Exhibition Centre with, for the first time, an injection of government funds. It was to have been the first public event at which the so-called ‘four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett – had spoken. Sadly – no, not sadly: devastatingly – Hitchens’ death late last year has prevented what would have been an extraordinary coup (I say devastatingly not because it simply would have been neat to have them all there, but because I’ve just finished reading Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, a magnificent little book whose short chapter on religion articulates my own feelings about faith better than anything else I’ve read, including Dawkins’ useful but comparatively witless tract).
Even, however, without Hitchens’ presence I remain full of anticipation ahead of the convention (which begins next week). This anticipation has not gone unnoticed by many of my friends and acquaintances, some of whom have confessed to being puzzled by a convention for atheists. A look of condescension crosses their faces as they say things like ‘but aren’t you just turning atheism into another form of religion by getting together en masse?’ and ‘surely you can see that if you have a problem with organised religion, you should have a problem with this’. I meet their puzzlement with my own, and wonder (sometimes aloud) what these people think happens at conventions for atheists: anti-hymns? non-prayers before a statue of Dawkins? three days of speeches about why we should not believe in god? Nobody, I say, would question why a Star Trek fan would go to Comic Con, or why a classics professor would go to a conference on Aeschylus. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett have diverse backgrounds and will, I have no doubt, talk on a broad range of topics of interest to atheists (and these are just the star speakers – others, such as Peter Singer, A.C. Grayling and Lawrence Krauss will have much to say on, I imagine, subjects even further removed from simple-minded anti-godism).
The convention is being described as a ‘celebration of reason’ and this (though necessarily trite) says a lot about why I am going. I am not going because I think my position on the non-existence of god will change (it won’t). I am not going to listen to hours of anti-religious rhetoric (this will not happen). I am not going seeking some kind of secular substitute for church attendance (atheists have no need of such a substitute). I am going, to put it plainly, to hear some intelligent people talk about some interesting (and real) things, and, hopefully, to be stimulated by mixing with some like-minded people – just like a film student going to hear a director give a speech, just like a Doctor Who fan going to watch one of the program’s writers give a presentation.
In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens observes that ‘flock’ used in a religious context is very telling. My problem is not with large gatherings of like-minded people; it is with gatherings which generate mindlessness, promote mumbo jumbo and stimulate closed-mindedness and asphyxiation of the intellect. The Atheist Convention will not do any of these things. See you in Melbourne.                       

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