Atheist in Wonderland

A personal account from the Rise of Atheism Global Atheist Convention

By Chrys Stevenson

This article first appeared in the April-June 2010 issue of Secular Nation Magazine, a publication of Atheist Alliance International:

Sunshine Coast Atheists at the Global Atheist Convention

It’s a Sunday evening in Melbourne, Australia. The Rise of Atheism Global Atheist Convention has just concluded and I’m  sitting in the bar at the Hilton Hotel having an animated discussion about how to build on the momentum of this amazing  event.

My drinking buddies are my friend Warren Bonett, the owner of a science and philosophy bookshop in my home state of Queensland; Julie and Mark, a couple whose income from the adult industry is threatened by the Christian lobby; former  Catholic schoolgirls Vicki and Tracey; Tanya Levin, author of a best-selling book about her life in and outside of Hillsong Church; and Jane Caro, a writer, social commentator and well-known television panellist.

Suddenly, Jane makes a smart-ass comment — I can’t remember what it was, blame the chardonnay — and before I  know it we launch simultaneously into a loud rendition of Janis Joplin’s, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz …”

Surreal! I feel like I’ve just tumbled into an atheist Wonderland. Until the Convention, Jane was just a face on a television screen and Tanya was the name on the cover of a well-thumbed book. Now, I’m drinking and singing with them in a bar while we plot the next step for atheism in Australia.

That sums up the Global Atheist Convention experience for me. It’s about meeting like-minded people, discussing important subjects, mixing as equals with professors, celebrities and authors, looking beyond the Convention to the future and, of course, drinking and laughing hysterically.

There is another surreal moment in the same bar, just before the Convention begins. It’s early evening and atheists beginning to wander in for a drink, prior to attending the launch of Russell Blackford’s and Udo Schuklenk’s 50 Voices of  Disbelief. As each person arrives we introduce ourselves, often giving both our real names and our Internet monikers and big hugs all round as we discover the 3D versions of people we’ve already bonded with online. Perhaps an hour into our drinking session a familiar face appears.

“Hi, I’m PZ Myers!” he says, hand outstretched.

There’s no need for an introduction. There’s no mistaking that hirsute but cherubic face.

“We know who you are!” says Warren with a huge grin.

PZ is supposed to be meeting some Pharyngulites in the bar, but there’s no sign of them.

“Can you give me a name?” I ask. “Perhaps I have their number in my phone.”

PZ looks a tad sheepish and admits the only name he has is Bride of Shrek. Regrettably, although I have Darwin’s Bulldog, the Irreverent Mr Black, Sean the Blogonaut and the indomitable Felch Grogan in my contacts list, Bride of Shrek is a notable omission.

We wait with PZ as long as we can, but the Blackford book launch is in a neighboring suburb and we’re going to be late. I muster our herd of cats into taxis, but, as we step into our cab, Warren pauses momentarily, nods his head and says, “We’re so cool, we just walked out on PZ Myers!”

At the book launch I get my first introduction to the philosopher A.C. (Anthony) Grayling, a distinguished-looking scholar with a mane of silver hair and a razor sharp wit delivered with a mellifluous British accent. The combined effect is devastatingly charismatic.

I had met Russell Blackford earlier in the day, after conversing for several months on the Internet. He is a quietly-spoken but passionate atheist whose slight reserve and thoughtful manner belie the sometimes scathing tone of his blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

After the book launch, a rag-tag crowd of atheists meanders along Lygon Street and boards a Melbourne tram to one of the waterholes designated for the rare unscheduled moments of the Convention. A trip in a Melbourne tram, I find, is akin to standing inside a tin can and being shaken vigorously from side to side until the lid is removed and you are unceremoniously tumbled out, dazed and discombobulated, into the middle of the road. It is, in short, a religious experience.

We walk the short distance to Federation Square, an amazing piece of public post-modern architecture. After an obligatory beer at an outdoor table, we split up into smaller groups to dine at whichever nearby restaurant grabs our interest.

Although the Convention doesn’t start officially until Friday night, there are a host of events programmed during the day. At the bloggers’ breakfast, PZ Myers is encouraged to add a little Australian flavor to his communion wafer by spreading it with Vegemite.

Later in the day, local students, led by young rising star Jason Ball, launch the new Australian Freethought University Alliance. Meanwhile, older atheists, representing Australia’s diverse local atheist groups, meet at a nearby pub to discuss the formation of a national atheist network. As one of the convenors of that meeting I’m delighted to see so many groups represented and by the unanimous decision to begin work immediately on a project-based, goal-oriented national atheist alliance.

The goodwill generated by meeting in person achieved in a couple of hours what may have taken months on the Internet.

After such a busy time in the lead-up to the Convention, it’s rather a relief to frock up for the cocktail party and official launch on Friday night. I happily leave the running around to the hard-working, black-shirted volunteers while I drink champagne and devour generous helpings of hors d’oeuvres.

At last we are seated for the formal opening. David Nicholls, the Convention Committee chairman and president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, gives a rousing opening speech in which he invites us to enjoy being “part of the majority” for a change. Comedian Sue-Ann Post, a self-confessed six foot lesbian, ex-Mormon, diabetic, comedian and writer, performs a deeply textured stand-up routine that transcends humour with frustration, anger, vulnerability, sadness and even a measure of forgiveness. Throughout, Post’s incredible intellect shines a penetrating light on the absurdity and tragedy of the religious experience.

Columnist and broadcaster Catherine Deveny follows with a tour-de-force excerpt from her one-woman stage show, “God is Bullshit: That’s the Good News.” In a frenetic dialogue in which she takes on the parts of a “cultural Catholic” and her atheist friend, Deveny powers through all the familiar arguments from both sides of the religious debate. “It’s my life, it’s my belief, fuck off!” she rages against the rational arguments of her atheist opponent as he methodically strips her of the remnants of her Catholicism. Again, the comedy is multi-layered and speaks directly to the experiences of many in the audience.

On Saturday morning, the Convention begins in earnest. It’s a revelation (if you’ll excuse the word) to see the cavernous expanse of the Melbourne Convention Centre filled with a sea of atheists! We’ve done what everyone told us was impossible — we have united and shown ourselves as a force to be reckoned with.

But I enter the Convention hall with some trepidation. The first presentation is from Australia’s elder statesman of atheism, radio broadcaster Phillip Adams. Adams, father of the modern Australian film industry, is a towering figure in Australian public life and an outspoken atheist. He has insisted on being the first speaker and his recent public utterances suggest that his sympathies lie more with the polite old-school atheism of Paul Kurtz than the brash and confrontational style of PZ Myers. The crowd is ripe for revolution and I fear Adams has brought a fire hose.

Adams’ speech, however, is tempered and fair. He acknowledges the need for us to be pro-active on issues concerning the separation of church and state, but warns against over-estimating our importance. Religious edifices will crumble, he says, because of internal, not external, forces.

One of the highlights of the Convention is the women’s panel, comprising four strong, articulate and passionate Australian atheist women: bioethicist Leslie Cannold. author and social worker Tanya Levin, secular education advocate and television commentator Jane Caro, and former Australian senator Lyn Allison. Levin, a refugee from Hillsong Church, points out that the Hillsong Women’s Convention is also on this weekend.

“I know which one I’d rather be at!” she says, to hoots and cheers from the audience.

“I’m finally getting to hang out with the grown-ups!” she adds with a grin.

A strong message from the women’s panel is that feminism often leads to atheism. An exemplar of that process is Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi feminist and human rights activist who is exiled from her country and is the subject of five fatwas. Taslima brings the audience to tears as she speaks of the price she has paid for speaking out against the treatment of  women in Islam.

In a story filled with pathos, Taslima recounts her childhood doubts about the existence of Allah. Her mother tells her that if she says anything against Allah, her tongue will fall off. Young Taslima retreats to the privacy of the bathroom to the theory.

“Allah is a son of a bitch!” she says, and checks her tongue in the mirror. “Allah is a dog!” she says. Her tongue stays firmly in place and she has used it ever since to fight against injustice, superstition and inequality.

We must fight for the right to offend, says Taslima — without that right, freedom does not exist.

PZ Myers gives an entertaining and uncompromising presentation on the irreconcilable incompatibility of religion and science — a common theme for Convention speakers. Striding onto the stage after a screening of his starring role in Mr. Deity and the Science Advisor, PZ reminds the audience, “I am the only speaker who has video proof that I have the ear of God.”

“We shouldn’t criticize religion because it’s evil,” says PZ, “but because it’s wrong and makes you stupid.”

For me, the “star” of the Convention is British philosopher A.C. Grayling. His presentation is clear, entertaining and incisive. Speaking of the relationship between religion and science, he criticizes religion for making unquestioning faith a virtue and the Templeton Foundation for attempting to give religion respectability. Religion and science are not complementary, he insists, but he concedes that they share a common ancestor: Ignorance.

It is not Grayling’s presentation that turns me into an adoring fan, but his accessibility and kindness. At the Convention dinner on Saturday night, a friend confides that he would love Grayling to critique a chapter he’s written for Warren Bonnet’s forthcoming anthology of Australian atheism. Grayling is at the dinner, but my friend doesn’t want to impose. I’d met Grayling briefly the day before — just long enough to determine that he was approachable — so I offer to act as an intermediary.  Gathering my courage I approach his table and tentatively touch his arm. Grayling is warm and gracious. He’d be delighted to read the article and will be happy to provide feedback. Later, I encourage my friend to introduce himself. He mentions to Grayling how much he reminds  him of his late father. On hearing that my friend’s mother is also at the dinner,  Grayling asks for an introduction. What an absolute gentleman.

Warren Bonett of Embiggen Books and AC Grayling

At the end of the Convention, I introduce Warren to Grayling. Warren explains that he owns a science and philosophy bookshop which stocks all of Grayling’s books.

“Oh, I think I’ll be in your area for a writer’s festival next year. I’ll have a new book out by then,” says Grayling. “Perhaps I could do a book signing at your store?”

I don’t know if Grayling realizes what an incredible boost this spur-of-the-moment offer gave to a young, struggling bookstore proprietor, but I hope he might read this and know it was the cause of much post-convention rejoicing.

As the famous quote goes, “There are a million stories in the naked city….”  On the first day of the Convention I sit next to 87-year-old Beryl.

“I couldn’t miss this!” she says, “It’s history!”

In a pub, I meet Gold, an intimidating six-foot plus New Zealander with a shaved head, pierced ear and huge gothic, silver buckled boots. Gold turns out to be a warm-hearted, good-natured but passionate atheist who’s literally spent his last cent to fly over for the Convention.  Despite being penniless, he offers to help us set up a website for our new atheist alliance.

Patrick and Grace from the Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics of North Carolina are here too — after meeting online they’re spending their honeymoon at the Convention. We adopt them as honorary Aussies.

I sit next to April for the Dawkins’ presentation. “I’ve just retired and I’ve got time to spare,” she says, “Tell me how I can get involved!”

The Convention ends and we atheists disperse geographically, but the Internet knows no borders. In no time, Facebook is buzzing as new friends reconnect and bloggers and their readers relive and dissect the presentations of some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Australian atheism has come of age,

networks have been forged, community has been strengthened, and there is a new air of urgency, enthusiasm, and commitment. Cats can be herded. Minorities can make a difference. A movement has begun.  SN

Chrys Stevenson is an atheist activist from Queensland, Australia. A retired marketing executive, she attended university as a mature-age student, earning a first class honors degree in cultural studies, a bachelors degree with majors in history, literature and sociology and the University medal for academic excellence. Chrys is a founding member of her local Sunshine Coast Atheists group and sits on the Atheist Nexus international advisory board. She has recently completed a chapter on the history of atheism inAustralia for Warren Bonett’s soon-to-be-published anthology on Australian atheism.

We Didn't Start the Fire

This Easter, many of Australia’s church leaders abandoned their traditional Easter messages to issue dire warnings about the imminent onslaught of the heathen hoards.  Last month’s Global Atheist Convention attracted 2,500 people and a  torrent of publicity and it is clear that atheism is a dragon these holier-than-thou heroes are eager to slay.

Ironically, Australia’s atheist dragon was happily asleep in its cave until the persistent political posturing of religious institutions poked and prodded it into a fiery response.  In effect, Australia’s clergy are oiling up their rusty armour and mounting their sway-backed nags to battle a monster of their own creation.

It seems that that while Cardinal Pell, Archbishop Jensen, Bishop Fisher, Reverend Moyes and theologian, Scott Stephens are ardent supporters of freedom of religion, they’re not so big on freedom from religion.  For years now, Australian churches have been quietly insinuating their way into our political and educational institutions.  The now (presumably defunct) Lyons Forum became an influential conservative Christian faction within the Howard Government.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Howard and Deputy PM Costello happily kowtowed to the prejudices of the religious right in return for the bloc votes of the mega-churches.  The new Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott has boasted publicly that the eight Catholics in the Howard cabinet were influential in stemming the tide of secular humanism through that Government’s decisions to overturn the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law, ban gay marriage, stop the ACT heroin trial and try to reduce abortion numbers through [Christian] pregnancy support counselling.  For Abbott, the [Catholic driven] DLP is alive and well and living inside the Liberal/National Coalition.

The Christian agenda is transparent.  The Australian Christian Lobby openly admits their mission is to ensure that Christian principles and ethics influence the way Australians are governed.  Similarly, the National Alliance of Christian Leaders argue that Christian moral values and ideals must become the prevailing standard of the culture.  The Family First Party, heavily weighted with Pentecostals, wields its influence in the Australian Senate and the Legislative Councils of New South Wales and South Australia.  Even the Exclusive Brethren cult has privileged access to our parliamentarians through accredited lobbyists – thanks, in part, to the sponsorship of Reverend Moyes.

The insidious reach of the religious right seems even to have penetrated the Australian Labor Party – once the bastion of Australian secularism.  Despite Rudd branding the Exclusive Brethren a dangerous cult, his government has ploughed millions of tax-payers dollars into funding schools which isolate the children of the cultists from the wider community.  More millions have gone into expanding Howard’s ill-conceived school chaplaincy scheme which installs largely unqualified evangelists into a state school system

which is, supposedly, secular.  While Prime Minister Rudd happily attended the Australian Christian Lobby’s conference in November, he failed even to respond to invitations to attend the Global Atheist Convention in March – does the ALP now represent only Christian Australians?

Economically, Australians buckle under high state, federal and local property taxes as they carry the burden for the billions of dollars not paid by churches.  The Catholic Church, for example, earns more than $15 billion dollars a year in revenue from various profit-making ventures but pays not a skerrick of tax.  It owns more than $100 billion worth of property but pays no rates.  The ordinary punters, ‘working families’ as the Prime Minister is so fond of saying, pick up the slack.  We are not just talking about exemptions for charities here – the Catholic Church has a vast financial empire including private schools, aged-care homes and hostels, hospitals, superannuation funds, insurance companies, a multi-storey carpark and a vineyard.  Profits from these enterprises are not taxed and there is no requirement for the church to show how the profits are disbursed.  Similarly, Hillsong Church rakes in over $40 million a year – untaxed.  How much of that goes to actual charitable causes and how much goes towards proselytizing and Pastor Brian Houston’s property holdings on Bondi Beach?  No-one knows.

Less than 7.5% of Australians attend Church on a regular basis (Zuckerman, 2005).  Probably close to 50% or more have no real interest in religion beyond claiming a nominal affiliation with the church into which they were baptized on the quinquennial census form.  And yet, we forego billions of tax dollars to support institutions which are intent on infiltrating our political and education systems and imposing their particular religious values on to the rest of us – whether we like it or not.

And what are these ‘Christian values’ religious lobbyists wish to promote?  At least 80% of Australians believe the terminally ill should be free to choose a medically assisted death while the Catholic Church prides itself on having vetoed that right through its political influence.  Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby would like to see women stripped of their reproductive rights by outlawing abortion.  Tony Abbott argues that Jesus would have turned away boat people.  Churches consistently seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, so that they may continue to discriminate against their fellow Australians on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, religion or marital status.  Polls consistently show that Australians are vehemently opposed to compulsory internet filtering while, under the influence of the Australian Christian Lobby, the Labor Party stubbornly persists with a policy which has earned international condemnation.

But it is we atheists who are now accused of being ‘morally bankrupt’.  Yes, we godless infidels who argue for freedom of speech, freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion, equality – regardless of gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation (or lack thereof), the right of children to grow up without religious indoctrination and the right of women and the terminally ill to have dominion over their own bodies – we are accused of having no values.

Little wonder that 2,500 people attended the recent Global Atheist Convention and that membership in Australia’s many atheist organizations is booming.  Little wonder that atheists, once content to sleep in quietly on Sundays, have been prodded into action and are now standing up and shouting, “No more!”  Little wonder that atheists and secularists are uniting and mobilizing politically in order to fight back against the incipient influence of an unrepresentative conservative religious minority.

We have seen the long-term damage caused to America’s political, legal and education systems by a politicized religious right: a supreme court stacked with conservative Christian judges; an evangelical President who defied the UN to take his (and our) nation to war based on his conviction that ‘Gog and Magog’ were at work in the Middle East; court cases over the teaching of creationism in public schools; and a population increasingly riven by sectarian differences.  Is that what we want for Australia?

Australia’s religious institutions have pushed their luck too far.  They have taken advantage of Australians’ political apathy to push their agendas and their values on to a largely secular public while relying on us to fund the assault on our freedoms through billions of dollars in tax exemptions!  They have poked and prodded and intruded upon our supposedly secular government and education systems, assuming that the apathetic atheist dragon would merely raise one sleepy eyelid and return to its rest.

They were wrong.  They have pushed us too far.  Secular and non-religious Australians are beginning to speak out and fight back and, for that, we are accused of being ‘morally bankrupt’, communistic, and akin to Nazis.  These outrageous insults are the last refuge of those who can see their empires crumbling around them.  Australian atheism and secularism is growing apace because the churches have overstepped the mark.  Public opinion is rising against the churches.  The dragon they have awoken will not be defeated by the ineffectual huffing and puffing of the clergy.  A fire has been started, and it is spreading fast.  The dragon is awake and the churches have only themselves to blame.

Chrys Stevenson


Zuckerman, Phil (2005), Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns, Cambridge University Press