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.