Conversations with atheists

35 Comments
The Rise of Atheism: 2010 Global Atheist CoenventionOn the weekend after next Australia will have its first Global Atheist Convention, bringing together such interesting speakers as Richard Dawkins, Philip Adams and Peter Singer.

It is an important event, and one to which we shall be expected to have an attitude. I confess that my feelings are mixed. I look forward to it with the same tempered gloom that would descend upon me if an international convention of Christian evangelists came to town.

Gloom is tempered because there is much in both kinds of events that I find attractive. The Atheists Convention will surely be a lively show with stirring rhetoric. And in an open democracy I can only applaud the opportunity for like minded people to share their ideas, to persuade others to take them seriously, and to commend changes to the law that will enshrine their view of the good society. That kind of coming together is part of a rich society.

Many theists will predictably rally to defend their cause. I also applaud the efforts of theists who have a different view of the good society to share their own ideas with the like-minded, to rebut the views of their opponents, to persuade others to take their ideas seriously, and to commend a legal framework that will protect what they see as integral to a good society. That is democracy at work.

Conventions offer enthusiasts and their opponents outside the tent the opportunity to criticise one another's views and to propose their own ideas. The exchange will be conducted at full volume before a stadium of barrackers, through debates, rebuttals, selective quotation and hyperbole.

Champions in the red corner will buffet champions in the blue corner, winners will be declared, and the spectators on each side will be momentarily chuffed or peeved by the performance of their team.

I admire those who have the skills and the weapons for this kind of jousting. But I have neither taste nor time for it. Partly, no doubt, because of lack of ticker. But also because I believe that polemical exchange destroys the evidence for religious faith.

The wellsprings and justification for religious faith, and for other foundational views of life, are to be found in qualities of human experience that are not susceptible to large, knockdown and narrow arguments. Faith in God and in humanity, is rooted in experiences of wonder, questioning, desire and invitation that are delicate and not easily framed in simple argument.

Powerful arguments can and should be built for faith, but the experience on which they are built needs clarification, not codification; amplification, not reduction; ruminative conversation, not assertion.

In conversation we can tease out the subtleties of our intuitions, and the ways in which we account for the beauty and the complexities of our world. We can explore why people find religious faith persuasive, and also come to see how people put together their lives and their world without it.

This kind of conversation gives priority to personal reflection and to listening. It will be necessarily quiet and exploratory, no matter how strongly settled is the framework within which we live our lives. Like any conversation, it allows both partners to commend what they believe. But the commendation is done by allowing the truth to appear, and not by shouting it.

In the clanging certainties of conventions, whether they gather together Christian or Atheist evangelists, there is little space for that kind of conversation with people of a different mind.

This is not to say that large meetings do not contribute indirectly to good conversation. No doubt atheists, like Catholic young people at World Youth Day, will relish the opportunity for a conversation with like minded companions, in which they discover that they are not alone but are among friends.

Such conversation may give them confidence to explore the wellsprings of their beliefs. If people then gain the confidence to go beyond their own circle, and engage in open conversation with those with a different point of view, that would be a great result.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Global Atheist Coenvention, peter singer, philip adams, richard dawkins, catherine deveny

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

Having reflected and considered for many years and decided that belief in God is untenable I agree that the shouting in a convention has its jangling moments however it is the excitement of the debate that gives the adrenalin rush.............a once in a while time to enjoy ideas expressed, refuted and ruminated upon
GAJ | 05 March 2010


I suppose I might be called an atheist (I prefer agnostic humanist) and I like what you say but find it hard to get the religious side to respond to my attempts at conversation. In the small NSW country town where I live, neither polite letters to the editor nor friendly personal letters to any of the town's religious leaders has ever opened up a doorway to dialogue. They don't appear to actually want to talk. Maybe they're afraid of me! Any suggestions?
Lee | 05 March 2010


Thanks for the thoughtful article. I am not convinced that the conference will be full of ‘clanging certainties’ but we shall see. I am one of many who tried to book but was too late so shall have to rely on what is reported. I agree that it is not easy to have an intelligent conversation between atheists & ‘believers’ (though as an atheist I consider myself to be a ‘believer’, I just have different beliefs). You pointed out the difficulty clearly.

Most of us, if we are thoughtful, believe as we do because of our experiences & these differ. I have often said to my Christian friends that I have not been given the ‘gift of faith’ so I cannot see why I should be condemned, if indeed it is a gift. I hope Eureka St will have reports of the conference in due course. I find the openness of the magazine excellent but am also fascinated by the conventional RC’s who send in their comments. I wonder if they understand how alien their ideas are to so many of us. And surely your faith is more than condemning abortion & (even more so) homosexuality.
Rosemary West | 05 March 2010


We live in a connected world, in a world that has developed and changed by progressive interconnectivity. Atoms get together as molecules, they resolve themselves into earth, sea and sky, molecules compose self-reproductive assemblages, rivers are conduits of connectivity across country to the sea, every hour of every day the weather changes in response to sun, and to events near and far.

Lorikeets sing with the joy of being alive and part of the mob, as do crows. Bees hum with satisfaction when the happen upon a new blossom.

Is it any wonder that so many people believe in a creator God?

In a world of such richness, of wondrousness, of intrinsic creativity, of so much to explore and discover, why bother creating a God?
David Arthur | 05 March 2010


Well said, Andrew. As a believer in a family of atheists, I'm well used to the confrontational element of some debates, as well as the wonderful, rich and thoughtful exchanges that can take place when animosities and point-scoring is put aside.

For one, I'm glad that atheists have a venue and event of their own - for most atheists there is no regular "church" of the kind that believers have, nowhere to gather with the like-minded each week. Not all atheists are unspiritual, either; and I hope there's room for some genuine spirituality at the event, rather than it being a tub-thumping snark-fest. Sincere atheists deserve better than that.
Coriantumr | 05 March 2010


Well said as usual, Andrew Hamilton. When I think about the main speakers at the convention, it is likely that there will be plenty of food for thought for believers of all persuasions - or for those who are not to be persuaded to anything at all! Atheism is an interesting concept that doesn't mean much to me, and I guess that among the sell-out audience there may be those who are trying to get their version of atheism affirmed. But that seems an odd thing to do.

Really, those three speakers should be very interesting and will probably present a great deal of very ethically sound reasoning which is quite consistent with much of what many Christians believe. The only people who might have difficulty with their arguments would be the other group Andrew mentioned - the Christian evangelists.
Mal Aprop | 05 March 2010


Exactly, David Arthur, why bother in creating a God? We never really can! God can't be created.

Why bother trying, when the wonder and joy we feel in the marvels of our world can lead us to recognise all things as signs of a unique personal God with an existence so different from ours.
Fr John Reilly sj | 05 March 2010


As a catholic, I agree with two statements made by Rosemary West. She states that as an atheist she is a `believer`. As Prof Paul Davies has commented, `Whether you are an atheist or a theist, you are operating under a belief system, and in either case, there is at the centre of your belief system an inherent contradictio?. I think that in both cases we have to learn to live with doubts.

She is also correct in saying that she should not be condemned because she has not been given the gift of faith. It is indeed a free gift, given by God, not because I deserve it, but because I need it!
Alan Hogan | 05 March 2010


No doubt the convention members will be criticising religious beliefs. If so then I hope they have the courage to criticise all religions and not just have a go at Christianity. Reading some of the authors they seem to aim their guns mainly at Christianity but are very light particularly on Judaism and Mahometism because of fear of retribution from the respective lobbies. In any case the convention will hardly say anything new: anything related to atheism and anti-clericalism has been profoundly dealt with by the 18th and 19 centuries great writers such as Voltaire, Kant, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, Comte, Renan just to name a few. They will just be re-hashing and revisiting whatever these masters have written.
john | 05 March 2010


"I look forward to it with the same tempered gloom that would descend upon me if an international convention of Christian evangelists came to town."

Oxford University (UK) Professor of Church History, and a professing Anglican, in commenting, in his latest book, History of Chistianity is saddened at what he terms, the 'Culture Wars' he sees being waged in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. I believe Fr Andrew's comments above are an illustration of that and our (Catholics) and probably other Christian denominations as well, failure to 'stick to the script' that Jesus gives us in Matthew 28. By passing disparaging remarks about the style factors of differing denominations, we have created the environment for atheism to rise up to the status of a religion.

We now need to take seriously, their Melbourne convention to know how we must once again live the unity of purpose that Christ left us with.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala NSW | 05 March 2010


"Powerful arguments can and should be built for faith, but the experience on which they are built needs clarification, not codification; amplification, not reduction; ruminative conversation, not assertion. In conversation we can tease out the subtleties of our intuitions, and the ways in which we account for the beauty and the complexities of our world. We can explore why people find religious faith persuasive, and also come to see how people put together their lives and their world without it."

Amen to that, but when did the Church, or for that matter any other organised religion, operate in this way? Just ask the parishoners of St Mary's in Brisbane.

Ginger Meggs | 05 March 2010


Atheism, theism and agnosticism – some of us have problems with each of them.

Atheists. They lack any persuasive explanation for material existence. As for life, roughly quoting H.G.Wells, some look back only as far as stirrings in ‘primeval slime’.

Theism. Various groups (religions?) give widely differing versions of God’s nature and laws. The characteristics of religions seem human-made rather than God-given. And by claiming to have the ‘word of God’ they assert that their rules and assertions must not be challenged.

Agnostics. They claim that nothing can be known about God. Maybe there are discoveries to come?
Call it ‘cherry-picking’ if you like but some teachings and principles of various religions, seem to be good.

As for other religious - or anti-religious beliefs - rather sadly, I would acknowledge being a ‘Don’t Knower’.
Robert Corcoran | 05 March 2010


Who gives the "gift of faith" or any other skill or gift we humans have or acquire?
GAJ | 05 March 2010


Atheism, no less than religion, is a faith that goes beyond what can be scientifically demonstrated and has its own dogmatic presuppositions.
Sylvester | 05 March 2010


I respect and admire my Christian evangelist Friends. They are true believers. I wish there were Catholics. What I think of my dissenter catholic friends? I feel sorry for them.
Ron Cini | 05 March 2010


Atheists have snatched the world title of attention-seeking.

D J Wray
www.atotalawareness.com
Uniting evolution with creation without intelligent design
D J Wray | 08 March 2010


Sylvester (and others claiming atheism as a "belief system"), atheism is nothing more than a lack of a belief in god or gods.

I suppose there might be some atheists who would claim with certainty that god or gods don't exist, but I've never met any.

A lack of belief in god or gods acts as the basis for a belief system as much as your own lack of belief in fairies and unicorns acts as the basis of your own - not at all, I expect :-)
Havok | 08 March 2010


Correct me if I'm wrong, but your article seems to imply the Rise of Atheism Convention is to some extent being run for the religious?

From what I know of the event, and one of the reasons I'm going, is the event is for atheists to discuss matters of interest to them. It has not been designed as a forum to debate with theists (there are plenty of other opportunities for that).
OzAz | 09 March 2010


in reply to John 4 Mar who stated:

<blockquote>the authors they seem to aim their guns mainly at Christianity but are very light particularly on Judaism and Mahometism because of fear of retribution from the respective lobbies.</blockquote>

This is a fallacy I see very often.
There is one main reason that in Australia, the USA and UK the religious debate is mostly centred around Christianity, and that is because in these countries the predominant religion is Christianity. The religion that has the loudest voice opposing things like condom use, abortions, euthanasia, gay marriages, stem cell research, etc is Christianity.

So not surprisingly it is Christianity that gets discussed the most. Never fear, all religions and all gods are treated with the same incredulity by atheists, and some, perhaps most, of the Rise of Atheism speakers have at some time or other criticised Judaism, Islam and many other religions.
OzAz | 09 March 2010


What kind of Christian gets gloomy over the prospect of Christians of other denominations coming together to reflect on their faith in Jesus? One that is insensitive to the cause of ecumenism. This attitude really shocks me, and if other Catholics are not disturbed by it I’d be ashamed of my Church.
Charles Fivaz | 09 March 2010


I would like to clear up one ambiguity in my article, that has caused justifiable misunderstanding of it. When I referred to Christian Evangelists I did not mean groups in denominations other than Catholic, but people who focus on 'selling their message' aggressively. These could be Catholics, of course, and sometimes are. Nor was I criticising the meetings they may have, just saying that I would want to keep my distance from them for the reasons I stated in the article.
andy Hamilton | 09 March 2010


Richard Dawkins on QandA ABC TV 8.3.10 ridiculed a theistic religion based on a blood sacrifice as atonement for sin. That is the major narrative in our Catholic Mass today . Is it possible that he is right in seeing this in a bad light, and that it is a distortion of the central message of Jesus--love and community?

Could it be one day that theology would move right away from redemption as a focus and see as central our building up of the kingdom of God through our lives in community/Church/faith/Mass? Did Jesus say we needed redemption or did writers such as Paul insert this into the mix?
Marianne | 09 March 2010


I find it interesting to compare the Atheist convention to the Parliament of the World's Religions. A major difference is the lack of cultural diversity and creativity in the Atheist field. The PWR had food, clothing, dance, theatre, ritual, song, music, art, language, poetry, etc. etc. All these were in some way the byproducts of religious belief. Almost every culture on earth was represented in some way, including Indigenous cultures from around the world. The gender mix was pretty even too.

The Atheist convention on the other hand seems to be attracting largely ango-saxon males from western societies. The only cultural inclusion I have heard of is comedy - and they won't be laughing at themselves nor will the jokes be at their expense, you can be sure.

Yet at the same time, I agree with Andrew's general assertion. Dialogue is always better than argument. In one sense, it is time that we expanded our dialogue beyond ecumenism, beyond even interreligious dialogue, and began engaging these guys.
David Schutz | 09 March 2010


Havok - by definition, atheism is a world view which affirms, with certainty, that there is no God. Given that there is no scientific evidence for this affirmation - nor could there be - atheism is a faith-based belief system that some people choose to embrace for non-scientific reasons. Science as an empirical discipline cannot by itself resolve the God question - that can only be done at the speculative interface of cosmology and philosophy.
Sylvester | 09 March 2010


Marianne,

Having just learned of the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria, I appreciate, with a sense of acute awe and trepidation, the deadliness and depth of the fault line (original sin) in humanity that cries out for redemptive action and, yes, sacrifice. In this context, and I say this with the greatest respect, appealing to "love and community" alone seems almost obscenely bland, and altogether inadequate for the depth of human aberrance that Christ had to engage with to redress the reality human fallenness. The bloody figure on the cross is doubtlessly unpalatable to all but the gaze of faith,(and hard enough even then, for what it reveals of human destructive potential - never a comforting or flattering thought - and the need for an atonement commensurate with a God who took our desperate need more profoundly and more lovingly, perhaps, than we are prepared or capable of fully knowing. The Mass is paschal meal and mystery - its precondition the historical sacrifice of the "sinless one turned into sin" for the sake of our salvation. Does not all love involve sacrifice?
JRK | 09 March 2010


Marianne ...if only!(the emphasis was on The Kingdom of God rather than on what terrible things the children of God can do to each other).

If a mother (or father) 'saves' (and that often involves a great deal of sacrifice!) a child from the consequences of it's sinful actions, is it in hope for a better future for that child? Or are they thinking in terms of some sort of 'economy' of salvation where the sinless one expiates for the sinner?
Ethel | 10 March 2010


David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia gave the game away in an article in the Sunday Age (10/1/10) when he stated that the only thing atheists agree on is that there is no God. Everything else is up for grabs. That dear reader, a belief system does not make. The bottom line is that without belief in a God atheism would not exist.

Atheists like to bang on about religious wars etc. whilst conveniently forgetting that the two great atheistic philosophies of the 20th century, nazism and communism killed around 150 million people.
As for the speakers, Dawkins might be worth hearing but the rest are little more than a rag bag of lightweights, reactionaries, and bigots.

I see little evidence to suggest that this conference will have any more intellectual depth than a jar of vegemite.
Peter Golding | 10 March 2010


Sylvester, atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god or gods. As I pointed out it can take the form of a positive belief (which you claim is the only meaning for the term), or a negative belief (along the lines of "there could be a god or gods, but the evidence doesn't support such belief at present").

Only the former is a "faith based" position. The latter would seem to be the only rational position to hold given the paucity of evidence for any particular deity (though Deism may get a bit of a look in).
As you say, science is empirical, but this means that any sortof interventionist deity (which roughly equates to theism) is open to scientific investigation. As such a thing has not been found scientifically, it seems to me that a Deistic deity is the best that can be supported on current knowledge and evidence.
And that is why I lack a belief in a god or gods, and therefore am an "atheist"
Havok | 11 March 2010


Havok, you are confusing atheism with agnosticism.

An interventionist deity could not be investigated by empirical science, only his interventions in so far as they are observable.
Sylvester | 12 March 2010


Sylvester, I'm not confusing the two terms.

I lack a belief in a god or gods, therefore I'm an atheist.

Do I claim with certainty that there are no gods? No, I just see no reason to hold belief that there are.

Atheist: One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.

You claim that only the latter (denial) counts as an atheist. I think that both denial of and lack of belief in a god or gods counts.

On scientific investigation a deity. If the deity in is interventionist, then those interventions are amenable to scientific investigation.

All such investigations thus far seem to show that no such intervention occurs, therefore it appears we lack reasons to claim they do occur or that the deity itself exists.

Simple really :-)
Havok | 12 March 2010


Sylvester I have to totally disagree with you...I'm an atheist married to a christian (happily for 26 years) the one thing I have learnt is being christian is an act of faith...something I do not have and don't miss...I don't have a belief system comparable to a religion, I don't even think about religion or god or ghosties and ghoulies (all the same things to me)...atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief...anti-theism is a different kettle of fish in that you have a belief that makes you work against religion for whatever reason.
Mark Finnie | 14 March 2010


An atheist is - by definition - one who believes there is no God. That is a dogmatic position for which there is - and can be - no scientific evidence. An agnostic is one who does not take a position either way. The interventions of God in space-time can be investigated scientifically but not God himself who transcends space-time.
Sylvester | 15 March 2010


I find it interesting that even after many years of looking after the critically ill, I keep coming across people who call themselves atheists (even though most of them admit they have spent very little time even thinking about it); but confronted with the possibility of death, they admit to “being scared sh…less”. After a lifetime of living “just for themselves”; they are suddenly concerned that they have failed at least their own families; their fellow human beings; their own selves. One woman described herself as having no code of conduct except her own and as a “total bitch” for most of her life.

It is interesting to observe that at their critical moment and possible demise, they become quivering emotional wrecks. It is only then that they begin questioning and re-assessing their lives and are sick with despair that perhaps they “cannot go back and change things“…. and what if they, in their absorption in only material things, had been wrong all along?

Purely from a medical point of view: it is very interesting (but not at all pleasant) to observe people in such belated emotional upheaval. So start now, while you have time, and put your life on the best ethical course possible.
A.O. | 18 March 2010


Marianne (8.3.10), Richard Dawkins’ ridicule arises from his obvious misunderstanding of the entire concept of Christianity, although he (curiously) presents himself as a capable “researcher”. In the field of religious faith he is obviously and dismally out of his depth.

Dawkins fails to grasp the concept that Christ came to teach all of us prodigal children that God wants us back from the “time out” He was forced to impose on our “first” parents for their sin of extreme arrogance and defiance. But to be reconciled to God, human behaviour and misunderstanding of God first had to be corrected (for example, Christ had to teach the people of the time that God was a God of Love and not of violence; that violence was in fact offensive to God and their practice of stoning for perceived crimes/“tooth for a tooth” revenge had to end; that from henceforth they were to treat each other with respect and kindness; “yes, even love your enemies and do good to them…”).

Dawkins fails to grasp the concept that Christ was prepared to transcend His nature to become one of us; to live like us; to experience poverty, hunger, being a refugee even as a child. There is no difficulty that humans can accuse Christ of not knowing “what it feels like” - even pain.

Dawkins fails to grasp that Christ was prepared to confront danger and even terrible death to come to our rescue. The political forces of the time were terrifying in anyone’s language; as they always will be, where one encounters huge egos, arrogance, lust for power, violent retributions by the powerful whose power is threatened. Although Christ came as a “messenger of compassion and of the path to peace-on-earth”, a “King of Peace”, this political atmosphere was not conducive to anything other than punishment by death to anyone who dared defy the earthly kingdoms of mere politicians….but Christ was prepared to sacrifice Himself for us humans and to bring us all home to God.

We are all here for just a moment in time, but during this time we are asked to spend our lives in peace, in dignity and meaningful work which enobles us and inspires and uplifts others to greater things … for the benefit of the entire world community … for the “greater good” of all humans in fulfilment of the direction by Christ to “love one another as I love you” as we wait for the coming of the “King of Peace” .
AO | 18 March 2010


Sylvester, you still don't seem to grasp it. Whether you deny the existence of God(s) or simply don't believe in one/any (due to lack of supporting evidence, simply not caring, etc), you're an atheist - without theism.
You do not have to take the dogmatic line of a "strong" atheist as you are claiming, nor does one need to take the "we can't know anything about God(s)" position of classic agnosticism.

<b>AO: So start now, while you have time, and put your life on the best ethical course possible.</b>
How should one go about that?
It seems that there is a wide range of "opinion" about morals and ethics, and most of the systems of morality based upon religion (including that of Christianity) seem to founder.
Why, on Christianity, is it even important to be ethical? After all, simply being a good person isn't going to get you into heaven.

AO, your second comment seems to be what you take the main message of Christianity to be. That's all well and good, but there seem to be large differences in opinion on this matter.
Some take Jesus to have been an ethical teacher, some an apocalyptic prophet, some a cynic sage, some a somewhat orthodox Jew, etc, etc, etc. In fact, it says a lot about the source materials that there is such wide ranging opinion.
As for the coming of the "King of Peace", the gospels themselves quote Jesus as saying that within the generation present he would return, and the writings of Paul betray a strong belief in an immanent "Kingdom of God".

Christians since the second century have tried rationalised this prophetic failure, and there have been "apocalyptic" movements claiming divine revelation for the coming apocalypse, since that time.
Yet you're all still waiting :-)
Havok | 23 March 2010


Similar Articles

Hype undermines atheists' mission

  • Tim Roberts
  • 12 March 2010

An ego-driven, take-no-prisoners approach dooms atheism to remain an exclusive club. Only by forming alliances with the moderate religious community will atheists be able to preserve the elements of society they value most, such as freedom of enquiry and the separation of Church and State.

READ MORE

Uighurs failed by Cambodia's sham refugee law

  • Frank Brennan
  • 03 March 2010

In June last year a solitary Uighur from Xinjiang province arrived in Phnom Penh seeking asylum. On 18 December he and 21 other Uighur asylum seekers were praying when Cambodian police entered their safe house and abducted them at gunpoint.

READ MORE

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review