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Conversations with atheists

  • 05 March 2010
On 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