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Hype undermines atheists' mission

No GodWhile the so-called 'New Atheists' have recently found their voices, the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, 'Rise of Atheism', taking place in Melbourne this weekend, suggests that this movement may be in danger of believing its own hype. Judging by the program, the convention aims to increase atheism's flock by pouring scorn on those whom it should be courting. If that's the case, the message won't reach beyond the fans.

Some of the speakers at the convention take a pragmatic approach ('reason with opponents') while others take an idealistic approach ('alienate opponents'). The former approach, while substantially more difficult than the latter, is potentially far more productive.

But it's unclear whether the convention's overall aim is to reduce the intensity of religious belief or to crush religion altogether. Though Richard Dawkins and others may earnestly hope for the latter, attempting this will only pick off religious doubters while steeling firmer believers against compromise.

Failing to include debating panels with religious moderates is a missed opportunity. Excluding the religious, of course, probably seemed like an obvious move: after all, one wouldn't invite creationists to speak at a biology convention for balance's sake. But inviting representatives from major religions would have prevented the conference from becoming a mere exercise in polemic.

It may seem an unlikely choice, but I'm sure Father Bob Maguire — a Catholic Priest who often seems a whisker away from apostasy — would have relished some productive gung-ho scrapping.

Forging links with moderates against religious extremism should be the first goal of any atheist movement. Change cannot be achieved by eliminating religion, as people's personal beliefs cannot be forcefully harangued into shape. Only by respectfully forming alliances with the moderate religious community will atheists be able to preserve the elements of society that they value most, such as freedom of enquiry and the separation of Church and State. The ego-driven, take-no-prisoners approach dooms atheism to remain an exclusive and tiny club.

It is a falsehood that religion, which reaches so deeply into many people's everyday lives, will melt away when ambushed by the chill winds of detached reason. Rather than treating all dealings with people of faith as an opportunity to notch up a rhetorical victory, atheists need to listen respectfully to opposing views. They would be well-advised to forge alliances with religious people who share many of their core beliefs, rather than quibbling about, say, whether it was scientifically possible for Christ to have walked on water.

The inclusion of so much comedy on the conference program is therefore misguided. If atheists are concerned about countering fundamentalism's corrosive influence on politics, every hour of that weekend should be spent discussing how to counter religious-based intolerance. Comedians, while good for boosting ticket sales, are as inappropriate at an atheist conference as they would be at a science conference. The organisers' failure to recognise this basic point suggests that many take comfort from sneering at those who disagree with them. Comedians, who are paid to outrage rather than inform, are unhelpful when pragmatism is sorely needed.

One of the primary anxieties that many people harbour about atheism is whether it is possible to construct an ethical framework entirely free of authoritative external influences. This issue should be a central one. Are the New Atheists suggesting that moral principles can be arrived at purely through logical deduction, or do they believe that outside authority is still needed from an alternative source? If the former, what happens when different people arrive at completely different moral conclusions? These questions are both genuine and urgent, and believers deserve better than to have them arrogantly dismissed.

The fact that the Church appears to provide believers with a coherent ethical system based on tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, even if that ethical system is imperfect. External guidance clearly fills a vital human need. The New Atheist movement's inability to overcome its intellectual fragmentation, in order to arrive at an agreed-upon secular philosophy, can be seen as a weakness when compared to religion's promise of steady guidance.

If the alternative to belief is a lonely intellectual trek through myriad, equally valid moral alternatives, many people of faith will choose to stick with what they know. This is not a sign of intellectual poverty; it's a humble admission of personal fallibility.

Despite its many worthy contributors, the convention will drown in a sea of bile unless the movement's adherents realise that they can't remake the world in their own image. Padding the program with snide comic relief puts the event in danger of being dismissed as a weekend of navel-gazing, rather than a genuine attempt to deal with intolerance. And that would be a pity.

Tim RobertsTimothy Roberts is a Melbourne-based freelance writer with over 50 reviews published, many on popular science works. He regularly publishes satirical pieces for New Matilda, and blogs on crankycrackpot.blogspot.com

Topic tags: tim roberts, richard dawkins, 2010 global atheist convention, rise of atheism



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Existing comments

Timothy, comedians do belong at a science conference as much as an atheist one. Science, rather than atheism per se, has put religion in its place (up to a point) and there's something celebratory about comedy. It's refreshing against the ultra-earnestness of the doom and gloom brigade, which tends to include many god-bothering/fearing types (and some atheists).

As for atheists, we are united only in the fact that we don't believe in god or gods. To us, belief in a supernatural grand creator is as absurd when it comes from 'religious moderates' as it is from fundamentalists.

Mind you, as an atheist who supports secular democracy, I strongly defend freedom of religion too.

Barry the Red | 12 March 2010  

Timothy, I'm a humanist and atheist (yes, they're different) who's attending this week-end's convention, and I found myself agreeing with you.

You're right that we can't make religion go away merely with logical arguments. And, we probably should find religious moderates who share our belief in a secular democratic society.

Unfortunately, it's not the moderates who are standing up in parliament saying things like "The proposed law about such-and-such is WRONG because it's against God's will." Nor is it the moderates who say "We should ensure that Creationism is taught in science classes in schools.". These comments, and others like them, come from the more extreme branches of religion.

And, they push atheists into an extreme position in response. If you're arguing with someone and they starting shouting and swearing, your natural response is to shout and swear back. If they talk quietly and reasonably, you feel like you can talk quietly and reasonably back.

And, I would have liked to have seen a debate with religious representatives on the agenda. Unfortunately, from personal experience, this usually degenerates to: "But you have no proof!"; "God told me so - that's all the proof you need!". There's no benefit in that.

Simon the Humanist | 12 March 2010  

The path to atheism begins by describing and accounting for the development of religion and morality. Worthwhile guiding questions would be something like the following:

"if there is no divine basis for any religion, then why do human societies invent them. Why do these religions then sanctify such similar codes of behaviour?"

If atheists feel the need to form an association, then the study of religion is, quite rightly, a reasonable raison d'etre.

Such study might even facilitate understanding and tolerance.

David Arthur | 12 March 2010  

Father Bob has described 'Dickie' (as he calls him) Dawkins' writing as 'turgid'. That was when John Safran used to try to get him to read Dawkin's book. I'm not as confident as you that Father Bob Mcguire would relish some kind of a scrap with him.

As far as 'apostasy' is concerned - Father Bob may not cling to the overriding importance of all church dogma, but he does have trenchant views on certain matters. For instance he once advised all the 'kiddies' not to have sex before marriage.

Chris Murphy | 12 March 2010  

There are many ways to enjoy the thoughts of atheists - comedy is one of them and it's far more fun to have some entertainment with the more "serious" atheist discussions too. The convention is primarily for like-minded people - were atheists, jews, muslims etc invited to world youth day? Do racing car enthusiasts invite people who don't like cars to their conventions? Atheists are just an entitled to get together and have a good time and hear from great speakers as any other group.

HerbieTheBeagle | 12 March 2010  

if the comedians satirise atheism ..... that would be a surprise

geoff | 12 March 2010  

A wise and generous-minded piece. Congratulations Timothy.

Joe Castley | 12 March 2010  

It is all those who keep coming up with all those moral and ethical dilemmas which seem to infest religious thinking. It is to be expected when an institution such as the Catholic church is simultaneously identified as being the single largest ever identified pedophile ring the planet has ever experienced - stands to reason they keep finding all these moral and ethical issues to deal with - keeps them from dealing with that issue

JohnB | 12 March 2010  

When I listen to atheists, I sometimes conclude that there is a religious person inside them trying to get out. This coincides with my belief that every mature person has a religion, a set of beliefs and values to which they subscribe. Hence, every theist and every atheist has a religion. And every God believing person has within them an atheist who tries to get out.

Hence I think every Christian should meet and confront the atheist within them. Sometimes this confrontation is a matter of facing doubt. Growth in faith happens only when some faith and doubt matters are faced and dealt with. I find it sad to meet a 40 year old person who says they have the same faith they had when they were 14 years old. As they grew up they should have continually been losing the faith they had and adapting a new faith.

My academic speciality is ethics. I know well that Thomas Aquinas never thought that Aristotle needed "religion" to justify his ethics teaching. Aquinas also drew ethical wisdom from Plato and Cicero, to name a few.

The so called "Christian" ethical traditions draws largely on Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and so on. I believe it draws much more on them than id draws on Leviticus and such things.

Gerry Costigan | 12 March 2010  

Simon says... "I would have liked to have seen a debate with religious representatives on the agenda. Unfortunately, from personal experience, this usually degenerates to: "But you have no proof!"; "God told me so - that's all the proof you need!". There's no benefit in that".

I suggest you get out a bit Simon and meet a few religious progressives. I for one would have welcomed the chat. Or come to our Common Dreams2 Conference in Melbourne next month. Check our site: www.commondreams.org.au

Rex A E Hunt | 12 March 2010  

The convention has brought together various groups from across the country and globe. This opportunity has not in fact been missed and there has been some extremely positive outcomes already even before the convention begins. There is moves to create an organised group which can only be a good thing. Stop being so negative my good man. Us Humanists have a greater respect for our capacities as humans than almost any philosophy.

Dan Kerr | 12 March 2010  

Hi Tim,

I'm an atheist, I've met lots of other atheists, I've attended atheist meetings, I've read atheist books incl Dawkins.

Maybe the convention will shock me, but as far as I know, 99% of atheists aren't trying to eradicate religion, or build some ethical framework built entirely on atheism. You can't do much with atheism alone - an ethical framework will require more - like maybe Buddhism?

Do you really think the aim of the convention is to pour scorn on religions? You can look forward to me walking out in 5 minutes if it is. I mean that would be really boring. I expect a range of interesting talks on diverse topics. I'm pretty sure the convention isn't supposed to change the world, just be interesting.

This article's title was
"Hype undermines atheists' mission"
but oddly enough it seems to be only your own hype, your own impressions that you're discussing. Amongst atheists, secular groups and science groups I haven't heard any hype other than people hope that it will be interesting...

Christopher | 12 March 2010  

One comes to atheism through sheer discontent with religion/faith and searches for an alternative to a faith system that fails to meet ones needs
I feel no need to gather in groups to substantiate my current thinking but do enjoy the parry and thrust of books etc which enlighten and inform
I have many christian frinds and discuss my inability to believe as they do.no angst just a decision to agree to differ

GAJ | 12 March 2010  

Reverend Hunt, thank you for the invitation.

I’ve perused the website for Common Dreams 2, and I note a glaring omission. To paraphrase Timothy in his article above: “Failing to include debating panels with non-believers is a missed opportunity. Excluding the non-religious, of course, probably seemed like an obvious move: after all, one wouldn't invite evolutionists to speak at a theological convention for balance's sake. But inviting representatives from major atheistic schools of thought would have prevented the conference from becoming a mere exercise in polemic.”

You have Reverends a-plenty – even a rabbi. Everyone else is a teacher or professor of religious studies. The closest you have to a non-believer is a psychologist who states in his summary that “Australians speak of their yearning to believe in something, and their envy of ‘believers’.” (no bias there!). I see no evidence of any debate between believers and rationalists. You yourself will have everyone singing HYMNS!

It’s hypocritical to accuse atheists of having an unbalanced guest list and a biased agenda when you do the same thing yourselves.

It’s as HerbieTheBeagle wrote: “The convention is primarily for like-minded people”. No more and no less than that. Just like yours.

Simon the Humanist | 12 March 2010  

Gerry Costigan made the point that “every mature person has a religion, a set of beliefs and values to which they subscribe. Hence, every theist and every atheist has a religion.”. Gerry, just because you have a religion, don’t assume that everyone does (or even wants to).

Atheists certainly do have beliefs and values. However, this is NOT the same as having a religion. Not at all. A religion is the organised worship of a deity, and obedience to that deity’s rules. An atheist (“not-god-ist”) has no deity to worship, by definition. Ethics, morals, beliefs and values are not the same as religion. Nor is philosophy. It is possible to wonder about the universe and where it comes from, or to consider the best way for humans to conduct their lives, without ever being religious. It is as offensive to tell an atheist that atheism is a religion as it is to tell a believer that their deity is merely a man-made fiction.

Simon the Humanist | 12 March 2010  

"Rather than treating all dealings with people of faith as an opportunity to notch up a rhetorical victory, atheists need to listen respectfully to opposing views"- Unfortnately Tim has not considered the fact that Atheists have been more than patient and accommodating of religious views with no mutual respect in return.

As John Safran said recently on Triple J, Religious people don't realise how tolerant unbelievers have been. The intolerance of the devout is actually one major factor in ongoing world conflict. Another issue is Tim's assumption that ethical behaviour relies on external authority. Is good behaviour good because God has decreed it is good, or does God decree it is good because it is inherently good? Of course the latter is more sensible, yet makes God actually redundant in the equation. To follow others on this post - what high ground on morality can mainstream churches possibly take? - Consider protection of those who have abused children, monopolistic management of prime reale estate at the expense of the poor, continued indoctrination of the young (where even the lie of 6 days creation continues to be taught) and the promotion of mankind's sinfulness leading to complexes of guilt and depression.

Jeff | 12 March 2010  

As Tim does here, Christian writers favour a strategy of characterising atheism as a movement or ‘club’ with an official philosophical and/or political agenda that imperils Christianity. They may think this provides a tangible enemy with which they can stir the congregations’ anxieties. They especially like to focus on the outspoken ‘New Atheists’ who they can demonise for their uncompromising style.

But it isn’t the outspoken atheists that threaten belief in countries like Australia. In the West there has been an accelerating decline in religious participation over the past 20-50 years. The New Atheists may have gained their prominence because of this decline, but they have not caused it.

While reduced participation certainly does not equate with non-belief or atheism, David Voas’s 2009 analysis of the European Social Survey data suggests in Western Europe there has been a consistent pattern of an initial decline in participation followed, after a lag, by an increase in explicit non-belief. Recent surveys in Australia and US suggest that we are on the same path. Most strikingly, once participation declines to a critical level, explicit non-belief begins to rise steeply. The rise in outspoken atheism may be a function of this stage of secularisation.

So while churches may think that they can rally the troops by targeting the New Atheists, this is a smokescreen and does not address the real threat which is likely a function of the waning ability of the churches themselves to maintain the respect and allegiance of their congregations.

Brian | 12 March 2010  

I'm an atheist because I have a clue about life.

The point is, I don't believe religion is anything other than a crazy person trying to call the voices in their head "GOD". And when I realised that, it became apparent that everyone who follows a religion is just taking on board the words of a crazy person.
I understand religion perfectly, and reject it completely.

Andrew | 13 March 2010  

Timothy, you write: "Are the New Atheists suggesting that moral principles can be arrived at purely through logical deduction, or do they believe that outside authority is still needed from an alternative source? If the former, what happens when different people arrive at completely different moral conclusions? These questions are both genuine and urgent, and believers deserve better than to have them arrogantly dismissed."

The implication here seems to be that atheists need to answer these questions to the satisfaction of religious believers. But religious believers, who do believe that outside authority is needed for morality, themselves regularly arrive at completely different moral conclusions. Wherever different people believe their morality comes from, the task of deciding together how to behave ethically while living together remains the same.

Michael Nugent | 13 March 2010  

Interesting how all comments on this Big Issue to date have been from men (with the possible exception of GAJ). Perhaps official atheists are just as exclusively masculine as the organised Church, and like a good knock-down fight?

pussy-footing agnostic/small 'a' atheist

Penelope Cottier | 13 March 2010  

An excellent and thought provoking article. The concept of atheism is curious. People who claim to be atheists have a very narrow and simplistic view of god. I am a practicing Catholic and do not believe in god as a supernatural being. It is a bit too complex for this forum.

Mark Doyle | 13 March 2010  

The amount of steam and fevered indignation a " conference of athiests" has engendered, probably indicates one was long over due.

There are intolerant atheists just as there are intolerant people in organised religions. From my experience a person's tolerance or intolerance is largely independent of the basis of the ethical/moral framework they follow. Maybe, tolerance or intolerance is learnt at a earlier age?

I'm an atheist, I don't preach it, I don't hide it. I work for causes alongside people of many faiths some who make much greater contributions in time, effort and effectiveness than I.

It difficult to believe that this conference can be met with such foreboding of honest debate in a pluralist society. Is this particularly Australian?

I subscribe to Eureka Street because of its general stance on social justice.
I hope you will continue to deal thoughtfully and honestly with problems like sexual abuse and its covering up by the church hierarchies, the status of women in the church, and the turning back to pre Vatican II with (dare one say it),traces of antisemitism.

None of these issues appear to have been the result of rampant secularism/atheism or public
discussion of a nonreligious view point.

Malcolm Campbell | 13 March 2010  

Well, OK, a person of faith sees no point in the Atheist Convention.

Hardly news is it?

But something interesting came up there. There is to be a challenge to the funding of religion by the Commonwealth Government, under the s.116 of the Constitution.

There was a web page announced at the convention which is worth a visit:

Let us not forget that the Roman Catholic church was opposed to the NSCP scheme at the outset.

I see Sharman Stone has presented a petition from a group of Catholics who want even more from the ATO pot.

This issue is not about whether God exists or not. It is about whether we, as a notionally secular nation-state, should have our Commonwealth Government fund religion.

I see this as a very important issue, that should concern Catholics. WE should not be taking this NSCP money, and we should be demanding a return to 'secularity', that being, a government that does not directly support religion.

Besides, by far the majority of these chaplains are from the 'renewalaist' camp of evangelists. There are very few Roman Catholic, or Anglican, chaplains planted in state schools.

Why would we be supporting this erosion and making the evangelising exercise of renewalists even easier?

Jim Bishop | 14 March 2010  

Thank you Timothy for an interesting and thought-provoking article. For myself, I have thoughts and views about science, atheism, agnosticism and philosophy. But not at the same time. Science deals with empirical materiality, and religion deals with spirituality. Atheists simply say that they do not need a God, but religious people say nothing can exist without a God. As both views are utterly polarised, the language for a meaningful debate between these is not presently available. It is as if two people, one Chinese and the other English, were trying to discuss a complicated issue without the benefit of an interpreter. It cannot be done. Is it necessary for religion to convert atheists, or for atheists to prove themselves as winners in religious circles? The debate is in the nature of the ineffable. Neither side can provide an irrefutable and final proof to convince the other and win the debate. Why build up a frenzy of antipathy towards 'the enemy'? Just let's keep our beliefs private, and try to live ethical and useful lives, if at all possible.

eveline goy | 15 March 2010  

"Only by respectfully forming alliances with the moderate religious community will atheists be able to preserve the elements of society that they value most, such as freedom of enquiry and the separation of Church and State."


First, I assume you mean freedom of "inquiry".

But still, I'm not sure how this statement is supposed to make sense?
If atheists do not form alliances with moderates, Separation of Church and State will end? Why? Are you saying that religious people will take away Separation of Church and State because they want to and they can -- or in order to punish atheists for being vocal and independent? Either way, isn't their goal despicable?

Pluto Animus | 15 March 2010  

I decided to wait until after the conference before commenting.

As I suspected might happen,the atheists could not help themselves and largely went down the path of offering little more than a tirade of vitriolic abuse, eg referring to Pope Benedict as a Nazi.

Peter Golding | 15 March 2010  

You are correct Peter... Pope Benedict should have been called an ex-nazi but tirade of vitriolic abuse?... I didn't see any of that at all... Dawkins went to great lengths to explain DNA to a theist in need of obvious science education who consequently took up most of his question time... didn't see that as vitriolic abuse did you? or mention it either?... As for religion, aka God, being needed to provide morality... (same old logic and question I'm afraid!)... quite simply where did he get his moral guidance from??

Chas Yves | 17 March 2010  

In that case, Chas Yves, you could be interested in the writings of Prof. F. Collins Genetic Research Scientist, Head of the Human Genome Project and who is eminently more qualified to speak on the subject than Dawkins could ever be. Having credentials far beyond Dawkins (and also having previously been an atheist) Collins is now openly a Christian, but only after an “almighty battle” with his own ego.

Collins says: “Actually, I find no conflict between science and faith, and neither apparently do the 40 percent of working scientists who claim to be believers. Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things. But why couldn't this be God's plan for creation? True, this is incompatible with an ultra-literal interpretation of Genesis…” (remembering the ultra-literal interpretation of Genesis, which was never the intention, was mistakenly begun by the extreme evangelical movement in the USA)…” but long before Darwin, there were many thoughtful interpreters like St. Augustine, who found it impossible to be exactly sure what the meaning of that amazing creation story was supposed to be. So attaching oneself to such literal interpretations in the face of compelling scientific evidence pointing to the ancient age of Earth and the relatedness of living things by evolution seems neither wise nor necessary for the believer.”
“I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”

During a debate with the biologist Richard Dawkins, Collins stated that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain (such as the values of certain physical constants favoring life), and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. Dawkins called this "the mother and father of all cop-outs" and "an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain", to which Collins responded "I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an extremely impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as 'Why am I here?', 'What happens after we die?' If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. BUT if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are undeniably consistent with that conclusion."; that in the final analysis it takes great courage to face the ego-shattering fact that “it is in fact Atheism which is the LEAST rational of all beliefs”… “Only egotistical fools put their own egos before truthful discovery.”

Open-minded | 22 March 2010  

Why can't we just listen to each other's views with interest and respect, and state our own in the same vein?

I am convinced we can learn from other's opinions, which are opposite to our own.
Where are they coming from? What happened in their life to help form certain outlooks?
What makes them believe something?
What do they think about our beliefs? and why?
Respect , interest and tolerence will go a long way to diffuse antagonism.

Bernie Introna | 29 March 2010  

Hooray. Sometimes I feel I'm a minority - an atheist that gets as bored by Dawkinism as I do with religious fundamentalists. Religion serves a need, just as many other irrational and potentially unhealthy practices do, and religious nuts have as much right to be what they are (often in an attempt to try and find meaning in their lives) as I have to reject their posturing.

I prefer Hitchins' approach: "I don't care what they do, as long as they keep me out of it".

To Mr Dawkins, and other evangelical atheists, I paraphrase George Santayana: Those who reject the dominant paradigm vehemently enough simply end up creating their own orthodoxy. Beware.

Apostate | 31 March 2010  

Interestingly, the supposedly most erudite atheists in the world all, with one voice, refused to engage in debate whilst in Australia for their Global Atheist Convention.
Here at the details:


Also of interest is that slogans on bus ads produced for that occasion which read “Atheism – Celebrate Reason.” Their refusal to engage in reason certainly cut their festivities short.

Mariano | 30 June 2010  

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