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Hype undermines atheists' mission

  • 12 March 2010
While 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