Bruce on Day Four


A guest post by Bruce Everett

Day Four – Sunday: Last day of the convention proper…

I have to confess, owing to considerations arising out of personal matters not mine to recount, coupled with a genuine need for more sleep, I missed the first three speakers of Sunday’s presentations: Eugenie Scott, Tanya Smith and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

I can’t comment on the merits of their respective showings; however I’m noticeably left with a black hole in the overall convention experience. Missing out on the presentations of three women in a row, in a convention touted to demonstrate the increasing alignment of feminism and atheism, is quite a gap.

I’m wondering, other concerns permitting, whether priority categories of speakers (in this case, women) could be scheduled so as not to be clumped together, to avoid risking their being missed by misfortune, or by convenience to those who’d miss them deliberately (sniffy misogynists?)

I suspect there may be an ongoing debate about these kinds of things amongst organisers, perhaps worthy of being opened up to the broader public. I’ll be looking forward to the release of the DVD of the convention, in any case.

***

When I finally got settled in, it was time for Sam Harris to make his appearance…

Harris was going to give a talk on ‘the illusion of free will’, but apparently for reasons out of his control, it was predetermined that he’d give a talk on the topic of death.

This was the kind of Sam Harris I’d wanted to see. Warren at Embiggen Books would tell me the following afternoon that of all the prominent atheist authors, he thought Harris was the one who put out the most novel content. Harris certainly didn’t disappoint in this respect on Sunday.

There’s been a lot of talk of extracting, or reverse engineering from religion, elements that still contribute to some degree of human utility, but to adapt them without the harm, or the annoying frilly bits. Alain de Botton has made this the theme of his most recent project, and Dennett has been talking about it ever since Breaking The Spell.

(You’d think Alain de Botton had invented the idea just recently, owing to his style of self-promotion).

I have to confess, that reason-exalting gospel music, showcased by Dennett in the past, doesn’t do it for me – it seems far too white-middle-class (especially when white dudes dance awkwardly to it). Further, the idea of bird-watching as a scientific experience available to the masses, while not useless, is hardly an aesthetic salve for the world-weary and the over-worked. I find Alain de Botton’s idea of constructing temples to atheism frivolous, pointless, pretentious, and utterly repulsive (much like his middle-class, School of Life, self-help cult – yuck!)

Harris, for his part delved into a materialistic, neuroscientific perspective on dealing with death – our predictions, projections and anticipations about the future are just thoughts, and our memories of the departed and the past, similarly, are just thoughts. A great deal of our suffering is, Harris argued, brought about by dwelling on such thoughts – the departed, impending doom, anxieties over future needs not being met – over and over.

The crowd was instructed through a session of meditation, informed again by a neuroscientific outlook. It was joked at the end that we’d been duped, and that the audience were now all converts to Buddhism. While deliberately not tipping a hat to solipsism, Harris explained our conscious sense experience as like a dream constrained by external reality – i.e. don’t expect to be able to fly if you jump off a building.

During the questions and answers, it was explained that the consolations offered by this kind of approach weren’t a justification for apathy about suffering in the world, and that some Buddhist sects, disturbingly, had gone down precisely this road. The consolations of meditation were for respite, when our thoughts tortured us without any payoff (i.e. excessive, unproductive worrying).

Ray Kurtzweil copped it in the neck for utopian visions of uploaded consciousness, as did a specimen of transhumanist twee during the Q&A, about the sum of everyone’s memories of loved ones giving a kind of networked immortality. Call me biased, but I’m giving Harris bonus points for this.

The presentation was delivered in good humour, with compassion, and in a crisp, lucid manner. It was to my mind possibly the best talk of the convention. It was, I think, as Warren would later echo, the most novel discussion.

***

After a morning break, with nasty coffee and nice vegetarian-friendly biscuits, the crowd was treated to the premiere of Emma McKenna and Craig Foster’s short film, Parrot. (Dear SBS, please do screen it on SOS!)

Parrot told the story of two young Australian lads, both closeted atheists, raised in a Catholic family with an overbearing, dogmatically religious mother, and an enabling, feckless Dad. Tragedy strikes, and while the young protagonist of the film has to deal with the strife in his own way, his mother turns ever more to her faith, harbouring similar expectations for her family.

While Australia is generally an easy place for the godless to be out about who they are, such that it’s most often not mentioned, there are niches where religious dogmatism still gets an upper hand, causing problems for the godless (and those of the ‘wrong religion’). Traditional, conservative, church-going families are such a niche, and it’s still worth paying attention to what life is like in these environments, even here in safe, supposedly secular, Australia.

At its core, Parrot is still a little didactic, and if you’re watching out for it, mildly contrived. However, in the subsequent discussion between directors Foster and McKenna, and MC Lawrence Leung, it was revealed this was a much bigger problem in earlier copies of the draft, subsequent efforts preventing the protagonist from merely being a ‘voice-box’. Perhaps, if this concern had underpinned the project from the beginning, the final product would be perfect. Still, as is, it’s quite considerably better than the alt.atheism lecture dressed-up as dialogue that calls itself The Ledge (an atheistic high-concept film, not saved even by its considerably talented cast).

***

Jason Ball…

What can I say? The young man is impressive. He’s all over the place (in a good way): guest editing The Rationalist, making media appearances for the Atheist Foundation of Australia and whoever else, and doing a good job of all of it. It seems anywhere you look these days in Australian free-thought, there’s Jason Ball, doing his thing. It’s quite heartening.

The young Mr Ball recounted to the audience just how he came to atheism, secularism and free-thought, from the background of a moderately religious family (football was explicitly allowed to come before church, which seems to be a norm amongst Australian Christians). An exchange trip to theUS saw Jason as the only person in his class who believed in evolution, and from then on the young man was changed…

(There are more details to it than that, obviously; like many of the talks, it’s worth your watching the DVD when it comes out).

There are other young secular Australians amongst Mr Ball’s cohort, and I wonder if their interest in the movement comes from a similar background, and if it wouldn’t be worth considering head-hunting young individuals with similar goals, but with possibly complementary perspectives (working class, Aboriginal Australian, and so on…) Also, I’m told that Leigh, one of the young committee members behind the scenes, is similarly impressive, so perhaps we could see a little more of her take on things as well.

***

…and then there was PZ Myers. He’s published the speech he gave at the GAC, Sacking the City of God, over here, if you’re so inclined.

Maybe it was my mood at the time, or maybe it’s these anti-depressants I’ve been taking lately, but PZ’s hyperbole didn’t reach me the way it used to. Sure, I agree with a number, if not all of the substantive points raised in the talk to various degrees (the anthropology of religion and morals, truth, autonomy and community), and I’m not about to misconstrue the intent of the talk, or tone troll PZ for Not Helping(tm). But…

… PZ just didn’t rock me.

Maybe if Eugenie Scott had given a lecture on why we need to be ultra-deferential-to-religion in order to combat creationism, and I’d seen it, and I had frustration pent-up from it, then maybe PZ’s talk would have been an outlet. Perhaps if there’d been a comedic warm-up act, maybe if it was PZ headlining the first night rather than Jim Jeffries, I’d have seen things differently.

Maybe it’s because PZ followed the awesome Jason Ball. Maybe I just needed lunch.

Or maybe, in as far as I agreed with PZ, I found the substance of his talk uncontroversial and obvious, while in as far as it pushed the envelope, I found it unconvincing and difficult to take seriously – atheists are a hunting pack! Yes, well, maybe someone in the audience needed a bloviated confidence booster, but, whatever issues we do have (and we have plenty), we’re hardly under siege here inAustralia.

I’m not entirely sure I wasn’t witnessing projected nerd-affirmation in drag as secular activism. And I’m not entirely sure PZ appreciates the irony in his recent overuse of the word ‘wanker’, either.

Again, being so rhetorical, interpreting the content is subject to mood, so don’t take my word for it. No doubt footage will become available at some point for you to make up your own mind. Maybe I’ll even change mine.

(It wasn’t my intention at the outset of this post to suggest that on the night, PZ Myers was a bloviating wanker, but here we are at the end of the process, and… oh well.)

***

Lunch was served, eventually, being the same meal as the day before (I loved the vegetarian wraps – so this is good), although this time, there was a different accompaniment; visitors of another flavour than the last.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z2avI516pk]

Islamic protest outside the 2012 GAC (1:24)

Okay, maybe I should take back that comment about PZ’s talk being bloviated; these guys (ALL OF THEM GUYS) really know how to billow hot air into empty rhetoric. I love how blue-shirted beard at 13 seconds seemed rather agitated with the hand waving, but I hope he wasn’t telling the other fellow (‘use your brains!’) not to give them the satisfaction, or anything like that. Kudos to Mr ‘use your brains’.

Now… as for the claim that Hitchens is burning in hellfire, it’s like the famous Josh Thomas quote from Good News Week; it’s like we’re being told that Hitchens, dead, is being punched in the aura by hippies. It’s hardly menacing, and makes more of a joke of the people claiming it, rather than impugning anyone else, dead or alive.

But the threats of hellfire against Ayaan Hirsi Ali are more menacing – you don’t experience hellfire in life, so there’s an implicit threat of death. Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to be taken particularly seriously by the Victorian police, who have a reputation for cracking down on protests (when they inconvenience rich people, at least).

I asked a couple of people, rhetorically, why there were no Muslim women protesting alongside the men, before heading back inside. It would turn out later, that ‘where are the women?’ would be chanted back at the Islamic protest, by a much larger group of atheists. I’d like to think this was my idea, but that’d be stretching credulity more than just a little – I’m just satisfied it happened.

…and then there was The Kiss.

                       

Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett share a kiss – (used with permission)

They brought Allah, anger and hate, and we brought love. I think it’s obvious which won out on the day.

I’ve been told a few things about the exchanges surrounding the protest that I can’t verify, things which would be interesting to know if true. I’m told, for example, that a few Muslim men holding placards intentionally posed with members of the atheist choir, as a statement of peaceful, mutual, if hyperbolic disagreement. I’m also told that one atheist fellow shouted words to the effect of ‘go home’, before being turned upon by other (sarcasm wielding) atheists.

I’m not entirely sure this situation didn’t have the capacity to blow up into something nastier though – the implicit threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali hint at as much. I’ve been to quite a few union rallies over the years, so it’s not the yelling that gets at me. It’s just in my experience such violent rhetoric is either abstained from, or results in controversy and sackings. Call me provincial if you will, but I think it’s something to keep an eye on, even if such concerns aren’t fashionable in edgy, radicalMelbourne.

***

Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins gave a wonderful tribute to Christopher Hitchens; Krauss sharing personal anecdotes, and Dawkins referring to his interview with Hitchens in last year’s Christmas edition of New Statesman (which I had with me at all times during my stay in Melbourne, incidentally). This was accompanied by a montage of Hitchens at his most razor-sharp.

Tribute to Christopher Hitchens (11:09)

It has to be said, that hearing Dawkins emulating the manner of speech of Hitchens, was like listening to pan pipes attempting to imitate a tuba; all dry air and reedy, without the necessary, rich baritone. It’s not the worst thing to be accused of falling short of though, the bar being set so high.

This is the part where I suspect people in the audience most wish he were still around, occasional tears being shed; something that must have grated on a number of envious, less prominent, less respected authors around RadiCool Melbourne.

(This is the part where I’ll also point out that wherever I went in Melbourne, they only had Johnny Walker Red.)

The tribute segued into the Three Horsemen Panel, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. After the huge applause had subsided, the proceedings were held in an informal manner, which Dawkins told us they’d play by ear, and see how it went.

Cooperation and secularism seemed to be the de facto theme of this Global Atheist Convention. I thought it might have just been me, owing to my attending secularist fringe events where cooperation in secular campaigning was discussed, but I’ve seen other people make much the same observations, here and there.

Cooperation, discussed by the panel, touched on a few interesting observations; Dennett raised Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s call for people to help secular Muslims, stating his own experience that while secular Muslims were not wary of atheists, they could be wary of being found by fundamentalist Muslims to have associated with atheists, which was risky.

I suspect that this may be more of an issue in the antipode than down-under, although it doesn’t seem to be hurting George Galloway’s prospects much – why deal with moderate, secular Muslims when you can treat the fundamentalists as a voting bloc, right? Well, it works for some people.

I digress.

Contrary to a lot of public opinion, ‘new atheists’ aren’t opposed to cooperation, which makes any such line of questioning just a bit more trivial. Distinctions then, if sensible ones are to be made, as well as subsequent discussion, should be based on something like the conditions under which such cooperation would best occur, not on the prospect of cooperation itself. Unless of course you’re one of those parties benefiting from public confusion on the matter, in which case you’d want to present your political opposition as uncooperative, while being uncooperative yourself.

The Q&A session was pretty entertaining; one poor chap asking Richard Dawkins why a brain hadn’t evolved to the size of the entire universe. Ahem. Dawkins answered by pointing out the somewhat finite size of the birth canal.

While there are probably better, more technical objections to the query, it was a funny retort, and a nice light-hearted note on which to end the GAC proper. Although, having booked for a fringe event the following night, featuring PZ Myers, Chris Stedman and Leslie Cannold, on that very vexed of topics, cooperation still weighed on my mind.

I’ll write more on the topic in the next installation; Night of the Wankers (or Way kin whiff Strine)

~ Bruce

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself says

    Contrary to a lot of public opinion, ‘new atheists’ aren’t opposed to cooperation, which makes any such line of questioning just a bit more trivial. Distinctions then, if sensible ones are to be made, as well as subsequent discussion, should be based on something like the conditions under which such cooperation would best occur, not on the prospect of cooperation itself. Unless of course you’re one of those parties benefiting from public confusion on the matter, in which case you’d want to present your political opposition as uncooperative, while being uncooperative yourself.

    Yes and no. I can cooperate with moderate and liberal Christians supporting the teaching of evolution instead of creationism. But I have nothing but disdain for “you have to respect their faith.” Note I didn’t specify whose faith was supposed to be respected.” Faith is just another word for delusion, clung to by people indulging in magical thinking.

  2. Stacy says

    Or maybe, in as far as I agreed with PZ, I found the substance of his talk uncontroversial and obvious, while in as far as it pushed the envelope, I found it unconvincing and difficult to take seriously – atheists are a hunting pack! Yes, well, maybe someone in the audience needed a bloviated confidence booster, but, whatever issues we do have (and we have plenty), we’re hardly under siege here inAustralia

    Well, yes, but–it was the Global Atheist Conference, not the Australian Atheist Conference.

    Here in the U.S., the substance of PZ’s talk is still quite controversial indeed, and godbotherers have been pushing our secular democracy further and further toward theocracy for decades now. Meanwhile there are plenty of other places in the world where theocracy either rules, or would like to.

  3. says

    Maybe it’s because PZ followed the awesome Jason Ball.

    I presume that was an attempt at satire. If not, I must have been at a different conference.

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