A Belated review of the Athiest Convention (part two).



Part One

Returning from the lunch break we were presented with a panel of women: Meredith Doig (of the Rationalist Society of Australia, replacing the ill Maggie Millar), acting as chair, Lyn Allison, Leslie Cannold, Tanya Levin, and Jane Caro.

After introducing the panellists, Meredith spoke for a few minutes, emphasising the need to beware the emotional blackmail of the religionists, and to have and maintain the courage to question.

Lyn Allison noted the contrast between monotheism and polytheism: whereas in polytheism one could move from god to god to goddess, approaching each one as one needed, monotheism presented a job lot, all or nothing choice in god. And monotheistic religion is anti-woman. Speaking on the problem of school chaplains, we were told of the god that children are presented: God is Love, and so on; all the supposed good is presented, and all the bad ignored. Also, despite the decline of Church attendance, the exertion of power by the Churches over women had increased, a result of their assault on secularism. And part of the problem is that we've become politically correct about critiques of religion.

Leslie Cannold defined herself as agnostic, and culturally Jewish. For Leslie, her Jewish heritage is an important part of her family history and her identity; denying one's Jewishness is like denying one's nationality, one's Americanness, or one's Australianness. She next raised the question of how we are to define ourselves: as atheists or secularists? What is it that we want to achieve?

Amongst our aims are an end to the fiscal, social, and political privilege of religious institutions; an end to taxpayer funding for support of 'charities' that 'advance' religion; and, in the Australian context, strict adherence to Section 116 of the Constitution. Political secularism is a movement that atheists, believers, and progressive clergy can support. And the political aims of secularism are more important than whether one is a theist or an atheist; beliefs about god are complex and private, and secularists don't need to go there to achieve their aims.

Tanya Levin, author of People in Glass Houses: an insider's story of a life in and out of Hillsong, noted the commands contained within The Bible about the restrictions placed upon women, particularly with regard to women speaking in public. She spoke a little about Hillsong, and their encouragement (demands?) for strict gender roles, where women are expected to be good wives, pure, and all that other claptrap we are familiar with. It was her study of Feminism that led Tanya to her atheism through the former's examination of power structures. She also saw a parallel between Feminism and atheism (in the philosophical sense) in such examinations.

Jane Caro began her talk by saying, "My name is Jane, and I am a feminist." This paralleled Philip Adams' statement in the beginning of his presentation: My name is Philip, and I am an atheist. It is an important statement, and it is important the the word "feminist" be reclaimed (I agree). She went on to note that religion seems only to be concerned about controlling women and their sexuality, and that religion is a projection of male insecurity. Religion is also damaging to the person as it has the effect of not taking responsibility for one's thoughts and actions, and prevents one from being fully adult.

In conclusion Meredith spoke again, lamenting that each woman had only a short time to present their talks (all together within an hour), rather than each the full hour afforded other presenters. I agree. What seemed promising turned out to have the appearance of tokenism.

After the panel came Tamas Pataki, with his talk "Atheism, Humanism and Empiricism". He acknowledged at the beginning that his presentation probably would not be popular, and quickly followed by stating that he thinks some of the famous athiests are wrong, and that he is worried about the atheist movement adopting the trappings of religion, such a priests, dogmas and so forth. There is no necessary mutual entanglement between atheism and anti-religionism. It is not even apparent that a religionless world would be desirable. He presents an analogy with pest insects: eliminating the insects could destroy the ecosystem; religion may be a tolerable necessity. Tamas instead advocates Humanism, for Humanism advocates the idea of human flourishing in this mortal life, not some hypothetical afterlife. Indoctrination is not a reason, but rather is a label for the persistence of religion. Claiming indoctrination as the reason simply ignores the emotional benefit conferred to adherents by belief: the security of the feeling of being loved by God, even if there are no others love that love that believer. There was, he said, no logical incompatibility with being atheist and endorsing religion.

Next came AC Grayling, to much cheering and applause, with his talk "Atheism, Secualrism, Humanism: Three Zones of Argument". Questions of metaphysics differ from the questions of religion. Ethics and politics run together, for there is a seamless integration with them both. It is good for discussions of ethics and politics to mingle. However, religion and science are improper to conflate, for there is a conflict of truths, not only within the various religions but also between religion and science. He went on to criticise the Templeton Foundation and their Prize in it's attempt to marry religion with science, and that such an enterprise was merely an attempt to maintain the aura of respectability for religion by associating it with science. Science, based on empiricism, can investigate and explain real phenomena, but what can religion contribute to science? (Though the question was perhaps rhetorical, we know of course that the answer is, nothing.) Science is open to refutation, but the object of religion is to convey certainty. In science, questioning is a virtue, whereas in religion it is a vice. To those who would claim that science emerged out of religion, Grayling says no, but they do have a common ancestor: ignorance. Both have the object of understanding, but only one can provide truth. Indeed, science and religion are like a bicycle and a ham sandwich, in that one can not substitute for the other. It is also not the purpose of science to provide all of the answers of life; that is why we have the arts and philosophy.

Grayling went on to claim that society ought to be pluralistic, where individual interests may be pursued, under the guidance of the Harm Principle. Religion was the opposite of this way of thinking, where the authority of right thought and behaviour is imposed from above. The Renaissance was the rediscovery of Classical Thought that gives us this freedom, as Classical Thought was concerned with human flourishing and the good life, in this our mortal life.

The final presenter on Saturday was PZ Myers. Readers of his blog can no doubt correctly guess the title of his presentation: The Inescapable Conflict between Science and Religion. And yes, there was much cheering and applause when PZ walked on, much (it appeared) to his incomprehending bemusement. Science and religion are incompatible, but human beings are complex, and can hold contradictory beliefs. But it would be a mistake, he said, to critique religion based on its pathological extremes. Rather, critique it on its stupidity. However, though religion may be stupid, PZ emphasised that religious people are not stupid, that they are smart people, for one need only note their intricate rationalisations for their belief. The problem lay in the false premises that religion is based upon.

And it is here that I end this recounting of the event. The Saturday session over, we parted for dinner. I had booked a ticket for the official Dinner that evening and did attend. Of course, as one does as such events I drank some alcohol, and then continued with a few more post dinner drinks. Suffice to say the effects of such consumption were apparent when I finally got home at something like 2am. Also tired, I ended up sleeping in Sunday morning and missed the first session of the Conference that day, much to my chagrin (though thankful for the sleep) as I had quite been looking forward to listening to Peter Singer. I also forgot to bring my notebook and a pen, so was unable to write any notes from which to rely, as I had for what you have read above. For an account of Sunday, the dear reader shall have to search elsewhere, for I can be of no assistance.

Cross-posted on my blog, Holocene Hominoid.

A Nadder has a wrap up of the Sunday Session here.

Tags: atheism, atheist, atheist convention

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What seemed promising turned out to have the appearance of tokenism.

I'm sorry to hear that. Also, that you forgot your notebook and a pen, as I haven't seen any other recounting of the event as comprehensive as yours.
There will be video excerpts posted to the web by the organisers, and also a dvd available for purchase.
Thanks.

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