It appears that this weekend is going to be a hiatus to my hiatus, since I’ve somehow, after a series of fortunate events, managed to find time this weekend to go to the World Atheist Conference. Or Convention. Is it just me, or do the lines get incredibly blurry between those two as soon as you step out of strict academia/geekery?
But yes. As I didn’t have the foresight to bring anything I could scribble notes on, this is all from memory as I fill myself up with delicious pad thai, and is therefore subject to incompleteness, inaccuracy and distraction by noodles. Don’t expect insightful criticism today!
I arrived about a half-hour before the conference began, which seemed like a reasonably sensible compromise between wanting to check things out before the talks started, and having a mild case of nerves about showing up to a Big Social-ish Event by myself. I needn’t have worried, by the way.
The conference was opened by Michael Nugent who was, as usual, both entertaining and to the point. He spoke about how, as atheists, our common identity only has meaning because we live in a society structured on religious grounds. In the absence of this kind of religious structure and dominance, atheism would have no more meaning than not-stamp-collecting. Word for the day, by the way: aphilatelist. I am an aphilatelist. Are you? He also talked about his optimism regarding secularisation of Ireland.
Next was the inimitable Ivana Bacik. She spoke for about three quarters of an hour, about topics as diverse as secularisation in schools, what she would like a secular society to look like, and humanist sources of ethics. I loved her points about a secular society- that she has no problem whatsoever with people being religious, and that her vision of secularisation is of a state which is not religiously biased (as Ireland’s is), and a society that respects people of all religions and none. Nice. Her comments on using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ethically inspiring text were also interesting- not something that had occurred to me before. I also liked her answer to a question regarding her reasons for ‘coming out’ publicly as an atheist. Turns out that, well, she was just asked about it one day. Sometimes it ain’t about soul-searching and crises, people.
Next was the first panel discussion of the conference (and the only of the day). For this, Lone Frank, DPR Jones and Richard Dawkins discussed Weird Science versus Weird Religion. Or, that was the idea at least- topics weren’t exactly stuck to, as it was a very participatory kind of discussion. It was also a lot more atheist, as opposed to secular, than the previous speakers. Some areas I do remember being discussed, though:
- *Our innate tendency to see agency where none exists- based on the idea that brains that react as though that strange rustling noise is a predator are far more likely to reproduce than the ones who assume that it’s just the wind. There are theories that this tendency is the basis for a lot of our initial belief in spirits or gods. DPR talked about how he feels that this means that religions would always crop up even in an environment where none exist. Dawkins disagreed, seeing this as just another cognitive bias to be dealt with.
- *Communicating the differences between Weird Science and Weird Pseudoscience. The difficulty with communicating science is often that of how to make it accessible to the layperson without dumbing it down, as well as how to communicate the evidence for what can seem like preposterous claims in a way that can be reasonably easily understood. As science advances, it becomes more specialised, and more difficult for the layperson to distinguish between genuine scientific findings and pseudoscience dressed up with ‘sciencey’-sounding words and explanations.
- *And then there was The Inevitable. Someone was bound to come to heckle, and someone did. I can’t remember the man’s name, but he introduced himself as a Muslim* with a question for Dawkins. He referenced someone that Dawkins had spoken about earlier- a Christian young-Earth creationist ex-geologist who had left geology because he felt that all of the evidence for an old Earth conflicted with his faith, and he did not want to give up or change his beliefs. The geologist had said that even if all the evidence in the world pointed towards evolution, he would not change his beliefs. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this man then asked Dawkins if he would show the same honesty if “all the evidence in the world pointed to creationism as opposed to everything being created by chance”. Dawkins was.. not happy to have evolution mischaracterised as ‘chance’. The man then asked Dawkins if he would explain for him how we have come to exist. I’m not sure exactly what Dawkins answered to this one, but it involved questioning which part of the past several billion years he’d like to start with. Owch. That guy did not end up looking particularly well.
One thing that I would like to mention that I like a lot about the conference plan, though, is that although Dawkins- one of the biggest names in atheism on the planet- is there, he isn’t giving any keynote speeches. Instead, he’s involved in two panel discussions over the course of the weekend. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but if so I think it’s a fantastic way to get people listening to what other, less well-known names have to say.
Right, I’m out of pad thai, which means that this blog post, along with my delicious tofu, is coming to an end. But there was also a delightfully deadpan speech by Tanya Smith, the new president of the Atheist Alliance International, which it is terrible of me to not do justice to. I’ll try and remember to bring a notebook tomorrow and have a more comprehensive account of Day Two!
*You know, I feel a little strange about identifying this guy’s religion, given, well, not wanting to feed into Islamophobia. I do so mainly because he made a very major point of it himself. I would, however, like to point out very strongly that just because this guy is a Muslim who mischaracterised an entire branch of science and refused to accept that he had done so, doesn’t mean that this is an Islamic kind of thing to do. It’s a fundie thing to do. Any comments claiming that this is a Muslim-in-particular thing are unwelcome here, and anyone found doing so will be summarily dragged to Henry St of a weekend to listen to the rantings of the very-Christian street preacher generally to be found there. And then given a history lesson. But not by me, ’cause I’ve better things to do.