Friday, 13 April 2012
As I stepped off the tram outside the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, the crowd around me formed moving tribes: those in footy colours streamed off towards the stadium, those with full wallets were lead by glittering lights to the Casino, while the rest of us walked off to the Global Atheism Conference in honour of reason. To each his own God, I thought.
In the foyer of the convention centre, icebeds of oysters, mountains of gourmet sausages and gallons of wine kept the crowd happy until the session was called. The night began with a video tribute to the heroes of reason who have triumphed through ‘centuries upon centuries of adversity’ by asking “Why?”. It was a somewhat ironic moment, given Dawkins’ assertion when he appeared on QandA on Monday that “Why?” is a question that shouldn’t be asked.
But it was the spectre of Christopher Hitchens which really loomed large, and it appears, will continue to throughout the conference. The president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, David Nicholls began his opening address by paying respects to the ‘gigantic intellect’ who died before he could fulfill his pledge to present at the conference. Instead, an extended tribute to him is planned for Sunday afternoon.
After a short history of the AFA, the audience was treated to four comedians. All were fairly tame, until Jim Jeffries, who made light of infant death and took aim at women, making the #AtheistCon twitter feed come alive with disapproval. He was also the only comic who dared to take on Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.
But it was Ben Elton whose routine proved the most insightful. Taking aim at “lazy thinking” not organised religion, Elton mocked conspiracy theorists, star signs, the west’s obsession with cosmetic surgery and people who replace God with self-help mantras.
It was idolatry he got most fired up about. He argued that modern faith is about turning ourselves into Gods, about making God in our own image. You could feel the audience squirm when he ended his routine by saying he had no objection to the idea of God, or an unknowable spirit out there somewhere. But he said, just don’t try and tell us what that unknowable being thinks or demands of human kind.
Throughout the night, the most applause was raised for those who championed gay rights and the end of religious education in schools, issues which will no doubt crop up again over the weekend.
Organisers say 4,000 people are due to attend across the weekend to ‘celebrate reason’. Saturday’s program is set to be a highlight, with Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins all presenting, while Sunday will see Sam Harris and PZ Myers take the stage.