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Lessons from the Global Atheist Convention: Day Two

Sophie Gyles | at the Global Atheist Convention

Saturday, 14 April 2012

1. We need to actually believe what we believe and live it out

American philosopher Daniel Dennett staged one of the most entertaining, compelling and challenging presentations of the day. Entitled, ‘How to Tell if You’re An Atheist’, Dennett’s presentation aimed to identify “atheist deniers”, that is, people who are Christians by name and name only. Addressing the few Christians in the room and those who would later view his talk online, Dennett supposed “you might be an atheist if you’re reflective enough to be curious about us”. It was unconvincing, as the same could be said for curiosity or a preoccupation with Christianity, which atheists are certainly guilty of. But his main point was that many people tick the Christian box on the census, but don’t actually believe Jesus was the son of God, or believe in an interventionist God. Worst of all, he said, you might believe that God is just a concept. “If you believe this, you’re definitely an atheist,” he said. We need to make sure we actually believe what we say we believe, and not endorse people over-identifying as Christian.

2. We need to call evangelical atheism for what it is

In his presentation, Daniel Dennett openly attempted to disillusion Christians. He spoke about the need for ex-clergy to “carry the word that God is a delusion” and “arming children against [religious] propaganda”, as if secularism is a neutral world view. The crowd lapped it up, just as they had only a couple of hours earlier when Dr Leslie Cannold defended the right for people to believe what they want, just not the right to impose it on anyone. Atheists are constantly placing their views outside and even above the marketplace of ideas. But they aren’t neutral. Atheism is just as much of an agenda as any belief system, and the atheists at the GAC at least are keen to impose secularism on everyone and as such they shouldn’t get away with the hypocrisy of criticising other ‘isms’.

3. Who’s afraid of the big bad physicist?

One of the more thrilling of the day’s presentations was from physicist Lawrence Krauss, who tried to explain to the audience how the universe might have begun. Essentially, he showed us that according to particle physics, it is quite plausible for something could come from nothing. This thought was designed to threaten belief in God, but as he outlined the sheer vastness and complexity of the universe (did you know there are 400billion galaxies in the visible universe?), I was left more in awe of God, not less. The moral of his presentation – you’re far, far more insignificant than you thought – didn’t feel like quite the cutting attack it was designed to be. Of course our God and his universe(s) are way bigger and more awesome than we could conceive!

4. We need to think hard about privileges we take for granted

At least four speakers today, including Geoffrey Robertson QC and Dr Leslie Cannold, raised major concerns about the tax benefits given to churches and religious institutions in Australia. There was also a great deal of vitriol towards the public funding of private religious schools and Dan Barker, an ex-US minister raised the issue of housing allowances for ministers. Here Christians are seen to be exploiting taxpayers and accepting unmerited favour from the government. As someone in ministry who does receive tax benefits, it made me question whether or not we should be refusing the privileges we are entitled to, even lobbying against them, in order to stand for what is fair. At the very least we need to examine the situation we find ourselves in.

5. We need to care more about the Arab world

Perhaps the most refreshing presenter of the day was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch atheist who wants to see the end of Islam, and the introduction of secular values and institutions in the Arab world. She suggested that atheists should be ashamed that it’s mostly Christians who are reaching out to Muslim women who are being oppressed under Islamic regimes, and called on those present to take action. This should be an encouragement for those already supporting Muslim women to keep going, and for those who are yet to engage with the Arab uprisings, to start learning and loving.

6. We need to care for our clergy

Until today, I had not heard of The Clergy Project. Powerfully supported by a number of the GAC presenters, it is a group for current and former clergy who have ceased believing in the religion they once professed. The group aims to help these people exit their jobs while remaining financially and emotionally afloat. Dan Barker, an ex-minister and missionary from the US who spoke on the topic of “Life Driven Purpose” described the group as working to “save” preachers, while Daniel Dennett said no one questions the falling away of clergy as a phenomenon but no one knows how big it is. Surely it’s our job as believers and friends to be authentically involved enough in the lives of our ministers that if they were having doubts, they had somewhere to turn to.

7. Humility goes a long way or why every Christian should consider going to the next GAC

I have no idea how many Christians are at this year’s Convention, but there could and should be so many more. I only know a handful of people who are going out of a desire to understand atheists and atheism more fully, and of those, only one is going not under some kind of obligation. Here’s where I confess that I hadn’t planned on going until I was offered the chance to report on it for Eternity. But next time the atheists come to town, I’m there, reporting or not. As I was tweeting my reactions using the #atheistcon hashtag today, someone responded: “I would likely disagree with you on many things, but I respect you enormously for being here today.” Similarly, as I was lining up for a coffee I got chatting to an Iranian guy who was astonished to learn I was a Christian at an atheist conference. But there wasn’t even a hint of disrespect. If anything, he seemed to respect me more. What a message it would send if more Christians went just to listen, learn and understand, and along the way made their presence known in a loving way.

8. We have a choice about how we react

Exiting the convention centre to enjoy lunch in the sunshine, conference goers were confronted with a small group of vocal Christians wielding signs quoting the bible, condemning people about their sinfulness and need to repent. Their message was true, but not at all winsome. The crowd didn’t resort to violence, but the insults and chanting became pretty aggressive. I approached the Christians after the crowd died away, and they said they had also been approaching people one-on-one, but they felt they had more reach if they just preached at people. There is a place for preaching, but surely it’s most effective in a less hostile context. I don’t want to rule out God’s ability to work through such a situation, but my sense is it hardened more people than it enlightened, and only added fuel to the words being thrown around inside the conference.

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