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

hisIt's Monday afternoon (evening by the time I complete and post this), and I've finally gotten around to blogging about the Atheist Convention. I had been planing on doing a daily round up (like I did for my scant Friday post) but what with it being such a long and tiring weekend of activities, I did not get around to it.

Saturday began with a talk by Philip Adams, entitled "Atheist Fundamentalism: the Dangers of Missionary Zeal. Why We Mustn't be Like Them". Philip began by stating that whilst we do need to be out, proud and loud atheists, we must be cautious of hubris. We must not make the mistake of denying the ethics and morality of the religious. After all, the end to slavery and the Civil Rights movement had strong religious motivation and justification behind them. It is important to understand the religious, and act with compassion towards them. However, this does not mean we must ignore the bad behaviour of the religious. They must be held to account, and we must rage against religious extremism, and rage against their assaults on secularism. But not all religious people are enemies. Where we are able to find common ground with the religiously moderate or progressive, we must be willing to talk and ally with them.

Next to the lectern was Russell Blackford, speaking on "Freedom From Religion: Atheists for Individual Liberty". We heard a repeat of Philip's opening advice: be forthright and outspoken atheists, especially on social issues. In particular, we must must defend liberal principles such as Freedom of Speech, separation of State and Church, and individual liberty. J.S. Mill, especially in his treatise On Liberty, was essentially right in this regard. However, we must remember that Freedom of Speech does go both ways: the religious have this right, too. Russell asserted that religion is authoritarian (i.e., anti-liberal) and that we need the freedom to oppose religion, and the freedom to live in accordance with one's values.

Russell went on to talk about the separation of State and Church, referring to John Lock. These two entities serve different realms, the Church matters spiritual, the State matters mundane (def. 1 and 3). That which 'offends God' is not the business of State, and the State is not to enforce religious morality. The concern of the State is for the welfare of people in the liberal tradition, and requires use of Mill's Harm Principle (which, it is to be noted, is not a Defence Principle). We must also be cautious of the idea of separation of State and Church as it is understood by many of those who are religious, for to them it has an altogether different meaning: the State butts out of Church affairs, but the the Church is free to butt into State affairs.

Max Wallace spoke next, his topic being "The Delusion We Pay For: How Taxpayers Subsidise Religion Worldwide and Why We Need a Film to Expose This". His central thesis is that religion is subsidised by the public, and this represents a form of legal corruption, as public money is being used for a private purpose (i.e., religion). Religious charity is funded from the public purse, but the idea of religion itself being a charity, and therefore to be exempt from paying tax, is improper. It is an idea that may well have been relevant in the 17th and 18th Centuries (when the idea was born and supported), but it is not a relevant idea in the 21st Century. Indeed, there is no real charity by religion, as an end in itself. It is all smoke and mirrors for the real business of Churches: money and political power.

Next to speak was John Perkins, on "The Cost of Religious Delusion: Islam and Terrorism". John began by stating that the concept of a monotheistic god was the single worst idea of human beings. The importance of secularism was stated, and that secularism guarantees both the right to practice religion and the right not to practice. He noted that we, today, are rich beyond the dreams of our religious ancestors, and that our wealth - in knowledge, technology, and money - is a result of our secular heritage, as religion stifles innovation, and it is innovation that provides our wealth. Religion is a psychological phenomenon, and religions are based on an incorrect reading and understanding of history, the result of blindness to facts and truth. Religion is a delusion founded and sustained by irrationality.

John then went on to discuss Islam in particular. The concept of Qur'anic inerrency - and that no part may be denied - stifled dissent within Islam, and acceptance of critique from without. For instance, within Islam Muhammad is seen as a paragon of virtue, whereas historically we are able to see, from the Qur'an and Hadith, that Muhammad was a warlord who accumulated much wealth. Indeed, Islam is the only religion founded by a warrior, a founding in a time of war and sustained by war. Though we may be grateful for the retention of Classical ideas and knowledge by Islamic scholars and scientists during the European Dark Ages, such retention was in spite of Islam, not because of it. Such accomplishments occurred during a time of less strict observance of the religion. To contrast, he noted that today the number of books translated into Spanish is one thousand times the rate at which books are translated into Arabic. Finally, he noted that there is little chance of success of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan without deradicalisation. We need to foster reason and evidence, secularism, and universal human rights, which has yet to be done there.

Following John was Taslima Nasrin, Islamic apostate and political refugee. It must be noted that her life continues be threatened, and that dark-suited security personnel (read bodyguards), though numbering only two that I could see (I've read reports of there being three), were noticeable in their presence. Taslima began her talk — "My Struggle for Secularism, Human Rights, Freedom of Expression and for Women's Freedom" — by stating that there is no debate possible with fanatics. Later in her presentation she reiterated the point, declaring that there was no difference between Islam and Islamic Fundamentalism; it is simply a matter of degree. Islam is inherently anti-woman, and was created by Muhammed for his own benefit and comfort. The burqa is tool of oppression, and women should not wear it. During the Q&A that followed, in reply to a question from the floor (by Jane Caro, a presenter later in the day), Taslima declared that any woman who supports the individual right of a woman to wear burqa can not call herself a feminist: Feminist debate on this issue is misguided, for the burqa is an inherent acknowledgement of the state of women as merely sexual objects.

Taslima also discussed her childhood. She would be forced to recite the Qur'an, but had no idea of its meaning; she was simply parroting words. As an eight year old, she questioned her mother: why must they pray in Arabic, not Bangladeshi? Surely Allah, being omniscient, would still be able to understand them? Taslima's enquiries were rebuked, her mother declaring that if she were to persist and say anything bad about Allah, Allah would cause her tongue to fall off. In empirical curiosity, Taslima put such a claim to the test, albeit in private. Looking into the bathroom mirror, she insulted this god: Allah is a son of a bitch; Allah is a pig. Her mother was, of course, proved wrong.

At the end of her talk Taslima posed a question (perhaps somewhat rhetorical) and a declaration. The question was, do believers commit blasphemy when they protest in protection of their god instead of relying on their god to protect itself, or them? Her declaration was that the Islamic world must go through an Enlightenment, and that we must not be afraid to question Islam out of fear of radicals, or a misplaced 'respect of belief'.

The appreciation of the audience, and a statement of our solidarity with her, was expressed in a standing ovation.

Part Two

Cross-posted on my blog, Holocene Hominoid.

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Thanks for such a comprehensive part one review! Much better than trying to follow Twitter.




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