Attending the Global Atheist Convention cost us a lot of time, effort and money. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
It was absolutely glorious to meet and mingle with so many like-minded people, to have intelligent conversations with those I'd only previously encountered online and to be in the presence of so many other witty, clever and intriguing human beings.
Yes, yes. I'm being smug. That's what being an atheist is about, according to the media.
Indeed, if you only read the news reports, most of which were written by people who didn't even attend the convention, you'd assume that it was a back-slapping exercise, full of nastiness towards the opposition and not much else.
As if that doesn't happen every Sunday in a church.
Oh yes, we're the new fundamentalists, don't you know. Crazies. Over the top. Disrespectful towards religion and full of ourselves. That explains why we're planning all those upcoming atheist terror campaigns.
Oh wait. That's right. We aren't.
All we did was get together and get drunk for a couple of days. Oh, and listened to lectures from the cream of freethinking authors and philosophers. And discussed different ideas, different viewpoints, different identities, different ideologies.
All without feeling the need to kill each other. Refreshing, isn't it?
The Global Atheist Convention was an opportunity to enjoy the company of like-minded people but it was more than that. This was a chance to out ourselves. 2500 people came forward and said "Yes, we're not religious and we're still good." I think we disproved the theory that atheists have no morality; there was no theft, no murder, no violence, no rape, as should happen when 2500 amoral people gather together. I think the worst that happened was a minor tussle for a ham sandwich on the lunch table.
The convention was perhaps the most feminist gathering I've ever attended. EVERYONE was a feminist, whether equipped with a vag or not. The equality of women was taken as a given by all attendees. We all agreed that religion was a major factor in the oppression of women and that was a bad thing.
Jamie Kilstein made a remark about how religion placed men above women and then was surprised that no men in the audience made the heh-heh-heh joke "Yeah, right, that's how it should be!"
It occurred to me then: that kind of macho pretend-humour didn't belong at the conference. No-one even THOUGHT about making that stupid joke. The atheist guys didn't feel the need to throw their weight around with "jokes" because they were perfectly comfortable with their masculinity, and with the idea that women were equal.
Can I just say: this could well be the first time I've ever encountered that.
Thank you, atheist men, for your respect.
I'm a little disappointed that the convention didn't go further politically. We should have made a statement at the end in support of human rights and secularism. That, in spite of all the bullshit about "herding cats" is something that we all agree on (and if you're an atheist who doesn't believe in universal human rights and secularism... fuck off!).
In the very first speech of the convention, Philip Adams asked people to raise their hands if their politics were left of centre. As far as I was aware, 95% of those attending put up their hands. Why, then, the insistence that atheists cannot be pinned down on politics?
To me the convention was a first step. No-one in the mainstream media wanted to report it but we atheists are getting organised, baby. We're a long way behind the religious with their tax-free lobby groups and media rabble-rousers, but we're going to catch up, and fast.
The time has come to make a stand. Freedom of speech, human rights and secularism. These are the things that we need to fight for. And make no mistake, we WILL have to fight for them. As the media showed in the days following the convention, no-one is going to make things easy for us. We're going to have to battle every step of the way to make our voices heard.
I want to see an end to religious indoctrination in schools, the end of the school chaplain scheme, the end to tax-free status for religious groups. I want to see the end of censorship in this country and an enshrinement of human rights - including freedom of speech - in law. I want to see an end to discrimination, especially laws that enshrine the privilege of churches to discriminate against gays and single parents. I want to see the Catholic Church brought to book for its cover up of child rape and abuse within its walls.
Beyond that I want to see women freed from the yoke of religious oppression. Particularly Muslim women. The only way to do this is through education. Islamic religious schools actively prevent that education, therefore I'm opposed to those schools. While I cannot sanction a complete ban on the burka or niqab or hajib, I do welcome any speech or government statement that opposes these restrictive garments. They are the outcome of sexual oppression and should be opposed.
The same goes for the ridiculous sects of Scientology and the Exclusive Brethren. We should be working against these organisations which openly seek to brainwash and harm those who are sucked in to their lies.
That said... I do want to praise the speech given by ex-Evangelical preacher Dan Barker. His insight into the weird world of the fundamentalist Christian was both moving and useful. It's good to be able to feel empathy for those trapped in the black-and-white world of the "saved." I think it gives us a handy touchstone for understanding how the other side thinks. I came away thinking that we have little chance of "converting" anyone away from deeply held religious beliefs. They themselves are the only ones that can make that decision. All we can do is offer calming reason, logic, understanding and of course, friendship.
It is this last aspect that makes me feel a little uneasy with the concept of ridiculing the religious. Sure, it's fun, and I laugh along with everyone else, but it's accompanied by a tiny niggle; the suspicion that we're putting off people who might otherwise be welcomed into the fold (for want of a better phrase).
I don't want to say that it shouldn't happen; religion can be so crazy sometimes that its worth mocking. But perhaps we need to restrain our criticism towards the religion itself, rather than the believers. Ideas can be alluring, even if they are insane, and certainly the idea of immortality is the most alluring one of all.
It's not easy to admit that death is the absolute end. And honestly, I think that is the one thing that stops the majority of people from leaving modern Christianity. I used to think like that; I'm nice, so surely God will be OK with me and let me into heaven, whatever God (or heaven) is.
To me, the fear of death is the key. Until people are willing to face that and accept it, the majority will be religious. I have no idea how to bridge this gap. It's something that every individual has to face, alone. All we can do is offer our opinion: that our non-existence after death will be the same as our non-existence from before birth: painless and without conscience. It's a harsh idea, stripped of the comforts of religion. And yet it offers the promise of a more fulfilled life because we know it's the only one we'll get.
I've just posted photos from the convention on my Facebook page, effectively "outing" myself to my wider extended family, some of whom are evangelical Christians. I'm not sure what the outcome of this will be although I'm sure it will only result in a few stilted conversations, at worst. Interestingly, my Catholic cousins from Melbourne were quite interested in what we'd done over the weekend and agreed with us on many issues of secularism and human rights.
To me, that's the future. While I may feel that religion does harm, I can't stop my friends and family from believing in it. That's their right. What we can agree on, however, is the idea of a secular state where everyone is free to pursue their own beliefs.
I'm hoping that the friendships and alliances forged at the convention will continue to work towards these goals.
* Pic is of PZ Myers and AC Grayling on the Sunday afternoon.