A Catholic Ponders the Global Atheist Convention

The Global Atheist Convention is just around the corner! From April 13 - 15 thousands of atheists will convene in Melbourne, Australia for a weekend get-together. I was never into organized atheism back when I was a nonbeliever, so I spent a while browsing the website to get a feel for what might go on at a convention like this. Some initial impressions:

  • It’s surprising that a “global” convention would have a website that’s only in English. Was that an oversight? Or was there perhaps not tons of demand for El Espejismo de Dios?
  • Where’s Hemant Mehta? He must have been busy that weekend. The blogger/author is a major up-and-coming voice in the modern atheist movement. Given the perspective he’s gained from the discussion on his blog, I would think that he would add a lot of value to a conference like this.
  • In the back of my mind I thought something was odd about the schedule, then I realized that I’m not used to seeing conferences with events on Sunday mornings. Although. Yeah. I guess it would make sense that that time slot would be wide open for the attendees.
  • If you want a three-day pass with good seats, it’s going to set you back $440. Though you can sit in the balcony on Sunday for the bargain price of $155. (Insert witty remark here about “atheist” being the new codeword for “rich.”)
  • Just look at these headshots! With that number of speakers you’d expect at least a couple unflattering, obviously-take-with-an-iPhone shots, but they’re all gorgeous. Lookin’ good, atheists.
  • Since I’m sure he doesn’t want to say it himself, I’ll say it for him: PZ Myers should have gotten top billing in the ads, and it’s crazy that he wasn’t mentioned at all in the audio spots. When he saw that, he had to be all like, “Do millions of blog pageviews per month count for nothing?!”
  • The Global Atheist Convention has 5,000 Likes on Facebook; World Youth Day has 63,900. Just an observation.

Initially I thought my take would involve some snarky commentary about the futility of flying across the world to talk about what you don’t think is true, but after looking at the website I had to eat some crow on that one. I have to say, the organizers did a good job of putting together an agenda that goes beyond just rehashing the fact that they don’t believe in God. From the 60-second audio promotional spot:

Have you ever wondered why it supposedly took God seven days to create the earth? I mean, if you’re God, why not just do it in one day? Have you ever thought that some religions have too much influence in our society, that laws should be based on rational thought and evidence, and not unproven personal beliefs? The Global Atheist Convention will be held in Melbourne in April 2012. Historically, it will be the largest ever gathering of atheists, rationalists, skeptics, free thinkers and other like-minded people…This is a unique opportunity to hear remarkable speakers, and meet other people who just might think about religion and society the same way you do…We’ll see you in Melbourne!

I like the part about basing laws on rational thought and evidence. It echoes a sentiment that is a driving force in the atheist community right now, namely the idea that society must develop a set of moral values that is not rooted in any kind of supernatural belief system. I think it could end up being a really good thing that the leaders of modern atheism are coming together to discuss this, because this is an idea that needs a lot more exploration.

The New Atheists and their brethren in the secular humanist movement like to advocate for a godless value system where acceptance and goodwill toward others are prized, where people are free to be kind and loving out of the goodness of their hearts, and not because some man in the sky tells them to do so. While I appreciate the sentiment behind wanting to add more peace and love to the world, I just don’t think this works. And I can’t help but wonder if that might become clear to others as well at one of these atheist conventions.

The group of GAC attendees will undoubtedly contain a lot of intelligent, free thinking types, and so I’d imagine that it will only be a matter of time before folks start questioning the assumptions behind these ideas. For example: Yes, you can defend a peace- and love-based moral code from a purely atheistic point of view. You can point to the fact that more humans survive when we live in harmony together, that we may have an “altruistic gene” that makes us want to do nice things for others, etc. But who’s to say that harmony and survival for the greatest number of people should be our highest goals? You could just as easily advocate for a values system in which the survival of the fittest is the highest aim, and the weak are considered worthless and expendable. It sounds revolting, and it is. But it’s also perfectly defensible from an atheistic point of view.

I imagine that one day someone will get on the stage at one of these conferences, and propose a new moral code in which the the strong exterminate the weak and take all their possessions for themselves, thus ushering in a glorious age where only the most superior genes remain in the gene pool. Everyone in the crowd will gasp and fidget uncomfortably…and then realize that they cannot argue against it without stepping outside of their own atheist-materialist worldview. They’ll find themselves tempted to appeal to the transcendent to make their case, wanting to have blind faith in the fact that love should be prized above all else, believing that self-sacrifice is always better than selfishness, regardless of what the latest scientific studies say.

I hope that these events really will provide a forum for questioning assumptions and asking tough questions as much as they claim they will. Because when they do, the nearby churches will be flooded with post-convention crowds.