“I was brought up in a very Irish-Catholic religious atmosphere where priests and nuns and brothers taught me as a child and my relatives, friends, acquaintances were all from the Catholic persuasion, and I was very hooked into it when I was young and not knowing how to think correctly. But as soon as I reached a little bit of maturity of sort, I began questioning some of the things I had been taught. It was a slow process escaping the intense Catholic indoctrination in those days but eventually I overcame and I’ve been an atheist now for maybe 45 years and I’m very happy about that fact”.
The atheist movement is growing at a remarkable rate especially since the 9/11 attacks in America. Famous atheists and highly-respected intellectuals such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens, philosopher Daniel Dennett and neuroscientist Sam Harris (all four were to appear onstage at this together for the first time at this year’s convention before Hitchens’ passing earlier this year) have released best-selling books as millions worldwide question whether religion is perhaps more poisonous to society than positive. With more and more atheists coming out of the closet worldwide, even in the extremely religious United States where secularism is now the fastest growing ‘religious’ demographic – having doubled in the past couple of decades – the concept of a staging an atheist convention made sense. Whilst being one of the first of its kind, the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, also held in Melbourne, was a remarkable success.
“The first convention was an idea put across by Atheism Alliance International which is a very good international group. They said, ‘Listen would you like to run a convention?’ and we ummed and ahhed about it because this was quite new to the world – even then – there had been smaller conventions all around the place so we eventually agreed to that. And that spanned out quite rapidly to us thinking we might get 200 people, because nobody knew, this was new ground, to eventually getting over 2,500 people to that convention. And everybody enjoyed that immensely. It was just such an incredible time that after that convention the pressure came onto us: ‘Listen, when are you putting another one on?’ and we were getting it from all sides that people wanted to put another convention on…we thought, ‘Hey, listen, with a little bit of support from the government, we could probably put on a convention that will equal or better the last convention’ and that’s when it took off and we’ve been working flat out ever since to make that come true and it is going to come true. This is going to be an absolutely incredible convention”.
With a tagline of “a celebration of reason”, the convention aims to achieve more than just a forum to attack religion and the existence of God.
“The convention has many things it’s trying to achieve. One, it’s going to be a focal point for all those people that really want to be in their own space where everybody around them is a freethinker. This doesn’t happen very often in society and that’s why this is so unique to be sitting in a room where you can just about guarantee that 95 percent, probably more, of the people there are freethinkers that might have different ideas on certain things, but you know you’re in a room of people that have a rough idea where you are coming from.
“If you ask the whole world, ‘Are you an atheist?’ you’d probably get people saying, ‘Gee, no, maybe I am…’ there’s a whole lot of confusion about being atheist, and there’s connotations connected with the word that have negative resonance with some people. Those people are actually atheists if they are freethinkers; they don’t have a religion, they’re actually atheists, and so what has happened, this is sort of a phenomenon throughout the planet, is that atheism and organisations that base their mantra around atheism – which is just a lack of acceptance that there is a god – have become the spearhead of freethinking throughout the world and it’s a phenomenon that is accelerating at an incredible rate and it’s a wonderful thing for the planet. It’s an absolutely new paradigm that we’re going through, and the Atheist Foundation and most atheists are very happy and proud to be part of that whole rise of freethinking”.
The upcoming convention features one of the most comprehensive lists of famous atheist speakers ever assembled. With Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and other speakers such as PZ Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Eugenie Scott, Peter Singer and many more appearing at the convention, it is unlikely that such a lineup will be held on this scale again.
“I’m excited about them all. There are people like Annie Laurie Gaylor who has done wonderful things in America with the freethought organisations and I’m dying to hear her speak. Lawrence Krauss has just brought a book out about a universe from nothing – this is going to be very impactful on the psyche of humanity. I’m not a person who likes going to conventions, trust me on that, but this is one event that I wouldn’t miss if I’m still breathing.
“Picking speakers is a very difficult thing. It’s far more difficult than looking from the outside…You start off with a list of people that you’d like to have at a convention because they have some attraction or rather to the public and have an educational base behind them, but then you have to work out if our event is going to conflict with something they are doing at the present time…Getting a list together is an incredibly difficult thing and we are very very happy that we have the list of speakers at this event that is portrayed on our website (also there are more to come by the way) and we just couldn’t be happier about it. This is going to be an absolute unique occasion with the class of speakers we have – it will never be repeated anywhere on the planet. Getting all those people together has been a task that has almost sent the Global Atheist Convention committee insane, if we weren’t insane before even trying to put this on, but we are so pleased that we have ended up with the list of speakers and I would advise anybody who is contemplating coming to the convention, if they are being a little bit, ‘Should I go? Should I not go?’ sit down, have a think, look at that list of speakers because it is not going to happen again”.
BY NICK TARAS