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Attending the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne this past weekend is going to be one of my highlights of this year.

It is the first atheist event I have ever attended so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Some stereotypes portray atheists as all white bearded old men, and although there were a few there, I was glad to see that there were many, many young people present as well, which I think bodes well for the future. In the lead up to the convention I also remember reading criticisms from a religious conservative that such events were all about “groupthink” (how ironic is that!). However, what I discovered is that most atheists have slightly different views on many topics, although there are certainly those which unite the large majority of us.

The convention was MC’d by Kylie Sturgess and Lawrence Leung who did a great job with proceedings.

There were many great speakers at the conference and I don’t have the time to talk about all of them, so I’ll just make some brief comments about what I found most interesting.

Leslie Cannold spoke about how there is no separation of church and state in Australia. That religious chaplains are allowed into state schools to actively proselytize children without their parents knowledge or consent. That the Australian government spent millions of dollars funding a Christian Youth celebration in Australia. And most of this is occurring through purposeful misinterpretation of the Australian Constitution.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the USA, and an ex-evangelist spoke of his loss of religious faith and spoke about there being “no purpose to life” and that is a good thing because we can make our own purpose. There are problems to solve, beauty to create, and knowledge to gain – we can create our own purpose.

Eugenie Scott spoke about Reason and Creationism, describing the different types of creationists and their “theories” which she comes up against as Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. She mentioned that in the fight against creationism she is quite happy to take allies where she can get them, including the more scientifically inclined Christians, e.g. Ken Miller. While I think some of the other speakers disagree with this approach, they still respected what she was saying, and I personally agree with her pragmatism.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is amazing. Passionate about the rights of women, and a critic of Islam, she is accompanied everywhere by bodyguards because threats have been made against her. She discussed how in bringing the abuse and killing of Muslim women to the attention of authorities she often receives more support from fundamentalist Christians than from secularist liberals – a sobering thought. She even suggested that it is easier and better for Muslims to convert to Christianity, which I suspect many attendees may not agree with, but her opinion was respected.

Sam Harris changed his talk from “The Illusion of free Will” (very provocative – but it has been given elsewhere) for another provocative talk about death. Sam postulates that one of the biggest barriers to becoming an atheist is that it requires one to confront ones own mortality – to give up the idea that we continue on after death. Rejecting religion therefore creates a void, so what do we fill that void with. Sam talked about doing this with philosophy, science and art, commenting that “atheism is a way of clearing the space for better conversations.”

Jason Ball is described as “one of the leading young voices for atheism in Australia and spoke about how he helped establish the Freethought University Alliance, a collaboration of atheist, humanist and freethinker groups across Australian universities. He decribed how they often have positive interactions with Christian groups on campuses, because they are interested in sharing their beliefs with those willing to discuss them. He was interviewed by Paul Holmes on Australian TV (poor sod) about the convention but did a good job holding his own against Paul’s willful ignorance approach to interviewing.

PZ Myers, one of the more provocative and outspoken atheists present gave a talk entitled “Sacking the City of God”. It is well worth the read.

The last day had a tribute to Christopher Hitchens, which I cannot do justice to describe but part of it can be found here. It was very moving to hear his friends speak about the brilliance and passion of one of the greatest and most fearless atheists of our times.

Apart from the speakers, the venue was excellent, and I had my first experience of being able to use twitter during a convention. It was fascinating to read the almost instant feedback of what people thought.

My overall impression of the convention is that most atheists are not interested in banning religion. What we do oppose is the imposition of religious beliefs on others and it’s use to abuse and mistreat others (think genital mutilation, child rape etc). PZ Myers talk also teased out other elements common to many atheists.

On the Saturday of the convention a small band of Christians turned up in front of the venue (about 10 or 20 of them). On the Sunday a similar sized band of Muslims turned up with banners telling us we would all burn in hell. How delightful. The conventions security moved to separate them from the convention goers, and one of my fondest memories will be hearing hundreds of atheists singing “Always look on the bright side of life” to them.