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Daniel survives

By David Palmer - posted Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Last Friday I wrote that I was disappearing Daniel like into the cavernous space of the lions’ den also known as the Melbourne’s Convention Centre. Well, I survived, I kept my anonymity, but truth to tell it was a close run thing when PZ Myers likened Christians to sheep and Atheists to wolves and then to thunderous applause from the 4,000 wolves present, warned that the eyes and claws of all those wolves were upon the sheep present.

The organisers are to be congratulated for a very well run programme with a number of outstanding speakers, both Australians and the big names from overseas.

I mentioned in my earlier article that I would “certainly be interested in seeing who attends the Convention, their demeanour, what excites them, do they find joy in their atheism?” What struck me about observing these Atheists was how much they resembled in appearance the Christians I meet at Church in all respects bar two.


Before I mention the these two exceptions, the point needs to be made that whether we are Atheists or persons of religious faith, we all share a common humanity and therefore most of the issues we face in life are common to us whatever our belief system whether religious or atheism: family life, education, work, possessing hopes and aspirations, growing older and the like. So at the level of our humanity and interaction with one another there ought to be civility, interest in one another and even respect.

Note that I describe atheism, despite the claims of Atheists to the contrary, as a system of beliefs. What I observed occurring was not all that different from attending church. The speakers, in effect the leaders, the great ones, appeared one after another to teach the assembled congregation, dispensing their pearls of wisdom, reinforcing the central doctrinal tenets of their faith, exhorting for appropriate responses, deigning to answer a question or two. They even had the atheist version of canonisation for Christopher Hitchens, whilst in the foyer all the atheist denominations, the Secular Society, the Atheist Society, the Humanist Society, the Freethinkers, the Sex Party were all pitching their competing wares.

Back to the exceptions.

The first exception when compared to a Christian gathering was the lack of children. OK, this was a convention, but Christians almost always include their children in what they do. The second exception was that those attending were overwhelmingly of Anglo Saxon or European descent. Sure, some others, but only a few, mainly Chinese. Our Churches in Melbourne in contrast are far more multinational, even multi cultural.

Well what of my impressions?

In no particular order, I will restrict myself to just five issues.


I mentioned the big questions in my previous article that I thought Atheists wedded to evolution couldn’t answer. Based on what I heard, this remains the case. Dan Barker, former Christian minister and now head of a US Atheist organisation said while we individually might have our own purposes in life, “there is no purpose of life and that is good”. He was serious.

Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss manfully set out in his talk, that very few in the audience could have understood, to demonstrate how something could come from nothing. This seemed to involve the postulation of a myriad of parallel universes. His conclusion: “something from nothing not only plausible but likely”. Well maybe, maybe not. Neil Ormerod has provided a critique of Krauss’ argument.

The argument that “without religion, you can’t be good” came up a number of times with speakers asserting that to the contrary that atheists do in fact live good lives and according to Dan Barker, “it is religion that gets in the way of moral judgment”.

Before I respond I need to point out, and this is a faith based statement derived from the Bible but in accordance with everyday reality, that whilst our original parents, historical Adam and Eve, were created in the image of God with truly wonderful potentialities, they fell into sin, that is, they rebelled against God’s authority in their lives and chose the path of disobedience, what is called original sin, a contamination spreading throughout the human race and impacting the world we live within. Anyone denying this aspect of human existence is not listening to their radio or reading the papers or more importantly being self critically aware. To say this is not to say that religious persons are inherently better persons than atheists for they as much as the atheist share the same addiction to bad behaviour. However, none of us whether religious or otherwise are as bad as we could be – even the vilest murderer or paedophile can love his mother. We who bear God’s image can do many good things regardless of belief system, but scratch any one of us hard enough.....

The point I want to make on the evidence of what I heard at the Convention is that Atheists are not morally serious. Atheists judge their goodness in terms of their support for human rights, i.e. other people held at a distance. So they support things like the feminist cause, equality for homosexuals, they are against racism, they are for the Palestinians but against Israel, and so on.

But what did they have to say about the issues that touch people closer to home. In the 1960’s we had the cultural revolution which brought with it cohabitation, no fault divorce, freely available abortion, all generally to the disadvantage of women and their children. We live in a society today with multiple broken relationships, failed marriages, children being fought over, boys without fathers modelling what it is to grow into manhood. We have unprecedented crime levels so that we lock doors, install alarm systems, drive children to and from school, install cameras on trains and in shopping malls, every public space covered in graffiti.

Did the Atheist Convention address any of these issues?


Did we hear of the philanthropic interests of Atheists? Well, we did hear of a school for 200 students in Uganda, but that was it. Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy.

We heard a lot of bitching about Religious Education in Schools and the legal campaign by atheists to get religious education thrown out of schools. But here’s a thought: why don’t atheists band together and provided volunteers to teach atheism in parallel to those religious education classes entirely run by volunteers. No, that won’t happen because atheists are not morally serious, they are not dealing with the reality of people’s lives. And they would only teach atheism if paid to do so.

Sam Harris gave by far the best talk of the Conference. It was about death – it was insightful, serious but in the end it failed the compassion test, it was not morally serious. His basic point was that we spend wasted time going back over the past and planning for the future when we need to make most of life NOW. I couldn’t agree more.

The question was posed of how to deal with the issue of the grief associated with a person dying. The answer was the personal therapeutic one: we cope personally with grief by “bearing down on the present moment”. That is just so inadequate, so unreflectively self centred.

Is this the best we can offer the grieving, to say nothing of the dying person himself, herself?

In total contrast, arriving home Sunday evening I tuned into the ABC’s Compass programme which dealt with the work of the chaplains at a Sydney hospital.

There he was, a burly tattooed dying man with a chaplain sitting beside him. With the agreement of this man, the Chaplain led him through a prayer of confession and trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, which this dying man insisted on praying. After the prayer the cameras lingered and after a space of time the man said, “that was good”. After a further space of time he said “I’m now ready to die”, words to that effect. I say, thank God for that chaplain!

So what did I find that was good, really good about the Convention.

I think Ayaan Hersi Ali was a breath of fresh air. Not abrasive or intolerant, not full of herself or unreflective like many of the speakers, but serious, calm, considered, incisive. What Ayaan did was she got the final panel discussion to focus exclusively on the issue of Islam. Earlier in her own presentation she asked, “why do secular liberals in the West fail to assist Muslim women and the persecuted Christian, Muslim minority sects?”. She asserted that rather than the secular, it was the conservatives and the Christians who defended free speech and the rights of Muslim women.

Ayaan then threw out the challenge to her fellow Atheists that they needed to develop a secular liberal narrative to counter Islamists and to offer practical help to secular Islamists. To his great credit Richard Dawkins made her challenge the topic for the final panel discussion. Let us hope that Atheists get serious about the threat of radical Islam – there were some very scary looking Muslims outside the Convention during lunch chanting and crying out, “Go to hell, go to hell!”.

During the panel discussion, it was Sam Harris who observed that it was, “only serious Christians who get the problem of Islam”, while Ayaan offered the observation that Muslims leaving Islam are choosing to become Christians, exchanging “a malign god for a benign god”. I wouldn’t quite put it that way, they are Ayaan’s words.

I need to stop somewhere. There was some silly stuff about how all the clergy are closet atheists when I can equally point out we have ex atheists in our ranks. Even Christopher Hitchens’ brother, Peter, like Christopher an atheist, converted to Christianity and recently wrote a book The Rage against God, partly for his brother’s benefit.

Whilst most Atheists won’t welcome it, we Christians are happy to dialogue with Atheists. In fact, this week the Reason for Faith Festival in Melbourne, 16-20 April, run by Christians, is seeking to change the style and tone of the conversation to a rational, reasoned, balanced, open and honest discussion between Theists and religious believers on the one hand and Atheists, agnostics, and so-called 'free thinkers' on the other, around the bigger 'why' questions – questions which Dawkins arrogantly dismissed on Monday in his debate with Pell as 'simply silly'.

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About the Author

David Palmer is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

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