Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
If, like me, you find this doesn't quite fit your screen, I assure you the convention is being held in 2010, not 201. There are many other speakers, including AC Grayling as a late addition. Not to mention one Russell Blackford.
Even though I admire so many of the speakers, I can't see the point of such conventions, because they aren't clear what they are promoting. If it is all really just about atheism, where are the Buddhists, for example? What such conventions seem to be about is a somewhat confused mix of being pro-reason and science, and against theism. But such a messy mix of ideas has led to all kinds of problems. Praise for Hirsi Ali, whose position is primarily political, and includes some rather right-wing views, and awards for Maher who has dangerous views about medicine. Atheism is a conclusion, and not always a conclusion to be supported, as it has not necessarily been reached through reason.
I support the blogger Dr Benway's views, which is that what we should strongly support reason and science, and not atheism, as the conclusion is not of merit, only the process by which so many of we admire get there (Dr Benway actually used more robust language).
So I won't attend any such gathering, and meanwhile, I am trying to promote a meme: "Atheist for a Reason", to emphasise atheism is only of value if reached by reasoning, and not by fashion, tradition or just wanting to be a rebel (like Maher).
Steve, I've been thinking about what you said. You raise some big and difficult issues, such as why we have conventions in the first place, what purpose they serve, and should they have a clearly defined purpose or not.
I take it that your thinking about the AAI con has been influenced by the debacle over an award being given to Bill Maher. Yes? I know very little about Bill Maher - he is not well known in Australia - and I don't have time to give any priority to finding out. So this is not a fight I've chosen to involve myself in. We all have to pick our fights, and I'm already besieged on a number of fronts to the point where too much of my energy is being used up and my bread-and-butter work is suffering.
However, from what I've read on PZ's blog and Orac's, Maher was not a good choice for an award relating in any way to science. He seems to have some very flakey, and even dangerous, ideas about medicine. I'm okay with him otherwise, but this aspect is worrying.
However, I'm not going to let that spoil my memory of the AAI conference. I do think it's important to challenge the moral and political authority of religion - as an end in itself, not just because rational inquiry has given us good reason to think that all the religions known to humanity are false. They are indeed false, IMO, but that wouldn't matter if religious leaders and organisations kept themselves to the private sphere or if they received no deference when they speak nonsense in the public sphere. Religions, religious leaders, and religious organisations need to be challenged because of the damage they do.
As always, I largely exempt people with views similar to the eighteenth-century deists (and such views may be more common than we think; polls are not well designed to test this) and people who have various ultra-liberal theological positions combined with liberal political positions (this would include much of the Anglican Church in industrialised countries). My critiques are very seldom aimed at those kinds of religious beliefs, though I don't share such beliefs myself, and I think I have good reasons not to.
Getting together a conference of people who think much like I do seems a perfectly legitimate thing in itself. I don't see why the participants have to be in agreement on anything else. They can have their own internal debates about the importance of science and many other things, though it's true that most will have scientific worldviews - and I must concede that my thinking on this may not be entirely clear and consistent. For example, I'd not be comfortable at a convention dominated by New Age (but atheistic) kooks. If the AAI convention had been like that, I would never go back (even Maher said nothing kooky at the convention itself). Nor would I go back if the conference had been dominated by Ayn Rand libertarians or by dogmatic Marxist; both groups were represented, but they were fringe elements.
But the bottom line for me is that I was able to meet the following people for the first time, all in one weekend: Richard Dawkins; Daniel Dennett; Jerry Coyne; Carolyn Porco; PZ Myers; and Michael Shermer; plus a lot of less famous people who also turned out to be wonderful. Where else could I have done that?
It's great just to get all these people in one place and to see the buzz that comes out of it when hundreds of people are exposed at once to their ideas (in a way that is quite different from reading a book or even watching something on YouTube). I'm not sure any more focused goal is needed.
See Tauriq Moosa's comment on my Facebook page, where he wishes fervently that such a thing were possible in South Africa. It's not even possible here in Australia - well, not usually. But the it will be made possible this once in Melbourne next March, with Singerm Dawkins, Grayling, and others, plus some people who have high profiles in Australia, all in one place. I think it will provide a great experience for those who attend.
I guess what I meant about the "point" of such conventions is the way they are pitched.
I have some (painful) experience of the politics that goes on at such events because of my limited involvement in LGBT gatherings in the 90s. Precisely the same kind of problems of what the meaning of the convention was, and whether or not the politics were appropriate arose. And I certainly know about fringe groups!
I guess what I would prefer to go to myself is something that is not political, but is a gathering of like minds, or at least minds that aren't too unlike.
What happened at the AAI meeting is that fringe views got centre stage, even if indirectly.
I think what we have just seen happen is something very interesting and significant: a clear illustration that atheism alone isn't enough of a filter to ensure like-mindedness in some circumstances. I think it is going to be fascinating to watch how this develops in the near future. There seems to be a significant move by some people to distance themselves from the word "atheism", me included. But that could be a problem, as atheist visibility is, of course, so urgently needed.
I don't know. I feel uncomfortable the way reason and science have got mixed up with politics. Perhaps I am after a simplicity and clarity that can't be achieved.
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