2012 Global Atheist Convention – Redux

I’m back home in Adelaide now, trying to mellow out after the trip, and dealing with things that have popped up in my absence – such as the contents of an abused toilet drain which I’ve had to shove my arm down. The house sitter’s 3-ply was a bit much, it seems.

These are some of the tribulations of travel (and of being too cheap to call a plumber).

Trains, as it happens, are an interesting way to travel across the big dry continent that is Australia. At first, I considered it the scenic option, never having done it before. If I didn’t like it, at only 828k (514Mi), it was one of the shorter interstate train rides in the country. Allow me to summarise western Victoria in a single photo…

Western Victoria is a bloody great paddock…

Passing through most of the west end of Victoria was like this, but with the exception of the

Grampians (Gariwerd) in the distance.

If you’re a geology nerd, short of actually getting off the train and travelling to the pictured mountains, the main feature of interest on the trip is the difference in the amount of topsoil between departure and destination; South Australia having much less. Exciting, huh?

Debbie Goddard, at drinks at The Moat (opposite Embiggen Books), made the observation that Australian place names, particularly in rural settings, sound odd. I’m at a loss understanding what she means.


‘Weird’? ‘Funny’? I’m not seeing it.


It’s been my intent, in covering the Global Atheist Convention, in as much detail as I can muster, to convey some of my subjective experiences in the hope this helps put the reader on location. I’ll try to flesh out the overall experience somewhat, in summary.

I’d been in a bit of a loving mood throughout the whole experience, and I hope this is obvious to those of you who at least aren’t tone deaf. With the exception of Jim Jeffries, who genuinely pissed me off, at worst it’s been occasional reprimand (Dick Gross), and effusive praise (Sam Harris, Jason Ball, Marion Maddox, Kylie Sturgess et al.), with affectionate piss-taking (PZ Myers, Simon Taylor, Melbourne, the English) taking up a good part of the disposition I’d taken towards the adventure.

Also, I’d hugged the bejesus out of people; Chrys Stevenson (par for the course); Dave the Happy Singer and Jasmine Marosvary in one lovely group hug; Jin-oh Choi (who looked a little worried) and an obliging Jason Ball. Luckily for Marty Pribble, there were people between us or he would have been hugged to death, and it’s probably lucky for me (‘HELP! SECURITY!’), I didn’t hug-attack Dan Dennett when I had the chance, opting instead to settle for a mutually shared nod.

No offense to the rest, but I have to say that Jason Ball earned his hug the most. Jason was instrumental in helping with the personal matter (that’s not my story to tell) I mentioned in regard to my absence on the Sunday morning. This even though he was speaking on stage the same day, with everything else on top of that that comes of being an organiser. Also owed hugs in this matter are Rod, Leigh and Donna, and anyone else involved I’ve missed (with hugs going to Fin if he wants them, although I suspect he’d be satisfied with a handshake).

It’s gobsmacking, how warm people can be towards one another, despite having at most previously only ever met online. It was like a family reunion, albeit without the contempt that familiarity breeds. People actually got on.

The pub out by the bridge was the de facto meeting location, but I was left wondering if there’s a next time, if there couldn’t be a slightly more purpose-specific meet-up area designated. People could wear little paper hats with Twitter account names on them, so as not to be stalked offline by giving their real names.

(It has to be mentioned that I find the meeting-up with people I’ve interacted with online, in the free thinking community, more exciting that the prospect of getting to shake hands with any of the big-name speakers. My priorities may be a little out-of-whack, with an anti-fan-mentality bias. I’m not a convention goer by nature. I don’t even like book signings.)


Interactions with the religious..?

Part I: Smell the testosterone.

Okay, there were more guys than girls at this thing. A lot of people have written a lot on this topic already, and while broadly it still needs more discussion, I’m going to focus on a very specific part of the sausage-fest phenomenon.



This was one of the more cheerful scenes of defiance by the young infidels in attendance. I like funny walks. But then there was the one-upmanship…

‘’Cause if you’ve gotta do a silly walk, I’ve gotta man-up and stand face-to-face with the Muslims from only an inch away!’ – This actually happened.

It seems some young men learn way too much of their social skills from professional wrestling. The fact that there was a shorter supply of mates women on location possibly accentuated the competition, leading to much pomp and wankumstance. Indeed, the ratio of men to women seemed greater around our fundamentalist guests, than in the convention proper, with a bias toward younger males.

(I’m making the assumption, from null hypothesis, that the proportion of heterosexual men in the atheist crowd is significantly similar to the proportion of hetero men in the greater population; i.e. the majority).

The kiss, was the ultimate counter-protest, I feel, followed by the chants of ‘where are the women?’, and then a number of the fearless, exhalant poses by free-thinking women (most quite good, but with some others being simple works of copy-cat, me-too-ism). I’m not sure to what extent self-aggrandizing posturing detracted from the better counter-protests, but I’m left wondering if there were more even demographics at the event, whether the dynamic would have been different.

(Near-omnipresent cameras tended to lend to this effect, I suspect.)

With young men less competitive for potential mates through displays of plumage, and women less pressured to demonstrate worth within a boy’s club, and without the run-away distillation that occurs when congenial people find such atmospheres uncongenial and leave, I can at least imagine things improving. Could this help the way in which we confront/interact with, the loyal opposition?

This is in addition to considering how states of sausage-fest could politically undermine atheists criticising religious misogyny; couldn’t greater gender equality within the atheist community simply make us operate better, generally?

Part II: Meriting a special place in the conversation

There’s something I want to say about Marion Maddox, as well. While I generally agree with what she had to say, in as far as I understand her comment on Jim Jeffries’ misogynist shtick (it’s not clear she wasn’t talking about Jeffries as a representative sample of atheist culture) I think she may have underestimated the openness of the audience.

Again, this is subjective, but I’m getting a little tired of people ‘informing’ me that most Australian Christians are for the separation of church and state. Yes, I know this.  To assume that I operate under a different assumption is to misunderstand me, and I’m misunderstood this way quite a lot, sometimes I wonder, if not on purpose. I suspect many of those in the godless community may well share this irk.

The fact that Maddox’s Christianity wasn’t a big deal with the audience, and that she was well received, even when making strong criticisms about Jim Jefferies, is to the attendees’ credit. At most, the significance of her Christianity provided a small source of irony, but beyond that, people were only really interested on what she had to say, and judged what she said on merit.

I don’t think this was the kind of audience one could reasonably assume to be so ignorant as to believe that most Australian Christians are just like Fred Nile or Jim Wallace. Perhaps the anxieties surrounding this issue could be talked through, although to be honest, it’s a bit of an imposture. The moderate Christian left, of which Maddox is still a part, has more institutionalised power, and larger numbers, than the ‘New Atheism’.

It can get a bit much, expecting this kind of thing to be humoured.

This kind of anxiety – that poor mainstream Christianity may be misunderstood by less powerful groups – in a country like Australia, is only Christianity’s problem, and a problem mainstream Christianity can ultimately only resolve itself. The problem isn’t people being ignorant about mainstream Christianity; the problem is the way that these anxious Christians view other groups.

For almost anyone else, it’s a waste of time that could be spent cooperating on something more productive.

That being said, I think that Marion Maddox earned her place on the secular political discussion panel more than anyone else, the atheists notwithstanding – the mentioned perception anxiety wasn’t that big of an issue in this case. Perhaps if there’s a next time, we could have an Australian secular Muslim on the panel as well. The political battleground where parents and advocates engage with evangelical Christians seeking to proselytise in Australian public schools would be a good place to start looking for a meritorious candidate.

(And I don’t mean someone moderate, safe and inoffensive like Waleed Aly, who’s proven to be somewhat

hapless in his discussion of secularism, in much the same inoffensive, equivocal manner as Dick Gross. Nor do I suggest that any participant in these discussions should be treated with kid gloves on account of their religious minority).


Who would I have liked to have seen in a dream line-up?

I loathe confected ‘political incorrectness’, whether it’s comedians like Bill Maher, or poor persecuted columnists like James Delingpole; pretending to say the things that can’t be said, for fear of persecution. The origins of the term get overlooked, and the inferences, that of opposition by sections of the left, to its own totalitarian elements, are forgotten.

‘Political incorrectness’ has been reduced to a stunt. It’s not like risqué Jim Jeffries is a signatory to the Euston Manifesto*, or the architect of a Sokal-style hoax, nor is he a latter-day George Orwell.

(The Euston Manifesto: There’s an idea, for anyone wanting to call upon ‘politically incorrect’ atheists as speakers. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Then there’s the matter of mixing up the academics with the comedians a bit more – especially on the first night, when it was all comedians. Here’s what I’d have lined up for the first night, if I was a quasi-omnipotent organiser.

An opening by David Nicholls, followed by a meeting of the MCs, Kylie and Lawrence; Ben Elton would have replaced Mikey Robbins’ act, with Kylie and Lawrence continuing MC duties originally taken up by Robbins. Stella Young would follow, taking Elton’s original position, warming up the audience for PZ Myers to perform his bloviated wank, before Dara Ó Briain would take to the stage for the final comedic spot.

Apparently Ó Briain was in the country at the time, which makes the possibility seem all the more tangible. (If you’re unfamiliar with his work, you can always

check him out on YouTube).

Other dream changes come to mind, some of which I’ve mentioned before; moving Tanya Smith or Annie Laurie Gaylor to later on the Sunday; dropping Dick Gross, Colleen Hartland and Derek Guille from the political panel, replacing Guille with Meredith Doig, Gross with a secular Muslim, and Hartland with Russell Blackford, Graham Oppy or South Australian Labor MP,

Ian Hunter; maybe giving Fiona Patten her own spot on the Sunday to discuss sex and religious politics, and maybe, if it could be swung, having Dawkins co-MC the event, with only the one scheduled session, with or without the horsemen (maybe Kylie Sturgess could have a tilt at main-eventing Saturday night, philosophy in schools-wise).

What else would I have liked to see?

I would have dropped the opening video. No, I didn’t like it. Bloviated; triumphal; tone-deaf; white-dude; wank.


The spirit of a line of white, mostly European thinkers, straight-sailing to Melbourne on a 19th century vessel, to confront superstitious masses; I’m not calling it racist, or imperialist, or whatever-elseist; I’m calling it tactless. In an Australian context, it couldn’t have had much worse connotations than if Readings had announced that each signing of Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality came with a free small-pox ridden blanket.

The video wasn’t doing anyone, any favours, and this is before considering how cheesy it was! Also, the ‘he’, applied generally to children, gets bonus white-dude points.

(Honestly, I’m not angry. I’m still laughing, shaking my head, and face-palming. But still, it’s a lesson worth learning from.)

Preferably, I’d love to see openings a little more Monty Python, preferably with Terry Gilliam-style animations of George Pell, The Rat, Dumbledore and Momo. And I think Terry Jones, or the vocal likeness thereof, would voice a wonderful Karen Armstrong.

I’m not really sure any of the other things I’d like to see could be integrated without the basic format being radically altered; multiple smaller sessions and events running simultaneously; more stalls with godless knick-knacks from more sources, and an atmosphere that’s more carnival. This kind of change would likely require a different venue, more like a university campus, with suitable open spaces, and multiple lecture halls.

A celebration of reason meets Lollapalooza meets street market. Materialist, monist, poetry slams; Fiona Patten coordinating a mini-Sexpo; more short film screenings sourced from godless artists around the world; amateur art auctions; a speaker’s corner, and a memorial Carl Sagan ‘smoking paraphernalia’ booth. This, plus all the usual discussion from the quality activists, comedians and public intellectuals, people have come to expect and respect – headline speakers on the main stage.

This isn’t a shopping list of wants to be taken literally, rather just a few hypotheticals to flesh out an idea (although Geoffrey Robertson doing Hypotheticals with the Three Horsemen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali would literally be awesome). I certainly don’t have a privileged view of how the convention was organised, so I can understand if there are any people in the know reading this, thinking ‘no, no, no’.

I don’t want to come across like the ungrateful brat, who in a fit of disappointment plans their remedial wish list for Santa, for next year’s Christmas.


Really, I enjoyed myself immensely, it’s just I was left a little hungry. Perhaps I should have stayed in Melbourne for longer. Perhaps it’s just a little extra motivation, now that I’ve met a number of wonderful free thinkers in the flesh. Maybe it’s all the possibilities.

Simultaneously, it was also pretty taxing. I was glad to get going home, or at least I was once I was under way.

Only, it’s I just couldn’t have taken a picture of the way out of Melbourne, even if I hadn’t fallen asleep. Victorians, you really need to beautify the railway out of the west of Melbourne; I’d rather have left your capital city through an s-bend.

The ride home wasn’t all bad though, and as I said, I slept through the ugliest of it. Lunch was also better on the return, but the voice-overs used to announce historical landmarks were from the same turgid script.

Stories about kids putting shoe polish on the tracks back in the days of steam locomotion, complete with kitsch rib-tickling about their parent’s misplaced disciplinary priorities, can be amusing only once at best. Methinks some rail-people need some new material.


I’d rather read about Kami’s acting-up during his youth, than have to hear about 1920s railroad shenanigans (twice!) and not just because Kami’s writing is better. On all criteria, Kami vs Great Southern Rail, Kami won out.

I’m going to tell myself that the author of the rail script was Victorian, and chalk this one up as a South Australian victory.

Oh, Adelaide…

See, this is the kind of thing you see when you’re looking out along the rail yard on approach to Adelaide from the South. Even the north, with its industrial areas and bogan suburbs, is more appealing than the western approach to Melbourne – and I suspect, needlessly so. Melbourne has enough space in the west, along the line, to make improvements.

Travel, notoriously, can make you appreciate home more, and I’m reminded from this trip, not to take Adelaide’s beauty for granted. Instinctually, when circumnavigating the Melbourne central business district, I expected to find it skirted by parkland. Adelaide is hardwired into me as the template by which I judge these things in other cities.

I found Melbourne’s

Flagstaff Gardens to be a lot like the Adelaide Parklands, almost like a welcome piece of home. Only, you can see one end of Flagstaff Gardens from the other, which isn’t nearly true of the Adelaide Parklands (which in total, occupies around eighty times the amount of land).

It was from the Adelaide Parklands that the last leg of my journey, to my own doorstep, proceeded smoothly. There’s a strange kind of connectedness you feel, travelling by train between cities, especially when there are few stops, and only smooth transitions. Melbourne feels like it’s just down the line a little further from another journey I regularly make.

I rather like this sense of connectedness. I feel connected to Melbourne – its parks, a number of its people, its poetry, art and its comedians. I feel more connected to the wonderful Embiggen Books, which I visited for the first time. I feel more connected to the godless community, Australian, and from abroad.

Perhaps you can tell that I don’t get out enough, but I don’t think that detracts from the experience. I hope to travel, by rail, to Melbourne again, and hopefully not too far in the future.

~ Bruce


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