Day Five – Monday: Night of the Wankers…

I’m sure you Americans in the readership have the same phenomena where you are, albeit with different tourists, most probably the English; ‘FAWCET-FAWCET-FAWCET-WELL-HOWDY-PARDNER-BATHROOM-FAWCET-MCDONALDS!’

Do you ever get sick of visitors to your country overusing your words, and using them wrong? Technically wrong; wrong connotations; wrong situation; mismatched nuance and misjudged tone?


This is what you look like when you overuse the lingo. It’s not a good look, mate.

I tried preventing this before it even had a chance to happen with CFI’s Debbie Goddard, by confounding her with complete nonsense, and I think it worked. If you ever get the chance to meet her, ask ‘why can’t Fred ride a bike?’

(Don’t ever ask me, ask her.)

I never got to PZ Myers in time though, before he’d called Chris Stedman something like a ‘fluffy feelgood wanker’ (I paraphrase). I not sure about the ‘fluffy’ or the ‘feelgood’, but he did call him a ‘wanker’ – I do remember that bit. PZ’s been using the term ‘wanker’ a lot lately, like he’s the overly proud recipient of an honorary doctorate in

Strine from Steve Irwin University, for achievement in the twin fields of ‘Crikies’ and ‘Ubeudies’.

I do agree though, at least in my understanding of the term; Chris Stedman is a wanker. I’m not sure though, if PZ wasn’t actually looking for a harsher term (it’s not entirely uncommon for some Australian parents to lovingly call their kids ‘wanker’ for being silly, so I’m a bit taken aback at how PZ’s use of the term has been seen by some as so shocking).


Monday morning was the beginning of a wonderful, if a little grey, Melbourne day. I had chores to do, and places to go; it was my last full day in the city of Melbourne.

As it turned out, I ended up having quite an enjoyable breakfast with Rod, one of the volunteers from the GAC (you may have seen him running around in a blue convention t-shirt). Rod was even nice enough to shout. Here’s breakfast…


Coffee, yum, etc…

Note the sepia tone, the latte, the mostly out-of-shot remnants of a vegetarian breakfast, all taken on-location in Melbourne’s inner-suburbs.

To Australians, all these factors add up to one thing…


(Actually, the latte is very common in Australia, consumed by yobs, bogans and working class yahoos. Pretending the latte is wanky, technically makes you a wanker. It’s the same deal with sparkling white wine, incidentally.)


After talk of green energy sources with Rod, talk of the local promotion of Aboriginal cultural enterprises, talk of public housing and wrought iron fences, and talk about this-and-that inner-city topic, it was a handshake before heading off to La Trobe University to meet up with another mate. We talked about Alvin Plantinga’s argument that naturalism was self-refuting (rubbish!); talked about student publications; talked about the continental philosophers over at Australian Catholic University (rubbish!), and talked about which Greek philosopher my mate’s lecturer looked like, all while I had a vegetarian lunch.

To Australians, all these factors add up to one thing…




Before I go any further, I must confess that I once did a bit of interfaithy professional development in values education, run by UNESCO…



Given that discussion, at the interfaithy event of the night called The Road Less Travelled, would be based largely on anecdote, I’ll summarise my own anecdotal observations about interfaith, up-front. These are the thoughts I had on my mind, going into this thing.


There’s too great a fetish in finding shared values, to the point of fabrication – oh, we’re all believers one way or another. (I’m so grateful that Hitchens caught Mos Def out on this, the dross that it is).

There’s ecumenical hostility towards atheists in the interfaith movement, often manifesting as scapegoating for social problems, more likely caused by religion (don’t you love those ‘New Atheists’ and ‘secular fundamentalists’, with their mosque bans and their placards reading ‘go home, this is a Christian nation’? I’ve never seen such a thing, actually.)

There’s far too much tokenism, not just in the selection of tokens from minorities, and in the singling them out from the nasty remainder. There’s also the exaggeration, and fabrication of the nastiness of the ‘nasties’, often enabled by the token themselves.

Z: Y isn’t like the rest of the Xs, and even if most Xs aren’t nasty, THOSE outspoken Xs over there ARE, isn’t that right, Y? (Oh, how we’d like to be able to cooperate with the Xs, if only…*sniff*)

Y: Yes, they’re not helping. They’re making my job harder, helping you cooperate with them. If only they’d be more respectful, you could allow them to cooperate in fixing the problems they didn’t create. Then they could finally be relieved of the consequences of these problems they didn’t create, which they complain about no end, which again, isn’t helping.

Z: Don’t worry Y, we’ll shelter you from those consequences. You’re Being Helpful. You’re an equal around here.

Interfaith pats people on the back for stuff they’re supposed to do, regardless. You’re not supposed to be fighting amongst each other! Congratulate you for getting along? Next you’ll expect an award for not roasting any of your children on a spit this year. Congratulations on your low expectations!

The most useful thing interfaith does in developed countries, it seems to me, is offer an avenue for middle-class singles to hook up for hot, hot, interfaith sex. ‘You are so spirichooal!’ Wakka-chikka-wah-wah!

(Honestly, you’ve got about as much chance of convincing me a good part of middle-class interfaith isn’t about lonely horny people, as you have of convincing me that the spiritualism in Lady Chatterley’s Lover isn’t the result of DH Lawrence focusing on giving himself a solipsist reach-around.)

Interfaith appropriates acts of ecumenical cooperation through innocuous branding, advancing an increasing monopoly over such cooperation. Having a single approach, or movement, monopolising cooperation is a Bad Thing. It stunts innovation, and allows vested interests to more easily hijack or pervert initiatives (see UNESCO).

Perhaps damnably, interfaith enables homophobia, especially on an international stage – people who should never have been consulted on human rights, through interfaith approaches (and an aversion to modernist ‘imperialism’) are now able to steer human rights discussions, simply by virtue of their numbers and faith positions (aka different ways of finding meaning aka different ways of not liking gays). Homophobia is a ‘shared value’, and nothing unites the tribes like the shared loathing of another Other.

(Perhaps it’s worthy of mention at this point that almost by definition, having anything to do with interfaith makes a person a wanker – and I paid for a ticket.)

You may be forgiven for reaching the verdict that I’m a little sceptical about interfaith.


So, at The Road Less Travelled, PZ Myers, Chris Stedman and Leslie Cannold were moderated in discussion by Meredith Doig of The Rationalist Society of Australia (Australian free-thought gets damn good value out of this lady, incidentally), on the big question:  ‘can believers and atheists work together for the common good?’

I’m glad this specific question didn’t get much time, because while it looks good on a flyer, it goes nowhere very fast. Can believers and atheist work together for the common good? Well, yes, obviously. Can I go home now?

When I was a little boy age two, living out in the middle of rural Australia, I had a godless family, while our neighbours were Christians. We didn’t proselytise each other – we had other priorities at the time, namely food and shelter (honestly, my family lived in a corrugated iron shack). We cooperated, and even though we needed to cooperate, we did so primarily because we loved one another.

While I cherish having had this relationship, it’s a particularly unremarkable story, at least here in Australia. It happens all the time, especially amongst the working class – with the interfaith movement nowhere in sight.

So I had a question in mind, particularly for Chris Stedman, before I even rocked up to the event…

If atheists can get along with the religious by other means – without interfaith initiatives – what does interfaith have to offer above and beyond existing cooperation, and what would atheists be expected to bring to the table in order to make such extended cooperation possible?

…then I rocked up.


Truthfully, I was more impressed with Chris Stedman than I expected to be. The fact that he too was pissed off with the shared values fetish, and that he recognised substantive difference as needing to be acknowledged before any kind of binding decision making, went a long way with me.

He was also less effulgent and far less vague than I’d expected, given what I’ve read of his online. (Is he able to be like this on a regular basis, in the US?)

I didn’t entirely buy his objection to being tokenised, though, although I guess it’s not nothing that he at least has this concern. The stoushes he’s had with ‘New Atheists’ online, and the complaining about his job being made harder, at least flirt with the prospect of his making a token of himself.

As for my question, well I didn’t need to ask as it was effectively answered as the discussion unfolded – the upshot of interfaith is getting closer to religious people on an organisational level, while the price is deference, paid in the currency of ‘respect for belief’.


Simon Blackburn raises the concern in ‘Religion and Respect’, published in Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford University Press), of ‘respect creep’ – how demands for ‘respect’ (a ‘tricky term’) through vague terminology, increment until the demand has become for deference.  It’s an essay that anyone treating the civility of ‘respect of religious belief’ as common sense needs to be made to read.

If you consider this ‘respect creep’ in the context of marginalised religious minorities, and empowered religious majorities, it’s not long before you realise that common sense civility in these matters means certain things. The minority will show deference to the majority, while the empowered majority will overlook reciprocity, simply because it can get away without thinking about such details. Naively playing along, in order to ‘cooperate’, in campaigns geared towards anything approaching equality, is a ludicrous strategy.

Something along these lines seemed to pan out in the discussion between PZ Myers and Leslie Cannold – although to be fair to Cannold, whether it was flippancy or Minnesotan modesty, PZ downplayed the significance of the ‘Crackergate’ affair (the point of contention), making it look like a random blasphemy stunt. PZ was told it didn’t help campaigns for separation of church and state when religious beliefs were mocked.

PZ progressed through an array of rationale; ‘bragging’; to show nothing is sacred; scientists care about the truth, and the truth is it’s just a cracker; ‘you know this used to be a ritual used to justify pogroms against the Jews?’ (I paraphrase).

PZ never mentioned there was already an angry Catholic mob campaigning against and threatening some poor sod who accidentally ‘abducted’ a communion wafer, well before the wafer desecration of ‘Crackergate’ fame. PZ never got to mention that his choice of desecration – the nail – was in response to the old anti-Semitic wood carvings depicting Jews crucifying communion wafers.

PZ never got to mention the torrent of (often anti-Semitic) hate mail and death threats he received in response to the desecration.

Obviously, the level of detail involved in ‘Crackergate’ would have taken up the whole night, and then some. I didn’t actually expect PZ to give us the whole story. I would have liked it though if he’d raised the point that he was acting in retaliation against a specific case of the demand for deference; something that goes to the heart of what the discussion was about.

How do you cooperate with a hateful, forceful, bullying and sometimes violent mob that expects deference? This is what PZ was up against in ‘Crackergate’, and it rears its head at other times as well, sometimes even with mock politeness when ecumenical cooperation is sought.

We don’t normally deal with quite this kind of thing here in Australia, and while my own behaviour and interaction with the religious is more in line with Leslie Cannold’s stated views, and while my interest in the truth comes more from a ‘need-to-know’ utilitarianism, I still view ‘Crackergate’ as both a moral, and a politically necessary victory. In this case, the mob needed standing up to and I don’t care one dot when people bemoan how decorum comes into it.

I find a lot of staged acts of blasphemy to be contrived, self-aggrandizing and clichéd attention-seeking (i.e. wanking), but not ‘Crackergate’.


I went away from the gathering with a better impression of Chris Stedman than I’d expected*, a more fleshed out impression of Leslie Cannold, and pretty much the same opinion of PZ Myers as I had a few weeks earlier. (Although Leslie Cannold’s polished mock-familiarity [say when pretending to whisper to the crowd] seemed better geared to larger audiences than the smaller, closer crowd we were in.)

I found the some of the crowd quite annoying (although Jason Ball, and a number of the other young rationalists were around, which was good), being seated to one fellow who just kept complaining about this, that and whatever that had happened around the traps**.

There was a young wanker in the audience, who seeing as how PZ ‘valued disrespectfulness’ (I paraphrase), and how PZ supposedly thought he was ‘better than us [religious people]’ (again, I paraphrase), decided to point out that PZ was unsuited to the role of scientist because he was fat. That was fun. After having his misconceptions and curious assumptions calmly punctured, our young wanker friend was forced to concede, ‘…then… we agree…’

If only every religionist who chimed in about how ‘New Atheists’ were trying to get Francis Collins sacked on account of being a Christian were as open-minded and as able to listen as well as our young wanker, we’d have had a more productive discussion on that front. Maybe the difference is down to the humanizing capacity of face-to-face discussion. Either that, or Miller et al. are bigger, more sanctimonious wankers than I realise.

(A defensive interjection by either a PZ fan, or a dietary science student, wasn’t needed – PZ had things well in hand).

Sadly, I didn’t get too much face-to-face myself at the after-party at Embiggen Books, owing to not going. I had to prepare for my departure from Melbourne, city of wankers, scheduled for early the next morning.

Somehow, I get this sense that discussion of serious matters would have stayed serious, while the overwrought stuff (like ‘respect for belief’) would at last have been treated with due relaxation. I get that feel about after-parties generally, and Embiggen Books specifically; not wanky.

(An exception being, I have this image in mind, of PZ waddling around Embiggen Books, trying to speak Ostrayun, while eating Vegemite smeared communion wafers – very wanky).

Shuffling back out into the dark with my thoughts and reflections, while the party went on, was how my experience of the Global Atheist Convention of 2012, ended. Thanks for having me, Victorians.

~ Bruce

* I may even be able to handle reading his book now.

** Like my GAC coverage?



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