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The Global Atheist Convention

April 20, 2012

Last weekend I was in Melbourne with 4,000 other nonbelievers for the Global Atheist Convention.

I hadn't originally intended going to the convention itself, just to be in town for the fringe events, the socialising and the networking. When I saw the list of speakers there was only a handful that interested me, with the rest being divided up into people whose stories I had heard many times, people whose books I had read and hadn't been really inspired by, and even a couple that I would pay extra not to have to have anything to do with. My experience of conferences in the past has usually been that the benefit comes from the face-to-face contact over food and drinks rather than the speeches anyway. You can always get the DVD with the speeches.

I was able to attend some of the convention, because following the principle of "If you don't ask, you don't get" I was able to get a media pass for the entire weekend. (I write for several publications and I am a member of the MEAA, the journalists' union, so don't start complaining that I got something for nothing which others had to pay for.) As it happens I didn't get to see everything anyway. I had already made arrangements for activities over the weekend (such as seeing a talk by A. C. Grayling at Embiggen Books), and injuring my foot on the Friday night limited my ability to do all the things I would have liked to do. The real advantage of a media pass is access to press conferences, and I was able to see Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali at close range rather than as tiny figures on that huge stage.

Those of you who place significance on coincidence might like to know that I have now suffered from plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tendon running forward from the heel on the bottom of the foot) on two occasions. Both were while attending conferences with a high emphasis on atheism and skepticism. (The other was TAM2 in Las Vegas in 2004.) If I were the sort of person who believed in a judgemental god I might think that he was giving me a hint that I should stay clear of heathenfests.

I won't go into great detail now about the talks I saw, but I have to give kudos to one in particular. I am not a great fan of Sam Harris's writings and I went in to his talk with low expectations. He then gave what I consider to be the presentation of the convention. Getting 4,000 atheists to close their eyes and meditate was quite a feat. I sort of knew what was happening because I studied psychology and perception and I've practised meditation, but Harris explained at the press conference why he did it. He has often been told by atheists that they can't understand how anyone can believe they have had a transcendent, religious or spiritual experience. This experiment took a large number of skeptical people a long way along the path to such an experience. Sure, nobody started talking in tongues or claimed they saw visions, but there would have been a lot of people feeling things that they would formerly have put down to the overactive imaginations of religious believers.

Other notable talks were those by Daniel Dennett, Eugenie Scott and Annie Laurie Gaynor. The common thread was that grassroots activism can become very effective in the fight against unreason. I was disappointed that I wasn't able to limp fast enough to see Ayaan Hirsi Ali's talk but at least I was able to see her at her media conference, and I got to see A. C. Grayling twice over the weekend. I'll have more to say about Lawrence Krauss (who was also excellent) in a piece I'm writing about various arguments for the non-existence of God.

As I expected I met a lot of people that I had only known vicariously before as well as renewing old friendships from conferences past. The only low point for me, apart from the sore foot, was that I found that at least one of the 4,000 people there was a little less honest than I would like. Ever since I started my web site in 1999 I've had a black baseball cap with on the front. I took it off when I entered the Hilton bar on Friday afternoon, put it down with my jacket and backpack, and I have not seen it since. I'm all for collecting souvenirs, but I never thought I would be donating them.

Still, if that was the worst thing that happened I haven't got a lot to complain about. The speakers, organisation, the catering (mostly) and the friendliness were everything that anyone could want. I will be back at the next convention, but I will walk carefully and carry painkillers, just in case.

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