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The God Delusion author was the star of the show at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin — just don’t call him fiery

Justin Bieber’s arrival at a girl’s school could not have created a greater stir. In the bar at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Richard Dawkins has signed copies of The God Delusion, posed for fan photographs, avoided posing for fan photographs and received endless handshakes. Now James Keen, a student from Belfast, has spotted his moment. “Professor Dawkins,” he calls to the back of a rapidly retreating tweed blazer. Keen hands me his camera.

So it is that Dawkins (unsmiling) is posing for me beside Keen (smiling) at the launch of the world’s premier event for people who don’t believe in God. Over the next three days there will be more pictures and more book signings. This is the first official meeting of a newly constituted umbrella group for the world’s disparate godless: Atheist Alliance International. But why have 350 dedicated atheists come from as far away as Australia to talk about, well, something they don’t believe in? “Say God,” I instruct Keen and Dawkins , and click the shutter. Then I ask the professor that very question.

“Especially in Ireland, atheists are beleaguered,” he replies. “There’s an element of just rallying the troops. Ireland is very largely run by the Roman Catholic Church, notably almost the entire education system. That’s got to be bad.” We have moved now to a table on our own. But to our right Keen, one of those Irish troops, has appeared — hovering quietly, slightly unnervingly. He had previously told me how The God Delusion, Dawkins’s book, spoke to his childhood in Belfast, where he really was asked the question, “Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

Dawkins turns to him. “Excuse me,” he says, “we’re having an interview.” As Keen hurriedly leaves, to our left another copy of The God Delusion is proffered expectantly. With a barely audible sigh, Dawkins gets out his pen.

For the sort of people who don’t go to atheist conventions, there is a pleasingly symmetric way of describing the sort of people who do: it’s another religion. “You’ll often hear people saying atheists are like Islamic fundamentalists, or Christian fundamentalists,” Dawkins says. But, he adds, “Nobody here is violent.”

That is not to say that Muslims aren’t here. They are, in fact, fully paid-up members. Ten minutes after the first talk begins, five Middle Eastern-looking men, with large beards, arrive at the registration desk. They are greeted by Steve Duggan, the finance director of Atheist Ireland. He has been expecting them. “Hamza! How are you doing?” he asks warmly. “Jamal! Is that yourself?”

The delegation from IERA (the Islamic Education and Research Academy), who will be our constant companions throughout the weekend, have arrived. They are here, they explain, “to have a dialogue. Muslims are accused of not engaging with society. We’ve come here to engage”.

“They’ve bought tickets,” Duggan later tells me. “It’s 500 quid of their money. If they want to fund something they disagree with, that’s fine by me.”

Over the course of the weekend several people, other than Dawkins, will warn me against the analogy of atheism as religion. It is clearly something that rankles. Rebecca Watson, a very funny American who blogs under the name Skepchick, says that at one atheist event, “A nice reporter came from The New York Times. We read his article, and for no reason we could think of, he started referring to the guy giving the talk as ‘Jesus’.”

It is, admittedly, a tempting comparison to make. Whereas at the door of the conference centre, two evangelical Christians are quoting the Bible to atheist smokers, inside the more abstemious non-believers quote from The God Delusion. While Hamza and his friends distribute leaflets in the hope of putting a human face on Islam, inside there are leaflets for “transforming atheists from bogeymen to human beings”.

But, then, similar analogies could probably be made with the gatherings of any enthusiasts — be it a Star Trek convention or a real ale festival. Incidentally, if you drew a Venn diagram of Star Trek fans and real ale fans, the overlap would feel very much like an atheist convention: an amalgamation of young men in baggy T-shirts and older men with interesting facial hair.

Randall Calvin is, however, neither old and beardy nor young and baggy. Born a Catholic, then reborn a Jehovah’s Witness, he is now an atheist. He admits that the gathering feels strange. “Why reaffirm that you don’t believe?” he asks, “Well, because it’s our children’s schooling.” In Ireland, despite plans to reform the school system, 92 per cent of primary schools are still Catholic. Randall points across the road. It is a glorious day and young drinkers spill out from a nearby pub. “See that crowd? They will marry in church. They will lie to the priest and say they will bring up their children Catholic. Then they will get the school they want. It’s hypocrisy.”

Britain’s atheists have less to worry about, although that in itself is a worry. “We need more provocation,” Richard Green, of Atheism UK, says. “In the UK there’s not much to anger people.” Why, then, does he want an angry, provoked public? “Religious faith per se is a bad thing. It makes people believe things that aren’t true,” he says.

The first debate is called “Weird science versus weird religion”. Hamza and his friends ask Dawkins a question, quoting him apparently acknowledging that the Universe appears designed. Dawkins replies that they have misunderstood him, and that he was talking about “the illusion of design”. It is not an especially illuminating exchange but it is surprisingly civilised.

Dawkins does not like his public image as atheism’s rottweiler. “Darwin said, ‘great is the power of steady misrepresentation’,” he tells me. “I’ve lost count of the number of times people meet me and say, ‘but you’re a very nice fellow’. They’re surprised. But I’m not fiery, I’m not provocative.”

Indeed, only twice, in an hour and a half’s debate, does he stray into the sort of language that, out of context at least, could be described as “fiery” — saying that he “despises” faith and, later, calling for people to “ridicule religion”.

How does he feel, though, about being the unofficial patron saint of atheism? “I don’t mind signing books,” he tells me, “but I’m getting a bit fed up with photographs. Everyone’s got little cameras on their phones, they post me on Facebook.”

The last talk of the day has concluded and, before the evening’s entertainment (a comedy show titled Pope Benedict: Bond villain), the atheists head out into the evening sun. Notwithstanding his objections, The Times’s photographer persuades Dawkins to pose against a nearby pub. I ask him about his call to ridicule religion. Is that unnecessarily provocative? “No,” he replies, perching on a beer barrel in the dying light. “We have to ridicule it. Because it deserves it. But that doesn’t mean we ridicule the people. There is a big difference.”

And then he’s off, back inside. “Richard, you’re an inspiration,” someone says, offering his hand as he passes. “Richard,” another wellwisher calls to the fleeing professor, “I really respect you.”

But Richard Dawkins, rock star of the godless, is already gone.

Original article on Times site (behind paywall)



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