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The ‘God wars’ and the Global Atheist Convention

Melbourne is to be blessed this year with the visits of two very different breeds of atheist. Alain de Botton, a European popular philosopher, was recently among us and received copious coverage promoting his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. Meanwhile in April thousands of the so-called New Atheists will converge on the city for a mostly comedy festival known as the Global Atheist Convention. Going by my experience, it is probably a show to be missed.

Being an Anglican myself, I have spent sleepless nights wrestling with the intricacies of all the variations of Christian, and yes, even Catholic, beliefs. But right now I am working on an atheist taxonomy in order to make sense of the varieties of non-religious belief. My neat pigeon-holing of atheism divides my non-believing friends into three categories: the mad, the glad and the sad. The mad atheists are led by biologist and science populariser Richard Dawkins, the 'high priest' of the New Atheism, and these people are as cranky as hell at religion. We will return to them in a moment.

The glad atheist—think, Alain de Botton—floats through the godless life with nary a care for the issues at stake. For de Botton, the tragedy of atheism is that it threw out the wonderful trappings of religion with the dirty bathwater of belief in God. "Of course no religions are true in any god-given sense," says de Botton in the second sentence of his book, after which he proceeds cheerily to ignore the question that serious thinkers have grappled with for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, the sad atheists are those who do take the God question seriously. They know that the stakes are high and that without God it is notoriously difficult to make sense of the world or of human life or death or joy or pain or love-making or justice or even, at the philosophical end of the spectrum, of truth itself. But despite their awareness of the cost, the sad atheist cannot believe in the One who might be the well of life-giving meaning to quell our anxieties.

Let us return to the maddened crowd of New Atheists, who are at the vanguard of the 'God wars' so prominent in the media of late. I went to the inaugural Global Atheist Convention here in Melbourne in 2010, which was billed as 'probably the world's largest atheist convention'. This year will be possibly bigger and certainly better—better, because it will have more comedians. The 2010 program was liberally laced with comic relief and, despite suggestions that Christians have hang-ups about sex, the various performers and much of the audience seemed fixated on the f-word and all its connotations. Although this year's convention is called 'A Celebration of Reason', if the 2010 event is anything to go by, serious reasoning will not be given a hearing.
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