We went to the Global Atheist Convention last week, which I should have blogged about then, but I didn't (for reasons that will be explained in the next blog post).
Some highlights from the convention:
The loudest applause line of the first night was when the organizers announced that the State government had kicked in a little bit of funding for the convention, and in doing so, had treated the atheists exactly like any other group.
Yes, that's what we were applauding for: being treated exactly the same.
As for the speakers:
Dennet is not a particularly good public speaker. But his talk was so jam-packed with ideas that it was one of the best.
The other best was P.Z. Myers, who was not only funny and blasphemous but insightful.
A. C. Grayling was a delight to listen to. His presentation, vocabulary, voice, and sheer cleverness - he spoke for half an hour without notes and never paused to draw breath - were perfect. I have no idea what he was talking about, but I could listen to him for days.
Lawrence Krauss was good, too, explaining how something must come from nothing in terms non-technical enough that I could follow them.
Sam Harris was good, but he's still yapping on about meditation.
There was a terrifying talk by Leslie Cannold on how Australia is a soft theocracy - we don't have the kind of iron-clad separation of church and state that the American Constitution does. But then, almost nowhere else does. Is it ironic that the one thing I find most attractive about American government is the one thing the Republicans are hell-bent on eradicating?
The tribute to Hitchens was the best, but that's not fair: Hitch got to present all of his best material gathered over the years. No one can compete with that.
Most enlightening was Dawkins' talk, but not in the way expected. Dawkins covered old ground, whereas most of the others talked about new developments. So that was a little boring, but that wasn't the enlightening part.
Having seen Dawkins in the flesh, I now understand why people call him strident. He was, actually, despite his classic British politeness and his careful academic demeanor. P. Z. Myers gave a talk called "Sacking the City of God" (take that, Augustine!), and yet somehow he came off as less... angry.
I don't think that strident is the right word; I think a better word is peevish. The difference between Dawkins and Myers was hope; Myers' essentially gave a pep-talk wrapped around his philosophical/political observations. Dawkins, on the other hand, during a panel discussion, was asked by Dennet, "What happens when we bring the moderates over to our side, and nothing is left but the nut jobs?", and his response was, "Should we be worrying about that yet?"
Dawkins has been fighting this fight, and losing, for so long that he sounds like a tired, bitter old man. Everyone else at that conference (save for Leslie, who also sounded like a castle under siege; and perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but who can blame her?) was full of confidence and hope; everyone else felt like we were winning. Dawkins, clearly, does not.
I'm not saying he's wrong to be pessimistic. Nor should he be nicked for all the many things the theists nick him for. But from now on, when I hear Dawkins described as strident, I am going to think of despair. It is likely a feeling that Dawkins will never escape; his entire generation will remain immune to reason until he, and they, are beyond all arguments.
But the people who deal with the young; the teaching professors like Harris and Myers, the college organizers, the volunteer groups; these people know that the next generation is reachable. They have hope of the triumph of reason, in their lifetimes; and it shows.