June 7, 2012
Women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali walked smiling onstage before the audience at Melbourne’s Global Atheist Convention in April.
“Hello my fellow atheists and non-believers,” she said, following the applause.
“Or should I say, ‘G’day, you godless lot!’”
The turn of phrase, spoken in her thick Somali accent, had immediate effect on the 4000 seated conference goers. The crowd erupted in cheering and laughter.
Bestselling author of Infidel, and an ex-Muslim, Hirsi Ali was one of more than 30 international speakers in Australia to attend the event.
The cheering mood generated over three conference days drew from guest speakers including renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, physicist Lawrence Krauss and comedian Ben Elton.
Themed as ‘A Celebration of Reason’, this year’s Global Atheist Convention was the second event of its kind among atheists in Australia, with almost twice the number of attendees from 2010.
SIGH OF RELIEF
Convention host Kylie Sturgess, from Perth, waited in the wings after introducing Hirsi Ali on stage and breathed a sigh of relief.
Hirsi Ali arrived under tight security not long before, accompanied as everywhere by armed bodyguards.
Her screenplay Submission, a documentary detailing the oppression of Muslim women, has led to death threats. An Islamic extremist murdered her colleague, Submission director Theo Van Gogh.
Sturgess could joke now about the anxious moments when Hirsi Ali, her personal heroine, “kidnapped” her before the speech and had excitedly “gone rogue” with Richard Dawkins without the security team.
They had gleefully egged Sturgess to sneak them seats out front to share in the audience experience before being introduced. Sturgess worried she’d be thrown face down to the carpet by bodyguards at any moment.
Sturgess is among a young breed of activists leading Australia’s growing ‘godless lot’ of atheists, freethinkers and sceptics.
“I admire Hirsi Ali’s bravery,” Sturgess said after the speech.
“It was such a privilege.
“I’d have given anything to introduce her.”
Despite earlier misgivings, Sturgess relished the role of co-hosting the three-day atheist convention with young comedian and ABC personality Lawrence Leung.
“It’s not at all like talking to listeners or a class,” she said, comparing her day jobs as a teacher and independent podcast host of the ‘Token Sceptic’.
“When I was first offered the job, I was very nervous.
“It’s different when you are introducing someone like Richard Dawkins to a crowd of 4000 people.”
In preparation, Sturgess took public speaking classes over several months to master her nerves.
“At the convention, you wear an ear-piece, and 17 organisers’ voices are coming in at once.
She quipped that “for an atheist, hearing voices in your head is traumatic.”
Like Hirsi Ali, who escaped her homeland to become Holland’s youngest member of parliament, Sturgess’ conversion to atheism fuelled a desire to take a role in leading change.
Sturgess has since lectured on teaching critical thinking, feminism, new media and ‘anomalistic beliefs’ worldwide, and is finishing a masters degree in psychology.
She said convention speakers concerned about growing levels of religious instruction in public schools had raised her awareness of the issue.
“For me, it was also a thrill to introduce so many women onto the stage,” she said.
“I hope that encourages others like it did for me.
“After all, Dawkins and Hirsi Ali can’t do it all alone, and we have to think about future leaders of the movement.”
The death of Christopher Hitchens to cancer last year was the subject of tributes by many of the speakers at this year’s convention.
Many speakers praised the late journalist and author of God is Not Great for his wit and fearless reporting around the globe.
Among many young volunteers, Jason Ball, 24, was a lead organiser who could be seen marshalling book signing queues and crowds of conference goers.
Ball is spokesman for the Atheist Foundation of Australia and president of the Freethought University Alliance.
As one of the event’s youngest speakers, he said he was excited about the growing number of Australians identifying themselves as atheists and non-believers.
“According to the last Census, we’re actually Australia’s fastest growing group,” Ball said.
“Here we have an event run entirely by volunteers attracting international audiences and renowned speakers to Melbourne and it’s growing.”
He said he was looking forward to ‘pausing’ after 12 months of non-stop conference planning with fellow organisers.
Ball said his ‘awakening’ to atheism began at age 17, after a high school exchange trip to Kansas.
“I had gone to a protestant school, but I was not particularly religious,” he said.
“Suddenly I was in this environment in the US where you were taught the world was like, 6000 years old.
“I was no scientist, but even I knew the world had to be a bit older than that.”
Ball said warnings by some Kansas teachers against evolution had a reverse effect, and instilled a newfound love for science.
He said the conference speakers thrilled him.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss delivered new discoveries explaining how the universe came into being from nothing.
Dawkins talked about reclaiming ‘intelligent design’ as the name for a new humanist morality.
On the first day of the conference, Christian protestors exchanged barbs with conference goers.
Among their banners, one said: “God hates liars, thieves and homosexuals”.
Representatives from the Dandenong Mosque held protest signs in red letters saying Hirsi Ali would “burn in hell”.
Security closed off the exits, but not before one gay couple stood in front of protestors and proceeded to kiss.
“I thought that was pretty great actually,” Ball grinned.
Like Sturgess, Ball sees a vital need to maintain a freedom from religion in politics and education.
“Because we’re this growing multi-cultural, multi-faith country, we absolutely have to have a secular and neutral state,” he said.
Ball said that one sign of atheists’ growing recognition in Australia was that this year’s convention secured some government funding.
Despite many religious events attracting government support, the previous 2010 convention had been unable to pay any of its speakers.
“I think that was for political reasons, so, it’s a sign, if you like, that Tourism Victoria had not made the distinction this time between religious events and atheists,” Ball said.
Ball said that despite enjoying the distractions of an ‘entertainment culture’, young people like himself were committed to working on problems affecting society.
“We’re always accused of apathy, not caring, but humanism says that suffering is out there and fixable here and now,” he said.
“I think we’re a lucky country to be able to hold conventions like this.”