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No hope for the Global Atheist Convention: what went wrong?

November 9, 2017

The 2018 Global Atheist Convention, Reason to Hope, has been cancelled due to lack of interest. This is obviously a major blow and disappointment to the organisers, the Atheist Foundation of Australia, particularly after such successful conventions in 2010 and 2012.

Whilst disappointing, I am not surprised by this decision. I think that several things went wrong in the planning of this convention.

1. Cost

I received an email just before it was cancelled saying that unless 700 tickets were sold in the next couple of days the convention would be cancelled. Given the average ticket price, this amounted to an estimated $200,000 of income that was required in a short space of time. This would indicate a serious miscalculation in the budgeting process for this event.

The 2012 Global Atheist Convention was priced at a premium, but that event included many of the top popular atheist speakers in the world including the “four horsemen” of the anti-religious apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (he was still alive when he was announced as a speaker, but died before the convention).

That event was priced at a premium but this was justified given the calibre and appeal of the speakers. Yet unfortunately the speakers chosen for the 2018 convention did not have the same appeal and hence did not justify similar premium pricing. The 2018 prices were based on the 2012 Convention, but given the large difference in quality of the ‘product’, the high prices were unjustified. Many people cited cost as a key reason to not attend the convention.

2. Speaker choice

Related to this was probably the key reason the convention failed was the choice of speakers.

The 2012 convention was a success because it gathered the most popular atheist speakers in the world at that time together. It was an almost unprecedented line-up. which included Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, AC Grayling and PZ Myers – all of whom were not included in the 2018 event. Another potential drawcard and star of the more recent AFA Unholy Trinity DownUnder tour of 2015, Matt Dillahunty, was absent. Curiously Aron Ra also from that Unholy Trinity tour and not Dillahunty was invited to speak even though Dillahunty has a much bigger profile and following (and in my view is a better and more appealing speaker).

Whilst the 2018 speakers were no doubt very good, very few had anywhere near the profile as public atheists compared with the 2012 lineup. It seemed like a miscalculation to not invite these ‘celebrity’ atheists.

Moreover the speakers chosen for 2018 were not known especially for their atheism and had not published works in the ‘new’ atheist canon! Furthermore, it was also curious at how within a movement which prides itself on being rational and ‘scientific’ at how few scientists or science educators were invited to speak, certainly far fewer than 2018.

Indeed at the same time the GAC were promoting their convention, Think Inc were promoting an (affordable) event with Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins later in 2018 – which I anticipate to be a sold-out success! It will sell out because the speakers appeal to the core of the AFA constituents: celebrity scientists who oppose and ridicule religion.

Perhaps these ‘celebrity’ atheist speakers were not invited because they were all white anglo males, and the AFA wanted a more diverse line-up. But this misunderstands to whom the ‘new’ atheism predominantly appeals.

3. Misunderstanding their own constituents

The AFA has built a substantial following on the ‘rise of atheism’ stimulated by the writings of the ‘new’ atheists between 2004-2011, and the timing and speaker lineup of the 2012 convention reflected and capitalised on this. This was a substantial factor contributing to the success of the 2010 and 2012 conventions.

But the leaders (and followers) of this movement were predominantly wealthy white males. This is reflected in the main speakers (e.g. Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Grayling, Singer, Dillahunty, Krauss and Myers) and those who regularly attend AFA events.

Hence the decision to attempt a more ‘diverse’ speaker line-up whilst ignoring the demographics of they key constituents was a risky decision.

Most notably the decision to invite Clementine Ford was one clearly aimed at redressing the perceived male-oriented nature of modern atheism and to promote a more feminist friendly atheism. Yet this overlooked the fact that there are clear strands of misogyny running through ‘new’ atheism. For example, I recall at the 2012 convention, one of the comedians Jim Jefferies made an appallingly misogynistic joke (which also challenges the objection that it is just religion which is bad news for women!).

Yet Ford was hardly the best person to address the issue of feminism and atheism. She is an aggressive speaker who hardly appeals to this demographic. Indeed her presence in the line-up merely served to alienate core constituents from the convention – which was clear from the outrage on the Facebook page when she was announced.

Hence the decision to invite feminists like Ford, and the failure to invite the ‘celebrity’ speakers (who were white males), demonstrates that the AFA had seriously misunderstood their own constituents and of why atheists would want to attend a convention in the first place.

Ironically, whilst the 2018 the convention was meant to demonstrate diversity and equality, but it would appear that the modern ‘new’ atheist movement is not so interested in diversity or equality.

4. The changing face of atheism

I also wonder if this failure reveals a loss of momentum for the new atheism?

This cancellation reflects the fact that the surge of interest in atheism which accompanied the writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc has slowed.

The new atheism was somewhat a celebrity protest movement built on built on emotion, passion and aggression- ie celebrity figures (e.g. the four horsemen) leading a passionate protest against the excesses of religion and religious influence. The catalyst for this movement being the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The successes of the 2010 and 2012 conventions was partly based on a first-time opportunity for people to hear these new celebrity anti-religious heroes in action.

Yet protest movements always die out and lose momentum as the anger subsides.

Part of the loss of momentum is that the memory of September 11 is receding and the perceived urgency of their task of opposing religion has waned.

Part of the loss of momentum has perhaps been that for many, the new atheism embodies many of the same dogmatic and aggressive features of religion they so vehemently criticise?

Part of the loss of momentum is the death of Christopher Hitchens.

Part of the loss of momentum is that these new atheist speakers aren’t saying much new (and once you’ve heard them, why listen to them again?).

Part of the loss of momentum is that divisions and challenges have emerged within atheist movement e.g. elevatorgate!

Hence once the initial anger and unity that the new atheism expressed between 2004-2012 subsided, it is unclear of where the new atheism heads next. What does ‘organised’ atheism stand for?

The 2018 Atheist convention offered a potential pathway to transition the new atheists to a movement of substantial social change – a reason to hope!

But unfortunately a movement which has its roots on protest (and celebrity) becomes difficult to transition to something more lasting, substantial and meaningful. And this is a key factor explaining the failure of the 2018 Global Atheist Convention.

This perhaps reveals that atheists can’t agree on what to stand for (apart from criticising religion), or does it reveal that modern atheism doesn’t stand for anything much? Perhaps this means that there is indeed a lack of hope for organised atheism in Australia?

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2 Comments
  1. Stephen Pearce permalink

    This train wreck was not hard to see coming. The decision to invite Clementine Ford and make it about extreme politics is the reason it’s an epic fail which this author of the article in the first post just cannot see.
    To a Centerist (where many atheists sit politically) Clementine Ford and Milo Yiannopoulos are opposite sides of the same extreme coin.
    To me, an Athiest convention is about the arguments and logic, both academic and scientific that underpin my position NOT POLITICS OR SOCIAL JUSTICE!

  2. Spot on Stephen the AFA wrecked what should have been unwreckable by focusing on anti male feminism instead of atheism. I had been eagerly awaiting the next convention but cancelled in disgust when I saw the speaker list (especially that hateful bully ford). I have cancelled my membership with the AFA and I am not alone in doing so not that you would hear that from the AFA because they deceitfully still count me as a member/

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