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Global Atheist Convention cancelled due to lack of interest

Ticket sales were “substantially below expectations”

The largest gathering of atheists in Australia – the Global Atheist Convention – has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

Organisers of the Reason To Hope conference, which was scheduled to be held in February next year, cited ticket sales being “substantially below expectations” as the reason for cancelling.

“In many ways the convention in 2012 tapped into a particular zeitgeist of the time – a spirit of the age – which was a real anger and protest against what they saw as the place of religion in society” — Robert Martin, City Bible Forum

The conference is organised by the Atheist Foundation of Australia. Salmon Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, was slated as the headline speaker, with Richard Dawkins and British author and physician Ben Goldacre to be part of the line-up. Local speakers including Jane Caro, Peter FitzSimons, Tracey Spicer and Clementine Ford were also on the list.

The last Global Atheist Convention was held in 2012, also in Melbourne, and attracted about 4000 attendees. Robert Martin from Melbourne’s City Bible Forum was one of them and he is disappointed the conference had been cancelled for 2018.

“I thought the last conference was excellent,” Martin tells Eternity. “I really enjoyed the exchange of ideas.”

“After a while, protest movements fade, because once you get angry at something, where do you go from there?” — Robert Martin, City Bible Forum

Michael Jensen, an Anglican minister and commentator in Sydney, has also expressed his disappointment that the Convention has been cancelled. Writing for smh.com.auJensen wrote, “I also think that the full and frank discussion of fundamental ideas is part of what a healthy culture promotes and enjoys. A Global Atheist Convention is to be welcomed, because every time people think about God and about the meaning of life is a time we more deeply consider the value and purpose of human life. It makes us better citizens.”

Robert Martin believes atheism, as a movement, is at a cross roads. “This is a massive blow to the Atheist Foundation as an organisation and to organised atheism in Australia. Where to next? What do they stand for?” asked Martin.

“In many ways the convention in 2012 tapped into a particular zeitgeist of the time – a spirit of the age – which was a real anger and protest against what they saw as the place of religion in society, led by the New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. That movement has died down somewhat. Its influence remains but it’s just not quite as overt and visible as perhaps it was back then.”

Martin says fragmentation within the atheist movement in Australia is a key reason that a convention may have been difficult to sell in today’s climate. When any group goes beyond the thing that unites it – and for atheists, that’s the belief that God doesn’t exist – Martin suggests that the groups needs to find other things that hold it together. But that’s not so clear for atheism.

“A lot of the issues we’re dealing with now are social issues. Take gun control, for example. What is an atheist position on gun control? It’s unclear. The thing that they agree on is that we don’t think there is a God. But what goes on from there is a matter for disagreement. Feminism is another matter that divides atheists, too.”

The world has changed a lot since the last Global Atheist Convention, and Martin believes many atheists also have a bit of “anger fatigue.”

“Not all atheists are angry but what Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens and Harris did was to tap into a post-September 11 feeling that religion was impacting our world in ways we didn’t like. The series of books [they wrote] somewhere between 2004 and 2011, were all in the same style and genre. But after a while, protest movements fade, because once you get angry at something, where do you go from there?”

Martin expressed disappointment also in the speaker line up, suggesting the calibre of speakers was hard to match from the 2012 Convention, which also included Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Singer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Even then, Martin says, “There’s only a certain amount of time you can listen to speakers say the same things.”

The Convention’s cancellation comes despite the rise of ‘No Religion’ in Australia. The 2016 census showed the number of Australians ticking ‘no religion’ has increased to 29.6 per cent, overtaking the number of Catholics (22.6 per cent). The total number of Christians still made up a total of 51 per cent of the population, but those indicating ‘no religion’ have nearly doubled from 16 per cent in 2001.

Meanwhile, Australia’s largest Christian gathering – Hillsong Conference in Sydney – has seen increased attendance over the past three years. Hillsong Church reported in its 2016 annual report that the 2016 Conference had attendance figures of more than 31,000, up from 22,000 in 2014.

Eternity contacted the convention organisers at the Atheist Foundation for comment and has not yet received a response. On Facebook, organisers have expressed their disappointment at the cancellation, and are encouraging followers to keep up their interest in attending other events in the future.

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