I have wanted to visit Australia since I was a child. Aborigines, kangaroos, boomerangs and the outback. Convict colonies and gold rushes. A Down Under people with a laid-back accent and a wink that makes you smile. “Island” biology with marsupial species occupying the same niches as mammals on other land masses. The whole continent seems so familiar yet so far away.
When I was invited to speak at the Rise of Atheism conference in Melbourne, I was excited because Annie Laurie and I had already been planning a vacation to New Zealand. It ended up costing only $100 more for me to swing through Australia on the way home, with a week “layover.” I ended up doing eight events there in seven days. The conference was March 12–14, but I also made several appearances on college campuses, including four debates.
I landed in Sydney the evening of March 10, and the next morning — after gawking at wild ibises and kookaburras wandering around campus — I debated the archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, at Macquarie University. The topic was “Without God, We Are Nothing.”
This was a strange way to phrase a debate topic, but it turns out that Pell had written a paper by that title the year before and wanted to reiterate his wisdom. In preparation, I had studied that article and was pleasantly surprised to hear him read his opening statement word for word from that document. It made my job easier to know what he was going to say.
I also learned something about Pell that I did not bring up during the debate, because it would have been ad hominem. In 2002, while he was archbishop of Melbourne, Pell was accused of sexually molesting preteen boys at a camp where he was a young seminarian in the 1960s.
Pell voluntarily stepped aside (but did not resign) pending the outcome of a church-appointed inquiry. After carefully studying the accusations, the judge concluded that both sides of the story seemed credible. Pell was actually in the tents and swimming pool at the same time as the accusers, but since so much time had passed, it was impossible to make a “confident determination” either way. The church treated this as exoneration, and since Pell was not convicted, we have to consider him innocent until proven guilty.
George Pell is a cardinal, and if the current pope were to resign, he would be in the running to replace him. Many think that is his ambition, since he has done nothing but kiss the pope’s . . . feet on every issue, including agreeing with Ratzinger that condom use increases AIDS. He was already disliked by most Australian Catholics, and this statement made him even less popular. But it does look like Pell’s reputation would fit right in at the Vatican.
During the debate, Pell did not seem too bothered by my criticisms of God. Everyone knew I am an atheist, after all. But he did seem truly upset when I criticized Mother Teresa (after a question from the audience). There were nuns and friars in that audience, and they were not smiling at me.
But I think what bothered “His Eminence, Cardinal Pell” the most was being treated as an equal. He called me “Dan” so I called him “George.” After we shook hands at the end of the debate and were gathering for the agreed-upon group photograph, Pell looked at me and said, “I don’t want my photo taken with you.” He turned away.
The audience that day was roughly split in thirds: Catholics, Protestants and freethinkers. I loved how expressive the freethinkers were! Later, some of the Protestants told organizers they thought I won the debate, even though they disagreed with my atheism.
Freethinking student organizers Reidar Lystad and Tristan Reid (wearing a “Good Without God” T-shirt) of the Macquarie Atheists took care of all my transportation and logistics for the student events. They were great. They gave me a personal tour of the Land of Oz. That evening they drove me to the coastal town of Bundeena for the “What’s The Big Idea?” gathering where I spoke to a packed house about my story of deconversion from preacher to atheist. We stayed in a comfortable bed and breakfast.
The next morning I got up before everyone else, just before sunrise, and took a barefoot walk along the beach out to the peninsula where the Darawhal aborigines had painted on the rocks. As I was returning through the bush by the coastal cliffs, I came upon an animal sitting near the path. It looked like a kangaroo, but before I could get my camera out, it hopped away. They later told me it must have been a wallaby, which live in that area and which few people actually get to see in the wild. I also saw some huge white cockatoos landing in the treetops near Jibbon Beach where the aborigines had lived years ago.
Rise of Atheism
That day we flew Qantas Airlines down to the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Center on the Yarra River for the Rise of Atheism conference, where 2,500-plus atheists had registered. David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, told me they could have sold 4,000 tickets, if they had had room. I think that was the largest atheist convention in history. Just moving among that crowd, you could feel the excitement and relief of atheists from near and far who were finally in a place where they could say whatever they wanted. It was a magnificent celebration of reason, science and human morality.
Speakers included ethicist Peter Singer, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher A.C. Grayling, broadcaster/columnist Phillip Adams, feminist/author Taslima Nasrin, science blogger PZ Myers. Australian personalities included podcaster Kylie Sturgis, author Russell Blackford, comedian Sue-Ann Post, philosopher Thomas Pataki, and comedian Catherine Deveny. (On her Web site, Post calls herself “Australia’s favorite 6-foot, lesbian, ex-Mormon, diabetic, comedian and writer.”)
I was invited to emcee the Saturday dinner, an evening of entertainment including illusionist Simon Taylor and Internet movie-maker NonStampCollector, ending with the famous Julian Morrow and Craig Ruecassel of “The Chasers,” one of Australia’s funniest TV shows (similar to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”).
I “blessed” the meal that night with a moment of bedlam, which the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been doing for years at our conventions in the U.S., and which now will surely become a tradition Down Under (although they swung their napkins and utensils counterclockwise).
During the banquet I explained to the Australians what’s wrong with America — both of our countries were founded by rejects from England: They got the convicts and we got the Puritans.
Among all of this fun activity, something relatively quiet happened on Friday afternoon that may be the most lasting legacy of the conference. Leaders from 20 different college clubs got together to form a new national organization, the Freethought University Alliance. Some of them thought they were the only group in the country before then, and you could feel the enthusiasm as they realized they are part of a larger movement — a movement of leaders (no followers) taking freethought into the future.
I had the honor of speaking just before Richard Dawkins wrapped up the conference. It was exciting to be up on that huge stage before so many radical thinkers, with my image projected onto a massive screen, telling my story to that happy, applauding, cheering, laughing crowd of freethinkers. This is much better than preaching! (Except I didn’t get to take a collection.) Dawkins told us that the natural human instinct to “give thanks” (part of the reason for religion) is likely rooted in our need to calculate debts owed between members of our family, tribe and community. (I later asked him if that was a new idea, and he said it was indeed new. So we got to hear some original thinking!)
We ended the weekend by giving thanks, not to a deity, but to each other, and to all humans who have worked to improve the world (our only world) and increase knowledge.
After the conference, Reidar and Tristan took me up to Canberra where I talked at Australian National University about the need for a secular government, then on to the University of Wollongong for a debate with Craig Clarke, then back to Macquarie University for a debate on morality and another debate on the historicity of Jesus with history professor Chris Forbes.
Afterward, hanging out that last evening with freethinking students and eating pizza in The Rocks area of downtown Sydney, near the Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, was the culmination of a very exciting week.
Down Under is no more. After the Rise of Atheism, we’ll have to turn our maps right side up.
Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.