A Gloriously Godless Weekend – Part 2
Less than eight hours after getting to bed I was on my way back to the Alexander for Saturday’s session. Tired and mildly hung over, I was a little apprehensive about the length of the program. Even had my eyes been at their brightest and my tail at its bushiest, I would have been concerned that at some point in the day my brain would simply refuse to take in any more information. But I needn’t have worried. As packed as the day was, I never found myself losing interest. The talks were without exception informative and engrossing, and there was plenty of entertainment to be had outside.
The panel on secular education and human rights was already underway by the time I arrived. Jane Donnelly, Atheist Ireland‘s Education Officer brought us up to date with the current situation and the progress we’ve made in recent years. She made the point that this was a real fight for human rights and for freedom from discrimination, and it seems that thanks in no small part to her efforts, it’s one we’re starting to win. Annie Laurie Gaylor cautioned us to be wary of the Catholic Church’s overtures towards multi-denominational schools, reminding us that “whenever you hear Catholics promoting choice you know something’s up.”
Following that was a discussion on blasphemy laws, particularly appropriate here as Ireland is the only western democracy to have enacted a new blasphemy law in the 21st century, bucking the popular trend among modern states of abolishing them. Michael Nugent described blasphemy laws as “simultaneously dangerous and silly” and emphasised the problems caused by their creating “a distinction between religious beliefs and other kinds of belief. “
Professor David Nash of and author of a number of books on blasphemy said that the Irish blasphemy law was “anomalous”, having no precedent in common law or in any legislation and “looks like it was cobbled together on the back of an envelope in a back room”. He listed several serious flaws in the Irish law and noted that blasphemy laws – regardless of their original intentions – are often cynically abused by governments and groups like white supremacists and Scientologists.
Anne Marie Waters of One Law for All expounded on how laws intended to protect people of all religious beliefs can actually be counterproductive. Some Sharia courts have been given legal status in the United Kingdom to sort out domestic and minor disagreements within “Muslim communities”. While in theory all parties involved need to consent to this process, what happens in practice is that Muslim women either do not realise they have a choice or are heavily pressured into accepting the arbitration of a Sharia court and may be forced back into violent and abusive marriages. She made the excellent point that it is not racist to criticise the religious beliefs of non-whites; it is racist to give their religious beliefs undue respect because of their skin colour.
The keynote address was given by embryologist, prolific blogger and equal-opportunity blasphemer PZ Myers, and had the provocative title: “Dancing on the Graves of the Gods: How Science Kills Faith”.
Not one to mince words, Myers described a spectrum of religious beliefs: from intractable fundamentalists with “rocks in their heads” to the most conciliatory liberal Christians who instead have sponges. While he conceded that it’s easier to deal with sponges than rocks, he’d prefer to “sweep humanity free of the whole continuum of religion from rock-brains to sponge-brains”. He urged confrontation and ridicule of religious beliefs rather than accommodation. I really can’t hope to do justice to how funny and thought-provoking his speech was so I can only urge readers to wait patiently for the video to become available.
Some members of an evangelical Christian church (the Ethiopian Redemption Church according to some) were in the area preaching, initially oblivious to the celebration of unbelief that was going on beside them. Returning from lunch, I became involved in a conversation with one of them (pictured below). He quoted scripture and I quoted back. Due to my mis-spent youth, I knew the Bible probably as well as he did, although I’m a little out of practice and never came close to the charisma or fervour this young man displayed. In the course of the conversation, he explained his conversion to Christianity, how he had been living a wild and decadent life and was on a downward spiral, when he had an encounter with Jesus. To demonstrate the sort of immoral lifestyle he was leading, he recounted how he had unwittingly smoked cocaine, and how it was at this point that Jesus chose to make himself manifest and lead the young man to salvation.
I wasn’t sure I had understood correctly so I asked for clarification.
“So you’re saying that you had your religious experience shortly after smoking cocaine?”
“I did not have a religious experience – I met Jesus!”
“Right, OK, but this happened right after you smoked cocaine for the first time?”
“Someone handed me what I thought was marijuana but it was actually cocaine.”
“And then, after smoking cocaine for the first time, you met Jesus?”
“And you don’t think maybe that this experience was caused by taking cocaine? It’s a drug. By definition it alters your mental state. That’s what it’s for.”
“I smoked marijuana every night for three years, but this night, I smoked cocaine.”
“Yes, and cocaine is very different from marijuana!”
“But I didn’t even know it was cocaine.”
“It’s still cocaine. It works even if you don’t know you’ve taken it!”
“My whole body was tingling, and I felt this power…”
“THAT’S COCAINE! That’s what it does. You didn’t meet Jesus, you met Charlie.”
Well, OK, I have to confess I didn’t think of the last line till later but otherwise that’s pretty much how it went. We shook hands and I thanked him for the conversation. He was a nice guy but I was flabbergasted that he couldn’t see the correlation between taking Class A drugs and getting high.
With no drugs in my system other than the sneaky pint I’d had with lunch, I returned to the hotel for the afternoon session…