Home > Reflections, Reviews > A Gloriously Godless Weekend – Part 3

A Gloriously Godless Weekend – Part 3

(Part 1) (Part 2)

Saturday’s afternoon session began with a panel entitled “Women Atheist Activists” although it was unclear whether that was to be the subject of the discussion or simply a description of the panelists. It seemed to serve as both.

Paula Kirby spoke first and made it clear that she was an atheist activist but not particularly active in the area of women’s rights and had never really experienced or noticed any sexism in the movement, so wasn’t really sure why she was there. I have to admit to being a little unsure myself. Kirby has plenty to offer but seemed to be on this panel only because she was a woman, ironically an apparent example of the kind of sexism she hasn’t noticed.

Bobbie Kirkhart also seemed a little unsure as to why she was there, or at least why Annie Laurie Gaylor wasn’t on the panel, citing her as the most qualified person to speak on the subject. She recounted something of the history of women in the atheist movement, noting that it was Madeleine Murray O’Hair who first brought the atheist movement to her attention and that many of the leaders of atheist groups have been women. She made what I thought was an interesting and worthwhile observation, that the way men and women typically run things is different. Men in authority seem happier to surround themselves with trusted advisers and to delegate responsibility as needed while women seem to need to be in charge of everything and are less likely to delegate. At its worst this leads to an “old boys network” in the case of the men, and a “mother hen syndrome” among the women. She argued that both approaches (in their less extreme forms) are valuable and necessary, and it’s important to figure out how to use the strengths of all our members.

Anne Marie Waters, like Paula Kirby, didn’t seem to think there was much of an issue to discuss. She didn’t like the idea that women were considered different to men, and argued that it’s irrelevant whether something is said or written by a man or a woman. While this is (mostly) true, it seems to miss the point somewhat.

Tanya Smith, who has just become president of the newly restructured Atheist Alliance International, noted that her own experience was one of overcoming her own insecurities, and that once she did so, she was able to make a positive contribution. She suggested that this was a typically female trait and that many women are held back by similar issues.

There was considerable audience participation and while the whole discussion was interesting, it felt as if it hadn’t really got to the heart of the issue, mostly because the panelists generally didn’t seem to think there was one. I have to note, too, that this was the only single-sex panel of the entire conference. As none of the panelists were particular experts on women’s issues I have to wonder how much thought went into selecting them. As a first approximation, selecting an all-female panel makes sense but after a little consideration I’m inclined to think that a male perspective would have been helpful too, or better still, that activists with strong views on the issue had been selected.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Watson could be seen quietly fuming towards the back of the room. We would find out exactly why later in the day.

Up next was a panel discussion on whether to accommodate or confront religion. Short answer: confront. Richard Green noted that “to accommodate religion is to abandon the advancement of atheism”.

There was a short break after this and as the Islamists at the convention had repeatedly pleaded with all attendees to engage with them, I strolled outside towards the stall they had set up a few metres away from the door of the hotel.

The stall included several DVDs and a book entitled The Man in The Red Underpants. I asked whether said man was supposed to be Mohammed but that didn’t go down too well. One of the men running the stall explained the conceit of the book by asking what I’d do if a man wearing nothing but red underpants knocked on my door in the middle of the night and said he’d come to read the gas meter. Would I let him in? Well, of course I wouldn’t, which was apparently the correct answer but I’m still unsure what he’s supposed to represent. (According to PZ Myerswithering review, he’s supposed to be a metaphor for science.) Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the book leads the reader to the conclusion that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.

I brought up the issue of women in Islam and told them that it seemed to me that the lot of women in Islamic countries is not a happy one, although I conceded that they could be smiling under their burqas. They explained that the verses in the Koran that authorise, indeed encourage,  Muslim men to beat their wives (such as Sura 4:34) don’t really mean that Muslim men should beat their wives. What they apparently mean is that in exceptional circumstances, if all other forms of discussion and rebuke have failed, they should tap their wives gently with a small stick. One of them – a white English convert to Islam – pulled from his jacket something called a miswaak which is a sort of toothbrush that would no doubt have been state of the art in 7th century Arabia. He confessed that he didn’t have a wife and that if he did he would never beat her, but if  he really had to, then he would only gently chastise her with his miswaak.

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Tom Whipple and another conference attendee talking to Islamists (picture by Patrick Ffrench)

This begged the question of why the word used was invariably translated as “beat” or “scourge” but apparently there are nuances in the original Arabic that require a considerable amount of study to appreciate. I had to question why Allah was unable or unwilling to make his message clearer.

I also pointed out that even if this beating is only, as they claimed, a symbol, what it is symbolic of is male ownership of women, of a husband denigrating his wife as if she were beneath him, and that this in itself is absolutely wrong. They disagreed but didn’t make much of a case.

Most of all I urged them to stop worrying about whether atheists had the correct understanding of Sharia law, and to make sure Muslims do, because it is Muslims who are beating their wives and murdering their daughters and they are doing it in the name of Islam. They agreed that a lot of Muslims were interpreting the rules very differently to them, and that violence towards women is an issue among Muslims in the UK and elsewhere, and told me they also preach to Muslims. When I mentioned that it was also Muslims using the Islamic concept of jihad who were responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent people, they seemed oddly reluctant to agree, and one of them claimed he did not know whether any Muslims were involved in 9/11 . I mentioned the vast amounts of documentary evidence including admissions on video of known Muslims claiming responsibility for these acts in the name of Islam. The response: “Hollywood can do anything”. I did get one of them to admit that if Muslims were responsible for violent action against Western civilian targets then they were acting contrary to Sharia law as they understood it.

Despite their evasion the two men I spoke to were polite and friendly, in stark contrast to their leader Hamza Tzortzis’s rude and inaccurate tweets (and from what I’ve heard, his behaviour in person). They seemed less experienced and more honest than Hamza and I believe they genuinely thought they were doing us a service, while Hamza must have known that their mission was only for propaganda purposes.

Incidentally Tom Whipple of The Times was present for most or all of this exchange. It seems like the sort of thing he could have written about rather than lazily painting the event as merely a gathering of swooning Dawkins fanboys.

After the break was a panel on Communicating Atheism. Rebecca Watson was invited to speak first but would probably have done so regardless. She had a lot to say and as it’s now available on video I’ll let her do the talking. Her speech starts at around 2:20 in the video below:

While off-topic what she had to say was absolutely vital. Women really do have to face challenges that men do not and it’s crucial that we keep being reminded of this. It seems like not having Rebecca on the panel discussing women in atheism was a missed opportunity but it was great that she got a chance to relate her experiences and opinions anyway.

I had signed up for the optional dinner which was supposed to have one of the speakers at each table. Due to some sort of mix-up the table I sat at had none. I was initially quite annoyed at this, and got more annoyed as I had to wait an inordinate amount of time for a disappointing vegetarian alternative to the standard menu. (I get particularly grumpy when hungry). Nevertheless, I met several new and interesting people and my disappointment soon abated. Also, the dessert was pretty good.

After dinner, to the bar. Despite several valiant attempts to go to another pub I remained in the hotel bar, repeatedly striking up long and fascinating conversations with complete strangers from all over the world. By two in the morning my voice was reduced to a whisper and I stopped drinking beer and switched to water (almost unheard of for me). The indefatigable PZ Myers took his leave some time later, but I entertained no hopes of outlasting Rebecca Watson who was still in the bar when I dragged myself away at 3:30.

There was no possibility of my getting enough sleep but luckily Sunday was going to be a short day. Right?

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