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A.C. Grayling in Australia and the way forward

March 8, 2010

A.C. Grayling is currently in Australia for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention and yesterday he spoke at the Sydney Opera House on the topic of The Anatomy of a Quarrel: Religion and Anti-Religion From the Latter Point of View. It was a wonderful talk to a receptive audience of people who are sometimes, I think, a little cut off from the rest of the world for intellectual discussions of this magnitude. I have never seen him talk live before and it was quite good to see a very large crowd attend.

Grayling made a number of key points, the main one being that organised religion has an influence on society that far outweighs its following and a disproportionate influence on education, government and society. Given that in the UK less than 3% of the population are active, once a week, church goers and I believe that the numbers are similar here in Australia, whereas they manage to have 4 weekly programs on the government funded BBC and an almost instant right to comment on any social or moral question. This is a problem in a world where at least 20% and possibly more of the global population is agnostic/atheist, as it means religious views are disproportionally large compared to their following. In Australia last year, the government forked out millions of dollars to support the Pope’s visit to Sydney. Could you imagine governments doing the same for an Atheist convention?

So, how can the influence of religion be reduced? Atheists need to become better organised and give themselves a clearer voice in the world. Evangelical Christians are extremely well organised and very aggressive in getting their point of view across. If a media outlet says something they don’t like, or a politician has a slip of the tongue, they pounce on them with a well organised information (or depending on your point of view, a disinformation campaign) to ‘correct’ what they believe is an incorrect view of the world. This has two effects; firstly it gives news outlets something easy to publish and being slightly controversial, it sells. It also has the effect of scaring politicians into always seeking the views of religious leaders, to save themselves embarrassing press later on. There are two keys that will help change this attitude, better communication and more aggression.


It is the mass media that is the key to giving atheism a voice and dampening those of religion. Without a better organised voice, atheism will never become a ‘mainstream’ voice, despite having more adherents that most religions. This does not need to be a top-down, hierarchical approach like the Catholic Church and views among our members can be many and varied, just like Evangelical Christians or Muslims. What is needed though is more effective co-operation and co-ordination, better fund raising efforts (anyone ever registered an atheist charity in Australia with a website that can easily collect small sums of cash?). Every topic needs to be pounced on, every religious view needs to be countered with a secular one and it needs to not only happen quickly, but also from many different sources. Finally, it must be made easy for the media. Journalists like it when their stories are spoon fed to them; therefore any response needs to be written in such a way as to be instantly publishable by the press.


Why is it that Christians can publish up to 3,000 books per year in the US while Atheists only manage about 6 in almost 10 years? Why are we not beating on the door of the publisher DEMANDING equal access of our views? Because we are generally too nice; too willing to hear what other people have to say, too humanist in our views. Atheism seems at times to be amateur discussion hour by a bunch of leftwing academics than an effective media campaign. Tolerance and free exchange of ideas is all very nice, except when the other side don’t. We need to take a leaf out of the religious rights book and be much more aggressive. We need people to rant, so that the way is easier for the rest of us.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2010 9:11 am

    Prof. Grayling,

    I am sorry my wife and I missed yours and Prof Dawkins address at the Sydney Opera House as by the time we learnt of your speech and phoned in fo seats, they were sold out.

    I have the temerity to send you my new book, ORIENTALISM IN SINOLOGY, which was inspifred by Edward Said and strongly argued for atheism for the Chinese people as its culture does not have a Creator=God and hence is language has no word for SIN. Prof. D.C. Lau formerly of SOAS does not like it as i called him a colonial Orientalist, so is Prof Mark Elvin, formerly of St Athony’s College adn later at the Australian National University where we met. He thought that Said was too vague and sinologist are too careful to be Irientalists. But I have found out his writings were quite Orientalist too.

    I am a retired academic from the U if NSW in Sydney on Chinese Poliical Thoughts, Classical an Contemporary because I had too many PhD students, 12 in my last year and mostly non-English Speaking Background, thus I had to correct their English before I looked at their substances of their drafts. Since retirement, I was given a Visiting Fellowship by the ANU, where I did my PhD for 5 years, and I published CHINESE MARXISM [CONINUUM] and now the Orientalism one and will write one on Human Rights in pre-Confucian China and the Contemporary, say from 1915 prior to them talking about Class Rights by their Leninists.

    Thank you and Prof Dawkings forf coming to Australia and I have bought many of your books.


    Adrian Chan

  2. March 18, 2010 12:04 am

    Oops – I have just realised that I have gone on like a drain. Apologies!! But I won’t trim it.

    I have thought for a long time that the way to start to have a secular point of view within the public sphere is to mobilise politically.

    In Australia there is a political party that began not so many years ago. It’s the Secular Party of Australia, The hard part, of course, is to increase the membership and the awareness within the public of the Secular Party as an alternative to voting for major parties.

    Atheists are atheists and not necessarily aligned with the political right or left, although, it is probably safe to say that there is a leftish preponderance. It’s probably the herding of cats syndrome and I think the incidence of this syndrome increases with intellect (and I know how that sounds!!).

    Australia has a proportional voting system which helps smaller parties to win a seat in the Senate. It’s very hard indeed to get into the Lower House as The Greens know. Of course, the Greens have global climate and ecological diversity (among other non-religious but ideological stances).

    Atheists have little to use as a rallying point that affects the majority. The only biggie is really the infiltration of religion in our social, educational and polcy making fabric. And I don’t know how much actual interest can be whipped up within the population at large. Not much, it would appear. It just doesn’t touch the average voter’s fears. And that, and funding is what does interest voters.

    I don’t know how many other political parties there are that specifically espouse secular and humanistic values. There is always a problem. Politicians are seen as accomplished liars (at least the long-lived successful politicians are). Those who enter the political arena with ideals are either one term wonders or learn quickly the ropes of political feather nesting.

    The other road followed is publishing, as you point out. I know that being an evangelical or charismatic Christian or on some loony religious fringe or another pumps up the volume considerably. That quite possibly accounts for the number (30,000?? Good grief! Per year? Phew!) of Christian/god/church books published.

    Interestingly, I suppose, is the fact that publishers see a market for such an interminable number of books that will sell. To even have an atheist or irreligious book published requires the author to be a well known figure. Phillip Adams, Robyn Williams and Tamas Pataki are only three that I can think of who have come out of Australia. The delightful Catherine deveny should write – she is more than capable AND well known to boot!

    Atheism just doesn’t whip up the same fervour as religious nutjobbery. We only become incensed (and not all of us) when something really egregious occurs. And it doesn’t last because most of us have day jobs. So there is only so much that gets into print and so many of the newspapers are owned by moguls of a religiously savvy bent. Look at Murdoch!! It is pretty difficult to get a strongly-worded letter published in any of Murdoch’s papers.

    Even if you were to spoon feed the journalists, their editors are probably chary of publishing unless they get a response from a Christian (and that’s not difficult! They have a tame stable on which to call). The editors never seem to return the favour to atheists unless there is some heavy lobbying for equal rights of response.

    The other thing is that Christians are ‘witnessing’ for their god(s) while atheists are always the reactionaries righting those superstitions and plainly wrong explanations with a good belt of truth, science, reason and critical thinking. And, of course, no religite ever wants to know that!! And, unfortunately, the newspaper reading public usually doesn’t want to have to think (a bit like the journalists), so I wonder what actually gets through.

    There is another point that is a problem. It is so easy for a religite to say ‘goddidit’ in response to anything published in any scientific field. It isn’t that scientists are chary of writing; it is more that time, research and teaching can be and is a constraint. The other part of this is, of course, that atheists haven’t got a ‘cover-all’ response as do the religites (and their responses never vary!!).

    Yes, atheists are nicer because we aren’t hell-bent (haha) and we are a reasonable bunch. Over the past 6 years, we have seen Dawkins and Hitchens, Harris and Grayling, Dennett and Thomson and others publish with greater or less success. However, there is a goodly library being built and, at least, it has quality if not the babbling quantity of religious ‘books’.
    Yes, I agree with you, James, we all need to take a leaf out of their books and learn to be vociferous and often. It does mean organisation though.

    We have no hierarchy as you point out. However a loose collaboration between atheists who actually want to write and not be necessarily nice would go a long way to covering the religious blatherings that find their way into the press.

    Divide the papers into manageable job lots and allocate a few atheist writers to each lot. Include a scientist or two in each group to cover the scientific angles (a lot of us ‘lay’ atheists have, in fact, educated ourselves in the basics of the various fields in scie3nce and can find qualified people if need be).

    Would that work? Yes it would; it requires diligence (the religites have that in spades) and being able to maintain interest in having to say the same things over and over again. How Dawkins does it, I don’t know – he does get paid, of course!

    The ultimate thing is education; keep the religite influence at a minimum in society, education and policy making. Tall order – it is only a few hundred years ago you and I would be burnt at the stake for mentioning anything like this.

    As my husband is fond of saying: religion is in its death throes. It is being strangled to death by education and like any victim it is struggling and kicking in a vain attempt to preserve its life. In a hundred years, it will be no more.

    What we all have to keep in mind is that we CAN hasten its demise but we need to organise and stay in touch with each other on a constant, idea sharing basis.

    And, lucky you James!! I have only seen Grayling on my computer.


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