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Friday, September 12, 2008

Representing the Godless Youth

I have just received this month's "Australian Atheist" magazine, which contains an article by yours truly about the recent interview and panel that I was involved with.


This is an excerpt from the editorial:

Thanks to NSW AFA members, Hannah Taylor and Alan Conradi, the workload was somewhat shared. You may read about Hannah's and Alan's experiences with the media on pages 8-10 and 11-13. Both performed professionally and intelligently, giving an endearing, uplifting, positive and human face to atheism. These bright young people holding firm and rational ideas about existence could only impress the discerning listener and viewer. My guess is that even some religious folk may have been surprised at their assertiveness in clarifying atheist ideas with such
confidence. Well done, and thank you.
And here's the article.

There’s been a lot of attention given to the different religious groups, especially during the recent catholic perversion of taxpayer’s money dubbed ‘world youth day’. We have seen all kinds of different religions represented in the media, but there hasn’t been much time given to non-belief. This is why, when I received an email from the AFA asking for a young person in Sydney to represent atheism on a religious panel, I thought it was an opportunity too good to pass up. The email explained that News.com were going to be holding a youth panel on religion and were hoping to get an atheist representative. I wrote back straight away.
David Nichols called me soon after I replied to the email and we spoke for a while about my positions on the various topics likely to arise, the basis of my atheism, the kinds of books I read etc. In a day or two, I was called back and told that the AFA was happy to have me as the atheistic representative on the forum. I was excited, while at the same time being worried about the possibility of stuffing it up and making atheism look bad.


Preparation

I got in contact with News.com and was basically given the same information that was in the original email. What I did pick up from my initial conversations with the reporter was a seeming lack of bias. When discussing my view of religion, she seemed genuinely interested and I got the impression that they were going to represent my views fairly. I was still very aware of the possibility of being misrepresented, especially given the recency of the ‘Expelled’ controversy where Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott and other prominent advocated for secularism were the victims of biased editing from Ben Stein’s intelligent design entourage.
From this point, I began to prepare myself for the event. Some of the books that I read during this time include David Mills’ ‘The Atheist Universe’, Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is not Great’, David Hume’s ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Sam Harris’ ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’. I found that ‘The Atheist Experience’ podcast was great for learning how to discuss atheism and I learnt a lot about interview techniques from this and other podcasts. The internet was also a great source of information pertaining to ‘the big questions’, like stem cell research, abortion, sex before marriage, big bang and evolution theories. I practiced defending my positions by engaging in discussions with family, friends and members of the various rational thinking groups that I belong to.
On the 21st of April, I received an email from the News.com reporter that said that the format was to be changed from a debate to individual interviews that would be spliced together. The reason for this change of format was because the videos for the news site were to be no longer than around three minutes each and a debate would not work in such a format. This was a shame, as I was looking forward to getting into a bit of a debate, but it was still a good chance to dispel a few myths about atheism and show that we aren’t a rabble of baby-eating Satan worshippers.
We were lucky to get the questions ahead of time, which allowed me to draft out my answers and send them to the AFA to see if I was on the right track. Once I had my answers, had read up on a variety of different topics, and had a few practice discussions with people, I felt that I was ready to do the interview.

The interview



When I arrived at the News.com studio, I was quite nervous. I was taken to a meeting room and chatted with the reporter while she set up her equipment. She seemed genuinely interested in atheism, especially the social aspect and where an atheist gets their information from. As the interview progressed, we deviated from the set questions quite a bit. I was asked about why science is important to atheists, whether it is right to question people’s beliefs and a great deal about (catholic) world youth day. I also explained the differences between atheism and agnosticism, tried to dispel the myths about atheism being related to satanism, anarchism, narcissism, etc and I also spoke about how atheism only addresses a lack of belief in gods. The Latter point meaning that there is no atheistic dogma and that each atheist subscribes to their own moral and ethical codes, usually based on a social exchange or humanistic model. I found that once the initial butterflies had been overcome, the 45 minutes flew by. By the end, it felt much more like a natural conversation than an interview.
I left the studio feeling excited, but all the way home, I was thinking about my answers to the questions and the things I could have said better or should have made clearer. I was consoled by the idea that it was great just to have a representative for atheism in the interviews and if some good points were made it would be a bonus.


The photo shoot

A few weeks after the interview, all of the participants attended a photo shoot for the online promotion of the clips. It was interesting meeting the other participants, as I wasn’t sure who I’d been up against to this point. I had expected that the religious representatives would be hard-edged, well spoken, thoroughly indoctrinated, public speaking trained preacher-types. Though when I did meet them I found that my fears were unwarranted. They were all fairly normal young people, with no particularly obvious religiousness about them. The Muslim, Hindu and Catholic were there when I arrived.
While we waited for the others, we chatted a bit, introducing ourselves and which religion we represented. I got talking to the Catholic about world youth day, which was a good discussion, but we had to agree to disagree. The most interesting of the participants was the Buddhist, who identified as an atheist and fully supported evolution. We spoke about our beliefs, I helped him understand what positive atheism is and the difference between atheism and agnosticism; he explained reincarnation and the core beliefs of Buddhism to me. What was most interesting was that he said that his spiritual belief is fully accepting of the scientific consensus on any issue, which I wasn’t entirely convinced about.
During the photo shoot, the Muslim announced that he was not permitted by his beliefs to touch a woman. There were a couple of group photos where we all had to factor this in to our positioning and during a shot where we all had our hands on top of one another’s the Jewish girl unknowingly put her hand in his, and he quickly withdrew his hand as if he’d been burned.
There was very little animosity between the participants and a general air of acceptance and tolerance between all of us. Once each person’s faith was whittled down to its core beliefs it seemed that everyone there subscribed to a basically humanistic model, to which the believers applied a variety of unnecessary additions.
The online clips

The first video released for the ‘Faith off’ was a teaser promo. It highlighted some of the more controversial positions, such as banning sex before marriage, god as a creator and reincarnation. My quote was “Heaven and hell are fictitious places”, after which I was more comfortable that my words wouldn’t be used out of context.
The full set of clips was released soon afterwards, covering evolution, homosexuality, life after death, world youth day and fitting in. Throughout the clips, the common religious positions are supported. Sex before marriage is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, evolution is wrong, but their religion is right when it comes to theories of an afterlife, or promoting religion. The Buddhist had some interesting points to make about world youth day, evolution and sexual restriction, so I can’t claim to be the only source of reason, but I was hoping that some of the religious representatives would have tried to be a bit more progressive. As it happened, the religious views tended to seem quite out of touch with a modern society that is generally permissive of the things that they were prohibiting.
I enjoyed a good response to the release of the videos, with many of my friends from online communities giving lots of positive feedback. All in all, I was happy with the way I was represented and was glad that my fears of being edited out of context were not supported. It was a great feeling to be given the chance to represent something that I feel strongly about.


The Kerry-Anne show
1st part


2nd part


Not long after the ‘Faith Off’ videos were released, the participants were all contacted by a popular breakfast TV show called Mornings with Kerry-Anne. They basically wanted us to speak about the same issues that we had for the Faith Off, but this time it would be a live group panel.
We all arrived and met in the green room, but there were only two of us from the original interviews, the Buddhist and myself. The catholic was the twin brother of the one from the video, who couldn’t make it because he was with the Pope on the day (I’m sure nobody noticed). The Jewish and Muslim participants didn’t arrive until just before the show went on-air. While we were waiting for the show to start, we were all chatting about our various different opinions and had the opportunity to each explain the grounds for our positions, which led to a big discussion about the origins of the universe, whether the taxpayers should pay for world youth day, and the difference between and non-exclusivity of atheism and agnosticism. I was surprised that the others were happy enough talking about such subjects and that there was not much conversation about their reasons for belief.
It wasn’t too long before we were all called down to the studio, miked up and sent on set. Kerry-Anne introduced us before starting with the questions which included life after death, religion’s responsibility for wars, suicide bombing, promoting tolerance, the roots of religion and ‘what if you’re wrong’.

Of the panellists, the Buddhist was the most eloquent, the Jew seemed to be reciting lines and the Muslim girl didn’t seem very confident at all, which wasn’t surprising, since she was asked to explain about suicide bombers and the virgins after death. It was a tactless question, even for morning TV. The rest of the questions were met by fairly predictable answers, with nothing too shocking. It was breakfast TV though, so I wasn’t expecting Jerry Springer.

I was amazed at how many people saw it though. As we were leaving the studio, I got a rush of text messages and phone calls from people that had seen it. Old work mates, friends, family, at least 6 people contacted me within the first hour saying they’d seen it and I hadn’t told any of them about it before hand. Even this week, months later, I was asked by someone at my work ‘Was that you on TV?’ There’s also been some pretty wide distribution of the video amongst the online atheist population since it has gone to youtube; I was even congratulated by the guys from the Atheist Experience podcast, which I listened to in preparation for the first interview.

Overall, I’m so glad to have had the chance to do this. To stand up for something that you feel strongly about and get recognition for it is a great feeling. After doing this, I am now much more confident in discussing and debating various topics whenever the chance arises. I still have much to learn about the finer points, but through a thirst for knowledge and a deep interest in the subject matter, I continue to learn and build stronger arguments. I would encourage all atheists to do the same.

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