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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Newtown Festival

Saturday was the Newtown Festival, a large festival in Sydney that attracts upwards of 80 000 people. There were a bunch of stalls selling clothes, trinkets, food, all the regular market type stuff and also live music. It was a massive day and the crowds were packed in like sardines the weather was terrific, the sun was shining and not a cloud to be seen.

The Sydney Atheists had a stall at the market, where we were handing out pamphlets and invitations to our meetups. We were also signing up members, accepting donations, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers ('Good without god' and 'Test drive your faith, drive with your eyes closed') and generally spreading the concept of positive atheism through discussing our positions on various topics with the crowds, singing various secular themed songs, and handing out lollybags with 'card carrying atheist' cards attached.

We had a really good time and enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reponse from the crowd, with only a few people getting upset. One of them tried to set their dog on us, as they saw out banner, they said 'sick 'em'! There was also a few people that made faces at us and flipped us off, but that was pretty much the worst of it.

One of the gimmics that we had there was a gong, where passers by could declare their lack of belief in gods by 'giving the atheist gong a big bang'. It was a real hit and was ringing constantly (and as a result I had a splitting headache that saw me well into monday afternoon!). Heaps of children were also ringing the gong, with parents in tow, ringing it after their children did!

We ended up selling a bunch of shirts and tons of bumper stickers and signed up around 80 new members, so the day was a complete success!

Afterwards, we had our 100th meetup, where Ian presented a talk on 'Joke Religions', covering Pastafarianism and a bunch of others. It was a terrific talk and a great end to a terrific day.

To everone who helped out a big thankyou is in order and the event's organiser, John deserves a massive congratulations on a job well done! It wouldn't have come together without your tireless efforts!

It seems that we have caused a bit of a stir, at least as far as the author of the blog 'Sydney Anglican Heritics' is concerned. In the blog post, they talk about turning up to the festival in such an uplifting way:
Upon entry to the site I was overwhelmed by the number of stalls and the multitude of people just browsing around, most of whom I suspect are "dead in their sins".
Then goes on to mention a group fairly well known amongst readers of this blog:

What I did see, however, was group with a stall who were keenly proselytizing the passing crowd. It was a group calling themselves Sydney Atheists. So consider the scene. Here we are on the eve of Connect 09. Within a few hundred metres of the the engine room for mission within the Diocese is a crowd of over 80,000 people just browsing around and who is there to reach them? The Atheists!

My friends, I cannot help but have seen a vision of the effectiveness of Connect 09. In year 2010, when measuring the effectiveness of Connect 09, remember Newtown Festival 2008 ... Atheists 1 vs Moore 'Collage' 0.
So they seem to be a little shaken up by our prescence at the festival, which is pretty good news. It just proves that a candle in the dark really is a force to be reakoned with!

Keep up the good work, Sydney Atheists!

For more pics of the Festival, go here

Thanks to William for the video


  1. I can't wait for Connect 09! It'll be wonderful to find out about Jesus!

    In fact, I'm rather surprised the Anglican church hasn't mentioned him in the last 474 years!

  2. I'm with you guys as opposed to the other lot. But theres two things maybe you can comment on which I struggle to get around in my mind. Now, as I understand it an atheist asserts categorically theres no God or any other such like supernatural entity. And then presumably gets on with organising his life and philosophy on some other basis, an of course there are lots of possibilities in that direction. But how can atheism be a logical position to take when it is not possible to absolutely prove that something like "God" - or anything for that matter that does not appear to exist - does not IN FACT exist - ie the absence of evidence isnt necessarily evidence of absence?

    I am certainly staunchly atheist - if I can use that term in that way - in relation to the Judaeo-christian-muslim version of God, but absolutely every other possible version? Is it a touch arrogant to assert theres absolutely no chance that some sort of "other" that we cannot yet or may never comprehend could conceivably exist? Perhaps in another dimension or parallel universe? or do I misunderstand atheism?

    Having read lots of the posts on your great website I notice its all really atheists versus christians - and I wonder how many of the group - are actually ex-christians - like me I should add - and therefore I wonder to what degree atheism is really Anti-Theism - if there is such a thing; Actually Antitheism would be more logical than Atheism.

    Hence agnosticism and skepticism appeals to me more rather than atheism.

    I hope some of you can enlighten me...

  3. Hi Mac, Thanks for your comment.

    It is a common misconception that atheists assert that there is no god. Atheism actually addresses the question of belief. We don't BELIEVE that a god exists, but we don't claim to KNOW that a god doesn't exist. So technically we are "agnostic atheists", where agnostic is addressing the question of knowledge, and atheism addressing the question of belief. What you are describing as atheism, is actually known as "gnostic atheism". Atheism is a single position on a single point - a lack of a belief in a god.

    When is comes to proof, it is not up to us to prove that god does not exist. Those who are making a claim that a god exists are the one's required to provide the evidence. I don't have to prove that fairies or big foot don't exist. If you claim big foot exists, you must provide sufficient evidence. I don't have to prove the non existence of big foot. Atheism is the default position, as with any claim. The logical approach is to not believe a claim until you have good reason to believe. If you are justified to believe, then you accept the claim.

    Also, I'm not stating this as an absolute in all cases, but an absence of evidence is generally a pretty good indication of evidence of absence. We have no evidence that an invisible pink unicorn exists. There never has been any evidence, and from what we know about the world and what science tells us, it probably doesn't exist. We can't claim that we KNOW it doesn't exist, as that would require knowledge of what exists in every part of the universe during all time. But because there is no evidence, we have no reason to accept the claim. So actually, in an example like that, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Because we are open minded though, if convincing scientific evidence did come along, we would accept it! We have open minds, but just not so open that our brains fall out.

    We don't believe in any claims of any intervening god or gods equally. None of the claims have a shred of evidence to support them. Again, we aren't claiming to know they don't exist, but we don't believe any of the claims. The burden of proof is on those making the claim. What you mention about other dimensions and parallel universes, it could be possible. But it could also be possible that there is a parallel universe full of red and yellow goblins, or another dimension where everyone are cowboys, in fact there are an infinite number of such "possibilities". But it's not reasonable to blindly believe that these do exist without having a shred of evidence.

    It is not at all just about atheists vs christians. It just happens that most of our interactions and groups we come across happen to be christians as they are the majority group, but we equally reject all religious claims based on lack of evidence. I can't speak for others, but personally I was brought up in a non religious family, but I am sure we have members who have left their religion.

    I recommend you check out our friends in Austin, Texas Wiki page called Iron Chariots. It is a counter apologetic website, and they address all of these points far better than I :)

    I especially recommend the atheist/agnostic discussion:

    Cheers, Rach

  4. Hi Mac,

    Some of us "know" that God does not exist in a same way we "know" invisible pink unicorns do not exist. I would not describe that "knowledge" position as arrogant. In a same way you can ask anyone "What are the things you know absolutely sure?"

    Hopefully we'll see you in one of the meetings...

  5. In response to the "Test drive your faith, drive with your eyes closed" bumper sticker, I think there are enough people who seem to drive with their eyes closed the way it is.

    (I guess that's why the "Good without god" sticker sold out first. I don't think there were any of those when I got there.)

  6. Yeah KCTMSC, we sold out of 'Good without god' stickers way before the 'Test drive' ones, which I was pleasantly surprised by. I was expecting that the 'funny' one would be the bigger seller as it would appeal to more of the crowd, but the fact that there was so much support for the 'GWG' ones tells me that there are so many people out there philosophically interested in what we are doing, which is better than 'doin it for the lulz' any day.

    Also, great reply, Rach. Hopefully if we keep plugging away at it, people will start to understand the actual definition of atheism and we can move on to the more interesting subject matter.

  7. Hi Mac,

    You're right- absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence.

    I think this point was driven home recently when Richard Dawkins, the arch priest of atheism, if you like, admitted that you can make a "strong case for a Deistic God".

    Keep in mind, of course, that this is the same guy who once claimed that the historical Jesus probably didn't exist, ie: He's ridiculously biased against religion to the point of total blindness. Virtually no serious historian believes that Jesus didn't exist*, so for someone who claims that reason and evidence are of ultimate importance to take that view seems rather ludicrous at best. to And from what I've heard recinded on this claim in his recent debate with John Lennox.

    Regarding your atheism in relation to the Christian God. A couple of questions. Is it an atheism against the Christian God you grew up with, or against the Christian God? Maybe if you probe deeper you'll find there's a difference. A lot of people grow up, for example believing that to be a christian, you have to believe the world is 6000 years old. Or you might have been taught that God wants what's good for you and that believing in him will bring prosperity. Or you might've had a bad experience with Christian people or Christian leaders.

    I've seen a lot of people walk away from faith for reasons such as these and I always challenge them to probe deeper, because if you do, you might find some simple truths.

    I don't mean to pigeon hole- so if your reasons are none of the above or nowhere near it then that's cool. But I find those are common reasons- people get a certain perspective of God and then find it to be false and give up. Perhaps there's another perspective to be considered.

    *Robert Price excepted. A few here are familiar with him ;-)

  8. OK thanks for those thoughts. I guess Ive just always misunderstood what the technical definition of atheism is. In essence the agnostic atheist believes theres no such thing as a "god", and thats because theres no convincing evidence for the existence of one even though, logically at least, the possibility remains. Somehow though, after looking up the definition of agnostic, I feel more comfortable with that term as the "default position" in regard to the existence of things for which there is no evidence , but which could never-the-less exist somewhere. I must say I do like the idea of the universe where everyone is a cowboy.

    As for my atheism about christianity,the version I reject is the basic one in the bible - you know: God made the world out of nothing, Adam and Eve, Noah,Job, Sodom and Gomorrah,Jesus born of a virgin, walking on water, loaves and fishes,crucifed and resurrected, sin and hell and damnation,getting saved,getting prayers answered....whatever. All that stuff that seems so absurd to anyone whose priests and parents didnt embed so much religiosity into their developing minds at a young age. I'm with Dawkins on that one.

  9. mac, I'm not with you there. I wasn't 'embedded with religiosity at an early age,' yet I no longer find it absurd. I grew up among atheists but was convinced as an adult by the evidence for the claims of Jesus. So belief in God isn't quite like belief in the tooth fairy; I certainly don't know any adults who 'converted' to the tooth fairy. It's a neat rhetorical strategy to say otherwise, but doesn't really advance honest discussion.

    Can I say kudos to Peter, who acknowledged the place of knowing in so-called 'agnostic atheism'. I've addressed the furphy of 'not claiming to know' while 'believing' elsewhere on this blog, but no one has engaged with the little problem in logic. 'Believing' and 'claiming to know' are logically equivalent. I'm afraid the Austin Atheists have done you a disservice - but I've met Sydney Atheists, and they're clever, resourceful people, so you can probably do better on your own.

    BTW, I've met Sydney Anglican Heretics crew online, and it was a most unpleasant experience. I can assure you that they're not so much rattled as gleeful that you had a bigger presence at the Festival than Anglican Christians.

  10. Oh, and good on you for caring enough to get out there.

  11. Mike,

    I would love to here your conversion story. Not to pick it apart, but to understand how a bright person such as yourself could be convinced. I would understand though if it's a private matter and not one that you want to share.

    Still waiting on that discussion about the historical Jesus as well. When you have time though - I undersatnd you have a busy job.

  12. Mac,

    I just wait for the evidence to present itself or for the followers of the gods to convince me.

    It seems to me that the problem starts at god(s) and defining what that word means and then going from there.

    If some one is claiming that a god exists they need to define for me what they mean by god first.

    To my reckoning the god presented in the Bible for example is clearly a historical/mythic fiction containing historical events, myth and legend.

    For others they seem to be able to take it at face value. It just does not convince me.

    What tends to happen though as he religious become more liberal is that the definition of god becomes more liberal and less concrete.

  13. Mike you say you were an adult when this conversion happened - you got saved did you ? - but didnt I read elsewhere that it happened at school?
    Like when you were a teenager - which is when most conversions occur as you would know. Quite apart from your age, the thing that Dawkins and I find so deeply suspicious about your "conversion"is that of all possible religions you got converted to the very one we would have predicted you would.

    And by the way your byline about looking forward to global warming bringing the surf closer to the inner west : not funny.At all.

  14. No, you're right, mac - I think I must have been 16 when I decided to become a Christian. Sorry - I use 'adult' as a shorthand as opposed to being brought up as a Christian from chilldhood.

    I'm curious that you'd consider my conversion suspicious. Suspicious how?

    Among other things, as an atheist wanting to understand what I disagreed with, I read the Quran and the Mahabharata. Then I read through some large sections of the Bible. Sure, I have a largely Western heritage, but I was brought up in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, the child of diplomats. Unusually for Western families, mine has several generations of atheists - there are no church-going grandparents in the closet, for example.

    I could just as easily suggest that it is 'suspicious' that someone living in a rampantly hedonistic materialistic society would choose to be an atheist. But I prefer to engage with the issues.

  15. Theres actually a huge difference between being an atheist and getting saved at 16. The atheist is saying I'm not sure what to believe but I'm pretty sure its not along the lines of there being some sort of god ie agnostic atheism that we agreed is what we're talking about here- in other words a position of openness about what reality actually might be. Mike on the other hand decided at the tender age of 16 that not only did god actually exist but, of all the possiilities that concept could include,he worked out that it conformed to the very narrow definition contained in the Bible. All the multitude of other possibilities were wrong and rejected before he was 17! Subject closed. Few of us would consider that we had the knowledge, or the experience or the maturity or even the time at that age to be able to make up our minds in such a concrete way about such a vast subject.

    And he wonders why I'm suspicious.

  16. I don't want to say it, mac, but 'well, duh!' Of course there is a huge difference being an atheist and a Christian. Only its not what you think it is.

    I've already posted here and here how the idea of 'agnostic atheism' is philosophically naive and logically flawed. There is no difference between religious - at least Christian - knowing and the claims of the atheist not to believe in a God.

  17. The pastor of my church also came from an atheist upbringing and became a Christian at 25 or 26. So did his wife, as they were already married. He's now a senior pastor in his early 40's.

    Mac, the ironic thing about what you're saying is that none of your comments actually serve as a good argument against the existence of any God, as you seem to be implying that they do.

    Jesus himself said that you need to "come to me with the faith of a child". Obviously, this is more difficult when you're a lot older. There's also plenty of biblical references to people being so caught in their sin that their hearts harden to the point of being unable to receive the good news of Jesus.

    So, you are right in saying in that the majority of religious believers "convert" at a relatively young age. But in contrast to the prevailing opinion that this somehow reduces God's power or the likelihood of his existence, I'd argue that in Christianity perhaps the opposite is true- because you can make a biblical argument that it would actually be the case.

    At the very least, it doesn't suggests what you think it does.

  18. Trav,

    Thanks for your insights. As you know, biblical arguments mean a lot to atheists.

    Did you know that Harry Potter was born a wizard, but he didn't realise it until he was eleven years old?

  19. Have a think about your logic there, you've made a massive error, Dave. Or rather, a massive logical error in the context of the discussion we're having.

  20. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn I've made an error.

    Please let me know what it is!

  21. Well, at the very least, I'm pretty sure I'm not fictional...

    {Warning: solipsism zone}

  22. Dave, my point was just that in the context of arguing against the biblical God, of course you need to consider the weight of biblical arguments (either for, or against). After all, where do we get all our positive and negative arguments about the biblical God from? The bible! And I've noticed you using scriptural quotes plenty of times, so to suggest that biblical arguments mean nothing to you would be a massive self contradiction.

    Btw, It was me who just posted the fundyatheist quotes in the other posts. Thought it might be funny to find out whether you guys really could be considered "fundyatheists". I hope not. Fundy atheists are about as rational and open minded as Amrozi etc.

    Another fundyatheist test which we can apply to this post:

    You might be a fundyatheist if you feel that Christians who Proselytize are "shoving their beliefs down people's throats", and that atheists who do the same thing are only trying to educate.

  23. "After all, where do we get all our positive and negative arguments about the biblical God from? The bible!"

    To clarify, I meant where we get our information from, and therefore we use this information to formulate positive and negative opinions and arguments about the biblical God.

  24. Trav,

    This is not about the biblical God but the real world.

    I know you think that the biblical God exists in the real world, but you have to persuade me that this is at least plausible before a biblical argument will carry any weight.

    Until then, I'd prefer not to discuss the biblical God. You see, unless it's true (and I don't think it is), the bible is just really bad fantasy fiction. At least the hero of the Harry Potter books is a likeable chap, unlike the Yahweh of the bible. The Harry Potter books are also internally consistent and, compared with the bible, pretty realistic.

  25. Except again, you've missed something- this whole discussion with mac was about whether the biblical God exists, because thats the only God he's explicitly rejected.

    If we didnt have the bible, there wouldn't be a "biblical God", would there!?

  26. I have indeed quoted the bible many times. Thanks for noticing.

    Most of the time, this is to demonstrate some inconsistency in a theist's position. Sometimes, though, I do it because I find the bible very funny. 2 Kings 2:23-24, for example, is one of the funniest things I have ever read.

    However, if you're talking about past events in the real world or the nature of the world in the present, the bible is not a good source, because it gets it wrong too many times, fails to provide evidence for it's rather spectacular assertions, and can't agree with itself without hermeneutic gymnastics.

    You threw a load of bible verses into a chat about why people start to believe outrageous superstitious claims. In that context you may as well have sung Slade songs.

  27. Trav,

    The Christian's claim is not that the biblical God exists in the bible. The claim is that Yahweh exists in the real world.

    In a discussion of whether Voldemort exists, we can refer to the Harry Potter books to determine what we might understand by 'Voldemort'.

    However, we can't use the Harry Potter books as evidence for the existence of Voldemort. We need to look at the real world to do that.

  28. You've just reminded me of something I read from JP Holding:

    "Having now been engaged in apologetics for eight years actively and more years than that on the side, I have long since come to a conclusion that I have shared with others, but will now present in a systematic form here for the first time. My conclusion is a warning that is appropriate for any new readers (hence I link this article from my front page) and will be familiar to veteran ones.
    I'll sum it up to begin: Whenever you run across any person who criticizes the Bible, claims findings of contradiction or error -- they do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. They have to earn it from you. Here's why.

    It doesn't take very long to realize that a thorough understanding of the Bible -- and this would actually apply to any complex work from any culture -- requires specialized knowledge, and a broad range of specialized knowledge in a variety of fields....

    Not even most scholars in the field can master every aspect -- what then of the non-specialist critic who puts together a website in his spare time titled 1001 Irrefutable Bible Contradictions? Do these persons deserves our attention? Should they be recognized as authorities? No, they deserve calculated contempt for their efforts. (By this, I do not mean emotional or behavioral contempt, but a calculated disregard for their work from an academic perspective.) They have not even come close to deserving our attention, and should feed only itching ears with similar tastes"

    But, to get back to your questions about the bible, lately I've come to realise that it all comes down to your view of biblical inerrancy. Any Christian who believes that the bible was literally written by the spirit of God, word-for-word and that every single word will therefore make perfect sense, is going to be bitterly dissapointed.

    The most ironic thing about that belief of course, is that the bible makes no such claims about itself even! Suffice to say, that isnt the view of biblical inspiration which I hold.

    But nonetheless, people wrote the books, people who are by the bible's reckoning very much imperfect, as humans. And of course not every fact is 100% correct, and there are difficult theological issues, but none of that reduces the awesomeness of the God whose actions are recorded in the books.

    I mean, little tangent here, but to give you an example of people being unreasonable in their expectation of the bible- recently I visited a site for fun, something like the 1001 bible contradictions listed above. Most of them were things like

    - In chronicles they listed 400,000 people. In another books they listed 450,000.

    And stuff like that. To which I answer "So what!?". Do you think they had census forms in those days or something!?!? LOL.

    Read Isiah 42 and Isiah 53, regarding the coming of a messiah. Pretty cool. Something tells me there was something more than human-intellect involved in that one.

  29. Trav, that's really interesting, thanks.

    However, it's the hermeneutic gymnastics I was referring to.

    It's ok for a Christian to think I deserve contempt for thinking the bible is a bad book. I wouldn't expect anything else.

    I also take your point on the nitpicking. If you ask me (as you did on Engaging Preachers) for examples of things the bible gets wrong, I'm entirely within my rights to point out that without ears, a snake is going to struggle to have a conversation.

    Nevertheless, you are correct to say that the fact that the bible thinks bats are birds is hilarious, but that error doesn't condemn the whole ediface.

    But my problem with Christianity is not the fact that the bible says hares chew the cud. I have a problem with the foundations of the whole faith. There is not a line in the Nicene Creed that I don't find atrociously wrong.

  30. I found the two passages of Isaiah you recommended (good job I can spell Isaiah!)

    I found them very beautiful indeed, but that of course doesn't make them true.

    I was also struck at how different the Jesus character in the gospels is to the messiah in Isaiah.

    Far from bringing 'justice to nations', the Nazarene is said to have stoked up civil unrest in a small middle-eastern backwater, ruled before and after by Rome. Nor did he succeed in establishing justice on Earth.

    And this part:

    I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles

    Doesn't really fit with the 'obey me or burn' message that the New Testament Jesus figure represents, does it?

    Disclaimer: just because I can entertain an idea, doesn't mean that I accept it. I still maintain that this is still a bad work of fiction.

  31. Mike Paget commented: "I've met Sydney Anglican Heretics crew online, and it was a most unpleasant experience. I can assure you that they're not so much rattled as gleeful that you had a bigger presence at the Festival than Anglican Christians."

    Mike, we feel like a spurned lover. You promised to come back to us and answer oue question but obviously you realised that it put you in a difficult position. Oh well, what's a little bit of intellectual dishonesty between lovers.

    BTW to your BTW, it wasn't that the Atheists has a bigger presence than the Sydney Anglicans at the Newtown Festival but that the big time evangelist Sydney Anglicans didn't have A presence there at all. Just imagine, all that time, money, wages and effort to get 09 up and running and they don't even get their act together and have a Christian stall. Now that was funny.