Even though you know you’re going to be meeting up with the likes of Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Laurence Krauss, it is still a bit of a shock when they all show up in a room at the same time.

Last weekend I was at the second Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. It’s a great chance to hear some excellent speakers, meet up with other atheists, and participate in a growing community of smart people.

Not much was happening on Friday, so as a faculty helper for the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society, I tagged along to the Student Leadership Conference. There were talks on organising and running a student freethinking group, and even how to do good stuff with religious clubs (which is something I’d like to do more of).

Which is how I found myself having cocktails with the aforementioned gentlemen. Richard Dawkins appeared in a puff of logic just to my left, and I roped him into a chat with a group of Perth atheists. You might think Dawkins would be rather brittle in conversation, but he was lovely and engaging, and quite happy to chat. I told him that I’d just finished reading his book “The Magic of Reality” aloud to Youngest Son, and he seemed pleased about that.

The substance of the talks:

  • Lyz Lidell of the Secular Student Alliance explained the importance of delegating in a student group: You can’t do everything yourself, and you won’t be around forever. That means you need to break the group’s tasks in manageable units, find volunteers, take the time to train them to do what needs to be done, and show your appreciation to your wonderful volunteers.
  • Debbie Goddard gave a brief history of the Center for Inquiry on Campus.
  • Chris Stedman gave suggestions on how and why to work with religious groups.

Why should we work as part of an interfaith effort? According to Stedman, it’s because we as atheists get a bad rap, and we get marginalised. By working together with religious groups, we can challenge misconceptions about atheism and accomplish some good.

He also gave some suggestions as to how to work with interfaith groups: work together on shared causes and values, and have mutual respect within a “mutually inspiring” relationship. This last one is a problem for me. I don’t feel ‘inspired’ by other people’s faith; I actually feel repulsed, or like I’m working with a hazardous substance. But that’s okay — I can work with people I disagree with, and I often do. I just think it should be clear from the outset that any ‘interfaith’ service project is a joint effort, operating from shared values — not religious, not atheistic, just human.

All up, a good start to the conference.