Interview With Average Atheists #SSAWeek

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This is an interview with Matthew McArthur of the new Australian group, Average Atheists.

I noticed the Average Atheists group pop up recently on Twitter, and asked for more information as to what’s involved. Some links for further reading:


Kylie Sturgess: Firstly, what’s the “Average Atheists” about? How did it start?

Matthew McArthur: Average Atheists is just an idea we’re trying out to see if the dialogue between atheists and theists can get off the blocks at a grass roots level.  So much of the dialogue to date has occurred between the celebrity heavy hitters on both sides.  Richard Dawkins and Alistair McGrath. Aayan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan.

There is a lot of lip service given to communicating about ideas, but not much actually happening outside the elite circles beyond the members of each group speaking to itself.  Most of the interface at a community level seems to be happening in Facebook and Twitter, with all the flame war potential that comes with dealing with lines of text on a screen instead of actual people.
The idea for Average Atheists first came up at the 2010 GAC when many attendees showed they could hold their own in discussions about the issues at hand every bit as effectively as the people on stage.  I wanted to find a way to give people unlikely to be invited to speak at a GAC the opportunity to have their say.  Average Atheists is the third idea I cooked up with a couple of friends.  The others are on the back burner while we give this a nudge to see how it goes.

Since we got the ball rolling on Average Atheists I’ve been made aware of other people in Australia employing a similar idea, taking secular speakers into individual churches, and a book initiative seeking to capture a broader swathe of atheist thinking than previous works have managed.  Perhaps giving voice to common or garden atheists is an idea whose time has come.

Kylie: What are some of your goals – I noticed that you’re holding lectures at Embiggen Books?

Matthew: The key goal is to show theists that the conclusions reached by the famous atheists with books on the best sellers lists can also be reached by the people they work and socialise with.  I want to demonstrate that being an atheist is not an ivory tower, elitist position.

Secondly, I want to randomise the selection of speakers from a pool of potential candidates to demonstrate that the average atheist can make a coherent case for their position and ideas.  Giving the speaker selection over to a roll of the dice risks getting some Koran burning idiot at the lectern, but I am confident the average vocal atheist is not going to be embarrassing to stand near.  My interactions with vocal atheists online and in various real world projects suggest the book burning fascist atheist is either vanishingly rare, or an agent provocateur trying to stir up self gratifying trouble in an atheist forum.

Third, I am keen for as many vocal atheists to write their presentation as possible, whether they can attend an event or not, or even if the thought of speaking in public makes them feel ill.  Writing my five minute spiel forced me to focus on my goals as a secular humanist in a way I haven’t done before.  It crystalised some things for me and made it easier to think clearly about how to best go about achieving those goals.  I think there’s merit in getting more people to focus on and write down their goals, even if it never gets so much as posted online somewhere.

Kylie: What do you think are some of the issues facing atheists in Australia?

Matthew: That question is most easily answered by linking to the talk I would give if my number came up in the selection process (!  But there are many topics I didn’t cover in any detail that others might see as most pressing.  Equality issues, reproductive rights, bodily sovereignty, dying with dignity, fairness in taxation, intereference in legislation, infiltration into education, the naffness of Christian Rock.  I can’t tell other people what their presentation should be about without negating the goal of the event – giving a random cross section representation of what atheists think about and how they think about those things.

Kylie: What has been the response so far to your group – when’s your next event?

Matthew: There has been a lot of praise for the idea, but the number of potential speakers in the pool after a month of trying to get the word out is not where I thought it would be.  Based on the vox pops I filmed at the 2012 GAC I thought I would have trouble even keeping track of the willing candidates, but the process has been more a trickle than a flood.  I am hoping the positive feedback the idea got when first discussed will turn into more speakers in the month leading up to selection day on the 1st of June. I set that a week ahead of the June 7th event so the people speaking at Embiggen Books have a week to fine tune their presentation or get together for a practice if anyone wants some help getting over their nerves.

The theists invited to make up the audience so far have been cautiously enthusiastic. Some asked if the religious would have equal time to respond.  I’m not against the idea, but would require an equivalent randomisation from a pool of potential speakers be employed, and I don’t know if any religious contingent shares my confidence in the calibre of the average vocal member of their demographic.

If things go well at Embiggen Books I hope to use the same model to stage similar events in collaboration with individual religious institutes, or in larger venues.  If enough people throw their hat in the pool, to mix metaphors, we could spread the load and reach quite a large audience, but that’s something to think about in the after match debrief.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Matthew McArthur

    Proof of concept: it went well.
    You can make a random selection of garden variety atheists and hear substantive, humanitarian ideas expressed sincerely. No book burning rhetoric, no anti-theistic sentiments, just five voices speaking to desires for the future of Australian society.
    With one speaker ill and one a no-show, I read two pieces. One from Marnie Simpson, who couldn’t attend, being crook, and one from an anonymous contributor who is unwilling to make their atheism public due to concerns regarding their employment. Both were well written and thoughtful, and even had the evening been a complete dud, getting these people’s ideas crystalised to that extent would seem worthwhile to me. I recommend the exercise to anyone who wants to see a change in the way religion affects their community in their lifetime, as it makes the verbs show up clearly.
    Four of the presentations covered very similar ground, and while this redundancy of message could be considered dull for an audience, I came away from the evening with the message that average atheists are independently able to come to the same central conclusion and to express it well – people are free to believe what they like, but not to impose the outcomes of those beliefs on those who do not share them.
    The hardest part of getting this event together was sourcing the audience. The size of the venue had me concerned that an open invitation could see us swamped, so I sent out invitations asking for a handful of representatives from each major religion and denomination represented in the Melbourne community. In spite of lip service given to a desire for dialogue, few theists were eager to hear from average atheists. Some of those I approached have written or spoken at length about what atheists are and what they want, but did not even return emails or phone calls about an event which could offer them direct access to the people their words attempt to characterise. Accounting for apologies given for illness and other hurdles to attendance, only a third of those who agreed to attend actually turned up, leaving the theists in the audience outnumbered by the atheist speakers and their friends. Happily, the presentations led to discussions I would like to see carried forward with the congregations represented. Sadly, the congregations represented are probably those least likely to be surprised by what they heard on the night, but it’s a start, and I’m happy with that.
    Events in other cities? An event in a larger venue with an openly advertised invitation? Events with different religions, or denominations within a religion? We’re open to ideas.
    I am tremendously grateful to the atheists who spoke, to those atheists
    who wrote their piece but weren’t selected or could not attend, to the
    theists who attended, to the theists who were enthusiastic about the
    project but could not attend, and to Warren and Kirsty at Embiggen
    Books, for making the beautiful, book filled space they’ve created
    available for the evening.
    The audio recording of the presentations
    will be made available after I get back from a weekend away with family.
    I also look forward to taking Warren up on the offer to put the
    presentations up on the Embiggen Books blog for further discussion.