Sunday, August 30, 2009

The losing battle for rationality in Perth

Tonight I went along to a meeting of a very new group here in my home city, called the Perth sceptics. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss the absurdities of religion, particularly the way over a third of schools here in Australia are private and quite religious - and are still somehow state funded. I also wanted to discuss how we discriminate between the plausible and poppycock, especially in relation to waterside hypotheses of human evolution.

The meeting was arranged at "The Flying Scotsman", a pub in Mount Lawley, a Perth suburb. It all sounded ideal for me. I arrived an hour early and had a quiet pint contemplating the state of the world and the merits of Cooper's Light Ale. Eventually, when the time came I asked the guy at the bar about where the room was that had been advertised to us all and was a little shocked when he told me that the room in question had not been booked and he'd never heard of any group called 'The Perth sceptics" or anything like it.

It was with some relief that, whilst hanging around outside the room I thought the meeting was supposed to be held in I met another chap that looked similarly puzzled. We ended up spending the best part of the next two hours having a fascinating chat about religion and the so-called aquatic ape theory which was, for me, perfect.

Eventually, the guy left and before I set off home I thought I'd try one more time to see if there was any other room upstairs where the meeting might have been moved to. Apparently the pub had a cocktail lounge around the corner so I went round there and met a bouncer on the door. I asked him "is this where the Perth sceptics are meeting?" He knew nothing about them either and told me that there was no-one up there. I almost turned back but thought "what the hell, let's go and have a look."

To my amazement, when I got upstairs I saw a room full of people (well about a dozen or so) and, sure enough, these were the Perth sceptics - about to leave after the meeting had finished!

Now, I don't want to criticise the organisers too much. When I got back home and re-read the email that had been sent out it did say that the meeting was in the room "velvet lounge upstairs." Even though the "velvet lounge" is not upstairs but downstairs, I guess I should have tried to find the room upstairs earlier anyway. I do think the people in the pub, though, could have been a little more "aware" of what was going on.

Anyway, who cares?... at least I made an initial contact with a few key people who were all very interesting and I also found out about another new group - called Perth atheists that meet at the same pub. Hopefully in the same room!?

But the real point of this rant is to describe what happened next, on the way home.

Before going onto that, let's just remind ourselves of a few facts. As far as I'm aware the Perth sceptics and Perth atheists are both very new and nothing like them existed before. Perth is a very new city but I think it's true to say there has not been a forum for people to discuss their disbelief in the 180 years that Perth has existed until very recently. In a city of 1.4m, just 14 people came along and, as we have seen, it wasn't flash - just a meeting in a pub.

Anyway, as I walked towards the city to catch the train home, I passed by a church - one of hundreds in Perth and, I suppose because I'd just spent a lot of the afternoon thinking and talking about religion, I became curious. I hadn't stepped in a church in years and only then for weddings or friends/relies christenings. I hadn't been to a mass in thirty years so i thought I'd see what I'd been missing.

Blimey. This was very different to my Catholic roots. Instead of a cold, formal sermon with a stiff priest talking Latin mumbo jumbo and alter boys all dressed up in their weird robes, this was more like a concert. On the stage was a full band comprised of cool young dudes. Behind them were about 14 screens (OK, 9 together made one big one in the middle, so technically just 5) showing close ups of faces and film clips and the words to the "hymns" like some super-duper karaoke bar. In centre stage was "Pastor Geoff" ranting on about God and Jesus and how important YOU are to THEM.

I listened at the back, shaking my head every now and then at the astonishing claims being made and couldn't help but mutter various "tut tuts" and other comments under my breathe. Eventually I could take no more and had to leave, putting my "goody bag" with it's expensive looking glossy programme and DVD featuring Pastor Geoff on one side. I tried to explain my reasons for walking out to one of the young staff there but it wasn't long before an older chief-pastor came along and very politely showed me the door. I tried to persuade him that it might be good if we organised a meeting where the younger members of his flock could be addressed by me and then by him, so that they got a fair and balanced view of the evidence for and against religion but he said "that's not going to happen" and closed the door on me.

Oh well. I tried.

As I walked away what started to sink in was the enormity of the problem. Just think how much money that church had invested in all that state-of-the-art equipment, the programs, the staff, the comfy seats, the smart sound softening walls, the band's equipment etc. At the start, after a heart string pulling rendition of "Give your heart to Jesus" or some other such sappy rubbish, the collection buckets went round the congregation which, I'd estimate, was at least 150 people. And this was just one church! Imagine how much cash is rolling in to places like this in the USA. Just think of all the tele-evangelists. All the state funded religious "charities" and schools and so on.

Is it just me that finds the disparity between the numbers of people and level of organization of believers and non-believers a little alarming?

Algis Kuliukas
30th August 2009

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