It was with some trepidation that I ascended the stairs to the function room of the Devereux pub for my first LAAG (London Atheist Activist Group) event. Not because I feared fellow non-believers but because I'm always nervous meeting new people. But would any even be there and would those that were speak to me? My bottle of Fentiman's wouldn't be company enough and it'd surely be poor form to stare at my phone or do a sudoku.
Not to worry. These atheists were of the friendly variety and I was pleased to see a good spread across the generations. Fiona, a retired lady, talked to me about Gresham college, Hildegard of Bingen, and the acoustics of Bloosmbury churches. Oly, a flaxen haired goth with an ankh necklace and an Eastern European accent I couldn't place, filled me in on LAAG protocol, the little of it there is, and others introduced themselves before Adrian, the 'leader', jovially took the chair.
Tonight's discussion was to be 'Is Tolerance To Blame for Religious Violence' and it soon became clear that that title had been chosen somewhat mischievously. After all, as discussed in my previous post, who could have a problem with tolerance? Cultural relativism may have been a better choice.
People took turns to talk and many, perhaps too many, subjects were covered. From ISIS (well, of course), kosher food, integration, the partition of India, the Armenian genocide, the regressive left, FGM, the enormous wealth of the catholic church and the surprising existence of a Liberal Democrat in Tower Hamlets. It was sometimes hard to keep track of where the conversation was going but it was, on the whole, engaging, informative, and occasionally fascinating stuff.
The debate ran for about two hours with a 15 minute or so break for drinks etc; - about the same as a game of football. The chair (or referee) did his best to let conversation flow but there were times when it was difficult to hear all the competing voices. There were also occasions when the conversation got bogged down in semantics and a few lazy anti-Americanisms were tossed into the mix for easy point scoring and cheap laughs. These were minor quibbles, however, in a well organised, genial evening that flew past.
Obviously nothing was decided and it's highly doubtful anyone left with any radically new perspective. I wonder if these things are simply glorified talking shops and I suspect, in many ways, they are. But what's wrong with that? Better to have the conversation than not and why not choose to talk to people you find interesting about subjects close to your heart?
Though there were no seismic shifts on my moral compass I heard opinions expressed in ways I'd not considered before and I was subjected to debate that asked questions and poked doubt at long held certainties of mine. Most of all I had a fun evening. I even laughed out loud. Will I go again? I bloody hope so.
Next month's talk is from Jon Stewart who is better known for standing behind Louise Wener in mid-table Britpop combo Sleeper. After the band finished he hit the booze in a big way before taking the twelve step program. He became disillusioned with Alcoholics Anonymous and their religious indoctrination before recovering his atheism. His talk is called Inside AA:Can A Non-Existent God Cure Alcoholism? It's on Wednesday March 9th. In The Devereux again. It's a lovely pub but if you think a room full of atheists is ungodly you should get a load of the stench in the gents.