Jonathan Meddings is the Queensland State Convener of the Freethought University Alliance in Australia, President of the James Cook University Society of Atheist Philosophy, Head Coach of the North Queensland Fencing Association and member of the Humanist Society of Queensland.
He studies Medical Laboratory Science Honours at James Cook University and his research involves serology and haematology in freshwater turtles.
His writing includes contributions to the Young Australian Skeptics and those of his own blog The Carapace. He is currently writing a book about atheism which he aims to have completed by the end of 2011.
Jonathan was kind enough to spend some time talking with me about atheist activism.
Q. How did you become involved in atheist activism?
A. I first read The God Delusion in 2007 during a trip to Malaysia. Dawkins had reaffirmed my atheism by supporting it with valid arguments. Over the next couple of years I continued reading books by the likes of Hitchens and Harris and found that the arguments supporting atheism far outweighed those supporting religion; although I didn’t really become active about my atheism until March of 2010, when I attended the Global Atheist Convention. It was the largest gathering of atheists in history as I understand it. Meeting so many other atheists there who were doing so much inspired to get involved. I also had the opportunity to get my copy of The God Delusion signed by Dawkins which was nice, even though I waited in line for nearly two hours.
Q. Did you finally get to meet him?
A. I had enough time to congratulate him on his talk before being ushered away by security trying to keep the line moving.
Q. As a movement, atheists are generally described as notoriously difficult to organize. It is often likened to trying to herd cats. How do you get atheists involved and working together toward a goal?
A. This is something I have experienced as President of an atheist club. I think it is fair to say that atheists are generally individuals and freethinkers whereas the religious follow a group mentality and are more like a herd of cattle or sheep. I am not sure how to go about organizing atheists, but I think if they see that we are acting to create positive change they will get on board.
Q. Tell our readers about your organizations and your blog The Carapace. What would you like them to know?
A. Well I run a club at my university called the Society of Atheist Philosophy and I represent the Freethought University Alliance for my state. The Freethought Alliance is a coalition of atheist, humanist, secular and skeptic groups from around the country. I started The Carapace after attending the Atheist Convention and meeting scientists and skeptics who are also bloggers like PZ Myers and Kylie Sturgess. Before that I didn’t really know what a blog was to be honest.
Q. Australia has an openly atheist PM, whereas the U.S has an unspoken religious test for holding our highest political office. What political challenges do you see ahead for atheists in Australia?
A. Well, I think it is important to note that while our Prime Minister is an atheist one of her first acts of office was to ensure over $200 million dollars to fund the school chaplaincy program. In addition, she remains opposed to gay marriage. I think it has less to do with one’s religion or lack of religion and more to do with whether or not one has the courage to hold to personal convictions in the face of political pressure from the religious right.
Q. Do you have a favorite public skeptic or atheist? Someone who has inspired you?
A. As someone involved in science I enjoy the work of Dawkins, Myers and Harris. I find that my views in particular are very much aligned with those of Harris.
Q. And how do you find your views are in line with those of Harris?
A. I like the way he has approached the problem of Islam and is going where few others have dared by discussing science and morality.
Regarding Islam I think he and I are very much on the same page. It is sad that people usually misunderstand what people like Harris and I are trying to say and instead label us as racists or xenophobes. However, although I cannot speak for Harris, I think we both understand the difference between Muslims as people who identify with the religion of Islam and Islamists who follow the political ideology of Islam.
It is an important distinction to understand because although all Islamists are Muslim, not all Muslims are Islamists. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with Muslims who say that Islam is a religion of peace though – and I don’t. Having looked at Islam objectively I find it is more of a political ideology than a religion and that at best it can be called little more than a religion of hate. In my view the Islamists are following the objectively true Islam.
It seems to me that there is no such thing as religious moderates, only moderates who wrongly consider themselves religious, and this is especially true in the case of Muslims. I am not saying that there aren’t moderates out there who hold some religious views. I just think it reaches a point where one is ignoring so much of what their religion teaches that they either have to start a new religion or stop identifying with their current one.
Q. A hot topic in the atheist movement is how best to engage religious people in dialogue and how tolerant or accommodating of religion we should be. What are your thoughts on this?
A. Well that is a tough one. I think if people are reasonable you should try to reason with them. If they are unreasonable though you are just wasting your time, because you can’t reason someone out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. For example I really don’t think you could have a reasonable discussion with a creationist. It reaches a point where some people are just so ignorant that when you talk to them it is like you are speaking a different language, which suits them just fine seeing as they don’t care what you have to say anyway, they have already made up their minds, which remain very much closed to rational discussion.
Q. As a researcher and someone involved in science, what are your thoughts on the current state of science education in Australia and/or the U.S.? Do you feel like science education and rationalism are related and if so, how?
A. Well in my experience as a science and a research student we tend to teach science students what science has discovered, and ignore actually teaching them the scientific method. The result is that you get students who have good scientific knowledge but lack scientific intelligence. To explain that — I always say knowledge is what you know and intelligence is how you know it. That is the difference between someone who studies science and someone who is a scientist, the former can tell you a lot of scientific facts and the latter can explain them. Frankly it worries me that I know people who get to the end of their science degrees without even being able to distinguish between the general public’s definition of a theory and a scientific theory.
To answer the second part of your question — I think that all types of education should be based on rationalism, which is simply using reason and evidence to justify your conclusions, as the scientific method does. This is why creationism shouldn’t be allowed in schools. There is simply no evidence supporting it. That is why creationism cannot be taught, only preached.
Q. What are your future plans for atheist outreach?
A. Well I am in the middle of writing a book which I aim to have finished by the end of the year. I plan to keep blogging and working with the Society of Atheist Philosophy and Freethought University Alliance. I’m also currently trying to organize an atheist art exhibition to involve artists who are willing to create and display art with atheist themes. Through the Society of Atheist Philosophy I am also organizing an event on campus so people can bring their Bibles and other holy books and trade them in for sex toys, lubes and condoms. We would trade pornography but my state has strict censorship laws about that.
Q. Lastly, what is your favorite dessert?
A. That’s an easy one. My favorite dessert is Poffertjes, which are little Dutch pancakes. They are typically served with syrup but I like them with lots of chocolate sauce.