Ben points out that Karl Barth used to begin his courses with the atheism of Feuerbach, because he believed that until you had journeyed beyond the “God” constructed by Bourgeois conformists in their blindness and blandness, with their easy certainties, you could not begin to journey towards the Real Thing. Ben goes on to suggest:
Reflecting on my own teenage struggles in coming to faith, it took me a while to learn it was actually possible to doubt doubt itself — to achieve radical free thought, if you like. That’s the zone in which God’s reality first began reallly to dawn on me, rather than a Charismatic meeting or similar. I’m not saying there's any partcular virtue in that. It’s just the way the penny dropped for me. Perhaps, as Barth suggested, faith needs the astringent of taking atheism seriously (as it has since the Book of Job), to prevent itself from mushing down into mental idolatry. If so, genuine dialogue between sincere atheists and Christians could genuinely have as much to offer Christians as atheists.
The real test of the Convention will be its willingness to resist easy certainties, its capacity to accommodate vigorous difference and debate (I nearly said to accommodate doubt). I’ve attended many theology conferences, and most of the time you’d be hard pressed to find two people in the room who actually agree with each other. Unquestioning agreement and lack of argumentativeness are always sure signs that a tradition has stagnated. The purpose of a conference or convention is not to celebrate our sameness, but to join together in a shared project of intellectual inquisitiveness and exploration. The Atheist Convention will be a worthwhile event if it creates a space for this kind of inquisitiveness, if divergent views are seen not as departures from the party line but as opportunities for argument and discussion, if the mood is one of questioning and exploration rather than certainty and collective self-affirmation.
Above all, the Convention will be a success if it cultivates serious reflection and resists the cheap allure of slogans and marketing gimmickry. I wonder what Samuel Beckett would have thought of an atheism so easy and so confident that it can fit on the front of a T-shirt or the side of a bus. Atheism as a lifestyle choice – an atheism you can believe in. Frankly, I suspect Beckett would sooner have believed in God.