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10th World Atheist Conference — Tiruchirapalli, India
January 5, 2018 @ 10:00 am - January 7, 2018 @ 4:00 pm
The World Atheist Conference was held from 5th – 7th January 2018 in the city of Tiruchirapalli (also called Trichy informally) in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India; a different venue from the last two conferences I attended. The first thing I noticed was the large attendance compared to the last two events. Back in 2014, the crowd was barely a hundred, and now here I was — a part of about 500 rationalists and skeptics who claimed to be good without any god. Having such a visible number of activists present in one gathering in India is truly a sight that extremely few ever get to witness, since atheism is still a taboo in India.
Titled “Atheism — Hope for Humanity” the event was jointly organized by Dravidar Kazhagam, Atheist Centre, Vijayawada and The Rationalists’ Forum in the quiet town of Tiruchirapalli. After registering the larger than expected crowd due to last minute reservations, the conference kicked off at the Periyar Centenary Educational Complex.
The welcome address was given by V Anburaj, General Secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam, one of the first pioneer anti-Brahmanism, Dravidian political parties in the state of Tamil Nadu. This was followed by a presidential address by Dr. K Veeramani, the President of Dravidar Kazhagam and Dr. Lakshman Tamil from Periyar International, USA.
Soon after, Dr. Vijayam, the Executive Director of the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh spoke about the conference theme. Dr. Vijayam has been a familiar face to me personally as he organized the last two World Atheist Conferences. The introductory speeches talked about success in establishing an egalitarian-free society free from the belief in gods motivated by atheist organizations and philosophers.
Several atheist, freethinking and humanitarian books were inaugurated by guests present including Bhagavad Gita – Myth or Mirage by Dr. K Veeramani, March of Atheism by Dr. K Veermanai, Compilation of ‘Old Testament of Indian Atheism’ by Professor Surendra Ajnat, Essays on Matters which Matter (A Rationalist’s Perception) by S Rajaratnam and a republication of the 1928 and 1929 Compilation of ‘Revolt’ originally published by Periyar.
A large portrait was next unveiled paying tributes to Dr. Narendra Dhabolkar, an Indian rationalist and president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organization dedicated to eradicate superstition in the state of Maharashtra, Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician of the Communist Party of India, M M Kalburgi, the Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in the city of Hampi, and journalist turned activist Gauri Lankesh. All these martyrs had a lot in common — they were vocal critics of Hindu extremism and openly spoke against casteism either through political speeches, their writings, or via their journalist reporting.
Gary McLelland, the chief executive of The International Humanist and Ethical Union, London next spoke about the situation in India and how IHEU is assisting providing asylums to those in immediate danger and assisting NGOs working for such causes. Other speakers include Avinash Patil, Executive President of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Pune), Prof. Suba Veerapandian, General Secretary of the Dravidian Tamil federation and myself.
My speech on the behalf of Atheist Alliance International talked about how in 2017 we revamped our board and membership structures and have prioritized focus on helping affiliate organizations with campaigns, conferences, and advice on how to keep their organizations growing. Our website has also been updated, and so are our focus nations for 2018. After the success of a billboard campaign, we plan to launch a similar program in Africa again along with possible work in India towards spreading critical thinking skills and promoting skepticism.
After lunch, the session of attendees split into two different segments. Session I included Balwinder Barnala of the Taraksheel Society as the chair, an NGO dedicated to eradicating religious and supernatural superstitions focused in the state of Punjab. The moderator was Dr. G Samaram from Atheist Centre and included Dr. Sudesh Ghoderao from the Maharastra Andhrashradda Nirmoolan Samithi (Pune, Maharashtra).
This was followed by a speech on the threat of religious fundamentalists, their problems, and solutions by S Kumanrajan, the Chief Editor of Tamil Lemuria in Mumbai. The next speaker was Dr. R Gowthaman, the director of Periyar Medical Mission, who spoke about the correlation between medicine and atheism. An interesting perspective here stated that all medicine is essentially defeating the so-called fate of God, and science-based modern research is the most viable solution to humanity’s problems, not faith, prayers or rituals.
Meanwhile in a parallel session, the chair was Dr. Lakshman Tamil from the Periyar International, USA with Sambasiva Rao, the Treasurer of Manava Vikasa Vedika from Hyderabad as the moderator. Papers here included one on cows being more secure than humans in India today by A Arulmozhi, the Propaganda Secretary of Dravidar Kazhagam and a speech on the Dravidian movement in Malaysia by M Govindasamy, from the Malaysian Dravidian Association, Kuala Lumpur.
The evening session post-tea included a lecture on the history of ancient atheist movements in India with Dr. Veeramani, the President of Dravidar Kazhagam as the principal speaker and Dr. P Jagadeesan, the former Vice-Chancellor of Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirapalli introducing remarks. This was followed by a screening of a movie on Periyar.
The second day of the conference commenced with a tree plantation drive, where I had the honor to travel to the campus of Periyar Institute of Science and technology in Vallam, Thanjavur, on the outskirts of the city. The campus of the institute is picturesquely gorgeous, away from the city’s traffic and pollution and a welcome change from the busy metropolitan stress where I studied.
The day started with the welcome address by Dr. Devadoss, the CEO of Periyar Technology Business Incubator and an address by Dr. K Veramani, the Chancellor of the institute. Professor Narendra Nayak, founder of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations spoke on building scientific temper in students and children. The session included Professor Dhansewar Sahoo, the President of Odisha Rationalist Society and Raja Kennedy from the Rationalist Teacher’s Forum, Tamil Nadu. It was fascinating to learn that individuals go to underdeveloped areas to teach children critical thinking skills, even in a nation like India where any criticism of religion carries an actual threat to one’s life. Contrary to what I assumed, Narendra Nayak stated that the usual response is very positive, and locals are usually very receptive to such programs. Children are fast learners and if science, skepticism and critical thinking are presented in a kid-friendly method, the absorption of new information is enhanced.
The chair for the first session on the third day was Professor Dhansewar Sahoo, from Odisha Rationalist Society with the moderator Vikas Gora from the Atheist Centre, Vijayawada. The first speaker was G Olivannan, Vice President of The Rationalist’s Forum, speaking on critical thinking and free inquiry in education followed by a presentation titled Theism to Atheism by Chandma Majundar, an educationalist from Mumbai.
This was followed by more presentations of the works of Periyar, by V Kumaresan, Secretary of External Relations of Dravidar Kazhagam and Dr. Srinivasa Rao, a scholar of subaltern studies at Tiruchirapalli.
Winners of an essay writing competition organized a while back, received generous cash rewards and were next honored on-stage. After the concluding ceremony and informal communications, there was a secular celebration of the festival of Pongal.
In conclusion, the conference was a great opportunity for AAI to gain some valuable networking and discuss possibilities of starting a critical thinking project in India. For me personally, it was an opportunity to be inspired seeing a small part of my nation being so vocal about atheism, and for once, have a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded peers.
Credit: All images courtesy World Atheist Conference 2018