Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

Brisbane Atheist embarrasses fellow non-believers in lame stunt.

In Responses to the media, Science on September 13, 2010 at 2:09 PM

I think it fairly clear that we (humans that is), look at certain objects as representations of larger meanings, ideals, ideas, beliefs etc, despite what they are in practical terms.
I’m thinking here along the lines of flags, documents like our and other countries constitutions, historical documents as well as religious texts, paintings, photographs etc. They’re not necessarily ‘granted’ this symbolic relevance as much as it may be an association built over short or long periods of time and possibly become part of a larger culture/society/zeitgeist. For example, I’m unhappy that Charles Darwin’s house and lab in Kent, UK, has been denied world heritage status, yet for all intents and purposes it is just a house. Still to me it holds much more meaning in what it represents than it does in practical terms.

I don’t have strong feeling either way in regard to the Polish flag (I couldn’t pick it out of a line up to be honest), but I’m aware others such as Polish people for instance may, and I respect that.
Obviously I’m not talking about trademarks and such which I’m confident I’m quite ignorant, although I don’t think it’s a huge leap to suspect corporate logos and such are attempts at replicating the phenomena I’m clumsily describing.

Just today a local story started doing the rounds of local and now national print and web based media featuring a locally conducted book burning, filmed and posted on YouTube.
The Courier Mail headline reads

“Brisbane atheist and university lawyer smokes pages from the Koran and Bible in YouTube stunt”

The piece goes on to describe the 12 minute film by lawyer and Brisbane Atheists member, Alex Stewart, 29.
Obviously you should view the video yourselves and make up your own mind as to what Alex’s motivation may have been. That’s what I’ve been attempting and it seems to me at least that this protest or whatever it was supposed to be is nothing more than a plea for attention. It’s not terribly original, not terribly funny or not likely to be persuasive to anyone regardless of their beliefs. Worse still this video was posted on YouTube under the pseudonym of ‘CASEwithscience’ and the description read

“A scientific experiment seeking to establish whether the bible or koran will burn the best based on bayesian analysis of qualitative data.”

So this unfunny, waste of bandwidth annoys or offends some people, embarrasses others and brings unwelcome associations between atheism, science, faith, and my home state of Queensland where we already have more than enough pseudo-science without this. If that was the intent of the creator then well done and mission accomplished!

Please keep in mind I am highly biased against all forms of book burning unless it’s really freaking cold and you’re running out of options, otherwise I’ll most likely think the perpetrator a dick.

Jayson D Cooke

Related Posts:

Holy Smoke, Alex – Don’t be a Dick! – by Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

Hero or villain? Neither. He’s an idiot – By John Birmingham

One way holy books can alter your brain – by PZ Myers, Pharyngula

Offend the religious and you may lose your job – by Sean the Blogonaut

Burning Your Enemy’s holy book – By Russell Blackford – Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

  1. I object to your title, everyone that has posted on the Brisbane Atheists forum since this thing started has had nothing but support for Alex. The conversation on the Atheist Foundation of Australia website has tended that way as well. Atheists, it seems, enjoy making fun of religious zealotry.

    The fact that there was such a reaction to this video is first and foremost an indictment of the Australian media for making a big deal of something that, as your article correctly implies, is not even newsworthy. Furthermore the response from religious circles shows that we need more people like Alex doing similarly inflammatory things to thicken the skins of some of these ridiculous offense prone religious adherents.

    Religion deserves no special protection from public criticism, especially when it is intended to be humorous.

    • Hi Ryan,
      What I have seen in conversations from Atheist Foundation of Australia members and others on facebook and other groups did cover a spectrum of views, but I did not notice any tending towards support, keeping in mind I haven’t checked out the Brisbane Atheists Forum. The timing so soon to the nonsense in the U.S. is far from incidental. I really don’t believe that what we need is more of the same, particularly as no-one is particularly pleased with the result of this stunt. We ridicule others for relying on stunts and tactics like this to get attention, and I do believe believe we’re right to do so.

      Was this meant to be a public criticism of religion? I also saw no indication it was meant to be humorous.

      • Jason, I thought the idea of the video was to ridicule the burn the koran day AND ridicule the sensitivity of the Muslims to it. Maybe Alex should also have burnt a page of The God Delusion to make the point more clear?

        The problem may be that the video on you tube had no context and Alex did not make the context clear.

        Also, why do you care about flags? They are a symbol representing a community. So what. They aren’t magical artefacts, there is no such thing. If someone intends to insult you why give them permission by attaching significance to some material object that its within their rights to break?

      • Hi Danny,

        You and I share the belief that there are not magical objects and you may be surprised to find that many people who are not happy with Alex’s stunt also don’t believe there are magical objects, or at least that the books he burnt are not magical.

        There are many things Alex could to make his point clearer, but he did not do them and it’s much to late to change that now.

        This is why I talked about flags; I was attempting to point out that objects can have meaning and significance to people, without having to be considered magical. Also I’m not saying, nor have I heard anyone else saying that Alex was not within his rights to do what he did, he clearly is. What I am saying is that in my opinion as a Skeptical and Humanist activist, an amateur science communicator and a fellow Queenslander and atheist, is that what Alex did was stupid, dangerous, ill conceived, ill timed, not funny, not enlightening, vague on message, boring to watch and worst of all has now tarnished by association Atheism, Science, New Atheism and all those that are actually working to contribute to the realization of a truly secular society here in Australia.


  2. Why do people still follow superstitious religious scriptures when the dark ages are already end?

    • Hi Albert,
      If you’re expecting one easy answer you’re not going to be pleased. It seems the answers to that question are as varied and complicated as people themselves. There are heaps of great books on the subject of the Psychology of Religion, but most likely also some terrible stuff, so I’d advise to do some research before spending big.

  3. I wonder why religious people change NOTHING in the last 2000 years even they tried hard daily.

    • What does

      “changed NOTHING in the last 2000 years even when they tried hard daily”


      • they are pray from morning to evening but they never give up bad habits (hate, greediness, jealousy etc.)

  4. Jayson – well said.

    Ryan – not so much. This is opportunistic, populist egotism under the thin veil of freedom-of-speech pro-atheism. In terms of outcomes this will have a polarising and inflammatory effect that serves no good purpose. Also, the appeal to popularity fallacy is one of the worstest ones.

    There are much more constructive, intelligent and effective ways to undermine the validity of religion and dogmatic religious beliefs. There is nothing wrong with being subversive nor humourous, but this example was simply stupid. On entirely personal level he’s putting himself and his family at risk of death, and in the more abstract context he’s doing nothing to further the cause of atheism – in fact I would suggest that it’s entirely counter-productive

  5. It’s certainly no coincidence that Alex posted this now. It’s definately a reply to what has been happening in Florida over the last couple of days (which is ridiculous anyway, that nutter Fred Phelps has been burning Korans for years). That said I don’t think he did this for attention, he had plenty of that already, and the attention he’s getting at the moment is mostly the undesirable kind.

    It’s plain to see from watching the video that Alex didn’t intend this to be a stunt. I guess he thought he was just going to annoy a few YouTube evangelists. When he expressed at the end of the video what you might call the Dawkinsian view on offending religious sensibilities (i.e. who really cares?), he really believed it. I think it was meant to be a call for religious people to lighten up.

    If Alex didn’t intend for the video to be humorous he could have done it like PZ Myers did a couple of years ago with the communion wafer, instead he rolled it up and pretended to get high.

    As far as support goes, our little group (Brisbane Atheists) has experienced a small surge in membership over the last day. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that those atheists support Alex’s actions. I hope you don’t mind, but there’s the URL of the discussion on our forum, read it if you don’t believe me.

    Brisbane Atheists

    Brisbane, AU
    696 Atheists

    Meet other local atheists & freethinkers for monthly meetings, conversation & friendship! Discuss atheism-related beliefs & philosophies with fellow atheists &consider spiritu…

    Next Meetup

    Discussions With Those Of Faith

    Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:30 PM
    0 Attending

    Check out this Meetup Group →

  6. Cheers Jesse.
    Does this really make it worthwhile? What is a growth in membership of one group in one city. compared with the negative outcomes? Think bigger, as we all know there is more at stake than one city’s small community group (of which I’m already a member).

  7. […] Brisbane Atheist embarrasses fellow non-believers in lame stunt – by Jayson D Cooke […]

  8. I am not embarrassed, I understand that people fear consequences and I’m sad to say that expression still is allowed to excuse retribution.

    Perhaps we do have to grow a spine and say no to that. But we still leave a world were that is dangerous. So will we have one guy hang out to dry because he made an unpopular expression?

    And will we allow that certain texts, certain opinion are holier than others?

    Will we want that in order to have ones viewpoint be protected, one just has to muster a large enough violent mob, so that it’s safer to blame the one who speaks than the mob that chooses(!) to react.

    Yes there are larger meanings. And humanity has made progress when the larger meanings were questioned rather than accepted.

    Tolerance is a two-way street and so is respect. Will Stewart get respect? Or will be be treated like skeptics throughout history who dared to probe the boundary of what is permissible in a non-violent way? And where should we stand? Disown and run or at least consider that indeed there is a principle here by which one can stand and still embrace all religions as part of our (hopefully) open pluralistic life. A life open enough that even outright critics of religion are allowed to be.

    • Hi Hitch,

      The one guy I’m clearly leaving out to dry, is not in any harm as far as I can see, is 29 years old and of sound enough mind to get himself into this mess all by himself.

      Any retribution is in no-way excused and anyone who says otherwise is even less familiar with Australian Law than I am. Fortunately Alex is a lawyer so he’ll already have a heads up.

      Also I’m not in anyway shape or form saying that certain texts or certain opinion are holier than others, clearly that’s not my opinion. I do think that some objects do hold more significance to some people than others, and that is all this is about. The object doesn’t need to be magical or holy, just significant to someone on a human level.

      To compare Alex Stewart’s actions to those of “skeptics throughout history who dared to probe the boundary of what is permissible in a non-violent way” seems bizarrely self congratulatory. He is not a martyr for reason here, just a guy regretting a dumb decision.

      Yes tolerance is a two way street. People from both faith based and secular worldviews have shown repeatedly that they do not appreciate book burning or deliberate pointless provocations. To describe this debacle as merely a criticism of religious is to seriously miss the point of all of this, as well as to seriously disparage the reputation and work/s of anyone and everyone who does regularly criticize religion, Alex and me included.


  9. Non-religious people must have the same right as religious people.

  10. I also object to your title, though not to the content of your article (with which I wholeheartedly agree). Please don’t use ableist language like “lame”. Just like saying that something bad is “gay” is not appreciated by those who are homosexual, disabled people do not appreciate being used colloquially as a term that denotes something undesirable.

    • Hi Y,

      I had absolutely no idea that the word “lame” was still used to catagorise people with some form of disability, but you are spot on(although a quick Google search shows me it’s also some sort of MP3 encoder.

      A quick look on shows three possible usages. The first is ironic as I’m still recovering from three torn ligaments in my left foot, effectively leaving me lame according to definition 1.
      1. Disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible: Lame from the accident, he walked with a cane. A lame wing kept the bird from flying.

      While my gait until quite recently could be described as lame according to definition 2.
      2. Marked by pain or rigidness: a lame back.

      However in terms of the title of this post, I was unequivocally using the third of the three definitions given;
      3. Weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory: a lame attempt to apologize; lame excuses for not arriving on time.

      No offense was meant at all and I apologise whole heartedly for any perceived/experienced anxiety caused.

      Jayson D Cooke

  11. Whether you agree with what he did or not, don’t you think the reaction it got was way over the top? For burning two pages he is likely to lose his job and is being hammered by the media.

    How about an article about the complete absence of christian charity being shown the christians who are calling for his head?

    What we are witnessing is yet another example of hysterical religious hypersensitivity and a man’s life is being ruined as a result of it. Alex Stewart deserves our support, not condemnation.

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