This past weekend, I took a twelve hour car ride from Chicago to Washington, DC in order to attend the Reason Rally, advertised by its organizers as the largest gathering of secular Americans in our nation’s history, a turning point for the movement, the massive, unavoidable statement that would make politicians on Capitol Hill and Americans at large take notice of the nonbelievers that live amongst them, and begin to view atheists as not a group to despise, but one to be accepted, in the same sort of way that the larger number of comings-out amongst queer peoples have resulted in greater, if certainly not complete, acceptance. More hyperbolic and embarrassing spokespeople, for instance American Atheists president Dave Silverman, dubbed it the “Woodstock of atheism.”
This kind of rhetoric quite simply puts me ill at ease, and so ever since the rally was announced and plans were made by friends in Chicago to go, I had been hemming and hawing about attending. The speaker list was always amazing; Paul Provenza was the MC, and the list included favorite people of mine like Greta Christina, Jamie Kilstein, Jessica Ahlquist, Tim Minchin, PZ Myers, Taslima Nasrin, and the man whose involvement finally convinced me to go, Eddie Izzard. But I was still concerned with the overall message; I did not want the rally to be some religion bashing fest or a massive wanking fest of how great and smart we are because we don’t believe in God, and if that’s what it was going to be, I really did not want to sit in a car for 24 hours over three days to deal with that.
Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. There were certainly speakers who parroted those things I’ve mentioned, Silverman, United Coalition of Reason director Fred Edwords, and R. Elisabeth Cornwell, the Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. being the notable examples. Cornwell in particular made me uneasy; she started out excellently, with very strong, feminist rhetoric in relation to the Republicans’ war on women. However, she chose to devolve her talk into a rah-rah, chant slogans at Capitol Hill type of thing. A bit too religious and moblike for me, thanks.
The messages from most of the speakers, though, were positive, and more importantly, the most powerful and impressive speakers were the ones who made calls to action for the movement, for development, for atheists to begin looking beyond the movement’s established paradigm of veneration for reason, rationality, science, and historical religion bashing into a more learned, informed, political frame of mind. Jamie Kilstein exemplified this. Jamie is a standup comedian and co-host of Citizen Radio, a superb independent progressive political podcast, and someone who I’ve always been a fan and supporter of. His talk at the Rally, though, was like no one else’s. In his trademark million-words-a-minute style, he spat absolute fire for ten minutes about homophobic Republicans, closeted gays and atheist teenagers, the misogynistic assholes on Reddit who made horrible comments towards a girl with a Carl Sagan book, and the need for the movement to get political, to engage with other progressive movements, for us ever to be accepted. I was honestly surprised at the response to him; he does not mince his word, and made a fair share of borderline comments (borderline for a mainstream crowd, not necessarily for you and me, dear reader), but he got an overwhelming round of applause.
Greta Christina has written often on the accusation made by many who are not atheists against us that we are just too angry; she presented the reasons why. She laid out a laundry list of things; the fact that her marriage is recognized in only 8 of 50 states in the union, the Catholic church’s insistence on preaching against contraception even when a person’s basic health requires it, that politicians in America are currently engaged in a war against women’s bodies and their autonomy over them. The only proper response to the mountain of injustice and oppression that currently exists, a huge portion of which is directly propagated and endorsed by organized religion, for Greta, is to be angry, and to do something about it. As usual, I can’t really find anything to argue with her about. Complacency in such circumstances as we live is immoral, unethical, and inexcusable.
Also, I can’t really put it into words, but Tim Minchin was just absolutely fucking brilliant. If you don’t know his music, I must implore you to check him out. He absolutely brought the crowd to its knees, especially, for me, with his performances of Confessions (dedicated to the amazing Rebecca Watson) and Storm. I cannot wait to see him perform again.
One of the biggest surprises, for me anyways, was the talk by Sean Faircloth, the Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. I was not particularly familiar with him before the rally, aside from some sexist comments and quasi-MRA excuses that he made at an American Atheists conference.. However, both of them were impressive for the same reasons mentioned previously; Faircloth encouraged massive political engagement, not just in terms of voting, but of more secular people running for office in order to make actual change and not just propagate the current clusterfuck that is American government. Now, given his past conduct, and also his history as a legislator within the current political system, I’m not here to declare that he’s some kind of radical, or the kind of feminist or activist that I want within the movement. But, here, the message was right, I think, and I’ll take any small victory I can get from the old guard of this movement. It gives me hope that maybe even they can change, though my skepticism remains strong.
All in all, a little over 20,000 people attended the rally, and I can only hope that this message sank in. As Greta points out, if even half of the attendees go back home to wherever they are from and start a group, strike up a relationship with their local representatives, run for the city council or something in this vein, then the Reason Rally will have been a massive success. The first part of this movement consisted of community building, of finding likeminded people in a country where nonbelief is reviled more than any other viewpoint, and creating safe spaces for atheists to gather, to talk, and most likely, drink heavily. This is all well and good, and must continue, for there are undoubtedly many people in America who are not yet out as nonbelievers for one reason or another. However, now that we have a foothold, it is time to move forward and begin engaging with society, not just sitting by the sidelines and scoffing at it all. Intolerance, bigotry, and absurdity must be fought up close and personal if it is to be defeated; it will not go away if we just ignore it. An activist secular movement won’t be feeding the trolls; it will be driving them back into their caves for good.
The Reason Rally, despite its small missteps, could be the signalling moment for this shift; I sincerely hope that the messages of Jamie, Greta, Jessica Ahlquist, PZ, et al are carried back and put into practice all across the United States.