By Tyson Gill.
Over the years I have attended a fair number of rallies for various progressive causes. Many frankly left me feeling kind of disheartened and embarrassed. They were often a circus of special interests with everyone vying to draw attention to their own pet causes and showing no apparent interest in the subject of the rally. Those events displayed none of the unity and solidarity necessary to garner the political attention that they desperately needed to achieve their collective goals. They instead proved that we were too laughably fractured and fragmented to be taken seriously.
Though the turnout was disappointingly low compared to 2012, the 2016 Reason Rally made me feel proud to be an Atheist. It was inspirational and entertaining. The speakers were intelligent, engaging, funny, and on-message without being scripted in lockstep. The crowds were diverse and enthusiastic. There were no subgroups waving banners and shouting for women’s rights, choice, gay rights, or climate change. To be sure, the speakers spoke passionately about all these important issues, but they clearly recognized as did the audience that religion is the common enemy inhibiting progress in all of these areas and that Atheism is their common solution.
One of my favorite parts of the rally was chuckling at all of the clever Atheist slogans on the hats, t-shirts, and signs. All were sensitive but direct, nerdy and funny but powerful. All displayed pride in their Atheism. It is significant that the vast majority of these accoutrements did not say “freethinker” or“secularist” or “agnostic.” Most of them proudly embraced the label of “Atheist.” Even more significant is that the speakers did not try to skirt around Atheism as I feared they might at a “Reason Rally.” Quite the opposite, every speaker largely embraced Atheism in a completely unapologetic and unabashed manner. It was not a stealth “Atheist” rally. It was an overtly Atheist rally. We have clearly come out of the closet. Hopefully a tipping point has been reached and many more “secularists” will follow.
That is not to say I was completely happy with the speakers. Larry Decker, President of the Secular Coalition, along with some others, made what I thought were incoherent pleas for respecting religion. On the one hand they proclaimed how dangerous religious beliefs are, but then on the other tried to chide us into respecting religious beliefs. Unfortunately we cannot have it both ways. I understand that Larry is endeavoring to build partnerships with religious organizations, but it is difficult in practice to condemn “bad” beliefs while simultaneously respecting all beliefs. We may pick and choose “nice” beliefs that we feel deserve our respect, but believers are not obligated to abandon those beliefs we deem “bad” nor will they be content to remain politely quiet behind any arbitrary wall of separation between church and state. Further, in my opinion and as some speakers affirmed, there are no “good” beliefs. Every belief, even when politely and inoffensively personal, tangibly damages our capacity to reason as individuals and as a society.
Of course, plenty of religious crazies converged on the Mall as well, apparently believing they might convert an Atheist or two. But thankfully they were restricted from entering the rally area. Some marched around the periphery brandishing their signs claiming that Jesus would send us all to hell.
I saw some Atheists engaging in heated discussions with these religious zealots, and I really wished they could refrain from doing so. Being taken seriously enough to engage in “rational” debates over their nonsense is exactly what these religious crazies want. How much better it would be if, like the one preacher standing alone by a tree reading his Bible through a portable amplifier, these people were all just completely ignored as being unworthy of engagement. They only come because we react to them; and if a preacher preaches and no one even bothers to notice, can it be said he is preaching at all?
There were some speakers who were especially noteworthy. Actor John Davidson told an extremely powerful personal story about how for many decades he was too cowardly to come out as an Atheist for fear of how it would impact his career. Another actor, John Delany, who played the “god” named Q on Star Trek, spoke to us as a god with a creatively compelling and masterfully delivered argument for Atheism. Robyn Blumner, President and CEO of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, offered her full-throated and totally unqualified support for Atheism, with no trace of the intellectual uncertainty expressed by Dawkins himself. And finally, crowd favorite Bill Nye reminded me of why he is a superstar of our movement by eloquently dissecting the role of religion in Global Climate Change denial.
Overall, the event was uplifting, but not angry. It was optimistic, but not naïve. It was enthusiastic, but focused and open-eyed about the challenges we face. It was inclusive of all secular persuasions, but yet unabashedly Atheist. It was an event should make us all proud, encouraged, and emboldened.