Back from the Reason Rally

Atheism clashes with ChristianityI’ve recently returned from the Reason Rally, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (photos here).  There were an estimated 20,000 people there, in the rain, which is a lot more than I would have predicted.  The organizers figured that it was the biggest secular gathering in world history by a factor of ten.

The atheist glitterati were all there—Michael Shermer, James Randi (founder of The Amazing Meeting), Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina (my favorite atheist blogger), PZ Myers, Tim Minchin (whose beat poem “Storm” is awesome), Eddie Izzard, Jessica Ahlquist (American Atheist’s “Atheist of the year” for her lawsuit against the religious banner in her public high school), Rep. Pete Stark (the only open atheist in Congress), Sen. Tom Harkin (not an atheist [!] but a senator who welcomed us anyway), Penn Jillette, Todd Stiefel (whose foundation helped sponsor the event), Nate Phelps (an eloquent and estranged member of the infamous Phelps family), and many more.  The Rally proceeded without a break for over seven hours.

The 2012 American Atheist conference was the following two days and had 1300 attendees.  The theme this year was “Come Out,” and many speakers talked about both the need for that and for dealing with the challenges that coming out as an atheist can impose on someone living in America today.

After being away from the office, I’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’ll be busy with the Northwest Freethought Alliance conference here in Seattle this weekend.  I’ll get back to a regular posting schedule soon.  Thanks for all your comments to the posts of the past couple of weeks; I’ll be responding ASAP.

Any brief summary will be inadequate to cover the Rally and conference.  I’ll just summarize some of the highlights.

  • Roughly ten Christian protesters held signs at the Rally.  Discussing apologetics with Christian sign carriers is one of my hobbies, but each was surrounded by lots of atheists—sometimes conversing thoughtfully and sometimes haranguing.  The only one that I talked to at length admitted that he had no arguments in favor of Christianity but was just mindlessly on the Mall, witnessing for Jesus.  I wondered what the point was, since he’s not informing anyone of anything.  He had no new arguments, and simply stating the tenets of Christianity (all he seemed capable of doing) to atheists better informed than the average Christian was pointless.
  • Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh spoke of the Muslim response to her writings—riots, burned cars, and house arrest.  After hearing this, it was hard to compare any struggle atheists might have in coming out with hers.
  • Physicist Lawrence Krauss said that philosophers asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like Johannes Kepler asking “Why are there five planets?”  It’s an irrelevant and outdated question!
  • Too often, the Christian says, “Morality is built on a foundation of God’s existence!” and the atheist response is a tepid, “But we are moral, too.”  We need to take morality back.  Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking.
  • Richard Dawkins spoke of a poll his foundation did in the UK.  Of self-identified “Christians,” many accepted non-Christian beliefs (ghosts, fate, reincarnation), many don’t believe in the power of prayer, many don’t read the Bible and know very little about it, and some don’t even believe that Jesus was a historical figure.  Conclusions: most “Christians” aren’t, and we shouldn’t accept Christians’ self-identification but rather ask what they mean.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

But when asked where they seek most guidance in questions of right and wrong, only one in ten (10%) said it was from religious teachings or beliefs, with over half (54%) preferring to draw on their own inner moral sense.

  • Jerry DeWitt is a cheerful ex-pastor who left religion half a year ago through the Clergy Project, a group trying to find a soft landing for doubting pastors.  I’ve written before about Rich Lyons, a local ex-pastor who had to get through the process solo and suffered from PTSD after leaving his pulpit.
  • PZ Myers gave an interesting quote from Sean Carroll: “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.”
  • PZ Myers on trying to juggle science and religion: “Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place.  It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”
  • Religion is a natural part of the human mind.  Okay, and smallpox is natural, too.  That doesn’t mean you resign yourself to it.
  • This chart from a 2009 Gallup poll documents the long-term change in religious preference in the U.S. and shows that the increase in atheism and erosion in Christianity has been fairly steady and not just a recent phenomenon.

  • In a cartoon, two guys are talking.  One says, “New Atheism indeed—it’s just the same old indisputable scientific evidence again.”
  • Religion makes you happy?  Okay, but so does a puppy.  There’s no need to abandon reason for happiness.
  • On the subject of atheist accomodationists (“Do you have to be so shrill?”) versus confrontationists (“Don’t mince words—tell it like it is!”), Greta Christina likened the atheist movement to a toolbox.  If you’re a hammer, be the best hammer you can be and let the other tools be the best they can be.
  • Christina drew parallels with the gay movement and noted that for many straight people, simply knowing a gay person was key to dismantling their prejudices.  Similarly, we need to come out (where practical) to help Christian America dismantle its anti-atheist prejudices.  One important difference: when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong.  That’s not really true with atheism.
  • The Secular Student Alliance has grown from 50 chapters in 2007 to 250 a year ago and even more today.  The Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”) has three times as many chapters, but it has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and is losing chapters.

Curiously, no one talked about what I like to talk about: critique of Christian apologetics.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Does no one care about this topic?  Has everyone already moved on, comfortable in their conclusion that the emperor has no clothes?

Ah well, I guess I’ll just be the best hammer I can be.

How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith
and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
Newt Gingrich (October, 2011)

6 thoughts on “Back from the Reason Rally

  1. “Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking”

    Now that would make a great bumper sticker! Seattle Atheists is looking for ideas; may I pass this one along, Bob?

  2. Just to keep the record straight, the Sean Carroll quoted above is the Cal Tech physicist, Sean M. Carroll, not the University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Each is a brilliant leader in his chosen field and each has much to offer the skeptical/atheist movement, but it isn’t really just a single person doing all that great work.

  3. On morality: I best like Bertrand Russell’s response, saying that any morality imposed upon you from the outside “doesn’t count”. Only a morality you carry on the inside is real morality. I add that Christian morality isn’t at all morality – it’s simply behavior modification using punishments and rewards.

    On critique of Christian apologetics: Are you saying we should have torn apart Christian apologists themselves, or torn apart their typical responses, or ?? Not sure what you mean.

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