Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Reason Rally, Part III: Conclusion and Take-Away

So after hours on a bus and hours of sitting in the rain, communing with other people because we, as Tim Minchin said, “all don’t think something similar”, in the end, what can we take away from this gathering?

As Reason Rally speaker and blogger, Greta Christina stated, “We are not angry because something is wrong with us; we are angry because something is right with us.” I think many non-believers have been made to feel that there is something wrong with them. After listening to the speakers at the Reason Rally, I know that Greta Christina is correct and all secularists should aim to keep that in mind. We are the ones whose conclusions are based in fact.

I have considered myself an atheist activist for several years now. I started a secular parenting group; I am an assistant organizer for an atheist meet-up; I have volunteered for skeptic organizations. I have donated money to numerous secular organizations. I have blogged and I have conversed and I have argued. Despite all of that, I often feel like my efforts do no good. I am one fish in an ocean and most of the other fish are swimming the other direction. I lose my hope. The Reason Rally restored a good deal of it. It restored my belief that all of these things I am doing are the right things to do. I have renewed confidence in my country and in the possibility that it can be the kind of place I want my child to grow up.

I feel inspired to speak out, to refuse to hide, to never let false information go unchallenged. I feel empowered that I can make a difference. I can help pave the way for genuine progress. I can make the world a more peaceful, more loving, freer and more reasonable place.

The Reason Rally, Part II: The Main Event

The line-up was a stellar list of speakers running the gamut from scientists to comedians and the planning put into the event was readily apparent.  My deepest appreciation goes out to those who worked so hard to pull this all together.
A short while into the day’s events, a military ceremony was performed honoring non-believers in our armed forces.  I found this to be quite meaningful and I while I do not know if it did anything to dispel the notion that there are “no atheists in foxholes”, I hope it at least let our brave service people know that there are many thousands of people who respect and appreciate them and who understand that gods are not necessary for honorable service to one’s country.

Military Ceremony at the Reason Rally

We were then led in the Pledge of Allegiance in its pre-1954 form which did not include the words “under God”.  This moment was unexpectedly moving for me.  Every time I am present during the pledge, I feel excluded from my country despite the fact that I love this nation.  Hearing tens of thousands of people in a single voice saying, “One nation, indivisible” literally made my chest swell with pride and love for my countrymen.  If we are to thrive as a people, we must be indivisible and not allow religion to fracture our bonds with one another. 

Hemant Mehta, a blogger at The Friendly Atheist was one of the first speakers of the day.  His was the first atheist blog I followed and it helped me initially navigate the waters of being an atheist so I was really looking forward to what he had to say.  His focus was on being involved in society by running for office.  Having watched the infiltration of our government by the religious right and now seeing the effects of that, I have long been saying that secularists need to do the same thing.  His talk reminded me of the importance of being actively involved.  Running for office is not on my radar in the near future but it is something I would consider at some point down the road.  In the meantime, I will hold on to his words as a reminder to be involved where and when I can.  I hope that many were similarly inspired and that at least some will take on the challenge.

Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist

The next speaker was Jessica Ahlquist, a 17-year-old student who won a case against her high school regarding a Christian prayer posted on the wall at her school.  What an amazing young lady!  When I was in high school, I was so busy oscillating between being a rebel and trying to fit in that I doubt I would have even noticed such an infringement much less had the strength and wherewithal to challenge it.  This girl conducted herself with such poise and grace and spoke with such honesty and conviction, one could not help but admire her.  She was presented on stage with a scholarship for $62,000, all collected from non-believers and supporters of the separation of church and state which I am sure she will put to good use.  Young people like her are what allow me to retain a hint of optimism for our future.

Jessica Ahlquist, Student Activist
Another speaker was Adam Savage from the show “Myth Busters”.  Not having television, I had never seen the show and didn’t know much about him.  His talk was a pleasant surprise and he was one of my favorite speakers of the entire event.    His talk (transcript of which can be found here) was straightforward and eloquent, easily articulating what it means to have reason and why having it is important.  He highlighted the societal and technological advances which the application of reason has allowed us to enjoy.  He spoke of facts including the lunar landing, global climate change and the age of the earth which some have tried to convince us are not accurate.  He spoke of beliefs such as the absurdity of the drug war and abstinence-only sex education, our duty to take care of each other and the origins of individual morality with all of which, I heartily agreed.  Then he spoke about his conclusion about God:

“And finally, I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I am capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think, and they still love me. And I’ve concluded, after careful consideration, that this person keeping score is me.

I found myself nodding in absolute agreement with each statement. It is so comforting to hear one’s own thoughts being spoken by another; to know that we are not alone.
Adam Savage of Myth Busters
Around 12:30, we were treated to a few songs by Australian performer, Tim Minchin. Having stalked him semi-professionally in the past (in a good, friendly “Thanks, Tim, I love your work” way, not a scary “I’ve got rope and duct tape in the trunk and I’m driving cross-country in an adult diaper” way), I couldn’t resist making my way up to the front of the non-VIP section with my friend, Mary. Tim seemed energized and despite comments to the effect of wishing he didn’t have to be there, really seemed to be feeding off the vibes from the audience which, at least up front, were nothing but big squishy love vibes.

He began with a song called “Confessions” which points out that regardless of our species’ intellectual superiority and lofty ambitions, in the end we are products of our evolution who retain the most basic of instinctual ties to our long-ago ancestors. He next performed one of my favorites, “Thank you, God”; a song about (not-so-) miraculous healings, attributed to divine intervention instead of the dozens of much more likely natural explanations. Next up was “If I Didn’t Have You” which is a song about love…or “maths”…I don’t know but he effectively compares love to bigotry, guinea pigs and bananas and that alone is worth a few points in my book.
Tim Minchin
Controversy seems to follow Tim around and the rally offered no exception when he opted to perform the “Pope Song”; it essentially says that if you’re more offended by expletives than by the church covering up child-rape, your priorities are a bit screwy but it throws in 70 or 80 “F-bombs” to illustrate the point. Unfortunately, there are many people who do get so hung up on the language, I’m not sure they even hear the point of the song. A shit-storm is developing, even amongst the godless and of course, detractors have seized on this as an example of atheists’ disrespect and nastiness in order to overshadow the much more important story that our ranks are growing. I hate the way things get twisted but it does strike me as funny that these people complaining have completely missed the fact that they are the people he is talking about in the song. He finished with a flawless performance of his anti-alt med beat poem, “Storm” which was a perfect close to his set and was clearly enjoyed by the crowd.
The Pope

Later in the day came a talk by Nathan Phelps, the estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for picketing funerals of U.S. service members with an anti-gay, anti-military message. They also picketed the Reason Rally. Nate was my favorite speaker of the entire event. His talk was so honest and so moving that I found myself at one point brought to tears. He recounted how he left the church and his journey to atheism. As he said it, “They called me a rebel. For years, I wore that name with shame until I realized that, confronted with the god of my father, rebellion is the only moral option.”
Westboro Baptist Church
He spoke about how he fervently tried to find a loving God and how, on September 11th, 2001, he became completely disillusioned. He addressed the hate taught by his family and instead of returning more hate to them, instead of encouraging others to hate them, he expressed only sadness that they should waste their lives on it. Then he spoke of hope; his hope for a nation that honors reason and his hope, looking out on the crowd, that we might yet attain that. Nate Phelps is a class act. He is someone I will keep in mind as a picture of who I strive to be and I believe others should do the same.
Nathan Phelps

In all, every speaker did a spectacular job of conveying the purpose of the rally and articulating the sentiments of those in the crowd (a few sentences here and there not withstanding).  It was an honor and a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate and I am so glad that I did not allow my concerns to keep me from attending.  It was a thought-provoking experience which encapsulated more solidarity, love, and rationality than I ever expected.

The Reason Rally, Part I: Getting There

Last Saturday, I had the wonderful privilege of attending the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.  For those who may not know, the Reason Rally was a gathering of atheists and other non-believers to show solidarity amongst us.  It was a coming out party for many who had never before let their lack of faith be known, a celebration of our lack of belief and our common humanity and a statement to our politicians, friends, families, neighbors and co-workers that we are part of this society, we expect reason-based policy instead of theocracy and we will not be dismissed.

I have been trying to devise a way to briefly summarize the rally but after several days, I realize that there is just too much involved to be easily summed up.  Instead, I would like to take time to review a few of the highlights and give my thoughts on certain aspects of the day.

Up until it was too late to get a refund on my bus tickets, I seriously debated whether I should go.  I had many concerns going into it.  Could I really afford to do this financially?  I haven’t had an oven since December and the cash going into this trip could have remedied that.  Could I manage this physically?  I have severe joint issues and 28+ hours round-trip on a bus in combination with lots of walking and standing was not likely to improve matters.  Could I handle this mentally?  I have a fair amount of anxiety when it comes to crowds and public transportation.  Would I be safe?  There are plenty of people who think atheists are “evil”.  What if one of them decided it was a perfect opportunity to make their world a better place?  After much internal torment, I decided that this was important enough to take those risks and deal with each situation as it came.  If I were to be the person I think of myself as, I must go.  I must stand up for what I believe to be right and true.  I needed to be a part of this. 

The first moment that really struck me was on the bus that would take us from Chicago to Washington.  Everyone was so friendly and kind and the conversations going on around me were simply awesome (these were themes that prevailed throughout the day.  There was never a moment that I did not feel I was among friends).  I suddenly thought how incredible it was that I was on a bus filled with people who do not believe in God; a whole bus full of people who had come to the same conclusion as me – a conclusion which had caused me to be excluded and made to feel like there was something wrong with me and which was now the criterion for inclusion.  I was glad I had come.

We arrived a bit early which was nice since it allowed me to get my bearings a bit.  The first thing that stood out was the backdrop of the Washington Monument behind the stage.  Looking at it, I felt a deep connection to my country and the freedoms that the Founding Fathers envisioned for our nation.  I pondered how we could have gotten to this point where reason is shunned and freedoms are willingly forfeited for the sake of comfort.  I was even more glad I had come.
The next thing that began to sink in was the growing size of the crowd.  Atheists have long been maligned in our society and many are afraid to let others know of their lack of belief.  Many, myself included, have lost friends, family or jobs because of their non-belief.  To look around and realize that everyone in that space was a non-believer and that all of them felt it was important enough of a matter to come to our nation’s capitol was one of the single most empowering moments of my life.  We are many and we are everywhere.