Before I deliver my recap of the speakers at the Reason Rally, I need to give a shout-out to the people who accompanied me for the weekend. On my first day in town, I met up with Rieux, who was a fearless scourge of trolls in Daylight Atheism’s early days on Big Think, and who first enlightened me to the prejudice against atheists within Unitarian Universalism that I’m still sorting out. I also met Leah Libresco – transhumanist, virtue ethicist, Bayesian conspirator, and the DC-based blogger behind Unequally Yoked, which in my modest opinion is one of the more underrated atheist blogs out there. Last but not least, there was NFQ, who writes another of my favorite blogs, No Forbidden Questions. She guards her anonymity closely online, but I can testify that she’s a perfectly friendly and lovely person. Thank you all! You made this weekend far more enjoyable than it would otherwise have been, and that’s saying a lot.
The Reason Rally lasted an entire day, but there were so many speakers that most of them only got five or ten minutes apiece. What with wandering the Mall to socialize, meet up with people, and take pictures of especially amusing signs, I didn’t hear every single one of them, but all the ones I did hear were excellent. Here are a few of my favorites:
The day opened with a ceremony led by current and former atheist service members from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, who invited their fellow veterans in the crowd to reaffirm their oath of service.
David Silverman, known for being the president of American Atheists and even better known on the internet as the “are you serious” face, gives the introduction to the day’s events.
Hemant Mehta, of Friendly Atheist fame, talks about the importance of activism and of being a part of the secular community.
Jessica Ahlquist, the high-school student and successful church-state litigant from Rhode Island, was presented with a scholarship check for over $60,000 (!) raised by the atheist community in gratitude for her effort. Don’t let her size fool you – she’s brilliant, fearless, and more poised and mature than most people twice her age. But what really bowled me over was that, as I found out later in the night, her speech – a speech on the National Mall, given to a vast crowd, which she delivered with grace, charm and good humor – was completely extemporaneous! Someone at the afterparty said she’s going to be our first atheist president, and I can’t find any good reason to dispute that prediction.
Adam Savage, one-half of the Mythbusters, talks about the importance of reason and science and how careful testing and painstaking devotion to rationality have made our world a better place. He got more applause than probably anyone has ever gotten for reciting “F = ma”.
The incomparable Greta Christina, delivering a condensed version of her “Atheists and Anger” speech that blew the roof off of Skepticon last year. I’ve long wondered why there’s no American atheist equivalent of Richard Dawkins, but I’m beginning to suspect there is, and I think it may be her.
If you don’t know Tim Minchin, you should. He performed his anti-pseudoscience beat poem “Storm”, sang a song about prejudice and an extremely obscene song about the Pope (sorry, families who brought small children!), and played the classic “If I Didn’t Have You” (my advice: never date anyone who doesn’t find this funny).
But then, something unexpected happened. He took the microphone to announce that he had recently had a change of heart, after meeting a man in a pub who told him that his mother had been cured of eye disease by the prayers of her congregation. You could almost feel a hush come over the crowd as people wondered, just for a moment, if he could really mean it. But then he sat down at his piano with the wickedest grin on his face, and started singing a song about how although millions of people around the world are dying from war, disease and starvation, God will work one minor miracle for one person in an upper-middle-class First World community if members of the right church ask him in just the right way at the right time. The crowd roared. If the protesters were listening, I suspect their hopes were cruelly and hilariously dashed.
Another of the highlights of the afternoon was Nate Phelps, atheist, freethinker, and son of Westboro Baptist founder Fred Phelps. His life story and his escape from that vipers’ den vividly illustrate religion’s power to scar a person’s psyche, but also show that freedom is always possible.
By law, you can’t have an atheist rally without Richard Dawkins. He praised the U.S. Constitution, embattled as it is, for introducing the ideal of secularism to the modern world. The cheering was thunderous when he argued that we need to “show contempt” for irrational religious beliefs put forward as absolute truth, a phrase that was predictably and immediately quote-mined by the media.
I wasn’t familiar with YouTube stars Christina Rad and Rational Warrior, but they both won me over: the former with a dryly sardonic monologue on why atheism isn’t a religion, the latter with a skepticism-themed hip-hop performance that, I have to admit, I enjoyed a lot more than I was expecting to. (He also brought Thor’s hammer to stay the rain, a hilarious touch.)
The politicians speak: nontheist Rep. Pete Stark, and sitting Senator Tom Harkin (whose presence occasioned some debate), delivered brief video addresses welcoming us to the National Mall and upholding our First Amendment rights of conscience and assembly. In spite of the brouhaha over Harkin’s speech, I found nothing remotely objectionable in it.
PZ Myers, now sporting a cowboy hat, delivered a ferocious diatribe on the twin evils of piety and greed, and the way that pandering politicians exploit and promote both of them. I asked on Twitter who was angrier, PZ or Greta; my verdict? Greta by a slim margin (if only because she’s got a whole book full of reasons), but PZ wins on crankiness any day.