So there’s a week to go before the Reason Rally and the complaining is already in full stride. As if all the organizers and volunteers don’t give a damn about reason and are just letting anyone with a pulse onstage…
Since I’ve been helping organize the event (mostly on the Internet end of things), here’s what it sounds like from my end. I should add that I speak only for myself here:
Everyone: Why aren’t there any politicians speaking to us?
Us: We got Senator Tom Harkin.
Everyone: Yeah, but he believes in alternative medicine. And he’s Catholic.
Us: But he’s a senator and he wanted to address us… well, we also got Rep. Pete Stark.
Everyone: He doesn’t even use the word “atheist” to describe himself.
Us: Umm… hypothetically, what if I told you President Obama wanted to speak to us?
Everyone: NO! He expanded the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. And he attends Prayer Breakfasts. And…
Us: *Sigh* So you want politicians to pay attention to us, but when they offer to speak to our community, you’re upset because they’re not voting exactly as we want them to vote…
Everyone: Are you going to invite Bill Maher?!
Everyone: We’re really excited about Maher! Hope he comes!
Us: So do we!
Everyone: Did Maher say yes!?
Us: Yes! He’ll speak via video.
Everyone: Bill Maher hates women and vaccines! He defended Rush Limbaugh! Screw him! We don’t want him there!
Us: But he’s still arguably the most famous atheist in the country…
Everyone: Are you going to invite Penn Jillette?!
Everyone: We’re really excited about Penn! Hope he comes!
Us: So do we.
Everyone: Did Penn say yes!?
Us: Yes! He’ll speak via video.
Everyone: Penn Jillette called a woman a “cunt” because he didn’t like what she wrote! Screw him! We don’t want him there!
Us: But he’s one of the most outspoken atheist celebrities out there… he’s even written a book on the subject.
Everyone: We know Christopher Hitchens passed away, but will there at least be some sort of tribute to him?
Everyone: Hitchens was a misogynist! He supported the War in Iraq! We can’t believe you’re praising him!
Us: But he wrote a New York Times bestselling book about atheism and debated the issue memorably for many years…
Everyone: Richard Dawkins is going to be there, right?
Us: Yes. He’s a safe choice. Can’t go wrong there.
Everyone: Don’t you remember Elevatorgate? Dawkins hates women!
Us: But The God Delusion was a worldwide bestseller and he’s the most famous atheist in the world…
Everyone: Is Lawrence Krauss speaking? We love his science books!
Everyone: He defended a pedophile! Why did you invite him?
Us: Because he’s an outspoken advocate of science. Hell, Miley Cyrus even caused a stir when she quoted him on Twitter…
You get the idea. This all goes on for a while. Lots of famous atheists, many of whom have detractors. And because we’re inviting them to speak, there’s something wrong with the Rally.
Then you have the people who complain that some of the speakers are too “angry” or abrasive and therefore bad representatives for atheism. (Seriously. I fielded that question from a reporter last week. I defended Richard Dawkins. And PZ, for that matter.)
Look, the organizers spent a long time listening to the suggestions of dozens of people (representing tens of thousands of atheists) regarding who should speak at the Rally. They did everything in their power to contact all the “big names” that people said they wanted to hear at the Rally. They rustled up and managed the hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding needed to put on an event of this magnitude. They got every major organization in our movement to work together to make this work — and that’s not an easy thing to do. They had to deal with the speakers complaining about their prominence on our website (yep, it happened).
Just about everyone believes in something irrational. Including atheists. So, yes, you’re going to hear people at the Rally who hold ideas we think are completely unreasonable. Maybe even harmful.
If we got rid of every speaker who held an irrational belief, there would be no one left on that stage.
So deal with it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t call them out where they’re wrong. Have at it. I did it, too. In many cases, they deserve it. But to suggest the organizers are at fault for inviting really famous atheists who hold some view you don’t agree with is absurd. Almost as ridiculous as faulting them for accepting a greeting from a sitting U.S. senator who stands to lose a lot more than he’ll gain for addressing our crowd.
It’s not very often we see this many people come together under one banner to show the nation there are a lot of non-religious people out there, and we don’t all fall into the “angry older white guy” stereotype, and we want to see church/state separation upheld, and we don’t want to be ignored anymore. The fact that we have people on the stage who hold views we find unreasonable or objectionable just shows we’re not a uniform group.
If we want to get attention for a rally like this, we need big-name celebrities to attend. We need politicians to speak. Sure, we can have a rally with PZ Myers and only the people he wants to invite, but it won’t draw the same numbers and it won’t get the same level of attention.
You can argue that the Rally needs higher “standards,” but you’re missing the point. This isn’t just about us. This isn’t just about spreading science and atheism. This is about drawing attention to our movement. This is about getting media attention. This is about getting all those people not attending the rally (or who don’t even know there are so many other atheists out there) to notice us and maybe — just maybe — get the courage to come out of the closet or attend a local atheist gathering.
Those people are not nitpicking every belief held by every single speaker. When those people see Maher or Jillette or Hitchens, they see “atheists,” not any of the other labels that only seem to be discussed in our little bubble. The rest of the country will (hopefully) see a shitload of people attending a Rally that’s all about science, atheism, skepticism, and how it’s ok not to be religious.
Even Sen. Harkin is simply welcoming us to the Mall and showing his support for our right to gather and speak out against religion. He’s sending a message that you don’t have to agree with us to support us. I stand by what I said before. I’m glad there are politicians courageous enough to be associated with this Rally. I wish more of them would consider speaking. If one of the Republican presidential candidates wanted to voice his support for our right to assemble, and our right to not believe in god, and his belief that we’re just as American as religious people, I hope we’d give that person a mic, too. Because more Americans need to hear that message.
Same with the “celebrities.” I’m glad they find this rally worth addressing because they have more power than we do to get our message to the masses. Yes, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette have their faults, but they amplify our way of thinking more than just about anyone else.
So go ahead and complain. Get huffy and act like inviting Bill Maher or accepting a greeting from a sitting senator is the equivalent of inviting Deepak Chopra to preach onstage. I dare anyone to create a Rally for our community that draws nearly as many people as this one will and gets as much media attention as this one already has. It’s not easy and you’re never going to please anyone. It’s too bad some people are so hung up on details the rest of the country doesn’t care a bit about that they won’t be able to enjoy the event for what it is.
If you’re no longer attending the Rally because you disagree with a speaker or two, I would strongly encourage you to reconsider. It’s going to be an amazing event, even if you feel there’s a blip or two along the way. And if you don’t want to speak onstage out of protest, let us know. There are lots of amazing people in our movement who won’t get that opportunity.