Discussing the Reason Rally and Atheism on NPR

In case you missed it, there was a *fantastic* discussion about atheism in America and the Reason Rally on “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” today. The audio is now available.

Kimberly Winston, the reporter for the atheism beat at Religion News Service, knocked it out of the park with the facts about who showed up at the rally and what our demographics are like. Then, James Randi and I answered questions about the Reason Rally and atheism in general. Hope we did the conversation some justice. (Well, I know Randi did, so I’m just talking about myself here…)

It was definitely the type of in-depth discussion you rarely hear in the media. The callers were almost all fantastic, too. (Rooster Guy had the sound engineer and I cracking up in the studio :))

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    You and James both kicked ass.

  • Mrschchili

    Did you find that Tom Ashcroft was a little too argumentative?

    • treedweller

       I was quite impressed by the way AShcroft handled it. If he weren’t argumentative, he wouldn’t be a good reporter, but he did not shout down, ridicule, or misrepresent his guests and he gave them an opportunity to answer the questions that most commonly come up when religious folk first confront the idea that they might lose some of their privilege in this country. Contrast this to the Fox interviews that were posted here a while ago and he looks downright sympathetic (probably even got complaints to that effect).

      I do agree with sackbut that the “trustworthy” flub was unfortunate, but I thought Hemant did a good job of staying on point and civil while presenting “our” case. Also, though I have always enjoyed and admired Randi, I was glad Hemant was there to bring him back from the edge when he just wanted to rant about the historical abuses of religion. Great  job!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I thought he was just trying to play Devil’s Advocate, trying to ask the questions the viewers who disagree might be asking. It seemed fine to me.

  • Anonymous

     I thought there were a few good points made in the discussion, but I wish there had been more emphasis of some of the more obviously egregious problems with religion in public policy, both in the US and elsewhere.  Taslima Nasreen’s situation was a great one to bring up.  Other examples of things that were not mentioned explicitly (or barely touched on) include: false science such as creationism or astrology or faith healing; false history such as “America is a Christian nation” or “our system of laws is based on the Ten Commandments”; and religious privilege in things like medical care, education, and child care.  People are being given false information and using it to make important policy and personal decisions; people are dying or being badly hurt or being imprisoned.  Instead, the examples brought up, while perfectly valid and important, sounded petty, and made atheists sound as if we are concerned about personal affronts instead of real abuse.  Abortion and birth control are being challenged in many states in the US, there are creationist bills making their way toward law, kids are dying in unlicensed religious day care centers, Jessica Ahlquist was subjected to threats of death and injury and rape, and what atheists were said to be concerned about sounded mostly like the Pledge or prayers.

    I suppose the easiest way to explain what I was expecting and didn’t hear in the conversation: anger.  Greta Christina’s talk, and her recent book, are excellent encapsulations of this kind of anger.  I was at the rally, and for me the attitude I felt most attuned to was the great quote from the movie Network: we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

    An unfortunate slip of the tongue: atheists are not “the most untrustworthy people”, but rather “the least trusted group”, or “the group thought by general population to be the least trustworthy”, or some such.

    Regarding some of the comments from Tom Ashbrook, I continue to be astounded how Dawkins seems to be a lightning rod for criticism of atheists.  PZ Myers and Dave Silverman gave very aggressive (and excellent) talks, but Dawkins, who very clearly said he did not have contempt for religious people, was called out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    You did great Hemant!

  • amycaswell

    I think it was a very good discussion. I don’t think Tom Achcroft was being argumentative at all. I think he was just looking for answers to questions. The only time he seemed frustrated was at the end when James Randi didn’t seem to understand the question he was asking about adopting certain positive things (such as community) from religions. I think it should have been pointed out that any positive achievements of religion can be achieved without religion as well.

    Take community, which was the key positive discussed in the show: yes, many people find support and solace in their religious communities. I myself mentioned in a different post that it was something I had felt was missing since I gave up religion. But religious communities also come with many strings attached. What wasn’t mentioned was that one can lose their religious community for coming out as gay, for minor disagreements in theology, for opposing their pastor/religious leader on any issue, for having sex before marriage and a myriad of other reasons. I feel like I’ve lost many friends since being more open about my atheism. I’ve had at least one person un-friend me on Facebook, and others have simply stopped talking to me when we used to talk daily (our friendships were hardly based on religion to begin with). This should have been discussed on the show. Community is one of many positive things that religion takes and twists. Yes, you have a community that will be there for you when you fall on hard times, but what happens when you decide you don’t believe the same thing they do? Suddenly that community disappears. The same people who said they loved you and would be there for you are gone, and you wonder if they ever meant it at all. This was an important point that was missing from the discussion. I understand how difficult it is to coherently state your thoughts about complicated issues when you’re on the spot though.

    The other issue I had was with the caller who mentioned that we should respect Catholics because it’s what they believe. Nobody addressed that part of his comment. The Catholic religion, including the hierarchy and doctrinal beliefs, should not be respected. Beliefs should not automatically be respected just because somebody really, really thinks it’s true. Beliefs, especially religious beliefs, should be evaluated just like all others. Just because I criticize a belief does not mean I criticize the person who holds that belief. The only thing I could say about a practicing Catholic as a person is that they are knowingly supporting and organization that committed and implicitly encouraged child rape/molestation because it was more worried about public image than about the harm done to innocent children. If tomorrow I found out that the folks over at the Freethought Blogs were doing the same thing, I would stop supporting them. That doesn’t mean I would stop being an atheist, it means I would stop going to their site, donating to their causes and recommending that others listen to them. Practicing Catholics don’t have to give up what they believe, but they should stop supporting the Catholic church. Organize protests and rallies, write an open letter to the Pope and collect signatures from Catholics. Ask to be taken off the Catholic registries and explain that the reason is not that you don’t believe anymore, but that you cannot support an organization that cares more about their PR than the safety and well-being of the children placed in its care. Advocate for the arrest of the Pope and other high officials who knowingly broke local laws by shuffling around child predators. If enough Catholics did these things, then I would have greater respect for them, but all I’ve heard from most is excuses and red herrings. This should have been discussed and it wasn’t. Beliefs don’t deserve respect people do, but that respect is conditionally based on how that person treats their fellow human beings.

    • LutherW

       I like your point on community. When the major community in a community is religious, then it is a self fulfilling prophecy that non-religious have less community in their lives.

      I also point out that The Foundation Beyond Belief is hardly the only non-religious charity out there. It is just one of a few that has that it as a theme. I suspect most national charities focused on diseases, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and many private foundations are not religion based.

  • Anonymous

    Great job.

    I think we need good solid answers to the questions asked by the callers. In what way is atheism like a religion (not much in my opinion), and how is it not? How does it differ? We’ve got sound bite answers, but I don’t find them satisfying.

    I might point out the sheer amount of religious programming on TV. This nonsense can’t be doing much good. Yes, we can promote science, but sometimes you need to confront the lie head on. 

    We need to educate people about terms (and how they might not matter.) If you can’t tell me a few definite things about the god you believe in, I’d consider you an atheist. “They might be a god — the universe is big!” Sure there *could* be; what do you currently believe? Does your deity have any attributes, like a name? How do you know this? Why do you believe it?

    We need to get the basic premise out: if you don’t have a good reason, or some evidence of something, the best you could say is “I don’t know.” Pursue things you’re interested in or think might be true, but see where it leads. Don’t expect the rest of us to believe without something to back it up. We need methods to separate reality from fantasy.

    Again, solid radio Hemant and James.

  • Colin

    Heard this on my way in to work.  Great Job!

    I was surprised by how contrary the callers were, even those who identified as atheists.  Thought you (and Randi) handled them well, but I do wish we could get past the same old arguments.  That said, I guess we have to continue making the same points to those that haven’t been exposed to them before.

  • Ed in Georgia

    I love James Randi. I really do, but he sounded belligerent, frequently either misunderstood a question or was intentionally obtuse. Hemant, on the other hand, lived up to his moniker of “the friendly atheist” in a discussion that didn’t sound too friendly.

    I do gree with others here that the focus on trivial issues took away from,what I think are the more important issues such as the misunderstanding of Mercian history, the marginalization of people of no beliefs, and the “we must respect others” BS.

    But tom Ashbrook is still one of my favorite interviewers

  • Wesley Naplasic House

    I am Christian but tend to be more comfortable around people who aren’t.  Why that is, I don’t know.  But I think it begins with the form of dumbed-down fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity that predominates in this country today and that fails to see the Bible as a book that needs to be interpreted allegorically, and not literally.  Yes, I listened to On Point.  Dawkins’s speech made me sort of cringe.  Ridiculous?  Last I heard, I thought he was seeking some sort of accord with religious folks?  Or am I thinking of E.O. Wilson?

  • REX SHEA

    I thought you knocked it out of the park Hemant! I great respect for James, and he did illustrate several points very well. You are a great communicator though! I have to admit that I have read more of your words than I can come close to counting, but that was the first time I had ever heard you speak.  I thought that you were engaging, and friendly and very much on point. I liked the way you steered the conversation a couple times back to a key point that was being bypassed and you actually saved James on more than one occasion. Those things are nothing against him at all, I think that you just have a better sense of time and timing and conversation flow.

    I also know that when those types of interviews are over, the flood gates really open over the next couple of days regarding what you feel you should have said or should have said better. It just means that you are a thoughtful human!

    As a first time listener who is very familiar with the issues under discussion, I thought that you both did a great job, but you especially.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I listened to the show on my way home from work the other night, and it was great to hear. We get so little media coverage, and this was fairly positive. I did note that the number of attendees cited at the rally was 10,000, which is only about a third of what I’ve seen cited by most atheists in attendance. Not sure what that was about.


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