Reason Rally Wrap-Up

Since it’s been two weeks since the event, I’m collapsing some of my other experiences at the Reason Rally into a few brief thoughts:

What do we want? ______ When do we want it? Now!

The Reason Rally, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t have a public policy ask. We weren’t gathered in DC to demand anything from Congress or the President. So I had some of the same mixed feelings that I had about A Week. For the attendees who are already out, what comes next?

Some of the stories of persecution and attacks told be speakers were deeply upsetting, and at a dinner after the rally, one Christian-turned-atheist, told us that his mother had called him ‘Anti-Christ’ when he came out to her as a non-believer. It’s been two years, and she hasn’t spoken to him since that conversation.

I’m not sure how people like me, who live in pretty cosmopolitan areas, where atheists have a pretty easy time of it, can best be of help. I just don’t encounter these kinds of personal problems in my day to day life. Perhaps the answer is to just throw money at the groups that are handling the legal cases.  Though, for the most case, those suits aren’t only for the benefit of atheists.


Hoist on my Own Petard

I’ve been saying for a while that I want the atheist movement to take stands on more than the existence of God and church/state relations (which as I say above shouldn’t be uniquely important to atheists). But I still had a knee-jerk reaction of anger when said, Darrel Ray, author of Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, said, in a mock invocation preceding his talk, “We do not ask that you send us 72 virgins. In fact, we ask that you send us no virgins at all because we don’t want the bother of training them.”

And there I was in the audience, thinking “Thanks so much for excluding me from the ranks of worth-the-time humans.” Be careful what you wish for.   After the initial flash of hurt, I was mostly able to switch over to appreciating that Ray had staked out a position but wishing he had spent some time trying to persuade people in the audience, instead of assuming we were all in agreement.

YouTube activist Cristina Rad also used part of her lecture time to go beyond negating God. After she finished her main speech, she did a ten minute presentation of the horrors of the Drug War and the urgent need for US prison reform (both especially germane for atheists who believe we have just the one life to live). Her speech was directed more at persuasion than Ray’s. I’d like to see more speakers do atheism and… like Rad and Ray, even if it means I feel uncomfortable. Speeches like Ray’s aren’t creating divisions, they’re just revealing splits that already existed and giving us the chance to debate.


Looking twenty years forward

AJ Johnson from American Atheists gave a talk about the future of the secular movement. Like my fellow Patheos blogger, Greg Epstein, she wants to see secular people unite into secular communities. She talked about the way that religion provides full life cycle support to its members, from birth to death, and hoped that the secular movement could start working to fill this gap for those who leave their church and for cradle atheists.

I couldn’t have been more in agreement with her speech. Certainly I think that support for other people is an worth end in and of itself. and support, especially for those who are leaving abusive religions is critical.  But I’m also in favor of this shift because I think it means the secular community will be forced to have more of the arguments that Rad and Ray sparked.  At a certain point, supporting someone means supporting them towards something.  To become a community, the secular movement is going to have to develop more normative moral statements than ‘live or let live.’

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  • Ash

    Darrel Ray spoke at the Reason Rally? I honestly have no memory of that.

    I’d love to see a demographic breakdown of atheist attitudes towards the kind of community-building you describe. It seems to me, using the four data points I’ve collected on the internet, that the people most interested in that goal also have fairly positive memories or attitudes towards religion in general. I suspect the data would show some strong geographic and cultural divisions. I grew up in the south, and most of the atheists I know would rather set themselves on fire than become involved in the kind of community that Greg Epstein seems to be describing.

    I was fortunate to be raised as a Catholic instead of a fundamentalist. I’ve certainly had some bad experiences at the hands of Christians – my high school vice-principal threatened to assault me when I told him i was an atheist, my best friend’s parents forced him to break off all contact with me – but back then a Catholic in the south was already an outsider. I didn’t have to deal with the complete betrayal that many ex-fundamentalists still experience. Still, modern religious practice has always seemed so sterile and disconnected from the business of living that I admit to having a suspicious attitude towards the idea of building substitute communities.

    • leahlibresco

      He spoke at the American Atheists National Conference.

      Are you saying people would rather set themselves on fire than be part of an atheist community qua community? Or is there a particular thing about Epstein’s that is objectionable?

      • Ash

        I’m saying a subset of atheists, mainly those from environments saturated in fundamentalism, have an aversion to communities that mimic religious practice. My guess is that this tendency is stronger among younger atheists who have grown up with an increasingly insecure and reactively aggressive fundamentalism.

        That’s not to say that the idea of full life cycle community is worthless or shouldn’t be discussed. Personally I don’t believe forming such communities is all that important with respect to advancing secularism. The pattern in the most irreligious societies in the world has not been the construction of substitute secular institutions, but social guarantees of economic security followed by a decline in fervor to the point that no one finds religious practice upsetting.

  • “And there I was in the audience, thinking[,] ‘Thanks so much for excluding me from the ranks of worth-the-time humans.'”

    Eeeee. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. Do you know what I find helpful after comments like that? Reading asexual blogs or listening to asexual YouTube channel videos. One of the things that I am really glad of Christianity for is that it gives you a license to opt out of the general sex-obsession that it can be hard to otherwise opt out of in university-aged culture–and even that’s not really license enough. I’m hoping that the ace community helps change that.

    • deiseach

      It’s not just asexuals, it’s anyone who isn’t in some form of couple – gay, straight or otherwise. And Christians (from what I have been told by some of our separated brethren) are just as bad – if you’re over a certain age and still single, the only activities you can participate in means you’re shoved into the singles/youth groups, which means being the oldest person in a bunch of teenagers/early twenties, and the assumption that there’s something wrong with you if you’re not partnered up by now. Men apparently get it even worse, with prospective ministers being told flat-out by elders calling pastors to churches that they won’t appoint a single man, and laymen being lectured by pastors about not growing up and becoming “real men” (where the definition of a ‘real man’ is one who is the Head of his house and has a wife who submits to him and children whom he disciplines).

      At least, being Catholic, I’m allowed to be single and lay, but yeah – the socially awkward, the unmarried and never likely to be married, those who couldn’t get or hang on to a relationship, those who for their own reasons – not necessarily religious – are not sexually active: so much for free love and free choice! The message our society is soaked in is that if you’re not having sex and/or in a relationship, you’re some kind of freak – who needs that, on top of whatever loneliness or disappointment you’re already struggling with?

      • leahlibresco

        Bingo to deiseach. It feels like they are dividing people up into sexually-active or aberrant. Asexual is a different category than not planning to have sex right now.

      • Absolutely, but what I like about the ace community (not being part of it) is that they are working towards shifting attitudes about sex that will benefit all of the folks you describe as well. If the work they are trying to do actually happens, those “not planning to have sex right now” (to quote Leah below) will also benefit, because no one will be (as) pressured into having sex and entering relationships to get it.

        And I was lucky enough to have forgotten about the Christian variants of this pressure. The Christian communities I am/have been part of didn’t really get into that as much, or I was somehow oblivious to it. This might be partly a Canada-US difference?

        • deiseach

          What I heard about it does seem to be an American thing, yes; it was amongst various Evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches, where the consensus seems to be the expectation to be married. Married, divorced, re-married, divorced again is handled a lot better than never married at all.

          I know anecdotes are not data, but there were some stories about a form of blame-the-victim, where people were told they weren’t praying hard enough to know God’s will or else they would be married by now, and for men, that some celebrity preachers are declaring that not being married is a form of irresponsibility and failure to grow up (where in actuality, the reasons can be economic circumstances, loss of jobs, failure of a relationship that was expected to end in marriage, etc. and not preferring to live a bachelor lifestyle).

          What’s interesting is that there is a lively discussion of asexuality in “Sherlock” fandom; a lot of the ace community (as far as the first series went) were encouraged by it and felt it was a way of ‘coming out’ and making themselves known – here you had a character who was not sexually active or looking for a relationship and perfectly happy like that.

  • @b

    >>time trying to persuade people in the audience, instead of assuming we were all in agreement

    Same goes for #atheistcon this weekend. No gods, now what?

    Like our forefathers we want our laws to treat citizens more equally, not skewed in favour of certain spiritual beliefs. We want to help advance the secularism that Catholics and Protestants used to rally for.

    >>wants to see secular people unite into secular communities. She talked about the way that religion provides full life cycle support to its members

    This always sounds nice. We already have non-religious hospitals, day care, schooling, employment, governance, recreation, social clubs, support groups, civil unions, wakes, etc. What exactly is it that the religious have that the non-religious want?