Dr. Francis goes to Washington

I proudly attended the Reason Rally this past Saturday in Washington DC and I wanted to share with you some thoughts about this splendid event that took place on the National Mall to celebrate atheism, freethought, and secularism. With an attendance of over 20 000, according to multiple reports, the event billed itself as the largest gathering of the nonreligious in world history, and I was glad to have been a part of it.

The Bus
Heck yeah I took a bus there. Any other travel option would have been silly. It cost me all of $70 - at $4 a gallon, petrol alone would have run me about $100 for the round trip, plus wear and tear, tolls, and parking. No thanks. Plus, with my man Glen driving, I was saved most of the hassle of schlepping myself there, sleeping most of the way there and back. The timing was great - leave at 1 am (after a solid set from Kevin Nealon at Hilarities), sleep on the bus the whole way to DC, arrive at 9:30, start rocking, finish rocking eight hours later, sleep on the ride home. Beautiful.

As Nena pointed out, the bus ride became something of a "Best Atheist" contest, with fellow passengers informally competing to show their knowledge of all things nonreligious. "Oh yeah, well I've read ALL of Dawkins' books!" It was kind of charming, and I know a lot of us don't get a tremendous number of opportunities to speak with like-minded people, so it was alright by me.

I harbored a fear prior to the event that some super-evangelical individual would purchase a ticket for the bus and spend the entire ride proselytizing loudly, and I thought: on what grounds would we stop this idiot? Thankfully, this did not happen. I also harbored a minor fear that some hardcore relig group was going to blow shit up at the event, and that also did not happen.

The Weather
It sucked! That and my twitter binge are the reason I didn't take more photos than I did. That and there were so many great speakers and audience members to take in that photographing the event would just have been too much.

I suppose it could have been worse, but it got a little rainy in spots and there was a chill in the air that a week of 80-degree highs had softened me against. More than a few people made jokes about God sticking it to us for having a rally all about his nonexistence, all in good fun. But guess what? 30 000 of us still showed up even though the weather was lousy. How about that!

The Speakers
Befitting its historical stature among events of this type, the Reason Rally had an all-star roster of 38 different speakers and performers. The biggest name on the bill was undoubtedly Prof Richard Dawkins, but luminaries from the movement from Pharyngula's PZ Myers to American Atheists' David Silverman came out to play too. There was good variety as well, from musical acts (Tim Minchin, Rational Warrior) to poets (Ronelle Adams, Victor Harris), to freethought leaders (Silverman, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the ffrf), to academic (Dawkins, Myers).

I'll try to hit the highlights, but I liked pretty much everyone who spoke, so don't feel left out!

Comedian Paul Provenza emceed the event, and did a hell of a job, tying together all of the segments with witticisms and funny tweets he had received.

The event started at 10 am with music, speakers, and ceremonies, and Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) delivered one of the finer talks of the morning. As a high school teacher, he's someone who has to very closely separate his personal life and activism from his professional life, and I think that's something a lot of people can identify with.

Adam Savage of Mythbusters was absolutely tremendous. He might have been the finest speaker of the day - it never hurts to have a TV star take the podium at an event like this! I couldn't get enough of his line (adapted from Neil DeGrasse Tyson's similar comment on science) that "Facts are true whether you believe them or not."

David Silverman, the relatively new president of American Atheists, gave a couple of short, fiery addresses during the day. I like this guy - he's always on point, knows what he's talking about, and isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

The longest slot of the day by far (40 mins - Dawkins got 15, for reference) was awarded to musician/comedian Tim Minchin, who I'd heard of in passing but didn't know all that well. He was quite entertaining with his songs filled with rapid-fire, clever wordplay and his dubbing of the even as "A Rally for the Obvious."

The Amazing (James) Randi ambled up to the stage and delivered a great address as well - I personally enjoyed seeing one of the godfathers of the skeptics movement up there shaking his cane at the forces of unreason.

Richard Dawkins got a hero's welcome when he hit the stage mid-afternoon, and why not - the guy has done more than probably anyone to bolster the cause of Reason. The Mall reached its peak crowdedness during his talk and one of its lows once he was finished. Poor Cristina Rad - that's tough drawing the unenviable slot right after the good Professor.

PZ Myers rolled up later wearing a rather comical cowboy hat and gave one of the most solidly aggressive talks of the day, advocating MORE action and STRONGER words, calling out the protestors and basically saying hey, let's stir up some shit. No one does it quite like PZ.

British comedian Eddie Izzard performed an excellent 20-minute bit, highlighted by him describing Charles Darwin's best-known work - you know, the one titled, "Monkey Monkey Monkey Monkey Monkey Monkey Monkey You."

Todd Stiefel, the founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and a dude who apparently donated a whole lot of cash to make this great even happened, was the last to take the mic before Bad Religion, and he was fantastic. I'd like to get the text of his remarks, and see more of this cat advocating in the future.

All in all, just a great group of speakers and performers. Here's to next year's schedule being of such uniformly high quality!

The Attendees
I loved seeing the people there. Just a cheerful, friendly, comical lot. There were so many hilarious signs and t-shirts that I couldn't even keep track of them. Fortunately, this heroic citizen documented a sampling of some of the best (and the worst) of them. He did miss the utterly hilarious sign, brought out during the rain, that read simply "At least it's not raining Santorum." I also enjoyed the irreverent, "I used to be an Atheist, until I realized I'M GOD!"

There were so many funny signs that pretty much every one they showed on the video boards got a laugh from the crowd and left the speaker momentarily perplexed at what exactly they'd said to elicit such a reaction. Poor Greta Christina, during the righteous fire of her "I'm Angry" rant, wondering just what the crowd was chuckling at (a poster that read "Stay the Fuck out of My Vagina").

Atheist heroes Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens were probably the two best-represented on t-shirts. For my part, I was sporting my Teach the Controversy t-shirt with the Devil burying dinosaur fossils. Represent.

And the guy dressed as Jesus riding the dinosaur? That guy deserves some sort of Lifetime Achievement in Cleverness medal for that effort. He was wildly popular with amateur photographers all day long, and deservedly so. He also raises an interesting issue, which is how aggressive nonbelievers should be with attacking and mocking the beliefs of the religious. Obviously my answer is: very. But I recognize that there are different schools of thought. Jesus on the dino does raise the point that religion is so tremendously easy to mock because people actually believe these things. Bible literalists who think that Earth is 6000 years old (I realize this does not encompass all believers, but it does include some) really do think that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, so this "mocking" is simply tossing their ideas right back at them. You'll notice that it's impossible for believers to return the favor, because we don't hold improbable and ridiculous views of the world. It's a good spot to be in.

The demographics of the even were also quite interesting to me. There were far more women than I expected - the atheist blogosphere can be a real sausage-fest, and I was glad to see the ladies out in full force. Racial minorities also tend to be underrepresented, and thus I was pleased to see my brothers and sisters of color in attendance as well.

There was a definite nerd vibe to the crowd, as one might expect. The classic nerd moment was when one of the speakers was poking fun at the authority of the bible, and pointed out that, while there's only one bible, there are nine Harry Potter books. A ripple made its way through the crowd - there are only SEVEN Harry Potter books - how dare he? But all was forgiven.

The age distribution looked to me a tad bimodal - you had mostly young people in their 20's (lots of college students) and a lot of senior citizens. I think that's the way it goes in the freethought community - it's either young adults who have broken free of religion and are enthusiastic about non-belief or older individuals who never believed their whole lives and now that they've lived full lives can just say fuck it, I never believed any of this shit, and out themselves.

Speaking of young people, there was a large group of students from the university of michigan. As you might know, especially if you read my sports blog, I hate this institution with a raging passion. But I enjoyed the spirit of this even so much that I was even down with the um kids who made it out. I meant to get a pic with one. I twittered as much, and someone called "Secular Progressive" offered the always-prescient perspective that "Ann Arbor is a whore." Well played. But on a day where Ohio State advanced to the Final Four, I was happy to be on the same team as the University of Michigan, which I just capitalized properly for the first time in a very long time as a show of respect. You still suck at sports and Ohio knocked you out of the NCAAs, though.

The Protestors
Well, you knew there would be a few, right? There was no way the evangelical crowd was going to leave this alone. But what if they did? What if they said, why don't we just be polite, civilized people, and let them enjoy their rally and not try to mar it with our idiotic signs? Nah. There was a crowd of about 20 throughout the day, holding eight or so of their typically incoherent signs. I took a photo of their little demonstration, but decided not to include it, because, hey fuck 'em. My favorite one read:

Sexual Pervert
Religious Hypocrite

Awesome, great message.

I'm glad there were no incidents - some of the festival attendees engaged the protestors in dialogue, but I've been there and done that, and it's no fun to argue against someone who explicitly abandons logic at the outset of the conversation. Plus, people who don't like us (of which there is no shortage) were looking for any excuse to make us look bad, and any scuffle would have been a huge black mark on a really positive day. Sorry, folks, keep moving.

Supposedly, the noxious Westboro Baptist Church was around, but they had only a small presence a distance away from the proceedings, and had fled to a nearby hotel by the time I wandered over to look at them like I would observe zoo animals. Compensating for their presence were a bunch of satirical signs, nicking the style and tweaking the text of their most infamous and inflammatory notions with signs reading "GOD HATES FACTS" and "GOD HATES BAGS" (totes bearing this message were available for purchase).

One thing that struck me after leaving was the audacity of the protestors' positioning. They ignored the actual area set aside for dissent (shown at right) and instead set up camp next to the porta-johns, where their ideas belong. What if the situation was reversed, and an atheist group was protesting a religious event? (Note: we don't do this.) I guarantee the attendees wouldn't show us the same respect we did them, and security would likely herd us over to the designated pen.

The protest area wasn't completely vacant, though. Nope - there was one guy there - the guy in the photo at right. His sign promises an eternity of torment at the hands of Cthulhu if we sinners didn't repent. Just a brilliant idea. He stood there defiantly with his satirical sign for hours, completely alone in the protest zone. Love it.

Bad Religion
After the speakers concluded, the attendees were treated to a set from seminal '80's punkers Bad Religion, whose frontman (and college lecturer Greg Graffin) had sung the national anthem some seven hours previously. Nena was surprised at the appearance of the 47-year-old Graffin, saying she expected, you know, a young, punk-rock-looking guy to be the leader of a band with a name like Bad Religion. I pointed out that, 30 years ago, he was precisely that!

Anyway, even though my bones were a bit chilled, I stuck around for 40 minutes of their set and got to hear some of my favorite jams from them, most notably "21st Century Digital Boy," which was about the 30th thing to have made my day that day. You better believe Driving Force hammered that one back in the day. That tune rocks, kids.

The Politics
I was mildly surprised by the degree to which politics dominated the day's discourse, although looking back on it I suppose it makes sense. After all, we were in the seat of the nation's political power, and politics will be a major area for secularists like us going forward. As you'd expect, the politics were almost exclusively Progressive. I'm sure there are a few Republicans, I suspect mostly folks who are nonbelievers but self-identify as "fiscal conservatives," but by and large this was a hard Left crowd. And I loved it.

It got me to thinking that there must be some reason why Progressive politics and a secular/humanist/atheist worldview go hand-in-hand and why Xtian beliefs and right-wing social and economic viewpoints are so closely intertwined. I'll think more on that later, but for now I'll simply reflect that recognition of this fact makes me more adamant about my political views than before. After all, since the people on the other side of the aisle have come across their religious beliefs as the outcome of a lack of proper reasoning, it's not a stretch to suppose they've done the same with their other political views.

The Labels
Remember in the previous section where I wrote "secular/humanist/atheist"? Let's face it: we got way too many names for ourselves. The proliferation of organizations represented at the Reason Rally - all doing good work, mind you - was staggering, as was the fact that all of them seemed to have different keywords in their name. It reminded me a bit of the South Park in the future where various atheist groups battle for dominance, though the groups here are in fact complementary instead of antagonistic.

As for the labels - am I an atheist? Secular? Agnostic? Yes, yes, and yes (in a strictly pedantic sense on the latter - I have no doubts whatsoever regarding atheism). I'd describe myself accurately as an Atheist agnostic secular humanist freethinker nonbeliever skeptic, and that's too damn long of a way to describe someone who thinks that belief in the supernatural is foolish.

With that in mind, I really like the fact that the event was named the Reason Rally, because reason is the concept that most cleanly unites all of those related schools of thought. Using reason and thinking rationally will naturally lead you to adopt all of those somewhat-overlapping positions.

The Media
I was pleased to see the event garner a good amount of national press. A major purpose of the event was for us to be heard, and having major news outlets pick up the story could only help that purpose. The story in The Washington Post was well-balanced and non-partisan, and The Huffington Post piece on the event was solid as well.

Not all of the coverage of the Reason Rally was as, well, reasonable. The article in USA Today absolutely blew, as did this piece of rubbish on the Washington Post's blog. I'm on a self-imposed deadline to get this out Monday morning, so I don't have time to slice apart this garbage, though hopefully I'll find some time to take out the trash next week.

And yes, Fox "News" did some work on the event. I haven't gotten there yet, but Provenza read out one of their headlines ("Atheists Rally for Nothing in Particular") that sounded pretty typical of their biased nonsense, and a fellow bus rider read a few lovely excerpts from an opinion piece. Ick.

Bottom line though: lots of media coverage for a positive event = good.

Remember the video for Blind Melon's song "No Rain"? For a long time I used that as a metaphor for being a Cleveland Browns fan living in Pittsburgh. Remember the Bee Girl from the video? She dances around in her costume, and people laugh at her and mock her, and she feels alone and misunderstood, and then in the end finds the park where everyone is dressed up like a bee and dancing and is super-happy? That was me during my occasional visits to the shores of Lake Erie when I resided in the Steel City.

I think it was even more apt for the proceedings of this past weekend. Even though I have a relatively high percentage of non-religious friends (and this is not meant to imply that I don't highly value my religious friends, because I do) and coworkers, I'm still not exactly swimming in an ocean of freethought. Even with the gains we've made in furthering the cause of rational thought, less than 1.5% of the nation identifies as atheist, and that's on an anonymous poll where no one feared retribution.

But at the Reason Rally, I was the Bee Girl writ large. I didn't have to check my tone at all or be polite or discerning with how I expressed myself. I was with a big old group of people who all thought like me (at least in one important respect), and it was great. When you're a minority like that, it's uplifting and inspiring to get some validation like that. I felt real fuckin good after the Reason Rally, if I may interject a personal note.

But I can't help but think about just how far we have to go. The highest estimate I saw of the attendance (the official National Mall Park Service one) put the total attendance at 30 000, which is about what the Indians draw on a typical fireworks night. We're growing in numbers and coherence, but there's a lot of work in front of us, and that challenge can really be quite daunting.

I say: bring it on.


dash said...

Enjoyed the post. Now I understand a bit better why you had a twitter seizure during the course of the event.

Anonymous said...

"With an attendance of 30 000, according to the National Mall Park Service"

That is wrong. The National Mall Park Service completely stopped tracking attendance at National Mall events after the Million Man March.

Please correct for accuracy and honesty.

Who is the actual source of the 30,000 figure?