Flying back to Portland, Oregon from the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. gave me the time to reflect on what I and my traveling companions had experienced. We were a motley crew. Melanie was raised secular and only became interested in atheism lately given recent moves to restrict women’s reproductive rights. Robin is active in the secular community and has written an essay about her experience for my upcoming book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion. I was hoping to meet with people that I had connected with on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media as well as fellow atheist authors. I also wanted to make up for the trip to Washington, D.C. I lost out on in high school in the sixties. The Bismarck High School band was slated to march in a parade, but our Congressman told us it was too dangerous because of the marches against the Vietnam War. This time, I was part of the protest.
The rally had the air of a festival with a large stage, music, and a list of noteworthy speakers. People were camped out on the lawn, under the trees or a shade, sitting in portable chairs or on blankets. But it was a protest nonetheless – a protest about the intrusion of religion into our government, the destructive force religion has played in our country and others, and the individual lives that have been adversely affected by the dogma and corrosive influences of religion.
The two days before the rally were devoted to lobbying Congress about the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (S. 2765 and H. R. 1706). This act is an attempt to counter the funding of the federal government for abstinence-only sex education (almost $2 billion in federal taxpayer dollars) which as we all know is based upon a religious view and does nothing to prevent youth from having sex. Youth who receive abstinence-only education have sex just about as much as those with real sex education, but without any knowledge about protection against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases to say nothing about the lack of information about LGBT issues. The bills we lobbied include all of these issues. David Garcia from the Public Policy and Community Building in the LGBT Center in Los Angeles shared information about a new drug, PrEP, that can prevent HIV. We were lucky that two of Oregon’s five representatives and one of our senators had already signed on to the bills. Unfortunately, Congress was on recess and we only had access to staffers. I am confident, however, that they will relay our information and I will follow up with letters to our delegation. Those meeting with Senator Cruz, of course, didn’t have much hope of changing his mind.
The Saturday event featured very short speeches by a wide variety of well-known atheists: David Silverman, head of American Atheists which helped plan the rally, Bill Nye, the science guy, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Cara Santa Maria, an amazing young woman scientist, Julia Sweeney, former SNL comedian, and many many others. Hemant Mehta in his blog, The Friendly Atheist, did point out that there were not many atheist bloggers or podcasters in the group. He also noted that there didn’t appear to be the tens of thousands that the rally organizers expected. His points are well taken. I choose, however, to look on the bright side. In a country with only 5% of people who are willing to acknowledge they are atheists, here was an out-in-the-open all-day rally that featured speaker after speaker who were well-known atheists. I mean, if you haven’t heard of Bill Nye, where have you been living?
In my opinion, the mini-convention on Sunday was the real meat of the event. Unfortunately, it cost $199 to attend. I am not arguing with the price. I’ve put on many conferences and this one was well organized with relevant workshops, exhibits, and opportunities to meet and greet, but I am sure the price limited attendance. Sunday’s event started off with music from the Sunday Assembly. There are so many cultural underpinnings of religion that cause people to cling to their church affiliation. One is music. I felt that joy that I did in church when I got to sing out loud with the crowd. Of course the songs were much more relevant than the ones I sang in church… A series of workshops with a diverse range of speakers followed: Maryam Namase (Iranian-born atheist), David Rubin (the Rubin Report), Lawrence Krauss, Gayle Jordan, the new leader for Recovering from Religion, and many more.
The most moving speaker was Rafida Bonya Ahmed who was attacked in Bangladesh in 2015. Her husband, Avijit Roy, a U. S. citizen, was murdered. He was an atheist blogger who had returned to Bangladesh for a book signing. Rafida told the story of how the officials in Bangladesh, supposedly a secular country with a secular government, remained silent. They finally spoke out and blamed the victims saying they should have “known their limits and not written what they did.” Attacks in Bangladesh aren’t limited to atheists, but to everyone who doesn’t support the extreme Wahabi form of Islam. Recently an anti-blasphemy law was passed that could result in 14 years in prison for criticizing religion on the Internet.
Would there be things I would do differently? Yes. First, while I appreciate the focus on “reason” to promote critical thinking about the mythology of religion, I would have preferred it be called the Atheist Festival. On May 26 in Portland, Oregon, we held an event entitled just that. Different groups such as the Center for Inquiry and the Humanists of Greater Portland participated. But our steering committee wanted to be clear what we were about. I had the opportunity to take many rides in Uber and Lyft during my stay in D. C. and asked each driver if they had heard of the Reason Rally. None had. Would they have heard of it if it had been called the Atheist Festival? I am not sure as there is something is going on in DC every day and it would be difficult for anyone living there to keep up. But I agree with David Silverman. If we would all call ourselves atheists, the next Pew survey we might show we make up 30% of the US population.
Second, I don’t know if there would have been more people if it were held at a different time. The 2012 Reason Rally was held in March when more students were in classes. But the summer timing also permitted people to bring their families and make a vacation out of it. It’s a toss-up to me.
Third, I think it is appalling that some atheists were persuaded by Thunderf00t’s rant about the rally to not attend. He focused on a Code of Conduct listed on the Reason Rally website that indicated respect should be shown for LGBT attendees and turned that into a diatribe about SJW’s. SJW is a Social Justice Warrior. If an atheist is persuaded by ThunderfOOt, we are in deep trouble.
Fourth, I noticed some criticism of “the atheism movement” on Facebook in the days after the convention. Personally, I think it is amazing such disparate groups can even be called a movement. After all, what they have in common is a disbelief. Some organizations focus solely on separation of church and state. Some focus on humanism and shy away from the atheist label altogether. Some promote science and reason. That these groups came together and created a great rally is in and of itself an achievement.
In closing, I must admit that my friends and I shamelessly used the rally and its events to promote my book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, by handing out 1500 cards with the book’s cover and information on my blog. Hey, I had to justify spending money to travel from one side of the country to the other! Plus, it was great to talk with individual attendees and speakers. I have found throughout the last two years of this effort that I have been welcomed by just about everyone in the “movement.” I had the chance to meet many of the people that have helped me (blurbed my book, promoted my blog, hosted me on their shows). I also was able to meet many of the speakers individually and offer to work with them on promoting the cause. All in all, a trip well worth it.
Karen L. Garst