Some Thoughts on the Reason Rally

The Reason Rally of 2012 was by all accounts a great success. Billed as “a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics,” it stressed church-state issues and let its atheistic freak-flags fly. Despite being held during a rain storm, about 20,000 people showed up.

Atheism and secularism have since become more popular. The organizer of the 2016 Reason Rally, Kelly Damerow, promised “the biggest gathering of nonreligious people in history.” She forecast a turnout of 30,000 people, and also set a target of raising $100,000. While the 2012 rally stressed “atheist values,” the 2016 rally promised to avoid confrontation and stress “secular values,” covering issues like climate change, LGBT rights, sex education, and social justice. The announcement got good media coverage.

 

The Reason Rally took place the weekend of June 4. While Washington D.C. was seasonably hot and humid, the weather was much better than in 2012. There is still no official estimate of attendance, but the organizers’ unofficial estimate was 15,000 to 20,000. Hemat Mehta, a popular atheist blogger, thought this estimate was about twice the actual turnout. The Rally also failed to meet its financial goal. Media coverage was light, and focused on the disappointing turnout and no-show speakers. I saw no coverage of talks about climate change, LGBT rights, sex education, social justice, or other substantive matters.

In short, Reason Rally 2016 was a failure. While there are many possible reasons, I suspect that political correctness and the avoidance of controversy was part of the problem. I am reminded of one of the great triumphs of the movement. Almost a century ago, it was illegal to teach evolution in many school districts. Clarence Darrow helped changed this in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. He did so by confronting biblical literalism and humiliating its expert witnesses. He was aided by the most popular journalist of the day, H.L. Mencken, who scorned political correctness, and lambasted the bible-thumping booboisie. While they lost the case, they won the war, and schools went on to teach evolution. (Americans now believe that God, as opposed to natural selection, causes evolution, but that is still progress.)

Times have changed. Media and society at large are more concerned with political correctness than previously. But I believe that rational arguments against the doctrines and practices of organized religion can still be effective. Besides, I believe that exposing and eliminating bullshit is in itself a virtue. I’m not talking about metaphysical discussions of God’s existence. People who believe that Jesus was simultaneously fully divine and fully human are not likely to be swayed by metaphysics. But less abstract arguments might help.

Religion is a very strange discipline. For example, millions of people still believe that Moses wrote the Five Books of Moses, essentially taking dictation from God. But no expert believes that. They know the Torah had multiple authors, all of whom wrote centuries after Moses. Similarly, many priests and pastors realize their flock hold traditional beliefs that are incorrect, but they choose to do nothing about it.

The Catholic Church preaches that using birth control is a mortal sin. That is, barring some special dispensation from God, if you use birth control, you are going to Hell. Pope Paul VI stated this in his encyclical, Humanae vitae. The sainted Pope John Paul II confirmed it, as did other popes. Given the quasi-infallibility of these popes, and the claimed inspiration for papal encyclicals, this doctrine is as certain as nearly any of the Church’s doctrines. The Catholic Church feels so strongly about the doctrine that it has forbidden its followers to use condoms, even in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, thus causing thousands of people to become infected with HIV. But the vast majority of adult Catholics use some form of birth control, and probably do not believe they are going to hell, contrary to Church doctrine. Surely this merits some discussion.