are you taking over, or are you taking orders?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reason Rally Recap

This past weekend, I took a twelve hour car ride from Chicago to Washington, DC in order to attend the Reason Rally, advertised by its organizers as the largest gathering of secular Americans in our nation's history, a turning point for the movement, the massive, unavoidable statement that would make politicians on Capitol Hill and Americans at large take notice of the nonbelievers that live amongst them, and begin to view atheists as not a group to despise, but one to be accepted, in the same sort of way that the larger number of comings-out amongst queer peoples have resulted in greater, if certainly not complete, acceptance. More hyperbolic and embarrassing spokespeople, for instance American Atheists president Dave Silverman, dubbed it the “Woodstock of atheism.”

This kind of rhetoric quite simply puts me ill at ease, and so ever since the rally was announced and plans were made by friends in Chicago to go, I had been hemming and hawing about attending. The speaker list was always amazing; Paul Provenza was the MC, and the list included favorite people of mine like Greta Christina, Jamie Kilstein, Jessica Ahlquist, Tim Minchin, PZ Myers, Taslima Nasrin, and the man whose involvement finally convinced me to go, Eddie Izzard. But I was still concerned with the overall message; I did not want the rally to be some religion bashing fest or a massive wanking fest of how great and smart we are because we don't believe in God, and if that's what it was going to be, I really did not want to sit in a car for 24 hours over three days to deal with that.

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. There were certainly speakers who parroted those things I've mentioned, Silverman, United Coalition of Reason director Fred Edwords, and R. Elisabeth Cornwell, the Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. being the notable examples. Cornwell in particular made me uneasy; she started out excellently, with very strong, feminist rhetoric in relation to the Republicans' war on women. However, she chose to devolve her talk into a rah-rah, chant slogans at Capitol Hill type of thing. A bit too religious and moblike for me, thanks. 

The messages from most of the speakers, though, were positive, and more importantly, the most powerful and impressive speakers were the ones who made calls to action for the movement, for development, for atheists to begin looking beyond the movement's established paradigm of veneration for reason, rationality, science, and historical religion bashing into a more learned, informed, political frame of mind. Jamie Kilstein exemplified this. Jamie is a standup comedian and co-host of Citizen Radio, a superb independent progressive political podcast, and someone who I've always been a fan and supporter of. His talk at the Rally, though, was like no one else's. In his trademark million-words-a-minute style, he spat absolute fire for ten minutes about homophobic Republicans, closeted gays and atheist teenagers, the misogynistic assholes on Reddit who made horrible comments towards a girl with a Carl Sagan book, and the need for the movement to get political, to engage with other progressive movements, for us ever to be accepted. I was honestly surprised at the response to him; he does not mince his word, and made a fair share of borderline comments (borderline for a mainstream crowd, not necessarily for you and me, dear reader), but he got an overwhelming round of applause.

Greta Christina has written often on the accusation made by many who are not atheists against us that we are just too angry; she presented the reasons why. She laid out a laundry list of things; the fact that her marriage is recognized in only 8 of 50 states in the union, the Catholic church's insistence on preaching against contraception even when a person's basic health requires it, that politicians in America are currently engaged in a war against women's bodies and their autonomy over them. The only proper response to the mountain of injustice and oppression that currently exists, a huge portion of which is directly propagated and endorsed by organized religion, for Greta, is to be angry, and to do something about it. As usual, I can't really find anything to argue with her about. Complacency in such circumstances as we live is immoral, unethical, and inexcusable.

Also, I can't really put it into words, but Tim Minchin was just absolutely fucking brilliant. If you don't know his music, I must implore you to check him out. He absolutely brought the crowd to its knees, especially, for me, with his performances of Confessions (dedicated to the amazing Rebecca Watson) and Storm. I cannot wait to see him perform again.

One of the biggest surprises, for me anyways, was the talk by Sean Faircloth, the Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. I was not particularly familiar with him before the rally, aside from some sexist comments and quasi-MRA excuses that he made at an American Atheists conference.. However, both of them were impressive for the same reasons mentioned previously; Faircloth encouraged massive political engagement, not just in terms of voting, but of more secular people running for office in order to make actual change and not just propagate the current clusterfuck that is American government. Now, given his past conduct, and also his history as a legislator within the current political system, I'm not here to declare that he's some kind of radical, or the kind of feminist or activist that I want within the movement. But, here, the message was right, I think, and I'll take any small victory I can get from the old guard of this movement. It gives me hope that maybe even they can change, though my skepticism remains strong.

All in all, a little over 20,000 people attended the rally, and I can only hope that this message sank in. As Greta points out, if even half of the attendees go back home to wherever they are from and start a group, strike up a relationship with their local representatives, run for the city council or something in this vein, then the Reason Rally will have been a massive success. The first part of this movement consisted of community building, of finding likeminded people in a country where nonbelief is reviled more than any other viewpoint, and creating safe spaces for atheists to gather, to talk, and most likely, drink heavily. This is all well and good, and must continue, for there are undoubtedly many people in America who are not yet out as nonbelievers for one reason or another. However, now that we have a foothold, it is time to move forward and begin engaging with society, not just sitting by the sidelines and scoffing at it all. Intolerance, bigotry, and absurdity must be fought up close and personal if it is to be defeated; it will not go away if we just ignore it. An activist secular movement won't be feeding the trolls; it will be driving them back into their caves for good. 

The Reason Rally, despite its small missteps, could be the signalling moment for this shift; I sincerely hope that the messages of Jamie, Greta, Jessica Ahlquist, PZ, et al are carried back and put into practice all across the United States.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Everybody's Got A Victim Complex These Days

Seriously, there are a lot of days these days when I feel mortified by the atheist movement and, moreso, who are considered luminaries within it. Days when I just want to curl up with a bottle of whiskey, put a bag over my head, hide in my apartment and watch QI forever. Paraphrasing Tim Minchin, I am ashamed of my fellow atheists and their innate sense of superiority over everyone else.

What is it this week? Well, technically, it was a few weeks ago, but American Atheists, that most cringeworthy of secular advocacy organizations, put up a billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ostensibly to protest Governor Tom Corbett's signing into law a bill that declares 2012 the "Year of the Bible" in that state. Now, AA has a long history of poorly designed, blunt, generally terrible billboards, but the Harrisburg one really takes the cake. It shows a shackled black slave with the quote "Slaves, obey your masters," a quote from Colossians 3:22. Now, the intention behind the billboard was, apparently, to show one of the many instances in which the Bible endorses slavery or misogyny or rape or all of the other wonderful things the supposedly happy, peaceful, transcendent piece of literature does.

However, as anyone with a modicum of understanding of how advertising, particularly billboards, actually work, that message is not what this billboard projects. What it projects to the average passerby is something incredibly racist, particularly given its location in one of Harrisburg's most diverse neighborhoods. Billboards are not made to push complicated ideas; they're made by their images, and it's not ridiculous for anyone to see a giant shackled slave with a supporting quote looming over their heads and get a bit upset. The advertisement was summarily vandalized and replaced after one day.

Surely, you might think that an organization such as American Atheists, which prides itself on its promotion of Reason, Rationality, and all those other objective buzzwords, would take notice of their mistake here, publish an apology, and work in the future to avoid such things? Well, their partner group, the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, did indeed put out an explanation, managing in the space of it to completely miss the point of why the billboard was defaced; namely, its use of race, and essentially say "well, I guess you guys who caused this DESTRUCTION (that's how they term it) just aren't smart enough or have strong enough investigative skills to get it. Our poor billboard!"

This is the same old white New Atheist bullshit that I am so tired of; this intellectual superiority that is carried as a badge of honor by its adherents, and the intellectual imperialism that follows from it. I have previously written on why I think this kind of conversion advocacy is wrong, and this debacle is just another example, I think. Dave Silverman and his ilk are so convinced of their own rightness, of their own indefatigable rationality, the superiority of not believing in the genocidal sky man, that they think that gives them the duty to force others to follow their own path. They think that if everyone would just read "The God Delusion" then everyone will be convinced, and we can run off and create a grand secular wonderland, because science.

Sikivu Hutchinson, as ever, lays it down:

“It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we white people say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to point out that traditions of scientific racism, secularism, and Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.”
The New Atheists LOVE to do this kind of thing: they put out shirts declaring "We Are All Africans", or sit around asking how to diversify the movement in rooms entirely made up of white people, or make ignorant comments wondering why people of color still go to church when it is oppressing them. The ignorance of race and gender oppression, in particular, amongst New Atheists is absolutely stunning at times.

I have recently had discussions (well, if we're honest, arguments) with two such strident atheists, who insist that their views are the best because they are "rational," and that they have a right to compare themselves to oppressed groups like African Americans and queers because atheists are like, super oppressed too. Certainly, as I mentioned in my conversion piece, atheists are not exactly well liked in America, but we have never been stolen from our native lands and kept in the worst conditions possible for months-long sea voyages only to be sold into nigh-inescapable slavery for the rest of our days. There aren't Atheist and Christian drinking fountains. We aren't forced to live on the outskirts of town, or in the worst neighborhoods of a big city, in food deserts without any public transportation access, for our nonbelief.

The attitude of American Atheists in the Pennsylvania billboard escapade, and in fact pretty much all of their publicity stunts, are steeped in these ridiculous notions of intellectual imperialism, superiority, and oppression, that just scream out the fact that they are desperate for a place in the Oppression Olympics. The victim complex at work here is mesmerizing in its sheer absurdity, and frankly, I believe through things like this they are ruining any chance our movement has of growing into one that is respected by other activist communities, or one that can make any kind of meaningful change. We need to cut this kind of discourse out, now.