All Rallied Out

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.

This Reason Rally weekend has been utterly packed with an astounding variety of activities, talks, events, and, well, human beings! There was no way to cover it all, but I hope we were able to give you a good sense of some of the truly inspiring, moving, and enlightening moments that just kept on coming, hour by hour, minute by minute.

It’s time to wrap up, to pack up the propaganda, to load the vans, and to nurse the sunburns. And lay down. I really want to lay down.

My congratulations to the Reason Rally Coalition, and all the staff and volunteers that made this happen. I played some early role in all of this, heading the communications committee and whatnot, but of course the heavy lifting was done by my future coworker, Lyz Liddell. (Did I not tell you that we get to keep her? We do. Ha ha.) The woman is a force of nature. No wait, she’s better than a force of nature, because she’s really, really intentional. So maybe more like a superintelligent A.I., like one that would scare Elon Musk.

Did I mention I’m tired?

My sincere thanks to the CFI Live team, Nora Hurley and Matt Licata. What an awesome job they did, and how lucky am I to have them working with me.

And thanks of course to you for keeping up with us! We should do this again sometime. If you’re just popping in, go on back to the beginning of this blog-site-thing, and see what’s transpired.

I hope everyone traveling does so safely, and retains a sense of hope and openness that I think this Reason Rally tried to bring. “Be excellent to each other,” said Abraham Lincoln, I think, and so we should.

You know, that’s not a bad idea for a rally.

The Rise of Bonya Ahmed: The Reason Rally Mini-Con Keynote

Rafida Bonya Ahmed is my hero. She narrowly survived a machete attack by Islamists in Dhaka, an attack that claimed the life of her husband Avjit Roy, only to rise up and push even more forcefully for the very ideals that made the couple a target. Delivering the keynote address to the Reason Rally mini-con, Ahmed powerfully used her personal experiences as a lens to view an out of control emergency in Bangladesh and a crisis for secularism.

Those who follow the work of CFI know the horrible story: secularists, LGBT activists, and religious minorities have been slaughtered in public by Islamic extremists, aligned with various Islamist terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The murder of her husband in February of last year kicked off a spree of these kinds of killings, with two more having occurred in the past 24 hours alone.

Ahmed recalled her life growing up in Bangladesh, when being an open atheist was not dangerous, just maybe thought of as quirky. But war and economic disparity took their toll, opening the door for fundamentalism to entrench itself and gain the influence it enjoys today, such that the government of Bangladesh repeatedly blames the victims of the recent attacks for hurting religious feelings, and denies the presence of these terror groups who claim responsibility for the murders.

What Ahmed said that I think had the greatest implications for our work was her contention that the attack on her and her husband, and all that have followed, are not merely “attacks on free expression,” as even we at CFI have often framed them. They were really attacks on acknowledging reality and the rejection of superstition. It’s far more than an attempt to stop free expression in the abstract, it’s an attempt to stop the expression of science and reason. “[The victims] died because they understood that what science tells us about the past has consequences for how we deal with the future,” she said.

“Secular humanism is way more important today than ever in the history of our species,” she declared, “unless they did something spectacular before we learned how to write.” (She lost her train of thought for a moment, giggling at that last thought about prehistoric people with incredibly progressive values.)

She took a global view of the factors contributing to the growing influence and violence of fundamentalists, pointing the finger at various nations and institutions that have allowed these things to emerge, and castigated those who equate criticism of Islam with racism. “We must…have the courage to to call out ingrained religious fundamentalism with a very scientific mind.”

After her presentation, some of us were talking about how it was a shame that Ahmed must always be introduced as “the wife of Avijit Roy,” and it’s true that it would be better if her name alone currently had the renown that such an association was unnecessary. But I also know that when I think of that association, I never think of her as “wife of” someone. I think of her as Rafida Bonya Ahmed, the brilliant woman who the extremists could not kill, and who overcame her injuries, her terror, and her enormous loss to stand back up and continue her fight. She’s my hero.

Religious Burdens, Real and Imagined: Nick Little on the Mini-Con Legal Panel

Here’s what I like about Nick Little. He’s CFI’s legal director (his real VP title is longer and fancier), and he has a way of talking about the intricacies of the law that really hits you in the gut. Court decisions, opponent’s legal strategies, troubling new legislation, they are not just “wrong,” but revealed by Nick for their vast, destructive implications.

At the Reason Rally mini-con panel on the legal issues facing the secular movement, it was great to see Nick in the midst of our friends and allies doing legal work at the other organizations. They were all wicked sharp, wicked smart, and incredibly dedicated, but then there’s just something particularly vehement about Nick’s answers to questions that really sets him apart. That, I guess, and his British accent.

Take the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Nick rightfully bragged that CFI was one of the few progressive or secular groups to oppose it back in the 90s). RFRA led us to the abysmal Hobby Lobby decision, which on its face is a bad ruling that imposes an employer’s religious views about contraception on their employees. But Nick reminded us that reverberations are serious. He explained that a “substantial burden” on one’s religious freedom is now pretty much whatever any person says it is. It’s the rare, if not only, example of where a plaintiff gets to define the degree of burden on a constitutionally protected right. (Said Nick. I don’t know about these things, that’s why we have Nick.)

So Nick paints a picture where someone can simply decide for themselves what the rules of their particular religion are in regard to contraception, same-sex or transgender equality, or anything else. “You don’t get to change the rules of your religious beliefs,” he said. This means the civil rights for all sorts of people can be rolled back when this “burden” is invoked.

What organizations like ours need to do, then, is show that these religious interests can’t limit others’ rights based on their arbitrary faith tenets, but must prove with facts, science, and evidence that, say, complying with the contraceptive mandate is wrong, or that the bathrooms people use must be enforced by law.

You see? You weren’t even there, and you feel smarter already.

Humanism’s Selective Memory Problem

Debbie Goddard is CFI’s VP of Outreach, marking her 10th year with our organization. As someone who has worked for so long to strengthen humanist communities big and small, she had some truly insightful tough love for the wider humanist movement.

The theme of her talk boiled down to humanism’s odd position as a movement that chooses what issues to work on according to where we can oppose religious privilege and overreach. If it’s not fighting the bad guys, what is it for?

It’s this lack of an affirmative focus, Debbie said, that lays the groundwork for some of the humanist movement’s blind spots. And what keeps this blind spots obscured is an incomplete understanding of “Enlightenment values,” the vaunted concept upon which humanists hang their hats.

She spoke of the stereotype version of the Enlightenment that humanists attach themselves to, a “caricature” that only recognizes the bits about science, empiricism, and individualism. This caricature ignores the parts of the Enlightenment that embraced the study of social sciences and psychology (“how humans work”), and the belief that emotions and logic work together, that our reasoning brains are supposed to be subservient to our passions.

If we had a more complete embrace of Enlightenment values, said Debbie, then we could get ahead of what she called “secondary advocacy,” one taking positions when the bad guy is clearly religion or pseudoscience. And we could begin to incorporate the knowledge gained from the social sciences, so we could understand humans and how they’re shaped by society.

She recommended that we as a movement focus much more on local groups and campus organizations, where people on the ground can get leadership training, and be more flexible in effecting change.

This was an important talk, and I hope more people get to hear Debbie talk about this issue. She points out how we sometimes allow ourselves to believe that our irreligion “inoculates” us from things like racism and sexism, when too often we aren’t looking honestly at the structural problems that allow those things to arise. Ironically, our movement that values individuality so much can wind up minimizing our differences.

And how can we celebrate our differences if we aren’t acknowledging them?

Leaving God, Finding Yourself

I got to see a little bit of the panel focused on the often-difficult journey out of religion and faith, and even in that little bit I heard a staggeringly vast spectrum of experiences.

Of note to me, we had Maryam Namazie’s recounting of Iranian liberals, involved in the revolution, who were later executed for their lack of belief in God. And Mark White of the Spin Doctors spoke about how he got angry blowback from fans after they find out about his atheism, but that his modicum of celebrity has somehow cushioned his religious family who might otherwise might have been more upset about his lack of faith.

Julia Sweeney’s experience was actually something I think that almost anyone could relate to, religious or nonreligious. She talked about how her conversations with God, where she’d look to him for guidance, and imagine him behaving as a kind of therapist saying, “I know, it’s so hard, Julia.” But it later dawned on her, “That was me! That was me comforting myself.”

To me, that was not just about how we can deceive ourselves with magical thinking, but also that we have power within ourselves to be our own comfort, that we can look within ourselves to find guidance. That’s something that I bet anyone would do well to remember.

No Praying, No Doughnuts: Celebrity Panel at the Mini-Con

George Hrab moderated a surprisingly insightful conversation at the Reason Rally mini-con “celebrity panel,” using really quite pointed zingers to elicit some deep, personal reflections from the panelists.

Hrab kicked things off by asking the panelists what they think is overrated about themselves, which you have to hope is going to be asked in the fall presidential debates. Anyway, there were some pretty good answers (Dave Rubin said listening to guests is actually not hard, Lawrence Krauss said it was his looks), but the majority of the discussion in this section centered around Kelly Carlin and the connection she has in the public mind, and to herself, as the daughter of George Carlin, which proves both blessing and burden. With so many of the panelists (and attendees) having been so deeply influenced by George, hearing Kelly’s perspective was really eye-opening.

Krauss, I should point out, also noted that people overestimate how much he understands about his own field of theoretical physics. “I can confuse people easily, and they think of it as brilliance.” And Paul Provenza more or less said that he couldn’t think of anything that was overrated about himself because he doesn’t rate himself, like, at all.

A lot more territory was covered, including how the panelists found their way to nonbelief. Carlin noted how atheism was not really a conversation in her household, despite the fiery comedy of her dad, who she described as a “seeker.” John de Lancie recalled his experience in cub scouts, when a den mother refused to allow him doughnuts.

“No praying, no doughnuts,” de Lancie recalled, and that was that.

The God made a quick cameo by making an ominous rumbling sound, mostly to scare Dave Rubin.

People from Lots of Different Places are Supporting Reason and Science

Some people chose to get a bit creative—or in this case, literal—with their signs.

Some people replaced prepositions in order to best express themselves. Nice!

Both are places where reason and science can make a critical difference… we think.

Her name is Faith, but she wanted to make sure we knew she didn’t have any.

Wise beyond his years.

There’s Nothing “Mini” About This

After what I assume were thousands of very long showers to wash the sweat, dirt, pollen, sunscreen, and exhaustion away, the assembled heathens in Washington rise again this morning for the Reason Rally mini-con. As I type, I am told there’s some jumping up and down and singing with the Sunday Assembly, which I wholeheartedly support and encourage, if not partake in.

This is called a “mini-convention,” but just take a look at the schedule, and it doesn’t feel so “mini.” If anything, it’s an overwhelmingly varied and eclectic buffet of secularism. I frankly don’t know how people will choose what to see and what to miss.

Of course, all the organizations are ensconced behind their various propaganda tables, and CFI/RDF is no different, so please make sure you come by to say hi, and get subtly convinced of the absolute necessity to become a member. And get a sticker!

I’ll tell you right now, the biggest deal for me will be the keynote from Bonya Ahmed. I love that we have someone who’s not necessarily famous, but a real damn hero.

More soon!