Thoughts at the End of the Rally: How’d We Do Four Years Later?

I’ve said this to colleagues so many times over the past few months, it feels like a cliche, but I think this bears mentioning here: In general, the 2012 Reason Rally was a kind of primal scream for the American nonbeliever, a chance to show the strength of our raw numbers and enthusiasm. I think it did that really well.

What I wanted for the 2016 Reason Rally was something broader, not a “we’re here and get used to it” message, but a celebration of our values and a declaration that we would work to put those values into action to make a better world. It’s not as fiery as the 2012 message, but I think necessary, and more in line with what we really want.

For me, and for CFI certainly, it’s never been just about raise-up-the-atheists. That’s part of it, but it’s more. It’s really making the world a better place using science and skepticism as our tools, humanism as our guiding values.

Sitting here now on the floor of the exhibitors’ tent, as everything is being disassembled and Wu-Tang is performing what seems like a million miles away, I think the 2016 Reason Rally got there. I think with the mix of speakers, and the wide breadth of messages and calls to action, we got there.

Yes, we loudly and proudly championed the equality of atheists, and we took head-on the injustices and manipulations of religious dogma. But we also talked about building alliances with people who think differently from us. We talked about climate change and renewable energy and GMOs and vaccines and helping a girl in Afghanistan get the education she yearns for. We had a Hindu Member of Congress talk about saving the lives of secularists in Bangladesh, we had someone asking us to look into each other’s eyes and marvel at the workings of evolution that allowed them to arise, and we had countless calls to get civically involved so that things can be made better for everyone.

And we had Q. Didn’t have Q in 2012. So there.

This is Paul Fidalgo signing out for the day. My sincere thanks to Nora Hurley and Matt Licata for their very hard work today. They are among the best colleagues one could ask for.

See you tomorrow at the mini-con!

Todd Stiefel’s Prescription for a Hopeful Future

The last formal speech of the day went to Todd Stiefel, who for years now has been the engine for so many major freethought campaigns, organizations, and initiatives. Todd delivered a sweeping address, sounding almost like a presidential candidate, laying out a broad vision for the future he’d like to see.

Todd named three general areas of concern that those who champion reason need to tackle: Fixing the broken American political system, fighting for civil liberties, and minimizing the existential threats to our species.

Now, there may have been points in Todd’s address that you might have thought, hey, what does this have to do with, like, atheists and stuff? Well pretty much everything Todd talked about, from opening up the political process to third parties, to taking on the anti-LGBT laws running rampant in the states, to dealing with nuclear weapons. (“Our end may come from a nuclear armed dictator who values the next life more than this one,” he said.) All of these issues open the path for reason to drive policy and solve our biggest problems.

Todd called for a new Civil Rights Act of 2017, for better evolution education to better take on the threat of drug-resistant bacteria, for the end of tax exemptions for religious organizations, to an end to blasphemy laws and the oppression of women worldwide, and much more.

He pointed out that the nonreligious were the group least likely to be registered to vote, and that this must change. “We can save humanity!” he said, but only if we act.

The Gospel According to Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney was one of the first visible celebrities who I became aware of who made nonbelief, well, normal. She was among the first I knew of to discuss the difficult transition from religion to atheism in a way that the mainstream public could feel for. I think our movement owes her a lot.

So leave it to Julia Sweeney, sweet, funny, delightful Julia Sweeney, to point out what a bloodthirsty monster Jesus is.

Okay that’s not all she did, but she did make a point of highlighting some of the savior’s more violent and misogynistic tendencies, from parables she called “foggy,” “meaningless,” and “offensive.” There was stuff about putting people to the sword, and the galling stuff about “I must not permit a woman to teach,” and if she must know something, “let her ask her husband at home.”

“That’s ‘the good news,’” she hissed.

Yet Sweeney was able to understand why some ostensibly secular people were less than ready to leave their religious traditions, for the community and comfort of them. “I actually sort of get that,” she said, but also noted that those more or less secular religious believers then get to be claimed by these religions as fully-invested and believing members. The secular, she tells us, we “freethinking individuals, free from superstition,” need to make themselves known.

‘SciBabe’ Yvette d’Entremont on Unexpected Allies

“Where my reptilians at?” That’s a really good way to get my attention at the beginning of a Reason Rally speech. I mean, come on, what if there are reptilians? Should we just pretend they’re not there?

Yvette d’Entremont, known as the SciBabe for her web videos promoting critical thinking and debunking myths (or, as she put it, “science with a side of dick jokes”), I think made a lot of new fans today. She told a personal story of what she learned from her former organic chemistry professor, who she only learned much later was religious, and yet devoted her life to training critical thinkers and scientists — both to her own students and to younger kids.

What she learned was incredibly valuable, especially for us to remember, that many, many religious people are with us on important points, on any number of crucial issues. How else would we at CFI be able to ally ourselves with religious groups on various issues, all the time?

On the flip side, she echoed what I heard from Cara Santa Maria, that not all atheists are critical thinkers all the time. She cited her experience with atheists who are into things like chakras and fad cleanses and other new-agey things. “That’s a different kind of irrational that we still need to fight,” said d’Entremont.

And she’s right. We’d do well to remember that not everyone within our movement is on the same page on all issues, and that’s okay, but more importantly, that we have allies everywhere, if we’re just open to finding them.

Bill Nye: Drop the Cynicism, and Git’er Done!

Can I tell you how much I love it that Bill Nye is so often introduced as “a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry”? I am telling you, and the answer is, a lot. I love it a lot. CSI is a program of CFI, you see, so that means he’s ours. We claim him.

If you’ve seen Bill Nye give a speech lately, you know the theme: He wants us to change the world by embracing science at the moment our civilization needs it so desperately.

It was no different today, and with his Reason Rally address, Bill particularly focused on political participation to ensure that we have people in power and making laws who can realize the changes we will need to make in areas like renewable energy and climate change.

“You HAVE to vote,” he told the crowd, and admonished those who get their kicks from opting out of the process. “If you’re cynical about voting,” he said, “sit down and shut up.”

“If you like to worry about things, you are living at a great time!” Bill told us, what with global warming and war and the Zika virus and whatnot. But key to Nye’s address, he urged us not the despair of things going badly, but of how much potential we have to make everything better.

“We could be very optimistic – there is enough renewable energy to run this country, even the entire world, if we just decided to do it…if we just decided to git’er done!”

He rallied the crowd to go forth and be reasonable, imploring, gleefully, “Let’s go! “With critical thinking and reason we can find common ground…We can do this, everyone! We can change the world!”

Cara Santa Maria, GMOs, and Reason-Based Thinking

I’ve been scrambling to keep up with all these great speakers, and I was just trying to finish both my posts about Eddie Tabash and John de Lancie when Cara Santa Maria came on stage. I missed the main portion of her talk, but I have had the pleasure to hear her at previous conferences.

I did happen to clue in toward the end of her address, and I wanted to highlight it. I am not, like John de Lancie, omnipotent, but to the best of my memory I don’t think anyone else has hit the subject of science denial in regard to GMOs as squarely as she did. I think Lawrence Krauss mentioned it as part of a larger litany of things, and that’s great, but Cara Santa Maria raised the point that it can be politically dangerous for someone who identifies as progressive to bring up the fact that GMO fears are almost entirely baseless. She had to brace herself, and cautioned that she was afraid that even among atheists, she might get some boos. To my ears, she did not. [Web designer’s note: I heard a few boos.]

But it’s an important point: “Atheism” does not always equate to reason based thinking in all areas. Indeed, we have great scientists, scientists who would surely tell you not to be afraid of vaccines and GMOs, but nonetheless also believe in God. Disbelievers in God, then, are entirely capable of believing in other unreasonable things. And some can believe in those things very strongly.

Cara Santa Maria’s proviso before bringing up the safety of GMOs is telling, that she couldn’t be sure it’d go over. It was encouraging then, that it did.

John de Lancie is…a God!

Okay, I’ll be honest. I don’t personally care all that much about celebrities, they don’t make me giddy or get me excited to get their autograph or anything like that. But this event has one person who does bring out the fanboy in me, and that’s John de Lancie. And let me tell you, he’s my personal favorite so far.

And how could he not be? He opened with the words, “I am John de Lancie, and I am a god!” Then he added, “At least I played one on TV.” This is of course a reference to his role as the omnipotent space-being Q on three Star Trek series.

He went on in character, as a god which he said had been “created by humans” — just like all other gods — “high atop the sacred Paramount.” (I’m guessing he was being careful about intellectual property here by not mentioning Q-know-who.)

He used his god-persona to warn us of the machinations and manipulations of “gods,” and more importantly, those who machinate and manipulate in the name of gods. “I am the product of your hopes and fears,” he ominously announced. “I will lead you down the path of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry.”

More ominously, the de Lancie-god called this election season “a field day for us gods” as unreason and conspiracy thinking runs rampant.

I must say, it was stirring to hear someone speaking “for” a god warn us about what a fictional being can inspire humans do to each other. If only he were really Q, he could have snapped his fingers and fixed everything in an instant.

After annoying Captain Picard for about 40 minutes first.

Lawrence Krauss Celebrates the Freedom to Question

Lawrence Krauss told a touching story of his experience in trying to help a young girl in Afghanistan pursue her dream of an education, how she was inspired by the previous Reason Rally and Krauss’s film with Richard Dawkins, The Unbelievers. Despite his best efforts and recommendations, and admission to Arizona State University, this young girl was denied a visa. Thanks to help from CFI and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, she may have another chance.

Krauss took the opportunity of being at the Lincoln Memorial to declare that he, too, has a dream today, that public policy would no longer be based on faith and superstition. He emphasized that freedom of inquiry is what truly unites us at this rally and his young friend in Afghanistan. “It’s the Freedom to question that we are all really celebrating…That’s what we have to teach children”

“Criticizing ideas is not the same as criticizing people,” said Krauss. “Unless it’s Donald Trump.”

Eddie Tabash Strikes Fear in the Heart of Superstition

Listen, Eddie Tabash is a strong man. Chair of the board of CFI, and a veteran litigator and church-state separation activist, Eddie has powerful intellect and an oratorical style that is both blunt and vivid.

But he is also simply physically strong. I’m serious. Do not mess with Eddie Tabash, he is astoundingly mighty. But that’s neither here nor there.

That power was on display as Eddie delivered his address to the Reason Rally, expounding upon the work of CFI, of which he is clearly very proud. Eddie spoke with real passion about the drive for the equal status of atheists, and the right to religious dissent. But he was just as strong talking about the importance of skepticism, and how we “reject the claims of ESP and UFO visitations” and promote “the application of the empirical scientific method to all areas of human endeavor.”

I was especially glad to hear Eddie tell the crowd of one moment that made him particularly proud of CFI and its work: When one of our representatives at the UN Human Rights Council, Josephine Macintosh, was berated by the Saudi representative during her presentation to the Council on Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.  (“Tell that woman to shut up!” the Saudi delegate shouted.) Macintosh soldiered on, and soon garnered the vocal support of the U.S., Canada, France, and other countries.

“When religious fundamentalist tyrannies make such an effort to silence CFI,” boasted Eddie, “we know we are doing great work to rid the world of the scourge of theocratic dictatorships.”

He also spoke of CFI’s “critical role” in saving the lives of secularists in countries like Bangladesh where their lack of religious belief can get them killed by marauders with machetes, as well as our work to bring sanity to the regulation of homeopathy, to change the way we talk about climate change “skeptics” as opposed to “deniers,” and much more.

Eddie lamented that despite all of the work put in by CFI and other freethought groups, “hardly a dent” has been made in “the monolithic wall of superstition.” We all must continue to introduce critical thinking into the public consciousness, he said.

Oh, and of course, like a good chair of the board, he plugged our upcoming conferences. About Women in Secularism 4, he said, forcefully, that “the heavy hand of fundamentalist religious dogma” has too long been allowed to “hamper the millennia long struggle for universal equal rights for women,” calling such a change “thousands of years overdue because of religion.”

And he also plugged CSICon, especially the fact that James Randi would be there!

Boiling it all down, Eddie’s core message about CFI (and its merging partner the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science) was clear, that we aim to “strike fear in the hearts of anyone who wants to use religion or pseudoscience to manipulate or damage the scope of human freedom.”