Reason Rally Wrap-Up, Part 1

It's Sunday morning, and I'm writing this on the train from Washington, D.C. back to New York. I'm exhausted, washed out, and my calves are two knots of pain from all the standing and walking I've been doing these past two days. But I feel like a live wire, buzzing with energy and happiness. I'm returning home from the Reason Rally, and it was tremendous. It was everything I had anticipated and more. When the history of the atheist movement is written, this is going to go down as a defining moment.


If you were there, you know what I'm talking about. If you weren't, this is how it all happened.

Above: The Reason Rally stage being set up the day before.

The day before was sunny, bright and hot, but the Saturday of the Reason Rally was cold and foggy, with drizzling bursts of rain throughout the day. But something as mundane as a little bad weather couldn't dampen the spirits of the crowd, which filled up an entire city block's length of the National Mall with ponchos and umbrellas in tow. (If God was trying to send a flood to wash us infidels away, he couldn't muster up much. Poor guy, his powers seem to be ebbing.)

Above: The stage in the early morning of the rally.

Above: The crowds start arriving.

We congregated at the base of the Washington Monument, where the speakers took their places on the podium of a stage facing the Capitol, flanked by two giant screens showing them up close. The crowd was immense. The number I heard - supposedly given by the Park Service, although I can't confirm that - was 25,000 people. That alone would easily make it the largest atheist gathering in modern history.

But that number, impressive as it is, doesn't capture the reality. That was 25,000 people who made the trip to Washington, D.C. from across the country, and then stood in the cold and the rain for eight hours to listen to a bunch of atheists speak. (Hat tip to my friends from the Freethinkers of the University of North Dakota, who drove 26 hours (!!) to be there, and then turned around to make the same trip back again the day after. If you want a microcosm of the atheist movement, of the passion and devotion that drives us, they're living it.)

Above: The crowds swell as the rally builds to a crescendo.

There were some counter-protestors, though not very many. Just before the beginning of the rally, I was approached by three people who turned out to be from a Christian apologetics group. They tried to engage me in an argument, and though they were polite enough, I really couldn't be bothered. This was our day, our moment in the sun, and I wasn't about to waste any of it debating theology that's two millennia past its sell-by date. I do enough of that on other occasions. (Also, for future reference, guys: Asking an atheist, "What do you think is the best argument for God?" isn't going to get you far. Bad enough you tried to horn in on a day that was for us atheists; I'm not doing your job for you to boot.)

Off to the side, there were some other protesters, these ones less polite. Again, I didn't engage with any of them, but each one was the center of a dense knot of atheists shooting rhetorical cannonades at them. If they wanted an argument, they certainly got it. I'm happy to say that all the debates I witnessed, however heated, were entirely civil in spite of their obvious attempt to provoke us. That's exactly how you handle these people. Just like with the gelato scandal at Skepticon IV, I'm repeatedly shown that the atheist community knows just how to behave and how to conduct ourselves in the face of hostility.

During the rally, I tweeted that Westboro Baptist hadn't made their promised appearance, but I later found out that was wrong. There were only a handful of them, just four or five, hidden away in a strange spot behind the stage. I never saw them, and I doubt that most people knew they were there at all.

But, as I said, this was our day. Enough about the preachers! As the Reason Rally showed, their day of irrelevance is approaching sooner than they think.

Onward to Part 2: Introducing the headline speakers of the Reason Rally.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.