Believe It or Not

“You see, the world’s falling apart at the rifts,
And surprisingly, the leaders can’t make any sense of it
We mean nothing to the world, we’re all someone else’s fool,
But oh, what can you do?”

-Bad Religion, “What Can You Do?”

 

Last Saturday, I stopped by the National Mall to attend the Reason Rally. Billed as the largest known gathering of atheists in history, it ran all day long and included speeches and performances from numerous writers, activists, comedians and musicians who came from all over the world to share their pro-scientific-method, anti-faith-in-the-supernatural convictions. Likewise, the crowd that gathered for the event, estimated at 20,000 people, had travelled from all around with these same convictions in mind. Solidarity seemed to be the word of the day.

I showed up fashionably late at around 10:30 and took a walk around to size things up. The atmosphere was surprisingly sedate. Though enthusiastic, everyone carried themselves with a sense of restraint and reserve. For such a large gathering with such a controversial premise, I was expecting a little more electricity in the air. Was it the gloomy weather? Or maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me at all coming from a group that prides itself on being “rationalistic.”

I got bored with the scenery real fast and made my way to the front to check out the action on stage. I stayed rooted in place for several hours, while it rained nearly non-stop and the temperature made my fingers numb, and took in more speakers and performers than I can keep straight. Honestly, it’s mostly a painfully redundant blur to me; all of them said basically the exact same thing. The sloganeering about “rationalism”, “humanism”, “skepticism” and the laundry list of injustices committed in the name of organized religion were not news to anyone, yet they were reiterated at every opportunity.

What surprised me was the sentiment that atheists are a disenfranchised minority vying for equality in a society that has been historically hostile towards them. I never realized how sheltered I was coming from an ultra-liberal city where almost everyone I know is wary of religion. So it initially smacked of hubris and hyperbole to me when they drew parallels to the civil rights, women’s liberation and LGBT movements.

Although all the speakers were earnestly passionate about their beliefs, only a few struck me as having really, truly put something on the line: the 16-year-old who endured censure and harassment to get a prayer removed from her school’s gymnasium; the Indian writer and activist who was exiled from her homeland; the son of a controversial Baptist minister who is now estranged from his family; one or two others. Coming from these people, the demand for fair treatment carried some weight.

Unfortunately, the credibility of those speakers was undermined by the smug, self-righteous attitude evident nearly everywhere else. While event organizers claimed that it was not their intention to put down “believers,” this was ultimately lip-service, as most of the day’s speeches implied, if not outright declared, that atheists are intellectually and morally superior to the majority of people.

I don’t care what anyone’s beliefs are. I’m not a theist, atheist, or agnostic. I don’t care enough to have an opinion. But I don’t see how this movement expects to earn respect that it’s not ready to give in return. It sounds to me like just another voice drowning in the debate, no worse but no better.