By Dave Dentel
It’s hard being an atheist in America. That was one of the themes thundered from the podium at the inaugural “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 24, though the moral force the message was somewhat undermined by the copious Christian-baiting, God-hating and general anti-religious invective that dominated every presentation.
Billed as a national platform at which atheists could showcase their gentility and cool reason, the event abounded in irony. Here were speakers and their supporters gathered in the heart of the nation’s capital, freely lambasting enemies real and imagined while simultaneously complaining of how their First Amendment rights are being curtailed.
Of course, part of the duplicity apparent Saturday stemmed from the modus operandi of today’s atheists in primarily picking fights not with thoughtful opponents, but with straw men. Then there’s the fact that mass rallies are not designed to provoke careful consideration, but to agitate crowds into a mood for receiving a call to action.
Such a call was clearly issued and eagerly received.
If not for this climactic, storm-the-battlements moment, the rally primarily would have resembled a collective tantrum, ranging from the merely annoying to the excruciatingly absurd. Consider these choice moments:
• In addition to misquoting Genesis and declaring Harry Potter more believable than the Bible, educator and magician James Randi disparaged the religious by calling them “woo-woos” (rhymes with moo-moos). “Constant vigilance cannot be relaxed,” he prophesied, “or the woo-woos will take over.”
• In a video presentation, comedian Bill Maher delighted the crowd by warning the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Godhead, present at the moment of creation, who convicts men of sin, points them to righteousness and draws them to salvation—to just leave him the fudge alone. (Only, like Ralphie in the classic film A Christmas Story, Maher didn’t say fudge.) We daresay the Holy Spirit will be glad to comply.
• Railing against attempts to restrict on-demand abortion, Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation told women in the crowd that religious fundamentalists were attempting to veil them in an “invisible burka.” She didn’t explain how to be certain something we can’t see is really there, but she did manage to persuade the mass of alleged freethinkers to chant with her in unison as they invoked the spirit of Thomas Jefferson to “build up that wall.”
The rally also had its share of things to be sad about. One young man we talked to explained how his journey to atheism had been launched by early, bad experiences involving his mother and a member of a well-known cult. Likewise, speaker Nate Phelps recounted how his loss of faith was engendered by the bigotry of his father, a leader at the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas (the “God hates fags” people).
Incidentally, the Westboro agitators apparently were the only group to seek a permit for an official counter-protest to the rally, unfortunately providing the perfect caricature for the atheists to rail against.
Pathos and puerility aside, the rally illustrated that this new atheism should be taken seriously. The movement is not large, but is growing. USA Today cites a 2008 survey stating the percentage of Americans calling themselves atheists or agnostics had risen to 1.6 percent. And, as a lobbying session held in conjunction with the rally proves, these new atheists are bent on increasing their influence and pressing for change.
Specific agendas can be found on websites of organizations such as the Richard Dawkins Foundation, whose Director of Strategy and Policy Sean Faircloth revealed a 10-point plan to oust the religious officials in high places supposedly orchestrating the marginalization of atheists.
Meanwhile, issues these folks mostly keenly wish to see addressed were made quite apparent on Saturday. These include:
• Amending child welfare and childcare laws to eliminate so-called loopholes that allow for religious instruction or practices atheists deem harmful. (The planks of atheism are the only indoctrination that should be allowed. So much for free thinking.)
• Demanding strict secularization of government and public education. (Have they taken a look around recently?)
• Abolishing tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations.
In essence, by setting themselves up as the true arbiters of reason, the new atheists hope to gain a position by which they can marginalize all who disagree with them—particularly the religious. The supreme irony is that by adopting this approach, the atheists have already become the very thing they say they despise: militant fundamentalists.
And therein lies the danger.