Ethical Humanists at Reason Rally in DC
Hugh Taft-Morales, Leader
Baltimore Ethical Society and Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia
Congratulations to the organizers of the Reason Rally for putting together one hell of a show, excuse the expression! Encapsulating the largest explicitly secular gathering in history in a short article is impossible, especially given the long list of speakers
. Overall, the March 24th event on the National Mall in Washington was well-run: speakers stayed close to schedule; there was a good mix of music, humor, and speeches; video and sound systems were effective; and there were plenty of porta pottys!
Most impressive, however, was the 10,000-20,000 person audience: diverse in age, ethnicity and gender. Even though some of the comics on stage spat out expletives faster than the medieval church cranked out indulgences, children were underfoot and up on shoulders. Creative signs were everywhere, some humorous ("Hi Mom! I'm an atheist"), others in-your-face ("So many Christians, so few lions.")
It was inspiring to feel the energy. There was much smiling and laughter despite the rain. With ponchos or umbrellas, I stood with 15 members of the Baltimore Ethical Society (most wearing our "bmorethical" t-shirts), and two each from the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia and the Washington Ethical Society. Many other Ethical Culturists were scattered through the crowd.
From an Ethical Culture point of view, many who took the stage were on the "angry atheist" side of the spectrum. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins encouraged attendees to challenge the religious when they share their most absurd beliefs: "Mock them, ridicule them in public." I wondered what the handful of smiling evangelicals handing out free water and bible verses thought as that blasted from the loudspeakers.
Humanism was mentioned only occasionally and religious humanism hardly at all. Maybe this was for the best as there was little attempt to distinguish the regularly used terms such as atheism and secularism. But this was a rally after all, not an academic discussion. It was a coming-out party. "We are here to deliver a message to America," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. "We are here and we will never be silent again." Director of the United Coalition of Reason, Fred Edwords, chanted, "We're here! We're godless! Get used to it!"
I visited the sponsors' tent where energetic discussions buzzed at the tables of many groups, including American Atheists, Secular Coalition for America, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Freethought Society, United Coalition of Reason, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ). I spoke briefly with the last group's leader, Louis Altman. As the only sponsoring group identifying as religious, the SHJ found the organizers very responsive and respectful of them.
The conversation at the Baltimore Ethical Society the next day revealed diverse reactions. Some felt that some speakers were overly insulting of traditional religion, while others felt liberated by witnessing a real coming-out of atheists and skeptics. I confess I felt a bit of both. I enjoyed watching once closeted non-believers reveling in the moment. As Atheist Staks Rosch explained in the Huffington Post, it was a great day for those who suffered discrimination and endured fear of "having their families disown them, losing their jobs, or simply being harassed by the religious."
Ethical Culture doesn't promote the mocking disrespect of religion advocated by some speakers, and I would have preferred less self-righteous abrasiveness from the microphone. But the Reason Rally was full of messages with which most of us can agree. Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy & Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation, listed dangerous examples of the growing theocracy in America such as the mixing of church and state, theocratic laws and faith-healing that endanger children, religious bias and distortion in textbooks, and the equation of religiosity with patriotism. A powerful symbolic moment that fit in well with my Ethical Humanism was when the audience recited the Pledge of Allegiance, deliberately omitting the phrase "under God."
In the end, the rally accomplished its goals: 1) to encourage secular Americans and supporters of secular equality to come "out of the closet;" 2) to demonstrate that non-theists are diverse in many ways; and 3) to demand equality before the law for non-theists. It would be nice if at the next Reason Rally, probably a few years down the road, Ethical Culture could add a fourth goal: 4) to promote deed before creed and more ethical lives by trying to heal a broken world. Hearing that from the stage would have made this day even better.
For more pictures and description of the Reason Rally visit their official website