By Jason Rosenhouse
On March 24th, I stood with twenty thousand of my fellow nonbelievers on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was cold and rainy, but no one cared. We were there for “The Reason Rally,” and while we all lamented the need for such an event, there was nonetheless a party atmosphere among the attendees. One of the musicians performing at the rally summed up the basic view when he said — referring to the battle against religious intrusions into secular society — “In this fight my weapons are my guitar, and my sarcasm.”
The following day I moved on to Bethesda, Maryland, to attend the annual convention of the American Atheists. The speakers included biologists and physicists discussing the relevance of their fields to the question of God, attorneys discussing the legal issues surrounding church/state separation, and even a former Pentecostal preacher telling us about the difficulties he faced upon trying to leave his religion. There was also the obligatory bookstore, featuring book signings by some of the more famous attendees. Mostly, though, there was conversation, community, and the satisfaction of knowing you are not alone.
Make no mistake, that last concern was heavily on the minds of many of those that I met. I heard one story after another about what can happen when you come out as an atheist: alienation from family, hostility from coworkers, even threats of unemployment. I was reminded anew of how easy I have it, working in academe and coming from a family in which it would require more courage to come out as a believer. Tell me again about how religion is a benign force, or about how real religion is found in the maunderings of academic theologians and philosophers.
There are some who scoff at the whole idea of atheist community. After all, we are united only by our lack of belief in God. On political issues that do not relate directly to questions of church and state, we show substantial diversity indeed. Even among nonbelievers the term “atheist” causes some controversy. It places the emphasis on what we don’t believe, which can seem negative and contrarian. Perhaps a term like “humanist” is more positive.
There are others who protest the inevitable whiff of tribalism that arises from events like the Reason Rally or the American Atheists convention. Large assemblies of like-minded people seldom lead to careful discussions of complex issues. Are we in danger of being just as insular and dogmatic as the religions we decry?
There is a nugget of legitimacy to this concern. Over the last ten years I have spent a great deal of time attending creationist conferences and other gatherings. (I report on the results in my new book Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line.) How often did I lament the extreme insularity of the attendees? How many times did I criticize them for cheering some appalling overgeneralization or some ignorant scientific argument? How often did I scoff at the simplistic propaganda on sale in the conference bookstore, or get chills from the obvious groupthink and mob mentality?
Honesty forces me to concede there was some of that at the atheist gatherings as well. The Reason Rally featured a great many speakers, and some of them, let us say, would have benefited from a bit more nuance. Likewise at the convention, some of what was on sale in the bookstore fell short of proper academic rigor, and some in the audience were too quick to applaud arguments that were less than cogent. Heeding the call of the tribe inevitably leads to tribalism.
So, yes, there is a nugget of truth in this line of criticism. But only a nugget. For one thing, there was a huge difference in degree. Whereas the creationist conferences were wall-to-wall nonsense, the infelicities I noticed at the atheist gatherings were the exceptions. Also striking was the difference in tone. At the creationist conferences most of the speakers presented their arguments in preacher mode. The emphasis was usually on emotional manipulation. Not so at the atheist gatherings. There the preferred tools were rational persuasion and strong argumentation. The only speaker to enter preacher mode was the former Pentecostal I mentioned earlier, and he was doing it mostly for humorous effect.
For me, though, the biggest difference is the obvious one: These are my people. I felt entirely at home at these gatherings. I was mostly cheering right along with everyone else both at the rally and at the conference. Perhaps it would be nice if we could all resist the call of the tribe and just live as one happy human family, but that is not an attitude that comes naturally for most of us. So long as the forces of religion continue to claim a monopoly on morality, or try to co-opt the government to promote their dubious view of the world, I will seek out the company of my fellow nonbelievers, and I will make no apology for doing so.
There is also, of course, another difference to be noted. At the atheist gatherings, no one was threatened with eternal damnation for being critical of a speaker. Forgive me for finding that significant.
Jason Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University. His most recent book is Among The Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines. After years of emersion in creationist culture, Rosenhouse shares his feelings on what it was like to finally stand amongst his fellow non-believers at the Reason Rally.