I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s Reason Rally in Washington DC – an event I thoroughly enjoyed. It was well worth the cross-country jaunt and the soggy hours in the rain to be entertained and inspired by the illustrious presenters.
But I’m also plagued a bit by some nagging concerns – what was it really all about and just how much did it help us move towards our common objectives? Some somewhat random thoughts follow:
· What does the lack of media coverage mean? On my way home last Sunday, I bought and read three major newspapers – the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee (OK, one can certainly quarrel with my inclusion of the Sac Bee as a “major” newspaper, but just go with me here). I was shocked to see that not one of those papers had any coverage of the Rally. No articles, no photos, not even a blurb in their National Digest sections!
After getting home I did some Internet searching, which confirmed that my random newspaper impressions were no fluke. Overall the Rally just didn’t pop as a newsworthy event. Certainly if there had been more “drama” – some kind of physical clash between angry atheists and protesting Christians, perhaps – there would have been all kinds of (mostly negative) coverage. But as it was, this largest gathering of atheists and secularists in the history of the country just wasn’t deemed newsworthy by our media gatekeepers.
· The Rally as Advocacy. This is touchy ground, but I question how much the Reason Rally accomplished as an act of advocacy for secular causes. For one thing, I don’t think, as a movement, we’ve really figured out how to win friends and influence people in Washington. I got a sense of this last year at TAM, when Sean Faircloth was presenting the ten-point secular manifesto. I remember thinking that we’d have a lot more luck pushing maybe a three-point plan that includes issues that believers and unbelievers alike could support, rather than presenting a laundry list of statements that no elected official in this country could publicly endorse!
Elected officials are essentially hardwired to their polling data, and their constituents are largely religious (and certainly many of their most vocal constituents are very religious). Asking politicians to support things like teaching science in schools and honoring the separation of church and state leaves lots of room for common ground. Insisting on the elimination of every religious reference from the public sphere really doesn’t.
· Red Meat for the Critics. I mentioned this the other day, and I don’t want to come across as one of those damned accommodations or something, but we are unlikely to achieve much progress for secular causes if we insist on going out of our way to piss off the rest of society. This is dicey, because we love hearing Richard Dawkins tell us its sometimes necessary to ridicule other people’s beliefs, or PZ Myers telling us to be “bad without God” or Greta Christina giving us a laundry list of things about which she is justifiably angry. I enjoyed it and I clapped as loudly as anyone. It’s a great message for a group of skeptics and atheists. But if our goal is to forge coalitions and make progress for our causes on the National stage, it’s not really very helpful. We can’t make progress without coalitions, because we do not control enough votes as a movement to influence politicians.
Ultimately, where the Rally excelled was in giving the audience what it came for. And that’s not nothing. Preaching to the choir, when the choir members have been so ignored and isolated, undoubtedly gave us a sense of unity and community. It’s a foundation and it’s a great start.
I would just like to see the powers that be organizing a more coherent and possibly successful advocacy effort around the next Reason Rally!
One more thought - it is perhaps a reminder of just how far we have to go that, one day after the Reason Rally brought maybe 20,000 non-believers to the national Mall in Washington DC, some 300,000 believers attended a Catholic Mass with the Pope in Cuba.