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FEATURE: Society

Rally for Nothing

A Monologue to Help Atheists with Their Public Relations

by Les Sillars

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen; it's good to be with you today. As your public relations consultant, I'm pleased to offer my report on Reason Rally 2012, held on March 24 near the Washington Monument on the Mall in D.C.

I'll get right to the point. I can't tell if you're lucky or just really, really good. As representatives of the dozen or so atheist organizations that banded together for this event—American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, etc.—you organized a very public rally for atheists, rationalists, and free-thinkers of all types. Several thousand people showed up, along with a few dozen "turn-or-burn" Christian counter-demonstrators (as we expected), not to mention the thousands of people simply walking past us on the Mall, minding their own business.

The point of the rally was, as we all know, to soften your public image as cheerless, caustic scolds, and maybe to attract some new members. You wanted, as you explained when you first hired me, to make a "Closet atheists, you are not alone!" kind of statement. Too many of your members are ashamed, you said, to be known as atheists or humanists in such an oppressively theistic country. This rally would be a party to let everyone know that you support the sorts of things that everybody else favors, things like "reason" and "human potential" and "science." These are wonderful concepts that evoke warm, positive feelings in people.

Positive Coverage

Now, if we were to judge from the media coverage, which was modest but respectable, the rally was definitely a step in the right direction. Heck, you got more coverage than the annual March for Life usually gets, and that march regularly draws to Washington 15 to 20 times as many people as the 10,000–15,000 you were able to muster.

And the media coverage was mostly positive, too. Here's the warm and fuzzy (if not too coherent) headline from NPR: "Atheists seek acceptance following hearts, not faith." Fox and CNN both mentioned you. The Washington Post gave you a nice story with large photos that highlighted a 13-year-old girl who enjoyed the rally because, back at home, she feels kind of uncomfortable as the only atheist in her conservative private school.

Even The Guardian in London had a very favorable column that reiterated several of your talking points, such as: Being mean to atheists is just like being homophobic; secularists are discriminated against in American politics (just one openly atheist Congressman!); and heroes are emerging to stand up against this illogical, offensive religiosity, like Rhode Island high-school student Jessica Ahlquist, who was successful in getting a prayer banner in her school taken down. So far, so good.

A Good Start

But, I swear, all this positive coverage came despite your actual efforts, not because of them. Indeed, I have never seen a public-relations-oriented event more determined to blow itself up.

You did a few things right, I'll admit. For instance, when I walked up to the rally venue, the first things I saw were the five flags raised high over the rally site, flying gamely in the (unfortunately) persistent drizzle. "Equality," "Charity," "Compassion," "Diversity," and "Reason," they proclaimed. The staffers at the event tent were cheery and helpful. I even noticed on your website that you asked attendees not to curse at the turn-or-burners, who obligingly stayed more or less off to the side.

You had two giant video screens flanking the stage, so people at the back of the crowd could see when each person in your line-up of bloggers, authors, and activists—headlined by Oxford professor Richard Dawkins—hit the stage. The crowd, a nice mix of adults and college students, with a few families dotted among them, was ready and waiting in their bright ponchos and umbrellas.

A few dozen kids in the "Camp Quest" area were doing crafts and playing games. Activities listed on the whiteboard schedule included cooperation games, an astrobiology mural, a Socrates café, and an evolution timeline. Fun stuff.

The wrap-up was set for 6 p.m.: "Close and Hugs with Everyone." Perfect.

True Attitudes Exposed

And then what happened? I'll tell you what happened. You showed them who you really are.

Atheist blogger Greta Christina, one of the early speakers, began by announcing that she would answer the frequently asked question, "Why are atheists so angry?" But since she would not "presume to speak for all atheists," she then provided her own list of things she's angry about, including: "preachers who tell women to submit to their husbands"; the fact that "my wife Ingrid and I had to get married three times before we finally had a wedding that was legal in our home state"; and the fact that Rick Santorum was taken seriously as a presidential candidate instead of being "laughed off the national stage." Also on her list were Catholic opposition to birth control, "what happened to Galileo," and Mormon and Catholic support for Proposition 8 in California.

R. Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science was angry too, particularly about recently passed pro-life legislation in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, she was sure, would have been shocked and appalled. She instructed the crowd to face toward Virginia and repeat three times after her: "Build up that wall!" The audience complied, and then she stalked off the stage. Sure, nothing says "independent-minded freethinker" like a nice group chant.

When Minnesota professor and blogger PZ Myers took the stage, he asserted: "The one thing every one of us here must be despising is faith." Easy on the charity, there, PZ.

Dawkins himself got a rock-star reception, strolling up to the microphone to chants of "Richard! Richard!" Religion, he told his fans, makes specific claims about reality that "need to be challenged and, if necessary, ridiculed with contempt." This from the guy who was caught on a documentary admitting that, as a way of accounting for the spontaneous appearance of life on earth—which scientists acknowledge was a statistically improbable event—he finds quite plausible the notion that aliens might have seeded it here.

Sean Faircloth offered a ten-point strategy for establishing secularism in America—or as he put it, "a modest plan to take over the United States!" That fourth flag flying overhead touted what, again? Oh yes, that's right. Diversity.

Throughout the rally, angry secularist harangues occasionally gave way to angry secularist jokes. The emcee, actor Paul Provenza, quipped that when Christians try to witness to him, he glances at his watch and says, "I'd love to stay and chat, but I've gotta take my girlfriend for an abortion because I'm pretty sure the baby is going to be gay." Hilarious.

Atheist activist James Randi joked that if heaven did exist, for him it would be an endless loop of Bill Maher videos. No—wait; I think he was serious about that.

One comedian led the crowd in jumping jacks to the chant of, "Jump, jump, jump for Jesus to go away." The same guy sang a song with the refrain, "[Expletive], I love boobs, though; I just really love them." The lyrics to his other song consisted of—I'm serious here—just one offensive vulgarity variably iterated as a noun, verb, adverb, and gerund, in what seemed an endlessly repeated cycle. And then, in the middle of this performance, your own cameraman cut away to show a father bouncing his young daughter on his shoulders in time to the "music." Atheist family values right up there on the giant screens. Smooth.

Bad Signs

Granted, a rally is not the place for making detailed rational arguments. I get that. But do I really have to explain to you why anybody not already in your camp is going to find all this tasteless and offensive, and maybe a little scary? Your speakers couldn't figure this out on their own?

And don't get me started on the signs. Yes, the attendees brought them, and you can't control what signs people bring to public rallies. Some were fine, like "This is what an atheist looks like" and "Ask me." They created the impression that you folks are open to constructive dialogue. A few were almost funny, like "Palin/Voldemort 2012."

But couldn't you have made some sort of effort to discourage people from waving around egregiously insulting signs? I can hardly believe you thought signs like the following were really going to help your cause: "So many Christians, so few lions"; "God hates facts"; "Religion—­because thinking is hard"; "I was an atheist, then I realized God was me"; "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church"; "Obama isn't trying to destroy religion; I am."

There were more, a lot more. Don't you understand that if the majority of the public got just a hint of this sort of thing, your cause would be set back forty years? Do you really want to go back to the days when "atheist" equaled "Madelyn Murray O'Hair"?

A Close Shave

Sure, your people say such things all the time on your blogs and in your books and whatnot, but in those cases, you're preaching to the choir and the occasional Christian troll. Once stuff like this gets into the mainstream media, it'll be very difficult to walk it back. I mean, what if that Washington Post reporter had chosen, in a fit of candor, to mention that "effing" song?

Thank God—oops, I mean, luckily, that wasn't very likely. We all understand that reporters are among the most secularized people in the country. If anyone is likely to cut you some slack, they are. On the other hand, if you consciously calculated that the worst of these displays would be too foul for the mainstream media to include in their stories, leaving them to report just the innocuous and banal stuff, then my hat's off to you. Very clever.

But I don't think that's what was really going on here. I think that, despite my warnings, you nearly got caught napping. My advice is, don't let it happen again—you may not be so lucky next time. •


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