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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reason Rally this coming Saturday

The Reason Rally takes place this coming Saturday in Washington DC - I wish I could be there (this time last week I was still in the US, but I couldn't justify the expense of staying on for another week and half).

There's been a great deal of debate on the internet (I'm not going to track it all down and link to it) about the real point of the Reason Rally - is it a rally in support of atheism, or scientific scepticism about supernatural and pseudo-scientific claims, or what? - and also a lot of agonising about the list of speakers.

Obviously people get to express dissatisfaction with the speakers list if that's what they feel - we all have freedom of speech in Western countries. If some wildly inappropriate speakers' list had eventuated, I guess I'd join in. Indeed, some of these speakers are unknown to me, while others are known to me but don't strike me as of especially high quality. But overall, this list is pretty damn impressive, and there's something there for everyone. The inclusion of Richard Dawkins, Taslima Nasrin, and Lawrence Krauss, in particular, plus leaders of major organisations that are involved, gives the line-up real gravitas.

I'm not interested in criticising individual choices because I think this list, over all, is about as good as it gets. In those circumstances, complaining about individual choices seems churlish to me. So, disagree with me if you like, but I think the rally organisers have done a great job in coming up with this impressive and eclectic list.

(Okay, there is one speaker in particular about whom legitimate issues have been raised, in my humble opinion: Bill Maher, who has expressed views in the past that do, indeed, seem counterproductive to the cause of reason. I'm thinking of certain of his views on health issues. But there are also all sorts of positives in involving him, and he is a much more prominent figure than many of the others whom I'm not going to quibble about. While I have the misgivings about Maher that I just expressed, I actually think the organisers would have been crazy not inviting him. More on this below.)

As for the point of the rally, there is, indeed, some confusion about this. A rally in the cause of "reason" sounds very broad and vague, but then again "Reason Rally" is a concise, alliterative, memorable, and easy-to-say title. It's a good choice of a name.

My understanding all along has been that it is actually a rally in support of secularism or secular government, i.e. in support of a political culture where policy is not driven by matters of faith and religion. "Reason Rally" isn't too misleading a title for that, especially when it's immediately explained. Secular government might not be the main focus of all the organisations involved (e.g. it is not the main focus of James Randi's organisation), but surely it is something that all the organisations agree on and can all support. A strong public statement in favour of secular government is sorely needed at the moment, when there is such a strong push in the United States, during this election year, to create (or further reinforce) a post-secular politics, returning to days when the political agenda was moulded by religion and specifically religious morality.
All the publicity we've seen appears to me to be broadly consistent with that understanding of the rally's real point. E.g. the home page for the rally (which I linked to above) claims on the main banner that the Reason Rally is "the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history". The home page then explains, in the first paragraph of text:
The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 6:00PM at the National Mall. There will be music, comedy, speakers, and so much more. We hope you can join us! [My bolding, but note that this is the very first sentence of text on the site.]
All of which suggests to me that the confusion (as I said, it does exist)about the rally's point or purpose is mainly in people's minds, and probably the result of different hopes and priorities that they have. It is not a result of anything done or said by the rally's organisers.

Given the rally's real point, the speakers' list seems all the more appropriate. Bill Maher would not make sense as a drawcard speaker for a rally in defence of scientific scepticism, but he makes perfectly good sense as a drawcard speaker in support of secular government. Even a politician who is himself religious (i.e. Senator Tom Harkin) makes sense if he's there to acknowledge the legitimacy of people rallying in the cause of secular government and to make some kind of conciliatory statement.

Overall, the rally organisers appear to have done a fine job in putting together a balanced and effective set of speakers and entertainers (the rally is partly a celebration, so it's appropriate for it to have music and comedy).

I look forward to the (expected) success of the Reason Rally, and in particular I invite people who are actually attending it to make comments here in a few days' time about how it all went.


Jambe said...

Various secularism / skepticism / reason / atheism communities seem, at times, awfully cliquish. I don't like that, but I guess it's just human nature.

I would understand debate and complaint about a speaker if they were egregiously out of touch with the principles of the rally or if they were in some way morally questionable, but afaik none of that is really the case here. It's just... infighting and bickering. Eh.

Dave Ricks said...

Anyone feeling left out can watch us get rained on here:

That animated mosaic of local weather radars should load on all computers and mobile devices, but it's about 30 minutes behind real time. Clicking on the Washington DC area will open another page to show the local weather radar displayed just a few minutes behind real time (but that animation won't load on my iPhone).

Dave Ricks said...

First impressions: A wonderful time! Estimates of 10,000-20,000 people. Sometimes raining with wind, and temperatures down to 60°F/16°C, but the crowd stayed strong to the end.

At the end, I talked with Lauren Becker (CFI VP for Outreach), and she was very happy with the audience, especially to see so many young people. She told me that in her work at CFI, she mainly expects to see people who look like me (e.g., an upper middle class white male, professional with graduate degrees, age 52, etc.). The choice of speakers showed a diverse audience that this movement can look like them, too.

The intensity of performances was great, too. I had a front-row seat, so I saw after Jamie Kilstein delivered a hilarious standup rant at fever pitch, he spent what seemed like an endless moment collapsed on Tim Minchin's shoulder offstage to come down from it.

I also think it was genius: 1) To somehow get Cristina Rad here from Romania, and 2) To put her on right after Richard Dawkins. That put terrible pressure on her, but it guaranteed her an introduction to a new audience. After she worked through her nerves and got into her talk, then all her great qualities translated straight from YouTube to this other medium. And maybe 20 or 30 minutes after she finished, a woman sitting behind me remarked thoughtfully, "That Romanian woman was good."

Damn - I just wasted an hour or two failing to express how great that remark was - I'll just say I'm delighted and speechless. And maybe next weekend I'll be able to write some comments about the rally in a bigger context of society and politics.