'Woodstock For Atheists': A Moment For Nonbelievers

Reply Sat 24 Mar, 2012 12:10 pm
Simon Says by Scott Simon - NPR
Atheists Seek Acceptance Following Hearts, Not Faith
March 24, 2012

A rally organizers have billed as the "largest secular event in world history" will be held on the National Mall today.

The Reason Rally will bring atheists and nonbelievers together in a hallowed American place.

But Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, one of the organizations involved, says, "It's not a march on Washington where we're picketing anything. It's a celebration of the fact that the secular movement is really starting to come into its own."

The rally will feature a tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great. His friend, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist who wrote his own best-selling The God Delusion, is the marquee speaker, along with comedian Eddie Izzard and the punk group, Bad Religion.

Those folks can be sharp-tongued. But rally organizers say they don't want to mock religion.

A lot of nonbelievers I know and hear from are eager for atheists to be seen as more than just scolds, who point out absurdities and inconsistencies in religion, or the kind of grumps who file lawsuits against shopping mall Santa Clauses.

The rally will express some of the alarm atheists can feel at seeing religious creeds on U.S. currency or hearing politicians pay respects to "people of all faiths," but not those who have none.

It sometimes seems easier to think you know what's in the mind of an atheist than in their hearts.

Religions, after all, proclaim morals — however imperfectly, insincerely and sometimes even scandalously. Yet as a reporter, I've seen people working for religious groups give selfless, unsung service in places around the world that have been forsaken. It is hard not to see the power of faith in them.

Ever since the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited Bible readings in public schools, atheists have won recognition and standing under U.S. law. But a new generation of young atheists wants human understanding, too. "We want you to know we're your neighbors," says Paul Fidalgo, "and we're not scary."

Christopher Hitchens once wrote that the certainty of atheists that we have just one life means that "Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more," he said, "but I want nothing more."

Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance says more young atheists are forming service projects to help stock food banks and rebuild houses in hurricane zones — not to fulfill faith, but follow their hearts.

"We want people to know," he says, "that you don't have to believe in God to care about others."
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failures art
Reply Sat 24 Mar, 2012 06:22 pm
I just got home from the RR. I have three college friends in town and a fourth who lives in Northern Virginia who joined us. For me, this was a scheduled event, and I had planned on hosting friends.

A few observations to share to begin with:

"Woodstock for Atheists" - I think the organizers wanted this to be fun, but I think this description in particular isn't adequate. It wasn't a recreational gathering, and largely, it was an event designed to build community, expose atheists to resources available to them, and introduce organizations (national and state level) that seek to advocate for secular issues.

Two acts were notably entertainment: Tim Minchin, and Eddie Izzard. I cannot stress enough how talented these two are. I must admit, Minchin singing "************" repeatedly over loudspeakers on the National Mall was cathartic. I was reminded of a quote (that I'm going to paraphrase) from Hitchens: "You must be free to mock and even laugh. Laughing at authority is the first step of emancipation." That rang true for me in a way I didn't fully expect. I am very open about my beliefs and values, but I must acknowledge that I fear retaliation and reproach of the faithful with all their power. It was a very therapeutic release to sing along with Minchin, and laugh along with Izzard.

Jamie Kilstien and Greta Christina both spoke to the frustration many atheists must feel. Their presentations were more artistically focused emotions--the sort of thing you might do to process a negative feeling. It felt good to hear someone saying loudly in public what I've felt many times.

Other entertainers spoke in one form or another. Adam Savage (from Mythbusters) surprised me with a heartfelt speech about the importance of science and what role it takes in his life, how it helps humanity, and why it's worth actively defending (which requires organizing) given it's religious opponents.

Bill Maher sent a video that was entertaining, but it was a clip from a show a week ago, so it's less special. Still very good. He unbaptized Mitt Romney's atheist step father (who had been baptized after death by the LDS church).

Penn Gillette (a notable libertarian) spoke to the bipartisan need for atheists to come out and be seen.

I didn't stay for Bad Religion, but I did learn that the frontman has a PHD in biology from Harvard. Whoa.

So.. that was the entertainment. The rest was largely civics. Notable to me, there was a large push to promote safe places for teens in schools. Jessica Alquist was presented a scholarship on stage, and many groups additionally told the audience what kinds of resources were available to them if they wanted to start a SSA (secular student alliance).

The most moving event for me, and it stirs me just thinking about it, was hearing Nate Phelps speak. He is Fred Phelps' estranged son, and the WBC was actually present at the event. He talked about leaving home at 18--a boy equipped with the knowledge of hate, and no love of a family. It was truly heartbreaking. He talked about getting older, and how his own heart transformed having been free of that environment. Hearing him speak was perhaps most powerful (at times the entire mall seemed silent) because his story seems to inspire so much hope--that people can change. Hearts can mend, and even people given the worst and most hateful poison can heal, and live healthy loving emotionally fulfilling lives. If he had been the only speaker, it would have validated the entire experience by itself, and to me underlined the importance of such an event. I was moved to tears many times.

The presenters were both men and women. People from the USA, and from abroad. Taslima Nasrin, spoke about banishment from her homeland, and living under the fear of religious law. Indra Zuno, gave a speech entirely in Spanish. From what someone told me nearby, she told Latinos and Hispanics in the audience that they should live in fear of cultural ostracization, and that they should embrace a heritage of many latino and hispanic free thinkers.

The audience itself was very diverse. Even split by my inspection of male and female. The ages raged from children to the elderly. Mostly a white audience, but not disproportionate to the national demographic.

Three presenters specifically spoke to the African American community.

There were two small counter protests I saw. One was pretty mild, and the other was the WBC. The counter protesters probably had more signs than the total signs in the audience of the RR.

A few topics came up frequently:
-Recent religious obstructions to birth control
-LGBT advocacy

The phrasing of "coming out" was used by many many many presenters. This language I think was best defended by Hemant Mehta, "people need to know you exist", and later by David Silverman "it is hard to hate what you already love." One of my friends who came to stay with me is gay, and I asked him about the use of "coming out." Was it appropriate/comparable? He said he believed it was, and even said that he struggled more with telling his family he didn't believe in a god.

I think there is something to standing and being counted. I think many people may have left feeling less along or isolated than when they arrived. That is no small thing.

It was worth it.

That's all that comes to mind right now. Ask questions if you want to know anything else. I'll post a few photos later, but now it's time for drinks with good friends.


The NPS reported that our numbers were greater than Glenn Beck's rally on the mall (and he had sunshine).
Reply Sat 24 Mar, 2012 06:54 pm
I'm puzzled by this plan. I'm an atheist, but why would I want to celebrate being an atheist any more than I would if I was religious?

Aw, I don't know ....
Why not?
It can't do any harm.
You could see it as a celebration of freedom from the constraints of religion, perhaps?
0 Replies
Reply Sat 24 Mar, 2012 06:59 pm
@failures art,
I didn't see your post before I posted, art.
Hey, that sounded good! Smile
0 Replies

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