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Having Faith In Atheism: Bad Religion And Richard Dawkins At Reason Rally
Sam Spokony , April 6th, 2012 03:54

Sam Spokony braves a biblical downpour to report back from atheist festival Reason Rally, in Washington D.C. Photographs by the author

By noon on Saturday, March 24, five hours before he was scheduled to perform and give closing remarks to the Reason Rally — the largest gathering of secular advocates in American history — Greg Graffin still hadn’t quite figured out what he would say. With 33 years as the frontman and songwriter of Bad Religion (one of the most outspokenly atheistic punk bands in American history) behind him, he just felt more comfortable talking on the fly.

“But I never get up there and preach,” said Graffin, as he sat, stoic, in his trailer behind the stage. “And I won’t preach today. It’ll just be a celebration of the gathering, as any good show should be.”

Graffin (who also holds a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University) espouses a more tolerant worldview than many other icons of the New Atheist movement — often choosing to engage in dialogue rather than holding theists in contempt of humanity — but like the others, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s speaking purely out of confidence and when he’s just resting on the laurels of modern science. At that moment, though, one thing was undeniable. The crowd of 20,000 that stood waiting on Washington D.C.’s National Mall wanted to be preached to.

And, as non-believers, perhaps they had good reason for that — because to call America’s religious debates of the past year tumultuous and absurd would be less than an understatement.

Now-defunct presidential candidate Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, held a Christian prayer rally last August in order to both jumpstart his campaign and to bolster the spirit of a “nation in crisis.” Rather than reaching anything like an accord with liberals, culture warriors bent on promoting adherence to what they perceive to be biblical law have continued to fight against abortion rights and sensible legislation for female contraceptives. And given that Rick Santorum, one of the most culturally out-of-touch men to ever hold public office, actually has some small chance at the Republican primary nomination for 2012’s presidential election, it’s clear that the religious right has gained a rare level of influence over the American political sphere.

So as Maggie Ardiente, the director of development and communications for the American Humanist Association, would go on to tell me later that day, it made sense for the Reason Rally to happen now. As the war rages on, atheists aren’t just looking for social equality and political validity. Like the Christians did two millennia ago, they’ve constructed a new narrative within which to live. Whether they call themselves humanists, free thinkers or naturalists, this movement is in the process of creating its own story, with its own champions of rhetoric. That story is a very different one to be sure, founded on fundamentally different principles. But, for all its perceived exactness, the scientific method, and knowledge of the world based on the gathering of empirical data, is a way of thinking that doesn’t stand alone within the atheistic worldview. As the rally proved, this is still a movement based on faith and, to some degree, doctrine.

“I found great comfort and solace in the narrative of science,” said Graffin. “I know that scientists have this faith that they can find the truth and that they can contribute to knowledge, and they do it based on a certain process. I think that’s very unifying.

“And I hope it’s not the only unifying thing in this secular movement, because that would be kind of dull, honestly. Scientists aren’t the most interesting people. So there’s got to music, there’s got to be poetry, there’s got to be literature.”

Just, as we both acknowledged, as in any organized religion.

And both emotional appeals and light-spirited diversions were to be found in spades at the Reason Rally. From the outset, secularism was presented not just as the reasonable way to look at the world, but also very pointedly as the American way. The opening was stars and stripes forever, as Graffin sang the national anthem beside the flag and full military color guard. Retired Colonel Kirk Lamb spoke fervently to remind us that, yes, there are atheists in foxholes, and David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, told us the importance of denying the religious right the ability to continue what he called its “monopoly on patriotism.” The thousands in attendance even took the time to recite the American Pledge of Allegiance — minus, of course, the phrase “under God.”

Then there was the entertainment. And if there was anything about this rally that didn’t seem reconciled with the idea of rationality and the calculated approach of reason, it was the questionable taste of the humor presented by those onstage. Sure, I’m all for dirty jokes, but when you’re looking to simultaneously prove your philosophical correctness to adversaries and ask for the respect of your fellow citizens, is it really in your best interest to send out Andy Shernoff to sing his favorite tune, “Get on Your Knees for Jesus ‘Til He Comes”?

The bigger comedic names — Tim Minchin, Jamie Kilstein and Eddie Izzard — followed an identically aggressive path in their sets, and while raucous humor is standard procedure for these guys, I wondered: Was this really an attempt, on any level, to communicate with the theists this movement will somehow need to convert over the course of the coming generations, or was it just — as Graffin said about his own impending set — a celebration, for those already in on the joke?

A saving grace, though (if you’ll pardon the expression), was the presentation of practical steps towards a more atheist-inclusive society. Out of nowhere — for those not already in the know, at least — came Hemant Mehta, who blogs as “The Friendly Atheist,” to offer the day’s most reasonable and workable response to the growing control held by the religious right: getting politically involved at the grassroots level. In order to make the voice of this community heard (a catchphrase repeated, as one can imagine, many times by many speakers) the simple fact is that we need more atheists running for public office and doing tangible social work, not more atheists ridiculing Christianity and mocking its supporters for their ignorance. And, as Mehta went on to tell me offstage, those efforts to take back the country by way of real structural support rather than cheap verbal attacks won’t just be more effective at the political level — they’ll make the whole idea of atheism more accessible to the general public, including minority groups that may be less likely to assume they’re welcome.

“We want to show people that if they think it’s just old white guys, or angry professors, it’s not,” said Mehta (who is an Indian-American). “There are young people, women, minorities. And I think when people see that, it’s like: ‘Oh! Look, there’s another black or Indian person who’s an atheist, and it’s okay if I am too.’ I just hope people realize that they’re not alone.”

Having said that, Richard Dawkins also showed up.

“Evolution isn’t just true; it’s beautiful,” he told the crowd, beaming, after the wild applause that followed his ‘needs-no-introduction’ introduction had subsided. “It’s beautiful because it’s true.”

And, since that’s pretty much all he has to add to the struggle for atheists’ rights at this point, Dawkins simply ran off some facts, figures and poll numbers related to earth science, biology and the number of people who do or don’t believe in God — and then exhorted all in attendance to continue ridiculing theists with great contempt. The question this begged, as he walked offstage to another round of thunderous cheers, was rather simple, and one perhaps vital to everything the New Atheists stand for: What did Dawkins offer at this rally that the comedians didn’t? Not much, one must think, regardless of how technically accurate he or they may be. But when you choose to build — to use the words of 17th-century Puritan John Winthrop, when he first settled in America — a theoretical city upon a hill, and then to look upon those who yet fail to understand you with little more than smugness, mockery and scorn, what else can you hope for? Whether argued by way of scientific posturing or comic one-liners, public shaming amounts only to public shaming. But, like I said, it’s not hard to understand why America’s nonbelievers might react to the religious right with such extreme passion and so little self-control.

And to my honest surprise, I found a voice over in the designated protest area off to the side of the rally that, in some ways, made a little more sense — at least in broader terms. It came from Blake Anderson, a Christian apologetic who had showed up to represent truereason.org (which serves to promote a book of the same name, subtitled, “Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism”). He wasn’t going to convince me of the veracity of his opinions on theology, but he did shed some light on something the New Atheists haven’t quite argued successfully yet, amid all the work they’ve done thus far.

“When they call this the Reason Rally,” Anderson told me, as we stepped away from a group of fanatically hollering, sign-waving Christians (whose tactics he claims to deplore), “we just feel it can’t be right to have it portrayed as something that says ‘Atheists have reason, and Christians don’t.’ Atheism doesn’t equal reason.”

Graffin, still lounging back in the trailer, might have responded to this by acknowledging that the intellectual path he follows draws as much or more from a new narrative — structurally similar to that of Christianity - as it does from a philosophical search for capital-T truth. Dawkins, using the rhetoric of self-assurance, certainly wouldn’t have been able to respond in any similar way that might push Anderson to challenge his own line of thought. Maybe that foreshadows the subsequent success of Graffin’s more tolerant approach over that of hard-line New Atheists, who may come to worry so much about presenting the inherently faultless logic of their views that they fail to take into account the politics of communication — the very stuff with which the religious right has maintained a cultural upper hand.

When Anderson shared with me his thoughts on Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps (founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which is known by its website title and general mantra, “God Hates Fags”), he actually put the whole debate in perspective.

“I’m not surprised that someone who came out of that would turn to being an atheist,” said Anderson. “Because when you do things poorly, there tends to be a reaction. I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people have become atheists, and I generally don’t think they’re good reasons, but on an emotional level I understand them, and I can sympathize.”

Just before Nate Phelps addressed the rally that afternoon, several members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood in silent protest beneath the Washington Monument, holding signs reading, among other things, “You Hate God” and “God Hates You”. These days, after all of the funerals they’ve crashed, and after alienating basically the entire spectrum of society, from staunch conservatives to free-speech liberals, the WBC folk seem more like welcome media props than real, dislikeable people. All they had to say about the son who got away was what one woman yelled at me as they stepped into a van: “He’s your schtick of the moment!”

And, though he may not be quite as heavily clichéd a person as those religious warriors who choose to remain in the WBC, Nate Phelps’ life after God is one that, perhaps unexpectedly, just goes to show further parallels between the narrative of theism and that which was on display at the Reason Rally. After running away from home upon turning 18, Phelps subsequently became an atheist — but he later realized two things: his religious past needed to be treated like an addiction, and he felt compelled to educate others about how they could escape from the clutches of religion.

“There are days when I feel like I’m right back in it,” Phelps told me immediately after stepping off the stage, where he had told the crowd his life story. “Now, I’m far enough down the road that the fear it used to invoke is gone, and those kind of successes give me the courage, when I do fall back into the hole, to say that eventually this will pass as well.” When I asked him about the work he does with a group called Recovering from Religion, which claims to help people do just that, he added: “I’ve always found in my life that talking with people with a shared past is encouraging and allows you to recognize that there’s a way out of this.”

Which is when I began to realize that the language he was using wasn’t just that of recovering addicts; it was equally that of a hallmark of the religious right: recovering homosexuals, or those who’ve, as the more common slang would put it, prayed the gay away. It was actually, if not in content then at least in context, exactly like that.

But why don’t any of the intellectual big shots want to acknowledge these similarities?

Probably for the same reasons Richard Dawkins was content to continue talking on the same intellectual level as the comedians who played sets before and after him. In the end, the only things the New Atheists have failed to remain rationally skeptical about are the correctness of their own methods and, more importantly, the ways in which they present their message to the general public. It’s a gaping hole in their movement. It isn’t even a new problem; it’s one that critics of Dawkins and his posse have been attacking for several years. And, looking at the obstinacy of both sides, we’re once again forced to face the roots of it all — the narratives. Regardless of how much more accurate the atheistic, scientifically-grounded worldview may be (or how much popular it may be in the next generation, when even more knowledge of that kind is discovered), we’re still at the point at which any theories about the existence or nonexistence of a divine power can’t be defensibly presented to the masses as anything more than a series of conflicting stories, with opposite and equal rhetorical thrusts to accompany bodies of literature and the personae of their champions.

Cue Greg Graffin.

The clouds have been relatively friendly for most of the day, but by the time Bad Religion takes the stage around 5pm it’s raining so hard that — as the less dedicated rally-goers filter out and those simply waiting to rock out edge closer — it becomes clear that Graffin hasn’t needed to work out his closing speech. He won’t have a chance to preach or choose not to, because those words, on their own, aren’t so necessary to him or his cause.

“My sense of humility doesn’t allow me to proclaim myself a leader,” Graffin had told me earlier, when I asked him about how he perceived his role within this movement. “Do I feel like a leader? I feel like I’m doing my duty. If we want a society full of enlightened people, then I feel like I’m as good an example as you can find.”

If spoken by someone like Dawkins, those words might’ve reeked of things akin to arrogance, or at least intellectual complacency, but, as Graffin lopes onto the stage with his band, they feel strangely innocent and prophetic. An academic only by title and not by temperament, he obviously doesn’t need to be Dr. Graffin here; and this is what gives him such clear (and, perhaps, unintentional) foresight and accompanying tact. Dawkins, the comedians, and even Nate Phelps all are, to some degree, confined to their doctrinal roles within this movement. Even at the greatest moments there is an inherent dryness to their words, simply because they’ve failed to fully comprehend the function of the cultural narrative. But Graffin is a thinker who puts the creation and telling of stories first, with the argumentative posturing existing only as gravy. He knows that literature doesn’t mean thick books that provide us with the conclusions to our inquiries; it means myths, it means passion within a structured framework, and it means, inescapably, religion.

So he tears through 'Generator', scowling and shaking his fist not at theists, but at their fictions and motivations. He shouts the chorus of 'New Dark Ages', imploring his followers to witness the errors of the Christian narrative and reshape it into one based on rational inquiry. He looks to the future in 'Sorrow', singing of a time “When all soldiers lay their weapons down/ Or when all kings and all queens relinquish their crowns/ Or when the only true messiah rescues us from ourselves.” He sings of his faith.

Then, Greg Graffin walks off. The Reason Rally is washed away by the rain, and the stage is disassembled to make way for the next gathering that will take place in the National Mall. As our culture chokes on all the tales of its existence, the throat of America is cleared again. It’s comforting. It is written. As we find new ways to pose life’s strangest questions, the protocols are still there to help frame our stories.

And thank God for that.

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