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More on the Reason Rally: What the left can learn from the godless

Jesus rides a dinosaur at The Reason Rally, March 24, 2012

Brooke woke up earlier than her customary “crack of noon” wakeup on the weekends and is now busily draining my hot water tank for her “hour shower”. (note to self: commence 5 minute shower training regimen for upcoming exchange trip to Germany) All this is to say that once she’s awake and has fed that monster that lives in her stomach, she can set about to download her pictures.

In the meantime, I want to talk about what I think the left can learn from the Reason Rally and vice versa. This is really important because although movements like Occupy have struck a nerve with the public and have reintroduced morality into our public discourse (that’s what the “we are the 99%” mantra is all about), it suffers from something that the Reason Rally already has- established community organizations or just organization, period.

Organization is not a bad thing. Getting together and having a show is much easier to do when you plan and delegate. It’s also much harder for police to breakup. The people on the mall yesterday were every bit as committed as anyone who has attended an Occupy event. They are just as concerned with the erosion of our constitutional rights, just as concerned with the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised and just as committed to do something about it. But they choose to do it through the groups they have already established. They are humanist, secularist, rationalist, freethought, atheist and skeptic groups. They’ve been around for awhile but in just the past few years, they have seen an explosion of their ranks. Here are a few things that set them apart from the Occupy movement:

1.) They organize conferences. There are a number of freethought, skeptic and atheist conferences across the country. Some of these happen in colleges, like Skepticon, which is held each year in Missouri. But there are also a lot of freethought groups scattered all over the bible belt in places like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and even Mississippi. Find a venue that won’t be raided by dudes in riot gear and invite some speakers. This last point is important. The kind of people who went to the Reason Rally are the kind you might have seen at early Occupy marches. They are ordinary, middle class and working class people and their kids. But what you won’t see at a Reason Rally event is batallions of storm troopers. I didn’t see a strong police presence at all at yesterday’s rally.

2.) They write books. Many of the invited speakers for yesterday’s rally in Washington have written very popular books that fall into the category of what I will call The New Enlightenment (shout out to Dan Barker who started a “Tell me what Enlightenment looks like, This is what Enlightenment looks like!”) Some of those books, like Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, are well known and popular. Others, like Dan Barker’s Godless is a *de-conversion* story, and we’ve all seen the power of personal testimonials at DailyKos. The important thing is that the these de-conversions broke new ground. It’s important that religious insiders write them because it comes from an authentic place and those insiders know how the “company” works. Other speakers like Michael Shermer, write on morality. It is important for your prospective audience to know what issues you are wrestling with so they can engage and dissent. And dissent is crucial to growing confidence in a movement. That’s how ideas grow and breakthroughs happen. Your audience shouldn’t be afraid to challenge you on your statements and that leads to something that I think the Reason Rally participants value most of all (I’ll get to that at the end).

3.) They use media in many forms to reach out to others outside the group. There are a number of podcasts and community television programs that are employed so that outsiders have a chance to interact and learn. One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about New Enlightment leaders is that they’ve found their niches of specialization pretty easily and are developing their talents in that specialization. Richard Dawkins is like a guru. He is full of wonder at the breathtaking beauty of nature and he communicates that very well. His audiences listen with rapt attention to the way he articulates what they are experiencing about the world and themselves without the interference of dogma. Jerry DeWitt of Recovering from Religion is another talented speaker who encourages us to live fully in the present and be joyful about our own uniqueness and individuality. Other leaders inspire through humor or entertainment, like Tim Minchin or Eddie Izzard. I’d even put Dan Barker in this category because his Friendly Neighborhood Atheist song (please put this online, guys. It’s delightful), which was a homage to the very decent Fred Rogers, can take the heat out of possible conflict with gentle humor and musicality. Some leaders are very good on YouTube. That media suits their deftness with editing their stream of consciousness thoughts into brilliant arguments. I’m thinking Cristina Rad, AronRa, Thunderfoot and Evid3nc3. Still others like Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) who is involved with the Secular Student Alliance, Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist) and Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience) engage the public through dialogue in a radio and TV format. You can call in and ask them anything. If you’re a feminist, check out The Godless Bitches with Beth Presswood and friends. Then there are watchdog groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation who work with lawyers and the law to make sure the rights of non-believers are respected. They defend people like Jessica Ahlquist, see to it that they don’t go it alone and know they have support and the law behind them. Or Sean Faircloth’s lobbying effort through the Secular Coalition of America. In short, there is something for everyone. You pick the level and method of your involvement and there will be a community out there for it.

4.) They learned from the experiences of other groups. Greta Christina, atheist activist, has a brilliant piece about what the non-believer community can learn from the LGBT community and the similarities are striking between the two groups. People like Greta are invaluable in pointing out how to avoid the pitfalls of the groups that went before you and where you might even speed up the process or avoid alienating your friends.

5.) Finally, and this is the most important part that I think is hardest to articulate, they have RIGOR. What is rigor? Well, from a labrat’s POV, rigor is a hard quality to achieve. It is discipline of the mind to learn to separate data from bias, experience from artifact and to be able to make conclusions that survive past the current set of observations. If your conclusions can’t be applied to new experiences, your method must be revised until they can. A method must have rigor or it’s a fucking useless piece of shit, excuse my French. That’s why sciencey types are always asking questions and poking holes in other people’s arguments. They’re not trying to be pains in the asses (unless they’re suckups who are trying to impress their bosses). They are looking for rigor. And you shouldn’t be insulted when they ask you to defend yourself. In fact, it’s kind of a challenge of equals. You show me your evidence, I’ll show you mine and we’ll do sort of mental fencing and see who wins. You should have the evidence, data and preliminary conclusions to back up what you are saying. It’s only when you don’t have that evidence, and then refuse to acknowledge that you need it, that the rationally minded individual starts to pigeon hole you as a nutter or ignorant or most of the time, just plain lazy.

When Fox News types accuse the Reason Rally audience as simply having faith of a different kind, those leaders can come back with, “not really, we just have rigor!“. That ought to send the Fundies scrambling for their dictionaries.

But a lot of the left is just as plain lazy and ignorant as those on the right. They’re just lazy about different things. The right goes on about God and faith and evolution and can just be tiresome after awhile. And on the left, the stupid non-rigorous posturing about GM food, vaccines, and homeopathic remedies gets really old as well. Yes, they may actually be good or bad for you but where is your rigor?

The left needs to be on its guard, but frequently isn’t, to people who will seek to exploit this lack of rigor for their own ends. We may all laugh at Michelle Bachmann’s crazy talk about the HPV vaccine causing brain damage but the left doesn’t blink an eye when some equally crazy person on the left makes the claim that bee colonies are being wiped out by GM corn. Whole websites have been known to eat that bit of “vacuous crap” without question. And it doesn’t need to be said at this point that if the left had been more rigorous in its selection process in 2008, it wouldn’t have been rolled by the Democratic party’s PR operatives into supporting the weakest candidate that moderate Republicans would find acceptable.

Failures like these hurt the left because when it starts to respond with emotion rather than reason, it can often fail to identify the real causes for alarm. It makes the left less effective advocates or adversaries because emotion and faith is easy to dismiss. In fact, there are just as many people on the left who haven’t got a clue what “critical thinking skills” are as there are on the right. It just a term that sounds good and smart. But from what I have seen of the left, there’s a lot of learning to do about what it means to think critically. It is vitally important that we learn to do so as quickly as possible because evidence and rigor are much more deadly than mere tribal beliefs when we seek to disarm our adversaries.

So, what I would advise Occupy to do is to start applying more rigor to its methods. It should not be afraid to challenge its own beliefs. It is a good thing to apply the scientific method. You know that there is widespread suffering. You know that people are being exploited, cheated, mislead. You want to do something about it. Doing something positive about negative things that are destroying your society is a very laudable goal. It will contribute to the overall happiness of society. But to do this, it is not simply enough to get angry and protest. You must also get smart. You need to put aside your prejudices, emotions and biases and apply a more rigorous method for developing your proposed solutions. Collect evidence, ask questions, recruit experts, solicit advice, analyze carefully, eliminate noise and concentrate on signal and test your conclusions. Accept challenges. I understand that some Occupy working groups are already doing this. The one that came out with the thorough, well researched response letter to the financial crisis is a case in point. But the ones that have to do with science and pharma are still mired in some very non-rigorous debate and pseudoscience that is not going to be helpful. It just looks stupid, from my perspective, and should get the same kind of treatment that Tim Minchin gave to Storm.

When I heard Minchin’s poem for the first time yesterday, I immediately thought of some people on the left I’ve met. What a waste. Without rigor, some of them do just come off looking like Dirty Fucking Hippies. They might be right but all their opponents see is incense, astrological charts and an easily lead mind that poses no threat to them. It is really important for the left to challenge the lazy thinking of some of its adherents and not be afraid to tell them when it’s utter crap. Policing your own will greatly enhance your reputation.

Ok, I’m off of my soapbox now. I do have to say that after the past couple of months, reviewing all of the material online and attending the Reason Rally yesterday, that I think the two major parties are engaging in poo-flinging and I don’t want any part in it anymore. I think I’m ready to finally give up the Democrats altogether, even though that’s where my sympathies are. The question is, are the Democratic party’s sympathies with its base? The overwhelming evidence of its actions over the past several election cycles is very clearly No. I’m ready for The New Enlightenment and where it’s going. That doesn’t mean I think Occupy is a waste of time. Far from it. I think Occupy has tremendous potential but only in that it needs to intersect with The New Enlightement and learn from it to make it an effective tool against growing authoritarianism. But there needs to be a new foundation laid upon which we base our worldview and the Reason Rally participates are actively engaging in doing it while the left is still struggling out of a fog. Greta Christina would probably recommend that we reach out to each group and form a coalition with each other. Let’s try that.

Here again is Tim Minchin’s poem Storm as he delivered it yesterday at The Reason Rally:

Monday: Be Good for Goodness Sake

Ok, bear with me, these things are related.  I think.

I was idly surfing the web, as I sometimes do.  You do that too, don’t you?  And I ran across a podcast on the crazy super secret handshakes and decoder rings of the Church of Latter Day Saints aka the Mormons and that lead me to a playlist of a lecture on youtube on the modern secular movement.  As it turns out, people who identify themselves as non-religious, ie secularists, atheists, freethinkers, pastafarians etc) belong to a fast growing group here in the US.  Although the official number is around 3%, the leaders of this movement think that the number of non-religious Americans is about 10%.  Revealing your atheism is still pretty risky these days so there are probably more than the surveys say.  Compare that to the population of Jews in this country, which is only around 1.5%.  I find that number incredibly low but that’s probably because I live in New Jersey.  I know a lot of Jews.  So, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think there are a lot more atheists around than we think.  In fact, I live with one who announced her atheism at 9 yrs old just before she asked if she could have another cookie.

Anyway, one of the more accesible speakers on atheism has to be Dan Barker.  Barker became a born again Christian at the age of 15 and studied to be an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher.  He preached for 19 years before his side line as a composer of Christian music took him out of his comfort zone in fundamentalism and into mainstream Christian churches.  It was all downhill from there.  Before long he was learning liberal theology and reading stuff and asking questions.  Eventually, he decided that there was no god.  In his YouTube lecture on the subject, he relates his experiences as a secretly atheist preacher in the final days of his ministry and how awkward it was.  Finally, he came clean with his friends and relatives and sent them all a letter announcing his atheism.  Some of his friends dropped him.  Others loved him anyway.  In particular, his mother, a devout Christian, started asking her own questions.  It wasn’t long before she too gave up God, with some relief.  She said, “Being an atheist is great.  I don’t have to hate anyone!”

Dan Barker’s lecture is interesting.  He has a lot to say about  fundamentalist minds and their worldview that those of you who have grown up in normal families were fortunate enough to have missed.  Both he and another leader of the secular movement, Dr. Sam Harris, confirm what I’ve been said about arguing with fundamentalists.  Don’t.  I mean, don’t bother.  Their whole reason for being is to lure you into conversations with them for the express purpose of shooting down your belief system.  They’ve got their arguments all lined up like a gatling gun.  There is no give and take in these conversations.  They are not interested in your point of view.  You may think you are debating.  You are not.  And if you are the kind of person who routinely applies reason and logic in your approach to the world, a fundamentalist is not going to impress you.  Just politely excuse yourself and go get another cocktail.  In fact, let this be a warning to fundamentalists.  Don’t get into an argument with a person who applies reason and logic in his/her approach to the world.  You’ll just be wasting your precious time. Cross them off your life list.  They’re lost causes.  Find an easier mark.

So, the Dan Barker lecture lead me to The God Debate II where Sam Harris debated William Craig on morality.  This one was good too but I found Harris’s intro speech particularly illuminating.  My tin foil antenna picked up signal about how we may have ended up with the stupid decision on Plan B.  Take a listen starting at minute mark 27.35:

For those of you who want the short summary, here it is.  Harris went to a conference and met a bioethicist who was appointed by President Obama.  The bioethicist, a woman, took Harris to task for his condemnation of the Taliban’s treatment of women.  She asked what right Americans had to condemn forcing women into burqas.  That’s what the Taliban and Afghanistan valued.  Harris countered that he didn’t think it was good for the well being of women to be stuffed into bags and to be beaten for not wearing them and that the Taliban’s treatment of women resulted in low lifespan for women as well as high illiteracy, and maternal and infant mortality.  He was surprised by her attitude so he asked how she would feel about a culture whose religion dictated that the eyes of every third child should be put out because their scriptures said, “Every third one shall walk in darkness.”  The bioethicist said it wasn’t our place to judge.  Harris was amazed at this response since earlier in that conference, he’d heard this same bioethicist give an impassioned speech on the unconstitutionality and immorality of torture in detention.

What are we to make of that and what does it have to do with Plan B?  First, it seems to me that the bioethicist has no problem accepting international and constitutional legal proscriptions regarding torture.  But when it comes to matters of religion, there seems to be a hands-off attitude because to insert oneself between another person and their god is arrogant and cultural imperialism, even if the religious act results in another form of physical torture.  It’s not the torture that is the problem, it is the context in which the torture is carried out.  As long as the torture is religious in nature, the bioethicist felt that to give offense was worse than allowing the torture to happen.

In the past couple of months, the right wing nutcases have rolled out their campaign for “religious freedom”, which, from what I can tell, means sufficiently fanatical religious people have the freedom to shove religion down your gullet whenever and wherever they want or they will have a noisy, screaming, bloody tantrum.  Their religious freedom trumps your right to be left alone.  It’s simply not enough to be able to practice their religion at home and not be persecuted for practicing their religion in a place of worship.  No, they have to be in your face, 24/7, and be able to take their religion everywhere.

And it looks like President Obama is going to let them do it and let them push the envelope as far as it will go.  Because it is OK by him for the mayors of various cities to enforce petty little laws that truncate your right to protest government in public but no one in his administration will dare to condemn you for practicing religion any damn place you please even if everyone around you finds your values abominable.  It’s simply uncouth.  One doesn’t do such things.  It’s like discussing religion and politics at Easter dinner.  Very rude.  Besides, religious people are inherently moral beings, even if what they do doesn’t seem right to the rest of us.  Who are we to judge?

So, protestors chanting “We are the 99%” and non-violently camping in a public park?  Dangerous malcontents.  Fanatically religious, viciously ugly, men and women hatefully humiliating women outside an abortion clinic?  Moral upstanding citizens.  Scared 15 yr old teenager who let nature get the best of her thinking self?  Bad little girl.  Obama administration who overruled its FDA?  Benevolent moral father figure.  What about the rest of us who aren’t religious who don’t think the administration had any right to deny our high school daughters access to Plan B?  Why do I get the feeling that the answer to that question is another question?  “Why aren’t you religious?”

Should we be asking ourselves if only religious people in this country have rights?  And do those rights include the ability to invade other people’s privacy at will?  And what does Harris’s story about Obama’s bioethicist say about how the administration will handle other issues where law and religion conflict?  According to most religions, women are subservient to their husbands and fathers.  Is this what Obama is sanctioning with his Plan B decision?  Because that’s what it sounds like to me.  So, will it be OK for men to beat their wives into submission again?  Interfere with her right to get an abortion?  Deny her birth control?  Forbid her from getting a higher education or work?  Where does Obama draw the line?  Must we always meekly defer to the religious for fear of denying their freedom for imposing some legal standards of behavior on them?

And what are we to make of the new religious freedom campaign in this environment?  I’d say the Republicans and religious crazies know just which buttons to push with President Obama.  And they will keep pushing them as long as he lets them get away with it.  It could be just a re-election strategy or it could be his own personal philosophy.  When it comes to the religious, he’s non-confrontational.  Better to just let their morality lead and get out of the way.  Is this a backdoor way of allowing for the establishment of religion?  If you can’t question the religious and you allow their morality to make your decisions, then the rest of us are involuntary participants against our own consciences.

If this is the way Obama’s administration operates, expect to see a lot more catering to the religious right in the next year.  They’ll push and he’ll cave so that he isn’t perceived as overriding their right to follow their religious moral teachings, even if it means letting every third child walk in darkness or get pregnant in high school.


And on the right side of the aisle, Newt Gingrich drills into the dark recesses of the authoritarian follower’s unconscious and digs up an all too real sounding modern apocalyptic scenario.  In Among Gingrich’s Passions, a Doomsday Vision, the New York Times reveals Gingrich’s warnings about EMP, electro magnetic pulse.  The scenario goes like this: some crazy axis of evil country detonates a nuclear device in a certain stratum of the atmosphere over our country, the home of the free, land of the brave, and takes down the entire electrical grid.  Suddenly, nothing electrical will work.  Your refrigerator, TV, cell phones, trains, even some cars, all dead.  The wires of the grid irretrievably destroyed all over the country, the nation plunges into a period of darkness, chaos, starvation and danger.

There was a work of fiction written about this a few years back called One Second After.  Wouldn’t you know, Gingrich wrote the introduction for it.  {{rolling eyes}} I happen to have listened to this book because it was recommended on audible.  Not knowing that it was a work of propaganda, until after the intro, I listened to about half of it before I couldn’t take it anymore.  The book was designed for middle aged guys with a hero fantasy.  Picture Rambo crossed with the protagonist from a Tom Clancy novel, except with a patriotic, moral “family values” streak.  He’s rugged and good looking and he snags the best looking babe.  He’s wise, he’s tough, he has a gift for planning, strategy and war.  He takes care of his family first and doesn’t flinch when he has to execute people who don’t follow the law he has laid down who get in his way. He has no patience with civil liberties. It’s the kind of book only your annoyingly righteous brother could love and pack away with his stash of MRE’s and survivalist gear in the basement.

I think we can see who Newt’s target demographic is.  Newt is appealing to the apocalyptic nervous Nellies who want a strong, fatherly type who will get them through the coming tribulations with hard and fast authority.  There are no shades of gray in this world.  He’ll do what he has to do to keep his country safe from dangerous entities who want to kill us in the night.  He will be vigilant, he will be patriotic, he will not be soft.  And he won’t have any patience for basic constitutional rights or charity for others.  He will put the country on a war footing.  We’ll all be twitchy just waitin’ for someone to step out of line.  (By the way, have you read what Paul Krugman wrote about what happened to Hungary?  It’s a country that Gingrich could admire.)

I did skip ahead to the end.  You’ll be happy to know that the Army does finally come to the rescue at the end and that the lights do slowly come back on.  But the country is irreparably changed by then.  Most of the population is dead from starvation or just plain killin’.  And the hero rules his roost like a not so benevolent dictator while his neighbors and recruits worship him for saving them from what surely was the end of the world.

Newt is a little bit like Walt Disney.  He’s going to make his fantasies come true and it will be one scary E- ticket ride.