I have posted so much about the Reason Rally in the last few weeks, but I have one last thing I want to talk about: why I care so much about this event.
Many of my friends talk about this event as a rallying of the troops, a way to build morale and group identity among secular America. Plus, it’s a big party with others like us! This is important, absolutely, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from those who are going for this reason, but it is not why I am going. I am going to demand a voice.
I came to the atheist movement in a somewhat circuitous fashion. I’ve been a non-believer since I was eight. I found my teeth in my mother’s jewelry box and, having already been quite suspicious of the entire thing, concluded that there was no Tooth Fairy and, therefore, no Easter Bunny, no Santa Claus, no Jesus, and no God.
I didn’t become vocal about my atheism until after reading Hitchens’ “God is Not Great”, but even though I cared deeply about secularism, it was not my primary cause. I was more interested in being an activist, and I didn’t see any opportunities for activism for secular causes. Instead, I spent my time fighting for civil rights for LGBT, women, and minorities. When I lived in California and campaigned against Prop 8, the gay marriage ban, I finally met atheists and skeptics who were fighting, actively, for political change.
Secularists need to join one another, not only to create community and acceptance, but to demand it. I am incredibly lucky that, despite being from South Carolina and the Bible Belt, my family tolerates my non-belief — mostly in the hope that I’ll get over it, but still. There are so many people I know, including those who are active locally, who cannot speak publically about their lack of belief for fear of losing their families and their jobs. There are so many people I know who have been mistreated by the religious, so many children hurt and abused because the law gives special rights to religion, and many others who feel they can never make an impact politically unless they kowtow to the Christian Fundamentalist majority in our state and our country.
Change is started, yes, by coming out of the closet, and this is a national coming out day for the non-religious, but change also comes from demanding your voice be heard politically. The public attitude towards women, minorities, and gay people has been changed by individuals demanding a voice AND by the movements demanding legislative change and support.
I could not be more excited to see Tim Minchin and Eddie Izzard, two of my favorite performers, but I am also excited to see Sean Faircloth and Herb Silverman, who have made significant legislative impacts, and to see two brave men who serve in Congress and are willing to risk the political stigma of associating with atheists. I am excited that we are not just speaking to ourselves anymore, we are speaking to the world, to the country, to the government that should be serving us.
We are going to Washington not just for ourselves, but because we absolutely have to. We have a voice and we refuse to be ignored any longer.
Sean Faircloth is the writer of the excellent book that I am currently reading on my kindle, “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All“. He also has some very impressive speeches that he’s given over the past several years working with the Secular Coalition of America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation; and he’ll be at the Reason Rally this weekend.
The following is a speech about child abuse at the hands of the religious.
THIS IS WHY
This is why it’s absolutely necessary for secular people to make their voice heard, because it is not being heard by the government. The government is so overwhelmingly controlled by the religious that they have carved out special rights that destroy people’s lives. If adults want to throw their lives into the nonsense, that’s one thing, but harm perpetrated against children should be an offense to everyone.
So, I will see you at the Reason Rally. This is our opportunity to demand a voice. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
(Another excellent resource about religious child abuse is “Breaking Their Will” by Janet Heimlich. I read it last year and it was not only a very fair book, in terms of its approach to mainstream faith, but also a very disturbing and necessary book about child abuse and how cults and religions lead to it.)
I got up early to get ready to see the papers, and to make sure I was there to watch everyone else’s papers because they usually aren’t crowded. TAMmers leave in droves on Sunday before the event is over and the papers were really poorly advertised this year. There was no program, there was no schedule that anyone had access to, our names weren’t printed anywhere, certainly our subjects weren’t printed anywhere. It was poorly done, I have to say — we’re not headliners, but we are people who still had to pay despite the fact that we’re talking. The least they could have done is put our names somewhere so people would know what they were listening to.
Anyway, I went to the papers. I was fairly nervous, but it was OK, I was the last to go, so I had to sit through 6 other papers before it was my turn and, unfortunately, the paper before me ate into my time a little, so I had to shorten mine up on the fly. Which was also fine, because I could see anything thanks to the lights reflecting off of my glasses, so I couldn’t really read my notes anyway.
It went over very well. The presentation was about the importance of using emotion and recognizing emotion in discussions, using the failure of the LGBT side in the Prop 8 campaign as an example of how emotional messanging works. There’s a huge tone debate in the movement at the moment, for those of you who don’t remember DBAD, because some people think that other people are too mean or confrontational. The point of my speech was to say that emotional content is one of our most useful tools, and being a dick creates an emotional response. It’s a useful tool in the tool box. But most importantly, just because the movement is about logic and rationality that doesn’t mean that ignoring emotion is the right way to go about convincing others — ignoring human emotion is irrational. Including within the movement — skeptics are not immune from being human, we should start taking that into account better when we argue.
I got a large applause when I was done, and after I left the stage a little crowd of people came over to thank me or talk with me about the issues. It was very cool. I was expecting some backlash — perhaps from being on the internet for too long — I thought some people would tell me that emotions have no place in rational debates or that they didn’t appreciate my assumption that everyone in the room was pro-gay rights, but the responses were great.
I was too keyed up to sit through the next presentation, especially as the World Cup Final was about to take place, so I just went into the hallway and talked to people who came up to me to say thanks about my presentation. To pat myself on the back a little, I’m going to write some of the Twitter responses:
kefox: Great talk this morning on communicating w/emotion. Our side is smarter & really ought to be the Jedi masters of this.
Tasutari: Ashley could easily have given a full talk – good slides, good content, well presented. Plus, there was a Joss Whedon quote.
charlesj: Ashley tells us what we need to hear, continuing from Tavris’ talk yesterday
jennifurret: Ashley nailed it on using emotions when arguing skepticism. Sometimes you need to be a dick!
TCTheater: Ashley is kicking ass and taking names. Excellent capstone to papers segment.
SkeptiCareBear: Propaganda bad, but lack of all emotion worse. Good talk by Ashley.
StevenTheWonky: Ashley is kicking ass.
ArcheoWebby: A presenter that knows how to use a computer. Nice. Good Job Ashley.
So that was awesome. Then I went to watch the soccer game and it was so depressing, partially because there was no food at the bar and I was starving to death while also watching the US kill themselves — I’m happy for Japan, but we lost that game because we made a lot of stupid, careless mistakes and couldn’t get shots on Target. My heart goes out to Abby Wambach.
Then I heard the end of the diversity in skepticism panel, which I sort of lost interest in thanks to DJ seeming to think that getting conservatives and religious people in the movement should be some sort of a priority. I’m with Jamila on the whole getting active about causes that skeptic people should be able to see are ridiculous — the war on drugs, the prison policy.
Sean Faircloth gave essentially the same speech he’d given at the SCA Summit and it went over very well. He’s a very good cheerleader.
Then there was the closing remarks from Randi and we were done. I ran into Randi in the hallway and thanked him for letting me speak and he said he’d heard I’d done very well. I’m sure he was just saying that, but it was still awesome. I went down to the Del Mar and hung out with a lot of people who were still there and then went to Penn and Teller over at the Rio. Boy are Las Vegas cabs expensive, by the way. We were in the first seat in the Mezzanine, which was actually excellent because it was easier to see how they were doing the tricks. A lot of their tricks have been on their show or on other shows, but it was still a lot of fun. And then someone in the line for cabs recognized me and thanked me for my talk, so people at the Rio cab line probably thought I was some important person. Buahaha.
Then I packed and went to bed.
Monday, I got on the airplane and swallowed my crown. And I’m freaking out about it. Yep.
Day one here
Friday, in the wee hours of the morning, right after I’d gotten to sleep, there was some sort of major commotion on the 8th floor of the Hyatt, very near to my room. I’m not sure what it was, but I was told hotel security was called and I definitely heard a man who’d been woken up scream, “Shut the Fuck Up!” I would have applauded, but I wasn’t so much for moving.
So, I was very tired when 7:30AM came around. And then breakfast was disappointing. How hard is it to have toast or oatmeal or something other than a very sketchy bready fruity thing? Everything was cooked fruit. How gross. (Note: I’m far too picky for people to take my food opinions seriously.)
We, the godless horde, strode over to the Capitol to meet with some staffers. Herb, Sharon and I first met with Tara O’Neill, who is a Legislative Aide (or LA in Hill Parlance) for Tim Scott. Tara, a Clemson grad, was very nice and polite and listened to all we had to say about HR 1179 2011 (patient rights) and Humanist Military Chaplains. But I’d like to give you some background on Tim Scott, so that you can understand exactly the lion’s den we three atheists were stepping into.
Tim Scott is one of the mythological Black Republicans, and he’s Southern, so he’s about as common as a unicorn. When he was on City Council he erected the 10 Commandments in the Council Office and the AU and ACLU proceeded to sue him to take them down. He campaigned on bringing Christian Values to Washington, and was endorsed by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. He opposes gay marriage, and probably doesn’t believe in atheists in foxholes.
He took $117,000 in campaign ads from an anti-union group and then proceeded to sponsor legislation that would deny FOOD STAMPS to anyone who had a family member on strike. HR 1135 2011. It’s very clever, Sheriff of Nottingham level villainy going on. “I want this brigand found. Starve them out, slaughter their… No, take their live stock. I want Locksley’s own people fighting to bring his head in.”
But enough about the life and legislation of Tim Scott, the staff was very nice — Tara and the UCSD student who greeted us and the gentleman in charge, who understood immediately what the SCA was doing. We were done there by 9:30 and then headed over to meet with Lindsey Graham’s staffer Jason Brown, who is now my favorite person in DC. On the way we walked past an armed guard who had an AK-47 — it didn’t look real, they should really make them look less like toys.
Our appointment wasn’t until 11, so we went down into the cool/creepy tunnels that run under the capitol, and went to a little coffee shop below ground. Then we went back up to meet with Jason Brown. The Senate offices are much, much nicer than the House offices. Graham’s office was decorated with a bunch of pictures and paintings of and by South Carolinians.
Jason Brown is a lawyer working as a Legislative Aide for Lindsey Graham and he took us to a relatively swank conference room and we talked primarily about the issue of Humanist Military Chaplains. He asked us some questions that implied an interest and definite understanding of why it was important to us. That was reassuring. Graham is an interesting character in terms of willingness to not toe the Republican Party Line at all times, and as someone on the Committee on Armed Services, he’s a good person to have on your side in this issue.
After that meeting, I went to Union Station, which is apparently just a large mall without a candy store, and met some others for lunch at Pizzeria Uno. At 2, the panel discussion were set to begin. Fred Edwords, who shall be Fredwords henceforth, the head of COR was the first to arrive. He is working with some people in Columbia to get some buildboards here as well as some media training for locals, so it was nice to see a face I’ve seen a lot of e-mails from of late.
The panel was filled out by David Silverman (American Atheists), Jesse Galef (SSA), and Sally Quinn (editor of On Faith, Washington Post). They spent some time talking about the rapture, which was supposed to happen Saturday, and how good it has been for the cause of Atheism. David Silverman had been on CNN several times, and Herb Silverman was fielding media phone calls all day.
Sally Quinn then spoke for a while, and she was interesting, though I’m not sure I agree with her or where she’s coming from — it could be a generational thing. She had some good zingers though.
You all look like you’re going to hell to me. Tomorrow.
The world is not going to end tomorrow, keep on flossing.
Not one person in this room will be elected president of the United States. There will be a woman, gay, and muslim president before there is an atheist president.
Effective media strategy is based on knowing more about faith than the other guy. This is what makes Hitchens so good, he makes them just give up. PEW says atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than the faithful.
Now, I have a little bit of a problem with the defeatist attitude towards the possibility of an atheist president. There are, of course, quite a few who argue that we currently have one. But an openly atheist president within my lifetime doesn’t seem like an impossibility to me. Maybe I’ll run in however many years til I’m 35.
Then they got into a discussion of when anger was appropriate, and the consensus was it was good when other people also got angry, like when children died of neglect because their family refused medical care because of their religious beliefs. Atheists should try to get in the news for doing community service and nice things, to help dispel the myth that Atheists are immoral or unfeeling. Fredwords echoed things I’ve heard PZ say, which is that you need the firebrands to get attention and the nice people to negotiate change.
And then this is where Sally Quinn really went off the rails for me (and Jennifer Michael Hecht), when she started talking about what the stereotypical view of an atheist is. Apparently Quinn thinks that the image people have in mind when they hear “atheist” is Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was fat, ugly, crazy and had a mustache and that what atheism really lacks is an ATTRACTIVE public representative. Now, I don’t think that our current representatives like Dawkins, Faircloth, Harris, and Hitch are unattractive, I’d be more likely to put them in the generally attractive categories, so I’m just not sure if she means there are no attractive female public personalities or that no one has overcome the O’Hair legacy.
The first doesn’t resonate with me because I’ve seen plenty of attractive women at atheist events. The second doesn’t resonate with me because neither I nor Omar knew what O’Hair looked like. So maybe this is an old-people-who-think-atheism-is-communism-because-they’re-old-and-stupid problem, because no one I know, and we’re people who are like into atheism so we know stuff about atheism, has any idea why anyone would care about O’Hair. Everything I knew about her before Quinn’s comment is that she was killed before I was old enough to know anything and she was also an atheist.
Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re going to change the hearts and minds of Glenn Beck’s 70 year old audience, we just have to let them die. Does anyone under the age of forty think that all atheist ladies have mustaches? If so, I would like to disabuse you of this notion. Many of us also have horns.
Then there was a lot more discussion about tone and tactics, which basically covered all the same ground over and over again, with various protests of various sorts from the panelist and audience members. The most interesting discussion was about whether to participate in interfaith groups, which were exclusive of atheists by name and nature.
The next panel was a team of legal experts, David Niose, Amanda Knief, and Mark Dunn. Their discussion really reflected the rest of the thrust of the meeting in that it was calling for more personal stories rather than more theoretical problems. To this end, they wanted to bring cases based on civil rights and equal protection, not on the Establishment Clause.
What it boils down to is this: when we make Tim Scott take down the 10 Commandments, we are absolutely right, but it makes us seem like assholes, but when we call someone out for violating civil liberties, like firing someone for being an atheist or refusing to allow them to form school groups or parents are denied custody because they aren’t religious, we seem like people who are just fighting to be treated equally. And we get to tell personal stories of how the religious bias has hurt us, and people respond more to that.
And then we got a two-hour break, which I filled with caffeine, and then it was time for the reception/dinner that evening.
Paul Provenza opened with a comedic talk which was very similar to his talk at TAM. He did have a good line, “Today we lobbied, or as I like to call it, fucked shit up.” After dinner, JMH introduced Sean Faircloth, and she reiterated the broad theme (poetic atheism) of needing to tell human stories, we may be rational, but people need emotional connection.
And then Sean Faircloth spoke, and it was very State of the Union. Lots of clapping, lots of broad, hear-hear sort of statements. Spontaneous standing O at the end. He thinks that Secular Americans are the next moral majority, a sleeping giant waiting to be motivated. Then he gave a list of ten goals:
- Our military will serve all Americans, with no fundamentalism or religious bias or conversion
- Any federal/state funded program will be based on science, not belief
- Healthcare providers have a responsibility to their medical duties over their religious beliefs
- The legislature will represent the non religious
- There will be one consistent health standard for children, no religious exception
- Medical and scientific progress shall not be impeded by religious bias ever
- Discrimination based on religion will not happen
- Marriage can be defined by an individual religion however it wants, but the government cannot use religion for its definition
- Government zoning laws will respect all faiths and non-faiths equally
- Youth won’t be subjected to religious bias in schools.
Then, we were kicked out of the room because it was 9 and that was as late as they’d booked it. I proceeded to join JMH and her husband and a few others at the bar, where she ordered a margarita, but couldn’t remember the word for salt. This was immensely amusing. Then there was a party in a room, and we went there. There were all sorts of illicit activities going on (clothes all remained on) and I shan’t be more specific, but it was really fun.
JMH then did a poetry reading for the party, which was quite entertaining. Because her poems are good, people were drinking, and it was so weird that someone would read poetry at a party in the first place. I felt like a Beatnik, but cleaner.
And then, 2000 words later, I went to bed.
What a crazy weekend that was. So crazy that I’m writing about it what, on Thursday? Yeah, I was tweeting, hello, busy! In fact, nothing I’m going to say here wasn’t said with worse grammar and lack of access to spell check earlier.
I landed at Ronald Reagan airport (DCA) and took a cab to the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, which has a view of the Capital, assuming you can stand in exactly the right place and lean as far to your left as possible. My cab driver asked me what I was doing in town, and I was a little hesitant to say “CONQUERING THE WORLD WITH ATHEISM” because cab drivers have the power to not drive you anymore, and that would be unfun. So I started in easy, and then discovered that my self-proclaimed religious cabbie was totally on board with secular values and gay rights! Huzzah!
I hadn’t eaten yet, and the conference started at 1:00, which was exactly when I arrived. In the elevator I met Liz Gaston and Omar Rashid, who would become my companions over the course of the event. Because they were also awesome.
The event opened with Sean Faircloth, Woody Kaplan and Amanda Knief taking the podium in turns. I learned a lot of stats that I will now list for you, because you’re apparently reading this:
- Avg # of Staffers per House/Senate member: 18, split between home and DC
- Percent of staffer time spent with constituents: 75%
- Percent of staffers who think constituent visits are VERY persuasive: 97%
We broke down into groups after being given a rather lengthy guide to
sales lobbying for people who don’t know anything about sales lobbying. Being from SC, I got to work with Herb Silverman, who invented the SCA, and Sharon.
The issues we were planning on discussing the following day were the need for Humanist Military Chaplains and HR 1179 2011, a bill which allows medical service providers refuse to provide service if their religion demands it. The first is an easier sell, because everyone likes to help the military, the second is one that requires reframing the debate.
The reason we need Humanist Military Chaplains is not necessarily intuitive for people on the edges of the debate: who needs an atheist chaplain? Well, if the army is going to institutionalize having counselors on the ground and then NOT train them in how to deal with the 20%+ of armed service members with no religious preference, then that’s a problem. Humanism is a life philosophy and not actually synonymous with atheist, there’s just a large overlap. There aren’t any, despite the fact that there are people graduated from places like Harvard with divinity degrees focusing on Humanism.
HR 1179 2011 is more of an issue of patients rights. Doctors, Insurance, Nurses, Pharmacists, Hospitals and so on can not only refuse care that they don’t approve of, they can not tell you that they won’t do those services and not inform you that such services exist. This includes obvious things like abortions and birth control, but also things like living wills and DNRs. A Catholic Hospital can say it offers comprehensive female care and then not tell you most of what’s involved with comprehensive care.
I mean, it just seems to me that if you’re a Scientologist, you don’t become a Psychiatrist; if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you don’t become a Doctor; and if you’re someone with a political agenda that puts church in front of saving lives, you stay the hell away from medicine. But what do I know?
Sorry, shaking it off. I got to walk around DC, I wanted to see if maybe I could get into SCOTUS, but I couldn’t. Omar took this very cool picture of me at the Supreme Court. And then it was time for dinner.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, who has been my Facebook friend for a long time, but whose books I’ve never read and who I’ve never hung out with as such but is now my new favorite person, gave a speech at the dinner. She is a proponent of Poetic Atheism, which is like Atheism, but it rhymes. I’ll give you some quotes, grossly paraphrased:
When you know your history, you are powerful. More people in the history of humanity have not believed in God than have. (Atheism began around 600BC)
If I enjoy every day of my life I don’t worry so much about death. I mean, we barely use the life we’ve got — I dunno about you but I walk back and forth between the fridge and the computer a lot, what, I need a thousand years of it?
We were the first country founded as a secular rationalist country but we were also the first country to give the uneducated poor the vote. They worried that the uneducated poor would elect a poor man who would redistribute all the wealth. The uneducated poor won’t vote in a poor man, they’ll elect a stupid rich man. This is why we need free mandatory secular education!
Nothing in science fiction, in religion, in myths is as weird as this: (points to her head) the meat thinks. Nothing is as weird as love.
George Hrab, who is Spider Jerusalem, then performed some of his atheisty songs.
George Hrab is of the belief that James Randi is a garden gnome. This is undeniable.
My favorite zinger was aimed at Hitchens, when Hrab was talking about an event that Hitchens was going to be at but then wasn’t actually there.
Christopher Hitchens was supposed to be there, but I guess he had to go to a scotch festival… But at least that worked out for him.
OH SNAP! Basically what I’m saying is that George Hrab was pretty good, but he talked about his balls a lot.
After Hrab, Sean led trivia. I had talked a rather big game before the conference, so there was some pressure to win. Which I did quite handily, thank you very much. With the help of Omar for “Mumford and Sons” when all I could remember was “Little Lion Man”. We won an extra drink ticket, which I used to buy other people’s love, because people are irrationally in love with drink tickets.
After that, I went to meet George Hrab because I have a friend, Jarrett, who is a big fan. There are all these people who really dig on podcasts and I don’t get it. It’s like NPR but less focused, I know, I’ve been on a podcast. He wrote a note and let me take photos and then I ended up going down and hanging out with him and Liz and some random other people in the bar downstairs. There was an origami velociraptor involved.
I thought, you know, being a semi-regular contributor to 3 blogs just wasn't enough. Sean Faircloth, who I have a total atheist political crush on, got in touch with me a few months ago to ask me if I wanted to help with his new project, creating a blog on the SCA site. The help I ended up giving was just being a contributing blogger, but, you know, it's something.
The blog just launched this weekend, and today my first post went up. So go be like, hey, there's that blogger I knew back when she wasn't cool enough to write for Secular.org
Oh, and it mentions Columbia and the local AU meeting, if you're interested in that.