Reason Rally 2012

March 27, 2012

Me with PZ Myers

This weekend, I attended the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. This was the largest gathering of atheists and rationalists in history.

Now there’s a lot of debate about how many were actually in attendance, with reported numbers ranging between 5,000 and 30,000. Now I can say with strong confidence that it was a lot more than 5,000. And allegedly, official park figures suggest it was around 30,000, while others are simply asserting their own numbers based on their own personal guesswork.

Me with AronRa

In any case, it was a wonderful event. I got to meet numerous people I admire while sending Washington a message that they can no longer afford to ignore us. Throughout the day, American Atheists President Dave Silverman spoke to the crowd. And while I’ve often been critical of Silverman in the past, he was fantastic on the day. Other great and memorable speakers included Adam Savage of the Mythbusters, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Penn Jilette, Eddie Izzard, Jamie Kilstein, former Westboro Baptist Church member Nate Phelps, Youtube atheist Cristina Rad, and many more. Other YouTubers in attendance were Thunderf00t, AronRa, Ashley Paramore, and ProfMTH. The audience was also treated to musical performances by Tim Minchin and Bad Religion.

Of course, with the single largest gathering of atheists, it was inevitable that religionists would crash the party. Though to be fair, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was actually invited by the National Atheist Party, a controversial move that wholeheartedly support. The WBC are a joke and are also hated by, well, everyone. Goading them into attending not only increases media attention but also almost guarantees the press will be positive towards us as it’s hard to look like the bad guys when placed next to the funeral-picketing, hate-mongers of the WBC. While repulsive, I’ve often said that the WBC are not only one of the least violent religions in the world as well as that they practically do our job of showing the problems of religiosity for us by simply continuing their usual antics.

I personally find the WBC so non-threatening that I actually wanted to have my picture taken with them. Unfortunately, however, they kept their distance, possibly to keep their kids from hearing Nate Phelps, the prodigal son of the Phelps clan. I never even saw them. I did, however, get to interact with other evangelical groups such as those representing a ministry calling itself “True Reason.” I had a semi-lengthy discussion with one young member of that ministry and tried to teach him a little about moral philosophy. I also managed to get my hands on a DVD copy of Ray Comfort’s insipid 180 Degrees video which he markets as his never-fail secret to convincing pro-choicers to oppose abortion in about a minute. The movie is available for free online and Comfort’s amazing tactic is not very persuasive…at all. In fact, I’m so confident his video is not persuasive and does nothing but demonstrate what a clown religious nuts like Comfort are that I’d happily become a distributor of the DVD myself.

All in all, it was a fun event and hopefully the start of a growing political movement by rationalists.

I just can’t help but think what a shame it is that Christopher Hitchens didn’t live to see the Reason Rally because the central message of the event seemed to remind me of a Hitchens quote:

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.”

Surprisingly, despite all the constant in-fighting among skeptics concerning confrontational methods, the Reason Rally seemed to unambiguously support confrontationalism. And I can’t seem to find anyone in the movement criticizing the rally for being undeniably a call to arms for skeptics to get involved in efforts that will help push our message into the mainstream. Hemant Mehta called for attendees to run for public office while the attention given to young Jessica Ahlquist suggested fighting to maintain church-state separation through litigation.

Further, many of the speakers promoted humanist values through governmental policy with few even acknowledging libertarianism. The only mention of libertarian methods I caught was a quick remark in possibly my favorite speech of the day by Adam Savage:

Savage’s speech perhaps best summarized that key message of the Reason Rally:  we cannot no longer afford to stay on the sidelines and be mere spectator of injustice and misinformation. We must unite and fight back against the bullies of untruth who exploit the ignorance of others and cause great suffering in the world.

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Letter to the Editor 3.13.11

March 13, 2011
Nixon named William Rehnquist to the Supreme C...

Image via Wikipedia

Today my local newspaper published a letter to the editor I wrote, responding to an article by Greg Rummo (reproduced here) about the Supreme Court outcome of the Snyder v. Phelps case.

The letter can be found here. I think the link has an expiration date and later readers may not be able to access it, so as with other letters to the editor, I’m reposting it in its entirety here:

Testing limits of religion, free speech

Regarding “The Supreme Court’s puzzling ruling” (Opinion, Page O-2, March 6):

Greg Rummo combines two separate issues to paint the court’s deeming the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral pickets protected speech as contrary to precedent.

The so-called “religious love speech” Rummo says the Supreme Court opposes as “dangerous” (Ten Commandment postings in public spaces, Nativity displays in public spaces and school prayer) are all examples of public institutions respecting the establishment of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause and the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. And the court hasn’t opposed prayer in public schools, only institutionally sponsored prayer. Students are free to pray to their heart’s content so long as it isn’t disruptive.

That’s entirely different from the new Snyder v. Phelps ruling against funeral sanctity laws, which closely resembles Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. There, the court held that speech motivated even by hatred or ill will is protected by the First Amendment. In his Falwell decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, ” ‘Outrageousness’ in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.”

Likewise, there’s an “inherent subjectiveness” in the “outrageousness” of funeral pickets. Although we may not like what the Westboro Baptist case says, the church members have the same constitutional right as anyone else to peacefully assemble.

The only problem I have with the editing job was the last sentence, which was originally intended to read as:  “Although we may not like what the WBC says, the church members have the same constitutional right as anyone else to peacefully assemble.” The intent was to say we don’t have the right to prevent ourselves from being offended, not to again defend the Court’s ruling. It’s a subtle difference and certainly both points can be found earlier in the piece, but I prefer my original version. Otherwise though, no major changes were made.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 3.4.11

March 5, 2011

1. John Connor, it is time. -

Whenever the military rolls out a new robot program, folks like to joke about SkyNet or the Rise of the Machines. But this time, the military really is starting to venture into robot-apocalypse territory: swarms of little semi-autonomous machines that can team up to manufacture complex objects (including, presumably, more robots).

That’s right, the only thing scarier than a swarm of intelligent military mini robots is a swarm of intelligent military mini robots in control of the means of production. And your Navy is hard at work on making it a reality.

2. Supreme Court rules in favor of Westboro Baptist Church – As detestable as the WBC is, I think the Supreme Court made the right call, which I’ve argued previously over at the Gotham Skeptic. Alito was the only Justice who sided with the Snyder family against the WBC. Between this decision and the vaccine court decision last week, the Supreme Court has been batting a 1000 lately.

3. Anti-abortion billboard goes down in NYC - The billboard tried playing the race card, a gambit anti-abortionists have been using for some time now. And while I don’t condone censorship, this wasn’t government censorship:

Councilwoman Letitia James and her legislative aide Aja Worthy-Davis that yesterday they launched a Change.org petition targeting Life Always and billboard owner Lamar Advertising, asking them to remove it. Later in the day, Lamar Advertising announced that it would take the billboard down.

Of course this notion that Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist, and that Planned Parenthood’s true agenda is to exterminate black people is complete bullshit.

4. Third-grader allegedly heals friends with magic – Okay, let’s settle this once and for all by seeing him heal Christopher Hitchens.I understand why a kid could buy into this fantasy but adults who report the news have no excuse.

5. Age of Autism cries misogyny – The same blog that suggested journalist Amy Wallace was blowing Dr. Paul Offit is accusing Doonesbury of misogyny over a cartoon that suggested Jenny McCarthy makes Playboy bunnies look bad. That is too funny. If anyone can explain to me why, feminist crusader that she is, Katie Wright had no objection to her own blog’s attack on Wallace, let me know. Also, if you can explain how the content of the cartoon is criticizing all women instead of just criticizing Jenny McCarthy alone for speaking out of school, I’d love to know that too. Oh, and one more thing. If you can explain to me how a website that accuses its critics of being a “loyal Pharma-funded wife” without even the slightest bit of evidence of any conflict of interest can maintain any moral high gound, let me know that too. Sullivan writes about it here.

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Even the good billboards get attacked

December 5, 2010

The other day, I expressed my disapproval of the latest American Atheist billboard that went up in New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel. And the more responses to it I see in the letters to the editor of my local Jersey newspaper and elsewhere, the more angry it makes me.

Sure, there are dumber criticisms such as the “why didn’t they spend the $20,000 on charity” charge, which exposes a complete double standard, since any motorist in the U.S. has undoubtedly encountered at least one of the thousands of aggressive Christian billboards across the country and never seemed to mind any of that money not going to charity.

But that shouldn’t distract from the legitimate criticisms of the billboard. While I completely agree that the Jesus story is accepted by many on entirely insufficient evidence and objectively has no greater evidence than any Greek or Roman myth (a point David Silverman makes himself in this clip), that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right message to stick on a billboard. David Silverman’s attempts to defend the billboard choice are not very persuasive because, quite frankly, they’re complete bullshit…and everyone knows it (or as American Atheists would say everyone “KNOWS” it). Regardless of the fact that the Jesus as myth argument is a completely valid position and one that even gets debated by actual historians, the message of the billboard is clear. It’s not to stir atheists from the closet, as Silverman pretends it’s intended to do, but to give Christians the finger. That’s it.

Finding positive reviews of the  billboard from people not already firmly in the atheist community is as difficult as finding positive reviews of any given PETA stunt from people who aren’t already devoutly devoted to PETA. It’s an unmitigated public relations disaster for the atheist community…and it was delivered by members of our own team.

So what am I to do? Write my own letter to the editor? I can’t defend that billboard. It’d be easier to defend the Iraq War. American Atheists has $20,000 to burn on a billboard and they chose to squander that opportunity by thumbing their noses at Christianity for spite and going, “Na, na, na, na, na!”

I’m sorry but “Na, na, na, na, na!” is not worth $20,000. To be honest, that money would have been better spent as a donation to charity. That’s at least positive PR. Hell, if, like PETA or the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), the goal was simply to garner attention with a publicity stunt, that money would have been better spent literally tossing it out onto the streets of Time Square ala The Joker from the 1989 Batman film with David Silverman holding a bullhorn announcing that the money was courtesy of American Atheists.

You see, that would get attention and wouldn’t give people a reason to hate our fuckin’ guts…which is the reaction we’re now getting thanks to American Atheists. Suddenly, we’re again less popular than Al Quada.

But of course there’s another problem we face. This one.

Even when we put up a fantastic advertisement on the side of a bus that actually does say something positive like “Millions of Americans Are Good Without God”, we STILL get attacked from Christians insisting that such a benign message is offensive to them. Not only that, but you get tons of Christians, most of whom probably never rode on a bus in their lives, are organizing a boycott of buses that happen to feature the benign atheist ads.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. All I can say is that if we’re going to continue to advertise atheism, skepticism, rationalism, etc. (and I think we should), we need to do a better job of choosing our ads and our message, and I think we should strive for ads that accentuate the positive attributes of atheism and reason instead of trying to out-WBC the WBC…even if it means we’ll be criticized anyway. Our ways are not their ways and I’d rather defend against illegitimate criticisms than legitimate ones.

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ComicCon vs. the Westboro Baptist Church

July 23, 2010

For some reason the Westboro Baptist Church decided to protest outside ComicCon. I suspect it was in hopes they’d see Summer Glau. But what I suspect they didn’t count on was the geeks fighting back:

There’s another video of what went down here.

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Lady Gaga vs. the Westboro Baptist Church

July 19, 2010
Lady GaGa concert
Image via Wikipedia

This isn’t the first time that the Westboro Baptist Church protested Lady Gaga but during their most recent picket outside one of her concerts with signs reading, “God Hates Lady Gaga,” the musician launched her own preemptive attack. Hearing about the intended protest in advance,  she posted a response on her website:

“At the risk of drawing attention to a hateful organization, I would like to make my little monster fans aware of a protest being held outside the Monsterball in St. Louis tonight,” Gaga wrote. “Although we have had protesters before, as well as fundamentalists at the show, this group of protesters are hate criminals and preach using lewd and violent language and imagery that I wish I could protect you all from.”

Calling the WBC “violent and dangerous” she warned fans not to engage them in conversation.
Ironically, “god” demonstrated his love for Lady Gaga by creating bad weather, which led to a poor turn out at the protest despite the WBCer’s claims that they believe they have immortal souls and don’t subscribe to scientific materialism.

Lady Gaga’s triumphant post-concert tweet read:

“Love and hate met in St. Louis. And love outnumbered the hate, in poetic thousands. Hate left. But love stayed. + Together, we sang.”

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Mississippi Burning Stupid

April 27, 2010

Fresh off the heels of the national disgrace revolving around Constance McMillen’s high school prom, Mississippi is at it again. If you remember, McMillen’s high school was run by hatemongers who could not tolerate a lesbian attending the prom with her girlfriend and dressed in a tuxedo, so they tried to exclude her. When the ACLU told them they couldn’t do that, they officially canceled the prom altogether. At least, that’s what they wanted us to think. Another prom was secretly organized that included everyone except McMillen and some other unpopular kids. This led to confusion as to who the adults really were in that school.

Well now yet another lesbian student, Ceara Sturgis, had her photo expunged from her high school yearbook because she was dressed in a tuxedo like a man. I guess there’s nothing Mississippi hates more than androgyny.

But that’s not all. Guess who’s coming to Constance McMillan’s graduation. If you guessed the Westboro Baptist Church planning to protest Constance, you’re absolutely correct!

And the children running Itawamba Agricultural High School better not complain about it either. As far as I’m concerned, the children running Itawamba Agricultural High School have no right to object to the Westboro Baptist Church. As bad as the WBC is, at least they’re honest. They never set up an elaborate ruse in order to break the spirits of a young girl. That’s beneath them.


Gunn High School students fight back against Westboro Baptist Church

April 3, 2010

Gone are the days when individuals would just sit back and let the Westboro Baptist Church perform their little protests without using those opportunities for creative expression to their optimal potential. The other day I reported about another group of activists who have turned the WBC’s hatemongering into a charity event.

And now here’s the students of Palo Alto’s’ Gunn High School, who saw the WBC’s protest as an opportunity to come together in unity to send a powerful message of tolerance. Great job, guys!


News From Around The Blogosphere 3.29.10

March 30, 2010

1. Newborn denied health coverage for ‘preexisting condition’ -

“They kept saying it’s preexisting, it’s preexisting, but I don’t know how it can be preexisting on a baby that was just born,” Doug Tracy said. “If it’s mandated that everyone have health insurance, than how can one be denied?”

Now if this were a libertarian society, this wouldn’t be a problem. The child would just die and that’d be the end of it. Long live the great, benevolent, invisible hand of the free market, right?

2. Christian militia group threatens U.S. for Jesus – Obviously along with the Moscow subway suicide bombings, this was the other big news story today so I’ve got nothing really to add that hasn’t already been said…except to question what these people would have been doing if they didn’t believe in an imaginary friend in the sky.

3. Westboro Baptist Church spoofs Lady Gaga – As you might have guessed, their version’s lyrics can be summed up as God hates fags, you specifically, and everyone else on Earth. It seems they’re now doing covers of their own work. You know, I liked their early stuff but now they’re still doing the same thing. I just think they need to evolve and grow as artists.


Fighting hate with charity

March 26, 2010

This is a great example of how to use religious hatred against them to make the world a better place. The WBC know how to get attention. That’s the one thing they do right. It’s about time we started someone thought of a way to piggyback on their media whoring and turn their bigotry into opportunity:

Thanks Westboro Baptist Church!


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