Peter, who has a temporary tattoo of the anarchy "A" on his upper arm, is ready for the age of reason. He fucking loves science. Or he loves logic, he says; it's the only thing he's interested in.
He has come all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, to Washington, DC, to hear the nation's foremost atheists tell an expected crowd of 30,000 the good news: We are at a turning point in American life. Religion, the long-stubborn source of our national ills, is finally dying away.
But there aren't 30,000 people here. The crowd extending from a stage at the base of the Lincoln Memorial stretches scarcely a quarter of the way up the Reflecting Pool and is thin on the sunny side. We are off to a slow start, one made slower by the loss, over dozens of speakers and days of events, of any kind of clarity or point.
This is the second Reason Rally, the first since 2012. It is, according to its organizers, a turning point in history, an opportunity for the quarter of Americans who are atheists to "stand up and be counted."
Peter says this is what he came for. He was a Republican during the Bush administration, but he couldn't stomach the religiosity. He doesn't like President Barack Obama either. Both Democrats and Republicans are getting the questions wrong, he tells me, and American politics won't get better until politicians give up their need to have an "all-powerful being tell them what to do," be that God or government.
It is unclear, however, how many Americans are prepared to abandon those idols. Of the roughly 25 percent of Americans the rally insists constitute the new secular movement, only 11 percent are avowed atheists. Most only decline any particular religious preference.
"When you read headlines about the rise of the so-called ‘nones,' or people who don't consider themselves part of a religion, that's what they're mostly referring to: the shruggers," wrote Emma Green in the Atlantic. "They might be intensely spiritual or perfectly apathetic about faith, but for some reason or another they don't self-identify as definitively atheistic."
Most, certainly, are not at Reason Rally. And among those who are, it is not clear how many share Peter's vision of the state as a kind of replacement god. Many of the speakers today are Democrats; they are a slight majority among the crowd, as well. But they do largely share Peter's confidence: Once religion is banished from the public sphere, the most pressing difficulties in our national life will largely fade away, rationally debated and swiftly solved according to the dictates of reason.
There is less agreement regarding the likely outcomes of those debates.
The rally lineup is promising on paper. Among its stars are Penn Jillette, the magician and libertarian, and Bill Nye, who has built his entire reputation in popular science on the strength of his charisma, without even a master's degree behind his name.
Bill Maher is on the lineup, as is the comedian Lewis Black. The heads of American Atheists and the Center of Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are speaking. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan have come. Two members of Congress will be speaking, although their remarks will be confined to the case for secular pluralism in law.
That case is not too far from the stated intent of the organizers. Since Thursday, smaller groups have been meeting on Capitol Hill and speaking to members of Congress; tonight, a VIP cocktail session and two parties will be held for ticket holders. Larry Decker, the executive director of Secular Coalition of America and an organizer of the rally, has high hopes. "We are going to promote secular values — values like freedom, equality, and inclusion", he told Reason magazine (no relation). "We hope to take those values and translate that into a strong voting bloc going forward."
What that voting bloc looks like is less certain. Decker is not proposing the formation of a new political party, and from the long list of Reason Rally's sponsors his movement suffers no dearth of extant advocacy organizations. Among the stated goals of this year's Reason Rally are comprehensive sex education, acceptance of climate science, and an end to discrimination against the gay community.
Is this only the Democratic Party, in secularly inflected tones? Several speakers in a row refer to what is being built as a "progressive" movement, but do speakers like Penn Jillette know? Do the attendees?
The first Reason Rally was more strident. It was militant — a celebration of defiance animated by a clear purpose, a style more typical of New Atheism as it has developed in the United States over the past 20 years, fleshed out by leaders like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and lately as much dedicated to a disdain of the excesses of identitarian liberalism as to any particular account of empirical triumph.
Four years ago, Dawkins encouraged attendees to "ridicule" the faithful. As the Atlantic's Green reported then, "a band fired up the crowd with a rousing sound that lampooned the belief in ‘Jesus coming again', mixing it with sexual innuendo … Attendees sported t-shirts and signs with slogans like 'I prefer facts' and 'religious is like a penis' (involving a rather extended metaphor)."
This year, it is difficult to imagine that the organizers haven't asked the speakers to limit their politics, to remain "on-message" and positive. There is no denouncement of religion, only its consequences. There are no attendees holding signs that say "BAN GOD." There is nothing quite so pointed this time, but without this animating antagonism, what is left?
The first officially scheduled event, on Thursday morning, was the screening of a John Oliver video.
When David Garcia, the president of LGBT Los Angeles, speaks of how many young people are hurt and made homeless by reactionary religious sentiment, he's speaking the truth, but it's a truth no more incendiary than what one is liable to hear at a rally for a Democratic congressional candidate. Throughout the day, speakers will invoke Martin Luther King's March on Washington, will draw explicit comparisons between that rally and this, but nothing here is even half so radical. A rally to celebrate sensible policy goals is fine enough, but it's hardly a revolution.
It is clear, too, that almost nobody who takes the stage at Reason Rally was ever trained as a preacher. The whole thing is languid, urgent words in measured tones. The goal is an "end to bigotry," in the pitch of a polite request, to "reject" a supernatural worldview with all the force of tepid applause.
Jamie Raskin says the job of politicians is to "listen to scientists" and closes with, "Put your thinking caps on America!" Penn Jillette struggles to get a video playing, chokes up over Hitchens, then plays a Bob Dylan knockoff about his love for all people. The Amazing Randi devotes half an hour to a muted jeremiad against the obscure "facilitated communication" hoax. Peter says he does not know what "FC" is, but he'll look into it.
The comedy isn't much either. Keith Lowell Jensen spends five minutes recounting the history of the restaurant Jack in the Box in order to reveal that he does not like the pope. A writer from The Daily Show jokes about eugenics for Twitter trolls. She takes a selfie and says fire was "invented" 10,000 years ago. Another comic says it's sad the aspirin-between-the-knees crowd doesn't know women can still have sex this way.
Was this all edgy once? They talk openly about sex as if they are the first bawdy folks to do so. What puritanical America is shocked? Bill Maher cannot be bothered to appear at all. He sends a video, a five-minute riff on the burden of living in a nation of idiots, an old routine from a man whose own movie saw him owned by an amusement park Jesus.
A Beatles cover band plays. They change some of the words in "Revolution" and struggle through "Imagine."
Larry Drecker, when he finally takes the stage, tells the assembled that Reason Rally is "our wake-up call to the religious right," letting them know that if they want to "desecrate the dreams of our Founding Fathers," they'll "have to go through us." "
I hope this rally will be remembered as a turning point in history," he adds. He says to "rise up." But he is using his inside voice, and the crowd nearest me is distracted: A woman in a Flying Spaghetti Monster costume is posing for photographs.
We have four hours remaining. Even an Easter Mass in Latin knows not to push three.
The rally is livelier on the periphery. A few evangelizers, remnants from a planned and canceled counterprotest, have turned up to debate. Cellphone cameras are rolling on both sides for the benefit of YouTube followers. A man shouts about the true reason we're all here today — the grace of Jesus Christ. Another sits at the back on a bicycle, shirtless, with two megaphones, shouting: Jeeeeesus. JEEEEEESUS. He's alive!
Somebody makes reference to a "fairy tale for adults," but, surprise: It's evolution.
The argument descends into an extended metaphor about randomized text generators creating comprehensible pamphlets by selecting for readability.
It's all very 2004, like something out of an old message board. A man tells another that the God of the Bible is a "comic book villain" whose moral code is incoherent. The evangelizer counters: How do atheists know right from wrong at all?
"Scientifically. We can measure harm."
"We can figure out when things harm people; we can study it."
Neither thinks to ask what we might consider harmful in the first place.
In the shade I meet a middle-aged woman named Samantha; she's got a sign that says "I'm Secular and I Vote" and a "Ready for Hillary" pin. She isn't debating anyone, she tells me; she gets enough of that on the internet. She doesn't want to dignify these people anyway — aren't they satisfied controlling public life? Can't they even let atheists have one day to have a rally for themselves?
She says she wishes people understood that science is much cooler than the Bible. There's so much out there, she says; why limit the whole cosmos to a single book? Her first political priority is education, she tells me, although she means "getting these creationists out of the science classroom" and offers little more. She loves Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and public face for "science education." She is sad he isn't speaking here today.
Many of the day's speakers are respected scientists, men and women involved in the highest levels of empirical research. But they are not here to discuss their latest findings; they are here to call, again and again, for a general triumph of science, and the man in the full-body devil costume with the cardboard crucifix reading Fairly Tale is drawing more attention.
Some straw man from a Dawkins lecture shouts into a cellphone camera: "You're a religion too! You believe there's no God!" Samantha rolls her eyes.
It was probably the Amazing Randi who gave New Atheists their favorite bit of cleverness: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Is it? Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby, but half the philatelists think you'll suffer, think you'll burn, think you'll fuck and figure wrong because of it. Pew finds that for the first time, merely three-quarters of adults maintain stamp albums; this merits hand-wringing in the New York Times. Why should the secular movement want to be so trivial? They seem to want it both ways, at once a movement and not.
There is no hobby with such organized dissent. There is no message board for stamp skeptics, no rally; nobody spoils Thanksgiving dinner over the legitimacy of a $5 1920 Lincoln. There are atheists for whom disbelief is not terribly dissimilar to an absent interest, but these atheists are precisely not the ones who find themselves quoting James Randi. They are not James Randi, who does not speak at public rallies for former stamp collectors.
Perhaps atheism is as trivial as not keeping a stamp collection, but the atheists who come to Reason Rally don't believe it.
Here is what I believe these days: There is no God, but this is perhaps the least interesting thing to say about the world. I can make you a list of things that aren't and never tell you anything at all — so what?
On some days, disbelief seems to me a defiance, but a passive one, one I take no pride or fight in and one I didn't want. I've long wondered at the notion that by telling somebody I am an atheist, I have told them everything they need to know in order to understand what I believe about the world. In fact, I have told them nothing.
What atheism has never seemed to me is a sensible point of political organization. Let me go further: Atheism has never seemed to me to solve any political problems at all. Speakers at Reason Rally advance admirable goals: pluralism, reproductive rights, tolerance. But what about the absence of God tells me that these are civic virtues?
It is not surprising that religion provides rhetorical urgency to reactionary causes, but what causes of any kind has it not at times imbued with moral purpose? Most people are religious. The talk appeals. What would surprise is a world where the absence of faith produced an absence of bad politics or bigotry. Only a narrow imagination supposes that the depravity of men will not find other cudgels; that an empty sky will make good policy visible to all.
Set aside that such clear skies are improbable, that religion is a stubborn thing and one that persists too well in climates far more hostile than the present. The promotion of an improbable goal is not Reason Rally's sin.
What is troubling in Reason Rally, in Movement Atheism, among Dawkins and Nye, in the throngs of free thinkers turned out on a dry Saturday to hear the talk of turning points and revolutions, what is troubling in all of this is the optimism of these free thinkers. The extraordinary credulity of skeptics.
David Silverman, the president of American atheists and a "self-described firebrand," demands we all chant atheist! together as an act of political unity. This activity consumes roughly half his speech. And then?
Banish superstition, and the major political struggles of the American state will solve themselves by measurement. Accept the facts, the prime fact, the fact of an imaginary God, and we will realize the dream of the Founding Fathers.
But a fact is not an answer. A fact, in this case, is just an absence. We are only interested in logic, but what are your premises? Empiricism is the only way to know the truth about the world. Well, what do you want to know about it?
The trouble with Reason Rally is how little it cares for what comes after; its hubris is the faith of so many attendees that pure reason will reward their politics.
It's only us; we've only got each other. It's true, but it's not good news at all. One does not need to believe in any particular metaphysics of sin to believe in the depravity of mankind.
The problem with science is that so much of it simply isn't, William A. Wilson writes in First Things:
At its best, science is a human enterprise with a superhuman aim: the discovery of regularities in the order of nature, and the discerning of the consequences of those regularities. We've seen example after example of how the human element of this enterprise harms and damages its progress, through incompetence, fraud, selfishness, prejudice, or the simple combination of an honest oversight or slip with plain bad luck.
This is not a condemnation of science, but it is true, and if the crowd at Reason Rally knows it, they are not letting on.
When Lawrence Krauss tells us that children should be taught to question everything, the audience on the National Mall is all serene. Yes, one man says while he applauds, quiet and forceful and without any irony at all. Yes, his wife is nodding. These are the vanguard of a permanently uncertain revolution, but you wouldn't know it to hear them speak so surely.
You wouldn't even think they understood the virtue of empiricism at all. Good science often troubles the world. It rarely solves it.
Krauss says he wants to ask some questions about reason, but he means he wants to ask after the reasons of the hateful. What reason justifies suppressing education? Hating women, hating homosexuals, making bigotry in law? The answer is implied.
A question Krauss does not ask is if reasons may be found elsewhere, if hatred may find its rationalizations outside the language of God. Let us grant that all people accept the physical limitations of Earth. Now what will account for our moral conflicts?
Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Hawaii in the House of Representatives, tells us that religious bigotry has turned the world to violence. Pluralistic secular government is the only way to ensure a lasting global peace, she says.
Ensure it? A woman carries a painting of Bernie Sanders along the path up the Reflecting Pool; a young man holds up a sign he's made on cardboard: #BanIslam. Penn Jillette sings about his love for everyone but is a research fellow of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has never encountered a rationale for welfare cuts beneath its dignity. Bill Nye says that we ought to "evaluate candidates based on their stand on science" and has made the majority of political contributions to President Barack Obama — was it only that the Democrats believe climate change is real? On the sidewalk under the trees I get a pamphlet — Follow Reason, Go Vegan — while families in free-thinker T-shirts sit on the hot grass, chewing hot dogs and nodding.
By night, under more tolerable weather, the organizers succeed in at least one goal. They have been trying to get #ReasonRally trending on Twitter for hours, and it is finally No. 1.
We are under the Lincoln Memorial, and the speakers can't get enough. Lincoln's legacy is invoked as often as King's, and the Reason Rally as his heir. "Lincoln, the kind of Republican who would have never made it out of the Iowa caucuses." Lincoln the "humanist." Lincoln, "who stood for reason," who "hated bigotry," who was a "free thinker."
He is named in defense of rationality and for decency and to tell us here on the Mall that the greatest men do not fear conflict when it is the only way to achieve political justice.
But Peter tells me libertarianism is the only reasonable position for a mind "finished with superstition," that Lincoln fought slavery, justified by Christianity, that logically nobody has the right to impose control on anyone else at all. Samantha tells me we're all in this together, that expanding the social safety net is how we help one another as best we can. "Religion helps conservatives," she says. A secular government will have an easier time extending welfare to all.
A full quarter of Americans now live openly without a god. It's taken fewer folks to change the United States before; perhaps Decker and Krauss and Nye and Penn will have their turning point in history. The pews become empty, the temples go cold. Superstition gives way to a purely rational politics. Peter is ecstatic, and Samantha too. The war is over. But the reasons of both could not be answered.
Emmett Rensin is deputy First Person editor at Vox.