Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Reason Rally was, overall, a success.

(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)

It was not a total success, I would say. The bus was remarkably cheap, but you get what you pay for—not nearly enough legroom, a schedule that didn't allow us any time in DC aside from the rally, no wifi access, and a temperature control system that made the front of the bus cold while the back was hot. The result was mass sleep deprivation; by the power vested in me by diphenhydramine I was able to get at least some sleep, but still by the time I got home the one thing I most wanted to do was sleep (and I did so, for about 8 hours). Buses are also quite a bit harder to sleep on than airplanes, because roads are full of bumps, lights, and competing vehicles while airspace is typically clear and smooth.
The rally itself was pretty good. The rain caused a few problems, but wasn't nearly as bad as it might have been. (If Thor frowned upon our proceedings, he's getting lazy in his old age.) Depending on your individual tolerance for sogginess, you could have watched most of the rally without an umbrella or poncho. News outlets have estimated the attendance at about 30,000 people, which is respectable but not particularly impressive.
We didn't have a schedule—indeed, there were no printed schedules made, only an app made available for smartphones. In principle this seems ecologically sound; in practice a lot of people don't yet have phones with the requisite capabilities. If I'd thought ahead, I would have brought my own printed copy of the schedule posted online. Even worse, the rally didn't strictly follow the schedule; it started out very well aligned and gradually deviated over the course of the day. This is to be expected to some extent; but as the whole rally went from 10 to 6 with no breaks and our bus arrived at 10 and left at 7, this meant that either you never ate or visited DC, or you missed part of the rally without really knowing which parts you were going to miss.

There's actually an interesting little moral problem embedded in that temperature issue: If you have control over some social variable V, and some number of people N_1 want V at a particular value V_1, while some other portion of the population N_2 want V at another value V_2, what is the decision procedure for setting V that is socially optimal? To really do it right, I think you need to know the utility functions for all the people in the population—how bad is it to be too hot versus too cold?—and then add them up and find the local maximum. To approximate this, you could conduct a range vote between the two groups, hoping that people would not exaggerate their utility functions strategically—in real life, they probably would, though in a worst-case scenario that just turns the range vote into a simple majority vote. We of course did nothing of the sort: Rodion came from the back of the bus to the front and asked the driver to turn on the AC; there were a few groggy objections from other people in the front which were ignored, and then the AC was turned on. This may or may not be the right outcome (thanks to layered clothing and the drop in body temperature required for sleep, the utility of cold is quite a bit higher than the utility of hot), but the decision procedure is a terrible one. I've noticed a systematic trend here actually: Since I left office, the group has spent less and less effort trying to devise genuinely fair decision procedures, instead preferring fast heuristics like majority vote or executive-board decision that seem democratic enough. I regret that haven't voiced my objections more when decisions are made by such biased methods. They may be better than unilateral autocracy—but only marginally. Democracy is about the will of the people; if you're not matching the will of the people, whatever you're doing isn't democracy.

I regret missing three speakers mainly: Adam Savage, Eddie Izzard, and Lawrence Krauss. I was particularly disappointed to miss Savage, because I wasn't even sure what he planned to speak about! Izzard no doubt regaled us with his comedy, Krauss probably talked about science and tried to stay away from the reasons he's become controversial lately—but what does a Mythbuster have to say to a crowd of atheists? I may never know.
I never got the chance to see any of the many museums and monuments in DC, other than the time we rushed through the National Gallery of Art to get to an overpriced cafeteria in the basement, or the time Ewan and I used the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a meeting spot with our friend Eoin so we'd have a chance to get dinner together.
The best speeches in my opinion were Sean Faircloth and James Randi. Faircloth was more eloquent than usual, and it really seemed like exactly the right place and time for what he was talking about—atheism as a political movement, rationalism as public policy and not merely personal belief, a new social movement . Randi's speech was a warning about how quickly irrationality can poison a society—how eternally vigilant we must be to prevent a relapse of old ways of thinking. This is a point I have trouble getting across to apathetic atheists and agnostics; so often I hear “What's the harm?” and I want to just shake them and say, “Have you heard of the Dark Ages?” 40% of Americans think the Earth is 6,000 years old. If you don't think that's a problem, I don't know what else to say to you.
Tim Minchin was fun but not all that substantive (“And I... will always... love boobs!”), which is pretty much what we thought it would be. Bill Maher was pretty good, but he wasn't actually there (it was just a video), and frankly I can watch videos of him anytime. The rally was also of note because it was the first time I can remember where I really strongly disagreed with Richard Dawkins. Most of his speech was good, though I'd heard a lot of it before. But there was one part in particular that really jarred me: He told us to inquire deeply into the details of people's religious beliefs (which so far I think is right), and then when someone openly admits that they really do believe in something as bizarre as transsubstantiation or reincarnation, to do what? To publicly ridicule them to their face. Suddenly, I can see what all the “Don't be a dick” people are talking about—no, I'm sorry, that's rude, even cruel. If you want to ridicule the ideas, or publicly criticize the leaders of religious organizations, I agree with that. (One place Minchin and I definitely agree: Fuck the Pope.) But individual laypeople are as much victims of religion as they are perpetrators, and you're never going to get people to like you if when they open up to you about what they believe your first response is to make fun of them. People shouldn't make their religious beliefs so personal to their sense of identity, but the fact is, they do—and unless you account for that, people are going to hate you and be fairly well justified in doing so.
I in fact don't do this, though I am sometimes accused of it. My mother believes in transsubstantiation, and my cousin is the worst kind of Young-Earth Creationist. I've met people who believe in alien abduction, and vast numbers of people who profess belief in things like scientific anti-realism and moral relativism. When they get very stubborn and irrational in arguing with me, yes, I will get angry and frustrated, and I will raise my voice and point out the stupidity of their arguments. But there's a very important difference between that and what Dawkins seemed to be suggesting—I never make fun of anyone personally, I do my best to avoid ad hominem arguments, and I never start aggressively. I've had hour-long discussions with my Creationist cousin that never involved anyone raising their voice. (I did feel like facepalming a few times though.) There is a world of difference between “How do you know that's true?” or “Don't you see how that sounds weird to someone from the outside?” or “Come on; you've got to see that's a bad argument.” (as I might say), and “You moron! How can you believe something so stupid?” (what Dawkins seems to be recommending—though I note he doesn't usually do this himself).
In fact, I'm thinking I may want to rethink my own approach, especially in my online persona, simply to differentiate more strongly from what Dawkins is talking about. I think a better model is Dennett, who bends over backwards to be polite, but refuses to give religion special treatment that other ideas don't get. PZ isn't a bad example either; he rants on his blog, but in person he's a teddy bear. It's important to remember: Religious people are not mentally ill, they are not idiots, they are not retarded. (In fact, even if they were, the proper response to mental illness or retardation is pity, not anger. These peopel need your help, not your condemnation.) There are far too many religious people for that sort of theory to be plausible. These are normal, mentally healthy people who believe these incredibly bizarre things—and while we are right to point out how bizarre the ideas are, we must also be careful to keep in mind that these are normal people believing them.
I was particularly unimpressed by the music performances (other than Minchin), and the entire speech delivered in Spanish was pretty weird (as far as I can tell, there weren't even subtitles). There were maybe a hundred Christian counter-protesters—I note I didn't see any Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu counter-protesters—gathered in a clump off to one side of the rally, as well as your typical street-corner preachers all around the general area. I collect this sort of paraphernalia (I'm especially happy when people give out Bibles, as I've been trying to build a Bible collection), so I have a DVD now that I plan to watch in MST3K style. (It's called 180 and it plugs itself as “30 minutes that will rock your world!”)
A lot of the speeches were about how the Reason Rally could be a turning point in the atheist movement. Maybe I was simply too exhausted from sleep deprivation followed by standing in the rain for hours, but such things rang a bit hollow for me. 9/11 was a turning point; The God Delusion was a turning point. This rally, at least at the time, didn't feel like a turning point.
We did get a fair amount of media attention: The Washington Post, The Examiner, Huffington Post, The Blaze, and even Fox News put out stories on us. After being somewhat supportive at first, Fox News remembered its bias; Yahoo News described the rally as “lacking passion” (which is one thing it certainly wasn't. Frankly I was made a bit uncomfortable by the cheering of “Richard! Richard!” when Dawkins came up to speak—it seemed so, for lack of a better word, groupthink.) USA Today and The Christian Post latched onto the same concerns I had about Dawkins's speech; I'm sure they won't quote people like me digesting and criticizing it.
I guess this is a problem for any social movement; our most radical voices will always draw the most attention, while more nuanced ideas actually motivate the real change behind the scenes. Yet this may not be so bad, for in our case, even the “radicals” at the rally were far more reasonable than most political movements; the worst-case scenario would be an atheist as rude as Rush Limbaugh. There were no threats of violence, no calls for bloody revolution. A few speakers and signs didn't make a strong enough distinction between “Religion is stupid” (which is true) and “Religious people are stupid” (which is not). I didn't hear them myself, but a few others on the bus recounted some really tasteless jokes. If that's “militant atheism”, we're still miles above any other ideological movement. We don't even glitterbomb people (which, as assaults go, is pretty benign). Militant socialism was the October Revolution; militant Christianity was the Crusades. Even feminists—hardly known for their violence—have said things far more appalling than the worst I've heard from atheists. (Catherine MacKinnon may not have said “all sex is rape” in so many words, but this is a direct quote: “Men who are in prison for rape think it's the dumbest thing that ever happened... It isn't just a miscarriage of justice; they were put in jail for something very little different from what most men do most of the time and call it sex. The only difference is they got caught. That view is nonremorseful and not rehabilitative. It may also be true.” Also in my Women's Studies class I heard people saying “under patriarchy, all heterosexuality is rape” unabashedly, and one of the instructors strawmanned evolutionary studies of rape as “boys will be boys”.)

In all, I think the rally will be a force for good. It may or may not be a significant turning point in the atheist movement, but it does make it clear that there our movement has a lot of supporters who aren't going away. The last ten years or so have shown poll numbers gradually shifting with regard to religion; for the first time in decades a statistically significant plurality of Americans think there is too much religion in politics instead of too little. The Reason Rally should only accelerate this process, and that can only be a good thing.
Still, this whole rally business is really wearing me out. I spend money I can't really afford in order to go on long, harrowing bus rides and stand in enormous crowds? There's got to be a better way to get political messages across.

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