According to its organizers, history will be made at Saturday’s Reason Rally in Washington, when organizers will host “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.”
Ironically that sounds a great deal like the self-important and inflated claims which come from some of the religious organizations these same people most strenuously oppose. And in that sense, the Reason Rally’s organizers are correct that history will be made, even if the turnout is small.
Saturday’s rally will mark the formal birth of secularism/atheism which, although not the same, are both being used by the organizers almost interchangeably, as one more faith-based group seeking to assert its political and cultural influence on the rest of us. And yes, I meant what I wrote about the rally being "faith based." It's not my faith, but it is a faith nonetheless.
The organizers of this rally and most, if not all, of the 38, yes 38 (and I thought a synagogue was long on sermons!), speakers planned for Saturday’s event, put their faith in having no faith.
That is, to be sure, a position which deserves the most vigorous defense, no matter how deeply most Americans say they disagree with that conclusion. In fact, making that defense is part of what makes this nation so special. We actually fight for the rights of those we think are wrong.
I wish the Reason Rally folks would do the same.
From its best-known speaker, Professor Richard Dawkins, to the event's website, to its very name, this rally is not simply about protecting the rights of non-believers, but about the inferiority of religious belief. And, based on the promised presence of comedian Bill Maher, it will include heaping abuse not only upon belief, but upon believers themselves – something Mr. Maher loves doing.
Not to be outdone, the rally also promises “gate-crashers” from a Christian group calling itself “True Reason,” protests from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and religious ideologues making their own impromptu speeches about the “inherent emptiness” of atheism and the “true evil” of secularism.
Once again, both sides will prove that in conflict, the two sides have more in common that either can admit, and become increasingly similar the longer the conflict persists.
On a more positive note, the rally, and its proponents' sense of a need for it, is the affirmation that community counts – the kind of community which most Americans find in religious life and/or spiritual practice.
To that end, the organizers are to be credited for recognizing that without a connection to something larger than one’s self, to a purpose greater than one’s self, and to others who share that sense of greater meaning and purpose, life is less well-lived.
Frankly, I don’t care so much about where people find that sense of meaning and purpose. However, by suggesting that the rest of us who find meaning in faith makes us less than reasonable, is itself neither a fair nor reasonable suggestion, to say the least.
Another bright spot to be found in Saturday's rally, is that it will force a measure of clarity and honesty upon a movement which has held itself out, until now, as being above the fray.
Now, they too will be down in the muck with those who invoke God and scripture to invoke wrath upon those with whom they disagree.
We can look forward to the same kind of rallies, the same kind of triumphalist slogans, the same kind of seething disregard for those who are outside their “church.”
I guess that for movements, just as for people, birth is a messy process. Let’s hope that the movement being born on March 24 grows up quickly and somewhat better, wiser and kinder than the people they most oppose. We’ll see.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.