‘Woodstock for Atheists’ Story on NPR March 23, 2012

‘Woodstock for Atheists’ Story on NPR

NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a really positive piece on the Reason Rally on “Morning Edition” today. The piece feature Greta Christina (“The Firebrand”), me (“The Diplomat”), and Dave Silverman (“Dave Silverman”).

But the main point of the rally, Silverman says, is not to tweak the faithful. It’s to encourage closeted atheists to take heart.

“The message is that if you can come out, you can out come out,” he says. “And if you can’t come out, at least you’ll know you’re not alone, and maybe sometime soon you’ll be able to come out of the closet to your family.”

Silverman says this is their moment, as important to atheists as the Stonewall riots were to the gay-rights movement four decades ago. But fellow nonbeliever Hemant Mehta says it’s not easy to reveal your nonbelief. Atheism has an image problem.

“People have this notion that atheists are immoral, not trustworthy, unelectable,” Mehta says. “How do you change that at such a huge level? It starts by people everywhere just coming out of the closet as atheists.”

Christina says there’s a tension in the movement. On one side are what she calls “firebrands,” such as Oxford biologist Dawkins, who has called some believers “staggeringly ignorant” and “insane.” On the other are the “diplomats,” such as Mehta, who deliver the same message of a Godless universe — but politely. Christina says every modern social movement — civil rights, feminism, gay rights — had the same tension, and you need both.

“We certainly want to let people know, again, we’re your friends, we’re your neighbors, we’re good people,” she says. “But I think it’s also to our benefit to let people know that we’re to be reckoned with, that we’re not going to let ourselves be doormats, and that we’re mobilized, we’re organized, and when people get us angry, we’re going to take action.

Of course, Greta’s one of the most polite people you’ll ever meet, and I get plenty of commenters on this site who accuse me of being the opposite. It’s not like most people are either one or the other.

There is a running theme in that piece, though: whether you’re a firebrand or diplomat or something else, get yourself on that spectrum.

It starts by telling someone else you’re an atheist.

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  • KarlVonMox

    I was very, very pleased with the piece this morning as I was making breakfast – I was half expecting them to put on some Christian to provide “the other perspective”. Thankfully they didnt. 

  • I heard the piece while driving the kiddo to daycare! I was so surprised, it was completely unexpected – but it was GREAT!

    And the more I think of it the sadder it seems that so many atheists have to hide their disbelief. That’s just so messed up. But of course, I’m one of them – open to friends and colleagues, open on my blog (obviously), but not out to my family. *sigh*

  • Is it a problem that the Reason Rally is being overwhelmingly publicized as *the* event for atheists? The banner says it’s the largest gathering for the secular movement, but it’s being co-opted by the atheist movement, isn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed the short audio bit.

    Link to article: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/23/149021993/woodstock-for-atheists-a-moment-for-nonbelievers

    Sometimes I think it would be nice to include a short clip about WHY we don’t believe in a deity. (It’s absurd, like it would be absurd for an adult believing in flying reindeer.)

  • Mairianna


    Better review the Rally’s webpage then, because even the Rally organizers can’t keep it straight.   Can’t blame NPR for being confused if the organizers are, too.

  • The event should be called the largest gathering of the atheist movement, and if you’re a secularist come along as well. Seems a bit like a bait and switch.

  • The image problem is massive – I’m sure you’ve seen the 2011 study by Gervais and Norenzayan which places atheists somewhere next to rapists on an imaginary “trust” scale. 

  • FSq

    And within the atheist community it is necessary to stop with this false outrage and false indignance when someone (Penn Jillette, Bill Maher, etc…) when you hear a word or sentiment you may not like. If we are to have any platform or unified power in government and politics, we simply cannot have this splintering over false issues. Jillette calls someone a “cunt” for her bad behavior and the limp-wristed segment of the atheist community gets the false indignance hackles up in arms. Bill Maher may have some bad views regarding vaccinations (which is quite false) and the flag of “fuck him” begins to fly.

    Three words: GET OVER IT.

    We are atheists. Within that group may be feminists, liberals, environmentalists, conservatives, libertarians, vegans, hunters, PETA members et al. However, all atheists are not feminists, liberals, environmentalists, conservatives, libertarians, vegans, hunters, PETA members et. al. We would do well to remember this when organized and simply, as a group, fight those battles relevant to atheism and Church/State issues.

    The overly sensitive bullshit has to stop if we are to succeed. Guess what? We all hear things that may not be to our liking daily. GET OVER IT. 

  • Larry, the dictionary definition of “secular” is:

    “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.”

    I think “secularist” is an umbrella term to cover people that prefer to call themselves any number of euphemisms for “atheist.” Even hardcore atheists don’t like to use the term “atheist,” because “had there been no priests, there would be no atheists.” Think Sam Harris. 

    You cannot be a secularist and have religion. You can be a godless Buddhist and have religion. You can be an ancestor worshipper and be an atheist, but not a secularist.

    Atheists don’t believe in gods, but secularists don’t believe in religion.

    Secular theists? That’s an oxymoron.

  • I agree with all that, but isn’t it just as bad that this Reason Rally is mixing secular and atheism as though both are interchangeably alike?

  •  That’s not true. Many would say America was founded by secular theists. Secular is just as you described, and a secular theist would be someone who, while being religious, still supports the separation of church and state. Secularism is just to make decisions not based on anything supernatural.

    Remember Richard Dawkins’ Ten Point Vision Contest?.
    The winner, “Do you believe in a secular America” shows both nontheists and theists joined together for secularism.

  • UTgal

    Until this morning I had never considered telling a close friend or family member I’m an atheist might make them uncomfortable.  I will take that to heart. A cool  moment a few years ago: I live in Utah and told a coworker I was an atheist (we had formed a close relationship). She, a Mormon, was shocked. She said I seemed Christian because I was so kind. I was glad I could open her eyes a bit.

  • FSq

    What do you mean Larry? I am not sure I understand what you are positing?

    (seriously – no snark!)

  • You make a very valid point about atheists coming in all different philosophical forms, and we aren’t all the same. This Reason Rally is supposedly about a secularism gathering. Not an atheism gathering. The organizers of the event are describing and publicizing the event as if each are the same thing. Isn’t that just as big a problem?

  • FSq

    Well, I will change my statement then to “secularists” even though it is a) still splintering us when we should not be and b) nothing more than a semantic game that distracts and takes away from our focused efforts.

    This is just what I am pointing out; we are spending more time arguing the minutiae that is really at best so far down the ladder it is insignificant. 

  •  I agree that it’s semantics. It’s divisive and distracts. Which is why if the event is going to be called a gathering of the *Secular* movement, it should be a Woodstock for *Secularists*, which include all the kinds of people you mentioned, and non-theists too! But not JUST non-theists. The event organizers want to pull this off as a historic gathering of non-theists (atheists, humanists, agnostics) without really making much effort to point out that theists can be secular too, and many are.

  • Bryan

    Crap! This must’ve been on the first half of morning edition, cause I missed it!

  • It’s up there now 🙂 Just refresh this website!

  • You said: “Secularism is just to make decisions not based on anything supernatural.”

    How does a theist NOT make decisions based on religion? 

    That 10-point video says over and over: “Religious AND secular.” It splits the two. Those are not secular theists, those are theists. I’m FOR gay rights and women’s rights, but I’m not gay or a woman.

  • alright what about John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about church/state separation, as highlighted an FFRF ad? Theists are capable of making decisions based on the facts and evidence. And when they advocate doing so, they are being secularists. In aspects of their personal life though, they make non-secular decisions. This makes them secular theists. Not all secularists are godless.

  • Detorn

    “The message is that if you can come out, you can out come out,”  What kind of sentence is this? 20 comments and no one noticed that the 5th sentence makes no sense? 

  • Supporting secularism does not make a secular theist. If you reword “secular” and “theist” to their broader definitions, you would be left with:

    A god-believing person whose attitudes and activities are not based on religious thinking.

    See the paradox?

  •  I don’t agree that’s what you would be left with. The secular theists who have helped shape the secular movement have done so by advocating for secularism, mostly in government. This does not mean their personal attitudes and activities are always based on evidence and facts.

    If you’re suggesting theists should have nothing to do with the secular movement, that godless people should be the only ones representing the secular movement, you’re just being decisive. They’re desire to have secular laws and regulations are just as good as ours, and it’s because of them as well as us that secularism has power all around the world. That is why I think it’s unfair that the Reason Rally is making this event all about the godless, atheists, agnostics and humanists.

  • No, JFK was advocating Romans 13, to render unto Caesar what is blah, blah, blah. The wall of separation is in the Bible for Christ’s sake, literally! A little secularism from Democritus made it in, yes!

    I am not denying that people can set aside their personal theological beliefs, being that the Bible is against homosexuality AND atheism and the fact that theists can agree with these things while adhering to a doctrine that admonishes them. It’s not secularism’s definition that needs elaborating but theism’s.

    And in the video’s context of them saying that religious AND secular people should be able to work together it is splitting the two, i.e., theists AND secularists…

    Sorry, but I’m reading Greta Christina’s awesome book right now and she is explaining, quite well, that progressive religious hypocrisy is part of the problem. Progressive theists are not secularists by choice but by accident, until one day they realize that they have ceased being theists completely.

  • well however you look at it, theists who advocate secularism should also be included in the event. If we really want to strengthen and spread secularism, we shouldn’t be catering directly to the godless people, but to all who agrees that our laws, regulations, medical care, et al should be based in non-superstitious facts. Leading them towards dropping superstition entirely is a whole other fight.

  • Maybe it’s along the lines of, “If you can come out [of the closet], you can come out [to the rally]”. Or “If you can come [out of the closet because it wouldn’t be detrimental to your life to do so, then this event should encourage you to do so]”.  

    I don’t know, I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.

  • scinquiry

    I liked this part of the Greta Christina segment: “…..and when people get us angry, we’re going to take action.“While I understand the context in which Greta was framing her point, a point that I agree with her completely, to the uninformed  it makes us sound like radioactive freaks of nature that turn green and grow into roid raged incoherent brutes who speak in short monosyllabic words when we get pissed off.  In other words – Incredible Hulkheathens. 

  • LIfeInTraffic

    Since moving to the south, I’ve gotten this pretty much every time someone finds out i am not Christian, and double the “WHAT!?!?” factor when they find out I am an atheist. To be fair, it’s a small sample size, because I don’t feel I can come out to many people. but, every single one I’ve come out to has been utterly astounded. Then followed it with “but, you do charity!” But, you’re so against lying or infidelity–those are Christian values!” um…no, they’re basic human values.

    It’s always nice, as you say, to be able to open someone’s eyes. It’s also a bit of a sad statement on what people think makes a “good person.”  And, it’s also been disheartening because some of these people still choose to distance themselves from me even if they were very gung-ho on our friendship and how awesome I was before they found out.

  • Altamore4

    I’ve been on the “spectrum” for several years now but not really OUT THERE.  I recently started writing a blog about everything except religion – with one exception.  One of my blog entries is “Got Religion?”
    I addressed being an atheist.  It felt good to write about it.  Didn’t get any flack either.

  • oambitiousone

    Woo hoo, Hemant! Felt like I was reading about a friend (“Hey honey, he’s FAMOUS now!”)

    Love the national coverage done with dignity.

    Also love how most of the comments were in support or neutrally dismissive (What’s the big deal, et al).

    Haters were the minority (as of early this AM).

  • SphericalBunny

    Just because I’m an atheist and criticise certain aspects of religion, does not mean that I forgo my desire to criticise other aspects of other opinions I object to. I’m sick of the overly sensitive bullshit of someone being immune from criticism because they’re in your in-group. Yes, most atheist ‘representatives’ cop some flak for their opinions unrelated to atheism, but you know what? Events still go ahead, speakers are still booked, audiences still attend, people still unite on issues like church/state separation. The bonus is that open discussion (and yes, open criticism, outrage and indignation) allows people to be more than just non-believers and to not buy into the rubbish of dogma and cultdom. Don’t like it? GET OVER IT.

  • FSq

    To the extent that the other “dogmas” begin to co-opt the atheist/secular group, I agree.

    But when these splinter groups try and co-opt the atheist/secular movement or tries to make it a “with us 100percent or against us” then no, this would not be the place for it.

    It is like a “No Hydro-Fracking” demonstrator showing up to the Reason Rally. Not the place for it. And on a macro-level, it is like how the feminist movement seems hell bent on co-opting the secular/atheist movement. 

  • SphericalBunny

    So, you’re complaining about something that hasn’t happened?I’ve heard plenty of criticism but failed to notice the demands for a boycott on this rally because of disagreement with the speakers. I haven’t seen people insisting that you can’t call yourself an atheist (as opposed to a sceptic) if you do/don’t also believe in X, Y and Z. AFAIK, a  “No Hydro-Fracking” demonstrator would be welcome to turn up at the rally, they just haven’t been invited to speak on stage about it. 

    I get that you find feminism irrelevant to atheism; after all, who gives a shit about equality for women and considerations which could also attract more active XX members, and it’s not like many religions have an extremely negative effect on women especially, but…you already noted that some atheists are feminists. Shocking news, some atheists are also women. Some atheists even believe that the atheist movement shouldn’t be the white men’s club it’s often seen by outsiders as. And, that if you can consider, discuss and even criticise in harsh tones the merits of opinions that atheists hold that are not strictly related to whether you believe in god/s, we might be able to not only grow in number, but avoid becoming another -ist congregation.
    Congratulations, I believe you’ve just become the exclusionary voice you began by accusing others of being.

  • FSq

    No, you fail to see the view from 1000 miles above. You have the myopic vision of 100 feet. 

    I never spoke of not having views outside of atheism/secularism. What I spoke of was not letting it become co-opted by other groups. An Atheist/secularist may choose to champion causes such as feminism, conservatism, veganism, hunting etc…but as a GROUP we must concentrate on those issues relevant to church/state. 

    By not doing this, we risk losing any sense of cohesion or group political power. 

    And yes, I do feel you truly miss the point and have some very odd optics covering your eyes. You may well be a feminist or conservative or misanthrope, and that is your choice. As a group of atheists/secularists, we can have a variety of different interests, but like I said in the OP, an atheist might b X, but not all X are atheists and vise-versa. This is an important thing to remember. 

    And no, having anyone show up at the reason rally with a sign reading “No Hydro/No Fags/No Drilling/No Nuclear Whales” is not appropriate. The Reason Rally is not the forum for those, no more than a pro-choice rally is the appropriate forum for an anti-nuclear power sign. Context, proper time and place – these mean something. 

  • SphericalBunny

    I’d’ve thought from way up in your lofty heights, you might have understood my comment, yet it has still managed to whizz straight over your head…

    Let me repeat myself as you clearly decided what you wanted to see rather than read my actual words – 

    “I’ve heard plenty of criticism but failed to notice the demands for a boycott on this rally because of disagreement with the speakers. I haven’t seen people insisting that you can’t call yourself an atheist (as opposed to a sceptic) if you do/don’t also believe in X, Y and Z.”

    “Events still go ahead, speakers are still booked, audiences still attend, people still unite on issues like church/state separation.”

    [blockquote]…as a GROUP we must concentrate on those issues relevant to church/state.[/blockquote]

    This already happens. Your whining about co-opting is irrelevant. 

  • FSq

    Are you drinking? Because there is no argument in your “argument”? This is incoherent at best, totally vapid at worst.

    What is your point Sister Cut-n-Paste?

  • SphericalBunny

    Well, I see you’ve got to the point of dumb blinkered insult without ever bothering to address my posts. I’ll leave you to your vacuous blithering then. Have fun crying and stamping your feet and trying to enforce your idea that atheists in a group are only ever allowed to address the issues that you find important, whilst claiming that it’s only other people who spout overly sensitive bullshit. 🙂

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