Four years ago, when the speakers were announced for the 2012 Reason Rally, a lot of people complained about some of the names on the list.
Senator Tom Harkin? He believes in alternative medicine! Richard Dawkins? He’s made a lot of offensive comments online! Even a tribute to Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, was met with angry reminders that he supported the War in Iraq.
It went on like that for a while. No matter how popular someone was to large groups of atheists, you could count on there being backlash. Sure, some of it was warranted — we know there are a lot of atheists who believe in unreasonable things — but there was never going to be a speaker who was praised by everyone. (And some people are just impossible to please.)
That’s why organizers eventually had to ignore the grumbling and just run the damn event. They tried to get people well-known for being atheists. And you know what? It was an excellent day, all things considered. For all the pushback, I heard a lot more people excited and energized by their attendance.
It won’t surprise you to learn the same thing is happening again this time around. The Reason Rally has a lot of big-name speakers, including scientists and authors and Hollywood stars, and I promise you there’s a steady stream of complaints: Certain speakers are too offensive, they’re aren’t well-known for their atheism, the slate isn’t diverse enough, etc.
Again, some of that is justified, but what can you do? No atheist represents all of us. (And the critics likely have no idea what conversations were happening behind the scenes and which invited guests said no.)
Here’s an example of what I mean, and I’m bringing it up because I respect the author and she makes a valid point: Skeptic activist Susan Gerbic doesn’t understand why comedian Margaret Cho is one of the speakers:
Why would Cho — who is a 9-11 truther, a fan of anti-vaxers Jenny McCarthy and Rob Schneider, and also a promoter of psychics — be on stage at the Reason Rally? Probably because the organizers of the Reason Rally didn’t know about her nonskeptical beliefs and hired her because she is an atheist and famous and funny.
Two of my team members… feel that unless we have knowledge that Cho will use the stage to support psychics, or conspiracy theories, or anti-vaccination — and as long as she stays on topic with her anti-religion beliefs — then we have no cause for worry. I still think that this is a gray area and something we should really consider discussing.
That’s a fair criticism. Cho is hilarious, no doubt, but she believes some wacky things. Why give her a slot at the “Reason” Rally?
As someone who has no role in this year’s event, let me try to answer my own question: If I were one of the organizers, I’d do everything in my power to get as many famous people on that stage.
Famous people mean more media attention. More media attention means a bigger platform for us to talk about issues that matter to many of us, like church/state separation.
If Johnny Depp‘s on that stage, I don’t care how big of an atheist he really is — there will be media coverage.
Hell, if Donald Trump said he wanted a few minutes to tell atheists that he supported the Establishment Clause and he would be the Greatest First Amendment President Ever, I’d be hard-pressed to say no. (Then again, maybe that’s why I shouldn’t be organizing this thing…)
Anyway, I asked Paul Fidalgo, the chair of the Rally’s Communications Committee, about why Cho was invited despite her irrational beliefs. Did his answer match up with my speculation? He said this:
We’re really glad to have Margaret Cho as part of this celebration. It is simply the case, however, that not every nonbeliever is going to reach the same conclusions as all other skeptics, just as many who are skeptical of things like pseudoscience often believe in a religious faith. What’s important is that Ms. Cho is on board with the equality of nonbelievers and the need for secular government, even if we disagree with some of her opinions on other subjects. We’re all free to debate those disagreements, and so we should. But just as we’d be happy to have a devoutly religious person speak in support of the nonreligious, we’re glad to have her support and participation in the Reason Rally.
I can’t argue with that, either. The Reason Rally is a day to celebrate being an atheist, to show politicians that we exist and they should pay attention to us, and to argue for secular government. If you can get on board with that and bring some attention to our cause, great. Even if you believe some bullshit along the way. Even if you believe in a lot of bullshit along the way.
Look: There are feminists who dislike Lena Dunham, and gay people who dislike Dan Savage, and Democrats who dislike President Obama. The people advocating for your cause, whatever it is, are never going to get a perfect score on everybody’s Purity Test.
I think Gerbic answered her own question: there’s a difference between a person who believes irrational things promoting those beliefs on the Reason Rally stage and that same person just lending support to a group of people who take their atheism seriously. The Rally organizers are looking for people who fit the latter group, even if that means accepting some speakers who are questionable in other ways.
And who knows — maybe being surrounding by atheists in that setting will lead Cho and others to eventually let go of their wacky conspiracy theories.