Kinder, Gentler Secularists

Tomorrow, a coalition of non-believers is gathering for a rally on the Mall in Washington, an event that is mercifully not being called the Million Atheist March, but rather the Reason Rally. I predict it will be almost completely ignored by the press. That might be justified if turnout is small, and the secular agenda is pretty vague at this point. The latter point is really the key question for the secular movement, such as it is. While they have a few high-profile spokespeople, the movement is a collection of organizations that are small, underfunded, and, forgive me for saying so, not particularly impactful (sorry for using that awful word, but it gets across my point). But whatever the success of tomorrow's event, they may be moving in the right direction.

Many of the usual suspects will be speaking at this rally (Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, James Randi). But they've also got Adam Savage from Mythbusters, so that's something. And Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is going to send a videotaped welcome. I was a bit surprised when I saw that, since Representative Pete Stark of California (who will be speaking) is the only "out" atheist in Congress. But Senator Harkin's office told me he got asked to make a statement, and he decided to welcome the attendees in the spirit of open dialogue and freedom of religion. In his brief video, Harkin, who is a Catholic, will say, "I welcome to the Mall all of my fellow Americans, including those who reject my beliefs—or indeed, those who reject all religious faith. The First Amendment guarantees to each of us the right to practice the religion of our choice, or no religion at all. And let us remember: No matter how we identify ourselves—religious or nonreligious—we are all equally respected members of the American family." It's nice to see that at least one U.S. senator thinks it's OK to act friendly toward people who don't accept religion.

So what do the atheists (or non-believers, or secularists, or non-theists; the lack of a single term to refer to them is a real problem) want? While there are legal questions regarding state-sponsored religion (still plenty of that about), the secular movement may now be turning its attention to its own image problem. So they're taking a page from the gay rights movement, which realized some time ago that the best way to change people's opinions about gay people was to let them know that they have family members, friends, and co-workers who are gay. Once they started seeing gay people as individuals and not as a teeming mass of sin, their prejudices became much harder to hold on to. So secular folks are trying the same thing, encouraging people to come out (see sites like this one, or this one, where you can upload your own videos).

I think this is the way for the movement to go. When you're talking about religion, the hard sell isn't all that effective. When you say to people, "Everything your parents taught you is false, your beliefs about the way the universe works are no more sophisticated than those of an australopithecine grunting at the sky, and by the way, there's no heaven when you die," they tend to resist pretty strongly, no matter how logically compelling your case might be. But if you can at least convince them that you're a nice person who just has different opinions than they do, it makes reasonable discussion a lot easier.

And it's also important to remind people of the affirmative things those of us who don't believe in God do believe in. You don't have to think that everything is controlled by a giant man who lives in the sky to find wonder in the universe. For instance, the fact that every atom in your body is billions of years old and traveled unimaginable distances to reach this little planet and eventually get formed through a series of mind-bogglingly complex chemical and biological processes to one day form you is more spectacular and inspiring than anything you'll find in the Book of Revelations. Not only that, you can even set it to music:

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