Reason Rally 2012: Dr. Glenn Peoples

Dr. Glenn Peoples

There have been rallies in the past of people who would have been happy to see this or that (or all) religions purged from society. Such gatherings, thankfully, have seen a change in tone and tactic over the years. What is being billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” the “Reason Rally” will be held in Washington DC on 24 March this year.

In spite of how often I have been assured by atheists (those denying God’s existence) and agnostics (those simply not affirming God’s existence or nonexistence) that nonbelievers (and atheists in particular) are not a monolith, not part of a movement, not followers of a religion etc, this huge rally, the largest of its kind ever, has been organised with “the intent to unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide” and to “give secular Americans an opportunity to unite under a banner of reason and community at a level of impact that has never been seen before.” For those who want to convince the world that atheists don’t belong to anything, the job just got harder!

The list of headline speakers includes comedians, lobbyists, singers, TV show hosts and renowned zoologist (and above all, outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins, among others.
What strikes me – in fact something that strikes me frequently and never gets any easier to explain – is the way that the rally’s organisers so gratuitously co-opt the term “reason” as though just by describing their movement in terms of reason or rationality the listener will understand that they must be referring to people who don’t believe in God. There’s such a thing as engaging an issue in good faith, and then there’s the alternative, and this, quite frankly, is the alternative.

Or at least, if this is not the alternative to good faith, it’s an example of absolutely stunning insularity, the phenomenon of being simply incapable of seeing over one’s own garden fence, so to speak. Imagine a few scenarios that I think most normal people will see a problem with.

Scenario one: Four biblical scholars are on a panel of experts, explaining why they think the Gospel of John was written at a given date. The first three stand up one after the other and show pictures of old manuscripts, the discuss historical references to John’s Gospel and to John himself, they look at the style of John’s Greek writing and so on, and one by one, they sit down again. The last stands up with a burst of confidence and struts to the middle of the stage. He declares, “ladies and gentlemen, unlike everyone you’ve heard so far, I shall actually use evidence!” By evidence, he means evidence that he thinks supports his view.

Scenario two: Two historians are guests on a television show discussing whether or not Beowulf was based on an actual historical figure or not. The first discusses a whole list of different writings from the time Beowulf was said to live, some fiction and some non-fiction, as well as some authors since that time who held various views on the subject, in an effort to argue that Beowulf was based on a historical person. The second author butts in and blurts out “Booooring! Why don’t you do some actual history, like me?” By history, he means the kind of historical arguments that support his view that Beowulf was not actually based on an historical person.

Scenario three: Two philosophers are engaged in a debate about whether or not God exists. The first lays out some common arguments that have been used over the centuries and explains why he thinks they are very plausible. He then explains why he thinks that some considerations from the physical sciences lend credibility to belief in a creator, and he explains why he thinks the historical writings produced in the early Christian movement support belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The second philosopher just responds by laughing, chortling, “Why don’t you use reason? Come on, be rational!”

The phenomenon is the same in each case. It is gratuitous to think that since people reach conclusions that we ourselves do not share, it must be the case that they just aren’t thinking – they have switched off their reasoning and they’re being irrational (because after all, it is impossible for any reasonable person to disagree with me and be serious about it). This rally, like so many other rallies, is not committed to reason. It is committed to conclusions – to positions that people promote, try to persuade people of, get excited about (if the fact that they are holding a rally about it is anything to go by), paste all over the internet and print on T-shirts. It doesn’t matter how they got to that conclusion, the conclusion itself – that belief in God should be rejected – is what the rally is about, rather than the reasons people hold that belief. People who hold that belief are the ones the rally is being organised to unify, energize, and embolden. Being “secular people” is what matters here, not being fair-minded, rational or reasonable.

Any fair-minded person who has invested a modicum of time delving into the great Christian writers – and plenty of contemporary writers as well – will know that “reason” is certainly not the patented territory of unbelievers. How intriguing the vast bulk of the great intellectual writings in the Western world were written by people who (according to the Reason Rally’s organisers) have taken leave of reason! Of course this does not show that unbelief is ipso facto unreasonable – not at all. But it is both churlish and naïve in the extreme to organise huge public rallies on the premise that everyone who stands with reason and rationality will, of course, stand with you. It is like a magnified version of just the sort of cartoonish intellectual hubris that gave the “New Atheists” such a bad name to begin with.

But there will be a bright spark in all of this (not in the sense of being the only intelligent people, just in the sense of standing out against the aforementioned attitude). A number of Christians have decided to attend the rally simply to make the point that there is nothing at all about “reason” or “rationality” that belongs inherently to those who reject religion. Read about the effort at True Reason, where the stated goal is:

•Together, we represent Christians from the United States and around the world who believe that Christianity is a reasonable worldview. Our goal is to demonstrate a humble, loving and thoughtful response to the Reason Rally. We’ll be equipped there with:
•Gifts of kindness to give away–free bottled water, for example
•Mini-book (32-page) summarized versions of Reason Really, an exciting soon-to-be-published ebook written especially for this purpose.
•Flyers advertising that ebook.
•A limited number of copies of a currently published book on Christianity and atheism.
I’d love to attend, but Washington DC is a bit out of the way. Kudos to those who are going to be there to stand out from the crowd, and to bear witness to the fact that the enlightenment figures admired by so many unbelievers were right all along: Reason is the “candle of the Lord.” Maybe you’d like to join them! Head on over to True Reason to learn more.

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