On June 4. Everything was set for The Reason Rally in Washington DC. The event was going to be the largest mass gathering of humanists, atheists and secular people in US history, but the turnout was disappointing.
In the comment sections, criticism has come from people who believe the reason for this is that the American secular movement has been hijacked by so-called "Social Justice Warriors" (SJWs) – a derogatory expression aimed at people who dogmatically keep labelling legitimate opinions and attitudes as racist, discriminatory, hateful or misogynistic.
“The difference between an SJW and an activist... an activist tries to get a ramp added to a building for easier wheelchair access. The SJW tries to get the stairs removed because they might offend people that can't use them,”. writes one of the critics, user TheSharpeful, inThe Friendly Atheist commentary section.
The reaction against the Reason Rally is akin to the noise in the American atheist/skeptic’s movement that arose for example in February when Richard Dawkins was declared unwanted from a skeptic’s conference in New York, the noise around the term “Atheism+” or the somewhat older “Elevatorgate”-case.
The “anti-SJW”-crowd has reacted to the Reason Rally's highlighting of topics like LGBTQ Equality, fight against Climate change denial and Women’s Reproductive Rights, instead of focusing on the core of the movement; atheism, secularism and criticism of religion.
In addition, the organizers issued rules of conduct that made critics draw parallels to ongoing controversies around the term "safe zones" and "trigger warnings".
Hemant Mehta: - The criticism is not valid
One of America's most popular atheist bloggers, Hemant Mehta, (The Friendly Atheist) does not think it's a valid point that the social issues the Reason Rally highlighted this year, such as LGBTQ Equality and Climate change denial, may be divisive.
He believes these social issues help accentuate a clear distinction between religious and secular values.
“When we talk about LGBT rights in this country, the opposition comes from religious people. Climate change denial is rampant among religious people who believe God created the planet. And obviously, the pro-life crowd is overwhelmingly religious. So if we want religion out of politics, it makes sense for atheists to push for civil rights for LGBT people, to call for science-based policies, and to make sure women have a reproductive choice. That's how we put atheism in action”, he writes in an email to Fritanke.no.
Mehta believes this is a completely natural way to utilize atheism in real life.
“What else would we do? Urge the government to promote atheism? Of course not. We can urge people to become atheists all we want, but at the end of the day, what other people believe doesn't really matter. All that matters is how they put those beliefs into practice. These social issues are natural extensions of our godlessness", Mehta writes.
He adds that those who criticize Reason Rally for having been “hijacked by Social Justice Warriors," ignore the fact that many of the speakers who were actually invited, simply would not have been invited if “Social Justice Warriors” (a hypothetical crowd who would aptly be described in such a way, that is) were to decide.
“Many of the speakers who are regularly criticized by the "SJW" crowd, were invited, people like Richard Dawkins (whose health issues kept him away from the Rally), Lawrence Krauss, Dave Rubin, Maryam Namazie and Penn Jillette. If “SJWs” really “hijacked” the Rally, those are not the speakers I'd expect to see invited”, Mehta writes.
He also thinks the reactions have a great deal to do with who promotes them.
“Surely, if Richard Dawkins had spoken at the Rally, he would have argued that we need to fight for better science education in the U.S. I can't imagine anyone would say "Stick to atheism and stop talking about politics”, Mehta comments.
He emphasizes that the rules of conduct that have been criticized, are common at events of this kind.
Mehta also has some critical feedback to the organizers, but of a different type.
“I am among those who criticized the Rally for not focusing enough on atheism, but not because the speakers talked about these social issues. My concern is that they didn't invite enough people who could bring together atheists (like popular atheist YouTubers, podcasters and authors). They were too focused on inviting big-name actors and singers”, Mehta writes.
He has analyzed six possible reasons for the disappointing turnout. Read Mehta’s analysis here.
Speckhardt: - Baseless allegations
Also the Secretary General of the American Humanist Association (AHA), Roy Speckhardt, is dismissive when Fritanke.no ask whether The Reason Rally has fallen victim of a "SJW coup".
“The accusations that the Reason Rally was hijacked by a social justice agenda are baseless. Just because a number of movement leaders care about social justice, and some of the speakers addressed social justice issues in their remarks, doesn't mean that reason, secularism, and non-theism weren't the focus; they still definitely were the focus”, he writes in an email to Fritanke.no.
Speckhardt refers to surveys among humanists and atheists in the United States, and feel confident that less than five percent of atheists in general, and less than one percent of those identifying as humanists are “swayed by the extreme voices of the men's rights activists and those who see racial justice and LGBTQ rights as outside our purview.”
“Over the years, the more the American Humanist Association addressed such issues, the more we grew. The movement isn't splitting since that suggests a large division. But we may have a very narrow racist/sexist/homophobic splinter that most of us won't be sad to see removed”, Speckhardt says.
His main analysis of why the Reason Rally in 2016 had a lower turnout than the one in 2012, is that the novelty has worn off.
“The recent event wasn't viewed as the historic, once in a lifetime, event that the first one was”, Speckhardt writes.
Organized from out of a hole in six months
The ateist blogger and author Greta Christina launches another explanation for the lower turnout;
In December 2015, just about six months before the event should take place, the Board decided to dismiss the Executive Director of the Reason Rally and appoint a new one, she explains.
“The Reason Rally was greatly mismanaged and under-publicized until December 2015, when it was taken over by Lyz Liddell. Liddell didn't just have to organize a massive national event from the ground up, she had to dig her way out of a hole. (…) By all reports she did an amazing job turning it around, but she had six months to do it in. As I said on Facebook yesterday: Anyone analyzing Reason Rally attendance who doesn't start with that is talking out of their ass”, she writes.