News & Politics

Inside the Atheist/Secularist Movement Storming Capitol Hill

This past weekend, thousands of atheists and secularists from around the country attended the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. While the event featured rock bands and celebrity speeches, it was also fundamentally political — non-believers were pounding the pavement of the nation’s capitol to change the conversation.

“One of the biggest influencing factors in our decision to hold this event in 2016 and in Washington, D.C. was that this is an election year, and for the first time the secular demographic is being recognized and engaged with,” Lyz Liddell, executive director of the Reason Rally Coalition, told PJ Media in an interview Saturday. “Up until now, politics in America has been dominated by religious discourse.”

Liddell argued that politics overwhelmingly favors the religious, as opposed to non-believers. “Politicians pander to the religious, they bend over backwards to accommodate religious people — we have national days of prayer — but it’s only been very recently that people have started to recognize and engage with the secular demographic,” she said. “Part of our goal in being here today is to make our voice heard and show that we are here and we are engaged and we are a constituency that other representatives should be paying attention to.”

Modern atheists do not necessarily have much of a political program — most rightly disavow the situations where totalitarian governments have tried to destroy religion by force — but Liddell and the Reason Ralliers did have a few political positions.

“Some of the issues [we care about] are particularly in areas where religion is being used as an excuse to do harm,” Liddell explained. She listed “restricting women’s access to healthcare — especially reproductive healthcare — because of religious ideology, discrimination against LGBT individuals because the ideology says it’s sinful, providing bunk education in sex-ed classes because we have this idea about abstinence-only when it’s been proven time and time again to be ineffective.”

These harms are arguable, and the spokeswoman was rather heated in presenting them, showing anger at the alleged harm of religious political positions. Nevertheless, she emphasized reason in discussing them.

“We really want to see science and evidence be the basis for our public policy-making, and really push back against the places where it’s causing the most harm,” Liddell said. This approach, so long as it really is open to argument, is laudable.

She delved into the abortion issue in particular, arguing that it is very complicated and “gets framed very poorly.” Liddell said everyone should be able to make the decision for themselves. “If your religion dictates that you should not have an abortion, don’t get one! But that right stops where your body ends, and your rights do not extend to my body.”

When asked about the rights of the fetus — who has human DNA from the moment of conception — she said “I don’t say I would dismiss any notion” that the fetus has rights, but she insisted that “the rights of the mother do trump the rights of the fetus.” Liddell did not seem to acknowledge that there is a non-religious argument against abortion, but she did admit the issue is complicated.

Next Page: What about the conflict between religion and science? Does this secularist attack faith as irrational? The answer may surprise you.

A booth with anti-religion signs. (Credit: PJ Media, Tyler O'Neil)

A booth with anti-religion signs. (Credit: PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil)

Liddell proved surprisingly understanding of religious people. She acknowledged that there is no necessary dissonance between faith and science. “Being a person of faith does not mean that you don’t understand the principles of science or that you don’t follow scientific methods,” she said. “But when you are throwing scientific evidence out the window in favor of a faith-driven policy, that’s unacceptable.” As a Christian conservative, I agree.

Negative signs attacking the faith of others permeated the Reason Rally, but Liddell insisted that this line of attack against religion was not part of the group’s political program. “We want freedom of and from religion, so if we start telling people you can’t have religion, that’s not freedom of religion either,” she said.

Nevertheless, she remarked that “a lot of people have been very bad hurt by religion.” Their stories are very personal and powerful, “and they absolutely need the space to tell those stories.” So the Reason Rally provided “an opportunity for them to do that, and find people who have had similar experiences.”

Liddell touched on the communal aspect of the event. “We’re calling this a voter bloc party, because we want to capture that bloc party feel.” The rally provided a social environment which proves “phenomenally important to the non-religious community, because you’re working with a demographic group who may not have a supportive community at home.”

“This may be the only chance in their life that they get to hang out with a bunch of people who see the world and share their worldview,” Liddell explained. Atheists and secularists do not attend church, and religious services often provide the cultural setting for community to develop. Lacking this setting, secularists may not have as many opportunities to form these bonds, and it is important for them to find community like this.

Liddell emphasized that her organization is a 501c3, so it does not have the legal authority to endorse a particular candidate in the presidential race. When I mentioned that some attendees sported Bernie Sanders t-shirts, she said the Reason Rally tried to avoid such things. “We’ve been very strongly downplaying and discouraging that, just because we don’t want to get in trouble with the IRS” — a real concern for non-profit groups like hers.

An attendee who identified himself as “Quest” told PJ Media he considered himself a progressive — not in a workers’ party, socialist kind of way, but “because I like progress.” He favored the idea of change, and lamented that many progressive politicians “get continually beaten down until they’re in the middle of the road.”

In the diverse American culture with the vibrant system of federalism and checks and balances, drastic change is very difficult to come by. “You actually need a leader who will come along like Peter the Great and say ‘I’m going to drag you, kicking and screaming, into the future,'” Quest explained. He said an open dialogue on issues is the kind of thing that pushes social progress, but that it comes slowly, in a “two steps forward, one step back” pattern.

Like Quest, Liddell emphasized that the Reason Rally has “been focusing on issues more than candidates, and that’s how our movement works. We’re not going to rally around one particular candidate, because we have such diverse opinions, but there are issues where we really do come together because we see the interference of religious ideology where we should have our government and public policy based on facts and evidence.”

Next Page: How should conservatives respond to the call for secular (i.e. non-religious) arguments for their policy positions?

A man who identified as "Quest" from California, holding a sign to alter the Pledge of Allegiance (Image: PJ Media, Tyler O'Neil)

A man who identified as “Quest” from California, holding a sign to alter the Pledge of Allegiance (Image: PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil)

A call for secular reasoning behind public policy is not a bad thing. Many conservatives — myself included — argue for conservative policy on rational grounds, without needing to resort to explicitly religious principles. This is not to say that Christianity or Western Civilization did not influence the founding of the United States or the basic principles of our democratic republic, but rather that conservative policy does not necessarily need explicitly religious support.

On the issues Liddell listed — abortion, abstinence education, and the freedom to deny event service to gay weddings — conservatives can explain a rational position. A fetus has the DNA of a human from conception, abstinence is the most sure-fire form of birth control and the best way to avoid STDs, and free speech allows an artist to deny artistic involvement in events that the he or she disagrees with.

The failure of abstinence-only sex-ed may argue against the practice, and some conservatives might agree to a more bare-bones scientific approach. On this issue, Liddell’s point is particularly resonant.

The Reason Rally spokeswoman emphasized that there are conservative atheists, and that conservatives should reach out to the non-believing community. “There are Republican atheists, there are libertarian atheists — we are a huge spectrum,” Liddell said.

“The fact that the Religious Right has so thoroughly taken over one part of our political dialogue has been really hurtful to the secular community,” she explained, “because there are people in the secular community who want to participate in these groups but feel themselves very pushed out because of how those groups focus on religion.”

“Our organization’s name is the Reason Rally — we’re not the atheist rally — and part of that is that we have to be a very big tent,” Liddell said. She explained that she has been involved in an interfaith program, representing the secular perspective.

Rather than pushing an atheist or secular agenda on the entire country, the Reason Rally spokeswoman summed up her event in these words: “We want to provide a safe space for non-religious people.”

The cultural and social reasons for such an event are strong, and her reasoning in presenting this group of voters to the nation’s legislators is also solid. The American system of representative democracy is strengthened by groups like this making their presence known.

Even when conservatives and religious people vehemently disagree with their positions, these people deserve to be heard and acknowledged — and their criticisms can make the conservative movement and the Republican Party stronger. We should learn when and how we alienate people, and change our outreach to be more inclusive.

So yes, as a conservative Christian, I’m not afraid to say we can learn a great deal from atheists — and in a dialogue, they can learn from us.