On March 24, 2012, approximately twenty thousand godless folk gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Reason Rally. I was one of the speakers late in the afternoon of a rainy but inspiring day. This is roughly what I said:
It’s the late afternoon of a long day; it’s raining, I have to follow Greta Christina and Tim Minchin and Adam Savage and so many other excellent speakers, and I’ve been contemplating my sins and wondering what I did to deserve this. After a little introspection, I realized I am a sinner—that perhaps there is a behavior that earned me this place in the rain.
There is a sin that is my favorite and that I frequently indulge in. I kind of like “wrath.” And there are many things that justify my wrath.
We live on a planet crammed with seven billion people, yet what has been one of the hot-button issues in the halls of Congress? Opposition to contraception. It is absurd that this is even an issue. One of the largest religious institutions in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, makes opposition to family planning part of its dogma and opposes condom use even in conditions where it is essential for disease prevention.
We are confronted with evolving viruses and bacteria—the Red Queen rules, and we have to keep running just to keep pace with changing microorganisms. Yet policy makers and the public repudiate vaccination, even evolution itself, and question the value of biomedical research. They may not believe in evolution, but the microorganisms trying to kill us certainly use it to their advantage.
Our climate is changing by our own hands, and we see accelerating change writ in the rising graphs plotting CO2 and temperature. Confronted with the challenge and inevitable consequences of our current behavior, leaders of congressional committees on the environment and energy hide behind their holy books: God promised not to kill us; therefore, we should sit on our hands, keep spewing our industrial by-products into the air, keep making money, and live in denial ... until the reckoning comes. How effective can you be as a steward of the environment when you believe action is futile in the face of a god’s desires?
We are at war. On one side, we have members of a death cult who believe dying is a rite of passage into paradise; on the other, we have members of a death cult who believe dying is a rite of passage into paradise. This cannot end well. Combine that with the fact that too many of the people on our side with their fingers on the triggers are demented goddamned ghouls who believe that we are in the end-times—that Armageddon is a good thing—and we people of reason should be very afraid.
My wrath is bipartisan. While one party seems more willing to throw our children into the bloody maw of war, the other party seems just as willing to destroy the other side’s children remotely with drones and bombs. Perhaps if they possessed humanist values rather than bloody-handed Christian values, they’d be less likely to murder non-Americans and recognize our common humanity.
Our leaders are mired in a web of fantasy and wish-fulfillment. An example: we know for a fact that abstinence-only sex education does not work. All it accomplishes is to keep kids ignorant and unaware. It actually increases the frequency of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, yet what do state legislatures across the nation promote? The solution that accomplishes the exact opposite material result we should desire but does satisfy the puritans and prudes who live to foster guilt and shame.
Another example: happy-clappy fools who sponsor the promotion of government-funded quackery. Why do we have a well-funded agency throwing money down the drains of homeopathy, herbal hocus-pocus, needle-diddling, and magical hand-waving? I want medicine that works, not hokum and fast-talking scoundrels and the illusion of efficacy. [Any reference to alternative-medicine enthusiast Senator Tom Harkin, whose prerecorded greeting came several speakers before Myers’s speaking slot, is strictly coincidental; but see Josh Bunting and Ian Murphy, “Unreasonable Rally,” in this issue.—Eds.]
And yet another example: our Draconian war on drugs. We have the largest proportion of citizens in jail of any country on Earth, and most are there for victimless crimes, due to puritanical efforts to use the cudgel of the state to enforce a self-righteous religious morality. It mainly seems to be used to justify oppression of racial minorities and, as prisons are privatized, for profit.
We live in a diverse and pluralist country with deep inequities, both economic and social. An what have we got? Forces straining to exclude, demonize, and exploit using the two greatest forces for hate and tribalism humanity has ever discovered: religion and greed. You want to wreck the planet? You want to wreck a nation? Mask your rapacity with piety. Works every time.
Where will we find solutions to these problems?
Will prayer save us? No—I can think of nothing more ineffectual than closing our eyes and pretending an imaginary being will swoop down and save us. In every war, each side begs its deity to protect them and smite the other ... and in every war, the killing proceeds unimpeded. But our representatives know that it makes a fine photo op to stand on the steps of the Capitol with heads bowed and hands clasped. Or even sillier, they daub the doors with oil, because for some reason, God loves grease.
Will the holy books save us? No—old folktales and legends, vague prophecies and promises, outmoded moral guidelines ... there is a pretense to wisdom here, but nothing of substance. Fools love to wave a magic book about and hide their ignorance behind a cloak of tradition and pronouncements of “we always did it that way” and “what was good enough for my dad is good enough for me.” This isn’t even the nineteenth century any more; medieval “wisdom” is dead weight and a burden to human progress in the twenty-first.
Will faith save us? No—faith is a vice pretending to be a virtue, lies and air and frothy nonsense deluding us and distracting us from action. There is no salvation in wishful thinking, only inertia. Faith is the enemy of reason, the one thing all of us here must be united in despising. It’s the barren refuge of the vacuous and the fearful and the obstacle to accomplishment.
But I am optimistic. I have hope—not faith, but hope.
I see hope in the rising tide of secularism—in this great crowd of people, all here because you aren’t going to stand for the irrationality any more because you want reality to rule.
I see hope in science and technology—because like it or not, we are a tool-using species, and science is how we solve problems. We are committed: either we correct our problems, change our course, and come up with new answers or billions will die.
I see hope in a more liberal culture—that we have the flexibility to adapt to a world that is changing fast, that we will gladly embrace diverse new ways of thinking by accepting everyone as equals and co-contributors to solutions. We cannot afford to tell half of the population that their job is changing diapers or cleaning the kitchen; we cannot tell brilliant people that their only roles can be mowing lawns or driving cars because of the color of their skin or the accents in their voices.
I see hope in all you people who say our solutions must be found in the real world, not in fantasies of the supernatural. In people who value reason, logic, evidence, and experiment. In people who are willing to try ... and when something doesn’t work, to back off, admit error, and try something new.
That’s what this rally is about. It’s a call for people to rise up in wrath, to oppose the idiots who come to power by hiding behind this ridiculous proxy of a god. It’s time for us to fight, to change the world, to make a better world for people, not plutocrats and priests.
But let me tell you, I’ve been seeing signs around that say “good without God.” I beg to differ. No one fought to make change by being nice. I want you to join me and aim to be bad without God!
P Z Myers is associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He writes the science blog Pharyngula.