Reason Rally: The Speech That Didn’t Happen

SkettymonThis is a repost from 2012, some things I wish had been said back then. (Look at the fifth paragraph in the Given Future section. Was that prophetic, or what?) Fortunately, Lawrence Krauss and Bill Nye addressed some of it this time around, but here I am anyway:

Hank’s Reason Rally Speech

Just as we still talk about the Enlightenment, or the discovery of fire, a thousand years from now, people will still be talking about this moment.

Because this is the moment when civilization left the launch pad. This is the moment when we broke free from the restraints of unreason, when the umbilical of religion finally fell away, the moment when the rocket of our true capabilities really began to thrust up into the sky.

There’s still that long, long journey ahead of us. But this is the moment when we made our final break from the insanities of the past, and people a thousand years from now will know it, and talk about it.

Or … they won’t.

We’ve had a great time today with speakers who’ve inspired us to laugh and applaud, whistle and shout, stand up and cheer.

But behind everything said today is this deeper thing, a proposition about the larger world, about your place in it, and about where all this is going.

That proposition is a sales pitch, and as every good salesman knows, you have to do these two things to make a sale:

One, you have to tell the customer about all the features of your product. And that’s what has been done by our speakers today, and by the entire secular movement of the past ten years or so.

They’ve shown you the great features of secular thinking, and of banding together as atheists – clear thought, better education, an enhanced consciousness of the rights of individuals outside the majority.

They’ve helped you appreciate the understandings that come from abandoning religious and superstitious mindsets, and helped you see churches and religious organizations in this new light.

They’ve shown that you can assume a level of power you’ve never known over your personal life, over your own mind and destiny.

Most of all, they’ve served as courageous examples, helping you see the directions in which you yourself can grow, and the influence you can have, both as an individual and as a member of a larger community of people who, when presented with the challenges of civilization-wide craziness, of social injustice and the poisoned thinking that makes it possible, stand up and act rather than sit back and watch.

But the second thing a good salesman does is this: He asks for the sale. You have to get the customer to commit to buying. Get them to commit to being the person who sits in the driver’s seat of this shiny new mode of thought and says “This is mine now.”

I’m here to ask for the sale, and to tell you why this purchase is more important than anything you ever imagined. Look …

The Sale

Here we are at this point in time. (gesture: hold up right hand, with finger and thumb pinched together to illustrate “point.”)

… And somewhere out here is this other point. (gesture: hold up left hand likewise, but lower.) This is the point we’re headed for, that future moment we’ll all live in. It’s the future of 10 years from now, or 25 years from now, or 50. The future that most of us, and all of our children and grandchildren will live in.

We’re not talking about the moment that might be, in some nebulous fantasy of the future. We’re talking about the future that will be.

If you have kids or grandkids and desire for them a good life, this is the future they will live in. If you have long-term plans or projects you want to see to completion, this is the future in which they will, or will not, be able to take place. If you’re saving money for retirement, and have bright plans for travel or leisure or new avocations you plan to take up. If you dream of a human future in space. If you’re an environmentalist, and treasure the beauty of the earth. Even if all you want is for some nebulous “good thing” to happen at some future moment. This is the future that all those dreams and desires will face.

That future is not some fantasy. It’s a real place, a real time, and it’s where we’re all going. There’s a real path between where we are, and there.

But really, there are two futures, and two paths by which we’ll get there.

One of them is a straight path. It’s a path so easy all you have to do is sit back and watch. This path is a greased chute that will decant us into its future.

This is the path we are on.

The Given Future

Let’s think for a moment what things are going to be like in that greased-chute future.

You already know some of it. A warming climate. Rising sea levels. Accelerating deforestation. Accelerating extinctions. Growing human population. Resource depletion and worldwide shortages of critical raw materials. The end of cheap petroleum, cheap energy. Wars and more wars. Public offices in the hands of corporations. A draconian, sometimes murderous, police presence in all our lives.

This is a future in which the new “people” will be corporations, and the rest of us will become little more than “units.” Work units, buying units, vote units, prison units.

Even if you’re fantastically rich and think you might escape most of this, I’ll give you a tiny example that will affect your life directly, something you probably haven’t thought about. At the supermarket where I worked last year, I pitched in briefly in the pharmacy, and I was surprised to learn that certain drugs and medications were being discontinued by pharmaceutical companies, because of shortages of raw materials, or rising production costs. We had customers come up and say “No, I have to have this one. The substitute doesn’t work as well.” Sometimes there wasn’t even a substitute. I read an article a few days ago that said anesthetics are becoming increasingly difficult for doctors and hospitals to get. It scares me to think there are effective medications, something *I* might someday need, that will just vanish off the market.

Think about politics in that future. You think things are nutty now on the right wing? Picture a presidency even dumber and meaner than that of George W. Bush. One in which people like Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich win the White House and use it as a narrowly-focused religious pulpit, a right-wing political bulldozer, rather than a seat of public service. I’ll point out that these candidates are on the national stage not as some sort of wild accident, but because of historical forces moving in American politics, and starting to pick up speed. Bush was president because half the voters wanted him. Or at least couldn’t see anything wrong with him.

In that future, the one that will be, we will be fighting, again and again and again, battles that have already been won. Creationism vs. science in schools. The Constitution vs. the Bible as the foundation of the American future. Social security vs. lottery tickets. Reproductive freedom for women vs. (gesture: big comical shrug) voting rights and jury duty for fertilized ova.

And again, here’s what you have to do to get to that future: Nothing.

You just have to sit back and watch it happen. We are on this straight, slippery path and we are headed there. You better just enjoy the journey, baby, because that’s all you’re going to get. The destination is going to suck.

The “Other” Future

There is this other future, the “maybe” future. (Holds up right and left “points,” this time with left higher than the right.)

What might this “maybe” future look like? Well, it looks like all the things we’re here today talking about, doesn’t it? All the things the progressive movement has been talking about for the past 50 years. It looks like a post-racial time, a time when issues of sexuality and gender no longer have to occupy public discussions, a time of real equal rights. A time when we really work on alternative energy. A time when corporations don’t run things, and when we don’t spend half our wealth paying defense contractors to build weapons to kill people, which then must be used to kill people, so we can keep paying them for new stuff. It’s a time when vicious freaks like Dick Cheney don’t make millions upon millions of dollars from wars he helped lie us into.

It looks like a time when nobody is starving, but also a time when population ceases to grow, and drops back to a level the planet can sustain. A time when there’s room on the earth for humans, but also for tigers and whales, for mountain gorillas and joshua trees. A time when decisions are made by officials who care less than zero about genuflecting to religious authorities and phony right wing pressure groups, and more about taking care of people, and the planet. A time when every kid in the world can get a science-based education, untainted by the blind faith of his parents’ traditions. A time when real criminals, the kind who kill thousands or millions with poisoned food, deadly public policies, or outright war, can be recognized, identified, and stopped. A time when young women – and young men – can enjoy the benefits of full education and choice in reproductive matters. Maybe even a time when we look up at the moon and a city looks back at us.

No, and Why Not

Before you get too happy contemplating that future, understand me: It’s not coming. Instead, we’re getting that first future. I don’t want to live in that first future. And neither do you. But we will.

There isn’t going to be some miracle, some happy accident that prevents it. There aren’t going to be any wiser, better people off in some distant government office making sure it doesn’t come upon us. We’re not going to have space aliens dropping down and giving us the keys to clean, limitless energy and zero population growth. The mountain gorillas aren’t going to pull through all on their own, the glaciers aren’t going to suddenly pop back into existence. Corporations aren’t going to say “Damn the expense! People need this stuff.” And as we all know, a supernatural superbeing isn’t going to come down from Heaven in a blazing chariot and clean up all our messes, fix everything we’ve broken, hand the entire human race a Get Out of Fail Free card and set us back on the board in time for our next round.

The path to the first future is straight and easy and we are on that path.

The Crooked Path

And do you know why we’re on that path? Because bad things happen automatically …

But good things have to be imagined. And then planned for. Worked towards. Aggressively fought for. And then, even after you get them, fiercely defended.

Good things have to be sought along a completely different type of path, not a greased chute down, but a crooked, difficult path up.

Any of you who has ever accomplished anything worthwhile, you know the kind of path I’m talking about. If you have this goal you want to pursue, obstacles snap into place almost the first moment you imagine it. You don’t have the time, you don’t have the money, you don’t have the expertise. You have to work your way through or around those obstacles. Then more obstacles appear. Another battle, another detour. More obstacles. More cutting through them. Still more obstacles.

The path to good things is always crooked. It’s never straight and easy. But if it’s a dramatically better place to get to, whether it’s your own career, building a family, or changing the course of the world, traveling that crooked path is worth doing.

People who desire better things always face a crooked, difficult path, a path scattered with obstacles. And in our case, the list of obstacles is even worse. We waited too long. The leverage is bad – the pivot point we have to swing things around, the sociocultural fulcrum, is close, very close. We have limited time, limited power, to swing the entire mass of humanity, the forces of history and complacency, onto this new path.

The obstacles are already here before us. We wouldn’t even be here as atheists if we hadn’t first faced the fact that too many people don’t want us to exist, or to speak, or to have any say in how things are run in the system under which we have to live.


Let’s talk about a few more of the obstacles we face.

The main one? Apathy. The emotional inertia of the steady state. If a 20 foot wall of water comes flowing down the canyon toward your house, you and your neighbors run screaming because the dam broke and you’re facing a devastating flash flood. But if it’s still flowing like that a year from now, to the neighbors who weren’t affected by it, it’s just another river. A couple of thousand years after the flash flood of religion, the crazy time we live in now isn’t crazy to most of us, it’s just life like always.

We face the obstacle of enemies. It doesn’t matter what positive value or admirable goal we might choose to adopt, there will be people who hate it like it was … (gesture: smile, shrug) a radioactive dog fart.

Our enemies are working, actively and vocally, against us. They’re working not just to keep the system they have, they’re working to roll back the progress that’s already been made. Every freethinker in this audience has seen evidence of it. Every woman in this audience has seen actual presidential candidates speak against her rights.

We face obstacles in our own human nature. Under the lash of strong emotion, human beings become less intelligent. And oh boy, we have some very vocal salesmen of fear and hate in our media, working day and night to dumb us down.

Speaking of which: Who do you want working alongside you when things get scary? Do you want calm rational people, thinking as clearly and calmly as possible, or do you want excitable dullards, whose compass for action defaults, at the first sign of trouble, to the galaxy-sized fantasy in their heads?


However! We have some powerful assets, assets that come from just being who we are.

First, we have this very cool asset, the reason we’re all here – we have freed ourselves from the insanity of religion.

We have intelligence. We have compassion. We really believe in fairness. We have a culture of education. We believe in bettering ourselves by our own efforts rather than using others to get what we want.

Very importantly, rather than a narrow range of voices and experience, we have an extremely diverse array of experience and voice. Especially, we have legions of women on our side.

I’ll tell you why this is important. If we want full equality and self-determination for women, so that women make the decisions about their own reproductive health, the first roadblock for us men is that we don’t always notice how bad things are. We don’t always see what has to change.

But if we have women on our team, all we have to do is listen. Because for women, the obstacles have been clear for the past century. They already know what to do! They know what we’re going to have to do to get there, and they know it won’t be easy. But if we team up, not only can we know the right answers, we have twice as many of us working on them.

Speaking of which (again), let me ask you: How stupid is it, how stupid is it, that there are still places on this planet where the most basic cultural rule is this: Faced with any real-world problem or challenge, the first thing you do it silence and ignore the intelligence of half the population.

Who do you think is going to win that cultural battle, huh? Us, with the women on our side? Or them, with their stupid little Stone Age clique of male-only privilege?

We have the huge and growing asset of the Internet. This is the first time in history that the counter-culture, the intelligent underlings, the people who are not rich and powerful, have been able to reach out to each other to discuss ideas and make plans. Our minds are able to rally together, and take action, for the first time in history. (Rush Limbaugh knows about that, doesn’t he?)

Corporations are powerful at least partly because they have top-down direction of their full economic might, but we are powerful because we have this bottom-up crowd-sourced activism amping up our individual might. And because there are more of us. Because now we’re able to join together, to talk with each other, in a way never seen in human history.

Public vs. Private

We all came here today for our private reasons. Because we wanted to gather in a place where we weren’t alone, a place where we could laugh and cheer and smile, right out in the open, without shame or fear, over the fact that we’re atheists.

And doesn’t that feel gooood? Let’s wallow in that for a second. Atheists! (gesture: pause for reaction)

But we also came for this larger reason: Because we can’t go on like this — the way things have been. We have to build the secular, reasoning, brave, moral, forward-thinking society that can shepherd us into that better future.

Reason and clear thinking is not just a fun toy for your private life, it’s the tool that’s going to save all our lives or, by its absence, kill us. It’s the tool by which our entire society has to be run. Socially. Economically. Politically.

Which is not the case now. We have so much unreason at the heart of our current political climate that we have little will for considering our future. With entities like Fox News turning the crank, we have no breath to spare for talking about where we’re going.

We are literally rudderless, approaching a future that consists of a deadly waterfall.

Warning: The Balloon

I’d like to toss a personal caveat into this before winding it up.

I was talking to a 10-year-old girl a year or so back about writing. She wanted to be a writer, and was working on a book. When she started to tell me her story, in detail, I stopped her. I said, look, your story is sort of like an inflated balloon.

There’s this pressure inside you to tell that story. There are two ways to let it out. One is, you can write down the story. The other is, you can tell the story, tell it with your voice. You can only do it one way or the other, because once you let the pressure off, you don’t have enough left to do it the other way.

That same thought applies here. We all came here to be atheists. To enjoy the freedom and pleasures of mingling with like-minded people. This rally is a way to meet each other and gather allies, to share ideas and determination, to understand that we’re not alone, and to make ourselves visible – to publicly reinforce the fact that we matter, that we have rights, that our voices and concerns are an important part of the American, and worldwide, dialogue on religion and society, and our shared future.

The danger is that we’ll all go back home feeling satisfied. Feeling that the pressure is off. The danger is that we’ll feel like we’ve done all we need to do until next year.

Let me be clear: Coming here and assuring ourselves that we exist, and that our private understandings are supported by a larger community, that is not nothing. But it’s also not everything.

It’s not all we have to do.

The Final Pitch

Here’s where I’m asking for the sale: We have to go back home now and talk to people. We have to write letters, we have to teach. We have to create more videos, more blogs, more events, more camps and schools for secular thinking. We have to talk to the young people in our lives. We have to donate, and volunteer. We have to join the organizations, and be active. We have to go to public meetings. We have to vote. We have to sue. We have to create campus atheist clubs at every college in America.

We have to have the courage that Taslima Nasreen demonstrated today when she said “I will continue my fight until I die.” And we have to understand what Jessica Ahlquist meant when she said “What I did can be done by anybody.” We have to risk arrest, if that’s what it takes, risk our reputations, maybe even our lives, in order to actually make good things happen.

We have to come out. We have to work it. Work it with care, work smart and hard and long to make things happen, not just in our own lives, but on the broader societal stage on which these changes must take place.

We have to create and attend other rallies, we have to find visible ways to show people who we are, and what we care about. And we have to share who we are and what we’re about with our loved ones, with our families and neighbors.

We have to do more than just be here today.

This is a fight – and it’s been made clear to us that it is a fight – that will extend into the future, probably for decades. We’re talking about the necessity of getting religious culture out of the driver’s seat of Planet Earth, and putting our culture in its place.

We’re going to win it, though. We will win it because we’re right. We will win it because the tide of history is with us. And we will win it because giving up, sitting down and letting religion and complacency be the forces that guides our future, is just too damned dangerous.

I don’t think we have much time. I think we atheists and freethinkers came along almost too late. It would have been better if we’d started 50 years ago, or 100, and stuck to it so that we really made a difference.

But we are here now because, here and now, we are necessary.

In the end, everything you did here today, and everything you do after, is an affirmation of yourself. An affirmation of the person you aspire to be, and of your better vision for the future of Planet Earth, and humanity itself.

The crooked path starts here.

But that’s if, and only if, we all go home and do what’s necessary to make it happen.