Posted on Mar 19, 2012 by Tom Gilson
On March 12 I wrote an email to David Silverman, president of American Atheists. It was a message from the leader of one organization to another, on behalf of both our organizations.
I introduced myself as a leader of the True Reason initiative, which I described to him as “bringing Christians to the Reason Rally for respectful dialogue with atheists there.” I also mentioned that I was involved in producing the True Reason ebook. I proposed that we co-sponsor a debate between Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig, While Dr. Dawkins was in the U.S. Mr. Silverman wrote back the following day. You can read the full text of both our emails on the True Reason Media page.
On that site you can also find a link to an invitation that the National Atheist Party had sent to the infamous Westboro Baptist hate group. The contents of that invitation stand in stand in sharp contrast to Mr. Silverman’s letter to me. On or before March 6, the National Atheist Party had told Westboro Baptist,
I am writing you today to invite you to a very special event…. Surely you would not want to miss history being made…. As an official Reason Rally sponsor, the National Atheist Party will be manning an information booth from which to promote our organization. Stop by and socialize if you have time…. Come on out and join the fun! We hope to see you there.
That message was sent to a hate group whose tactics and beliefs are rejected by the vast majority of Christians as much as by atheists or anyone else — a group that few would seriously expect to enhance reasoned dialogue between Christians and non-Christians.
A week later, the day after I sent him my message, Mr. Silverman wrote back to us, a group that has made strong commitments to quiet, respectful, non-disruptive, non-pushy, person-to-person conversations at this event. He said in part,
Make no mistake – you are not welcomed guests at the rally. We are not going to DC for ‘dialogue’ with people who believe ridiculous things – we are going to have fun with other like-minded people. Those who proselytize or interfere with our legal and well-deserved enjoyment will be escorted to the 1st Amendment pen by security, which will be plentiful, where you can stand with the Westborough [sic] Baptists and shout yourselves hoarse.
Spreading out among the crowd is not a substitute for a permit. Indeed, I will be meeting with the Parks Commission on Thursday to discuss how to handle your infiltrative permitless counter-protest.
You can read the entire text at the link given above.
A few observations:
1. The Reason Rally is being held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which is public land under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Everyone has equal right of access there.
2. Everything we are planning to do there is entirely permissible under Park regulations and the First Amendment. Nothing we are planning to do requires a permit, because we are explicitly not going to the Reason Rally to mount a counter-protest, but to engage in reasoned dialogue. To “proselytize” (his word, not ours) by way of quiet, respectful dialogue is perfectly legal; it is not grounds for being escorted away.
3. Mr. Silverman has nevertheless apparently interpreted our plans — respectful, person-to-person dialogue — as constituting interference and/or proselytizing, such as would lead to our being ejected to the “1st Amendment pen.” Now suppose some other Christian were there engaging in quiet, non-disruptive conversation with a rally attendee. Would Mr. Silverman say, “Are you with True Reason? Oh, you’re not? Then fine. Please continue.” That would not be consistent with the content of his message. From this it appears to me it is not True Reason that is unwelcome, it is what Silverman describes as “interfering” and “proselytizing,” or what others would call normal interactions between two persons who respectfully hold differing opinions. Thus Mr. Silverman’s warning quite believably applies to any Christian who might come to this public event on the National Mall.
4. Nothing in our history or documents gives any indication that we are going there to hold a counter-protest. There is another group being welcomed there, however, that has a well-known history of picketing and protesting.
5. Mr. Silverman’s statement, “We are not going to DC for ‘dialogue’ with people who believe ridiculous things,” is in one sense understandable in light of the purpose of the Reason Rally: it just isn’t what the Rally is for. It echoes, however, a much more broad and inclusive statement he recently made to CNN News. After being prompted with the question, “It sounds like you’re looking for a conversation…,” he answered, “Well they dismiss our [beliefs], and we dismiss theirs, and frankly we’re not looking for a conversation.” Reasoned dialogue between people who treat one another reasonably is nowhere in view here.
6. Virtually all of the Reason Rally’s sponsoring organizations emphasize how reasoned and reasoning they and their beliefs are. They consistently accuse religious believers of being opposed to reason. But through the National Atheist Party they are welcoming a group that is known primarily for hateful slogans and signs, while at the same time another organizer is threatening, with loaded language (“shout yourselves hoarse,” “infiltrative permitless”), to have security evict us from the primary event grounds, even though we are planning to come just for the purpose of promoting reason and dialogue. How reasonable is that? How does it promote reason?
We invite the Reason Rally organizers to a higher standard – to be reasonable in their dealings with others, and to be unafraid of reasoning with those who respectfully disagree with the secular position.
P.S. Needless to say, he declined the opportunity for a reasoned debate between Craig and Dawkins.