The Friendly Atheist is dismayed by the fact that the 2016 Reason Rally was a flop:
That wasn’t supposed to happen. After all, our community has grown over the past four years, there was no rain this time around, and there were big-name celebrities on the speaking roster (though some of the most famous people on the list, including Johnny Depp, Margaret Cho, and Richard Dawkins, couldn’t ultimately participate for a variety of reasons).
No official crowd estimates have been released. But even in the early afternoon, when the crowd was likely at its peak, nothing I saw suggested “15,000 to 20,000” in attendance, as the organizers told Religion News Service. I’d put the range at about half of that, but we’ll see.
He then tries to explain such a low turnout with six excuses:
1) People didn’t know about the event.
2) The atheist “base” wasn’t particularly excited about the event.
3) Large segments of atheist activists were not represented onstage.
4) The event took place in the summer.
5) The novelty wore off.
6) There was no sense of urgency.
I find #1, 4, and 5 to be quite lame, as if Mehta was just trying to come up with as many possible excuses as he could regardless of their real world relevance. Excuses #2 and #3 are just different angles on the same excuse, which happens to be the most interesting. As Mehta explains:
Organizers made clear from the beginning that they wanted to appeal to a broader segment of the non-religious demographic. By inviting speakers who promote critical thinking in general, instead of ones who mostly focus on the problems with religion (like last time around), they hoped to draw even more people to the Rally. That may have backfired.
That’s not a criticism of the speakers. I’m just saying that if you want to draw committed atheist activists to the Rally, it helps to have speakers known for their commitment to atheist activism.
In other words, commitment to atheist activism is essentially the same as hating on religion (and we are told atheism is nothing more than a lack of god belief). I mentioned before that the Reason Rally was evidence the New Atheists were being thrown under the bus and Mehta’s excuses work to confirm this. Basically, Mehta is arguing that many Gnus aren’t going to bother to show up at a rally that isn’t going to spew vitriolic anti-religious hate. Yet the Gnus don’t seem to understand that such hateful speech has been damaging the larger atheist community by reinforcing the negative stereotypes about all atheists. The Reason Rally was apparently designed to correct for that problem.
The Reason Rally along with Mehta’s excuses give us a glimpse of all the hand-wringing and infighting that is probably occurring in the activist atheist community. We already knew about the ongoing war between the New Atheists and their SJW spin-offs. Now we can see there is a third faction that is probably largely the old-school skeptic community that is trying to unite the community by appeasing everyone, but succeeding in angering everyone. There must be a lot of finger-pointing going on.
Which brings us to Mehta’s last excuse.
I think this might be the most relevant one:
In 2012, marriage equality was still not a reality, and the Religious Right was still a powerful force in politics. While religious groups still have plenty of power, we’re currently in the midst of an election where Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, andBernie Sanders really don’t talk ad nauseum about their faith. They all claim to be religious, but I’m not worried about any of them making decisions based on the voices in their heads.
Even Trump’s bone-headed ideas aren’t idiotic for religious reasons; they’re just bad ideas, period.
I’ve been meaning to write a blog entry about the upcoming presidential election and how it spells deep trouble for the New Atheist community. Put simply, because the atheist activist community is defined by nothing more than its hatred of religion, the differing versions of atheism need a common enemy to unite them. Take away the threat of the common enemy and the atheists are at each other’s throats.
Anyway, Mehta’s analysis simply shows that he doesn’t know how to think like a scientist. Look, we have a simple hypothesis: since the New Atheist community “has grown over the past four years,” we would expect the second Reason Rally to be larger. Thus, the 30,000 prediction. But the data from the real world gives us a number closer to 10,000. That is a huge discrepancy. Instead of 50% growth, we see 50% shrinkage. At this point, instead of coming up with excuses to cling to the hypothesis, a good scientist might begin considering the hypothesis is fundamentally flawed. Put simply, maybe there has been no significant growth in the New Atheist community.
The New Atheists often blind themselves to this possibility because they a) see an increase in the number of people who declares they are “Nones” and then b) ignore the simple fact that a “None” is not the same as a New Atheist. The Gnus are victims of their own rhetoric.
What’s more, there is plenty of evidence to doubt any growth among the New Atheists. The people who promote and defend New Atheism are the same small set of names we have seen for years. There is precious little “new blood” among the New Atheist leadership. What’s more, New Atheist books no longer break into the NYT bestsellers lists. Dawkins last book was a flop. Coyne’s book was a flop. Harris is more focused on meditation and veganism. And Boghossian’s army of street epistemologists exist only with the unicorns. Add to this the fact that New Atheist’s like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are more likely to be criticized or mocked by the mainstream media than praised. When you take this all in I think it safe to say that New Atheism is past its peak and is on the decline. This hypothesis explains the low turnout at the Reason Rally with the greatest parsimony.
Look at it this way. If the New Atheist community has been growing the last four years, Mehta’s excuses don’t truly account for the low turnout. At best, they could account for a turnout that was the same in size as 2012, where new members cancel out the ones who didn’t attend for the reasons Mehta comes up with. But if the community is stagnant in size, or shrinking in size, then Mehta’s excuses actually become relevant – explaining how a crowd of 20,000 was cut in half.