The Reason Rally and the Westboro Invitation

A few days ago, as a formal sponsor of the Reason Rally, Jim Klawon of the National Atheist Party sent a formal invitation to the Westboro Baptist Church. This is interesting because Westboro is classified as a hate group by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Legal Center. As the Southern Poverty Legal Center explains, “Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America. The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps.” Nevertheless, Mr. Klawon invited them to participate in The Reason Rally. You can read the letter here. This letter was subsequently given a positive mention at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website and Twitter account.

The National Atheist Party bills itself as a political party “guided by the values of secular humanism and evidenced-based reasoning.” I suppose that Jim Klawon, the Deputy Vice President of Administration of the National Atheist Party, could pretend that the invitation to Westboro was to stimulate reasoned dialogue about truth and the big questions of life. However, in the letter itself, the major reasons he gives for Westboro to attend include:

  • don’t miss history being made
  • see celebrities, comedy, and music
  • Richard Dawkins is speaking
  • come socialize
  • receive a ‘swag bag’
  • join the fun

Aside from the potential possibility that Richard Dawkins will offer reasons for the truth of his beliefs at the Rally, none of these have much to do with the celebration of logic and reason.

But regardless of what Mr. Klawon has said in his letter, the transparent motivation for inviting Westboro is obvious: to create a contrast at the gathering between atheists and the Westboro group, in the hopes that this gets spun in the media as a contrast between atheists and Christians.

The interesting thing about the media coverage of the Westboro group is that any reporter who covers them as a Christian group will do so knowing that no one outside of the Westboro community thinks that Westboro represents Christianity. The reporters will have to deliberately avoid the fact that pretty much every Christian denomination also disagrees with the Westboro protestors. In other words, any reporting of the Westboro group that calls them a Christian group is markedly disingenuous – “Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.”

We know that the Westboro group is ridiculous. So what does it tell us about the organizers of the Reason Rally that they deliberately and formally invited them to attend their gathering? Do they think that Westboro’s presence will enhance the celebration of reason?

What the Westboro Invitation Reveals about the Reason Rally:

I think that the invitation reveals three major themes.

First, it tells us that the organizers aren’t very interested in rational dialogue. Let’s be honest: inviting Westboro is a silly public relations stunt. By doing so, they’ve highlighted a consistent problem for contemporary atheism: a love of ridicule.

The problem with resorting to ridicule is that it cheapens and coarsens the dialogue. It is like playing speed chess – if you play it too often, you forget how to handle genuinely complex chess situations. The National Atheist Party has really miscalculated in this situation. By showcasing a preference for ridicule, they’ve lowered the bar for the important conversation our society is having about the pros and cons of secularism and religious practice.

By contrast, consider how P.Z. Myers reacted when he heard that Christians planned to visit the Reason Rally to offer reasoned conversation about the truth of Christianity and naturalism. The contrast is disappointing: organizers deliberately invited Westboro, but have no interest in conversation with reasoning Christians.

Second, it shows us that when they do reason, they do so poorly. Let’s try and construct the implicit argument for atheism here:

  1. Religious people are generally like Westboro.
  2. Westboro is bad for our society.
  3. Therefore, to have a better society, we should be less religious.

The first premise is patently false. And to pretend that it is true is ridiculous. As even Mark Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps wrote, “I suppose if a comparison were made between the life of Jesus Christ and my father, there would not be much to compare.” No Christian affirms the actions of Fred Phelps or the Westboro community – instead, this group faces nearly universal condemnation.

Third, the invitation reveals a profound lack of respect. The fact is that, every day, Christians are active in serving their communities, engaging at the highest levels of scholarship, and making valuable contributions to our society and world. To make an effort to portray 75-85% of Americans as being like the Westboro Baptist Church is both false and unnecessarily mean. The National Atheist Party needs to ask the question: is it really part of “secular values” to make fun of people who disagree with you?

As I see it, inviting Westboro to the Reason Rally makes the Reason Rally look less reasonable and more ridiculous. But maybe I’m wrong. In any case, I would love to hear how the National Atheist Party and the Reason Rally organizers believe that this invitation to Westboro enhances the credibility of their gathering.

For further reading:
If you are interested in seeing how the problems of irrationality and unreasonableness are problems that more broadly characterize the New Atheism, we just released a book on the subject. It’s called True Reason and is available for sale at Amazon.