Hemant Mehta on the 2016 Reason Rally

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion sings the National Anthem at the Reason Rally. National Mall, Washington, DC, 2012

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) wrote a thoughtful post (update: link no longer active) on the subject of the relatively poor attendance at the recent Reason Rally in Washington DC. After describing his experience at the rally as a positive one, he noted that the attendance was far less than the roughly 30,000 who were present for the 2012 rally. In fact, he suggested that the crowd likely numbered less than half of those present in 2012. He considers six possible reasons for the decline, ranging from people not knowing the rally was taking place to a lack of perceived urgency due to the nature of the current crop of presidential candidates.

Obviously, there are going to be many different reasons why atheists would choose not to attend such an event. In looking through those that made Hemant's list, my guess is that #2 (i.e., "The atheist 'base' wasn't particularly excited about the event") is the most important. Travel is expensive and inconvenient. To get people to put themselves through the ordeal, there needs to be something about which they are genuinely excited at the destination. Perhaps this rally did not provide that to enough people. Hemant is probably correct to suggest that the selection of speakers had something to do with this. He emphasized this possibility further with #3 on his list ("Large segments of atheist activists were not represented onstage").

As was evident in many of the comments left by readers on Hemant's post, the cost and inconvenience of travel were probably among the most important reasons for non-attendance that he did not include on his list. It is not realistic for many people to take off work and travel across the country to attend events like this even if they would like to do so.

Hemant briefly mentioned that some have suggested that social justice warriorism might have been a factor in the poor attendance.

(And despite what some are saying online, I don’t believe that an overzealous commitment to “social justice” is to blame for any of this. That’s a red herring.)

I did hear something about a recent Thunderf00t video on this subject, but I have not seen it yet. In any case, I think that Hemant is probably correct here. It is difficult to imagine that any such concern would have kept more than a handful of people away who would have attended otherwise. Update: Here are a couple of somewhat different takes on the issue from Justin Vacula and Godless Mom.

So why didn't I go to this Reason Rally? I did know that it was happening. I suppose I could have afforded to attend it. Although it would have been a particularly difficult time for me to take off work and leave town for a few days, I probably could have managed to do so. So why didn't I?

Like Hemant suggested, I did not feel sufficiently excited about the event to justify the costs and hassles associated with attending it. A few of the speakers would be interesting to hear, but I've already heard them on YouTube. I have no need to meet any of them in person. I think I must have been born without whatever part of the brain is responsible for the desire to fawn over celebrities. Honestly, running around a rally and attempting to take "selfies" next to famous atheists has about as much appeal to me as unnecessary surgery. But the bottom line is that events like this just don't hold much appeal for me these days. I find crowds of people overwhelming enough that I do what I can to avoid them. I'm not sure any slate of prominent atheist speakers would be sufficient to make me want to turn up at one of these things.

Having said that, I can easily understand why events like this are appealing to some people. I think I would have welcomed the opportunity to attend a similar event when I was much younger. It still wouldn't have been because I cared about who was on the stage, but the opportunity to surround myself with atheists would have been very appealing.

Today, the primary appeal for such an event would be the opportunity to meet some of the atheists with whom I have interacted online. I'm not referring to celebrities here but peers. If I was going to attend something like this these days, this is what I would be most interested in.