My protest of “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally in Scranton, PA

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Here I am at the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally in Scranton, PA with my protest sign also promoting the NEPA Freethought Society’s website. In this post, in a narrative fashion of sorts, I will provide some of my thoughts concerning the rally and recount some of my protesting experience. I can write for hours about the bad arguments (and responses to my arguments) posed to me, but I won’t do this and instead focus on some tidbits of my experience. Aside from my thoughts, the end of this post includes local print media coverage of the event via reporter Rich Howells writing for Go Lackawanna in which I was interviewed.

This Friday, I woke early to create a sign inspired by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) that I would bring with me to protest the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally in Scranton, PA. For those of you who were unaware of the event in Scranton (which had also taken place concurrently with other rallies nationwide), the rally was essentially a religious-based objection to Obama’s Affordable Care Act on the grounds, at least according to many of the ralliers, that the Affordable Care act would ‘trample religious freedom’ because people of certain religious persuasions [namely Christians who find contraceptives and abortions to be mortal sins or some other evil] would be forced to ‘violate their consciences’ whether this would be dealing with funding contraceptives and abortions or Christians being forced to provide contraceptives and abortions to patients. This reasoning and objection could be phrased in various ways, but I won’t go into this here because I want to focus on my protesting experience while giving my accounting concerning my thoughts surrounding the rally.

One of the first (and biggest) signs/banners I saw at the rally, pictured above, was quite interesting as it seemed to be evident that — and my thoughts would later be validated — there would be a contingent of people under the wide and general umbrella of ‘tea partiers.’ …which is quite interesting because this rally, at least as I understood it (and the website for the event said), was supposed to be a religious objection rather than a political objection or, even more broadly, a political rally. I suppose, though, that many individuals were attracted and it needed not be the case that individuals were ‘on the same page.’

As I walked around the rally with my sign — mainly before speakers came onstage — I ended up having some very interesting discussions with people who approached me and initiated conversation. The man pictured above, for instance, yelled “Devil come out of you!” at me and was quite hostile. There was no discussion with him… Others, though, even they didn’t appear to be too learned (based on their responses to my arguments and the arguments they posed to me), seemed to be actually interested in learning about me and having a discussion.

(this glorious document was handed to me at the rally)

When blogging, I tend to tackle more serious arguments for God’s existence while also responding to counter-arguments theists give to, for instance, the problem of natural evil. Here, though, the arguments and counter-arguments weren’t so serious at times. ‘Free will defenses‘ of various forms, ‘Jesus died for sins,’ and ‘man sinned so that is why natural disasters happen in this fallen world’ — just to recall some examples — were offered as responses to the problem of natural evil. Pascal’s Wager even reared its ugly head at points. A man, after discovering that I accept evolution following my rejection of his design arguments, asked me if I ever heard of “creation science” to which I replied with a swift “did you ever hear of methodological naturalism” (after explaining what that meant because he had no idea).

One woman, although this might not be the woman in the above picture, noted that my appearance at this rally was “offensive” and “disrespectful.” I asked her why she believed this and didn’t really get a response other than repeated assertions. I explained that I was the only person protesting at the rally, was civil, did not interrupt anything, was not yelling at people, and had discussions with those who approached me reinforcing the idea that my appearance — although she might not like me being there — is a reasonable dissent and a protected right. As Peter Boghossian might say, her offense meant nothing to me. I wasn’t attacking people, mocking people, being rude, or anything like that… The specter of ‘respecting beliefs‘ is not so uncommon.

As the rally went on and speakers came to the stage, I remained still holding my sign to the right of the stage while speakers spoke and people listened. Some people got ‘excited’ (for lack of a better term on my behalf) and appeared to get angry with my sole dissenting sign. A woman, for instance, defiantly went in front of me thus blocking my sign. I started audibly laughing and told the women, “We can do this all day. You won’t tire me out.” Following this and my going in front of her (perhaps making a conga line of sorts, if you will), some other people joined in attempting to block my sign.

One man, at a point, even threatened to call police on me while claiming that I required a permit to protest. Much to his surprise, it seems, I encouraged him to call the police…and he refrained from doing so. This might have been my favorite moment of the rally.

This ‘blocking attempt’ — partially by the persons holding the ‘appeal to heaven’ banner — was quite hilarious and counter-intuitive for multiple reasons. I find it quite desperate and perhaps cowardly that — at a rally with about two-hundred people (many of them holding signs) — my sign just couldn’t be tolerated. I was not going around blocking signs that I was unhappy with [and to be fair I couldn’t block them all although I wouldn’t do that anyway], but rather tolerated them recognizing that people ought to have the right to express their ideas on signs and be free of people trying to squelch their messages. This drew a tremendous amount of attention to me, away from the speakers, and made the religious ‘blockers’ look very foolish as we played a ring-around-the-rosy game of moving around.

Finally, the organizer — Mary Ann Haas — stepped in to interrupt the nonsense and persuade the ‘blockers’ to cease their maneuvering around me. She said that I seem like a nice person who was very respectful and should be left alone instead of being [this is my term and perhaps a paraphrase] harassed. We spoke for some time and she seemed very agreeable as far as free speech and openness to ideas was concerned. I explained that I see encounters like this partially as learning experiences and encourage others to do the same. It is important to face objections to one’s ideas, I explained, and learning can be had from that.

After the speakers concluded, various ralliers approached me saying — in part — some really nasty and bizarre things. One woman, for instance, explicitly told me that she can’t wait until I burn in Hell following a “I’ll pray for you.” I asked her how an all-loving god could possibly send people to be tortured for all eternity and the usual responses of “It’s your choice” and “It’s your fault, not God’s. God gives you the chance” followed. Some men told me that I should join the military and fight overseas to find out “what the flag really stands for” and “what it really means to stand up for rights.” I responded in part saying that, while several atheists are in foxholes, the military is not for me. I can exercise my rights in other ways and, more specifically, better utilize my talents.

One man — in what I call a constant dismissal of intelligence and education — told me that I needed “a course in logic” following my reasons for not believing in any gods which he asked for (I responded with problem of natural evil, inductive argument for naturalism, and a more general explanation that the reasons believers have given me aren’t sufficient for belief). I told him, “I actually have a degree in philosophy and have taken logic courses. I graduated from King’s College, too.” He said that King’s isn’t “really Catholic,” infested with “liberal theology,” and is heretical. I explained that I had religious classes, too, and had lengthy conversations with ministers and theologians on campus. He just kept attacking King’s and the ‘heretical persons’ there. I suppose the more educated, then, are less qualified to defend the Catholic faith or otherwise that their arguments are worse than laypersons?

As you might expect, pseudoscience also was a large part of this rally. The above woman and others told me about how ‘studies show’ that ‘the pill’ is harmful to women, causes cancer (as seen on this sign), and many other wild tales. Never mind, of course, women who use contraceptives for ‘non-sex reasons’ and require them in order to deal with ovarian cists and other maladies.

I had a really fun time! My friendly approach seemed to really pay off as the organizer was concerned about my safety and discouraged people from giving me a hard time. We walked away after she gave me many hugs. Don’t get me wrong, though, I was not pulling punches. I wore my American Atheists 2012 convention t-shirt, was very hard hitting with my arguments, stood against a crowd of two hundred, and obviously brought a sign that happened to offend people. I am really excited for a future event like this and will plan ahead so that others can accompany me.

Following the event, local newspaper Go Lackawanna covered the rally and included various comments I made to the on-scene reporter. Here is a selected portion of the article:

Justin Vacula, an atheist and co-organizer of the NEPA Freethought Society, was the lone counter-protester at the rally, holding his own sign that read “Put women’s rights over bishops’ wrongs.”

“I want to see that religion doesn’t trump law. People want their religious beliefs to inform what the government has to do…The Constitution is explicitly godless. It’s a secular document. The government is anything but founded on religion. A lot of the founding fathers were deistic,” Vacula said.

“They weren’t Christians, and they realized by leaving God out of the Constitution that we could have a secular government for everyone. These people are talking about religious freedom, but if they’re really for religious freedom, it wouldn’t be about their Christian beliefs…Health care is about patients, not the people who are providing it.”

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