The Reason Rally (long version).
As I mentioned a few days ago, I attended the Reason Rally in Washington DC last Saturday, March 24. For those not familiar, it was a secular rally to show law makers that non-believers are growing in number, we demand to have our voices be heard, and we demand that they maintain separation of church and state. Additionally, it was also an opportunity to show the faithful, and closeted non-believers that secularists do not have horns and hooves, despite what they may have heard. We are your neighbors, your co-workers, your fellow citizens, and even your family members, and there is no need to fear or hate us.
On the flight out, I wondered if anyone on my plane was headed to DC for the rally. I sat next to a young guy and overheard part of a phone conversation before we took off that led me to think he might be going, but I'm a fairly introverted person who is uncomfortable making small talk with strangers, so I didn't ask, but wished I had. Later, on the shuttle to my hotel, I sat next to a guy who was a giant - probably 6'4 and close to 300 lbs. I overheard him making small talk with some people behind us who, if I understood correctly, were in town because their children sang in a church choir that was invited to perform at some event. They then asked the big guy why he was in town and he replied something to the effect that he was just in town for a few days. That put my radar up because it sounded like he was being coy in response to their mention of a religious organization. After everyone else got off the shuttle he looked at his phone and lamented, possibly to himself, the fact that it was supposed to rain the next day (the day of the rally). I mentioned that I was disappointed to hear that because I was planning to be outside the whole day. He asked me what I was town for, and I thought for a split second, should I tell him or keep it to myself? I decided to just tell him and hope he wasn't an angry protester, so I said, "I'm in town for the Reason Rally." He gave me a stern look and determinedly said, "Fuck yeah", and shook my hand. We talked for the last few blocks about how it was awkward to know how to talk to people about religion and/or atheism in person. His name was Ben, and he was a cool dude from Texas. I bumped into him at a restaurant later that evening, but never did see him at the rally.
The Rally was held on the National Mall, between 14th Street and 12th Street with the Washington Monument towering above behind the stage. I went with a couple of like-minded friends, and as we got close, we saw crowds of protesters handing out religious tracts and angrily shouting on bullhorns. On one of the tracts I was given, the organization even went so far as to steal the logo from the Reason Rally website and clumsily add the word "real" so it read, "The Real Reason Rally". Ironically, the text on the back was anything but reasonable, asserting that only the Christian religion is logical, and that non-believers needed to repent their sins immediately to avoid going to Hell. Outside the cordoned off area things were pretty chaotic, but once we got inside the rally area it was completely different. People were smiling, laughing, and clearly enjoying themselves. There was a line about a hundred people long to get into the welcome tent. It was cloudy and cool, but not raining (yet). We caught the very end of singer Andy Shernoff's set. What we heard was good, irreverent and funny.
We watched activist Ronnelle Adams give a really impassioned speech, and then Australian singer Shelley Segal sang a couple of her songs that dealt trying to get out from the oppression of religion.
After Segal's set we decided to check out the welcome tent. The line was still really long, but take note for next year if they do it again, we went around to the back entrance and there was no line at all. The tent was packed with tables manned by the various groups that helped organize the Reason Rally, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and many others. We had the good fortune to bump into author and Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer (a personal hero of mine), as well as James Randi, who were both kind enough to take pictures with us. The organizations were giving away a lot of free swag, like bags, pens, stickers, buttons, etc.
We went back out to listen to more speakers and performers, and while the weather got worse, the crowd never really lost any enthusiasm. Jessica Ahlquist, a high school student from Rhode Island, who filed a lawsuit against her school for promoting prayer, came on next. She told her story and talked about the hostility that she has faced from students and others in her community because of it. Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo referred to her as an "Evil Little Thing" and there were "Evil Little Thing" t-shirts all over the rally. When she was done speaking, Jesse Galef from the Secular Student Alliance presented her with a check for $65,000 - money that was donated by secularists, and proceeds from the t-shirt sales to help Jessica pay for college. She was a very impressive young lady and she seems to have a great future ahead of her. The crowd's reaction to her was really touching, and she was visibly moved by the way she was treated by 20,000 strangers.
Some of the other standouts on stage were event host, Paul Provenza, who was very funny and did a great job of keeping the ball rolling, Adam Savage, from the TV show Mythbusters, author and blogger Greta Christina, comedian Tim Minchin (who was as irreverent and thought-provoking as could possibly be, but the linked clip is not suitable for work or playing around children), one of my personal favorites, author Michael Shermer, magician and professional debunker James Randi, founders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that fights so doggedly for the separation of church an state, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, the black sheep of the infamous Phelps family who make up the Westboro Baptist Church (who were there protesting the rally), Nate Phelps, who gave a very moving speech, and of course, last but not least, the great Richard Dawkins.
There were a couple of disappointments for me, personally, though. The scheduled video tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens, who most certainly would have been there had he not lost his battle with cancer last December, had technical issues and they were only able to show about a minute of it. Also, shortly after Richard Dawkins finished, my friends and I thought we had seen everyone we wanted to see, and we had to get moving because were soaked and freezing, so we left. It wasn't until we had gotten almost to the Lincoln Memorial that I realized that I'd forgotten the biologist PZ Myers was scheduled to speak, so we missed him. We were, however, lucky enough to meet him out in the crowd and get pictures taken with him, though.
In his speech, Richard Dawkins said:
"I hope that this meeting will be a turning point. I'm sure many people have said that already. I like to think of a physical analogy of a critical mass. There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists or secularists or agnostics. We are far more numerous than anybody realizes. We are approaching a tipping point, we're approaching that critical mass, where the number of people who have come out becomes so great that suddenly everybody will realize, "I can come out, too." That moment is not far away now. And I think that with hindsight this rally in Washington will be seen as a very significant tipping point on the road."
(A transcript of Dawkins' full speech can be found here.)
I certainly hope that he's right. I have been trying to think of a way to describe what it was like to be there, but everything I write comes across as "cheesy" when I read it back. It was simply the most inspirational event I have ever attended. I have never experienced anything like the feeling of being around that many like-minded individuals. I was nearly two-thousand miles from my house, but it a strange way, I felt like I was home, among my people. See? Cheesy, but I'll just have to pass out some crackers because there's no other way to describe it. I don't know if there are plans to ever do it again, but I hope it becomes an annual celebration. We atheists, non-believers, free-thinkers, secularists, humanists - whatever you want to call us - need to know that we're not alone, and that there are others who feel the same way we do. Hopefully some day we won't need a rally to know that.
"America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason."
- Michael Shermer at the Reason Rally