It was billed as the “largest secular gathering in human history,” but the Reason Rally, held on March 24 in Washington, DC, also revealed how organized atheism has gained considerable unity and a measure of support and traction in popular culture during the last decade.
The rally, which was organized and sponsored by 20 atheist and secular humanist organizations and attended by Religion Watch, was widely reported as a “coming out party” for atheists to publicly declare their unbelief and demand a place for themselves at the table. These objectives were not much different than those of its 2002 predecessor event called the “Godless March on Washington” (see the November 2002 issue), but there were notable contrasts between the two gatherings. The Reason Rally drew an attendance of up to 10,000 (with some sources estimating a crowd of 20,000), while the 2002 march attracted about 2,500 secularists.
Richard Dawkins, the doyen of the “new atheism” and clearly the main attraction of the event (with the crowd chanting his name as he made his entrance to the stage), told the audience that the rally could represent the “tipping point” for atheism; the mass of people declaring their unbelief would help lead to a rising tide of “everyone else coming out” as atheists. The long-time atheist interest in showing their numerical strength was on display at the rally with the frequent claim made that they represent 16 to 17 percent of the population (taken from survey results showing a growth of unaffiliated—though not necessarily secular—Americans).
There was a much larger presence of young adults at the rally than in 2002; the founding of the Secular Student Alliance and its rapid growth in colleges and high schools (doubling since 2009 from 143 campuses to 350) may be a factor in that change. Much of the success of the rally can be credited to the greater coordination and unity among the various secularist groups, ranging from such veterans as the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation to the influential Center for Inquiry, Humanistic Judaism, and the well-funded Richard Dawkins Foundation. In 2002, the fractious tendency of secularist groups was more evident, with several groups declining to participate.
Even the more moderate American Humanist Association took an active part in the rally; as AHA spokeswoman Maggie Ardiente told RW: “Atheism is the first step on the path” to a more positive kind of humanism. The rally also demonstrated how the new atheism and its professionalized, if polemical, style has raised secularism’s status in the worlds of entertainment and popular culture. The rally’s performers, such as singer and comedian Tim Minchin, the rock group Bad Religion, comedian Eddie Izzard and Adam Savage of the Mythbusters TV show, are prominent in the entertainment world, while also finding a niche market among secularists, along with a host of bloggers with large followings.
The prominent role of celebrities and the calls for reason and “coming out of the closet” to claim a place in American society were joined with the irreverent attacks on religion that are a staple of organized secularist events. “We’re not here to bash anyone’s faith, but if it happens, it happens,” comedian and master of ceremonies Paul Provenza announced to laughter and applause at the outset of the event. The bashing and attacks on religion, mainly Christianity (in its evangelical and Catholic forms), happened as much if not more than positive portrayals of secularism and were in sync with Dawkins’ advice to “mock and ridicule” people’s beliefs.
The tension, if not conflict, between the secularists’ strategies of debunking religion and calling for acceptance in a largely religious, if pluralistic, society is as apparent in 2012 as it was in 2002.