Photo by Chris Line
There’s an old proverb: Getting atheists, agnostics, nontheists, antitheists, heathens, skeptics, and humanists to agree is like herding cats.
But this past Saturday thousands gathered at the the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to rally for an ideal they all held in common. It was the 2016 Reason Rally.
We listened to scientists Lawrence Krauss and Bill Nye, leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, music from the Gay Men’s Chorus of D.C. and the Wu-Tang Clan, and celebrities like SNL’s Julia Sweeney, Daily Show writer Lizz Winstead, Star Trek’s John de Lancie, and magicians Penn Jillette and the Amazing Randi. Three members of Congress, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard , Democrat of Hawaii, also addressed the crowd of atheists and “nones.”
According to Pew, about a quarter of the country are not part of any religion and some 7 percent of the population are atheists and agnostics—more than Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims combined. It’s a small but growing group, which is coalescing into a political bloc. Three hundred rally attendees came early and marched to the Capitol to meet with their senators and representatives.
During the rally, Penn Jillette did a duet with Carolina Peña, the sixteen-year-old who was blasted by Ecuador's Got Talent judges for her atheism and told she’d never succeed without God.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss railed against the $800,000 that Congress spends annually on opening prayers. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation took the stage to resounding applause for their work keeping state and church separate, including suing the House of Representatives chaplain about those prayers.
The best part of the rally was not the speakers, comedians, or the musicians—though they were all wonderful—but the people. An undercover Christian might be amazed to encounter such a kind and tolerant group. The shared focus was on how many of society’s biggest, insoluble problems could be fixed if the government spent less time and money on prayers and more on actually tackling issues like global climate change, which Bill Nye pointed out is our most pressing problem. Jamie Raskin, likely to be Maryland’s newest U.S. Representative, put the issue this way: “If you're not a scientist, your job is simple, it’s to listen to the scientists.”
Let’s hope he can convince his colleagues.
Most of all, the rally was a celebration; a fête for those who’ve shed their “mind forg’d manacles.” Despite the heat, the rally goers seemed happy to be in the open about their disbelief without fear of judgment or retribution—a very real possibility in places that have not adopted nondiscrimination protections for the nonreligious.
“We’re here, we’re determined, and we’re happy.” That’s the message I took away from the 2016 Reason Rally. Given the public misperception of atheists as broken or angry, it was an uplifting, prejudice-defying message appropriate to the Lincoln Memorial.
David Williamson, who runs the Central Florida Freethought Community, performed a wedding at the rally as a humanist celebrant. He summed up his feelings:
“It’s nice to be in the majority, at least for a day. The freedom to speak openly about religion and the values we share as social progressives is so liberating. I felt a smile in my heart all day long.”
Andrew Seidel is a lawyer and constitutional consultant with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.