I've just returned from a whirlwind trip to Washington DC with my sons Ryan and James, where we attended the Reason Rally. This was a pretty amazing event; the largest gathering of atheists and secularists in "the history of the world" (as we were constantly reminded by the vast array of speakers).
The Rally, held in gloomy weather that ran the gamut from cold and overcast to driving rainstorms, was held on the Capitol Mall with that iconic phallic symbol, the Washington Monument, ever present in the background. A steady stream of speakers addressed the crowd, which was somewhere between 8,000 (various media reports) and 20,000 (announced by the event's energetic and entertaining master of Ceremonies Paul Provenza) strong. The whole thing was a marvel of organization, as they managed to keep the thirty or so presenters, performers and speakers strictly to a very tight schedule.
The presentations ranged from inspiring to formulaic, from whimsical to deadly serious. Perhaps inevitably, the professional performers - singer/comedian Tim Minchin, comedian Eddie Izzard, Mythbusters star Adam Savage most prominent among them - fared best, capturing the crowd's attention despite the inclement conditions and entertaining while also communicating the themes of the day (raising awareness of the growing number of nonbelievers in society and laying the groundwork for recognition of them as a legitimate interest group).
Of the speakers, I would say the three most moving were those whose lives so dramatically demonstrated the courage of their convictions:
- Teenager Jessica Ahlquist, who filed and won a lawsuit to have a prayer removed from her public high school in Maine, was poised and articulate beyond her years. The crowd responded to her passion and courage, and when she was presented with one of those gimmicky oversized checks representing scholarship money that had been raised for her by the atheist community, it brought a legitimate lump to the throat.
- Iranian author Taslima Nasrin spoke of how she lost country, family and freedom as a result of her public rejection of faith and religion. It sort of puts the rest of us to shame when we carry on about some slight or offense we've suffered to think that, here is a woman who would be put to death if she merely returns to her country of birth. Sobering.
- And then there was Nate Phelps, estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, telling the heartfelt and moving story of how he realized that he could not abide the "God of his Fathers." His tale of gradually moving from his family's repellent version of Christianity to a more benevolent form of evangelical Christianity to, ultimately, atheism was very stirring.
There were also excellent speeches from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Laurence Krauss and James "the Amazing" Randi. These worthies delivered their uplifting messages of hope for a more secular future. They also expressed a recurrent theme from many of the speeches – that it is science, logic and reason that have spurred the advances in health, lifestyle and productivity that we all enjoy, not superstition and adherence to ancient stories.
And then there were the messages from those who seem to think that clothing their arguments in criticism and condescension is the best way to make the message flower. Even headliner and host Richard Dawkins had to quote himself to the effect that atheists have a responsibility to ridicule other people's beliefs. In my humble opinion, those kinds of comments simply hand the press and the movement's critics a convenient theme to pigeonhole the whole event (as evidenced by how much coverage that quote got in the relatively scarce media coverage the rally generated). Throw in some of the other more aggressive anti-religion comments from many speakers, and you can find the ammunition you need (if that's what you're looking for) to paint a picture of this rally as an event full of snarling, angry, entitled elitists.
Which is unfortunate, because that is not at all what it was. Rather, it was a mostly happy (though soggy) crowd, reveling in the knowledge that they were taking part in something significant and groundbreaking. The Reason Rally's success is not ultimately going to be measured by just how many people showed up or by the media coverage or by the political establishment suddenly taking the secular movement seriously in America. No, its success will be judged by how well it starts what will be a long and arduous journey to a more secular future. The strong attendance at the Rally shows that there is a community out there that matters. In today's world of instant communication, easy outreach and fellowship, that is a powerful and important tool. One we can build on.