It’s Sunday morning, and I’m writing this on the train from Washington, D.C. back to New York. I’m exhausted, washed out, and my calves are two knots of pain from all the standing and walking I’ve been doing these past two days. But I feel like a live wire, buzzing with energy and happiness. I’m returning home from the Reason Rally, and it was tremendous. It was everything I had anticipated and more. When the history of the atheist movement is written, this is going to go down as a defining moment.
If you were there, you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t, this is how it all happened.
Above: The Reason Rally stage being set up the day before.
The day before was sunny, bright and hot, but the Saturday of the Reason Rally was cold and foggy, with drizzling bursts of rain throughout the day. But something as mundane as a little bad weather couldn’t dampen the spirits of the crowd, which filled up an entire city block’s length of the National Mall with ponchos and umbrellas in tow. (If God was trying to send a flood to wash us infidels away, he couldn’t muster up much. Poor guy, his powers seem to be ebbing.)
Above: The stage in the early morning of the rally.
Above: The crowds start arriving.
We congregated at the base of the Washington Monument, where the speakers took their places on the podium of a stage facing the Capitol, flanked by two giant screens showing them up close. The crowd was immense. The number I heard – supposedly given by the Park Service, although I can’t confirm that – was 25,000 people. That alone would easily make it the largest atheist gathering in modern history.
But that number, impressive as it is, doesn’t capture the reality. That was 25,000 people who made the trip to Washington, D.C. from across the country, and then stood in the cold and the rain for eight hours to listen to a bunch of atheists speak. (Hat tip to my friends from the Freethinkers of the University of North Dakota, who drove 26 hours (!!) to be there, and then turned around to make the same trip back again the day after. If you want a microcosm of the atheist movement, of the passion and devotion that drives us, they’re living it.)
Above: The crowds swell as the rally builds to a crescendo.
There were some counter-protestors, though not very many. Just before the beginning of the rally, I was approached by three people who turned out to be from a Christian apologetics group. They tried to engage me in an argument, and though they were polite enough, I really couldn’t be bothered. This was our day, our moment in the sun, and I wasn’t about to waste any of it debating theology that’s two millennia past its sell-by date. I do enough of that on other occasions. (Also, for future reference, guys: Asking an atheist, “What do you think is the best argument for God?” isn’t going to get you far. Bad enough you tried to horn in on a day that was for us atheists; I’m not doing your job for you to boot.)
Off to the side, there were some other protesters, these ones less polite. Again, I didn’t engage with any of them, but each one was the center of a dense knot of atheists shooting rhetorical cannonades at them. If they wanted an argument, they certainly got it. I’m happy to say that all the debates I witnessed, however heated, were entirely civil in spite of their obvious attempt to provoke us. That’s exactly how you handle these people. Just like with the gelato scandal at Skepticon IV, I’m repeatedly shown that the atheist community knows just how to behave and how to conduct ourselves in the face of hostility.
During the rally, I tweeted that Westboro Baptist hadn’t made their promised appearance, but I later found out that was wrong. There were only a handful of them, just four or five, hidden away in a strange spot behind the stage. I never saw them, and I doubt that most people knew they were there at all.
But, as I said, this was our day. Enough about the preachers! As the Reason Rally showed, their day of irrelevance is approaching sooner than they think.
Onward to Part 2: Introducing the headline speakers of the Reason Rally.