I’ve talked about the weather, the crowds, the protesters and the speakers, and I wanted to end up with some overall impressions. One of the things about the Reason Rally that made me happiest was how young and diverse the crowd was. I’ve been to atheist conventions that were overwhelmingly populated by old white guys, and this was a big step forward. A major part of this, I’m sure, was the enormous student involvement, and it’s that more than anything else that makes me confident the atheist movement has a bright future.
Although I’ve already mentioned the optimism and energy of the attendees, I have to emphasize it again. In spite of the gloomy weather, the atmosphere on the Mall was electric with joy and enthusiasm. The lines to get into the tent where the sponsoring organizations were tabling, signing up members and giving away swag were enormous, sometimes stretching to hundreds of people long. Even the people who were carrying signs decrying theocracy and religious bigotry, for the most part, had huge smiles. Being among friends and allies will have that effect, which just goes to show the importance of the secular community. As a gaggle of isolated strangers debating theology on the internet, atheists are powerless and easily dismissed. As an energized political and social movement whose members look out for each other, support each other and work together toward common goals, we’re a force to be reckoned with.
And I loved the signs. In addition to the many expressions of atheist pride, the Reason Rally was probably the greatest concentration of geeky, clever and hilarious T-shirts, banners and signs that the Mall has seen in a while. I circulated through the crowd taking photos of some of the better ones:
Representing the Center for Inquiry NYC, it’s the new executive director, Stephanie LeRoy!
I don’t know who this gentleman was, but he definitely wins the prize for Best Hat.
More than a few signs had a feminist theme.
Westboro Baptist parodies were also popular – I saw others that said “God Hates Figs” and “God Hates Facts”.
These people were holding the Dave-Silverman-meme sign and trying to duplicate his expression.
And a few more miscellaneous standouts. There were more than a few Redditors there, as you might have noticed.
Between the Reason Rally itself and the various smaller meetups that took place before and after, there were plenty of other memorable moments throughout the weekend. Some of my personal favorites:
• Leah Libresco and Jen McCreight debating wizard genetics in Harry Potter at dinner on Friday night. (If you must know, the competing hypotheses were copy-number variants and epigenetics, versus intransitive dominance relations among the genes for wizards, Muggles, and Squibs. I have an alternative hypothesis: it’s magic.)
• Master of ceremonies Paul Provenza reading postings on the #reasonrally hashtag from nonbelievers on the Mall and around the world.
• Me with Sarah Moglia of the SSA, one of the extremely hard-working people who made this event happen.
• Ironically signing religious swag. I was asked to do this twice, in fact – first at dinner on Friday night, where I autographed one of the Left Behind books, then again on the Saturday night afterparty, this time for a souvenir backpack from Catholic World Youth Day.
• The hilarity of this person at the Holiday Inn, presumably a fellow rally-goer, who pointedly left the Bible on the floor outside the hotel room door.
• This fellow, the best counter-protestor ever, hollering about how Dread Cthulhu is coming to devour humanity for our sins, and that we need to repent and worship him so that we may be granted the boon of being devoured first.
• The afterparty at the Bethesda Marriott on Saturday night, courtesy of American Atheists, with a cash bar advertising a “Hitchens Special”.
The press coverage of the Reason Rally was mixed but, in the main, predictable, with the dominant theme from the major media organizations being “What on earth are these atheists so mad about?”, with a side helping of “Stop oppressing religious people by existing!” (Both of these charges were answered in depth in the speeches during the rally, of course.) The negative coverage doesn’t bother me; it’s no more than I expected, so any positive mention at all is a bonus. The biggest task confronting atheists, still, is getting the word out that we exist, that there’s a welcoming secular community for isolated skeptics and nonbelievers. Toward that end, any coverage at all is a big help.
If you didn’t or couldn’t come to the Rally, I won’t lie, you missed out on a great experience. But you didn’t miss the chance to be part of the secular community! There are atheist conventions all over the world, more now than there have ever been; in fact, even I’m surprised sometimes the community can support so many. Hardly a month goes by without a major gathering of nonbelievers somewhere. If you’ve never been to one before, I advise that you find and attend the next one near you! I speak from experience when I say it’s well worth doing.