The Reason Rally was a rally for secularism and religious skepticism held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2012. The rally was sponsored by major atheistic and secular organizations of the United States and was regarded as a "Woodstock for atheists and skeptics".
Speakers and performers included biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, musician Tim Minchin, MythBusters co-host Adam Savage, actor-comedian Eddie Izzard, Paul Provenza, PZ Myers, Jessica Ahlquist, Dan Barker, and magician James Randi, among others. The punk rock band Bad Religion performed and other notables (Rep. Pete Stark, Sen. Tom Harkin, comedian Bill Maher, magician Penn Jillette) addressed the crowd by video link. Participants recited the Pledge of Allegiance, deliberately omitting the phrase "under God", which was added by the U.S. Congress in 1954. Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces were represented, and a retired Army colonel, Kirk Lamb, led veterans in an affirmation of their secular military oaths. Speakers urged those assembled to contact local and national representatives and ask them to support church-state separation, science education, marriage equality for gays and lesbians, and ending government support of faith-based organizations, among other causes.
According to the official website, the aim of the Reason Rally was to "unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide, while dispelling the negative opinions held by so much of American society." The website had predicted it would be "the largest secular event in world history." The Atlantic said 20,000 people were in attendance. Religion News Service said 8,000-10,000. The documentary The Unbelievers claims that over 30,000 people attended the rally. There are no official crowd estimates of events on the Mall.
According to the rally's official website, the event had three main goals:
- To encourage attendees (and those who couldn’t attend) to come "out of the closet" as secular Americans, or supporters of secular equality.
- To dispel stereotypes ("there is no one 'True Atheist' "). Participation by non-theists of all political persuasions, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds was encouraged. The intent was to show that there are secular Americans in every major demographic.
- Legislative equality. Secular Americans should be permitted to run for public office and adequately represent non-theists, just as theists in office represent their constituents. Non-theists deserve a seat at the table just as theists do; the rally should put secular values "on the radar" of American voters.
Organizers said the aim of the rally was twofold: to unite individuals with similar beliefs and to show the American public that the number of people who don’t believe in God is large and growing. “We have the numbers to be taken seriously,” said Paul Fidalgo, spokesman for the Center for Inquiry, which promotes the scientific method and reasoning and was one of the organizations sponsoring the rally. “We’re not just a tiny fringe group.”
According to rally spokesman Jesse Galef, diversity with the attendees was a focus this year, he stated 'We can't succeed if we are only coming from one demographic'". Comparing the 2012 rally to the 2002 Godless rally which was mainly over-40 white men, the attendees were "largely under the age of 30, at least half female and included many people of color".
Speaking to NPR prior to the rally, American Atheist president David Silverman stated that this is a coming-of-age event for atheists, "We'll look back at the Reason Rally as one of the game-changing events when people started to look at atheism and look at atheists in a different light".
With goals of bringing unity, energy, and visibility to to the secular demographic, the rally can be seen as a manifestation of the secular movement that emerged in America and elsewhere in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Writing for The Guardian Sarah Posner states that the Reason Rally was modeled on the LGBT movement, encouraging people to 'come out' about their non-belief and working to humanize atheism by getting "people to personalize someone they'd always thought of as an 'other.'" Once people realize that their neighbor, co-worker or family member is an atheist it goes a long way towards acceptance. Politics played a large part of the Rally according to Posner; considering that there is only one openly atheist American Congressperson, there is a lot of work to still be done.
In the Huffington Post, Staks Rosch praised the rally. He stated that atheists "face a great deal of discrimination and fear of discrimination for being outspoken" and that many "fear having their families disown them, losing their jobs, or simply being harassed by the religious."
David Niose, the president of the American Humanist Association stated that "The secular demographic does not claim to have a monopoly on rationality, but it does feel that it has something to offer. By rallying in Washington, seculars are not whining about some imagined victimization, but rather they are exercising a voice that has been silenced for too long."
The Reason Rally elicited criticism for the tone and anti-theist rhetoric that some speakers employed. Editorial writers including Nathalie Rothschild of the Huffington Post and Tom Gilson of The Washington Post and representatives of various religious communities such as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and William Anthony Donohue of the Catholic League all voiced disapproval.
Notable speaker quotes
- Rally host Paul Provenza addressed the issue of "anti-religiosity" in his opening announcement, saying: “We're not here today to bash anyone's religion… but, hey, if it happens it happens.”
- Keynote speaker Richard Dawkins spoke about the differences between the US and the UK, which does not have separation between church and state. "The American Constitution is a precious treasure, the envy of the world". He praised the size of the crowd at the rally calling it a "magnificent and inspiring sight". He said he believes that this rally, in hindsight, will be seen as a tipping point that is "not far away" when "so many people will have come out [as atheists] that 'I can come out too'... we are far more numerous than anybody realizes." Reason to Dawkins means "basing your life on evidence and on logic, which is how you deduce the consequences." He encouraged attendees to confront believers regarding what he called their "most absurd" beliefs (e.g., transsubstantiation), stating: "Mock them, ridicule them in public. Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion. Religion makes specific claims about the Universe which need to be substantiated and challenged."
- Mythbuster Adam Savage stated "I play a scientist on TV; I am in awe of those that do it for real." He discusses science and reason by saying "Everything that we have that makes our lives possible exists because human beings have... made predictions based on those tests and then improved upon them. This is reason: the human capacity to make sense of the world." He concluded "through careful empirical analysis and much thought that someone is looking out for me... I have concluded that this person keeping score - is me."
- Provenza, introducing Jessica Ahlquist, stated that "for standing up for her beliefs and rights under the Constitution ... [she has] suffered a lot of hate." Ahlquist's speech thanked the atheist community for its support for her. She felt that students are a really important part of this movement. "What I did can be done by anybody."
- Blogger Greta Christina, author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry?: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, gave an abbreviated list of things she was angry about, concluding "Atheists aren't angry because we're selfish, or bitter, or joyless. Atheists are angry because we have compassion. Atheists are angry because we have a sense of justice. Atheists are angry because we see millions of people being terribly harmed by religion, and our hearts go out to them, and we feel motivated to do something about it."
- David Silverman, president of American Atheists, encouraged atheists to come out of the closet to reduce atheophobia: "If the atheists weren't closeted, it would be harder to hate us, because in the end, you can't hate what you already love."
- Magician Penn Jillette, speaking via pre-recorded video, stated "I can make the argument...that the only ones with true morality are us, the atheists. We are doing good because it's good and are doing right because it's right, and not for reward or punishment. We have love for each other, we have community, we have charity." Jillette told the audience to "band together and make it okay to be an atheist."
- Bill Maher, speaking remotely, said, "When it comes to religion, we're not two sides of the same coin, and you don't get to put your unreason upon the same shelf with my reason. Your stuff [religion] has to go over there, on the shelf with Zeus, and Thor, and the Kraken. With the stuff that is not evidence based, stuff that religious people never change their mind about, no matter what happens."
- Godless Americans March on Washington (2002)
- Irreligion in the United States
- New atheism
- Secular humanism
- Aratani, Lori, " 'Godless Rally' in D.C. for Recognition and Respect", The Washington Post, C1, C10; Sunday, March 25, 2012.
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- Gus Holwerda, "The Unbelievers" April 2013
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