WASHINGTON (RNS)—Atheists and nonbelievers gathered on the National Mall March 24 in a bid to show politicians, voters and even themselves that they have grown into a force to be recognized and reckoned with.
“We are here to deliver a message to America,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, one of the rally’s sponsors, told the crowd. “We are here and we will never be silent again.”
Indeed, thousands came out for what organizers dubbed The Reason Rally and billed as the largest-ever gathering of nonbelievers in one place. They stood in a steady and sometimes heavy rain as speakers, singers, writers, comedians and activists charged them with channeling their common rejection of God into a force for political change.
“We are here to celebrate our belief in reason, science and the power of the human mind,” comedian Paul Provenza said from the podium as raindrops fell. “We are here to say to elected politicians … that there is a base for them to stand on to stand up to the religious right.”
That brought a cheer from the crowd, estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000 people—a sharp increase over The Godless March on Washington, another atheist-themed rally held 10 years ago in the same spot that attracted about 3,000 people.
Also visibly different was the composition of the crowd, which was largely under the age of 30, at least half female and included many people of color. Ten years ago, the crowd was mostly white, over 40 and predominantly male.
Charles Martin, 25, was among the African-Americans at the rally, which he said was his first formal step into the atheist community.
“I wanted to be around other people who have similar ideas to me,” he said, his eyes on speaker Hemant Mehta, a popular atheist blogger who is also a man of color. “It is very rare for me to find other people who are not religious, especially in the black community.”
Jesse Galef, a spokesman for the Reason Rally, said diversity is a major goal of its 20 nontheistic sponsoring organizations. “We can’t succeed if we are only coming from one demographic,” he said.
The rally’s speakers, many wearing red to match the scarlet letter “A” adopted by the community as a sign of solidarity, touched on many issues that unite nontheists—separation of church and state, science education, equality, rights for women and the influence of religion on politics, among them. Politics was a common theme, as many nontheists are concerned about the religiosity of the Republican presidential candidates.
One big hit with the crowd was Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old Rhode Island high school student who successfully sued her school district to remove a prayer from her school’s walls.
Kimberly Winston writes for Religion News Service.