I made it to DC yesterday – the first real atheist event I was able to attend was also the largest one in the history of the world, which seems to me like a good start. My pudgy, far-too-sedentary 40-something body is still angry at me for subjecting it to an early wake-up, two long bus rides, many hours spent standing upright in the rain, and the foolishness of choosing a 24 ounce size when I stopped for coffee at 10 pm to help keep my eyes open for the 30 minute drive home from the train station where I met the bus.
What follows is less a summary of the event or a review of the speeches than a semi-random brain-dump of some of my experiences there in hopes of providing a few snapshots of what the day was like. The bus I took from Wilmington got to DC a bit early, so I spent a little time amongst a small crowd milling about near a pair of tents set up at the back of the rally area. Aron Ra and Ed Brayton were there, and PZ and Jen McCreight passed by on occasion; Rebecca Watson was at one point wandering through the crowd interviewing random folks.
During a short conversation among some of the attendees, someone approached one of the people I was chatting with and said, “Richard! I’m a big fan!” I had to quietly ask someone nearby if “Richard” was somebody I should recognize, and was informed that the group I’d been talking among included Richard Hatch of the TV show “Survivor” fame. Modern TV pop culture and I are relative strangers.
I briefly caught up with PZ and his better half as they headed over toward the stage. I’d brought him a few belemnite fossils (10-tentacled cretaceous squid-like critters – a local state park lets the public collect them from among the spoils piles from the dredging of the C&D canal), and managed to catch him before it got too crowded. Our conversation was short and amounted to not a whole lot more than “Here, have some fossils” – owing in part to the fact that he was obviously heading somewhere and I didn’t want to delay him, and partly to the fact that I was struck with a sudden fear that I’d say something remarkably stupid to someone I admire. The latter is unusual for me, because I’m typically perfectly willing to say stupid things to anyone who will take a moment to listen.
One of the warm-up acts before the main rally sang a song I only heard a few bits of, but included the lyrics “Get on your knees for Jesus till he comes”… and I’ll be scouring Teh Google for links to this song shortly.
The rally opened with a retired Colonel asking everyone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (without “under God”) and a request for current and ex-military among the crowd to recite the oaths they took on enlistment. I understand the political necessity for this and I’m all for a show of support for those who risk their lives in the armed forces and a recognition of the “foxhole atheists” among us, but I have to say I’m rather uncomfortable with oaths of fealty in general (and the Pledge of Allegiance, Under God version or not, in particular).
Tim Minchin and Jamie Kilstein were the entertainment highlights of the show for me – they made me laugh and made me think. I missed Eddy Izzard’s bit, and apparently Laurence Krauss as well, because I let myself get sucked into one of the little clusters of debate with the religious counter-protestors along the outskirts – a waste of time, as I should have known it would be, because there was no common frame of reference between us on which to base a discussion. I was told I did actually believe in God, because there was a passage in the bible somewhere that insisted everyone really does, and since it said so in the bible, it must be true. When I said “I disagree”, two Christians nearby rolled their eyes and one muttered, “you just can’t talk to these atheists”.
The crowd was, well, about as diverse as could be hoped for. It certainly wasn’t a sausage-fest – the women seemed to be there in numbers equal to the men. I can’t help but wonder if the recent misogynistic antics of the right wing haven’t inspired more female non-believers to become more active and vocal; if that’s the case, then all of us owe the Teapublicans an odd sort of gratitude. There were quite a few gay couples as well – at least, there were a number of people who through their signs or interactions made it obvious to even my obtuse, almost non-functional ability to discern such things. On the racial front, of course, the outlook wasn’t as positive as I’d like it to be. There were some blacks (we’re all “African Americans”, in the long run) among the crowd, and a smattering of folks who looked to be of Indian or middle-eastern origins, but their numbers certainly weren’t representative of their place within the general population. I suspect this reflects, in part, the tendency toward more closed communities among these groups where there’s little recourse for expressing skepticism without stepping outside one’s own cultural group, and in part on the atheist movement’s somewhat limited efforts to appeal to those communities. There are hopeful signs that this is starting to change though, such as American Atheists’ recent billboards in Muslim and Jewish communities, and the presence of black and Hispanic freethought organizations at the rally.
I don’t yet know for sure if there are official attendance numbers for the rally. At one point Paul Provenza, the emcee, announced that the Parks service had informed him that they’d “officially exceeded the count at Glenn Beck’s rally” – but he didn’t say which Glenn Beck rally, or what the count was. Post-rally, hotel-elevator rumors claim the official count to be 25,000, but I’ve yet to see that number reported from any authoritative source Ed Brayton over at FreeThoughtBlogs estimated 8000-10000. I don’t feel remotely qualified to judge for myself based on my vantage point on the ground within the crowd. It’s also hard to estimate how many potential attendees stayed home because of the weather; when I bought my ticket on the charter bus, I got seat number 37 of 40 available – but there were only around 20 people who actually rode in on the bus. (I understand that a few of them dropped out of the bus trip in favor of riding down with a number of carpools that were also being organized.)
The Westboro Batshits were there as well, and I wear it as a badge of honor that I participated in some small way in an event that threatened their worldview enough that they felt the need to show up. I hope that sometime during my short tenure here I can accomplish something so utterly awesome that they’re inspired to show up and picket my personal funeral when I’m gone.
Religious members of my extended family will be happy to know that I found Jesus this weekend. Twice, in fact.
This wasn’t a sign-heavy rally, but signs there were, and every single one of them I saw featured proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, unlike at certain other rallies that have received more media attention over the last few years. This is a small sampling – there were many I didn’t see in person and a few I wasn’t able to get photos of – like the one that said “At least it’s not raining Santorum!”
Was the rally a success? Absolutely. Many times as I walked through the crowd I heard statements like, “It’s good to see there are so many people like me” and “I had no idea there were so many atheists near where I live!” Even if the Reason Rally achieves no other goal, it has shown tens of thousands of non-believers that they are most definitely not alone.
One final thought:
I stood for a while next to a person who had used his phone to post on social sites about his arrival at the rally. Shortly thereafter, he said, “Uh-oh, I think I just came out to my mother on Facebook.” He spent much of the day shaking his head at the angry replies which followed and ignoring phone calls from relatives. That a grown man with adult children has to worry about his family’s reactions to the news that he questions stories about talking snakes and virgin births strikes me as one of many illustrations of why we need events like the Reason Rally, and why we can stop at nothing short of total acceptance.