The United States first major secular and humanist event, the Reason Rally, attracted between 10 to 20,000 participants to National Mall on Saturday, March 24, 2012.
A cold drizzle and blowing wind could not douse the warm reception given to the world's leading proponents of atheism, skepticism, free thought and Darwinian evolution. Most of the speakers drew applause for their support of gay rights as well as other social causes.
The star of the day was undoubtedly Richard Dawkins who called the crowd assembled near the Washington Monument "the most incredible site I can remember ever seeing." He began by speaking about America's Constitution in glowing terms:
"I don't come from these parts. I see myself as an emissary from a beknighted country that does not have a Constitutional separation between Church and State. Indeed, we don't have a written Constitution at all. We have a head of State who is also the head of the Church of England. The Church is deeply entwined in British public life. The American Constitution is a precious treasure, the envy of the world. The First Amendment of the Constitution which enshrines the separation between Church and State is the model for secular constitutions the world over, and deserves to be imitated the world over."
Dawkins claimed most British scientists -- some 90% -- are atheists. He spoke about the wonder of the universe, physics and evolution as being "beautiful" and "magnificent" processes that are "mechanical, unplanned [and] unconscious." Regarding his personal disdain for religion, he said, "I don't despise religious people, I despise what they stand for." Dawkins then discussed the growing number of openly atheist people in terms that would sound very familiar to the gay community:
"There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists, or secularists or agnostics. We are far more numerous than anybody realizes. We are approaching a tipping point. We are approaching that critical mass where the number of people who have come out has become so great, that suddenly everybody will realize, 'I can come out, too.' That moment is not far away now, and I think that, with hindsight, this Rally in Washington will be seen as a very significant tipping point on the road."
He suggested attendees should confront people who claim to be religious and to "mock" and "ridicule" their beliefs in things like transubstantiation.
Several other personable speakers also heralded from the UK. Mascara-wearing singer and comedian Tim Minchin performed a selection of his rather raunchy works including the F-bomb-laden "Pope Song" in which he accused the Catholic leader of covering for child rapists. Comedian Eddie Izzard, however, wore a suit to perform his act (video 1, 2, 3). He noted that he is known to be both an atheist and transvestite and joked that there were "truckloads of closets" to come out of. He claimed that in Europe and Britain most people had moved beyond God, and politicians could not get elected by saying "God Bless Europe." Izzard ended his remarks by saying:
"We are doing it. We are changing it. We are getting there. We've got gay marriage in Europe. You're arguing about it. Things have moved forward. We are getting there. And one day, hopefully, we will have a world government of the people, by the people and for the people... where reason always wins and religious dogma is always conquered by common sense."
Gay speakers included blogger Greta Christina and 83-year-old James "The Amazing" Randi who came out publicly just two years ago. Randi made fun of continued beliefs in stories about raining frogs and flying horses by saying "'Harry Potter' and 'The Wizard of Oz' were much, much more believable and much, much more fun." He referred to a "bigoted, capricious, cruel, deceitful, genocidal, homophobic, insecure, intolerant, irrational, jealous, malevolent, misogynistic, racist, sadist, vindictive and violent bully who deserves constant praise" from fearful worshippers. Numerous participants spoke in favor of same-sex marriage equality and sexual freedom. Adam Savage of the show "Mythbusters," said: "I believe people have an inalienable right to choose what to do with their own bodies."
Nate Phelps, formerly of the "fag-hating" Westboro Baptist Church, called out his own family members who were visibly protesting the Reason Rally off to the right side of the stage:
"My heart goes out to the millions who see and hear the cruel message of my family. A message that is met with tacit approval by too many in this society. A message that seeps into their hearts. A message leaving them to wonder why a creator made them gay just so he could punish them. It's a terrible, terrible waste."
Other speakers' topics included a number of seemingly libertarian and "left-leaning" interests. Science, engineering, medicine and the accumulation of factual knowledge were touted as being far more promising to humanity than any reliance on prayer and faith. Many mocked Federal and state politicians' efforts to revoke women's reproductive options. Some dismissed the notion that abstinence-only programs have a significant affect on the sex lives of young people. And a few stood against keeping recreational drugs illegal or called for more responsible environmental policies.
Many admonished strong beliefs in Abrahamic mythology and other world religions. Several spoke about the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and they pointed out that those tragic events were carried out by religiously-motivated individuals. Annie Laurie Gaylor called religious authority "illusory;" labeled the Bible a "grim fairy tale;" and called for people to abandon the failures of prayer in order to concentrate on "this world" so that our children would be left with a better future. Sean Faircloth said he was speaking on behalf of Muslim, Jewish and other tax-payers who's money was going to subsidize "mansions of mega-ministers who preach hate in every town of America." Some speakers claimed to be "recovering" proponents of religion and spoke about their transition to atheist beliefs.
No current politicians appeared at the Rally, but Pete Stark (D-CA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) sent welcome messages to the crowd via video. Stark is reportedly the first and only member of Congress be openly atheist. The names of some Founding Fathers were raised throughout the day including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Both are credited with forming the Constitution's oft-disputed "separation of church and state." Conversely, 2012 Presidential contenders Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry, were all called out as examples of political forces to fight against.
Other celebrities who sent messages via video included controversial talk show host Bill Maher and the libertarian magician Penn Jillette. He laughed at the absurdity of the government respecting Mormons' religious beliefs over the (assumed godless) views of most Nobel winners and medical innovators. Unfortunately, a planned memorial for D.C.'s resident spitfire, the late author Christopher Hitchens, ran into technical difficulties.
The crowd was largely comprised of white 20- to 40-somethings, but efforts to diversify participation was clear. Poet Victor Harris, rapper Rational Warrior, and Jamila Bey brought African-American voices to the stage. Indra Zuno delivered her speech in Spanish, and Taslima Nasrin was scheduled to appear. Overall, the attendees and participants seemed to agree that morality, as applied to social and personal behavior, was not rooted in conservative religious dogma. Rather, they seemed to believe that personal growth, self-determination, and the loving need to look out for one another was the driving force behind societal good.