WASHINGTON-The display tent at the Reason Rally 2012 on March 24 smelled of wet rain gear and sweaters soggy from the near-constant drizzle. Atheists, freethinkers, and secularists of all stripes were checking out booths from two dozen or so atheist groups.
The crowd inched around the perimeter of the tent, but traffic stalled where people clustered for photos. Like carnival-goers with a muscleman cutout, they took turns standing behind an empty picture frame with, "This is what an atheist looks like" printed below.
That's what I had come to find out. Organizers of the rally, held on the Mall near the Washington Monument, clearly hoped to use "history's largest" gathering of atheists and like-minded brethren to combat their public image as cheerless, caustic scolds.
Outside the tent, most of the 10,000 or so attendees-a mix of college students, adults, and a scattering of families with children, some with bright umbrellas and plastic ponchos-applauded speakers. The day-long schedule included activists, bloggers, entertainers, and a couple of congressmen, all headlined by world-famous Oxford professor Richard Dawkins.
Giant video screens flanked the stage. Five flags flapping overhead read, "Equality," "Charity," "Compassion," "Diversity," and "Reason." Rally organizers asked attendees not to curse at the "Turn or burn" counter-demonstrators, who obligingly showed up bearing signs warning of Hell.
That led to some sharp exchanges, and some atheist signs were vulgar or insulting, such as "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church," and "So many Christians, so few lions." But "Ask me" stickers were also common.
Among the speaker highlights:
The emcee, actor Paul Provenza, said when Christians try to witness to him he glances at his watch and says, "I'd love to stay and chat, but I've gotta take my girlfriend for an abortion because I'm pretty sure the baby is going to be gay."
Blogger Greta Christina was upset that some wives submit to husbands and "my wife and I had to get married three times before we finally had a marriage the state recognized." Anytime she (or any other speaker) mentioned gay rights or abortion, the crowd cheered or booed as appropriate.
Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation argued that Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled at Virginia's recent passage of a pro-life ultrasound law. At her direction, the crowd of freethinkers faced Virginia and repeated three times after her: "Build up that wall!"
Then Cornwell stalked off the stage, and soon the skeptics were chanting, "Richard! Richard!" Dawkins approached the podium with equanimity. In a crisp British accent he delivered a short lecture rehashing some arguments from his books. The crowd laughed at his jokes and cheered when he said religious claims about reality "need to be challenged and, if necessary, ridiculed with contempt."
Dawkins did not mention his admission in a filmed interview that the spontaneous origin of life on Earth is so improbable that maybe aliens seeded it here. After Dawkins finished, a security team hustled him off to his after-party.
While wandering amidst the crowd, eventually I began to realize that behind every sign was a lost person with a story:
Chazz Turnbaugh came to the rally from York, Pa., where he and his handful of freethinker friends, surrounded by Mennonites, feel isolated: "People look at us like we're silly." Turnbaugh was happy to chat about his evolutionary beliefs, that we're all the result of condensed clouds of gas and that morality is just a matter of science. He described lengthy conversations with religious friends but said he is unwilling to make a "leap of faith."
A sign reading, "God hates figs" collected admirers as Fran Welte of Cincinnati carried it along the edge of the crowd. This, she explained, was a swipe at both an infamous Westboro Baptist slogan regarding homosexuality, and the Bible episode where Jesus curses the fig tree. "That's where [Christians] get their rules from," interjected a bystander: "It's lunacy." Welte said her Catholic mother beat her as a child for not going to church. People, she said, are naturally atheists and believe in God only because their parents conditioned them to it: "My mother told me to pray. I tried that and nobody was there."
Virginian Lydia Rice was holding a sign that read, "Get out of my [picture of pink frilly underwear]." "Out" was spelled with a Star of David, a sideways Muslim crescent, and a cross. She was tall, with long, frizzy hair and a wide-brimmed hat festooned with buttons for liberal causes. Her family was very religious, and it irked her that her parents treated her and her brothers differently.
Rice said she considered various religions but finally rejected them all. "I'm a seeker," she grinned. "You know, 'Seek and you shall find'? I sought and I found."
-with reporting by Danielle Builta