Last Saturday, over 10,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in a show of solidarity for the fastest growing religious affiliation group in the nation: the non-believers.
Sponsored by a coalition of atheist and freethought organizations, this “Reason Rally” was the second of its kind. The first took place in 2012 in an effort to galvanize the non-religious into a cohesive voting bloc before the 2012 presidential election.
Last Saturday’s Rally shared a similar purpose. “We have this community that has the power to move mountains and we just need that critical moment where we can focus the conversation on what our community believes in and can do,” said Kelly Damerow, the event’s president.
For Damerow and other organizers of the event, finding common ground was key. “We aren’t in church every Sunday and we don’t have a unifying doctrine,” said Lyz Liddell, head of the Rally’s coalition of sponsors. Instead of focusing primarily on activists’ lack of belief in a deity, the rally was designed to engage activism around shared secular values. Speakers touched on subjects ranging from climate change to abortion access to LGBT rights. Pre-Rally events included “advocacy days” designed to help attendees gain lobbying skills from professionals.
Organizers hope that identifying shared political concerns will help non-religious voters consolidate their electoral influence. “The core of what we believe in is reason,” Liddell told Religion News Service. “So it doesn’t matter if you are a feminist first or an environmentalist first, because we do have common ground, and that is reason.”
Attempts to organize around a set of shared values is part of the long history of the National Mall, which was the setting of both Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington and of significant moments in the LGBT movement. Liddell sees atheists and freethinkers as another underrepresented group whose time has come to claim visibility and a voice in politics.
“We say to our families, our communities and ultimately our government, which meets just at the other end of this National Mall, that we exist, we are good without a god, we can bring about social change, and we are a growing voter constituency,” Liddell said in her opening remarks at the Rally.
Although the Rally drew a smaller crowd than organizers anticipated, participants commented that the crowd felt more diverse and inclusive than other atheist gatherings, which have been criticized for their surfeit of white, male figureheads.
“With the Reason Rally bringing together people from across the spectrums of age, color, sexual orientation and ethnicities, I hope it sinks in that we’re not just Richard Dawkins clones and we don’t fit the tiny box many people want to put us in,” atheist author Hemant Mehta told Religion News Service. “That’s not just for politicians and the public, by the way. I think we need to convince other atheists, too, that we’re a larger group than they imagine.”
The Rally’s selection of speakers bespoke an effort towards increasing diversity. Actress Leighann Lord, NASA scientist Carolyn Porco, and six members of the Wu-Tang Clan were among those featured at the event.
While this year’s Rally boasted more politicians than the 2012 event’s—including several members of Congress—Liddell worries that the secular demographic is “still seen as anathema to politicians.” Indeed, a 2014 Pew report revealed that over 50 percent of Americans would be less likely to support a presidential candidate that was openly atheist.
Lack of political support is not the only significant obstacle facing the non-religious voting bloc. With none of the leading presidential candidates espousing strong religious ideologies, some atheist leaders worry that the absence of a “religious boogeyman” in the political limelight might cause non-religious voters to become complacent. “In the past we have sort of been able to play on easy mode,” Liddell told Religion News Service. “It is going to be a test of whether we can exist not solely in opposition to organized religion.”
Still, organized religion was not far from anyone’s mind at Saturday’s Rally. A number of Christians gathered outside the Mall in an attempt to evangelize to the horde of non-believers at the event. Author and evangelist Ray Comfort enlisted over 1,000 volunteers to hand out copies of his book Why Pigs Will Fly Before America Has an Atheist President—along with $25,000 worth of Subway gift cards—to the Rally’s atheist attendees.
When Comfort learned that he and his volunteers would be barred from entrance to the event due to lack of a gathering permit, commenters at The Friendly Atheist blog encouraged him to donate the gift cards to the homeless.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Reason Rally. Photo by 00000kim00000, Flickr Creative Commons.