On March 24, in the rain and cold, something historic took place in Washington, D.C.
It was the Reason Rally, a gathering of more then 20,000 nonbelievers, including atheists, agnostics, humanists and those who identify as freethinkers.
This was the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. What’s baffling is that it took so long to happen. I was not able to attend, but my heart was there, and I hope this is the first of many. It’s been 300 years since the Enlightenment, and we needed a rally in our nation’s capital to state the obvious?
Those at the rally wanted to let America know we are here — and we’re not going away. We are your neighbors, your merchants, your doctors, plumbers, teachers, cab drivers, construction workers, nurses and even your relatives.
We pay taxes, fight your wars and educate your kids, and some of us protect you and your property as policemen and firemen. In short, we are America in every aspect but one: We rely on human knowledge and logic in our daily life without the aid of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.
For every participant at the rally, there were many more who could not attend and watched the event through electronic media. The event organizers also helped their cause by merchandising tie-ins, such as T-shirts and DVDs.
For too long, nonbelievers have mostly kept to themselves and let the religious community be the face of morality. This is changing, though, as more citizens overcome the stigma of belonging to the most hated minority in the United States. I notice this all the time now as I get positive comments on secular items, such as buttons and bumper stickers.
The rally had more than 20 sponsors, including the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition for America. These organizations are the front lines of defense against the increasing influence of religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity in the public sphere.
This is evident right now in the Republican presidential campaign, and it has many wondering if we are heading toward a theocracy similar to some Muslim societies. It’s also evident in the fact that Rep. Pete Stark of California is the only open atheist in Congress. Additionally, 67 percent of Americans would be uncomfortable with an atheist as president.
The good news is that in 1990, 0.7 percent of the population identified as nonbelievers. In 2008, that number jumped to 1.6 percent. In this country, the word “godless” has for too long been identified with immorality and a person with nothing valuable to offer society. This could not be further from the truth, and the large variety of concerned citizens at the rally should put that to rest.
This important gathering of nonbelievers had a long list of influential speakers, such as biologist and atheist author Richard Dawkins and best-selling author Sam Harris, whose latest book, “The Moral Landscape,” is one of my favorites. One glaring absence from this event was the late great Christopher Hitchens, a champion of secular issues who succumbed to cancer in December.
This man’s courage during his ordeal last year was highlighted when he was encouraged to repent his sins as death drew near. His response, when asked about his opinion of the priests and ministers who were praying and urging him to repent, was to label them as one notch below insurance salesmen.